Three things to talk about here; the phenomenon of jazz/rock, the specific jazz subgenre “flute-jazz” and the label CTI. In the late 60’s and early 70’s the movers and shakers in jazz were trying to keep their format relevant to the exploding rock audience which was accounting for stratospheric sales figures and the deification of the stars. The rock audience was not having bebop, they were demanding jazz be played with electric instruments and concern itself with topical subject matter. The obvious answer was “jazz/rock,” a subgenre that rearranged popular music for jazz instruments and, in turn, resulted in some jazz records selling the kind of numbers expected from rock releases. Miles Davis is perhaps the most successful merger of these two genres, actually creating an entirely new music free of the time constraints of rock and the staid instrumentation and conventions of jazz, offering an exciting electric amalgam of the two. Hubert Laws did not do what Miles did, but he did make a few really great jazz/rock albums of which Crying Song is the most far-reaching. Consisting of five rock covers and two jazz originals, Laws leads his crack band (with Bob James, George Benson, Grady Tate and Ron Carter among others) on beautiful flute-led excursions into the near cosmos. “Flute-jazz” is a very specific and groovy type of music. The flute has both an exciting and calming quality that can only be described as beatific. Each instrument has a different effect on the listener, but there is none with the exact mood enhancing qualities of the flute. In the hands of a master like Hubert Laws, it conveys a greater spectrum of emotion than almost any other instrument. Crying Song covers the emotional gamut.
The high points of the album are the rock covers – specifically two Pink Floyd songs, “Crying Song” and “Cymbaline,” a Monkees song, “Listen To The Band,” a Traffic song, “Feelin’ Alright,” and The Bee Gees’ “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You.” Laws remains true to the basic structures of these songs but adds horns and strings to lay down a bed for jazz soloing on the melodies. It works beautifully and is virtually irresistible for rock fans who like jazz. Hearing Pink Floyd’s aching “Cymbaline” without the cosmic lyrics fundamentally changes the song, but it does not diminish its beauty in any way. Laws plays the central theme with the correct tone and precision to please Floyd fanatics, but he swings in a way jazz aficionados will appreciate. Alternately, on “Crying Song” from Pink Floyd’s More soundtrack, he lets the band run wild in a pretty free-form excursion to the outside.
The label that released this lovely record was called CTI, standing for Creed Taylor International. Producer Creed Taylor started his label in 1967 as a partnership with A&M Records, but in 1970 broke off on his own and Crying Song was the first album he released on his new imprint. CTI Records built a reputation as a label with a specific sound and look. Many people credit (or blame) Creed Taylor and his chief arranger Don Sebesky for inventing and perfecting what became known as smooth jazz, however in 1970 when Crying Song was released it was just cool, mellow flute/jazz with songs that a rock audience liked and performances a jazz audience could respect. This should have been and was a very winning formula. CTI forged a reputation for stunningly recorded albums by first rate players that struck a chord equally with rock and jazz audiences. The covers were often graced with memorable images by photographer Pete Turner. Even though I prefer the overall output of labels like Blue Note or Prestige, CTI has a very special place in my heart and my collection. In fact it is the only label-group that I have segregated from its genre. At the end of my jazz section of vinyl I have a CTI section because it is so special and unique. Albums released on CTI have such a specific set of aesthetic principles at work that they belong in their own category. When I am in the mood for a certain kind of laid-back sophistication only CTI will do, and Hubert Laws’ Crying Song is top of the heap.
- Paul Epstein