CTI Records

Idris Muhammad: House of the Rising Sun

Besides working with some of the all-time best jazz drummers (from Osie Johnson, during the Bethlehem years in the Fifties, to Grady Tate in the Sixties, Jack DeJohnette in the Seventies, Ndugu in the Eighties, and Dennis Chambers in the Nineties), producer Creed Taylor also frequently recruited the services of the three most versatile drummers ever: Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd and Idris Muhammad. However, Idris – really the funkiest drummer among them all, most recently confirming his versatility on albums by John Scofield and Eric Alexander - was the only drummer who had the privilege to be signed to CTI/Kudu as a solo artist!

Born on November 13, 1939, in New Orleans, Louisiana, Idris Muhammad was still known as Leo Morris (his real name) when he rose to prominence in the mid-Sixties. He was hired as the house drummer for Prestige, became a member of Lou Donaldson’s group, and also recorded with Gene Ammons, Charles Earland, Sonny Stitt, Grant Green, Lonnie Smith and Houston Person, to name a few.

His first important collaborations with Creed Taylor started in the late Sixties, when CTI was a kind of jazz division for A&M Records. Creed remembers: “It was in 1968 that I noticed the immense versatility on Leo’s drumming. That year he was able to record one day with Paul Desmond (on the Summertime LP), the other day with Nat Adderley (on Calling Out Loud) or with J.J. Johnson & Kai Winding (Betwixt & Between), and at nights he was in the house band of the stage play Hair. He was really amazing”. Actually, Idris’ first session for A&M/CTI was a track, Footin’ It, recorded for George Benson’s Shape of Things To Come on August 27, 1968. With Benson, Idris later recorded the albums Tell It Like It Is and The Other Side of Abbey Road.

Idris continued to record for Creed when CTI became an independent label, appearing on Fats Theus’ Black Out (recorded in July 1970, it is one of the rarest albums in the entire CTI catalog, not yet reissued on CD), as well in the first albums recorded for CTI’s subsidiary Kudu by Hank Crawford (Help Me Make It Through The Night) and Grover Washington, Jr. (Inner City Blues). He remained in the landmark Hair until 1972, when he decided to spend six months in India. Returning to New York in early 1973, he resumed recording for Creed, taking part on sessions led by Stanley Turrentine (Don’t Mess With Mr. T), Eric Gale (Forecast), Bob James (One), Hank Crawford (Wildflower), and once again Grover Washington, Jr. (Soul Box).

His eclecticism allowed him to tour with progressive rock supertrio Emerson, Lake & Palmer, as well as to join soul diva Roberta Flack’s group during the singer’s heyday of Killing Me Softly and Feel Like Making Love. Then, in March 1974, Creed Taylor signed Idris Muhammad for Kudu, immediately beginning to prepare his debut album on the label, Power of Soul, arranged by Bob James and now a cult hit among the hip-hop jazz generation thanks to the dancefloor hit Loran’s Dance, included on the CTI: Acid Jazz Grooves compilation released by King Records in 1997. Just this track would have been enough to make Power of Soul sound better than all Idris’ previous albums for Prestige.

Idris’ second solo session for Kudu, House of the Rising Sun, was cut during June, September and October, 1975, at Van Gelder Studios. That time, Creed invited David Matthews to write the arrangements, instead of Bob James. “I wanted a heavier atmosphere, a more r&b-oriented approach than the one that Bob had provided to Power of Soul, which had a lighter and subtler flavour, with many flugel and soprano sax solos”, Creed recalls.

David Matthews was unbelievably busy in June 1975, involved in two other projects for Kudu by Ron Carter (Anything Goes) and Hank Crawford (I Hear A Symphony), as well as arranging albums for David Sanborn and Mark Murphy. As if it was not enough, David was writing the scores for George Benson’s Good King Bad sessions, scheduled to begin on July 1st! Despite working under such a big pressure, Matthews excelled all the expectations on House of the Rising Sun. (Later, he produced/arranged two other Idris’ albums for Kudu: Turn This Mutha Out and Boogie To The Top.)

David Sanborn carries the melody on the title track, House of the Rising Sun, with Will Lee pumping on bass and Frank Floyd singing the lyrics of that traditional theme covered by everyone, from Joan Baez to Bob Dylan, from Claus Ogerman to Nina Simone. Sanborn’s crying alto sax once again leads the way on Theme For New York City, adapted by Matthews from Frederic Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4, the same piece which inspired Antonio Carlos Jobim to write How Insensitive, the famous bossa nova standard. This Prelude has been recorded by such jazzman as Gene Bertoncini (on Someone To Light Up My Life) and McCoy Tyner (Prelude and Sonata), often with a bossa beat, to corroborate the comparison with Jobim’s tune.

Another very interesting track is Bahia (aka Na Baixa do Sapateiro), a tune composed by Ary Barroso (1903-1964), introduced by Brazil’s diva Carmen Miranda in the Thirties and later covered by John Coltrane (on Bahia, for Prestige, in 1958) and Stan Getz (on the seminal Jazz Samba produced by Creed Taylor for Verve in 1962, the album that launched the bossa craze in the USA). It was Creed Taylor’s personal choice for Idris’ repertoire. He explains: “I became familiar with Ary Barroso’s songs through Walt Disney movies, such as The Three Caballeros, which included Bahia. It was love at first sight”. Five years before, in 1970, Creed had suggested Antonio Carlos Jobim to include another Ary Barroso song, Brazil (from the animated film Alo, Amigos), on Jobim’s Stone Flower album. And, some months after Idris’ recording, he once again included Bahia on Lalo Schifrin’s Black Widow.

Hard To Face the Music, the Ashford & Simpson r&b hit, includes powerful solos by George Young (tenor sax) and James Brown’s trombonist, Fred Wesley, with Joe Beck on the guitar. It is one of the rare occasions on which ace guitarist Eric Gale is heard playing electric bass, something that also occurred on two other CTI albums: Bob James’ Two, and Upchurch & Tennyson.

The only song not arranged by Matthews, Sudan, should have given Tom Harrell (who composed and arranged this stunning tune) the recognition he only would receive ten years later, when joining Phil Woods’ quintet. It’s an explosive 11-minute long masterpiece, featuring explosive statements by the late Barry Rogers (trombone), Tom Harrell (trumpet), and Sir Roland Hanna (electric piano). Then a newcomer, bassist Wilbur Dud Bascomb, Jr. (son of trumpeter Dud Bascomb, from Erskine Hawkins’ Orchestra in the Thirties) became an overnight sensation in the fusion scene due to his performance on the Donato/Deodato album for Muse Records. Another newcomer was Bob Berg, who would only record again for CTI fourteen years later (!) on two all-star sessions: Rhythmstick (1989) and Chroma, recorded live in Tokyo in 1990 during the tour of a combo billed in Japan as CTI Super Band.

After the outstanding Idris’ performances on his previous album, Power of Soul, Sudan is by far Idris’ best track from all his Kudu sessions. And, for sure, also his best improvisation, including astounding African rhythmic variations that preceded, in twenty years, some of the Afro-Bahian beats that most of world-music fans think that were created by Brazilian percussionist Carlinhos Brown in the mid-Nineties...

Funk is back on the last track, an inspired version of a hit from The Meters’ Rejuvenation album (1974). Written by band members Joseph Ziggy Modeliste, Art Neville, Leo Nocenteli and George Porter, it gains new life on Idris’ powerful hands (and sticks!), with a gospel-like tambourine beat by percussionist George Devens. Hugh McCracken is on guitar, Eric Gale goes to the bass, there are solos by Fred Wesley (trombone) and future Manhattan Jazz Quintet star George Young (tenor sax), and Matthews adds a discreetly shadowy string section. New Orleans Funk at its best, by the best drummer ever born in New Orleans!

Arnaldo DeSouteiro
London, May, 2001

Mr. DeSouteiro is Brazil’s top jazz producer and CTI historian.