Cal Tjader 

Cal Tjader always slipped between music’s cracks. He was an accomplished jazz swinger – first on drums, then on vibraphone. He was also one of the first to successfully introduce Latin dialects to the jazz language. This accorded him great popularity – and, as a result, critical disdain.

Pigeonholed throughout his career, Tjader was never tjust tjazz. His music appealed to many with varied tastes but was never likely to tjibe with those who were hoping to hear tjust one thing (whatever that is).

Born on July 16, 1925, in St. Louis, Missouri, Cal Tjader was first heard in the drum seat of Dave Brubeck’s 1949 trio (right before Paul Desmond joined the group) and later in pianist George Shearing’s famed and hugely popular quintet (where he first met up with percussionist Armando Peraza). 

Tjader kicked off his own recording legacy at San Francisco’s famed Fantasy Records, where he recorded an amazingly large and varied body of historic and defining records, including TJADER PLAYS TJAZZ (1954), JAZZ AT THE BLACKHAWK (1957), CONCERT BY THE SEA (1959) and WEST SIDE STORY (1960) – many featuring several of his own musical discoveries, like Peanuts-man Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976) and “Afro Blue” percussionist Mongo Santamaria (1922-2003).

Tjader switched to the high-profile Verve Records label in 1961, where producer Creed Taylor set the vibist on a rollercoaster of musical settings, yielding such classics as SEVERAL SHADES OF JADE (with Lalo Schifrin - 1963), SOUL SAUCE (1964) and the influential EL SONIDO NEUVO (with Eddie Palmieri – 1966), which introduced the entirely new Latin sound of Salsa and was followed by the even better BAMBOLEATE (Vampisoul).

The music heard here catches Tjader mid-career in the first two of his three albums on Skye Recordings, the label he owned with fellow musicians, Gary McFarland and Gabor Szabo. These recordings represent Tjader’s studio output for the label – excepting a live album for Skye issued in 1969, another live date issued years later on DCC Jazz and a guest spot on Armando Peraza’s Skye album WILD THING – and catch him away from his regular group and a little outside his usual bag.

SOLAR HEAT, probably meant to continue the wave of soulful titles Tjader popularized like SOUL SAUCE, SOUL BIRD and SOUL BURST, was recorded in January 1968 and is the very first of 20 Skye Recordings made during 1968 and 1969.

Tjader is beautifully framed here by Gary McFarland’s crystalline arrangements (and occasional dual vibes work) and João Donato’s gorgeously understated organ.

McFarland, who was sponsored by Tjader early in his career, had done some arranging for Tjader in 1964 (in several unissued Verve recordings) and came up with the sprite treatment of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” that Tjader performed on SOUL SAUCE (Verve-1964).

Tjader and McFarland are ideally matched here, particularly on the pop covers of “Never My Love” and “La Bamba” and McFarland’s own “Fried Bananas” and the entrancing “Eye Of The Devil,” the theme to a little seen film McFarland scored featuring David Niven, Deborah Kerr, David Hemmings and ill-fated Sharon Tate. 

João Donato, previously heard on Tjader’s magnificent THE PROPHET (Verve – 1967), is also a notable presence here. Employing one of the softest touches on organ ever heard, Donato lends the music shades of the exotica the album’s title suggests – particularly on his own “Amazon” (the sole song here that ended up in Tjader’s repertoire).

Recorded eight months later, CAL TJADER SOUNDS OUT BURT BACHARACH is a curious collection that continued Skye’s emerging reputation for putting a pretty polish on pop perennials.

Here, Tjader sounds out an offbeat – even downbeat – set of Burt Bacharach originals with a rhythm section of L.A. studio musicians and an ever-subtle sprinkling of overdubbed horns and strings.

Again, producer McFarland seasons the vibist’s front line with a light-touch organist (Mike Melvoin), cultivating an appealingly mellifluous pairing he first crafted on organist Shirley Scott’s LATIN SHADOWS (Impulse-1965).

What’s most interesting here is that Bacharach’s harmonic and rhythmic complexity is nearly absent – although “Moneypenny Goes For Broke” (from the James Bond spoof Bacharach scored, CASINO ROYALE) hints at it – forcing the listener to consider the composer’s gift for melodic writing and Tjader’s melodic approach to playing. Unlike other vibists who emphasize the rhythmic quality of the instrument, Tjader reveals himself to be more of a melodic player, not like Milt Jackson but similar.

This is particularly evident in the way Tjader handles the tunes made popular by Bacharach’s most cogent muse, Dionne Warwick: “I Say A Little Prayer,” “You’ll Never Get To Heaven” and the hymn-like “Message To Michael.” One can only wonder what Tjader would have made of “The Look Of Love,” a Dusty Springfield vehicle which, unfortunately, was not covered here.

The Skye label continued to issue records by Tjader, Szabo and McFarland, as well as records by SOLAR HEAT drummer Grady Tate, Tjader percussionist Armando Peraza, even Tjader’s godchildren, the talented teen-aged folk singers Wendy & Bonnie (Flowers). But it didn’t last long. While the records were magisterially produced (most by Gary McFarland) and beautifully packaged, the expense of the records regrettably outweighed their sales.

By 1970, Szabo left for Bob Krasnow’s recently launched Blue Thumb label and McFarland folded operations into the Buddah Records group (several Skye albums were reissued on the Cobblestone label before turning up later on Gryphon and DCC Jazz).

Tjader went back to Fantasy Records, home to his first famed musical forays of the 1950s, where he recorded more in the Latin jazz bag he was known for. He continued performing in and around his San Francisco home base, recording a series of fine albums for Carl Jefferson’s Concord Jazz label, before dying on May 5, 1982, at age 57.

But the albums he recorded for Skye Recordings, which slipped between the cracks of 1968, are fine examples of the different places the vibist could go and still sound like the one and only Cal Tjader.

Douglas Payne
May 2003