The first soul-jazz album ever is one of the best, both for Grover Washington Jr.’s superb playing and the direction of famed producer Creed Taylor.
“I was called in to do a background session for Hank Crawford but when we got there and all the tracks were down, it was learned that Hank was in Europe and likely to be there for a while. So I was asked if I could play alto sax as well as the tenor saxophone that I had already put on the tapes. I explained that I hadn’t played alto since my old army days but I would be happy to give it a try. So I did!
I guess it’s really a case of being in the right place at the right time. Anyway, that’s how the Inner City Blues album was born — you really should have been hearing Hank Crawford in the foreground.” – Grover Washington Jr.
The Hank Crawford album in question was conceived by the founder of Kudu Records (a division of Creed Taylor Inc. – CTI), who was none other than jazz legend Creed Taylor. Born in 1929, Taylor (who by the way is still alive as of this writing) has perhaps contributed more to the field of jazz than any other single person. He served as producer on many of the greatest jazz albums ever made: albums by John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Getz/Gilberto, Wes Montgomery, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, Quincy Jones and dozens more. He launched Impulse! Records for ABC-Paramount in 1960, moved to Verve later that year and recorded countless masterpieces over the next seven years, pioneered jazz pop for A&M Records from 1967 to 1969, and then founded Kudu in 1970. Kudu ran into legal problems and shut down in 1978 but not before becoming a top jazz label.
Taylor also created a design formula that revolutionized album packaging: laminated covers, gallery-quality cover photography and gatefolds, which let covers swing open to reveal liner notes and more photography. Gatefolds not only further engaged consumers, they also widened record cover spines so albums would stand out on retailers’ and record fans’ shelves. The photography was headed up by Pete Turner, whose photos and layouts were works of art that intrigued record buyers.
“Jazz is about giving listeners space to reach their own conclusions. CTI cover art was always strong but subliminal in its depictions… Record customers weren’t coming in to ask what’s new in jazz but what’s new on CTI. So our covers played a big role in the popularity of the albums. By 1974, Billboard named CTI the label of the year, and we were the No. 1 jazz label in the world.”- Kudu Records founder and producer Creed Taylor
The fates of both Creed Taylor and Grover Washington Jr. were intertwined for several years, beginning with Kudu’s third album – Inner City Blues – recorded in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey in 1971 and released later that year. The album created a new genre of soul-jazz. Some listeners found it too slick, too geared to radio, but in fact the recording was something altogether new – jazz the masses could and did relate to in a big way. The album set the stage for such major artists as George Benson, who recorded White Rabbit for Kudu and subsequently, Breezin’ for Warner Brothers.
Grover Washington Jr.(born 1943) grew up in Buffalo, New York in a musical family – his saxophone-playing and record-collecting father gave him his first sax when Grover was a mere 8 years old. Grover became hooked on jazz, practising like a fiend and sneaking into jazz clubs. Being drafted into the army was a blessing in disguise for the young man – he met drummer Billy Cobham. After being released from the military, Grover moved to Philadelphia, traditionally a jazz haven. He supported himself with such mundane work as shop assistant in Sears & Roebuck, then took on a job a security guard and ended up working in the mail room for a local jewellery shop, all the while searching for his musical breakout.
Providence arrived in the form of a guitarist friend who got him a gig as horn player with jazz legend Charles Earland. This led to a recording session with Johnny Hammond and an introduction to Creed Taylor. Grover played on Johnny’s Kudu LP, Breakout and Taylor was so impressed by the young saxophonist that he signed him to a recording contract of his own. Thus happened his guest appearance on Hank Crawford’s project, which turned into Washington’s debut, Inner City Blues.
The title cut set a groove and a standard of musicianship that prevailed amongst every single Kudu release. It was a re-working of the Marvin Gaye hit from the year before and displayed Creed Taylor’s singular talent for song selection and production as well as the superb sax playing of Grover Washington Jr.
Taylor believed that jazz was not meant to be an elitist art form, and that by widening the scope and scale of material that he would reach a new audience. He took a strong interest and a leading hand in every album he produced, assembling a stellar group of studio players who were jazz luminaries in their own right, players who cut Kudu albums of their own: Bob James on electric piano, Richard Tee on organ, Ron Carter on bass, Eric Gale on guitar, Airto Moreira on percussion, Thad Jones on trumpet and French horn, etc. And every Taylor album featured Creed’s signature on the back – something he had fought for at the beginning of his career. Some say the entire Kudu catalogue is one extended Creed Taylor album, and perhaps that’s so, but Kudu, in each release and in summation of its fascinating catalogue, produced magnificent work that demands both renewed appreciation and continued audition to this day. That includes this one, his third Kudu release. Yes, it’s an ensemble work, but the ensemble is brilliant and the execution of the concept is undeniably marvellous.
The album featured an instrumental version (heavily sweetened by the breathy, intoxicating vocals of Hilda Harris, Marilyn Jackson, Maretha Stewart and Tasha Thomas) of the Bill Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine”. It is a standout for its slow build, romantic pacing, and the sweet tenor saxophone sound of Washington’s trademark instrumental tone, which manages a difficult feat – being both precise and luscious in long languorous phrases. Washington is also, by the way, one of the few sax players who is as appealing and listenable on soprano, tenor and alto instruments. Here was the beginning of soul-jazz, a union of popular R & B with jazz rhythms and extended solos that stay relatively true to the melodic line.
Six tunes in all, each of them renditions of well-known pieces, constituted the record. All were arranged by Bob James, who went on to record many pop-jazz masterworks of his own composition.
Special mention must be made of the superior sonics on the original vinyl release of this record. Rudy Van Gelder was a gifted record engineer and his studio had a legendary warmth that resulted in countless gold records. Today my own original copy of KU-03, Inner City Blues, continues to satisfy for its outstanding balance of natural sound, incredible dynamics and wide soundstage that combined warmth and detail.
The album went to Number 2 on the U.S. jazz charts and began a long and successful career for Grover Washington Jr. All in all he scored more than 20 Top 5 albums, 13 of them going to Number 1 on the Jazz charts.
Grover Washington Jr. died in 1999, a victim of a massive heart album suffered while preparing in the green room for a nationwide television appearance. He was still in demand at the time of his death, still making great music. His debut album, Inner City Blues, was reissued on Verve CD back in 2008 and is also available at iTunes.
Watch: “Inner City Blues”
Watch: “Ain’t No Sunshine”