Reheater: CTI Records and the Re-Rebirth of Cool

January 12, 2011

Taken from the current installment in FADER #71 of our recurring Reheater column, this time focusing on CTI Records' The Cool Revolution, available on Amazon.

In the creative desert that was '70s jazz, it's impressive that a commercial Trojan horse could land so successfully in bachelor pads across the country, leaving in its wake dozens of epic recordings and untold cocaine- and ganja-dusted album sleeves.

CTI Records' legacy embodies a balance not found elsewhere in jazz: listenable yet challenging, pleasant yet bizarre, modish yet unabashedly square. Home to a who's-who of the era's crucial jazz luminaries, you can't walk ten feet at a contemporary jazz festival without running into someone who played on one (or, like, 12) of the label's records. Against all odds, these lush, R&B-influenced sounds—which signaled the coming decade of contemporary jazz bluster—have aged surprisingly well. This was proto smooth-jazz. But that moniker comes with as much affection as one can muster, for CTI's sounds have been employed as the building blocks for genre-defining hip-hop productions, cratediggers' anthems for rare groove DJ sets, imaginative contours for late-night disco throwdowns and the interstellar experiences of youthful hallucinogen enthusiasts.

The "cool revolution" that CTI head Creed Taylor—also the founder of jazz pillar Verve Records—enacted through making jazz palatable to mainstream audiences didn't go unnoticed at the time. The label printed 12-inch singles with disco remixes. Some of the music got serious radio play, they won Grammys. And more than a handful of CTI's regulars went on to become the cornerstones of the following decade's smooth jazz dynamo: George Benson, Grover Washington, Jr., Bob James, et al.

So naturally—because everyone with taste hates smooth jazz, right?—history and jazz nerds wrote off much of this movement. In the interest of clarifying for the haters, CTI is releasing a four-disc multi-artist boxed set consolidating the remarkably efficient thrust of its catalog of nascent dentist's office jams. Equally at home in pop-jazz remakes (see Benson's bizarrely high-brow version of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit") and multi-part, trippy suites, CTI put out music that was overwhelmingly chill. It was also very much of the era. In the late '70s, you had people still reeling from electric Miles, you had people listening to Barry Manilow and The Carpenters. It's funny to think that someone made records that served both these constituencies, only for the detritus to be lovingly scooped up 30 years later by the Wax Poetics set.

Jazz, pop and classical standards interpreted in germane and predictable ways make up a big chunk of the content, but it's all balanced by some of the most sublime left-field-gone-commercial music of the era. The collection surveys the many angles CTI perfected: New York City underground disco staples (Esther Phillips' "What a Difference a Day Makes"), mystical oddities (Deodato's "Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)"); deep-acid jammers (Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay") and alternately manic and mellow Brazilian workouts (the collection has one disc devoted to mostly tasteful explorations of bossa and samba-infused songs).

But what's going to draw listeners to a collection of music so variously despised and celebrated—by both jazz purists and casual listeners—something so cool, and yet so uncool? This wasn't a gimmick. It just feels like good music. It wasn't the definition of cool then and it's not destined to become so now. But there are still cool points to be had when meeting someone who understands the complex powers within the shiny black-spined LPs on their shelf.

Reheater: CTI Records and the Re-Rebirth of Cool