Thursday, December 09, 2010
Digging in the Crates: Art Webb Reissued on CD!!
At various times in the history of digital music since CDs started to take over in the 1980s, reissues of pre-CD LPs have gone through many phases. When digital technology first took over, record companies rushed to put parts of their catalog back on the shelves. I remember furiously making the rounds of record stores every week, hoping against hope that some of my favorite wax albums had been upgraded and brought back to life by CD. Sometimes I scored, often via costly European and Japanese imports. As CD technology improved, record labels would go through another wave of back-catalog reissues, and sometimes in addition to re-reissuing remastered albums they'd dig a little deeper and broader and more forgotten vault treasures would spring back to life on the shelves. Falling for record-company hype over and over again, there are even a handful of albums I have bought three times on CD. It's a familiar pattern. The first digital reissue was welcome but didn't sound so good. Then the remastered version. WOW! And then the remastered deluxe edition in a nice digipak or mini LP-sleeve with bonus tracks. DOUBLE WOW! And the record company makes money over and over again from the same repertoire. But some albums just didn't seem to make it into the CD age, and I have on several occasions replaced favorite worn out-of-print vinyl LPs with slightly fresher less worn-out used copies.
A few years ago when digital downloads and iPods started to change how music was consumed, free (called by some, illegal) file-sharing became the rage. All of a sudden thousands of lost LPs were digitized by music lovers and shared for free over the internet. What fun! As both a consumer and sharer (through my music blog Ile Oxumare), I found this amazing. LPs I thought I had no hope of hearing again or for the first time even circulated freely among a community of music heads, real fans most of them, dedicated to the love of the groove.
And yet as the death of the CD is hourly reported, as music lovers have rediscovered crates and crates of great old LPs, it seems record companies have discovered that licensing old titles out to semi-independent labels has a little more money-making life left in it. Music blogs seem to have proved that crate diggers and seventies-grooves connoisseurs are still a loyal audience who buy enough CDs to make a new, even deeper, foray into the vaults worthwhile.
Which brings me to my discovery that two of my favorite 1970s discofied jazz-groove albums have finally made it to CD. Courtesy of the Wounded Bird reissue label, I am happy to welcome back flautist Art Webb's albums "Mr. Flute" and "Love Eyes," both, I believe, originally released back in 1977. (I bought both my copies from Dustygroove.com of course).
I bought both of these LPs back in the day. Having fallen in love with Blue Note jazz flautist Bobbi Humphrey's albums when I was in high school, I somehow assumed that all jazz flute must sound like her. Sorta funky, gurgling with danceable energy and complex, heady electric arrangements, and the occasional mellow if unvirtuosic background vocal, when I started consuming jazz LPs upon my arrival at college I kept running into disappointment in the pursuit of more jazz flute. Artists I now respect as awesome like Lloyd McNeill and James Newton disappointed the hell out of me at the time. Herbie Mann? Gees, guy pick a style and stay with it. And then I found Art Webb.
Art Webb turns out to have been a mainstay of the New York Latin music scene, and while these albums are not Latin music per se, his cred in that area comes shining through. "Mr. Flute" does conclude with an almost Santana-like Latin fusion tune cut with the group Raices, but I tended to skip that track in my hip-swinging youth. The real starmaker of "Mr. Flute" is producer Patrick Adams, who spent the late 1970s and early 1980s pioneering a gloriously glossy urban sound. And by urban I mean disco, baby. This album sounds like jazz funk dipped in a little Salsoul, with sweeping strings, a propulsive Latin beat, and the best background grooves studio singers and musicians could sell. Oh yeah and Art Webb plays the flute.
Which comes across as mean, I suppose, but what I realized from Bobbi Humphrey and Art Webb both is that the flute is a brilliant focus for a groove, riding along like foam on the crest of a wave, but I have no idea if their playing is particularly good. Oh the music is brilliant: it seduces each part of my body to the parallel lines of its groove. A little chunky guitar, the congas and cowbell, the cooing of female vocalists, the glorious bells, buried harmonies of golden horns, the sweep of those strings. Some of these songs have words, I suppose, but they're not lyrical ballads, these snatches of phrases and words whose beauty is momentary and whose meaning is nothing except the joy of getting lost in this beautiful sound. When that singer commands us to Smile in my favorite track of "Mr. Flute." that is exactly what I do. And if Herbie Mann's attempted forays into disco about the same time sounded crass and cliched, almost embarassingly forced, Art Webb via Patrick Adams gets it exactly right. While I don't think this music made it big on anybody's playlist -- it was still, after all, consigned to the deadly bins of Jazz -- the sound captures something about the spirit of the boogie, if you will, all in it together, no stars, no self, just groove.
I even featured a scratchy rip of one of these albums in the early days of Ile Oxumare. The new CD sounds terrific though, and my rip is now officially retired.
"Mr. Flute" was an album of mostly originals, and as much as it made an impression on me, it didn't really crack the charts. The follow up, "Love Eyes," tried to remedy that by including some covers, strangely all from the orbit of late Charles Stepney-era Earth Wind and Fire. There's "You Can't Hide Love" and "Devotion" which EWF both performed, and the amazing "Free" which made Deniece Williams a star under EWF's tutelage. Hubert Eaves is now in on electric piano and Patrick Adams is replaced by the eclectic John Lee and Gerry Brown, flown in from the continent on some starmaking errand, no doubt, from backing up for obscure-in-America European fusion musicians. The covers are more than serviceable -- God bless a world filled only with Earth Wind and Fire covers, I mean, really -- and even though the general formula is the same as "Mr. Flute," the album doesn't have quite the same brash freshness to my ear as the first. Not that I could live without either of these albums. These are wonderful things to have on pristine digital reissues, and whether or not the end of the CD is nigh--certainly the first thing I did when I got these is rip them to my iTunes--I'm thankful that somebody is still digging in those crates and bringing these tunes back into the light.
Thanks Art, for making this music!