The California Concert was a once in a lifetime occasion held at the Hollywood Palladium back in 1971. The event was designed as a showcase for the talent of the newly formed CTI Records–in fact, they were called the CTI All-Stars. Among the talent onstage that night were George Benson (guitar), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Hubert Laws (flute), Stanley Turrentine (tenor sax), Hank Crawford (alto sax), Johnny Hammond (organ), Ron Carter (bass), Billy Cobham (drums) and Airto (percussion). With a lineup like this it would be hard to go wrong, but I wonder if anyone anticipated just how transcendent the night would prove to be.
The set documenting this incredible show was originally released as a double-LP package, with some of the material excised due to time constraints. For the two-CD remastered edition, Sony Music was able to include the entire concert. As good as the initial release was, this is even better. The three previously unreleased tracks add up to over 50 minutes of music, and are a strong argument for the set having been released as a triple-album back in the day.
The opening 20-minute take on John Coltrane’s “Impressions” sets the tone for everything that follows. Compositionally the track is a descendent of Miles Davis’ “So What” with some great solo work from the All-Stars. Speaking of “So What,” it is the second of the three previously unreleased tracks, while the third is Hubbard’s lengthy workout “Straight Life,” which closed the concert.
Two highlights that fall between these unreleased opening and closing numbers were surprising choices. James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain,” and Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” were huge singer-songwriter hits of the time, but would not seem to lend themselves to jazz interpretations. While the proto-smooth jazz sounds that the CTI All-Stars produce with these tracks have been criticized as being too “white bread,” that is a shortsighted view. For one thing, these players are truly world class, and know what they are doing. For another, just because the music is not as harsh as vintage Pharoah Sanders or Albert Ayler does not exclude it from serious consideration. The snobby response to the California Concert and to CTI Records in general (at times anyway) was silly, and revealed much more about the reviewers themselves than it did about the music.
Eumir Deodato was responsible for CTI’s all-time biggest hit single with his “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” which was based on the theme from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. His “Blues West” was written specifically for the concert, and has a blues feel similar to that of some of the classic Miles and Coltrane Prestige recordings of the fifties.
Other standout moments on the set include Carter’s incredible bass solo during “Sugar,” Airto’s solo during “Leaving West,” and Turrentine channeling Coltrane on “Straight Life.” The California Concert was a night to remember, and thankfully it was recorded for us to enjoy. Even 40 years after the event, the music stands up as some of the most adventurous and enjoyable one is likely to hear. It was a performance by a group of musicians who got together for one very special evening, and one which will not be forgotten. This is an exemplary reissue, and one to look out for.