DON SEBESKY — Giant Box (review)

DON SEBESKY — Giant Box album cover Album · 1973 · Third Stream Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
Chicapah
Don Sebesky was (and still is) highly respected in the jazz community as a musician, arranger, composer and conductor. He got his start in the 50s as a trombonist working with the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson and Kai Winding. His reputation grew in the 60s through his association with artists such as Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Paul Desmond and Freddie Hubbard. In the early 70s Creed Taylor, owner of CTI Records, decided that Don should take advantage of his close friendships with so many gifted and renown jazz musicians and round them up to contribute their talents to an album of songs masterminded by none other than Sebesky himself. The project went so well that Taylor gave him the go-ahead to make it a double LP set and “Giant Box” was the result. According to the liner notes the hardest job was getting all these in-demand, big name jazz celebrities off the road and into the studio to lay down their parts but somehow it worked and one glance at the stellar roster will tell you volumes about its quality quotient. This is an exemplary album containing many varieties of great jazz music.

Being a starving musician in 1973 I wasn’t often in the financial position of being able to afford more than one record at a time but when I saw that Don had combined Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” (my preferred prog band Yes blared it through the P.A. as they took the stage every time I saw them) with John McLaughlin’s “Birds of Fire” (the Mahavishnu Orchestra album by that name had me hooked like a steelhead trout at the time) it was futile to resist so I took a calculated risk without sampling it first. It turned out to be one of my most rewarding impulse purchases of all time. The epic “Firebird/Birds of Fire” begins with the great symphonic composer’s ominous, threatening theme rising up from the orchestra pit. Suddenly you’re thrust into the world of jazz/rock fusion for “BoF” where spirited strings perform the song’s stirring melody. Hubert Laws steps into the breach to deliver a superb flute solo, then a clever mixture of both pieces leads to Freddie Hubbard’s sharp-edged trumpet ride. Sebesky utilizes a hot horn section to stick punchy accents on the 9/8 time signature groove before Billy Cobham takes over and causes sparks to shoot from his drums. Don’s electric piano adds a new angle to the start of the build up to the classical suite’s thrilling, climactic movement that never fails to stimulate my imagination (certainly not here), then loud gong smashes herald a return to the undulating “BoF” rip-tide current that makes me envision a massive flock of sky-darkening, flying predators streaming into the distant sunrise. This experimental synthesis of styles is everything I’d hoped it would be. Wow.

Sebesky’s take on Joni Mitchell’s “Song to a Seagull” follows and it is greatness. Paul Desmond’s immaculate tone pours forth from his sax like honey and the effect is as soothing as a hot bath on a cold night. Ron Carter’s bass lines are exquisite and Don’s electric piano solo flows by ever so smoothly. The ensemble’s flawless execution of the scintillating arrangement makes this one of my favorite jazz numbers ever. It is magical. Sebesky wrote the next selection, “Free as a Bird.” After an electric piano introduction it segues to a fast-paced, big band deal where the horns deliver a densely-packed, muted chord structure. The rhythm section of Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter sizzles beneath Bob James’ terrific piano ride, Freddie Hubbard’s blazing flugelhorn display and Grover Washington Jr.’s invigorating soprano sax solo. Don fills in the tune’s short recess with his delightful electric pianoisms, then the track slowly fades away with Freddie and Grover furiously duking it out. Sebesky really pulls out all the stops for his version of Jimmy Webb’s “Psalm 150.” He curiously opens it with what sounds like a group of monks chanting scripture in unison. Cobham and percussionists Rubens Bassini and Ralph MacDonald then proceed to lay down a Latin feel that sambas below Jackie Cain’s and Roy Kral’s crystal-clear voices. Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet blows bold and brassy while the studio cats administer swift kicks and odd time signatures all the way through. Carter gets a chance to shine on his upright bass and shine he does ere to Bob James contributing a playful organ ride. This eclectic number may not be everyone’s cup of Lipton but boring it ain’t.

The hypnotizing treatment given “Vocalise” by Sergei Rachmaninoff brings back the inimitable Paul Desmond (always a good thing) and his golden alto sax to blend with Milt Jackson’s ethereal vibes, creating a glowing aura of tranquility that hovers over your psyche like a soft cloud until it shifts to a lighthearted swing where Don’s opulent orchestral score makes its entrance and becomes the unexpected scene-stealer. The track is a gorgeous five and a half minutes of inspired jazz. Hubert Laws’ echoing flute marks the onset of Sebesky’s “Fly” and “Circles” combination. Don croons a bit on the former (he’s no Sinatra but he’s okay) and then you’re treated to more flute and some of Joe Farrell’s sweet soprano sax riffs. The latter is a saucy, swinging big band affair that supports Farrell’s extended ride and Bob James’ exuberant piano solo before it slides into a slinky shuffle beat for Laws’ sprightly flute spasms. Don’s uneven “Semi-Tough” gets off to a decent beginning by adopting a tasty, early 70s funk groove that’s refreshing (although a tad dated by now). George Benson comes forward with his guitar and he avails himself of a “bubbly” effect for his lead that’s interesting for a while but quickly grows tiresome from it making too many bubbles. Grover Washington Jr. does his wild thing on the alto saxophone but Bob James feeds his organ through a wah-wah pedal and ruins the mood. It’s horribly annoying. This is one busy little cut that justifiably deserves to come in last.

In the grand scheme of things “Giant Box” is a treasure trove because it is chock full of fabulous jazz music that’s sure to thoroughly entertain most any jazz enthusiast. For the neophyte it’s a splendid way to hear some of the greatest jazz musicians in history being allowed to vamp freely without restraint in an environment intentionally conducive to highlighting and emphasizing their professional craftsmanship. In deference to their good friend Don Sebesky it’s apparent that each of these titans of the genre strove to give him their very best and, with few exceptions, they succeeded every time. This package epitomizes what a four-star rating equates to in my book. It’d be an excellent addition to any jazz lover’s collection.
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