Noted jazz producer Don Schlitten liked to start record labels. In the 1950s, he launched Signal, which put out a few hard bop titles before being sold to Savoy, and in 1972, he co-founded the Cobblestone imprint with fellow producer Joe Fields, who would eventually start Muse. A few years later, Schlitten founded his longest-lived and final imprint, Xanadu, which put out dozens of albums all the way to the end of the 1980s.
Schlitten was a traditionalist, and Xanadu’s output could only have been less fashionable had it focused on ragtime, or New Orleans trad jazz. Most of the label’s releases were by bebop and hard bop veterans, making straightahead music with a focus on blues and swing, embodying the dignity and class that acoustic jazz strove for in the ’70s, attempting to hold the line in the face of funk and fusion. And while the material is excellent, and the performances blend solidity and grace, there’s a feeling that this is jazz for jazz connoisseurs, brandy-and-cigars stuff for people who were soundtracking a Jaguar commercial in their minds.
Some of the highlights of the Xanadu catalog are currently being reissued by the Elemental Music label. Albums like Teddy Edwards‘s Feelin’s, Albert Heath‘s Kwanza (The First), Jimmy Heath‘s Picture of Heath, and Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron deserve, and reward, rediscovery. There may not be any real surprises in terms of the material or the musicians’ approach to it, but straightahead jazz, played by masters, is some of the most purely pleasurable music ever made by humans, and the Xanadu catalog offers one demonstration of that fact after another.
And every once in a while, an album pops up that does manage to throw a curve ball at the listener, like saxophonist Joe Farrell‘s Skate Board Park, originally released in 1979 and now back, on CD. (Get it from Amazon.)
Farrell was a saxophonist and occasional flute player who got his start in the 1960s, playing with Charles Mingus, Jaki Byard, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson, and many more. Between 1972 and 1976, he made a string of albums for the slick, smooth CTI label, including Outback, Moon Germs, Upon This Rock, Penny Arcade, Canned Funk, and Benson & Farrell, a collaboration with guitarist George Benson. At the end of the decade, Farrell and Schlitten got together to make this record, and they put together quite an impressive band. The keyboardist was Chick Corea, who had worked with Farrell a decade earlier, on 1968’s Tones for Joan’s Bones, and again on the first two Return To Forever albums, 1972’s self-titled debut and 1973’s Light as a Feather. Bob Magnusson was on bass, and bebop veteran Lawrence Marable was on drums.
Farrell wrote three of the tunes: the opening title track, “Cliché Romance,” and the closing “Bara-Bara.” Corea contributed “High Wire – ‘The Aerialist,'” which he’d re-record on the 1982 all-star album Echoes of an Era with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, saxophonist Joe Henderson, bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Lenny White, and Chaka Khan on vocals. Skate Board Park is filled out with versions of the standards “Speak Low” and “You Go to My Head.”
“Skate Board Park” is built around a fast, intricate melody, all short bursts of notes that Farrell and Corea perform in perfect unison. The saxophonist’s tone is tough but controlled, very Henderson-esque, and the piano sounds like the hammers are made of metal. Behind them, Magnusson’s bass has that thick ’70s rubber-band sound, and Marable’s hi-hat is a metronomic hiss. When Corea takes his solo, it’s a jangling, almost free exploration of the keyboard that seems to have very little in the way of chordal structure. Eventually, sax and piano line up in unison again, and take the piece out at the same intense level of focus they had in the beginning. It’s a viscerally exciting piece of music, something unexpected and thrilling in a high-wire act sort of way.
“High Wire – ‘The Aerialist'” is a more traditional sort of piece. It’s got the same general sound—Corea’s piano still clangs and jangles, more like a classroom upright than a for-real instrument; I mean, it’s almost perverse—and Farrell’s sax playing is full and macho in a ’70s open-shirt/TV-theme-song kind of way. The bass bounces and boings, and Marable still sounds like he only brought two pieces of his kit with him. But melodically, it’s just hard bop with a few extra flourishes. It gets over on the basis of how well it’s played, not how interesting it is as a piece of music. And that’s kind of Xanadu Records in a nutshell. Unsurprising material, performed extremely well, by dudes who figure that’s enough.
That’s why “Cliché Romance” and “Bara-Bara” are so important to Skate Board Park. Because on those two tracks, Corea switches to electric piano, and it makes a huge difference. He’s an entirely different player when he’s plugged in, just as fast but with a fuller, more satisfying sound, and he brings more out of everyone around him. Farrell’s soloing on “Cliché Romance” lives up to the second half of the piece’s title while avoiding the first entirely; it’s an almost Sonny Rollins-level demonstration of how to really say something with the horn. Magnusson gets a great spotlight turn, too. Marable continues to be rock-solid behind the kit.
“Bara-Bara” is a fast, almost funky groove workout, and Corea takes the lead spot early and holds onto it, diving and dancing all over the keyboard with the rhythm team seeming to race along behind him more than they’re setting a foundation for him. When Farrell’s solo comes, he’s working smoothly but at high speed, emitting herky-jerky but still considered phrases and returning to the melody seemingly without thinking about it. It comes to an end—the track, and the album—with a quick flourish. Six pieces, 40 minutes, what could have been a routine blowing session elevated by well-written material and a few very smart decisions by the players. This isn’t a super well-known album, but it deserves a broader audience, so it’s a good thing that this reissue is out there.
Stream it on Spotify: