Joe Beck: Beck [Japan] (2001)

Joe Beck: Beck (liner notes)

BECK is back! A perfectionist, gifted with a sharp sense of self-criticism, Joe Beck (born on July 29, 1945, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia) was making good music (and a lot of money) when he disappeared from the NY music scene in 1971 to become a dairy farmer in Vermont. After his professional debut with Paul Winter’s group in 1964, he had played with such masters as Gary McFarland, Charles Lloyd, Chico Hamilton, and Gil Evans, on whose orchestra he was a member from 1967 to 1971. (One of his best albums with Evans, Where Flamingos Fly, only came out ten years later on the Artists House label).

Not to mention that Joe Beck had been the first guitarist to record with Miles Davis, on a controversial December 1967 session later released, in 1979, on the Circle in The Round album. “For years I dreamed to play with Miles, one of my heroes. But, when I had the chance, I wasn’t prepared yet, and I played very badly on that session”, Beck comments. “By the end of 1971, I was feeling so stressed that I gave up everything and decided to take a long break of music. I wasn’t satisfied with my life nor with my career.”

After almost three years milking cows (“during that period as a farmer, my only musical work was to write the soundtrack for a porno movie, a spiced version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which I did just for fun”, he laughs), Beck returned with renewed energy to Manhattan’s studio scene. Soon he was recording on Dom Um Romao’s debut album for Muse, as well as touring with Joe Farrell.

At that time, Farrell was signed to CTI and, through him, Joe Beck re-encountered Creed Taylor. Beck’s first session as a sideman for CTI, on October 29, 1968, had been for J.J. Johnson & Kai Winding’s “Betwixt & Between” album, followed by a recording for Paul Desmond’s “Summertime” album on November 20, 1968, playing acoustic guitar on the now cult samba version of Louis Armstrong’s Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.

After being an integral part, in October 1973, of the sessions which yielded Joe Farrell’s Penny Arcade album (for which he also contributed as composer of its title track), Beck was invited to took part on Idris Muhammad’s Power of Soul (March 1974), as well as on two other albums by Farrell’s group: Upon This Rock (March 1974) and Canned Funk (Nov-Dec 1974). Beck’s ferocious guitar style impressed Creed Taylor so much that the producer invited him to join the CTI/Kudu family. “Creed offered me the chance to do my own album, which represented my artistical redemption”, states the guitarist.

On March 10 & 11, 1975, at Van Gelder’s Studio in New Jersey, Joe Beck and his buddies (Don Grolnick, Will Lee, Chris Parker, Steve Khan and David Sanborn, a superteam of second-generation fusion players) recorded all the basic tracks for the self-titled BECK album. On March 17, Beck, Khan and Grolnick, plus percussionist Ray Mantilla, returned to do some overdubs. At last, on June 25, Don Sebesky added unobstrusive string arrangements to three tracks: Star Fire, Cactus and Red Eye.

The opening track, Star Fire, had been previously recorded (under the title The Saddest Thing) on Idris Muhammad’s Power of Soul album. Beck and Sanborn play the melody in unison, in a dense atmosphere that is not sweetened by Sebesky’s string arrangement.

Don Grolnick shines as a composer on Cactus (adding an organ during Joe Beck’s fiery guitar solo), and as a soloist on Texas Ann, on which Grolnick performs a masterful improvisation on the Fender Rhodes, a lesson in dynamics and architectonic logical. By the way, he uses electric piano on all tracks, except on Brothers And Others (comping on the acoustic piano in a way only he and another late funk master, Richard Tee, knew how to do).

Percussionist Ray Mantilla adds congas and cowbell to Red Eye, an incandescent bluesy tune written by Beck, whose guitar attack seems to bite the listener’s ears. However, Sanborn steals the show with a fantastic performance, phrasing beautifully during his astonishing solo.

Cafe Black Rose, a Gene Dinwiddie song for which Lightinin’ Rod later added lyrics on the Hustler’s Convention album, is a country-tinged performance. Steve Kahn, a guitarist’s guitarist, son of the legendary composer Sammy Cahn, sounds like if he was playing a pedal steel guitar. It is worth to remember that Gene Dinwiddie is the Christian name of Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, who formed the legendary The Last Poets group in 1969, after releasing from prison. A USA paratrooper, who opted to go to jail instead of fighting in the Vietnam War, Gene converted to Islam while in prison, adopting a new name.

Undoubtedly the album highlight, Brothers and Others begins with a piano intro played by Don Grolnick on his unmistakable style. There are bright solos by both Beck and Sanborn, propelled by a rhythm section that is pure dynamite. It is the perfect ending for an album full of excitement, musical intensity and vital energy.

The psychodelic cover art was done, at Joe Beck’s request, by Abdul Mati Klarwein, who created the paintings for several Miles Davis’ albums of the jazz-rock era, such as the seminal Bitches Brew and its follow-up Live Evil. However, when reissuing the BECK album in 1979, on the CTI 8000 series, Creed Taylor opted for a new cover provided by photographer Mitchell Funk, and retitled the album BECK & SANBORN for obvious commercial purposes, to take advantage of David Sanborn’s huge fame. This second cover and false title were also used on the USA CD reissue by CBS in 1987.

Although he never recorded again for Creed Taylor as a leader, Joe Beck did many other albums as a sideman for both the CTI and Kudu labels: Chicago Theme (Hubert Laws), The Rape of El Morro (Don Sebesky) and House of the Rising Sun (Idris Muhammad), all of them recorded in 1975. That same year, he became the main responsible for making What A Diff’rence A Day Makes the best-selling album ever in Esther Phillips’ career, thanks to Beck’s disco-arrangement of the title track, which became a big dancefloor hit all over the world during the summer of 1975. A second Phillips/Beck collaboration, For All We Know, was quickly produced in October of that same year. But it’s another story that also deserves to be told in details. For now, let’s cheers because... BECK is back!

Arnaldo DeSouteiro
May 24, 2001
Mr. DeSouteiro is Brazil’s top jazz producer and CTI historian