Autobiographical Order No. 236: Cal Tjader – Soul Burst

Getting into jazz can be a tricky thing for a lot of people, especially when you don’t have much exposure to it outside of your own personal investigation. You can download all the top-rated jazz albums from AllMusic or whatever, but if all you’ve ever listened to was pop, then it might be hard to get into. This, I’ve learned, was the case with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which was heavily influenced by jazz records; if you’re not a jazz person, then a lot of it isn’t going to make sense. I was lucky enough to be exposed to jazz early on because my dad was always a big fan. Once I remember buying him a Cal Tjader compilation for Christmas on his request (at least I think that’s what happened), even though I knew next to nothing about the guy. He put it on almost immediately after opening it, and when I heard it, something clicked immediately. Maybe it’s because it’s not particularly abstract or avant garde; Tjader was a vibraphonist that mostly played Latin jazz standards, and for the most part they were all pretty accessible, even catchy. And in his most atmospheric and arty moments, his music could be downright gorgeous.

Soul Burst ended up being one of the first jazz CDs I ever bought, along with Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um (and I think I also bought a Will Haven CD on the same trip, and this was before I had Napster so I was just going for it, as you can tell). I was stunned, particularly by the final track, “Curacao,” which was loungey but haunting, and not at all dated sounding in spite of the somewhat hokey sound of some exotica records of the ’60s and ’50s. By the standards of the jazz canon, this is a minor release, but it’s pretty damn great, all things considered. And like all mid-’60s Verve releases, the cover art is awesome.

I ended up picking up a copy used about 15 years later at M Theory, a pressing from the ’60s no less. It’s not a perfect one; there’s a fair amount of surface noise at the beginning of each side, and like all vintage records it had some dust in the grooves. But it’s a lived-in, loved record, and I’m happy to be able to give it a home, dropping it on the turntable anytime my wife and I have a “Latin brunch,” or just when I need a reminder of one of those records that got me here way back when.

Rating: 9.0

Sound Quality: Good (Mostly decent sounding, with some surface noise in parts)

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Autobiographical Order No. 212: Cal Tjader – Soul Sauce

I’ve written before about my most eye-opening introduction to jazz being Miles Davis. I’m sure a lot of other people have similar experiences. And they should: Miles was the greatest. And from there I discovered Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, etc. But also in that group was Cal Tjader, a Swedish-American vibraphone player and Latin jazz bandleader whose reputation has never been as respected as that of some of those other artists I mentioned, though he had some really excellent records.

Tjader’s style of jazz tended to be more concise and accessible, a bit like the pop jazz of the ’60s, I suppose, though that sounds cheesier than it actually is. He had a lot of really excellent Latin jazz jams, though, and on a series of mid-’60s albums with “soul” in the title, he hit a kind of artistic peak. The centerpiece of the trio, Soul Sauce, is the most boogaloo of the three, meaning that it incorporated a blend of Latin and R&B sounds. Though it’s not a boogaloo album proper. That being said, it does feature the playing of Willie Bobo, who recorded one of the best boogaloo tracks of all time: “Fried Neckbones and Some Home Fries.” More on that in a bit.

Soul Sauce actually has some remarkable musicians on it: Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, Lonnie Hewitt. It’s a pretty stellar session jam going on in there. It’s also a fun record to listen to, lively, upbeat and with a lot of catchy melodies that sometimes more serious jazz musicians evade. (Which is fine! But sometimes you just want something with a little more swing to it.)

This was a record swap find, a bit worn around the edges on the sleeve and likely an original stereo issue of the album. So no, it’s not in near mint condition but I also didn’t pay that much for it. I do, however, enjoy the hell out of it, and a few months after I bought it, my wife and I started a periodic tradition of having “Latin brunches,” wherein we’d make pancakes or eggs and put on a Latin jazz record. We still do that, and I’ll get into it more in a bit, but for now I’ll just leave you with this: Cal Tjader never released anything as ambitious as Bitches Brew or A Love Supreme, but damn if he didn’t bring the jams.

Rating: 9.3

Sound Quality: Good