Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Charles Earland - 1969 - Black Talk!

Charles Earland 
1969 
Black Talk!



01. Black Talk 7:50
02. The Mighty Burner 3:04
03. Here Comes Charlie 8:15
04. Aquarius 8:00
05. More Today Than Yesterday 11:10

Drums – Idris Muhammad
Guitar – Melvin Sparks
Organ – Charles Earland
Tenor Saxophone – Houston Person
Trumpet – Virgil Jones

Recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, December 15, 1969.


Charles Earland came into his own at the tail-end of the great 1960s wave of soul-jazz organists, gaining a large following and much airplay with a series of albums for the Prestige label. While heavily indebted to Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff, Earland came armed with his own swinging, technically agile, light-textured sound on the keyboard and one of the best walking-bass pedal techniques in the business. Though not an innovative player in his field, Earland burned with the best of them when he was on.

Earland actually started his musical experiences surreptitiously on his father's alto sax as a kid, and when he was in high school, he played baritone in a band that also featured fellow Philadelphians Pat Martino on guitar, Lew Tabackin on tenor, and yes, Frankie Avalon on trumpet. After playing in the Temple University band, he toured as a tenor player with McGriff for three years, became infatuated with McGriff's organ playing, and started learning the Hammond B-3 at intermission breaks. When McGriff let him go, Earland switched to the organ permanently, forming a trio with Martino and drummer Bobby Durham. He made his first recordings for Choice in 1966, then joined Lou Donaldson for two years (1968-1969) and two albums before being signed as a solo artist to Prestige. Earland's first album for Prestige, Black Talk!, became a best-selling classic of the soul-jazz genre; a surprisingly effective cover of the Spiral Starecase's pop/rock hit "More Today Than Yesterday" from that LP received saturation airplay on jazz radio in 1969. He recorded eight more albums for Prestige, one of which featured a young unknown Philadelphian named Grover Washington, Jr., then switched to Muse before landing contracts with Mercury and Columbia. By this time, the organ trio genre had gone into eclipse, and in the spirit of the times, Earland acquired some synthesizers and converted to pop/disco in collaboration with his wife, singer/songwriter Sheryl Kendrick. Kendrick's death from sickle-cell anemia in 1985 left Earland desolate, and he stopped playing for awhile, but a gig at the Chickrick House on Chicago's South Side in the late '80s brought him out of his grief and back to the Hammond B-3. Two excellent albums in the old soul-jazz groove for Milestone followed, and the '90s found him returning to the Muse label. Earland died of heart failure on December 11, 1999, the morning after playing a gig in Kansas City; he was 58.

Charles Earland had a strong affinity for the organ, though he didn't start on the instrument. He began his career as a saxophonist, playing in groups with organists like Jimmy McGriff and Gene Ludwig before making his unconventional instrumental switch, eventually joining Lou Donaldson's group. His playing exploits the organ's capacity for sustain and timbral effects (though on "More Today Than Yesterday" his fleet playing often sounds like a transposed piano solo). 

The soul-jazz format tends toward popularity, even populism. Indeed, Black Talk! was a hit record in its day; DJs played the title cut and "More Today Than Yesterday," in spite of their length, even before Prestige had released radio-friendly edited singles. Earland's group nevertheless avoids the narrow clichés of the genre. While they may not have pushed the format as far as their contemporaries in Tony Williams' Lifetime, the ensemble sound is nevertheless subtly an advance on the early-sixties style in which Earland received his apprenticeship. 

This is mostly due to the leader's playing, and to that of guitarist Melvin Sparks and drummer Idris Muhammad. Sparks reminds us of the organic link between the blues and the avant- garde (like James Blood Ulmer or Pete Cosey), his scratchy playing and always- approximate timing adding delightful texture to a format that could otherwise be conservative and monochromatic. Muhammad, meanwhile, can provide a driving rock 'n' roll beat, or a pleasing shuffle; but his drumming on "Aquarius" could almost be mistaken for Art Blakey's. 

The contributions of tenor saxophonist Houston Person and trumpeter Virgil Jones, though competent, are often merely ornamental rather than substantive. Sympathetic conga accompaniment on a couple of tracks is furnished by Newark convenience store owner Buddy Caldwell ("the musicians dug him," according to Bob Porter's liner notes). 

The set list is quirky but successful. "Aquarius," from Hair, cannot help but sound a little kitschy, but the modal groove in the middle of the cut over which the solos are played, is among the record's finest moments, and Person sounds more imaginative here than elsewhere. One-hit wonder Spiral Starecase's "More Today Than Yesterday" is not Black Talk!'s most adventurous moment, but it is certainly the most winsome.

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