Cal Tjader
Solar Heat






Legendary vibraphonist Cal Tjader (1925–1982) has always been keen on the fusion of different genres and styles, never remaining in one niche for too long. On Solar Heat, one of my favorite Tjader albums ever, he really takes the cake: he mixes Classic Jazz with Latin, Funk and Exotica elements. The result is upbeat, but at the same time smooth and silky. Tjader is fully immersed in the 60‘s here, which is already apparent on the front cover.


Instead of depicting a sunny beach scene, there is only a red circle drawn in the middle, slightly resembling the sun, while the coffee-bean like drops of an unidentified liquid. To me, this is one of the greatest artworks ever, it transfers the tropical warmth of the record perfectly and is at the same time minimalistic enough to let the music speak for itself.


Tjader recorded this album with a sextet, although eight people are involved on the music-related side next to Tjader himself on the vibraphones, among them vibraphonist Gary McFarland who comes up with two unique tracks for this release, pianist Mike Abene who is responsible for the advection of the electric piano and the harpsichord, thus making the soundscape of the record even warmer and funkier, Brazilian organ legend João Donato whose own composition Amazon is performed by the band, as well as percussionists Orestes Vilato and Ray Barretto and bassists Bobby Rodriguez and Chuck Rainey. The album‘s appeal is substantiated by that late 60‘s feeling and by delivering a smooth version of Latin, for there are no brass instruments on any of the 10 renditions, but there‘s a great substitution for this omission: lucent vibraphones! Solar Heat can be considered as one of the first harbingers of the 70‘s Funk movement, but these funky entities are only carefully woven in. Here comes the Solar Heat.


The album‘s entry point is Ode To Billy Joe, originally performed by singer Bobbie Gentry in 1967, making this a brand-new and literally hot addition, perfectly resembling the overarching motif via its release date alone. The vocals are substituted by Tjader‘s vibraphone, and Abene‘s polyphonous electric piano commits funky undertones to a very mellow performance. The vibraphone thrones above all other instruments, resulting in a very placid sustain of its reverberation.


Never My Love by the Addrisi Brothers is next and may be the only underwhelming piece on the album: it is surely dreamy and features gorgeous vibraphone notes and gentle organ backings that bring in a marginal Rock flavor, but the melodies themselves do nothing for me. The following Felicidae by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius De Moraes is much better to my ears. The Latin feeling is created via vibraphones that are played in the according keys, and the short organ bursts plus the mellow, almost ethereal counterparts on the same instrument create a enjoyable flow that feels so out of place on a supposed Easy Listening album, though the opposite is the case: the deepness that is created by the band‘s interplay is warm and mellifluous, both feelings that are rehashed time and again on the album. A terrific version!


Mambo Sangria is a Tjader original and the first song where the percussionists are more in the spotlight than before. The boldly echoey conga groove is a welcome inclusion, and the improvisation on the vibraphone fits perfectly with the percussion-driven surroundings. Best of all are the occasional high-pitched vibraphone notes whose gleam outshines everything else, even the front percussion. The last song of side A is Here by song writer David MacKay, and it is an unexpectedly electronic presentation by Cal Tjader‘s band, intertwining whirling shapes on the electric piano with jumpy vibraphone sections, all the while the percussion is yet again turned up a notch. These electric piano whirls are ubiquitous throughout the song and are less cool than they feel cozy.


Side B starts with Gary McFarland‘s own song called Fried Bananas, which is based on a Samba groove and offers a tremendously friendly atmosphere with upbeat sections that are interchanged with slightly quieter sections. Both McFarland and Tjader play their vibraphones in unison, creating an eclectically euphonious and iridescent song and my favorite of the album. Best of all, though, is the singability of the lead melody combined with the joyful, laid back easiness of this strolling tune. Utterly awe-inspiring due to its rapturous simplicity. Top notch!


Up next is another tune by a band member, João Donato‘s aforementioned Amazon, bringing back the Latin feeling and combining it with a spy motif that remotely resembles the famous James Bond theme on the first half of the track, while the second half is of the glitzy kind with vibraphone main melodies, increased percussion and warmly oscillating organs and electric pianos that twirl in the background. The well-known classic La Bamba features a trilling paradisiacal flute – a first on the release – and distinct bongo-conga pairings, it is only in the second half of the song that the vibraphones are included. This time, though, they are the inferior entities, for the flute is in the limelight all the time, making this the only song that is tremendously tropical and definitely attached to the Brazilian music-related culture.


While the darkly-droning, organ-heavy Eye Of The Devil is a mysterious, crime scene-like song that features gentle percussion and Tjader‘s placid vibes that work especially well in the outro where the last chord is almost hypnotic, the final title-giving Solar Heat lets the album end on a starkly funky note with a strong focus on clarion percussion and rambled vibraphone. The very best ingredients are the radiantly blissful and effervescent electric piano soundscapes that are the perfect teammates of the remaining funky devices. If there wasn‘t the gorgeous Fried Bananas on this release, I would have picked Solar Heat as my favorite song.


Cal Tjader and his band deliver big time! Even though most songs are energetic due to the convoluted, sophisticated vibraphone sections, all of the remaining music instruments remain in soothing, entrancing territories. The whole atmosphere is laid back and the percussion is rarely turned up a notch; if it is, you can be sure that you‘re listening to a Latin song. The electronic devices, for example the harpsichord, aren‘t that boldly featured than in similarly funky Exotica albums like Mike Simpson‘s Jungle Odyssey, but they always shimmer through from the background. The album really does transcode music into heat, but it‘s not the hot-blooded heat of the tropics, but the incredibly mellow warmth of aural beams of serenity.


Everything fits, no song breaks the mood, even the exceptional case of the flute-focused La Bamba doesn‘t destroy the setting. It‘s hard for me to describe, but Tjader perfectly masks his ambitious style of play, as it seems everyone has a good time, but improvises all the time to the top of their bent. But believe me, this is, it seems, all done due to the adherence of the dreaminess. It is only Tjader‘s ego that is clearly visible, and he needs to be present, for his vibraphone is the vortex of Solar Heat. If there was only one song you wanted to pre-listen to, let it be Fried Bananas, which coincidentally is an original composition by band member Gary McFarland, showing that the group doesn‘t simply play established or brand-new material, but is able to come up with their own material which is easily outgunning every rendition on Solar Heat. If you want an exotic album that is as joyful and mildly funky as it is laid back, you‘re picking the right album here.


Exotica Review 060: Cal Tjader – Solar Heat (1968). Originally published on Apr. 21, 2012 at