Cal Tjader & Lalo Schifrin
Several Shades Of Jade






Vibraphonist and band leader Cal Tjader (1925–1982) has always focused on multiple structures and synergies in his Jazz works. Whether he tries to please the Latin crowd with gleaming horns and the added twist of gorgeous percussion prowess in Demasiado Caliente (1960) or places the refreshing iciness of glitchy vibraphone tones in adjacency to an enormously mellow pre-Funk diorama in Solar Heat (1969), Tjader's work is always residing on the cusp of many styles and subgenres that are magically woven into his original tracks and even mere renditions. As you may imagine, I am quite a big fan of his work. There is one specifically exciting niche Tjader targeted for a short timespan, namely the strongly exotic entanglement of Far Eastern, quartet-resembling tone sequences which actually came to be due to a wealth of strings, reeds and horns. 


Breeze From The East (1964) is such a gorgeous work, with Several Shades Of Jade, released on Verve Records in 1963, being the other, though inferior foil. Here, Tjader works together with legendary arranger, conductor and film scorer Lalo Schifrin (born 1932) and a huge ensemble of well-known musicians on each of the nine tunes. Recorded on three consecutive days in April 1963 in New York's Webster Hall, Several Shades Of Jade comprises of four unique tracks written by Schifrin and five interpretations of classics and less-known material with a strong focus on the percussion side of things. The large scope of the production is incessantly audible in every second, the material is permanently oscillating between a trio- or quartet-resembling intimacy and a following impressive wideness thanks to the many people involved. I cannot possibly list all of the talented musicians, but among them are trumpeter Clark Terry, guitarist Jimmy Raney, conga and tambourine player Jack Del Rio, flutists Walt Levinsky and Phil Bodner as well as drummer Ed Shaughnessy. Several Shades Of Jade draws from many mystic moods, amicable atmospheres and languorous locations, all of which experience a closer dissection in the following paragraphs.


The album launches with Lalo Schifrin's own The Fakir, an admittedly lackluster start for a Far Eastern- and Orient-themed album. The hollow goblet drums, bongos, triangles and timpani provide the exotic percussive base frame for the shawm-like guitar works of Jimmy Raney and the violin-accentuated mélange as delivered by Emanuel Vardi, Leo Kruczek and Arnold Eidus. So far, so good. The faux-Middle Eastern gallimaufry is even maintained when Cal Tjader's vibes enter the sneaky, danger-evoking scenery; the instrument may sound icy and pristine, but its timbre remains as shady as its surrounding layers. Nothing is particularly wrong, but the whole scheme is too predictable, no instrument reaches out, there is no room for any kind of improvisation. This tune sounds way too genteel by Tjader's standards, and there are Easy Listening works by other arrangers that are – gasp! – even more exciting than this example of blandness.


Luckily, things get much better when Ronnell Bright's Cherry Blossoms moves into expectedly Japanese realms. It kicks off with the mysterious clicks of different claves, bird-evoking woodwinds and surprisingly eerie strings. The mood is arcane and murky. Once the plasticity of the wind chimes enters, the arrangement opens up, as does the amicability of the aura. Mellow vibes, suddenly good-natured string washes and guitar-underpinned double bass accents paint the majesty of a spring day on the island without ever succumbing to overly stereotypical tones. In fact, the slow tempo and Tjader's spiraling vibraphone put the emphasis on the cosmopolitan Lounge factor rather than the Asian glitz.


Schifrin's Borneo is the first track that interpolates the cinematic verve of the selected material. The exotic guiro-kindled groove in adjacency to the arranger's colorful interplay of piano bursts, the strongly Eastern notes on the vibraphone, paradisiacally warbled flutes as well as the smashing horn sections altogether make Borneo a curious critter that resides in the dualistic worlds of sleazy Crime Jazz melodies struck with loungey aftertastes and hence encapsulates the fusion aspects of Tjader's music. Side A already closes with the fourth track called Tokyo Blues, a song originally envisioned by Horace Silver. This is one of my favorite renditions Tajder & Schifrin come up with. Right from the get-go, pompous horns are unleashed which are in a constant dialog with Tjader's bongo-accompanied Asian tone sequences. The horns' glissando and the intimidating drums make this a huge piece that combines everything I love about the vibraphonist's Exotica material: interesting and enchanting percussion, a large scope, dreamy-energetic oxymoronic vibraphone placentas and towering brass blasts that are not acidic rather than catchy and show tune-like. A superb hit!


Side B starts with Lalo Schifrin's Song Of The Yellow River, and whatever its song title might imply, the band ships around such expectations: this tune turns out to be a frantically rapid-firing piece! After a mellow prelude of soothing flutes, glistening wind chimes and Irving Horowitz's solemn oboe notes, the song changes its course and unravels the speediest vibraphone sprinkles, convoluted percussion patterns and cinematic horn infusions which still contain traces of benign warmth. Fans of Werner Müller's East Of India (released in 1963 as well) ought to be pleased by the big band setup and the pumping tempo. Long-time collaborator Stan Applebaum's Sahib is next and continues both the Oriental setting of the opener The Fakir and the path of featuring a multilayered percussion aorta next to Tjader's murky vibe melodies. The most successful additions are the glowing horns whose luminescence simulates sunset-colored hues. The mood of the tune changes in the second half when tongue-in-cheek flutes and woodwinds lessen the Oriental setting and graft a bold dose of safari feeling to the soundscape. I for one prefer the first part, and strongly so, but again, this is Cal Tjader presenting yet another fusion.


China Nights (Shina No Yoru) follows, originally composed by Yaso Saijo and Nobuyki Takeoka, and it is here where the trait of intimacy returns that is so often found in albums by Jazz trios or quartets. The song reciprocates between silky flute-and-horn couples, Chinese gongs, softened hi-hats and the occasional climax. This is a truthful Jazz rendition, everything that is so typical about the genre is on board: Tjader's meandering vibraphone droplets are more rooted in Manhattan than in Beijing, the wave-like double bass scheme is strongly expected and commonplace, only the brass-related polyphony is definitely cheeky, with the final resonation of the Chinese gong serving as a reminder that every instrument is actually embedded in a Far Eastern context.


The last original cut by Lalo Schifrin, Almond Tree, is leaving this Chinese location in favor of delicately wonky timpani layers, piercing trumpets, excitingly twilight-tinted suspension woodwinds and a perfectly jumpy vibraphone injection à la Tjader. The power of the drums, the shape-shifting rhythm as well as the reoccurrence of jazzier double bass concoctions make Almond Tree a good-natured, surprisingly quickly moving ditty instead of a transfiguration. The final Hot Sake celebrates the comeback of Japanese markers with the help of aqueous marimba droplets, blazing horns of the Far Eastern kind and another change in tempo with golden-shimmering rhythm guitars. Tjader's impact on his signature instrument is particularly noteworthy, but the constant presence of the powerful trumpets and trombones is of equal importance and lets the album end on a big band note with a strong Exotica flavor as an added bonus.


Cal Tjader's and Lalo Schifrin's Several Shades Of Jade is a color-laden album that changes its appearance time and again, with the vibraphone being the only stylistic constant of each composition. From Asian big band settings akin to Werner Müller's Holiday In Japan – which he recorded in 1958 under his international alias Ricardo Santos – over an Oriental shadiness with its lurking dangers being transcoded into music, to rather common (read: Occidental) Jazz segues of the intimate and enlarged kind, the album orbits within exciting styles. And yet it does not feel complete: even though Several Shades Of Jade fulfills every aspect that would let it access the olympus of the Exotica genre, it is, to my ears, inferior to the like-minded successor Breeze From The East, which could be interpreted as a rather bold statement. Still, I prefer the latter work which Tjader recorded with a septet. Its Asian focus is even bolder, the melodies much stronger and the balance between eclecticism and accessibility is more skillfully handled.


Tjader's work with Schifrin is oftentimes a bit too bland and foreseeable, or to say it with a strange but catchy slogan: its clichés are at times too clichéd. The opener The Fakir, for example, sounds lackluster with its repetitive sequences and whimsical segues, though there are excellent gems on this release that make it worthwhile at the end of the day. Song Of The Yellow River is almost tribal in its aggressive tempo and many nonchalant brass stabs, Tokyo Blues carefully advects a dreaminess into an otherwise bustling setting, and Borneo turns its fusion-related characteristic trait down the listener's throat. Whichever album of the two one prefers is just a personal matter. Luckily, both vinyl editions have been remastered and coupled on one CD. They are also available as a digital download in various online music stores. If you adore the sudden brass outbursts, the wider cinematic scope and still want the occasional but regular feeling of a quartet record, Several Shades Of Jade is a proper Exotica work with that special twist for vibraphone lovers.


Exotica Review 196: Cal Tjader & Lalo Schifrin – Several Shades Of Jade (1963). Originally published on Mar. 23, 2013 at