Cal Tjader
Warm Wave






In the middle of the 60’s, vibraphonist Cal Tjader (1925–1982) decides to take part in – and be in the center of – a few projects that are dearly loved by Easy Listening aficionados, but all the more deprecated by dedicated Jazz fellows who are not sure what to think of their idol’s vivid imagination… once it is embroidered in orchestral settings! Before Disco and Funk, it is the whole wide world of Jazz that somehow started to feel more than a bit attached to the galaxy of orchestras, merging the intimate sound of a quartet or even leaving all of it behind occasionally.


Martin Denny made use of a small string ensemble and a choir in Hypnotique (1959), an augmentation of his tropical Exotica style that was previously unheard of. The couple of pianists Ferrante & Teicher likewise lured with a fully equipped orchestra in their languorous masterpiece Pianos in Paradise (1962). This album is hailed by Exotica fans, but is – probably rightfully – belittled by those listeners who hoped for tweaked, altered and twisted piano transmutations which were so key to the duo’s off-wall Soundproof (1955).


Cal Tjader seemingly “betrays” his fans as well. Cautious harbingers were introduced in Several Shades of Jade (1963) and further nurtured in Breeze From The East (1964) which features violinists, timpani and other noble equipment. Warm Wave is the culmination point of the string craze. Recorded in four days in May and June 1964 and co-released in 1964 by Verve and Capitol Records, it features eleven compositions driven by conductor Claus Ogerman and his orchestra & choir. Cal Tjader and his vibraphone are in the spotlight, but his convoluted prestidigitation is of course limited by the auroral string washes. So Jazz fans tend to elbow the album of this 30-piece ensemble away, and even worse, only one of Tjader’s frequent collaborators is on board: percussionist Willie Rodriguez. However, what this album lacks in the spirit of Jazz, it gains in softly simmering string sizzles, mellifluous meltdowns and overall great material. With this duality in mind, here is a closer dive into the Warm Wave.


Even Cal Tjader’s most symphonic arrangements do not sound like this: string-fueled, magenta-colored, wadded in cajoling smoothness. Anyway, here it goes, Where Or When, originally envisioned by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. And to be honest, Tjader’s orchestra-powered take is not that far off from the original incarnation. With his signature instrument in the limelight, spawning many a cyan-hued droplet before transitioning to a jazzier, freely flowing bridge, this is Easy Listening par excellence, with only a distant spark of eclecticism. The vibraphonist continues to follow the silk road with a rendition of Matt Dennis’ and Tom Adair’s Violets For Your Furs, but here the vibe vortex is able to whirl more freely. The susurrant string washes are floating in the background, sometimes in a whisper-quiet mode, thus decorticating the metallic decay and sustain of the primary mallet instrument. Quiescent piano sprinkles round off the nocturnal viscidity.


Up next is Jule Styne’s People, a remarkable song in the given timeframe, for it turned up only a few months prior to Tjader’s benthic sound waves. Written for Barbra Streisand and taken from the musical Funny Girl, the arrangement is a tad feistier, with triangles, iridescent shakers and other devices providing a basic groove that works well in tandem with the rectilinear-warped string elation. Two particular instruments alter the revision further: a jumpy piano on the one hand whose icicle physiognomy provides glacial vesicles amid the thermal heat, and a clever series of chords by guitarist Jim Raney on the other hand whose golden chords somewhat resemble the textural quality of an organ!


Poor Butterfly by John Golden and Raymond Hubbell meanhwile spices the album with a dub-dub-dooing Space-Age choir encapsulated in a Spy Jazz lobby manners. The strings are much reduced, leaving dark, shady interstices which are illuminated by Tjader’s vibraphone helixes and George Duvivier’s double bass undercurrent. Torn between mystique and mellowness, this is a slight letdown, the good use of the choir notwithstanding. While This Time The Dream’s On Me by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer sees Tjader succumb to Claus Ogerman’s chintzy string rhizomes in a short plinking mirage of saccharin, the last song of side A, Cole Porter’s Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, rounds off the wave-like nature with a lavabo over Space-Age strings and Tjader’s vibe, therefore focusing on the intercommunication that carries the whole album.


Side B does not break the spell in the slightest and delivers another five takes on the string-vibe titration; Jerome Kern’s and Johnny Mercer’s I’m Old Fashioned is some sort of highlight though, not because of an augmented texture base, but due to the soft interplay between the glacial piano tones and fir-green vibe vestibules. The soft triangle and shaker rivulet ameliorate the insouciant lounge atmosphere further. Jerome Kern is considered a second time: The Way You Look Tonight which he co-wrote with Dorothy Fields succeeds with its fibrillar gustatory aura of rotatory improvisations on the vibraphone and particularly spacy string schemes hailing from behind, with John Klenner’s and Sam M. Lewis’ Just Friends celebrating the return of the mixed Space-Age choir doo-dooing its way to the heart in a flute-accentuated moony superfluid.


Claus Ogerman’s Sunset Boulevard follows, a shady, choir-underlined permutation of portentous tone sequences and a mélange of rather carefree vibe constituents, all the while Cal Tjader’s own Passé finishes side B with a final moiré of double bass, guitars, strings en masse and the vibe in the epicenter. Saltatory and wildly glowing, it provides the effervescent counterpart to the wondrously drowsy string pillars – or rather pillows – that are always nearby. The last glissando of the mallet instrument lets the listener drown in somnolent visions.


A most dichotomous situation for the diehard fan of Cal Tjader, but a more than delightful artifact to cherish if you are a fan of symphonic Space-Age sparklers: Warm Wave is an affront to the specific needs of the Jazz lover, no matter how heterogeneous the genre with its vast connectors and focal points really is. The unison of Tjader's vibe with a fully equipped string orchestra is not an affront per se, nor is it particularly noteworthy at the end of the day, given that Tjader occasionally gained hold of similar setups, whether these little orchestras comprised of string players as is the case here, or small brass ensembles. Tjader’s music is not necessarily attached to a quintet or sextet sound at all costs, but here, however, he might have been convinced to be in the center of a work that fatally undermines his delicate outbursts in creativity. This is to no avail for the fan of symphonic Easy Listening, as Warm Wave is a great record and successfully unites the string bokeh with the vibraphonist’s pointillistic verve.


While it is not as magnificently moonlit as Les Baxter’s oft-cited Caribbean Moonlight (1956), it is a soothing, accessible oneiric vision that is worth for the fan of such music to check out. When the strings are quieter than ususal and only reside in the background, a certain emptiness unfolds whose magic is based on the textural quality and three-dimensional effect of the signature instrument. These moments are contemplative and withdrawn into themselves, allowing an enigmatic core to appear. Cal Tjader’s Warm Wave has not been reissued digitally at the time of writing, but sooner or later it certainly will. Until then, the original vinyl is still widely available on eBay, GEMM and related market places. 


Exotica Review 371: Cal Tjader – Warm Wave (1964). Originally published on Sep. 6, 2014 at