The use of strings in jazz is often polarizing. Barring the more astringent sounds of Gil Evans's work with Miles Davis or maybe Eddie Sauter’s charts for Stan Getz’s ‘Focus, the critical commentariat tend in the main, to be brusquely disdainful. Saccharine, schmaltzy and bathetic is the verdict. However the paying public often think differently. The vogue for ‘with strings’ albums really took hold first in the 1960s when Creed Taylor signed Wes Montgomery to A&M and added strings arrangements to his next three albums. Montgomery and Taylor eschewed the standards of Mercer and Porter in favour of versions of contemporary hits of the day. The results were top forty hits aplenty with Wes getting a major life style upgrade and a new car in his driveway. The critics found themselves hanging on to something tight and saying ‘sell out’.
Mother Nature’s Son has been only available in a pricey Japanese edition until now and its very enjoyable sidelight on a similar formula. Hoping to catch some of Creed Taylor’s tail wind Marshall Chess put Ramsey Lewis together with maestro Charles Stepney in the Cadet studio to produce an album of Beatles tunes. All the material is off what has become known as The White Album which had only been released the month before (Nov 1968).
Stepney, one of the great forgotten figures of jazz and soul, brings his deft ear for an empathetic arrangement to the enterprise and also debuts on the moog synthesizer. A very new piece of kit in 1968. The title track is the opener and it succinctly accentuates all the positives of this collaboration. Starting with some analog bubbling from the moog, the orchestral soundscape swiftly drops, Ramsey Lewis weaves and rings the melody around the strings. Lewis picks up the pace with the strings ebbing away and hits a straight Chicago groove till the strings return at the curtains fall. Rocky Raccoon is reimagined as a Friday night foot tapper with an strolling organ riff lit by soulful swing. Lennon’s Julia is another marker. Given a John Barry style make over the compact tune is repainted as a big screen refrain with subtle funky undertones. Lewis’ s ability to capture the listeners attention with his drive and deep melodic sense impress on every track.
This is 1968 and as you would expect this is an enterprise very much of its era. There are hints of the Austin Power’s photo shoot in the versions of Back in the USSR and Everybody’s Got Something To Hide… Dated sounding to some but others will be happy to admire the view. Good Night does drift into singing fountains terrain but you can’t expect pearls every time. Sexy Sadie is a string free uptown romp that hints at Lewis’s 1970s excursions and Blackbird sticks to the formula of tune plus thoughtful background.
Mother Nature’s Son is a not a trip into the unknown and few will find themselves stroking their goatee. However it is a skillful modish entertainment and I liked it.