Stanley Turrentine – Sugar

Speaking of CTI Records…

Stanley Turrentine Sugar Album Cover

There are two sides to Stanley Turrentine. One we touched on before with our review of Blue Hour was his stint at Blue Note during the early 60s where he contributed his warm, breathy sax tone to countless jazz classics. The other side of Turrentine was his work at CTI records in the early 70s where his trademark sax sound was now found in a funkier, glossier environment.

Sugar, released in 1971, was Turrentine’s first foray into what would become a new era of jazz punctuated by all star backing musicians, glossy packaging with sultry cover art, and the general warm rich sound that became a hallmark of CTI. As time went on this sound would dwindle into smooth jazz, but in the early 70s it was new and exciting and wholly satisfying.

Things kick off with the groove laden title track that became somewhat of a jazz standard over the years. The drums sound full and thick, rolling in like thunder and maintain a churning, slow boiling momentum throughout the song. The horn lines are fantastically moody and harken back to something you would have heard on one of Turrentine’s Blue Note albums although here, in the funky glaze that was CTI, they take on a whole new life. Turrentine wastes no time jumping right into his solo which is ripe with strong melodious lines that groove with an almost gutbucket panache.

Freddie Hubbard follows on trumpet, his joyful lines and bright sound forming an excellent contrast to Turrentine’s heavier sax. The band maintains a steady groove throughout and delightfully manages to keep everything at a foot tapping simmer that is just so darn satisfying you can’t help but revel in it. Guitarist George Benson floats in for a short but satisfying solo while the horns dance around the main theme behind him. As the groove fades out at the end you pray it’s not really over because this is the sort of groove that could go all night and leave everyone satisfied.

“Sunshine Alley” features the horns doing their thing with wonderful aplomb and sound especially nice when the band drops out for a moment. Organist Burch Cornell gets a chance to shine with a funky late night solo that burns in all the right places without ever overplaying. Meanwhile the drums and percussion contribute a steady rolling, somewhat Latin flavor that only adds to the excitement. Billy Kaye is a fantastic drummer that doesn’t get anywhere near enough mention. His steady rolling rhythms serve the music well and he continually comes up with tasty, classy fills.

Stanley Turrentine Sugar Disc Art

Benson rolls in with another slippery solo on guitar while Hubbard soars in with a majestic trumpet solo that almost sounds like Lee Morgan for a moment or two. Very nice. Turrentine comes back in and reminds everyone whose album this really is – his solo smokes without ever being too flashy. So many players sometimes take “the more notes the better” approach but Turrentine has a unique ability to lay back and let his sax tell the story in short bursts of creativity.

“Impressions,” the Coltrane classic, is the third and final track on the original album. Coming in at a satisfying 14 minutes, it is the cornerstone of the album and gives everyone a chance to strut their stuff as the band tackles the tune at a lively medium tempo that is simply breathtaking. What really drives this track for me is the rhythm section – the bass, drums, and congas all working together as some sort of three headed jazz dragon. Bassist Ron Carter is in especially fine form here, delivering classic jazz walking bass lines with the slightest touch of funk, all while weaving in and around the percussion with remarkable skill.

Everything comes together all at once and for the entirety of the 14 minutes it is eternal jazz bliss. There is something in the air, something in that warm sound, that is just indescribable. Turrentine’s muscular, economical lines, Cornell’s groovy organ, Hubbard’s soaringly majestic trumpet, Benson’s glassy smooth solo, it all works together to complete a whole piece where no one musician stands out greater than the other. The only thing that matters is the groove of the song, the feeling of late night electricity in the air. For 14 minutes there is nothing and no one else, only these very fine jazz players in a recording studio in New Jersey somewhere, grooving the night away. It is everything good jazz should be and succeeds where so many others fail.

Sugar is one fine album that never seems to overstay its welcome. It’s funky, jazzy, warm, and cool. If you’re looking to branch out from the Blue Note era of Turrentine’s work, or get into hip early 70s jazz, this would be a fine place to start. The performances are solid and the music is stellar – everyone involved is in it purely for the music and nothing else. And really, isn’t that how great jazz should be?

Note: The 2002 CD release adds a 14 minute version of “Sugar” played live on July 19, 1971, just a day after the now available California Concert: The Hollywood Palladium. The 2010 40th Anniversary version of Sugar includes the same live track and also adds “Gibraltar” as an additional track.

Tracklist

  1. “Sugar” – 10:09
  2. “Sunshine Alley” – 10:47
  3. “Impressions” – 14:13
  4. “Sugar (live)” – 14:29

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