Friday, 3 April 2020

Terry Callier

Terry Callier is one of those artists who never quite made it, but is revered by some as being most credible, a sort of "in the know" name to drop with fellow cognoscenti. "oh you like Terry Callier? Good call...."....

Occasional Rain (1972)
....anyway, this album, from 1972, came several years after his only other offering, which had been a Dylan-inspired folk album in the sixties. Produced by Charles Stepney, this was a sort of soul "concept album" in that it ran in one complete whole, separated by several short segues, all oddly titled the same - Go Ahead On. They are also out of sync numerically, for some reason. To be honest, there's little point in the segues, they end frustrating too soon. Either make them into a proper song or leave them out. They are bluesy, whereas the album isn't, so they sit incongruously for me. I sort of get it, though, and more listens finds me getting used to them.

Ordinary Joe is the one song of his that I really knew, it having achieved unlikely cult status on the seventies Northern Soul circuit. It is perfect, light, summery piece of subtly jazzy, smooth and jaunty soul. It is one of those timeless feel-good, lift your spirit songs. It contains some "scat" style singing from Callier and some fine jazzy piano. Golden Circle is a lovely slice of laid-back sweet, warm, honeyed soul. Callier sounds very much like Gil Scott-Heron did on his slow numbers on this. Trance On Sedgewick Street is beautifully laid-back, smoky and jazzy but enhanced by some rich, sweeping, deep strings. From a cello, I believe. This is hard-edged, typically seventies street soul but with a classy, immaculately-delivered sound. Again, Gil Scott-Heron comes to mind and Bill Withers too. 

Very much in the same vein is Do You Finally Need A Friend. The bass-drum-piano part that begins around 3.40 is stunning, as are the weird-sounding, high-pitched backing vocals. It is very innovative and adventurous. Sweet Edie-D is a sumptuous, gently rhythmic piano, bass a drum-driven jazzy and soulful number. It is one of my favourites on the album, just listen to that bass line and those gospelly backing vocals. It is most unusual and captivating stuff. I'm sure Elton John would have loved this at the time, and Leon Russell too. Those rolling, shuffling drums are wonderful as is the sound quality, which is outstanding throughout the record. Occasional Rain is very sleepy and relaxing, Callier's vocal backed by just a gently-strummed acoustic guitar, quiet organ and some mysterious, slightly spacey keyboard noises. Blues For Marcus is the album's only real nod to Callier's blues roots, apart from the segues. However, it is a blues backed by a melodic acoustic guitar, strings and a tender, quiet voice. It is soul with a slight blues foundation, really. 

The final cut is a nice one, and is titled Lean On Me, but is not the Bill Withers song from the same year. Callier sings strongly but in a reassuringly gentle manner. It is quite beautiful. Check out those backing vocals, the piano and Callier's vocal rising as they see us home. Heavenly.

The album is one that slowly finds it way in to your consciousness in its understated way. It was a most beguiling and entrancing record, in many ways ahead of its time. It has never been given the widespread praise is deserved. From the same year, for example, Stevie Wonder's Talking Book was hailed as a master-work - why not this too? It certainly carried more than enough quality.

What Color Is Love (1973)

Terry Callier's second album of the seventies, from 1973, defies description. It is an intriguing mélange of jazz, folk, funk, rock and orchestrated classical influences. It is a really impressive piece of work.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the precocious nine minutes plus of Dancing Girl which sees Callier's Gil Scott-Heron style voice accompanied by gentle jazz passages and big seeping strings that back some "things are wrong in the ghetto" lyrics. Five and a half minutes in we get a delicious piece of bassy jazzy rock as Callier goes all "scat" on his vocal delivery and some Blaxploitation-style horns kick in, together with some keyboards from the same genre before the tender acoustic tones of the song's opening return. What an opening opus.

What Color Is Love is a laid-back Scott-Heron meets Bill Withers acoustic and bass beauty of a track. A sumptuous warm, rubbery bass introduces the Withers-ish soul-funk of You Goin' Miss Your Candyman and although it meanders on somewhat it is always inventive and innovative in its instrumentation. 
Just As Long As We're In Love is a Curtis Mayfield-influenced ballad ever so slightly blighted by some too loud brass-orchestral interjections. Ho Tsing Mee (A Song Of The Sun) is a winsome, jazzy piece of subtle slow funk. I'd Rather Be With You is very Scott-Heron in its laid-back sound. You Don't Care is another delectable soft and gentle number that is instrumental save some ethereal backing vocals.

A bit like his previous album, Occasional Rain, this is an album that was considerably ahead of is time and one that slipped under many people's radars. It oozes class from every pore, however. Top marks for the cover, too.

I Just Can't Help Myself (1974)
From 1974, this is the third in the triptych of excellent early seventies underrated Terry Callier albums, and is by far (in places) the most intuitively soulful. Callier channels his inner Marvin Gaye-Billy Paul-Harold Melvin soul man to give us an album of classy, smooth but brassy soul. At least the first half of the album is - the second half contains more of the extended, improvised jazzy soul of the two earlier albums.

The irritatingly bracket-blighted titled (I Just Can't Help Myself) I Don't Want Nobody Else (why did they keep doing that!) is so very Marvin Gaye. A sort of cross between the rhythms of What's Going On and the late-night seductive smooth soul of Let's Get It On. It is delivered with one of Callier's most soulful vocals thus far. Brown-Eyed Lady is a Billy Paul-inspired title and sounds like him too.

Gotta Get Closer To You has Callier's old Gil Scott-Heron vocal style returning on a pleasant, jazzy soul number, featuring some fine drums and subtle saxophone. 
Satin Doll is a delicious piece of late-night smoky, jazzy groove. Until Tomorrow finds the livelier but classy jazz rhythms of the previous two albums returning on a positively sumptuous number. This sort of thing was way ahead of its time in 1974. Why it never took off or gained much critical kudos is beyond me. It is easily up there with Stevie Wonder's Fulfillingness's First Finale from the same year. 

Alley-Wind Song is a nine minute-plus laid-back jazz and percussion workout with more Gil Scott-Heron echoes. Unfortunately, the "scat" improvised vocals around five and a half minutes in are more than just a bit grating. The rest of it, particularly the first five minutes, are great, though. Can't Catch The Trane, a homage to jazz legend John Coltrane, is also quirky, staccato and "scatty"  in its vocals - but the crystal clear cymbal-driven percussion is totally captivating. Ad hoc saxophone parps and swirls all over the place on this. I'm not a fan of scat vocals, however - give me real ones anytime. Bowlin' Green is a slow, sombre acoustic blues spiritual with civil rights-inspired lyrics. The album's last few tracks are probably slightly over-egged, and something of an acquired taste (I'm still struggling to acquire any sort of taste for scat), but this is still a redoubtable piece of work. It is also a fine album to play on a summer Sunday morning.

Fire On Ice (1978)
I have read reviews of this album, Terry Callier's first for four years, that condemn it for its dabbling in contemporary disco at the expense of his previous often extended, scat-driven jazzy workouts. Personally, I really like the album and feel that Callier merges his sensitive lyricism with some more rhythmic sounds (in places) to come up with an attractive piece of work that ought to have stood out from its peers, but unfortunately didn't. There is some excellent soul on here and some subtle disco-influenced stuff to, as well as Callier's trademark jazziness.

Be A Believer is a pleasant piece of melodic country soul with a Philadelphia-style strings and drum backing. I really like it. Quality smooth and classy soul with a jazzy edge. There is an impressive saxophone and vocal interplay after about three and a half minutes. Holdin' On (To Your Love) is a sumptuous serving of sweet, soulful late-night easy, loved-up funk. Strings gently sweep in too, giving the song a classiness. Callier's vocal is strong too, full of instinctive soul. Street Fever has Callier at the most upbeat and funky as he has ever been on an energetic drum and guitar-drive number. Butterfly has Callier revisiting his natural jazz instincts on a beautifully-produced laid-back song. He brings his romantic lyrics to the ghetto, describing his girl as a "ghetto butterfly".

I Been Doin' Alright Pt. II (Everything's Gonna Be Alright) is a catchy, vaguely disco track with a really good sound to it - quality soul with vague, classy disco influence. The song features some fine saxophone and percussion. 
Disco In The Sky is an appealing, clever song that begins slowly before bursting out into a muscular disco-influenced groover. It is inventive disco, though, full of quirks and intuition, it would never have filled any dancefloor. African Violet is a thoroughly delicious laid-back but rhythmic cool, jazzy number that represents the best of Terry Callier. He did this sort of thing better than anyone else. Check out that percussion, and the saxophone too. The lyrics are "conscious" too - referencing Zimbabwe several times - as many of Callier's were. Love Two Love is a short return to late night smooth soul, with some strange high-pitched backing vocals. I can understand why fans of stuff like African Violet might have a problem with more throwaway material like this. Personally, I don't mind it, but I know where they are coming from. It probably would have been better sequenced earlier on the album.

Martin St. Martin is an innovative, imaginative tribute to Martin Luther King with Callier's folky vocal backed by some monastic-type backing vocals and powerful horns. This album was certainly not a bad one at all. Yes it attempted to be somewhat contemporary but it retained Callier's uniqueness throughout. Do not under-estimate it.

Turn You To Love (1979)

In 1979, one year after a (for me, at least) pretty good album, Terry Callier was back with another album that attempted to integrate contemporary sounds into his unique jazz and folk-influenced ambience. There were slight hints, though, in the presence of two cover versions and two re-recordings of songs from 1972’s Occasional Rain album, that Callier was running short of material. Indeed, he would not produce another album until 1996.

Sign Of The Times is a pleasing enough, gently funky and easy listening soul number. It leaves behind the jazzy vibes of previous album briefly as Callier gets into disco-funk lite. Pyramids Of Love is like a slow Earth, Wind & Fire soul ballad, full of sweet, smooth romanticism, if not just a little bit formulaic, however. Callier had proved in the past that he was a bit better than that. Turn You To Love continues the loved-up feel on an even more gentle, tender, minimalist love song. It is a song of understated, relaxing beauty.

The cover of Steely Dan’s Do It Again is enhanced by some convincing disco-ish brassy breaks and Callier’s vocal blends well with the song’s natural rhythm. 
Ordinary Joe is given a more jaunty, breezy and poppy makeover with lots of easy listening brass and sunny day vocals. The song’s Northern Soul beat has been lost, replaced by a more commercial one. I prefer the original. Occasional Rain is stripped down pretty much to just voice and acoustic guitar and is as attractively relaxing as the original. The cover of The Four TopsStill Water (Love) is a really enjoyable cover, with some fine Young Americans-style saxophone and backing vocals and an overall warm, soulful feeling. You And Me (Will Always Be In Love) is a lovely Billy Paul-esque smoocher of a ballad. It features some excellent jazzy guitar. 

A Mother’s Love is a subtly upbeat tribute to his mother enhanced by some infectious cymbal work and bass guitar. This was an enjoyable album, I slightly prefer its underrated predecessor, but this one was certainly much undervalued too. Callier’s seventies produced five fine offerings. Finally, the sound quality on here is superb.

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