Ben Sidran: Free in America / Doctor Is In / Little Kiss in the Night / Live at Montreux

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As singer, songwriter, pianist, academic historian, cultural commentator and broadcaster, (Dr) Ben Sidran might justifiably be asked if the real Sidran would stand up, please. He’s reportedly described himself as “a child of R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll, and a Bebopper”. Make of that what you will. In the extensive notes to these four reissued albums from the 1970s, he’s called “a renaissance man”. (Surely that should be “Renaissance” with a capital R.) One of his tomes is called Black Talk: How the Music of Black America created a Radical Alternative to the Values of Western Literary Tradition.

Sidran has explored the Jewish influence on American music as well and opined, rather obviously, that without Jews and blacks there would be no American popular culture. Dealing with his legacy is as complicated as examining the music of a no-frills jazz musician is straightforward. His “frills” perhaps unfairly obscure the depth of his contribution to jazz, if not its width.

Listening to the 1976 album Free in America, the earliest of the quartet, with its funky-pop ethos and slender jazz borrowings, one might be inclined to say, expressing personal taste, that his contribution has been interesting by default. Those myriad pursuits, a kind of intellectual criss-crossover, seem to cloud the music. Searching for something more muscular and purer, one jumps two years to the final LP, Live at Montreux, not because a jazz festival guarantees that there’ll be jazz all the way, but because the band he took there included the Brecker brothers (Michael and Randy), vibraphonist and arranger Mike Mainieri and bassist Tony Levin. He’s gathered other luminaries about him too, including Tony Williams, Blue Mitchell and Phil Woods.

That festival album was not half bad, if one remembers that he was unwell and on the verge of pneumonia, and one can close one’s ears to the insipid rock drumming; it was emblematic in that flared and kipper-tied decade. Maybe it was a polemicist’s decade too, strongly political and sardonic, which places Sidran the loquacious singer and lyricist in clearer context. But, even allowing for an overstrung piano, his duet with Randy Brecker on “I Remember Clifford” is an instrumental delight. More of that would have been welcome.

Discography
CD1: [Free in America]: Feel Your Groove; After Midnight; Sunday Kind of Love; Let’s Make a Deal; Beg for It (The Real Thing); New York State of Mind; You Talk Too Much; The Cuban Connection; Free in America (34.43)
CD2: [The Doctor Is In]: Get It Yourself; Song for a Sucker Like You; Broad Daylight; One Way Grave; See You on the Other Side; Set Yourself Free; Silver’s Serenade; Nobody’s Fool; Charlie’s Blues; Goodbye Pork Pie Hat; Be Nice (38.11)
CD3: [A Little Kiss in the Night]: Kiss in the Night; You Got the Power; Moose the Mooche; The Cadillac Kid; That’s Life I Guess; Doing You; Tell Old Bill; Mr Bill Goes to Brazil; Face Your Fears (33.13)
CD4: [Live at Montreux]: Eat It; Song for a Sucker Like You; I Remember Clifford; Some Day My Prince Will Come; Midnight Tango/Walking With the Blues; Come Together (37.49)

CD1: Sidran (p, org, v, clav); James Cooke (g, b); Phil Upchurch (b, g, pc); Gary Zappa (b); Bill Meeker (d); Henry Gibson (pc); Richard Tee (org); David Newman (as); Woody Shaw, Randy Brecker (t); Sonny Seals, Michael Brecker (ts); Kitty Haywood, Vivian Harwood, Mary Ann Stewart, Gavin Christopher, Jerry Alexander (v); plus strings. Chicago, 1976.
CD2: Sidran (p); Upchurch, Richard Davis, Chuck Domanico (b); John Guerin, Tony Williams (d); Blue Mitchell (t); Larry Carlton (g); Ray Armondo (pc); Gary Mallaber (tamb); plus strings. Los Angeles, 1977.
CD3: Sidran (p, v); Bob Glaub, Gerald Johnson, Abe Laboriel (b); Bill Meeker (d); Gary Coleman (pc, tamb); Jay Graydon, Arthur Adams, James Cooke, Jesse Ed Davis (g); Phil Woods (as); Mike Finnegan (org); Max Gronanthal, Rose Butler and Finnegan (v); Mitchell (t); David Woodford (ts); Sea Food Mama Singers (v); plus strings. Los Angeles, 1978.
CD4: Sidran (p, v); Tony Levin (b); Steve Jordan (d); Steve Khan (g); Mike Mainieri (vib, arr); Michael Brecker (ts); Randy Brecker (t). Switzerland, 1978.
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