MARK COLBY: ‘Serpentine Fire’ and ‘One Good Turn’ (Expansion)

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Producer/pianist Bob James came across Mark Colby when the Brooklyn-born tenor and soprano saxophonist was playing in trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s band in the late ’70s. James was producing Ferguson for Columbia and liked Colby’s playing so much that he signed him to his newly formed Tappan Zee label in 1978. Colby – who later joined James’s touring band, where he stayed for six years – made two albums for Tappan Zee, both of which are reissued by Expansion in a new twofer.

Colby’s Tappan Zee debut took its title from Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Serpentine Fire,’ which he and producer Jay Chattaway (Bob James’s right-hand man at Tappan Zee) reconfigured as a brassy jazz-funk instrumental with plenty of fiery sax blowing. James contributes keyboards to the session, which includes the crème de la crème of the New York session scene – guitarists Eric Gale and Steve Khan, bassist Gary King and uber drummer, Steve Gadd. Their consummate artistry and high level of musicianship  helps to elevate the album above other fusion-lite albums for the same era. It’s a great listen, with Colby’s solos framed by lush instrumentation. The Jay Chattaway-penned ballad, ‘Daydreamer,’ with its languorous lyricism, is a real standout, resembling something that Grover Washington Jr might have recorded during the same timeframe. Listen out for a beautifully understated guitar solo from that master of melodic minimalism, Eric Gale. A tropical, reggae-like vibe characterises a cover of singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop’s ‘On And On’ while the driving, more complex ‘King Tut’ is darkly dramatic, with Bob James’s arrangement recalling his own work for CTI. Also noteworthy is the atmospheric ‘Renegade,’ distinguished by Hiram Bullock’s unison scat vocal/guitar solo a la George Benson over a pulsating Latin groove.

‘Serpentine Fire’ is a classy instrumental album and its follow-up, 1979’s ‘One Good Turn,’ is almost as good (it boasts virtually the same personnel and was also helmed by Jay Chattaway with input from Bob James). It’s chief highlight is a delicate Steve Khan number, ‘Macbeth (For Folon),’ which stands out from the rest of the tunes thanks to Gordon Johnson’s gorgeous Jaco Pastorius-esque fretless bass lines. Other highlights include the funky ‘Skat Talk,’ the flowing ‘Peace Of Mind’ with its cool strut, and the schizophrenic ‘Capativa,’ which begins as a serene ballad and then is transformed into a silky samba before returning to its original dreamy feel.

For connoisseurs of late ’70s smooth fusion, this tasty twofer from the now largely forgotten Mark Colby (who’s alive and well and still recording) is well-worth exploring.

(CW) 4/5