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Best Cal Tjader Songs: Latin Jazz Gems From The Vibraphonist

The Scandinavian American who became a Latin music king.

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Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Originally from the US Midwest and with Swedish ancestry on his father’s side, jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader was the unlikeliest of Latin music stars. He began his career in the 1940s as a drummer, but by the decade’s end, he had taught himself to play the vibraphone, a tuned electronic percussion instrument hit with mallets. Tjader’s switch to the vibes coincided with his interest in Latin music, a development that helped ignite his career in the mid-1950s, just as the popular Afro-Cuban dance music style known as mambo was conquering New York City’s dance halls and ballrooms.

Noted for the cool, iridescent sound of his vibes shimmering across sizzling Latin grooves, Tjader became a key figure on the mambo scene, recording a clutch of popular and highly influential albums for the Fantasy label in the 50s that established him as a leading Latin jazz architect. In the 60s and 70s, Tjader took his listeners down some intriguing musical avenues as he broadened his horizons; there were recordings with string ensembles and big bands as well as themed albums dedicated to Broadway show tunes and the Great American Songbook. He also became well-versed in different musical idioms, exploring styles as diverse as bossa nova, jazz fusion, and Latin rock.

Listen to the best songs by Cal Tjader now.

The Cal Tjader gems highlighted below introduce the vibraphonist’s huge and varied back catalog. Expect a selection of fiery mambos, funky Latin rock nuggets, deliciously dreamy ballads, and cool jazz standards, all rendered with the exquisite good taste and panache that was Tjader’s trademark.

From tap dancing child star to Latin jazz hero

Show business and a strong sense of rhythm were in Cal Tjader’s DNA. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, where he was born Callen Radcliffe Tjader, Jr. in 1925, Tjader was the son of parents who worked as touring vaudeville performers and later ran a dance studio in California; his father was a dancer and actor, and his mother was a pianist. Shortly after his second birthday, when the Tjaders moved to San Mateo, young Cal began dance training under his father’s instruction; two years later, when he took his first solo spot on stage as a tap dancer, he officially joined the family business.

At seven, the precocious Tjader impressed a Hollywood producer who cast him tap dancing alongside the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the 1932 movie The White Of The Dark Cloud Of Joy. Four years later, he had a speaking role in the film Too Many Parents, which starred rising Hollywood star Frances Farmer. Away from the limelight, Cal’s mother, who gave him classical piano lessons, taught him to be a musician. But by high school, Tjader, drawn to the syncopated beat of jazz, started playing the drums and was so good that he triumphed in a national competition in 1941 playing Gene Krupa’s “Drum Boogie.” But then came World War II, which saw Tjader join the US Navy medical corps in 1943. After witnessing front-line action in the Philippines, he returned to civilian life three years later. His desire to be a drummer hadn’t left him and he took lessons in college, where he met a budding pianist/composer called Dave Brubeck.

He joined Brubeck’s octet in 1948 as a drummer, but by 1949, when the group had slimmed down to a trio, he started playing the vibraphone. Tjader’s time with Brubeck led to one of the great epiphanies in his life: Cuban-born percussionist Armando Peraza sat in with the Brubeck band one night and, inspired by Peraza, Tjader immersed himself in Latin music, learning to play different percussion instruments like the bongos and cencerro. In 1951, after Brubeck suffered severe spinal injuries in a diving accident that kept him and his band out of action for six months, Tjader formed his own trio, which signed with Fantasy Records in 1951. Later in the decade, following two years of his injecting a piquant Latin vibe into pianist George Shearing’s band, Tjader began tasting solo success with a series of commercially successful albums for Fantasy. They rode on the wave of mambo mania that swept New York in the mid-50s, quickly helping to cement Tjader’s unique status as a white Latin music star.

The first Fantasy era

A San Francisco-based indie label founded by brothers Sol and Max Weiss in 1949, Fantasy Records played a pivotal role in exposing Cal Tjader’s music to the public. The company bankrolled the vibraphonist’s debut solo recordings in 1951, and between 1954 and 1962, it issued over 20 Tjader albums; a second stint at the label between 1970 and 1977 would yield a further dozen albums.

The album that put Tjader on the map during his first spell at the label was Tjader Plays Mambo, first issued in 1954 as a 10” LP. On the session, whose stand-out track was a strutting Afro-Cuban version of the Jerome Kern-co-written jazz standard “Yesterdays,” Tjader led a quintet that featured two percussionists in addition to the Duran brothers, pianist Manuel and bassist Carlos, both San Francisco musicians of Mexican descent.

Yesterdays (live)

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Another highlight of Tjader’s initial tenure with Fantasy was “Mambo Inn,” taken from the 1955 album Ritmo Caliente; the track had previously been recorded by Latin dance music stars Tito Puente and Machito but Tjader brought a different feel with his cool West Coast vibes juxtaposed against a propulsive Latin groove.

In 1958, Tjader put his mambo career on pause when he teamed up with West Coast jazz icon, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, for a collaborative album called Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet. The impressive project, which included the fast-flowing “Ginza Samba” featured some redoubtable sidemen, including pianist Vince Guaraldi (who composed the tune and would later find fame writing the music for Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoons) and influential bassist Scott LaFaro.

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A track that showed Tjader’s musical sensitivity and skillful use of the vibraphone’s sustain pedal was his exquisite take on “Invitation,” the Bronislaw Kaper and Paul Francis Webster-penned sultry ballad that appeared in the 1950 Lana Turner-starring movie A Life of Her Own. Tjader recorded several versions of the tune throughout his career but arguably the best one appeared on his 1959 album Latin Kick.

The Verve years

After a fruitful decade at Fantasy, Tjader joined Verve Records in 1961 at the invitation of his friend, producer Creed Taylor, who had just left the Impulse! label to become Verve’s head of A&R. Eager to add the vibraphonist to Verve’s roster, Taylor flew from New York to San Francisco, signing Tjader in a coffee shop at the airport before flying back to the Big Apple. Taylor helmed 13 of the 15 albums Tjader recorded for Verve during the vibes player’s fertile eight-year spell with the label, including his most commercially successful album, 1965’s Soul Sauce. The LP yielded that rare thing in 60s jazz, a hit single in the shape of the infectious title track, a percussion-heavy revamp of Dizzy Gillespie’s 1949 Latin big band track, “Guarachi Guaro.” Tjader originally cut the tune under its original title in 1954 on his Tjader Plays Mambo album but his 1965 version, “Soul Sauce (Guachi Guaro),” which featured a telling guest cameo from Latin percussion heavyweight Willie Bobo, made a deeper public impression, peaking at No. 94 in the US Hot 100. Its success helped the parent album reach No. 68 on The Billboard 200.

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Another key album in Tjader’s catalog was 1966’s Soul Burst, which featured a young Chick Corea on piano. The album’s most ear-catching track was its energetic opener, “Cuchy Frito Man,” a playful, speeded-up version of a tune first recorded by New York percussionist Ray Terrace in 1965. Alluring, too, but for different reasons, was a Tjader original called “Curaçao,” where soft, mellow flutes floated gracefully alongside his shimmering vibes over a gently undulating conga-propelled backbeat.

Tjader’s final Verve album, 1968’s The Prophet, a fusion of jazz and lounge-style easy-listening music, was also packed with musical gems. Its killer track was the psychedelic-tinged “Aquarius,” a jazz waltz penned by Brazilian pianist Joao Donato, that had been previously recorded by Sergio Mendes and Brasil 65; Tjader’s version was garnished with lush orchestrations by Don Sebesky, an arranger who would go on to be a mainstay at CTI Records. The track was famously sampled by hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest on their 1993 platinum-selling album, Midnight Marauders, which exposed Tjader’s music to a new generation of listeners.

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The Prophet included two other cool Tjader classics: “Cal’s Bluedo,” a funky Latin-blues hybrid, and the pulsating “Souled Out,” an addictive slice of spacey soul-jazz enhanced by strings and a wordless female chorus.

The funky pop and rock covers

Like many jazz musicians in the 1960s, Tjader began seeking to expand his audience by adding contemporary pop hits to his repertoire. On his 1968 album Solar Heat, the first of three LPs he issued on Skye, a short-lived label he co-founded with fellow musicians Gabor Szabo and Gary McFarland, Tjader put a cool jazzy spin on “Ode To Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry’s 1968 US chart-topper.

In 1970, he included a lively cover of Latin-rock group Santana’s maiden Top 10 US hit “Evil Ways” on the album Tjader, which marked his return to Fantasy Records. His taste for rock was further evidenced by his cover of the Rolling Stones’ iconic “Gimme Shelter” a year later on his album Agua Dulce, transforming it into a breezy Latin track featuring eerie synthesizer notes. On the same record, he presented a driving Latin-flavored take on “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” The Supremes’ Holland-Dozier-Holland smash from 1967, and a tasteful version of The Beatles’ ballad “She’s Leaving Home,” reconfigured as a brassy jazz waltz.

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Captured live on stage

Having performed in front of audiences since he was four years old, Cal Tjader was in his element on stage. Though the sound of his vibraphone was characteristically delicate, cool, and mellow, Tjader always found musicians who could infuse his music with heat, excitement, and energy. On his 1958 album Cal Tjader’s Latin Concert, recorded live at a San Francisco venue called the Blackhawk, Tjader fronted a crack band that included pianist Vince Guaraldi alongside Cuban percussionists Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. Among the highlights were “Mood For Milt,” Tjader’s homage to his vibraphone-playing idol Milt Jackson, and a cover of the Ray Bryant Trio’s “Cubano Chant,” which became a staple of Tjader’s live sets.

In 1959, Tjader released three live albums, the first of which, Cal Tjader’s Concert By The Sea, was distinguished by containing the very first recording of the song “Afro Blue,” which quickly became a much-loved jazz standard. The famous track was written by Mongo Santamaria, who was playing percussion in Tjader’s band at the time of the recording.

Afro Blue (live)

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Of the fourteen live albums that Tjader released in his lifetime, Saturday Night/Sunday Night At The Blackhawk, San Francisco, released by Verve in 1962 is considered one of his best. It contained a gorgeous version of the Gershwin brothers’ ballad “Summertime,” where Tjader’s vibraphone sparkled with a crystalline luminosity; by contrast, the uptempo “This Can’t Be Love” was a scintillating track that showed off Tjader’s virtuosity in a straight-ahead jazz setting.

Despite his huge popularity and records outselling those of most other vibraphonists, Tjader’s stature in the jazz world is less than it ought to be. He’s frequently been viewed by jazz purists as inferior to Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, and Bobby Hutcherson, the three heavyweights often lauded as jazz’s greatest vibraphonists. But there were plenty of highly esteemed musicians queuing up to hail Tjader’s brilliance. George Shearing once described him as “a natural-born musician and a rhythmic genius,” while Tjader’s producer at Verve Records in the 1960s, the late Creed Taylor, said in 2008: “He was a superlative musician and had his own sound. He had a very natural style that appealed to a lot of people.”

The jazz-funk pianist George Duke was such a fan of Tjader’s that he was inspired to form his own Latin jazz dance band as a teenager. Summing up Tjader’s appeal, Duke said in 2011: “He had a way of combining jazz with Latin grooves and making it accessible to normal people who might not even like jazz. His music was simple enough that it could reach normal people but hip enough that musicians would dig it.”

Listen to the best songs by Cal Tjader now.

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