When I was about 19 or so and thought I was grown, I began to get a hankering for exploring jazz. I knew I wasn’t up to any Miles Davis type of energy right out of the gate, so I started my journey slowly. I picked up jazz compilations here and there, eventually stumbling upon one called “Slow Jams: On the Jazz Tip, Volume Two.” This and similar collections introduced me to the soulful jazz of brothers like saxophonist Gary Bartz and keyboardist Dexter Wansel, and the jazz-inflected vocals of Phyllis Hyman, Patti Austin and Jean Carn. But there was one track on the album that struck a chord with me and piqued my interest. It was climactic and sensual … almost indescribable. Waxed by jazz fusion ensemble Caldera in 1976, the classic “Out of the Blue” is the song I’ve always credited with causing my interest in jazz and its variations to flourish.
From there, I began to search high and low for their LPs. I was never able to secure a copy of their self-titled debut (which featured “Out of the Blue”) but I did unearth “Sky Islands” and “Time and Chance,” their second and third albums for Capitol Records. While both are exotic, atmospheric cornucopias of sound, the former is the one that resonated with me and remains one of the most beloved records in my collection. There’s just something special and timeless about it.
Over the course of four albums, Caldera – Steve Tavaglione (flute, alto flute, soprano, alto and tenor saxophone), Jorge Strunz (electric and acoustic guitars), Mike “Baiano” Azevedo (congas and percussion), Carlos Vega (drums), Dean Cortez (electric bass), Hector Andrade (timbales, congas and percussion) and Eduardo del Barrio (acoustic and electric pianos, Moog, Roland and Oberheim Polyphonic synthesizers) – crafted a heady gumbo of jazz, soul and Latin rhythms that easily rivaled the work of contemporaries like Weather Report and Dave Valentin. Their sound typified the adventurous, open musical time that was the late ’70s.
It’s not surprising that they landed at Capitol, as the late ’70s and early ’80s were a fruitful period for the label from a creative standpoint: In addition to being the home of hit acts like Natalie Cole, Maze and Peabo Bryson, the label issued some stellar albums by Sheree Brown, Perry & Sanlin, Chuck Jackson and Rene & Angela – affectionately tagged “Capitol rare” releases by serious collectors – that never really sparked with the public. Regrettably Caldera fell into the latter category, never gaining the following of other jazz acts of the time. Still, they retain a cult following to this day, and 1977’s “Sky Islands” is a favorite among devotees.
Co-produced by del Barrio, Strunz and Earth, Wind & Fire keyboardist Larry Dunn, the album draws from a wide array of influences, emerging as a masterpiece in the process. An exciting rush of Latin percussion, electric guitar and squiggly, echoing synths, the album’s best moments are enough to propel your brain and your backside into action. There’s not a loser here, as cuts like the soaring “Pegasus” and the Afro-Cuban inspired “Carnavalito” bounce between fusion delight and pop accessibility with dizzying precision. And the beautiful, Dunn-penned “Seraphim (Angel)” is a soul-jazz gem, replete with ascending strings, a fluttering flute and a bass-line that’s as smooth as Saturday nights that melt into Sunday Mornings.
The real stunner here, however, is the powerful “Ancient Source,” the only selection included on the album that contains lyrics. Featuring a young, unknown Dianne Reeves on lead vocals, it is a picturesque, spiritual incantation that in my mind elevates the album to classic status. Reeves’ reading is thoughtful and introspective, a vocal that’s downright chilling in its accuracy. The imagery she conveys is as colorful as the complex instrumentation: “Look beyond the clouds/Meet the sun riding high/Let your eyes search out/In a wondering flight/Look beyond the clouds/For the meaning of light” are just some of the words that flowed from the minds of del Barrio and Ernesto J. Herrera. Complete with a Dunn synthesizer solo, the song is one of the most sought after in the Caldera canon.
Reeves also lent her vocals to the frenetic title track, this time in the form of wordless ad libs and octave-leaping acrobatics. Functioning almost like one of the instruments, Reeves’ vocals brought great color and dramatic flavor to the mix. She would go on to become best known for the R&B classic “Better Days,” also known as “The Grandma Song.”
Despite having such strong material and talent going for it, the album failed to make an impact. The band split up just two short years later, though each member found his own niche in session work. Their self-titled album was released on CD in 2004 but has since become extremely difficult to track down, despite being a part of a huge number of Capitol reissues released during that time. Unfortunately, “Sky Islands” remains out of print.
Regardless, it’s an album that’s worth rediscovering. Hopefully, as time moves forward and appreciation for the fusion movement continues to grow, the album will rightfully claim its island in the sky.
In the meantime, check out “Ancient Source”…
And “Seraphim (Angel)” …