Bill Evans: Living In The Crest Of A Wave/The Alternative Man

When people say ‘I hate jazz’, I sometimes wonder if they’re really saying they know a crap composition when they hear one.

Legions of talented jazz sidepeople have been given solo record contracts only to deliver music that proves they can’t write decent tunes.

A case in point is saxophonist and William Hurt-lookalike Bill Evans. He’s had a very solid career but his solo work is distinctly underwhelming.  (And then there’s the name. If you play jazz, you probably need a stage name if you have exactly the same moniker as a bona fide legend from decades gone by – the pianist Bill Evans died in 1980.)

But give Sax Bill some credit – he was an absolutely vital figure in Miles Davis’s 1980s comeback, a good friend and carer of the trumpeter and player of several gritty solos on record (Star People is a good place to start). But by 1983 Bill found himself inexplicably frozen out, barely getting any solo space from Miles.

He got the message and jumped ship to join John McLaughlin in the new Mahavishnu Orchestra and also embark on a solo career which kicked off with 1984’s Living In The Crest Of A Wave, a pretty anodyne collection of new-agey fusion. Let’s call it The Metheny Effect. Many tried and failed to ape that guitarist’s mixture of Ornette Coleman-inspired melodicism, Latin flavours and down-home, Midwestern, open-sky simplicity.

With its folky themes, puny production, emphasis on soprano sax, fretless bass, ride cymbals and an ‘environmental’ bent, LITCOAW could almost have come out on Windham Hill. Only the closing title track works up any kind of energy or interest, when Evans finally busts out the tenor and blows up a storm over Adam Nussbaum’s frenetic jazz/rock groove.

Evans’ followup, 1985’s The Alternative Man, was his first record for the illustrious Blue Note Records and as such should have been a celebration. Unfortunately it was an object lesson in how not to use technology, and just the kind of ‘80s ‘jazz’ album that illustrates what a brilliant job Marcus Miller did on Miles’s Tutu.

Evans in the main stumbles around with ugly Linn Drum patterns, electric drums, blaring synth pads and raucous hair-metal guitar solos, all topped off with some fairly insipid soprano playing. A few tracks and you’ll be wanting to break out the Albert Ayler or David Murray albums, and fast.

The only interest predictably comes with two more open, organic offerings, the excellent ‘Miles Away’ which reunites Evans with his Miles colleagues Al Foster on drums and Miller on bass. And ’Let The Juice Loose’ is fun, a cool bebop head featuring some enjoyably un-PC Strat-mangling from the late great Hiram Bullock.

But hey – some of this music brings back good memories, when I was digging around the Record And Tape Exchange and Our Price for bargains and closely monitoring the personnel on the back of my favourite Miles and McLaughlin albums.

These albums also definitely represent a weird time for ’80s jazz, when established labels were signing all and sundry, fishing around for the next Young Lion or Metheny. And thankfully a few dodgy early solo records didn’t hurt Evans’ career much, as he’s gone on to be one of the most respected players on the scene.

RIP Q Magazine (October 1986-September 2020)

The first issue – October 1986

Another one bites the dust: a succinct tweet from editor Ted Kessler spawning many emotional replies from scribes of all stripes, and it’s au revoir to one of the most respected music mags of the last 40 years.

Yes, the September issue will be the very last edition of Q. I was surprised how peturbed I was by this news. Without Q in the world, something is amiss.

I guess my dad, broad-minded and well-read music fan that he was, would have bought the very first Macca-adorned edition in October 1986, but I took the baton from there and got every issue (unless Robbie Williams or Noel Gallagher were on the cover) until the late 1990s.

There was a major cull in the early 2000s when I chucked quite a few out, and I have about 30 left. Of course now I wish I had kept them all.

Why did I stop buying Q every month? It was probably the general state of the late-1990s music scene rather than the writing, though I also missed the humour of the David Hepworth/Mark Ellen/Tom Hibbert troika which was the driving force in the early years. But I kept my hand in right until the end, recalling a brilliant recent issue featuring Suggs, Suede, Status Quo and Mark E Smith.

The final issue – August 2020

Q was initially a perfect alternative to the NME and Melody Maker, a post-Live Aid, CD-age rag designed to cater to the ‘older’ rock/pop fan but actually delivering something subtly subversive. It foregrounded extended interviews without any PR puffery, and added some much-needed humour and p*ss-taking of the burgeoning celebrity culture.

If you were a bit of a ‘muso’ like me, you got used to ‘your’ band generally getting a critical mauling, but I also discovered some great music via the mag’s review section (David Torn, Bireli Lagrene, Lewis Taylor, Spacek, Love And Money, Danny Wilson, John Abercrombie).

Lots of features stick in the mind – of course Tom Hibbert’s Who The Hell? and the much-imitated Cash For Questions. And there were loads of memorable interviews: a post-toiletgate George Michael, Bob Geldof jostling with Sting, Macca talking candidly about drugs and Lennon for the first time, Jonathan Richman, Shirley Manson, Madonna in her ‘Blond Ambition’ pomp, Prince during the ‘Slave’ era, Joni Mitchell circa Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm, the Television reunion, JJ Cale, Bowie’s Cash For Questions, Green Gartside in his local East End boozer. And there were also the brilliant 10th anniversary and 100th issues.

So RIP Q. Who knows which esteemed music mags are next on the chopping block? Please buy ’em while they’re still around. We’ll miss them when they’re gone. And there won’t be anything to read on plane/train journeys, if they’re still around too.

The Cult Movie Club: 17 Things I Didn’t Know About ‘Caddyshack’

‘Caddyshack’, the cult comedy released 40 years ago this month, has been a favourite of mine since I accidentally came across it on TV sometime in the late 1980s.

It now seems an almost forgotten and/or strangely ‘forbidden’ movie despite some cult status amongst golfers and hardcore fans of National Lampoon and ‘Saturday Night Live.’

With a corking cast of Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Ted Knight and Cindy Morgan, its basic pitch is ‘”Animal House” at a country club’, but for me it’s a funnier movie than John Landis’s 1978 hit.

It’s chaotic, unhinged, poorly structured, hard to follow, mostly improvised and won’t win any woke awards, but many scenes still make me chuckle like a teenager. In particular, Chase and Murray’s monologues and druggy non-sequiturs.

Directed by Harold Ramis (‘Groundhog Day’) and shot at Rolling Hills Country Club (now Grand Oaks) in Florida during September and October 1979 , ‘Caddyshack’ is ostensibly a coming-of-age story concerning amateur caddy Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe).

On release, the critical reception was unsurprisingly poor but it did pretty good business ($40 million against a $6 million budget), if proving too weird for any kind of ‘Animal House’ action. But, like most Hollywood movies of the era, there are a myriad of ‘what ifs’ and surprising revelations around its making. Here are just a few of them:

17. The bishop struck by lightning after shouting ‘Rat farts!’ (Henry Wilcoxon) was a silent-movie star back in the 1920s, working in several Cecil B DeMille films.

16. ‘Caddyshack’ was Rodney Dangerfield’s movie debut.

15. Bill Murray (Carl Spackler) was the last actor to be cast, and his totally unscripted role was initially only supposed to be a cameo.

14. Ted Knight (Judge Smails) was an Emmy-winning star of the legendary ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ TV show in the 1970s.

13. Bill Murray and Chevy Chase (Ty Webb) were sworn enemies during the shoot due to some bad-mouthing in the press after Chevy had left ‘Saturday Night Live’. Their famous improvised scene was a last-minute addition after the studio insisted they appear on screen together.

12. Cinematographer Stevan Larner had previously worked on Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’.

11. Recently-departed, legendary composer/arranger Johnny Mandel (‘Theme From M*A*S*H’, Steely Dan’s ‘FM’) wrote the incidental music for the movie.

10. Mickey Rourke was first choice for the Danny Noonan role but turned the producers down at the final hour.

9. ‘Caddyshack’ was Harold Ramis’s directorial debut.

8. Co-writer and National Lampoon legend Doug Kenney died in strange circumstances soon after the film was released.

7. The pitch (‘Animal House’ in a country club) was given the green light by Orion studio bosses before they had seen any kind of story outline or screenplay.

6. The co-writers’ original idea was to make the film all about the teenage caddies (maybe that would have made for better box office… Ed.)

5. Cindy Morgan (Lacey Underall) was a DJ in Chicago before becoming an actress.

4. Bill Murray was actually a greenskeeper as a young man, and his elder brother Ed was a champion caddie.

3. Danny Noonan’s large Irish-Catholic family was based on the Murray family.

2. The whole cast stayed in the same hotel throughout the shoot – and partied heartily.

1. Bill Murray’s shenanigans with the gophers was a last-minute idea – initially there had only been one scene with a fake gopher (the one where Rodney Dangerfield shouts ‘Hey, that kangaroo just stole my ball!’).

Book Review: The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma by Ben Sidran

What exactly does a record producer do? Of course the role covers a multitude of aspects but generally falls into two categories – the techie or the psychoanalyst.

Tommy LiPuma was definitely in the latter camp, a five-time Grammy winner, label boss (courtesy of his cult imprint Blue Thumb) and bona fide music fan who worked in the upper echelons of the biz for nearly 60 years (he died in 2017).

A cursory look through his credits reveals a natural collaborator with good taste and good ears, via key albums by Bill Evans, Michael Franks, Randy Newman, George Benson, Randy Crawford, Dr John, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Miles Davis (who, along with co-writer Marcus Miller, named the track ‘Tomaas’ after him), Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney and Willie Nelson.

Ben Sidran’s hugely enjoyable ‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is the first biography of the producer, and it’s hard to think of anyone better qualified to tell his story. Sidran’s a veteran singer/songwriter and pianist who has recorded over 30 solo albums (including a few for Blue Thumb) and written some key music tomes too, including the superb ‘Talking Jazz’, and he interviewed LiPuma extensively for the book.

The fast-moving, entertaining early sections come over a bit like ‘The Godfather Part II’ rewritten by Lord Buckley. LiPuma’s rite of passage takes him through Mob-riddled Sicily, to grim, industrial Cleveland where shoe-shining and hairdressing seem like his destiny.

But a long period recuperating from injury delivers to him the power of jazz, specifically Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s miraculous bebop excursions. LiPuma thus finds his true calling, and a brief career as a jobbing sax player leads to a short period as promotions man par excellence.

But he quickly realises that production is his true metier, and embarks on a glittering career that takes him from MOR vocal acts (The Sandpipers, Claudine Longet) to classy jazz-related roots and pop projects. Cue a succession of amusing, fast-moving anecdotes: a fabulous section on the making of George Benson’s Breezin’, an amusing trawl through Rio with a blasted Jobim, a voyage to Planet Miles via the Tutu album, a surreal encounter with Willie Nelson, interesting sections on breaking Michael Franks and Diana Krall and finally all the recent machinations of the Universal Music Group.

‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is warm, witty and resolutely un-PC, initially a portrait of the music biz’s bygone Wild West era featuring an engaging roll call of shysters, hucksters and hipsters, but also encapsulating the whole history of modern recording techniques and philosophies. It’s a great companion piece to Seymour Stein’s autobiography. There’s a lot about the business, but it’s always shot through with humour and an emphasis that, finally, music is about people.

It’s also a valuable historical document too as it’s hard to believe there’ll be any space for these kinds of hands-on, ‘daddy’ producers in the future. Thankfully Sidran doesn’t scrimp on the musical detail – there’s a lot of sage advice for aspiring producers and arrangers alike.

Perhaps the key takeaway from the book is music’s healing power. As LiPuma writes to a friend, ‘I might have been on my own at times but I was never alone. When you’re blessed with the love of music, you are never alone.’

‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is published by Nardis Books.

1980s Soul: 14 Lost Classics

It’s highly unlikely that any critics’ poll of the greatest soul albums from the last 70 years would include anything from the 1980s, save possibly for a Diana, Anita Baker, Terence TD or Bobby Womack outlier.

There was the odd huge-selling ‘crossover’ album (Can’t Slow Down, Thriller, Whitney Houston) but arguably the decade didn’t produce a What’s Going On or Songs In The Key Of Life. (Or did it? Suggestions please…).

Classic soul fans generally became used to poor-to-middling album packages, with the requisite two or three-star reviews and complaints about too many producers and underwhelming material. The greats of the ’60s and ’70s also sometimes struggled to move with the times, getting hamstrung by technology and/or unsuitable collaborators.

But my goodness there were some superb tracks, particularly between 1980 and 1985, an interesting period when Classic Soul drew from Yacht Rock and Jazz/Funk. However, these songs tended to get quickly forgotten and/or ignored. In the late-’80s, ’90s and noughties, enterprising indie labels put together fondly-remembered compilations (Mastercuts, StreetSounds) that brought these tracks back for a small but very enthusiastic audience.

But the beauty of streaming services is that we can compile these beauties to create one sh*t-hot album, so I have, here. This has been my go-to playlist during lockdown. Forget the talent-show wannabees, these vocalists have serious pipes, and the songwriting and arrangements are top-class too. Here’s a small selection of lost classic soul tracks from the 1980s:

14. Johnny Gill: ‘Half Crazy’ (1985)

Co-written by legendary Philly wordsmith Linda Creed (‘Betcha By Golly Wow’, ‘People Make The World Go Round’), this was the lead-off track and first single from Gill’s second album and still sounds like a bona fide soul standard today. It was a long way from New Edition for Johnny, though he was just 18 years old when he recorded it. Scary…

13. Teena Marie: ‘My Dear Mr Gaye’ (1984)

Moving tribute to Marvin from the less-than-excellent album Starchild, featuring a string arrangement by Motown mainman Paul Riser and a groovy change of pace in the middle of the tune.

12. Carl Anderson: ‘Buttercup’ (1985)

Stevie Wonder-penned minor classic from a little-known vocalist who recorded many solo albums before his death in 2004, but was probably best known for his portrayal of Judas Iscariot in the Broadway and film versions of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.

11. Gladys Knight & The Pips: ‘Bourgie Bourgie’ (1980)

Just check out co-writer (with Nick Ashford) Valerie Simpson’s gospel-tinged piano playing on this – absolutely fabulous. And Gladys’s super-funky vocals are perfect. It’s adapted from a 1977 Ashford & Simpson instrumental.

10. Odyssey: ‘If You’re Lookin’ For A Way Out’ (1980)

Heartbreaking ballad written by Ralph Kotkov and superbly sung by Lillian Lopez. Made #6 in the UK singles chart.

9. Millie Jackson: ‘This Is It’ (1980)

Now THIS is how you kick off a soul album. A hilarious eight-minute tour-de-force that aims to get men squirming in their seats. Remarkably, it’s also a cover of a Kenny Loggins/Michael McDonald tune.

8. Chris Jasper: ‘Superbad’ (1987)

Great song from long-time keyboard player of The Isley Brothers. Socially-conscious lyric looking at the value of inner-city education and the kind of tune Stevie should have been producing in the mid-’80s.

7. Diana Ross: ‘Cross My Heart’ (1987)

Superb, catchy song, written by frequent Leonard Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson, and Diana’s vocals are just gorgeous. From the otherwise fairly uninspired Red Hot Rhythm And Blues album.

6. Leon Ware: ‘Why I Came To California’ (1982)

Cool mixture of soul, jazz/funk and yacht rock, an ode to the West Coast with a top-drawer rhythm section of Chuck Rainey (bass) and James Gadson (drums) and vocals from Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel. But who plays the great sax solo? Seems impossible to find out…

5. SOS Band: ‘Weekend Girl’ (1984)

More evidence that producing/songwriting team Jam & Lewis were going to be arguably THE musical force of the decade, a gorgeous, upwardly-mobile, mature ballad that has the same kind of grandeur as one of Chic’s slow-burners.

4. Patti Labelle: ‘If Only You Knew’ (1983)

Just…wow. Killer ballad co-written by Kenny Gamble and Dexter Wansel which reached #1 on the Billboard R’n’B chart. Super arrangement too, emphasised by the unexpected key change going into the first verse.

3. Bobby Womack: ‘Games’ (1983)

‘You see, I like all kinds of music – no favourites!’, Bobby proclaims at the beginning of this superb track, then demonstrates it with a lovely little nod to Wes Montgomery’s guitar style.

2. Phyllis Hyman: ‘Why Did You Turn Me On’ (1983)

A hint of Rod Temperton about this catchy Narada Michael Walden-penned mid-tempo smoocher, showcasing Hyman’s giant voice to great effect. Sadly the Philly soul legend took her own life in 1995.

1. Terence Trent D’Arby: ‘As Yet Untitled’ (1987)

Ambitious accappella piece from Terence’s classic debut album, with a vocal nod to Sam Cooke but also featuring some stirring sounds purely of his own creation.

The Brecker Brothers: Live And Unreleased

Horn sections – they sure divide opinion, especially in the ‘pop’ realm. Some people just cannot stand all of that pomp and circumstance, while others get turned on by a hot, punchy chart.

But like ’em or hate ’em, some great records just wouldn’t be the same without the horns: The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’ for example.

But who are the most-recorded sections of all time? You’d get very short odds on The Brecker Brothers, comprising Michael on tenor and Randy on trumpet, occasionally augmented by David Sanborn on alto too.

They graced hundreds of recordings before Michael’s death in 2007, including Parliament’s ‘Chocolate City’, Todd Rundgren’s ‘Hello It’s Me’ and Dire Straits’ ‘Your Latest Trick’.

Under their own name, seven studio albums showcased a really cool sound with funky grooves and intricate harmony, somewhere between Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan. And now they’ve been given the full-on archive treatment, a new Live And Unreleased album featuring a complete two-hours-plus gig with no edits or overdubs, recorded in Hamburg on 2nd July 1980.

This is a really impressive package, a beautifully-recorded double with extended liner notes by Bill Milkowski and additional, amusing memories from Randy Brecker. The sh*t-hot band includes Neil Jason on bass (familiar to fans of Roxy Music’s Flesh & Blood and Avalon), Barry Finnerty on guitar (most famous for a short stint with Miles Davis), Mark Gray on keys and Richie Morales on drums.

The material is a mix of BB favourites like ‘Squids’, ‘Sponge’, ‘Some Skunk Funk’, ‘Straphanging’, ‘I Don’t Know Either’ and ‘East River’. Pleasingly, these are pretty faithful to the original studio versions tempo-and-arrangement-wise, but there’s also a big emphasis on extended solos and one-chord vamps.

It’s also clear that, by 1980, Michael was giving Randy a serious run for his money on the composing front – his tunes and sometimes extraordinary solos dominate proceedings, particularly on the sprightly ‘I Don’t Know Either’ and ‘Tee’d Off’.

Finnerty gets a hell of a lot of solo time but generally pretty characterless compared to other Brecker-approved studio guitarists (Hiram Bullock, Steve Khan), while Gray is excellent but too low in the mix. Morales is rock-solid but, again, fairly anonymous compared to other Brecker favourites Steve Jordan, Terry Bozzio, Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason (hardly surprising, since they are three of the all-time greats…). Jason, with his big, buoyant, funky sound, is the star of the rhythm section.

As usual, ‘Some Skunk Funk’ makes for fascinating listening – the funk/fusion standard has become a kind of test piece for drummers (Harvey Mason, Billy Cobham and Terry Bozzio all had memorable cracks at it, offering subtly different readings). Morales has a good go here but again lacks the invention and drive of the aforementioned.

So: three-and-a-half stars for the music, five for the package. It’s definitely worth immersing oneself in it on vinyl or CD, helped by Randy’s witty between-song comments. It’s a really strong live album with some great performances, and exemplifies an interesting period for jazz/rock when good grooves and extended solos took precedence over technical chops. Even if you can’t stand horn sections…