XTC: Skylarking Uncovered

It’s only natural that a young(ish) man’s fancy should turn to Skylarking at this time of year. And though I must have listened to it tens of times (and recently wrote a detailed piece about it here), Steven Wilson’s instrumental mix uncovers many of the album’s sonic secrets. You might even say that it’s like listening to a whole new thang.

Though lead songwriter/vocalist Andy Partridge had a somewhat ‘strained’ relationship with producer Todd Rundgren during the recording (in recent book ‘Complicated Game’ Partridge occasionally – tongue firmly in cheek, of course – refers to him as ‘Herr Rundgren’ and states that he would only allow one or two takes per overdub), this version demonstrates once and for all that Todd played a blinder on Skylarking, as arranger, sound designer, occasional keys player and backing vocalist. And the others (Dave Gregory, Colin Moulding, Prairie Prince, sundry guest players) weren’t too shabby either.

Things to listen out for: the charmingly ramshackle 12-string guitars and Mellotron underpinning ‘Summer’s Cauldron’, the dramatic cello gracenotes that punctuate ‘Grass’, Partridge’s Stax-flavoured guitar and Todd’s synths on ‘That’s Really Super Supergirl’, Gregory’s superb piano on ‘Ballet For A Rainy Day’ and ‘Season Cycle’ and intricate guitar on ‘Earn Enough For Us’, the mad mariachi trumpets that kick off ‘Big Day’, Prairie’s subtle drums on ‘Mermaid Smiled’, and…well, you get the idea.

It seems unlikely that this will appeal to any but the most hardcore XTC fans, but who knows? The top-notch songcraft and synaesthetic textures may even draw in some new punters.

Movie Review: Round Midnight (1986)

round_midnight_xlg‘Round Midnight’ turns 30 today, and its status as one of the great jazz movies was confirmed at a birthday screening last night at the Cine Lumiere in South Kensington.

Whilst the recent ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Miles Ahead’ were moderate commercial successes, they were subject to withering criticism in some quarters – I was with the naysayers regarding the former but, after watching the trailer, couldn’t even drag myself to the latter.

So until Woody Allen makes his long-promised big-budget ‘birth of jazz’ film, ‘Round Midnight’ is probably the best we’re gonna get. Its success even ushered in a short-lived Hollywood jazz revival – Clint Eastwood produced the wonderful ‘Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser’ (1987) and directed the underwhelming ‘Bird’ (1988), followed by Bruce Weber’s acclaimed Chet Baker documentary ‘Let’s Get Lost’ (1988) and Spike Lee’s ‘Mo Better Blues’ (1990).

‘Round Midnight’ is loosely based on the memoir/biography ‘Dance Of The Infidels’ by Francis Paudras, a Parisian graphic designer who befriended legendary bebop pianist Bud Powell – and became his carer, business manager and confidante – during Bud’s expat period.

The film focuses mainly on the relationship between Francis and Dale Turner, a fictional mash-up of Powell and saxophonist Lester Young. My dad and I loved ‘Round Midnight’ from first viewing and, at a guess, very much related to Francis’s passion for jazz and desire to see his hero ‘living well’, rather than scuffling from gig to gig, drink to drink (Dad visited Paudras in France in the late ’80s in his capacity as a TV producer, but the proposed documentary never got made).

Put simply, the film ‘gets’ jazz; it’s immediately obvious that almost everyone involved loves the music and its players. Despite an incredibly slow, dark (as in: you can’t really see what’s going on) opening 20 minutes, ‘Round Midnight’ finally delivers the grandeur, romance and tragedy of America’s classical music.

Dexter Gordon’s Oscar-nominated lead performance still thrills, 30 years on. Though his character mainly spends the first half of the film trying to get wasted, we can forgive him anything, especially when we hear of the beatings and racist abuse regularly doled out during his time in the army (this dialogue, according to director/co-writer Bertrand Tavernier, was pure autobiography on Gordon’s part).

Elsewhere, Martin Scorsese has some fun with his portrayal of the fairly sleazy New York booking agent Goodley, while Francois Cluzet gives a strong, touching performance as the quick-tempered though loyal Francis.

Tavernier has finally found a way to represent jazz on screen, and it couldn’t be simpler – just round up the best players available (including Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, most of whom also have speaking parts), get them to play live and capture a performance in one take if possible.

It’s no great surprise that Herbie’s soundtrack won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1987, though the film’s original music arguably never quite evokes the high-energy rush of prime late-’50s bebop-tinged jazz. No matter: both ‘Round Midnight’ and its score have aged pretty damn well.

Grace Jones: Inside Story

Grace

EMI/Manhattan Records, released November 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1990?

7/10

Flicking through Grace’s well-received memoir recently, I noticed that she rates Inside Story as her favourite album – pretty surprising considering the likes of Nightclubbing and Living My Life nestling in her discography.

But close reading of the small print reveals why it’s her most personal project – she co-wrote every track (with ex-Camera Club/’Slave To The Rhythm’ co-writer Bruce Woolley) and also co-produced the album with Nile Rodgers. And while hardly a classic, Inside Story‘s a much more wholehearted and successful record than the previous year’s Slave To The Rhythm.

It seems pretty inevitable that Nile would end up collaborating with Grace. They were long-time acquaintances on the NY party scene since the Studio 54 days. On paper, he would seem the perfect fit for her, though she barely gets a mention in his excellent memoir ‘Le Freak’ (though he has promised a sequel which will presumably feature her a lot more).

Inside Story‘s lead-off single ‘I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect For You)’ surprisingly didn’t make much impact on the US or UK charts but was a minor hit all over Europe. Its Keith Haring-directed video is particularly striking though, featuring cameos from Andy Warhol and a load of other NY art figures, and there was also an interesting 12″ mix by early house pioneer Larry Levan.

The album is great when it sticks to short, sharp, frivolous pop tunes but comes a bit unstuck when going for something more ambitious. ‘White Collar Crime’ is very much the son of ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, sneaking in a few of that song’s chords and an almost identical two-note verse, but it’s let down by asthmatic synths, a puny drum machine and Nile’s sketchy bass playing, though Lenny Pickett’s punchy horn arrangement is a winner.

The title track is weirdly reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s ’80s output while ‘Victor Should Have Been A Jazz Musician’ is possibly the standout, namechecking Nina Simone and featuring some lovely Wes Montgomery-style guitar from Rodgers.

Inside Story‘s rhythm section sounds in general are slightly disappointing – Rodgers’ guitar is too low in the mix and a Linn machine takes care of all the drum parts. This suits the mechanized grooves of ‘Barefoot In Beverly Hills’ (almost an example of early house music), ‘Party Girl’ and ‘Scary But Fun’, but the jazzier tracks are crying out for a real drummer. I wonder why Nile didn’t enlist the services of Mr Steve Ferrone, seeing as they’d recently worked together to superb effect on Al Jarreau’s L Is For Lover and Duran Duran’s Notorious.

Inside Story was not a hit, reaching only #61 in the UK album chart and #81 in the US. It’s unlikely to ever get the big-budget, bells-and-whistles re-release/remaster treatment, but sounds pretty good these days.

Hiram Bullock’s From All Sides: 30 Years Old Today

hiramAtlantic Records, released 18th November 1986

7/10

Bought: Record & Tape Exchange, Shepherd’s Bush, 1990?

In the mid-’80s, London seemed to be Hiram Bullock’s second home. The late great New York-based guitarist was in David Sanborn’s band at the Wembley Arena in November ’84 (alongside Marcus Miller, Don Grolnick and Steve Gadd, one of my first ever gigs) and also appeared in town regularly with Carla Bley and Gil Evans during this period.

At a Sanborn Hammersmith Odeon gig around ’86/’87, Hiram embarked on a solo, and, with the aid of a wireless unit, promptly jumped off the stage to serenade the stalls. He then vacated the auditorium, soloing all the while, and a few minutes later appeared in the front row of the balcony, still blazing away, illuminated by a single spot. What a dude.

Such shenanigans would earn himself column inches in the jazz magazines and a cult following but sometimes overshadow the fact that he was one of the great guitarists of the ’80s or any other decade, effortlessly mixing up the blues, funk, bebop and rock.

hiram_bullock_from_all_sides_album_back_1024x1024

By mid-1986, he had enjoyed ten years as a first-call session player (Steely Dan, Chaka Khan, Brecker Brothers et al) as well as being part of the famous ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Late Night With Letterman‘ bands. He had also recently hooked up with his one-time bass student Jaco Pastorius in the PDB trio (with drummer Kenwood Dennard) and produced Mike Stern’s excellent Upside Downside (guitar-wise, they have a lot in common).

In short, he had paid his dues. It was time for a solo album. Though From All Sides is in many ways a classic ‘journeyman’ record, covering all the bases from funky fusion (‘Window Shoppin‘, ‘Cactus’) through R’n’B (‘Funky Broadway’) to smooth Sinatra-influenced balladry (‘Really Wish I Could Love You’), it’s never boring, helped also by some good guest spots – Kenny Kirkland supplies a classy solo to ‘Window Shoppin’ while Sanborn lights up ‘Say Goodnight, Gracie’. On the witty ‘state of the world’ blues ‘Mad Dog Daze’, Bullock even comes over a bit like a Johnny Guitar Watson for the ’80s.

The album also benefits greatly from mostly sticking to the same excellent rhythm section – Charley Drayton on drums, Will Lee on bass, Clifford Carter on keys – which gives some consistency from tune to tune. Hiram plays some brilliant solos, even on somewhat cheesy material such as ‘When The Passion Is Played’ and ‘Until I Do’. The production is state-of-the-art for ’86, ie. extremely high on treble and compression but short on low-end.

But From All Sides is still mostly a blast, driven on by Hiram’s irrepressible energy and good vibes, though the followup Give It What U Got was a big improvement – more on that later.