The Cult Movie Club: 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 Charlie Parker biopic ‘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 30 Years On

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 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 in February 1987 (see the comments section below), 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.

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’, written by Randy Brecker) 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.

Hipsway!

hipsway

The 1986 debut album

The 1980s spewed out a lot of cool baritone vocalists: Ian McCulloch, Ben V-P, Matt Johnson, James Grant, Nick Cave, Edwyn Collins, David Sylvian…

The list goes on. But one name that doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue is Hipsway’s Grahame Skinner, possibly because the Glaswegian band’s tenure was so short, consisting of just two studio albums and a few tours including a high-profile jaunt with Simple Minds.

hipsway-pim-skin-sf

Hipsway’s Pim Jones and Grahame Skinner

A shiny new re-release of Hipsway’s 1986 debut album, complete with B-sides, outtakes, remixes and excellent Skinner liner notes, shows why they were briefly one of the most highly-regarded Scottish acts of their day, during a golden period for Caledonian pop.

It also shows Skinner to be one of the most distinctive vocalists of the era, apparently an influence on everyone from Mansun’s Paul Draper to Marti Pellow.

Hipsway’s star shone briefly but brightly, with one UK (#17) and US (#19) hit ‘The Honeythief’, a track that still sounds like a classic ’80s floorfiller. The accompanying debut album just sneaked into the US top 60 but was a bigger hit in the UK, reaching #42 and staying in the chart for 23 weeks.

‘The Honeythief’ still stands up 30 years on, but does the rest of the album? Yes and no. With producers Paul Staveley O’Duffy (Swing Out Sister, Was Not Was, Lewis Taylor, Amy Winehouse) and Gary Langan (ABC, Art Of Noise) onboard, a slick, pristine mix and selection of solid, attractive grooves are guaranteed. The wider problem is memorable hooks.

The good stuff first: ‘Long White Car’ is a richly-chorded, jazzy bossa-nova which sounds like a hit even now (it only got to #55 on initial release). The excellent ‘Broken Years’ ends with Skinner quoting from Talking Heads’ ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’ while ‘Forbidden’ initially comes on like something akin to Frankie Goes To Hollywood on downers before breaking out into an unexpectedly resplendent pure-pop chorus.

‘Ask The Lord’ is also initially attractive and distinctive but lacks the killer hook that might have made it a hit. ‘Bad Thing Longing’, ‘Tinder’ and ‘Upon A Thread’ borrow Roxy Music’s Avalon template with their swooning synths and intricate bass/drums/percussion, but they are decidedly flimsy songs. But overall this is an impressive debut album of funky mid-’80s pop and it’s worth a reappraisal.

Nik Kershaw’s Radio Musicola: 30 Years On

radio-musicola-527b885540974MCA Records, released October 1986

7/10

The rather despairing NME headline at the time said it all: ‘When The Little Girls Have All Grown Up…’ After releasing two albums in the space of barely six months, Kershaw took his time over the third.

He settled in to North London’s Swanyard Studios for most of 1986 to work on the self-produced Radio Musicola, employing the cream of the English session scene (The Kick Horns, Charlie Morgan, Mark Brzezicki, Wix, Andy Richards, Simon Phillips etc).

Yes, Musicola was Kershaw’s chance to take on the Trevor Horns of this world and deliver a big-budget, endlessly-fussed-over studio ‘project’… Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his meteoric rise to fame, the main themes of the album are press intrusion and tabloid sensationalism.

And, in a neat irony, the rise of technology-led, assembly-line music was also in Kershaw’s sights, despite Musicola making liberal use of all the latest sampling and synthesizer technology. So let’s get Musicola‘s duff tracks out the way first – ‘What The Papers Say’, ‘Nobody Knows’ and ‘Running Scared’ are jarringly overproduced, though the latter had real potential.

But there are loads of treats elsewhere – ‘Life Goes On’ is a musically-rich, very pretty ballad with swooning chord changes and fine vocals from Kershaw. ‘LABATYD’ is pure class, a half-time shuffle with tasty Mark Brzezicki drums, an excellent Kick Horn arrangement and soaring synth by either Wix or Andy Richards.

The title track blew a lot of musicians’ minds back in 1986. It really was state-of-the art and still sounds pretty novel today, as striking as the title track of Level 42’s World Machine a year before. I remember eagerly tuning in to ‘The Tube’ to see Kershaw performing the song live. You can hear a lot of the ‘little girls’ turning off their TVs as he lays into the opening guitar solo…

‘Don’t Let Me Out Of My Cage’ is pretty damn ambitious fare for a pop album, a fast swing number featuring some cracking Phillips drums and effective close-harmony backing vox from Mrs Kershaw (Sheri). The excellent ‘James Cagney’ chugs along with a Level 42 groove (and features an interesting ‘New Man’ lyric) and it sounds uncannily like Mr King on bass (the bass is credited to ‘Felix Krish’ – a King pseudonym?).

‘When a Heart Beats’, an excellent, intricate slice of pop/prog in the It Bites mould, gave Kershaw his last top 40 chart appearance (peaking at a disappointing #27) when it was released in November 1985.

The closing ‘Violet To Blue’ is possibly Kershaw’s finest and most ambitious recording to date, featuring some rousing vocals from the London Community Gospel Choir and superb, driving drum work from Phillips (much imitated in my music room back in the day).

kershaw-tour

An interesting album which clearly fell between the stools of art and commerce, Radio Musicola reached a barely believable #46 in the UK album chart, just over a year after Kershaw had played Live Aid. It disappeared without trace in the US.

The little girls had certainly grown up. Or maybe it was the new haircut. 18 months is a long time to leave between albums when you’re hot. But Kershaw didn’t seem bothered about his new ‘selective’ popularity; in fact, he seemed genuinely relieved, but wondered how MCA were going to sell him now that he was focused on being a musician rather than a pop star.

Despite the poor album sales, Kershaw embarked on a sold-out UK tour in early 1987 including three nights at London’s Town & Country Club. And he would be back once more before the ’80s were out to deliver perhaps his finest solo album to date.

XTC’s Skylarking: 30 Years Old Today

xtcVirgin Records, released 27th October 1986

10/10

Produced by Todd Rundgren

Recorded at Utopia Studios, Woodstock, upstate New York

UK album chart position: #90 (!)
US album chart position: #70 (!)

terry-thomas

Terry-Thomas in ‘School For Scoundrels’

Side One:

1. ‘Summer’s Cauldron’

Andy Partridge (composer): ‘Something about the words reminded me of Dylan Thomas. Not that I’m saying I’m a Dylan Thomas. More of a Terry-Thomas, really…’

2. ‘Grass’

Colin Moulding (composer): ‘A lot of people think the song’s about marijuana – it isn’t. Todd said: “Don’t sing so deep. You sound like a bit of a molester.” So I just did the Bowie thing and added an octave above it…’

3. ‘The Meeting Place’

Moulding: ‘Because the riff was a bit like “Postman Pat”, we were just figures on a Toytown landscape viewed from above. It was me meeting her (future wife Carol) at the gates for a sandwich in The Beehive pub, embroidered with the suggestion of a lunchtime quickie…’

4. ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’

Partridge: ‘I’d go into his (guitarist Dave Gregory) little room, smelling of aftershave and guitar wax and dead mice, and he’d be rehearsing this solo over and over again. I can still see him playing it. I remember when we were recording the song that Todd was trying to master it on keyboard, and Dave whispered to me, “He’s got the chords wrong!” He thought the chords were major, and they’re not. I was hearing it a lot more clangorous…’

5. ‘Ballet For A Rainy Day’ (Partridge)

6. ‘1000 Umbrellas’

Partridge: ‘There was very little time to do the strings. They had one run-through and then recorded it. Their balls were on the line but they turned in a pretty fine performance…’

7. ‘Season Cycle’

Partridge: ‘I felt that I had maybe laid the ghost of Ray Davies ‘fore me and written a song that could stand up against “Shangri-La” or even, dare I suggest, “Autumn Almanac”.’

Side Two:

8. ‘Earn Enough For Us’ (Partridge)

9. ‘Big Day’

Moulding: ‘I’d been messing around with the chords of Labi Siffre’s “It Must Be Love” and, with a little moving around, it became this sort of fanfare to a big event, a ticker-tape parade for a big day.’

10. ‘Another Satellite’

Partridge: ‘I regret writing it because things turned out so marvellously with the person (Erica Wexler) it’s all about. The story had a happy ending because Erica and I finally got to express the emotional bond that was always there.’

11. ‘Mermaid Smiled’ (Partridge)

12. ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’

Partridge: ‘It just says you’re born, you live and you die. Why look for the meaning of life when all there is is death and decay? Todd said, “Let’s do a John Barry thing” and, literally overnight, came up with his arrangement with brass and flutes. It’s bang on. Cod spy music.’

13. ‘Dying’ (Moulding)

It frightens me when you come to mind
The day you dropped in the shopping line
And my heart beats faster when I think of all the signs, all the signs
When they carried you out your mouth was open wide
The cat went astray and the dog did pine for days and days
And I felt so guilty when we played you up
When you were ill, so ill
What sticks in my mind is the sweet jar on the sideboard
And your multicoulored tea cozy

What sticks in my mind is the dew drop hanging off your nose
Shrivelled up and blue
And I’m getting older, too
But I don’t want to die like you

14. ‘Sacrificial Bonfire’

Moulding: ‘There was a touch of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and a bit of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” in it, I suppose. But I wasn’t moralising. It was just that this was an evil piece of music and good would triumph over it. (The strings) were a bit too Vivaldi for me, but it had to go somewhere, I suppose…’

Further reading: ‘XTC Song Stories‘ by Neville Farmer

‘Complicated Game’ by Todd Bernhardt/Andy Partridge

Courtney Pine’s Journey To The Urge Within: 30 Years Old Today

courtney-2Island Records, released 25th October 1986

Produced by Michael Cuscuna and Roy Carter

Recorded at Angel Studios, North London, 21-23 July 1986

UK album chart position: #39

Gifted saxophonist Courtney Pine‘s career is one of British jazz’s great success stories. Starting out in the early ‘80s as a sideman with reggae act Clint Eastwood & General Saint and various Britfunk bands, he became disillusioned with the outlawing of jazz as a respected, popular music in the climate of the early ’80s London scene.

As he memorably put it in the BBC’s excellent ‘Jazz Britannia’ doc, ‘I would add different notes in the scale the way Sonny Rollins did and people would say, “No man, we don’t want that.” They were saying to me, “If you’re black and you want to play jazz in this country, you’d better go and live somewhere else!”’

But all that changed when he caught US trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on TV one afternoon. Marsalis’s professionalism and dynamism were a revelation to Pine (not to mention his youthfulness); if Marsalis could bring jazz to a wide audience, he could too.

A period of intense woodshedding paid off – soon Courtney was guesting with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and The Charlie Watts Big Band, blowing all over the ‘Angel Heart soundtrack and blowing people away with his solos in Gary Crosby’s groundbreaking Jazz Warriors and Jazz Jamaica groups.

Island Records came calling, and Journey To The Urge Within made the Top 40 in the UK, an almost-unheard-of state of affairs for a jazz album. This writer fondly remembers the day when, on opening the NME, he unexpectedly found Pine and Miles Davis sharing the album chart. Happy days.