Book Review: Sophisticated Giant (The Life And Legacy Of Dexter Gordon) by Maxine Gordon

Jazz books written by ‘jazz widows’ are pretty rare. Only a few come to mind: Laurie Pepper’s ‘Art: Why I Stuck With A Junkie Jazzman’, Sue Mingus’s ‘Tonight At Noon’ and Jo Gelbart’s ‘Miles And Jo: Love Story In Blue’.

But, as Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’ demonstrated some 50 years ago, behind a great jazzman is often a great jazzwoman, and usually one equally worthy of a tome.

And so it proves with Maxine Gordon’s excellent ‘Sophisticated Giant’. She was the wife and tour manager of Dexter Gordon – bebop pioneer, Blue Note saxophone great and Oscar-nominated actor – in the years leading up to his death in 1990.

The book serves as a gripping biography and much more besides. It came about as a direct result of Dexter’s unfulfilled ambition to publish his autobiography. He wrote periodically throughout his life, and many illuminating excerpts are included here.

The early pages portray an oft-neglected, Los Angeles-centred survey of how the swing scene developed into the bebop revolution; we get an inside story of Dexter’s work with the Louis Armstrong Orchestra and famous Billy Eckstine Band, hothouse for future stars Art Blakey, Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.

We move onto Dexter’s productive spell with fellow bebop pioneer and close friend Dizzy Gillespie, and then his famous Savoy and Dial sessions (though there are sobering details of the contracts he signed throughout his life).

We get the story of Dexter’s dark years from 1955 to 1960, when he had frequent struggles with addiction and crime. He considered them ‘un’ years and planned to leave them out of his autobiography completely.

But things very much look up with his signing for Blue Note Records on 7 November 1960. This is the most gripping section of the book and the one that will hook most jazz fans. We learn about the recording of classic albums Our Man In Jazz and Go, and read many touching letters that Dexter sent label owners Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff while on tour.

We learn about Dexter’s move to Paris and subsequent settlement in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he was resident for 12 years and became a much-loved local face, frequently visible riding his bicycle around the city.

Maxine then explores Dexter’s triumphant return to New York in 1977, when he was welcomed back like a hero with a shiny new Columbia record deal and a host of memorable albums and gigs.

Finally there’s a long, arresting section on the making of classic 1987 jazz film ‘Round Midnight’, which almost gave Dexter a Best Actor Oscar and earned him plaudits from none other than Marlon Brando.

‘Sophisticated Giant’ slots right into the canon of great jazz books, a must for the general fan and anyone who loves Dexter’s Blue Note sides or performance in ‘Round Midnight’. It’s also notable for featuring some previously unseen photos, including a beautiful shot of Dexter, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, taken by Rudy Van Gelder.

‘Sophisticated Giant’ by Maxine Gordon is published by the University Of California Press.

Book Review: Prince And The Parade & Sign ‘O’ The Times Studio Sessions by Duane Tudahl

Could Prince have thrived in this current age of the ‘bedroom’ musician?

On the evidence of Duane Tudahl’s superb new book – documenting every single studio session that produced the classic albums Parade and Sign ‘O’ The Times, plus countless others too – the answer would be a resounding ‘no’.

As Tudahl points out in his wonderful follow-up to ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’, Prince’s genius very much depended on a coterie of talented, fiercely committed back-room staff, particularly Susan Rogers, Peggy ‘Mac’ Leonard, Coke Johnson and David Rivkin (brother of Revolution drummer Bobby), not to mention the constantly-on-call band mainstays Eric Leeds, Matt Blistan, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, all of whom are interviewed at great length.

But there’s absolutely no doubt who’s the boss and the book doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths about Prince’s methods and manners. However, it’s an embarrassment of riches for the fan and valuable historical document, not to mention a great, gossipy read.

We join the book at the beginning of 1985, smack bang in the middle of the Purple Rain tour. We learn how he quickly tired of its routine and looked ever forward, taking particular inspiration from Sheila E and other collaborators, ducking into studios around the country often straight after a gig, usually recording between 2am and 6am (Sheila’s album Romance 1600 was almost exclusively put together in this fashion).

We also learn that there were three huge equipment trucks on the tour – one that contained reels of tape, one with the stage gear and one that contained only Prince’s instruments, so that he could record anywhere, anytime.

Tudahl tells the whole story of the fascinating Los Angeles night of 28 January 1985, when Prince won three awards at the American Music Awards but then failed to repair to A&M Studios for the ‘We Are The World’ session (he offered a guitar solo to Quincy Jones but was turned down!), instead going out to party at Carlos ‘N Charlie’s Mexican restaurant.

The evening had huge repercussions and began a period of press barracking – he was even lampooned on ‘Saturday Night Live’, with Billy Crystal blacking up and singing ‘I Am The World’.

Tudahl has access to a huge number of candid interviewees who provide a kind of making-of guide to other key side projects from the period: St Paul Peterson talks in detail about the recording of The Family and his subsequent fall-out with Prince; Jill Jones describes the painful, hugely drawn-out period working on her underrated 1987 solo record; Eric Leeds describes how the Madhouse albums came about.

Then there are the fascinating details: we learn the full story of how ‘Kiss’ came together, with Prince getting inspiration while playing basketball on the Sunset Sound court; how the expansion of The Revolution in February 1986 was somewhat of a result of Prince’s fascination with ‘twins’, probably inspired by his fiancée Susannah Melvoin’s relationship with her sister Wendy.

We also get a real sense of Prince’s incredible progression as a musician, especially through the early days of 1986, and learn all of the relevant details about his collaboration with Miles Davis.

We read how the US bombing of Libya on 14 April 1986 affected Prince, inspiring a talk with Jill Jones, the viewing of a film about Nostradamus called ‘The Man Who Saw Tomorrow’ and subsequent removal of some of the more frivolous material on Jill’s album. We also learn how the LA earthquake of 12 July 1986 inspired the classic song ‘The Cross’.

And there are fascinating nuggets about how he saw his own work – he reportedly told Eric Leeds and Susan Rogers on 29 July 1986 that he thought his lyrics to ‘Adonis And Bathsheba’ were possibly his best, though Leeds and Rogers certainly didn’t agree… Both reasoned that Prince protested too much only when he was unsure of himself.

There are also the fascinating machinations of how the Sign ‘O’ The Times album finally came together, after numerous false starts, tracklist changes and the Warner Bros. top brass – led by Lenny Waronker – refusing him a triple album.

And then no detail is spared in the section on the ‘sacking’ of Wendy and Lisa, subsequent hiring of Cat Glover and reformatting of Prince’s live unit.

The period is an absolute whirlwind, and the mind boggles how much all of this studio time cost Prince and Warners. But finally the impression we are left with is that this book gets as close to the ‘real’ Prince as we are ever going to get – it’s not for the faint-hearted fan, but a fascinating, rewarding journey if you can take it.

As someone who regularly worked on a completely one-to-one basis with him, Susan Rogers often had the best seat in the house, and she offers rich insights into his family background and psychology. The section on Prince’s lonely recording session of Christmas Day 1985 will linger long in the memory.

But all of this is only scratching the surface. We haven’t even mentioned the making of ‘Under The Cherry Moon’. It’s another wonderful book and enormous achievement by Tudahl. We await ‘The Lovesexy/Batman Studio Sessions’ with baited breath.

‘Prince And The Parade/Sign ‘O’ The Times Era Studio Sessions’ is published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Author Duane Tudahl discusses the writing of the book in this podcast.

‘Level 42: Every Album, Every Song’ US Release & The Reviews Are In

‘Level 42: Every Album, Every Song’ has been available in the UK since April and just been published in the USA, Europe, Australia and Japan.

The book has just been reprinted and is onto its second edition, so if you can’t find it in your favourite local bookstore, demand it! (Or check out the links below.)

Praise for ‘Level 42: Every Album, Every Song’:

“Phillips’ concise, forensic analyses opened my eyes and ears to new facets of the band’s music.”

George Cole, Jazzwise magazine

“Bloody brilliant!”

Jem Godfrey, *Frost/Joe Satriani keyboardist, songwriter and podcaster

“It’s excellent, it really is.”

Paul Waller, Level 42 expert and author of ‘Level 42: The Worldwide Visual Discography’

“Brilliant.”

John Hannam, Isle Of Wight County Press

“To me, Level 42 are not the answer to the ultimate questions of life, yet Phillips’ engaging narrative certainly makes a strong case for it. It’s filled with knowledgeable wisdom, and he speaks his affection for the band brilliantly.”

Jan Buddenburg, DPRP

“This book is enhanced by contributions from both Mark King and Lindup whilst Phillips also provides a musician’s insight to the track by track breakdown.  A worthy and welcome re-assessment.  ****

David Randall, getreadytorock.uk

Thanks to Bass Player Magazine who ran an excerpt in their June 2021 edition:

Thanks to Level 42 mega-fan and friend of the band Julian Hall for his endorsement.

And I was interviewed by Giles Brown on Talk Radio Europe – listen here.

Get ‘Level 42: Every Album, Every Song’ here:

UK:

UK Bookshops

Burning Shed

Hive

WH Smith

Amazon

Book Depository

Waterstones

Foyles

Wordery

USA: 

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Indigo

EUROPE:

Amazon Netherlands

Amazon Germany

Amazon Sweden

Amazon Spain

AUSTRALIA:

Booktopia

JAPAN:

Amazon

Matt Phillips will return in 2022 with the complete guide to the music of John McLaughlin.

Level 42 (Every Album, Every Song): the book

‘Level 42 – Every Album, Every Song (on track)’ is my first book and the first in-depth study of the band’s illustrious catalogue.

It features recording information, musical analysis, studio gossip, full credits, stories from the road and contributions from head honcho Mark King and previous members Gary Husband and Phil Gould. The book also places their output within the wider musical landscape of the 1980s and 1990s.

‘Level 42 – Every Album, Every Song’ is available via the links below:

UK:

UK Bookshops

Burning Shed

Hive

WH Smith

Amazon

Book Depository

Waterstones

Foyles

Wordery

USA: 

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Indigo

EUROPE:

Amazon Germany

Amazon Netherlands

Amazon Sweden

Amazon Spain

AUSTRALIA:

Booktopia

(and soon to be available elsewhere – watch this space…)

Book Review: Kick It (A Social History Of The Drum Kit) by Matt Brennan

What’s your favourite drummer joke?

One attributed to legendary London saxophonist/club owner Ronnie Scott particularly sticks in the memory:

‘Dad, I want to be a drummer when I grow up.’

‘Well, make your mind up, son. You can’t do both.’

Though Matt Brennan’s excellent ‘Kick It: A Social History Of The Drum Kit’ commences with a raft of such jibes, it does so only to make a point and might even put pay to them forever. The book puts skin-spankers right at the forefront of modern music and is surely the best PR job for the profession yet to emerge.

Though ostensibly an ‘academic’ work, ‘Kick It’ is anything but stodgy or overly-analytical – rather, it’s an enjoyable, fast-paced, truly internationalist voyage through the evolution of the drum kit and status/profession of the drummer, from slave ships to the modern-day, multi-tasking, technology-savvy ‘beat-maker’, via Congo Square, the swing/bebop revolutions of the 1930s/1940s and advent of the studio player in the 1960s.

‘Kick It’ unflinchingly outlines how racial and cultural stereotypes initially hampered the status of the percussionist in modern industrial societies, but also brilliantly describes the vital role of the multi-faceted, ambidextrous drummer in vaudeville, minstrel and music-hall traditions (drummers were called upon to supply everything from rainfall to thundercracks during live performance).

Accordingly, Brennan also shows how drummers’ demands accelerated technological developments both in kit/cymbal construction and recording techniques, and also how German, Turkish and British manufacturers were arguably just as important as the American companies.

Brennan outlines the careers and styles of such legends as Gene Krupa (who put the tom-tom on the map), Kenny Clarke (who brought the ride cymbal and kick drum into play) and Earl Palmer, who served as a link between ‘jazz’ and ‘pop’ players, ‘swinging’ his rock grooves on records by Fats Domino and Chuck Berry even as pianists and guitarists were moving towards ‘straight eights’.

Brennan also looks at the issue of sexism in the percussion industry, with particular focus on the tragic career of gifted drummer Karen Carpenter.

Later Brennan makes fascinating parallels in the careers and playing styles of first Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, then, in a moving section, Keith Moon and John Bonham (the latter two dying at the depressingly young age of 32 – Brennan fascinatingly explores how both may have suffered from feelings of inferiority and insecurity, not helped by the attitudes of their bandmates).

‘Kick It’ moves intriguingly into the 1980s, looking at the careers of Billy Cobham, Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Neil Peart and Steve Gadd, exploring how recording techniques and drum machines revolutionised percussion sounds, and finally comes right up to the present to investigate how sampling and programming have given drummers a whole new lease of life in the streaming era.

A tremendous achievement – both a history lesson and exciting story to boot – ‘Kick It’ had this drummer newly inspired, rushing to his kit with some gusto and not a little pride.

Players will find a host of fascinating photos and stories – the book may also have you questioning everything you ever assumed about the traditional kit – while the general music fan will find an intriguing, fast-paced history of modern music.

Don’t let ‘em ever tell you you’re ‘just’ a drummer…

‘Kick It’ is published by the Oxford University Press.

Book Review: My Life In The Purple Kingdom by BrownMark

It’s a time-honoured music-biz story: The Hometown Kid Makes It Big.

Or, to paraphrase Bill Bruford, first you get used to failure, then you get used to success.

But BrownMark’s new memoir ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’, outlining his five-year stint as bassist with Prince And The Revolution, has a few intriguing twists to the old story.

Firstly, it’s a very timely work, since there’s very little documentation about the Inner Workings of the Purple Rain circus (though this excellent new podcast lifts the lid a little more).

Then there’s the added intrigue of the book mainly taking place in the huge, often-underestimated Midwestern city of Minneapolis. The early sections are gripping, a vision of a young man flourishing as a musician, getting by in (racially and economically) difficult conditions, supported by a loving mother and extended family.

He documents the Minneapolis music scene of the 1970s very well, tracing his development from young Staple Singers/Ohio Players/Earth, Wind & Fire fan into the local ‘star’, with lots of talk about image creation in the era of Rick James and Controversy-era Prince (‘Only women had clothes that fit the vibe I was looking for, but I didn’t want to dress in drag’…).

Soon Prince has his number, and there’s a long, strange section on his recruitment for The Revolution (spoiler alert: hardcore Prince fans should approach the book with caution…), and a memorable account of the infamous October 1981 gig supporting The Rolling Stones in Los Angeles.

There are some excellent photographs, many of which this writer had never seen, and a fine introduction by Questlove, Prince fanatic and esteemed Black Music documentarian.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is also a cursory tale, a veritable How Not To Succeed In The Music Biz, and it has to be said that Mark sometimes comes across as incredibly naïve, even for a nineteen-year-old. This speaks to something very strange at the heart of the book.

There are missing details that put everything else into doubt – nothing about the status of the offer Mark received from Prince’s management upon joining The Revolution (whisked out of nowhere to join one of the most successful bands of all time, he never discusses terms and then is shocked when ‘cheated’ out of a bonus); nothing about his knowledge of Prince’s music before he joined The Revolution; barely a mention of any Prince songs or interesting musical moments during his time in the band (only Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink get cursory mentions).

The book has a ‘happy’ ending of sorts, ending with Mark’s late-‘80s solo deal with Motown Records, but bizarrely the recent (very successful) Revolution reunion isn’t mentioned.

It’s almost as if he wrote it back in 1990, at the height of his bitterness and brain fog. The closing, cursory thanks to Prince almost raises the first proper laugh of the book.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is an absolute must for 1999 and Purple Rain completists and those wanting to know more about the Minneapolis music scene. It’s an arresting piece of social history, often gripping and definitely original, especially in its early sections.

‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ by BrownMark (with Cynthia Uhrich) is published by the University Of Minnesota Press.