Scientology In Session: Chick Corea Elektric Band’s Light Years (1987)

Jazz/fusion of the late-’80s variety is sure to give any John Peel acolyte nightmares: visions of guys in tracksuit bottoms, trainers and vests, looking like extras from ‘Thirtysomething’, playing absurdly gymnastic jazz/rock based on corny ‘funk’ or Latin vamps, grinning at each other and the audience, using the cheesiest modern gizmos (Simmons electric drums, EWI wind instruments, guitar synths).

The Chick Corea Elektric Band (Corea: keyboards, Frank Gambale: guitar, John Patitucci: bass, Dave Weckl: drums) probably best epitomised this style. But guess what – revisiting their 1987 album Light Years recently, it emerges as one of the best and least ridiculous projects of Chick’s career.

He reins in the chops and gothic longeurs to produce a collection of really good themes and tight, attractive arrangements (though the three ‘extra’ tracks on the CD/streaming versions are disaster areas). The album is also musical catnip for me, bringing back memories of when I was first getting into jazz and fusion.

The thing is that Chick seems to actually relish including some pentatonic/blues-based harmony on Light Years. Some of his playing wouldn’t seem out of place in the music of Will Downing or Lonnie Liston Smith. There are even a few II-V-I chord changes.

‘Starlight’ and the title track are as catchy and immediate as David Sanborn’s ‘Run For Cover’ or ‘Hideaway’, though Marienthal’s alto tone is a bit too close to Dave’s for comfort. Weckl delivers lesson after lesson in Latin-flavoured funk and rock drumming. Gambale and Patitucci barely break sweat, or rather don’t get any room to show off, but still make a few telling contributions.

‘Time Track’ and ‘View From The Outside’ demonstrate everything that’s good about Light Years – catchy melodies, cool grooves and meticulous, gradually-escalating arrangements. The ridiculously technical last four bars of the former demonstrate some of the killer musical chops that are kept pretty much in the locker throughout the album, only to be brought out when strictly necessary. I saw them live a couple of times around this time and of course the musicianship was incredible, even if the relentlessly ‘up’ stage presentation now looks pretty embarrassing.

Light Years is obviously good. It’s brutally, clinically good. It’s almost critic-proof. The Elektric Band were the Level 42 of high-octane fusion and this album is their World Machine. Of course it’ll always sound a bit like muzak to some, but that’s quite cool too.

The CD’s inlay card features a really weird poem by Chick, kind of an ode to Scientology. It’s worth reading. And actually the album cover is pretty strange too when you think about it…

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Gig Review: John McLaughlin @ Barbican, 23rd April 2019

If this was John’s final London gig, what a way to go out. Though the audience’s response was at times reverential and/or strangely undemonstrative, the outpouring of emotion at the conclusion was heartfelt and seemed to come as quite a shock to the performers too.

It’s hard to think of another ‘jazz’ band which has endured for so long with the same personnel as The 4th Dimension. This unit (McLaughlin – guitars, Gary Husband – keyboards/drums, Etienne M’Bappe – bass, Ranjit Barot – drums) has toured the world and elsewhere since 2010, playing a fiery mix of jazz, rock, blues, Indian, old-school R’n’B and industrial.

Tonight was no exception, though there was a much larger dose of spiritual jazz than usual, courtesy of not one but two Pharoah Sanders covers: ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ and ‘Light At The Edge Of The World’. You could take or leave the slightly dodgy band singing, but the message of love and understanding was powerful and still relevant.

One can also take or leave John’s guitar tone these days (sometimes one wishes for a far less ‘refined’ sound), but his playing sounded back to its brilliant, fluid, lyrical best tonight, a little like his return to the electric in 1978 after the long acoustic sojourn in Shakti. And if the mood of the evening’s music was generally uplifting, with new takes on the frenetic modern classic ‘Hijacked’, Mahavishnu favourite ‘Trilogy’ and raunchy ‘Echoes From Then’, ‘Gaza City’ was heartfelt and touching, a lament for a lost place.

Just a few gripes: one occasionally hankered after another soloing foil for John, an L Shankar or Gary Thomas; this music asks a hell of a lot from Husband and Barot. Also, listening to the latter’s ‘hit everything all the time’ ethos (though his konakkol vocal/rhythmic interludes are always fascinating), one realised what a tasteful, selective drummer Dennis Chambers had been during the ’90s organ trio/’Heart Of Things’ era.

John started the evening heralding a slight return not to Great Britain but to ‘Great Brexit’, and ended it with a gentle: ‘You’re all one. Thank you’. A powerful, important concert, especially if we don’t see him on a British stage again.

Frank Gambale Live! 30 Years On

I’ll never forget it. Circa 1990, I was on holiday with my parents in Kent, near the Cliffs of Dover. A summer storm was chucking it down. Holed up inside, I flicked through some French music stations on my longwave radio.

Suddenly I heard this absolutely ridiculous guitar playing – deafeningly loud, hysterical, but totally precise, with great phrasing and notes that spluttered out in absurdly wide intervals. The tone was heavily distorted but the feel was closer to jazz/rock than metal. And the rhythm section didn’t sound too shabby either.

By this time, I had heard Allan Holdsworth, Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen, John McLaughlin, some pretty outrageous guitarists, but this was different. Who the hell was it? I strained my ears and just about heard the French DJ utter the words ‘Frank Gambale’.

Yes, it was the Italian-Australian wunderkind, the man who introduced so-called ‘sweep picking’ to a wider audience than before. And the album was revealed to be Live!, released 30 years ago this week and recorded at LA’s jazz/rock haven The Baked Potato on 21st August 1988.

What was really weird was that I had heard Gambale with the Chick Corea Elektric band before this, and even seen them live a few times, but he seemed pretty anonymous in that band. Not here. To this day, ‘Credit Reference Blues’, ‘Fe Fi Fo Funk’, ‘Touch Of Brasil’ and ‘The Natives Are Restless’ sound like guitar landmarks.

But he was way more than a chops phenomenon – he’s an excellent composer too, clearly influenced by Chick Corea and Larry Carlton but with some moves all of his own. The album also introduced me to the fantastic Joey Heredia on drums, a completely original player who can do fiery jazz/rock, spicy Latin and Police-style rock, sometimes all in the space of one tune. And the excellent keyboard player Kei Akagi was moonlighting with Miles Davis while playing some sh*t-hot stuff on this album.

Frank Gambale Live! was a key artefact in the golden age of shred guitar, and it gained him some crossover success with metal fans and lots of coverage in guitar magazines. Sadly his solo career refused to fire after this release, with only moments of 1990’s Thunder From Down Under subsequently holding much interest for me, but this was a sporadically brilliant live jazz/rock album – and one of the best. (It has to be said, there’s not much competition – Larry Carlton’s Last Nite, Weather Report’s 8:30, Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group Live!, Mahavishnu’s Between Nothingness And Eternity, and…er…)

Narada Michael Walden: Looking At You, Looking At Me/The Nature Of Things/Divine Emotion

Singing drummers: the ’80s were chock-a-block with ’em. But Narada seems a somewhat forgotten example, at least compared to the far more popular Phil C, Don H, Stevie W and Sheila E.

Yet he started the decade as the one you’d probably have put your money on, ending the ’70s as he did with an impressive run of R’n’B hits.

Narada had of course started his music career as a jazz/rock drumming tornado in the second incarnation of John McLaughlin’s mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra, going on to record famous fusion sides with Jeff Beck, Weather Report, Tommy Bolin, Alphonso Johnson and Jaco Pastorius.

During the ’80s, he was one of the most in-demand producers on the planet, helming Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, Aretha Franklin/George Michael’s ‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’ and Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’. But his solo career was somewhat in limbo during this period, so it’s fascinating to check out a new, nicely-appointed three-album survey of his 1983-1988 output.

Looking At You, Looking At Me (1983) is the best of the three albums, but a frustratingly inconsistent record. Listening to the superb title track, you’d think he might have found hit his true metier, a languid, luxurious, West Coast pop/jazz, similar to the kind of music Al Jarreau or Manhattan Transfer were making at the time.

But an OK duet with Angela Bofill, passable cover of ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ and sick drum-machine/horn workout ‘Shake It Off’ aside, the rest of the album is fairly unmemorable R’n’B with occasional virtuosity from guitarist Corrado Rustici and bassist Randy Jackson.

The followup, 1985’s Nature Of Things, is even more problematic, sounding mainly like a kind of soft R’n’B version of the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack, with way too many synth-based ballads. But Divine Emotion (1988) was a partial return to form, led by the effervescent title track (with one of the great ’80s basslines) which gave him a timely UK hit.

Narada had obviously been prompted into action by his highly successful production work – his vocals and arrangements have never been better. But while Divine Emotion sounds like a million dollars, there are still issues on the songwriting front. Put simply, only the title track, ‘But What Up Doh’ and closer ‘We Still Have A Dream’ have memorable hooks (the latter also features some brilliant jazz/rock kit work from Narada).

One wonders what might have happened if he had hooked up with some great ‘pop’ songwriters like Kenny Loggins, Rod Temperton, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager or even Burt Bacharach at the outset of the decade rather than relentlessly ploughing his own furrow. ‘Looking At Me, Looking At You’ offers tantalising possibilities.

But looking at his career as a whole, it’s all turned out fine – Narada’s always been one of the coolest, most talented musician/producers around, and apparently he’s an absolute joy to work with.

Book Review: Pat Metheny (The ECM Years 1975-1984) by Mervyn Cooke

You know the guy: long, bushy hair, beatific grin, jeans, sneakers, long-sleeved T-shirt, usually rhapsodizing intensely via some kind of guitar gizmo. Despite his many stylistic detours, Pat Metheny is a brand all right, and his music inspires a devotion and attendant sales profile that has rarely – if ever – been afforded to ‘jazz’ musicians.

If you – like me – aren’t always enamoured by the bulletproof sincerity of his stage presentation (in Gary Giddins’ memorable words, he ‘intones plush melodies with excessive sobriety, as though the notes were transmitted directly from God’ – the main reason why I’ve always preferred his stuff on record rather than live…), it’s beyond doubt that Metheny is one of the great guitar soloists.

Mervyn Cooke’s superb new book ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984’ sheds light on the first – and, for me, best – decade of the guitarist’s recording career, when he was the famous European jazz label’s top turn. It’s an academic study, though never boring and certainly never predictable, with close attention played to Pat’s guitar styles, musical history, tunings, key collaborators (loads of new stuff about Jaco, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Gary Burton and Lyle Mays here), equipment, album cover designs and inspirations.

There are fascinating details, like Metheny’s obsession with flat ride cymbals (hence his deliberate placement of drummers onstage, ride cymbals always in close proximity to his left ear) and his singular band-leading philosophies. There are solo transcriptions and quotes from archive interviews. Cooke also shrewdly compares Metheny’s studio work in this era to that of Weather Report’s, drawing parallels between both acts’ meticulous sculpting of supposedly ‘spontaneous’ musical performances and attempts to concoct ‘through-composed’ – rather than vamp-based – material.

Metheny fans will love ‘The ECM Years’, as will anyone who has even the faintest interest in guitar trends of the last 40 years. It also serves as a rich biography of ECM Records in its early years, with numerous revelations about label boss Manfred Eicher.

Reading the book sent me running back to choice cuts from Pat’s early albums that I liked during my teenage years – Bright Size Life, American Garage, 80/81, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, Travels, Rejoicing, First Circle, Song X. Revisiting As Falls Wichita in particular has been somewhat of a revelation. (Prog fans: check out side one, below. It’s a cinematic masterpiece, analysed in great detail by Cooke.)

Mervyn Cooke’s ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984’ is published by Oxford University Press.

Superhero Unmasked? Stanley Clarke’s The Message

Stanley’s music first grabbed me sometime in the mid-’80s. It was the bassist/composer’s 1974 self-titled album featuring Tony Williams on drums, Jan Hammer on keyboards and Bill Connors on guitar. It fair blew me away; with hindsight, it was a near-perfect combo of Coltrane, Hendrix and Bootsy.

Clarke remains a hero – I still greet his new albums with some enthusiasm and his career seems to have enjoyed a new lease of life over the last 10 years or so. 2006’s Toys Of Men was a huge return to form, and releases since then have been prolific if less impressive.

Which brings us to Stanley’s new album, The Message. It continues his tried-and-tested formula: some sh*t-kickin’, symphonic jazz/rock, vocal-based R’n’B, acoustic interludes with a classical bent and brief novelty curios featuring some guest star or other (this time Doug E Fresh on rapping and human beatbox). On previous classics like School Days and If This Bass Could Only Talk, the formula worked a treat. But this time, besides the typically great playing, there are a few issues – with Stanley’s production, compositions and ‘message’.

The opener ‘And Ya Know We’re Missing You’ is a tribute to all of the following: Al Jarreau, Ndugu Chancler, Tom Petty, Chuck Berry and Larry Coryell. It sounds suspiciously like a demo, complete with distortion and rudimentary ‘slap in E’ groove. In other words, it’s the kind of thing Stanley can do in his sleep. Sure, he can pay tribute to whoever he likes in whichever way he deems suitable, but this seems a really uncommitted two minutes of music.

A re-tread of the Return To Forever classic ‘After The Cosmic Rain’ also emphasises the problem with contemporary production – compare it to Stanley’s 1999 version with his Vertu supergroup. That version had balls, low-end, dynamics, space. The new one sounds hemmed in, dried out, panicky. Drummer Mike Mitchell must take some of the blame too – he has perfected the lightning-fast single-stroke rolls but they get boring very quickly. It doesn’t help that he tunes his drums to choking point.

There are substantial pieces of music here: the title track, ‘The Rugged Truth’ and ‘The Legend Of The Abbas And The Sacred Talisman’ are great compositions which bear comparison with Stanley classics like ‘Light As A Feather’, ‘Life Is Just A Game’ and ‘Song To John’.

The acoustic-bass take on Bach’s Cello Suite is gorgeous too, but a few other tracks are beyond help – the treacly ‘Lost In A World’ and ‘To Be Alive’ irritate, while only Stanley knows what’s behind ‘Combat Continuum’, a nutty futuristic spoken-word/fusion piece about impending war. I preferred his preposterous, sci-fi-influenced outbursts on 1978’s Modern Man.

What a shame. It could have been a classic, but The Message has 5/10 written all over it. It’s definitely one for filleting on streaming services though, and I’m sure the music will come alive in concert.

The Message is out now on Mack Avenue.