Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays: As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls 40 Years On

‘A game of two halves’ is a common expression in football, but it can apply to albums too.

We all know albums which have one good side and one bad one (I’ll throw in The Seeds Of Love, Fulfingness’ First Finale, Music Of My Mind, The Colour Of Spring for your consideration…).

But another humdinger is As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, released 40 years ago today.

The Cult Of Metheny has ensnared many, and puzzled just as many. But As Falls Wichita fell smack bang in my favourite era of Pat’s music (between American Garage and Song X), and represented a real change of scene.

Side one’s 20-minute title track delivered a full-on prog/fusion masterwork, ably assisted by Lyle Mays in classic-synth heaven (Prophet 5, various Oberheims, Roland CR-78 and Linn LM-1 drum machines), always totally recognisable, and at a time when polyphonic playing had just become possible. He was rapidly becoming a Joe Zawinul for the 1980s.

‘As Falls Wichita’ may be the most ‘rock’ music released on the ECM label during the 1980s, with the possible exception of David Torn’s 1987 record Cloud About Mercury. It also seems dangerously ambitious. Then again, the whole album was recorded in just three days! Lesser musicians could have taken a month to record this track alone.

Apparently chiefly written to play over the PA system before Metheny Group concerts, it’s pure headphone music. The enigmatic title (apparently nicked, with permission, from an unreleased Steve Swallow composition) and superb album cover certainly help.

The track plays out like a good movie (its working title was ‘Apocalypse When’). It’s more John Carpenter than Keith Jarrett. You might even describe it as cathartic, dammit.

(Another reason for its success may be the complete lack of instrumental solos. Pat doesn’t get any solo space at all – he just plays some unobtrusive bass, chiming 12-string electric and a little six-string. All sounds are textural and in the service of the whole piece.)

A superb live version was featured on the 1983 Metheny Group album Travels. And those who remember the Christian Dior ‘Fahrenheit’ adverts in the late 1980s may be familiar with a small excerpt of the track:

But back to that ‘album of two halves’ thing. Sadly, side two of As Falls Wichita is New-Age sludge. Ponderous and flabby, it’s fuel to Pat detractors, but probably loved by acolytes.

‘September Fifteenth’, a tribute to Bill Evans (named for the date of the great jazz pianist’s death in 1980) is the chief culprit. A closing, out-of-tune version of ‘Amazing Grace’ doesn’t help. It’s music for tired Apple executives, and sounds like it was recorded in the last afternoon of the three days.

But As Falls Wichita was an unexpected smash by ‘jazz’ standards: the album got to #1 on the Billboard Jazz Charts and quickly became Metheny’s biggest seller to date.

So happy 40th birthday to the classic title track. Pour yourself something tall, tune in, drop out, get the headphones on, lie on the floor and crank it up. It’s a trip, man…

Further reading: ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years’ by Mervyn Cooke

Ben Sidran: Talking Jazz (An Oral History)

They say that if you want to understand why an instrumentalist plays the way he or she plays, listen to them speak.

That makes total sense when hearing Wayne Shorter or Ornette Coleman being interviewed. And now, courtesy of Ben Sidran, there’s never been a better chance to hear other examples of this.

Sidran is a renowned pianist/composer and author of three excellent music books: ‘Black Talk’, ‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ and ‘Talking Jazz’. The latter was based on a series of interviews broadcast on USA’s National Public Radio between 1984 and 1990. And now we can hear them in their entirety.

What a fascinating collection it is. Many interviewees go against type: those with a reputation for being somewhat ‘taciturn’ (Paul Motian, Donald Fagen, Tony Williams, Miles) are open, light-hearted and often giggly.

Some have their axes with them – we hear modern masters Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, John Scofield, John Patitucci, David Sanborn and Steve Khan demonstrate their harmonic hallmarks. I asked the latter for his recollections of the ‘Talking Jazz’ interview:

It was done on 23 October 1984 at Roxy Recording, located at 648 Broadway, NYC – which was downtown, near Soho. It was conducted from 1-3pm! How about THAT?!

Elsewhere, Art Blakey talks touchingly about his appeal to a young, eager London crowd, Carla Bley is amusingly honest and Kevin Eubanks sounds 30 years ahead of his time, discussing global warming and environmental disasters.

It’s also fascinating to hear lost masters’ voices on tape, speaking with such candour: Gil Evans, Johnny Griffin, Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, and many more. Sidran is a great host/interviewer, friendly and hip to the artists’ work but not scared to ask the tough questions.

Don’t miss. Listen to the interviews on Bandcamp.

Bruford: One Of A Kind Revisited

In the late 1980s, some ‘long-lost’ cult tracks took on almost mythical status amongst my musician friends and I.

There was Frank Zappa’s ‘The Black Page’, Rush’s ‘YYZ’ and ‘La Villa Strangiato’, UK’s ‘In The Dead Of Night’ and Bill Bruford’s ‘Five G’ and ‘Travels With Myself And Someone Else’.

Guitarist Allan Holdsworth, who died four years ago today, of course featured on the latter three tracks (he originally came to my attention when It Bites’ Francis Dunnery waxed lyrical about him in a 1989 Guitarist magazine interview).

Pre-YouTube and Spotify, the problem was that you just couldn’t get hold of this stuff (even though it was barely ten years old!).

So it was a thrill when I finally tracked down a copy of Bruford’s One Of A Kind album – featuring ‘Five G’ and ‘Travels With Myself’ – sometime in the mid-1990s.

And now this landmark collection has received the posh reissue treatment, as part of a box set or as a double CD set featuring a new stereo remix, carried out by Bruford and Level 42/King Crimson guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, and a DVD containing the remastered original mix and a new surround-sound mix.

You could argue that the album is the most complete work by all of the participants. Recorded at Soho’s Trident Studios, One Of A Kind was released on the cusp of the 1980s and pointed to where all the four members’ music would take them in the new decade.

There’s no quantizing here – it’s music that breathes (check out the ‘bendy’ time on ‘Hells Bells’, ‘Travels’ and the title track) played by empathetic, truly virtuosic musicians.

But is it rock, jazz, prog or fusion? Who knows, but it’s some of the greatest British instrumental music of all time.

Bruford stuns with one of the tightest drum sounds on record – whipcrack snare, cutting Rototoms – with great phrasing and ideas, some fantastic tuned percussion (marimba, xylophone) and excellent compositions. Bassist Jeff Berlin is an astonishing talent – logical, inventive, technically perfect but never boring.

Dave Stewart (not to be confused with David A Stewart of Eurythmics) is a revelation, layering superbly with his new Prophet 5 synth and adding some effective solos. The liner notes report Holdsworth returning to the studio after a break, hearing Stewart overdubbing on ‘Travels With Myself’ and finding himself in tears.

For his part, Allan was by all accounts rather unhappy during the recording, but delivers brilliant, moving solos, particularly on ‘Travels’ and ‘Sahara Of Snow Part 2’. He also contributes the excellent composition ‘The Abingdon Chasp’, apparently named for a beloved brand of real ale.

Then there’s the resplendent ‘Fainting In Coils’, complete with the ‘Alice In Wonderland’ excerpts and tricky time signature which sounds completely natural in Bruford’s hands.

But how does the new remix sound? First, the good news: the title track, ‘Fainting In Coils’ and ‘Hells Bells’ sound fresh and thrilling; it’s like hearing them for the first time.

But now the bad news: ‘Travels’ inserts some new Stewart solo licks, inaccurately mutes some of his synth pads and then inexplicably mixes his acoustic piano way down and drenches it in muddy reverb (though Holdsworth’s comping is brought forward in the mix).

Then there’s ‘Five G’ – it’s mixed totally dry, with all reverb removed, again with Stewart’s keys too low and Berlin’s bass too high and too ‘middly’.

And the packaging? Sid Smith’s liner notes are excellent, with some lovely, previously-unpublished photos from rehearsal rooms and pub gardens (both in Kingston, Surrey!).

But there’s no sign of the tracklisting or song/composer credits on the digipack – you have to search around for the inner pamphlet to find the details printed in the middle, so quick reference while listening is not easy.

Still – even if the remix is patchy (I can’t comment on the surround mix), the whole package is well worth getting. Any excuse to celebrate a classic album and brilliant band, and a rich voyage of discovery if you don’t know this music.

One Of A Kind Expanded & Remixed is available at Burning Shed.

Jaco Pastorius: Truth, Liberty & Soul (Live In NYC, 27 June 1982)

Even as the streaming revolution sweeps all before it, there are a few aspects of physical music that seem to be thriving: vinyl and the ‘historical discovery’.

Bass superstar Jaco is now a worthy recipient of both, courtesy of Truth, Liberty & Soul, a complete gig recorded at the Avery Fisher Hall in New York City on 27 June 1982, part of that summer’s Kool Jazz Festival.

The concert was originally broadcast live on NPR but has lain in the vaults for decades, and it took Resonance Records (via vaultmeister Zev Feldman) six years to prepare these tapes for release.

It features Jaco alongside his regular band (Bob Mintzer – saxes, Randy Brecker – trumpet, Don Alias – percussion, Othello Molineaux – steel drums, Peter Erskine – drums), plus special guest Toots Thielemans on harmonica and a big band full of NYC’s finest horn players.

The album catches Jaco at somewhat of a crossroads; by most accounts, June 1982 was the last time he was truly ‘together’ in terms of his mental wellbeing, the wheels really coming off during the Japanese tour later that autumn. (Fans of a certain age may fondly remember the televised live gig from the Montreal Jazz Festival which took place on 3 July 1982 – see below).

The question is, if you already own Jaco’s 1983 live album Invitation (released in slightly expanded form as Twins in Japan), also featuring the big band, is it worth getting this one? The answer is a resounding yes. It’s thrilling to hear a whole gig in real time by one of the last true jazz titans.

The sound is superb – crisp, deep and rich. The packaging is excellent, with a weighty booklet full of incisive essays and previously unseen photos. Anyone sick of bandleaders’ endless yakking to the audience to run down the clock these days will be pleased to hear that Jaco doesn’t utter a single word until a garbled band announcement during the closer ‘Fannie Mae’ – he’s there to play music.

There are many highlights – a killer ‘Donna Lee’, touching Afro-Cuban take on Toots’s ‘Bluesette’, an epic ‘Liberty City’ and particularly Mintzer’s superb composition ‘Mr Fonebone’, electrifying in big-band format.

There are one or two longeurs – we could probably do without the extended percussion and drum ‘improvisations’. And it has to be said that Jaco doesn’t sound on completely top form during his solos, though that’s possibly due to the size/acoustics of the venue, alluded to by a few contributors in the liner notes. But his accompaniment is typically brilliant throughout.

Frankly, it makes one desperate to attend such a gig in these crazy times. Truth, Liberty & Soul is a valuable release and an absolute must for anyone who owns any Jaco or Jaco-era Joni Mitchell/Weather Report albums.

 

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.

Jeff Beck @ The Royal Albert Hall: 1983 v 2004

Legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns has worked with many of the biggies (The Beatles, Led Zep, The Stones, The Who), but arguably his most important task was putting together the Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) concerts on Ronnie Lane’s behalf.

For the London iteration – taking place at the Royal Albert Hall on 20th September 1983 – Johns opened his address book and assembled a tremendous lineup of Brit greats: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, John Paul Jones, Andy Fairweather-Low, Bill Wyman, Kenney Jones, Charlie Watts.

The whole concert is worth watching and occasionally superb (check out Clapton’s versions of ‘Lay Down Sally’ and ‘Cocaine’), but Beck’s set is particularly fascinating. It was three years since his (superb) last studio album There And Back and he hadn’t played a major gig for almost that long.

A clearly under-rehearsed band did their best with the RAH’s famously dodgy ‘rock’ sound (despite Beck’s gorgeous stereo delay, if you’re listening on headphones/speakers), not helped by drummer Simon Phillips being set up about 20 yards behind the rest of the group!

But it’s a great success, mainly through the musicians’ sheer force of will and Beck’s outrageous playing (check out his solo on ‘Led Boots’). The Tony Hymas/Fernando Sanders/Phillips rhythm section is terrific, and there’s even a funny version of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ featuring Beck’s reluctant vocals alongside Winwood and Fairthweather-Low.

Just over 20 years later, on 24th June 2004, Beck was back at the Albert Hall for his 60th birthday gig, and I had a good seat. His live outings were much more common at this point; recently he’d played Hyde Park and also celebrated 40 years in the music biz at the Royal Festival Hall with John McLaughlin and The White Stripes.

But this concert was particularly notable for featuring enigmatic keyboard genius Jan Hammer, one-time Mahavishnu member and chief collaborator with Beck on Wired and There And Back. Making up the numbers were the phenomenal Mondesir brothers: Mike on bass, Mark on drums.

Beck hardly seemed to have aged. Wearing black jeans and black vest, he stalked the stage like a born showman, exchanging grins and winks with Hammer, occasionally punching the air to emphasise a musical flourish.

However, things started a little uncertainly; ‘Freeway Jam’ and ‘Star Cycle seemed leaden. But by the time Beck roared into ‘Big Block’, the energy level of the band had gone up two or three notches.

Old favourites ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Blue Wind’ seemed to mean little to the Albert Hall audience but the long-hairs reacted more positively to Beck’s most recent work from albums like You Had It Coming and Who Else?.

There were some unintentionally amusing Tap-esque moments too, like the big-screen footage of Jeff’s souped-up hot rods during ‘Big Block’ and the cloud of dry ice which almost engulfed him during ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’.

For the encore, Ronnie Wood sauntered on to play a charmingly ramshackle version of The Meters’ ‘Cissy Strut’. Two old rockers from Surrey playing a funky New Orleans anthem? That’s the majesty of fusion!

So, while they’re still around, let’s cherish El Becko and the best of British. (And I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve featured Jeff – one of my all-time musical heroes – on this website. Better late than never.)

Bireli Lagrene on Blue Note: Inferno/Foreign Affairs

It’s fair to say that many excellent jazz and jazz/rock guitar players emerged during the 1980s.

But arguably none – with the possible exception of Stanley Jordan – made as much of an impact as Bireli Lagrene.

He’s hardly a household name but Bireli recorded a few fine albums for Blue Note Records and toured extensively with Jaco Pastorius just before the bassist’s tragic death.

The French guitarist was seen in many circles as the natural heir to Django Reinhardt at the outset of the ’80s. The teenage prodigy wowed everyone with a few independent releases (initially in a manouche style) and European tours.

The key to his sound seemed to be absolute freedom. Like Jaco and Django, he has no fear. He tries things, always pushing himself. To paraphrase John McLaughlin, he’s swinging before he even starts playing.

Inferno, his debut Blue Note album, featured some excellent, freewheeling electric playing – more Mike Stern and Van Halen than Reinhardt – but the musical settings were a bit stilted and it suffered from too many changes in personnel.

But Bireli found a great foil in producer and fellow guitarist Steve Khan, and their 1988 follow-up Foreign Affairs was a big improvement.

I was mildly obsessed with this album for about a month during spring 1989 – I remember buying it on the same day as seeing ‘Rain Man’ in the cinema, fact fans…

There was far more of a ‘band’ vibe on this sophomore effort, and what a band: monster drummer Dennis Chambers is in Weather Report mode, with Zawinul-style half-time shuffles (‘Josef’) and fast Latin/fusion grooves (‘Senegal’).

And check out his burning solo at the end of the title track. Keyboardist Koono is a huge find and also obviously a big Zawinul fan, and recently departed bassist Jeff Andrews plays as tastily as ever.

Possibly as a result of his sad death in September 1987, Jaco’s influence is all over this album, particularly on the catchy opener ‘Timothee’ which features a mischievous, brilliant fretless bass solo by Bireli in tribute to his friend and mentor.

Elsewhere, Bireli’s sometimes outrageous guitar playing is typified by the screaming octave leap at the end of ‘St Jean’, and he uses a lot more tonal colours than on the debut album.

Tunes wise, Foreign Affairs‘ formula is not really that much different to the classic Blue Note albums of the ’60s – a few originals, a few sideman compositions and a few covers (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Jack Rabbit’ and Ira Gershwin/Vernon Duke’s ‘I Can’t Get Started’).

The latter in particular exemplifies a great production job by Khan, always getting a warm and ambient sound.

Foreign Affairs is almost impossible to find on CD or vinyl these days but it’s just been added to streaming platforms, featuring some extra solo acoustic guitar tracks not on the original album.

It’s well worth another listen, as is Inferno. Bireli stayed with Blue Note for a couple more albums in the early ’90s, but they were far more traditional propositions.

Bill Laswell: Baselines Revisited

Bill Laswell has carved out one of the most critic-proof careers in music.

He’s probably best known as the producer of distinctive pop hits (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, PiL’s ‘Rise’, Sly & Robbie’s ‘Boops’) and rock/jazz legends in need of a makeover (Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss, Iggy Pop’s Instinct, Sonny Sharrock’s Ask The Ages, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Red Warrior).

He was the Miles Davis Estate’s go-to man for reimagining the trumpeter’s 1970s catalogue (Panthalassa) and also hugely important for bringing the P-funk sound into the ’80s and ’90s.

But Laswell is also a highly-original bassist in his own right and was a key figure of the late-’70s/early-’80s Downtown New York scene, featuring in bands like Massacre, Last Exit and Material (though he was pretty disparaging about the ‘scene’, once telling writer Bill Milkowski: ‘There never really was a Downtown community. All that means is that people don’t have enough money to get a better place to live…’).

His solo career has been interesting too, latterly showcasing a fusion of ambient, world and dub styles. But it’s his debut album Baselines (released 14th June 1983 on Elektra/Asylum) that really floats my boat.

He plays a lot more bass than usual, fusing the soundworlds of Bootsy and Ornette Coleman and doing cool things like sticking objects under the strings or digging out the old Mu-Tron pedal for some memorably funky lines.

To these ears, Baselines is also the project that gave him the perfect vehicle for all his interests – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts-style found sounds, paranoid funk a la Talking Heads/King Crimson, Afrobeat, early hip-hop, avant-fusion, authentic jazz soloing and even post-punk white noise courtesy of future Chili Peppers/Soundgarden producer Michael Beinhorn.

I wasn’t in New York in 1983 but this album would seem to be a perfect amalgam of all the hippest sh*t that was going down at the time.

It’s always totally Laswell’s show, leading from the front on four/six/eight-string fretted and fretless basses and generally keeping the tracks short and sweet. Baselines is also beautifully recorded and produced – it’s easy on the ear despite some abrasive textures.

Shannon Jackson has never sounded better, supplying hilariously scattergun grooves and crunching fills. ‘Upright Man’ still inspires a kind of giggly menace, nearly 40 years on.

Who supplies the scary spoken-word part? Whosampled doesn’t reveal, but the smart money’s on Fred Frith (who also plays some amusing violin on country-tinged curio ‘Lowlands’).

Baselines was certainly influential from a bass point of view too – you can bet Jah Wobble, Mick Karn, Stump and Human Chain had well-thumbed copies in their collections.

But, to the best of my knowledge, Laswell has never returned to such a bass-led solo project since. A shame. He might have a future there…