Even amidst this digital revolution, there are still classic jazz and fusion albums which just resolutely refuse to appear on streaming platforms, due to copyright problems, label problems or whatever.
Eddie Gomez’s excellent late-1980s albums Mezgo (later rereleased as Discovery) and Power Play are cases in point, recorded for the Japanese arm of the Epic label and currently residing in the ‘where are they now’ file (glad I held onto my cassette copies).
Bassist/composer Gomez is probably best known for his stellar sideman work with pianists Bill Evans and Chick Corea, as well as being a co-founder of jazz/fusion supergroup Steps Ahead, but his solo work sometimes goes unheralded.
Perhaps most relevantly, given Bill Milkowski’s major new biography, both albums feature some of saxophonist Michael Brecker’s best-ever recorded work. And they are crucial items in drummer Steve Gadd’s discography too.
1986’s Mezgo is mainly a trio album, Gomez on bass and keys, Gadd on drums/percussion and Brecker on saxes and EWI. It’s a stunning potpourri of styles, starting with the Weather Report vibe of ‘Me Too’, calling in at the fast bebop number ‘Puccini’s Walk’ (poorly covered by Corea not once but twice!) with some superb Gadd, and ending with a very moving version of Henry Purcell’s ‘Cello Sonata In G Minor (1st Movement)’.
Power Play, released the following year, had more concessions to commercialism, with some romantic ballads featuring syrupy alto sax from Dick Oatts and a few Latin-style groovers featuring Jeremy Steig on flute.
But the title track was a stunner, featuring double drums from Gadd and Al Foster. There was also a superb duet with guitarist Jim Hall, ‘Amethyst’, and an excellent fast bop track ‘West 110 St.’ featuring Foster and Brecker.
Shame you can’t hear Mezgo or Power Play (I can’t even find half-decent streams on YouTube). Beg, borrow or steal them if they ever appear in those proverbial ‘bargain bins’…
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…
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 on23 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.
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 Kindalbum – 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.
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.
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.
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 Backand 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.)
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.