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/Marilyn Manson/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…

John McLaughlin Trio: Live At The Royal Festival Hall 30 Years On

Recorded 30 years ago, Live At The Royal Festival was the beginning of John’s live career in concert halls rather than ‘rock’ venues, at least as far as the UK goes.

I’m not sure why I wasn’t at this gig, but, in those days, even major shows could easily go under the radar. If it wasn’t listed in Time Out or The Wire, you could easily miss it. Or maybe I was just turned off by the lack of ‘stars’ appearing with John.

Which was a big mistake, because this album introduced two monster players, both hitherto unknown to UK audiences. Bassist Kai Eckhardt was yet another miraculous bass find for McLaughlin, apparently fresh out of the Berklee School of Music. Trilok Gurtu brought the best aspects of American jazz and fusion playing but also rhythmic concepts and sounds from his native Mumbai (including a water bucket and tablas). In short, he was a perfect fit for McLaughlin.

It had been a weird few years for the guitarist, closing down Mahavishnu for good, duetting with bassist Jonas Hellborg and guitarist Paco De Lucia but also recording the fabulous Mediterranean Concerto which was finally released in 1990. So his return to the acoustic guitar had thus far been a partial success, but Live At The Royal Festival Hall was the beginning of an acclaimed trio that lasted nearly three years (though weirdly it doesn’t appear to have made it to streaming platforms yet).

The album starts slowly but gets better and better; a gentle take on Miles/Bill Evans’ ‘Blue In Green’ is nothing special but demonstrates John’s rich, Gil Evans-inspired chord concept. Adventures In Radioland tracks ‘Florianapolis’ and ‘Jozy’ are quite superb, beautifully rearranged for the trio. When Gurtu lays into the half-time shuffle on the latter, it’s one of the great bits of modern fusion drumming.

His ‘Pasha’s Love’ is an intricately-arranged version of a track on an impossible-to-find Nana Vasconcelos live album. But the album’s centrepiece is ‘Mother Tongues’, the debut of a tune which is a mainstay of John’s live sets to this day. The only disappointment is the over-extended ‘Blues For LW’, almost derailed by some dodgy group vocals, Gurtu beatboxing and throwaway references to ‘Are You The One?’ and ‘Miles Beyond’.

Eckhardt didn’t stick around for long after this gig, for undisclosed reasons – Dominique Di Piazza came in, yet another Jaco-influenced chops monster. But Trilok stayed on for the decent 1992 studio album Que Alegria. Then it was time for another change – John’s forte.

Scott Henderson/Tribal Tech: Nomad 30 Years On

Who are the most self-critical instrumentalists? I’m going for guitarists.

And in this age of social media, fans have never had a better insight into musicians’ views of their own work.

Steve Khan, Francis Dunnery, Andy Partridge and James Grant often take a pretty dim view of their own stuff. Allan Holdsworth was famously virtually unable to listen to his own guitar playing.

But, as we’ll see later, brilliant guitarist Scott Henderson may take the biscuit… Scott emerged as a poster boy of jazz/rock guitar in the mid-to-late ’80s, when, along with Holdsworth and Frank Gambale, he would often appear alongside metal players du jour in the pages of Guitar World or Guitar Player.

A remarkably fluid improviser with a ‘rock’ sound but ‘jazz’ attitude, Henderson’s technical ability was always tempered by a strong blues feeling (distinguishing him from Holdsworth and Gambale). In 1985, he formed Tribal Tech with ex-Wayne Shorter bassist Gary Willis whilst pursuing a sideman career with Jean-Luc Ponty and Chick Corea (and, later, Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul).

I first heard Scott in my late teens when a very shrewd guitar-playing college acquaintance played me his third album Nomad, recorded in 1988 but not released until early 1990. I was instantly smitten, picking up on the strong ‘Weather Report with guitar’ vibe – mainly due to Willis’s fretless bass – but realising quite quickly that they had their own thing going on.

Also, like Weather Report, Tribal Tech were also fortunate to have not one but two fine composers in their ranks. Willis’s ‘Tunnel Vision’ may be Nomad‘s standout, but Henderson was extremely modest about his superb, much-transcribed solo, telling his website:

The opening eight bars is good because it’s not me – it’s a melody I’m playing written by Willis. I start playing after the first eight bars and things get considerably worse… We had a good laugh when a critic who reviewed the album commented on how great the beginning of my solo was. Then the tune was put into one of the new Real Books and that eight-bar melody was mis-labelled as my solo. Willis said to me: ‘Wow, I’m really making you look good…’

The excellent opener ‘Renegade’ was another embarrassment for Henderson:

On every Tribal Tech album, there are amazingly bad playing and production flaws, because we thought we were capable of producing the albums ourselves, and we clearly weren’t. We had little to no experience in the studio and were learning as we went. An experienced producer would have made those records much better, but we couldn’t afford one anyway, so they are what they are. The funniest solo is mine on ‘Renegade’ – I didn’t have any vocabulary for that 6/4 feel, so I’m clearly playing lines meant for 4/4 and they don’t fit the groove at all. It’s one of my most embarrassing solos…

Then there’s Henderson’s superb album-closer ‘Rituals’, the very ’80s-Wayne-Shorter-influenced tune:

The last time I listened to the Tribal Tech version, I thought I’d throw up. I played the melody in a horribly stiff way, with the thinnest tone ever, and the arrangement sounds like we’re trying to be Journey – very dated and funny. Then there’s the pan flute synth sound… Holy shit, talk about corny.
It’s one of my favorites but it didn’t get the production it needed. The drum sound is pathetic and the keyboards aren’t loud and clear enough. Those are some badass voicings and sometimes they’re buried. It’s not a tune I could play trio because there’s too much going on, but I’d like to re-record it and make it sound like it should…

Well, whatever. Nomad is a great album, with excellent compositions and playing from everyone involved, including drummer Steve Houghton, percussionist Brad Dutz and keyboard player David Goldblatt.

Tribal Tech went through a few other personnel changes until their split in 2013. Scott continues on with a highly-regarded solo career and occasional appearances on the irreverent podcast Guitarwank.

Story Of A Song: McCoy Tyner/Phyllis Hyman’s I’ll Be Around

What makes a ‘good’ singer? In a recent podcast, Donald Fagen spoke about the importance of vocal tone, saying that he’d rather listen to Ray Charles singing a mediocre song completely ‘straight’ than a jazz singer pointlessly embellishing a songbook standard.

It got me thinking about Phyllis Hyman’s crackerjack performance on ‘I’ll Be Around’ (not to be confused with the Alec Wilder standard sung by many including Frank Sinatra and Chaka Khan), from McCoy Tyner’s 1982 CBS album Looking Out.

The song, which has haunted me since I first heard it in the late 1980s, was mainly written by Stanley Clarke and recycled from his lacklustre (despite featuring some lovely Stan Getz saxophone) 1979 track ‘The Streets Of Philadelphia’.

‘I’ll Be Around’ comes from an otherwise fairly mediocre McCoy album, mainly notable for featuring Carlos Santana, Clarke and Gary Bartz on several tracks. But Tyner’s fabled work with John Coltrane must have seemed a distant memory by 1982. In jazz terms, CBS was obsessed with Wynton Marsalis and neo-classicism, though still had time for Herbie Hancock’s hip-hop explorations and Miles’s comeback.

Phyllis and McCoy in the studio

Maybe McCoy in turn thought he’d hit paydirt by grabbing Santana, Bartz and Clarke (huge Coltrane fans, all), but Looking Out is now barely a footnote to his illustrious career – it was his second and last album for Columbia.

‘I’ll Be Around’ doesn’t feature Santana or Bartz, and was the sole LA-recorded track on the album (the other tracks being recorded at the Power Station in NYC), adding the excellent pairing of Charles ‘Icarus’ Johnson on guitar and Ndugu Chancler on drums.

Chancler and Tyner work together almost telepathically, the former driving the song forward, though always with one ear on the groove, the latter sprinkling on his majestic chord voicings.

Hyman’s vocals are huge, luscious, but she also adds some subtle flavours over Tyner’s piano solo, consciously removing vibrato and sometimes singing ever-so-slightly sharp for emotional effect. Of course it’s virtually impossible now to assess this heartfelt performance without considering her tragic suicide in 1995. But, happily, ‘I’ll Be Around’ gives a different slant on a fine career and shows Hyman’s mastery of almost all forms of black music, from disco to jazz.

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.