Book Review: A Message To Our Folks (The Art Ensemble Of Chicago) by Paul Steinbeck

If the 1980s saw the full flowering of PR and image’s influence on the music world, it’s sometimes forgotten that jazz was an unlikely beneficiary of this trend too.

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, that important unit whose line-up went unchanged for almost 30 years until trumpeter/co-founder Lester Bowie’s death in 1999, were a massive live draw during the early ’80s, particularly in France, where they were welcomed more like rock stars than avant-garde jazzers.

Image and stage presentation were undoubtedly big factors. Paul Steinbeck fine new biography of the band ‘A Message To Our Folks’ is a scholarly, forensic study, tracing their origins from the South Side of Chicago through their controversial move to Paris in 1969, return to the States in 1971 and commercial peak in the early 1980s.

He analyses key albums, talks to living members and dissects the Ensemble’s cultural importance. Despite the sometimes frivolous onstage ‘antics’, musically the collective was as serious as your life, to borrow the title of Val Wilmer’s groundbreaking book. Drummer Don Moye remembers Bowie taking him aside after his successful audition and saying: ‘Don’t even mess with us or get any more involved if you can’t commit to playing Great Black Music at a very high level, becoming famous and taking our place in the history of jazz.’ The stakes were high.

They were ahead of their time with the use of slogans, labelling their sound Great Black Music to distinguish it from jazz; according to Bowie, ‘Never before were we even allowed the dignity of selecting a name for our own music.’ They also described their music as ‘Ancient To The Future’.

The band would pick up various celebrity fans: in 1975, Bowie took a trip to Nigeria and became Fela Kuti’s ‘guest of honour’ when he wowed him with an impromptu trumpet solo: ‘I played this blues… After I played a couple of choruses, Fela said, “Stop. Somebody go get this guy’s bags. He’s moving in with me…”‘ David Bowie also famously employed his namesake for the Black Tie White Noise album as did Danny Wilson for their acclaimed debut Meet Danny Wilson.

Don Moye in 2017

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago would also open doors for other instrumental groups with their onstage presentation, verging on dramatic performance – face paint and stage personas were the norm at a time when ‘jazz’ was becoming extremely bland.

‘Message To Our Folks’ is a fairly brief, fairly serious but highly effective biography, a must for general fans and a good companion piece to other key books on Free Jazz: ‘As Serious As Your Life’, Graham Lock’s ‘Forces In Motion’ and Ben Watson’s ‘Derek Bailey’.

‘A Message To Our Folks: The Art Ensemble Of Chicago’ is published now by The University Of Chicago Press.

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John Abercrombie: Getting There 30 Years On

Maybe John Abercrombie was the Andy Murray of jazz guitarists. People say Murray was ‘unlucky’ to be playing tennis at the same time as Federer, Djokovic and Nadal; Abercrombie was arguably ‘unfortunate’ to have been forging a career at the same time as Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield and Bill Frisell.

But a superb career he forged all the same. Starting out as somewhat of a John McLaughlin imitator playing unhinged jazz/rock with Billy Cobham and Dreams on ‘some of the worst fusion albums ever made’ (his words), by 1974 Abercrombie had settled into a long, intriguing career on ECM Records, where he could pursue all his interests, from acoustic guitar duos with Ralph Towner to organ trios with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette.

But one of his best bands was this mid-1980s outfit with ex-Bill Evans/Lyle Mays sideman Marc Johnson on bass and legendary Peter Erskine on drums, often augmented by Michael Brecker on sax too. Abercrombie was getting heavily into the guitar synth around this time, while also using loops and ethereal keyboard patches to beef up the studio sound.

’86’s Current Events was a fine ‘blowing’ record but followup Getting There – released 30 years ago this month – was arguably Abercrombie’s most commercial album. It’s big and bold but definitely no ‘fusion’ sell-out, and it distills its ideas into relatively short, concise statements. It’s also somewhat of a rarity for the ECM label in that it’s not produced by Manfred Eicher – Lee Townsend is in charge here, assisted by James Farber.

The epic title track is loud and proud, almost approaching avant-rock with Erskine absolutely lamping his drums and a hysterical, exciting set of screaming guitar-synth solos. It gets near the approach of David Torn’s sometimes raucous Cloud About Mercury album. Ethereal, gentle and gorgeous ‘Thalia’ (composed by Vince Mendoza) and ‘Chance’ are ambient/jazz masterpieces with shades of Mark Isham’s work.

Classic ballad ‘Remember Hymn’ initially sounds like a re-harmonisation of Sibelius’s ‘Valse Triste’ but slowly becomes a vehicle for Brecker’s haunting tenor. The latter also cleans up on the raucous two-chord blowout ‘Furs On Ice’, reminiscent of Johnson’s Bass Desires band, with Erskine at his most Elvin Jones-like.

Getting There predictably received a somewhat muted critical reaction on its release. I wasn’t bothered about that – having been recommended Abercrombie by a guitar player friend, I bought it sight unseen from HMV Oxford Street on vinyl a few weeks after it came out. It’s still my favourite album by the guitarist. But it would be the last time Abercrombie dipped his toe into ‘rockist’ waters – he quickly regrouped to continue his ever-eclectic, increasingly gentle career, and, to the best of my knowledge, never picked up the guitar synth again…

Thelonious Monk: That’s The Way I Feel Now

Most jazz players don’t really seem to ‘get’ the music of Thelonious Monk. Decent cover versions are hard to come by, of course with some notable exceptions (Steve Khan, Kenny Kirkland, Lynne Arriale, Paul Motian and probably a few more).

During the centenary of the genius’s birth, it seems as good a time as any to revisit a classic 1980s Thelonious tribute album which puts his miraculous compositions front and centre (plus the fact that I’ve just acquired a brilliant new cassette player* which is bringing it to life again after years stuck in the proverbial drawer).

That’s The Way I Feel Now was masterminded by producer/curator Hal Willner and inspired by bad Monk cover versions. Willner told writer Howard Mandel: ‘I was sitting at Carnegie Hall at some jazz memorial to Monk, getting freaked out that all these other people who really had a love of Monk weren’t performing. Monk’s music was never boring.’

So, at New York’s Mediasound Studios in early 1984, he set about assembling an extraordinary cast of fans including Todd Rundgren, Donald Fagen, Joe Jackson, Carla Bley, Peter Frampton, John Zorn, Was (Not Was), Dr John, Gil Evans, Bobby McFerrin, John Scofield and Elvin Jones to celebrate Monk. (Willner has gathered similarly eclectic casts for albums celebrating Mingus, Nino Rota, Kurt Weill and the music of Walt Disney films, as well as producing records by Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful and movie soundtracks including ‘Short Cuts’.)

Listened to in one sitting, That’s The Way I Feel Now still makes for a gloriously psychedelic celebration of Monk’s ouevre. Over 22 tracks, I can only make out three duds. It’s also a triumph of sequencing, holding the attention with ease by unashamedly juggling the rock, jazz and avant-garde.

First, the ‘rock’: Rundgren’s take on ‘Four In One’ is a gloriously anarchic, Gary Windo’s sax blaring out over a cacophony of samples, cheap drum machines and amateurish keyboards. Was (Not Was)’s take on ‘Ba-Lue-Bolivar-Ba-Lues-Are’ features a knockout multi-tracked guest spot from vocalist Sheila Jordan, while Donald Fagen and Steve Khan mesh perfectly on beautiful ballad ‘Reflections’. NRBQ’s take on ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ comes near to perfection, as does Chris Spedding/Peter Frampton’s surf-rock-tinged ‘Work’ featuring a classic Marcus Miller bass performance. Only Joe Jackson didn’t get the memo, delivering an overly-lush – though obviously heartfelt – ‘Round Midnight’.

Then there’s the ‘jazz’: John Zorn lays down an outrageous ‘Shuffle Boil’ featuring babbling vocals, bubble-blowing, chainsaw guitar, Bontempi organ and hilariously remedial drumming; Elvin Jones and Steve Lacy deliver a memorable ‘Evidence’; Randy Weston, Dr John and Barry Harris’s contributions are solo piano masterworks; John Scofield and Mark Bingham smash ‘Brilliant Corners’ out of the park, as do vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Bob Dorough on ‘Friday The 13th’. Finally, Carla Bley’s ‘Misterioso’ is possibly the album standout, an affecting symphony for Monk featuring electrifying performances from Kenny Kirkland on piano, Johnny Griffin on tenor and Hiram Bullock on guitar.

The Rundgren tune aside, to my ears That’s The Way I Feel Now could have been recorded yesterday. The only problem is that it’s almost impossible to buy these days. So I’m bloody glad I held onto my ancient cassette version. Here’s hoping for a CD/download re-release soon.

*a Denon DRR 6.5, if you’re interested…

 

John McLaughlin: Music Spoken Here 35 Years On

WEA Records, released August 1982

Bought: Shepherd’s Bush Record & Tape Exchange, 1990?

8/10

All great artists with any kind of career longevity have very distinct periods, and John McLaughlin is no exception. Apart from his mid-’60s output, the early 1980s (let’s face it – the whole of the 1980s… Ed.) is probably his least understood/appreciated era.

McLaughlin had moved to France and formed a new band occasionally known as The Translators featuring a top-class American drummer (Tommy Campbell) and otherwise French unit including his new paramour, the outrageously talented keyboardist Katia Labèque. His music too had turned away from electric jazz/rock and moved towards a gentler – but still intense – fusion of jazz, classical, blues, flamenco, Indian and Latin music, centred around the acoustic nylon-string guitar.

I was a major John completist in the late ’80s/early ’90s but didn’t have a clue Music Spoken Here even existed until chancing upon a vinyl copy. You’d be hard pushed to find it in any jazz reference book these days; it’s virtually been written out of his discography. Some would say with good reason, but to these ears it’s one of the nuttiest, most piquant albums of John’s career.

At times you can feel him edging again towards the Mahavishnu reunion which happened a few years later in ’84, reaching for the Les Paul on a few cuts and pushing the drums and synths higher in the mix. But in its own way, and considering what else was going on in the jazz world at the time (Wynton, Branford and the Young Lions traditionalists) Music Spoken Here is as shocking an album as The Inner Mounting Flame.

‘Blues For LW’ is the album’s centrepiece, a thrilling, richly-chorded tribute to the Polish activist Lech Welesa with a neat quote from Miles Ahead and completely insane Chick Corea-meets-Rachmaninoff synth solo. ‘Honky Tonk Haven’ is brilliant too, a cacophony of early hip-hop beats, modal keyboards and a killer guitar/synth melody line borrowed from the Shakti track ‘Get Down And Shruti‘. You’ve gotta think that Miles would have dug it.

The cover of Egberto Gismonti’s ‘Loro’ may be taken a tad too fast but the arrangement kicks ass. Elsewhere, the album is full of sunny, fresh, cosmopolitan grooves, with frequently outrageous guitar and keyboard playing – the latter way too high in the mix though.

Music Spoken Here was another two fingers up to the purists of the music world, and another artistic success. It reached #24 on the US jazz album chart, a reasonable return but not exactly a big hit for an artist of his magnitude. It’s crying out for a remaster though, one of the muddiest-sounding records of McLaughlin’s career. The Translators played live on and off during summer 1982 too (see below).

Next stop for John was a so-so trio album with Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia, and then the aforementioned return to Mahavishnu, reuniting with Billy Cobham and also adding Bill Evans, Jonas Hellborg and Mitch Forman. Needless to say, it would be another hard sell for the critics…

Larry Carlton: Last Nite 30 Years On

MCA Records, released June 1987

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith, summer 1987

9/10

In a previous piece about Robert Cray, I talked about ‘touch’ guitarists, those whose sounds are almost entirely in their fingers and not dependent on pedals or amps. Larry Carlton is certainly one of them. He played some of the great guitar of the 1970s with Steely Dan, The Crusaders, Michael Jackson and Joni Mitchell, his sound characterised by a deceptively ‘sweet’ take on the blues, alongside elements of jazz and rock. In the early ’80s, he put out some fine studio albums including Sleepwalk and Friends, but ’87’s Last Nite was his first official live release.

And what an album. In 1987, I was a big fan of his playing with Steely Dan but had never heard any of his solo stuff. A glowing review of Last Nite in Q Magazine sent me scuttling off to my local Our Price. Recorded on 17th February 1986 at the Baked Potato club in North Hollywood (good old YouTube has preserved some of the gig for posterity – see below), the album is Larry uncut, blowing on a mixture of originals and jazz standards, with no thought of commercial or airplay potential.

It’s hard to think of another guitarist who could cover such a stylistic range so effortlessly. He kills on the slow blues, tears up the fast Texas-style shuffle, delivers deliciously ‘out’ fusion on the title track and swings his ass off on ‘All Blues and ‘So What’, though with a pleasingly piercing tone as opposed to the warm sound favoured by most ‘jazz’ players. He’s also endlessly melodic, producing memorable phrase after memorable phrase. But don’t be fooled by the beatific expression and cream jacket – he isn’t afraid of throwing in some pretty wacky modal curveballs too.

Another key aspect of Last Nite is Carlton’s band. He uses the cream of the LA studio scene – John ‘JR’ Robinson on drums, Abe Laboriel on bass, Alex Acuna on percussion – and brings them right out of their comfort zone. Apparently they didn’t know ‘So What’ and ‘All Blues’ were on the setlist until Larry called them. JR in particular is a revelation, sounding like he’s been cooped up in the studio for far too long. And who knew he could swing like he does on the jazz cuts. Keyboard player Terry Trotter also impresses with his rich voicings and empathetic accompaniment.

Sadly, Last Nite turns out to be a bit of an anomaly in Larry’s discography, marking the beginning of an era when he was veering more and more towards a much smoother studio sound. But he’s always ripped it up in the live arena and has spent a lot more time on the road in his later years.

Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus

51dnFsTtIPLEvery serious jazz fan seems to have a favourite Sonny Rollins story. One whose origins I forget – but it may be recited in Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz’ documentary – concerns a late-night Carnegie Hall New Year’s Eve concert sometime in the 1990s.

Rollins embarked on a typically Herculean solo at around 11:30pm. This went on for quite a while. At EXACTLY ten seconds to midnight he quoted from ‘Auld Lang Syne’.*

Truth or fiction, it’s the kind of story that has followed the brilliant Harlem-born saxophonist around throughout his career. It also speaks volumes about the intellectual vigour of the man.

Robert Mugge’s excellent 1987 documentary ‘Saxophone Colossus’ spawns yet more Sonny stories, inadvertently filming an extraordinary moment during an outdoor New York gig. Jumping off the stage mid-solo to join the audience, he misjudges the height and breaks his heel in the process. Lying stricken on the floor, alone and unaided though still holding his horn, there’s the briefest of pauses before he continues soloing as if nothing was amiss.

The film also features fascinating interviews with Sonny and his wife/manager/producer (and now sadly departed) Lucille. Writers Gary Giddins and Ira Gitler contribute intelligent, revealing summations of Rollins’ career. There’s also some superb concert footage of Sonny’s ‘Concerto For Tenor Saxophone And Orchestra’ premiere in Japan.

Watching the film again has led to a period of Sonny woodshedding, and I’m unearthing some real gems. It’s exciting that he has continued to be an absolutely vital presence on the jazz scene, performing when possible and frequently contributing to media debates about the music. He has also written obituaries for his long-time producer Orrin Keepnews and long-time bassist Bob Cranshaw in recent issues of JazzTimes magazine.

More power to Mr Rollins. Here’s some of that woodshedding, in chronological order:

*(This is total BS. The concert was the day before Easter Sunday and the quote was from Irving Berlin’s ‘Easter Parade‘… Ed.)