Mark Isham: Vapor Drawings 35 Years On

Did any music of lasting worth come out of the early ’80s ‘New Age’ boom? Mark Isham’s brief but inspired Windham Hill catalogue surely still cuts the mustard.

The trumpeter/keyboardist/composer’s Vapor Drawings, released 35 years ago this weekend, was a remarkably assured, fully-formed debut album, recorded when he was part of Van Morrison’s band and also enjoying a varied session career.

I distinctly remember hearing a track from it in the mid-1980s on a short-lived ‘new age’ BBC radio show whose name escapes me. And weirdly, Isham mixed the album 100 yards from my childhood home during spring 1983, at John Kongos’s Tapestry Studios.

Synths are Vapor Drawings’ main ingredient but Isham uses them in subtly original ways, using sequencers to build Steve Reich-inspired ‘systems’ or – one of his trademarks – getting them to hang in the air like sky lanterns.

The music defies categorisation, mostly hovering in the hinterland between ambient, minimalism, electronica and jazz (he even throws in a quote from Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ on ‘Raffles In Rio’). But there’s always the human element courtesy of his superb trumpet and piano playing. Erik Satie is also an apparent inspiration, and possibly what David Sylvian picked up on when he invited Isham into the studio to record Brilliant Trees later in 1983.

It’s no surprise Isham has become one of the most in-demand soundtrack composers of the last 30 years – ‘On The Threshold Of Liberty’ (named after a Magritte painting), ‘Men Before The Mirror’ and ‘Sympathy And Acknowledgement’ are epic and rousing.

’83 proved to be a bit of an annus mirabilis for Isham, hooking up with Sylvian and also working with Gil Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Vapor Drawings is the first and best of his solo albums. Happy birthday to an unsung classic.

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.

Ornette Coleman & Prime Time: Virgin Beauty 30 Years On

Who are the great pop and jazz melodicists? McCartney, Brian Wilson, Paddy McAloon, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Becker & Fagen, Miles, Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker?

Ornette has to make that list too. He’s virtually incapable of playing a fatuous phrase, even when his accompanists seem to be scrambling eggs.

Virgin Beauty, released 30 years ago, was and will now always remain a bit of an anomaly in his discography, a one-off album on CBS subsidiary Portrait Records (which also released Stanley Clarke’s If This Bass Could Only Talk) marketed as ‘Ornette does fusion’.

Which is a bit like asking Miles to do ‘pop’: i.e. you can market it any way you want, but it’s gonna be a totally personal vision. Ornette’s version of fusion contains elements of country and western, space-invader electro, early hip-hop and, of course, pure harmolodic fun.

I hadn’t heard Virgin Beauty for years but loved revisiting it this week. It’s on an old cassette sandwiched between Brian Eno’s Nerve Net and George Clinton’s Computer Games – perfect bedfellows.

First of all, it’s worth noting that this writer’s main reaction to hearing it again was pure amusement. It actually inspired a full-on giggling fit. Everything sounds a bit wonky; the Chick Corea Elektric Band it ain’t. Ornette’s beautiful alto is always just out of tune (though his trumpet playing is surprisingly in tune) and Chris Walker’s fretless-bass intonation is never perfect.

Two rhythm guitarists (Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee) chatter away in different keys and Ornette’s son Denardo programs some drum machines, hits some acoustic drums, some electric drums and a slightly incongruous jazz ride cymbal. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia drops in for a few enjoyably ramshackle guitar solos.

The mix is also distinctly lacking in bass. It’s one of the first albums I’ve listened to in the past few years when I’ve had to turn the bass UP. Which is a good thing, because Al MacDowell’s playing is sometimes fairly astonishing. He even throws in a few quotes from ‘Yakety Sax’.

Virgin Beauty was the natural peak for Ornette’s Prime Time band but a bit of a cul-de-sac career-wise. It would be seven long years before his next solo studio album Tone Dialling. The record companies never got their ‘fusion’ record – thankfully.

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.

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…