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, 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.

Happy birthday to a true guitar classic.

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.)

Steve Khan’s Backlog: Interview & Album Review

backlog_esccov_hires600Steve Khan, one of jazz’s most underrated and distinctive guitarists, made two fine fusion albums during the 1980s: Eyewitness and Casa Loco.

His unique chord voicings, intriguing melodic sense and subtle use of effects have also illuminated work by The Brecker Brothers, Steely Dan, Billy Cobham and Joe Zawinul.

Khan’s other solo albums across a 40-year career showcase his enormous versatility, from overdubbed guitar tributes to Thelonious Monk (Evidence) and jazz trios (Headline, Let’s Call This) to large fusion ensembles featuring the likes of Steve Gadd, Don Grolnick, Michael Brecker and David Sanborn (The Blue Man, Arrows).

Khan has also become well known as a master-interpreter and reharmoniser of non-guitar jazz compositions by the likes of Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, Lee Morgan and Randy Brecker. His new collection Backlogthe third in a Latin Jazz triptych following Parting Shot (2011) and Subtext (2014), continues to plunder the songbooks of his favourite composers.

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The album kicks off with the killer one-two of Monk’s ‘Criss Cross’ and Greg Osby’s ‘Concepticus In C’. The former is inspired by the late great pianist Kenny Kirkland’s Latin version which first appeared on his fine 1991 debut album.

Says Khan, ‘It’s a wonderful arrangement and so good that it’s hard to escape its influence. It took me years to find a way to do the tune in a way where I could put my own stamp on it. As everyone already knows, I love Monk’s compositions and have recorded many of them. I happen to feel that Monk’s tunes have a way of fitting into a Latin context, as if they were made to be interpreted in that style.’

The Osby tune was played by Khan during their tenure together in the New Sound Collective band; the guitarist clearly relishes arranging his version of ‘Concepticus’ on Backlog, adding a funky Joe Zawinul flavour to the tasty harmonies and quirky rhythmic concept.

‘Latin Genetics’, composed by Ornette Coleman and first appearing on his In All Languages album, features a fine guest spot from Randy Brecker on trumpet.

On first listening, it seems a light, almost joyous piece of music, but Khan has a different take on it: ‘It’s funny to me that people see this tune as being so happy – I actually see it as a rather dark piece of music, one with many sinister and even humorous qualities.’

Backlog‘s other Coleman cover version is ‘Invisible’, featuring Bob Mintzer on sax, originally recorded in 1958: ‘It comes from one of his earliest albums, Something Else!!!!, featuring an acoustic piano,’ says Khan. ‘Every time I hear this tune, I feel that Ornette’s playing and improvisational concepts are a bit constricted by having the chord changes applied so literally. There seems to be an absence of space. So, in my interpretation, though there are chord changes, both Bob and I play pretty much unaccompanied, and that’s really how I like it.’

Elsewhere on Backlog, Khan reimagines the music of Stevie Wonder, his father Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mandel, Bobby Hutcherson and Andrew Hill.

Clearly a labour of love, Khan wonders whether it will be his final album: ‘When I recorded Parting Shot, for reasons of the health and condition of my left hand, I thought that was going to be the final album. Then when I decided that I felt well enough to record Subtext, I was even more certain that that would be the final album. But, as 2015 unfolded, I came to the simple conclusion that I just do not feel alive unless I am creatively involved in the formation of new music. So, while I can still do it, I had to do everything possible to record. Can I foresee ever being able to self-finance another recording of my own again? I don’t want to utter the word “never” in conjunction with such a thought, but honestly, I really don’t know. With the release of any new piece of work, there is always hope for better days and better times, but this remains to be seen…’

Backlog is out now on ESC/Tone Center.

Read the full interview with Steve at his website.

John Scofield: Blue Matter 30 Years On

scofieldGramavision Records, released February 1987

Bought: HMV Oxford Street 1987

9/10

Occasionally a musician appears out of nowhere, ‘fully-formed’, or at least it can seem that way during one’s formative years.

In my lifetime, there have been a few: Lewis Taylor, Omar Hakim, Trilok Gurtu, and probably a few more. Drummer Dennis Chambers, who plays brilliantly throughout Blue Matter, would definitely be one too.

My muso schoolmate Jem Godfrey had lent me John Scofield’s superb Still Warm album sometime around 1986. Before then, I knew John’s playing mainly from Miles Davis’s Star People, one of my mid-’80s favourites.

So when the Steve Swallow-produced Blue Matter dropped in early ’87, I was primed and ready – and instantly gripped.

The presence of Hiram Bullock’s rhythm guitar on three tracks gives a good indication of Scofield’s approach on this album – it’s R’n’B/funk-based jazz/rock, with great grooves, neat chord changes and no gratuitious displays of instrumental technique for technique’s sake – though Scofield and Chambers were of course quite capable of some serious chops, evident on the killin’ ‘Trim’.

The dynamic title track is clearly influenced by Miles/Marcus Miller’s ‘Tutu’ with its half-time groove, walking synth bass and enigmatic chords, but Chambers’ brilliant contribution (closely monitored by the excellent Gary Grainger on bass) transforms it into something totally new.

In the first minute of the tune, he achieves a novel ‘bouncing ball’ snare drum effect and then unleashes some of the most kick-ass kick-drum playing in music history.

Chambers had already turned some heads playing with George Clinton, but, even if he had never picked up the sticks again after 1987, ‘Blue Matter’ would probably have put him right up in the drum pantheon.

‘Heaven Hill’ – named for Sco’s favourite brand of bourbon – a slow blues with surprising chord changes and tasty gospel-tinged piano playing by Mitch Forman, influenced a whole host of ‘fusion’ guitarist/composers such as Robben Ford, Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale (compare it to Henderson’s ‘Slidin’ Into Charlisa’).

‘Now She’s Blonde’, ‘Time Marches On’, ‘The Nag’ and ‘So You Say’ manage to be both funky and catchy while retaining enough harmonic interest and ‘dirt’ to go way beyond the smooth jazz tag.

The Blue Matter band got quite a live following around this time, with good reason. They were somewhat of an antidote to the Chick Corea Elektric Bands and Al Di Meolas of this world, as musically jaw-dropping as those artists were/are. Scofield himself acknowledged as much during an interview with Howard Mandel in 1988:

‘What I hate about fusion music is the gymnastics. We are often playing to audiences who want to hear fast and loud and I have to watch myself. I’ve never been that good at doing fast stuff. Luckily, it doesn’t come easy to me. Now, Dennis Chambers is a chops phenomenon. On his solos, he destroys the drums. But he also has inbred musicianship, so it’s exciting and not so calculated…’

Wayne Shorter: Phantom Navigator 30 Years Old Today

wayne shColumbia Records, released February 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1987

10/10

In the late-’80s, Wayne was seemingly about as far away from ‘jazz’ as it’s possible for a jazz legend to get. His music hadn’t featured any tinging ride cymbals or walking acoustic basses for decades.

Even Miles thought Wayne was getting a bit too ‘far-out’ – he reportedly told the saxophonist as much when they met backstage during Miles’s Paris tribute show in July 1991.

Which must have come as quite a shock to Wayne – after all, his ’80s music featured strong, ‘funky’ grooves and attractive, happy melodies. On the face of it, albums like ’87’s Phantom Navigator (apparently inspired by the ‘Other Worlds’ sci-fi comic series he drew in his teenage years) weren’t that different from Miles’s Tutu and Amandla.

But of course they were completely different, and Phantom Navigator is probably the most ‘far-out’ collection of Wayne’s solo career.

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Many critics couldn’t see beyond the drum machines, bass vamps and synths, missing the complexity of the arrangements and incredible care and attention that went into making the album, though maybe Wayne was asking for trouble by recruiting legendary NY beat-maker Jimmy Bralower, who had recently featured on Steve Winwood’s ‘Higher Love’ and Nile Rodgers’ B Movie Matinee.

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But these elements were just ‘sweeteners’ – Phantom Navigator was designed to be lived with, devoured in long stretches as one would a classical piece.

There were so many good melodic ideas packed into every tune but it wasn’t an album for short attention spans – not ideal in the MTV-flavoured, thrill-a-minute late-’80s.

‘Condition Red’ fairly bursts out of the speakers, with Wayne’s hair-raising soprano (I’d posit that Phantom Navigator features the best soprano tone of his career), sublime harmonies and witty scat vocals.

Chick Corea’s crystalline piano features strongly on the intricate, beguiling ‘Mahogany Bird’, while ‘Remote Control’ taps into a go-go groove (though Bralower’s snare is way too big – where was Ricky Wellman when Wayne needed him?) underpinning rich, endlessly-flowing soprano harmonies.

Side two’s triptych of ‘Yamanja’ (named for a sea goddess of Brazilian legend), ‘Forbidden – Plan-It!’ and ‘Flagships’ are nothing less than mini concertos for soprano sax, electric bass and synths. All would work fine with a symphony orchestra with their endlessly intertwining lines and countermelodies.

Wayne toured a lot during this period (I think I saw him three times in London between ’85 and ’88) and to a certain extent the music was a hard sell, both for audiences and the musicians. His sci-fi fusion stuck out like a sore thumb during the late-’80s London jazz/rare-groove revival when he was sometimes put on the same bill as people like The James Taylor Quartet and Gilles Peterson! I remember a really weird such gig at the old Town & Country Club in the late ’80s.

It’s the same old story – the problem of marketing music that goes way beyond category. But, in the final analysis, Wayne doesn’t play jazz, rock, go-go, funk or soul on Phantom Navigator – he plays life.

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks: 30 Years On

earthworksEditions EG Records, released January 1987

Bought: HMV Oxford Street, 1987

8/10

Some musicians have a unique touch – you can identify them within a few notes. In Bill Bruford’s case, his snare drum is his main audio imprint.

But he also always had a highly-original composing style before his retirement in 2009, and both are very much in evidence on the excellent Earthworks album.

Bruford had spent the mid-’80s winding down Crimson and duetting with ex-Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz, mostly in spontaneous improvisation mode, but now a new musical approach was called for.

He had based his career on defying expectations and he did it again in 1986, forming a quartet made up two young jazz tyros best known for their work in big-band-extraordinaire Loose Tubes (keys man Django Bates and saxist Iain Ballamy) plus acoustic bassist Mick Hutton.

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Bruford chose well: Bates and Ballamy were excellent and prolific composers too. Also key to this new band was Bruford’s development of a very advanced electric/acoustic kit whereby he could play chords and melodic ideas alongside a ‘standard’ jazz setup.

This approach also chimed well with Bates’ propensity on both acoustic piano and synth. On the latter instrument, he was fast becoming almost as recognisable as Jan Hammer, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea or George Duke.

All the ingredients add up to one of the key British jazz albums of the ’80s, showcasing a band equally at home playing Weather Report-style fusion, Eastern themes and odd-time prog as they were with ECM-flavoured chamber jazz of the type played by obvious heroes Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor.

Ballamy’s opener ‘Thud’ (inspired by the Rosenhan psychology experiment?) almost has a ska feel – if Madness had tried their hand at quirky instrumental jazz/rock, they might come up with something like this.

‘Pressure’ is possibly the album’s standout, a superb mini-suite featuring some classic odd-time Bruford mischief and lyrical piano playing from Bates.

Ballamy’s ballad ‘It Needn’t End In Tears’ still sounds like a jazz-standard-in-waiting to this writer, though its possibly a bit saccharine for some. Bruford unleashes a fine drum solo on ‘My Heart Declares a Holiday’ while Bates’ ‘Emotional Shirt’ veers humourously between an early hip-hop groove and free-jazz freakout. ‘Bridge Of Inhibition’ fuses Turkish modes with high-speed bebop.

Buoyed by state-of-the-art production (maybe a bit too state-of-the-art) and stylish packaging, Earthworks was a palpable hit by ‘jazz’ standards, selling well and turning up in several ‘best of 1987’ lists.

Some critics were of course suspicious of Bruford’s jazz credentials, but he probably couldn’t have cared less; he had always considered himself a jazz drummer anyway and knew he was onto a winner with Bates, Ballamy and Hutton.

The latter wouldn’t last beyond this first album, but Earthworks (the band) would continue to make some excellent music throughout the rest of the ’80s and for two decades beyond that. Bruford had successfully defied expectations yet again.

Ronald Shannon Jackson: Behind Plastic Faces

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Shannon Jackson in 2012

Musicians and writers have long puzzled over a definition of Harmolodics, the musical system invented by Ornette Coleman.

The man himself was famously coy on the subject, his brief liner note on the back of the Dancing In Your Head LP possibly the nearest he ever got to an outright definition: ‘Rhythms, harmonics and tempos are all equal in relationship’.

Of all the Ornette collaborators who developed their own take on Harmolodics, Ronald Shannon Jackson, who died in October 2013, probably came up with the most accessible version.

He had played with avant-garde pioneers Albert Ayler, Ornette, James Blood Ulmer and Cecil Taylor in the 1970s, but developed into a fine bandleader/composer in the ’80s, fronting a red-hot band featuring guitarist Vernon Reid (Living Colour), bassist Melvin Gibbs (Rollins Band), trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Zane Massey. (Shannon’s version of Harmolodics was so successful it possibly even influenced Ornette’s Virgin Beauty.)

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My dad used to get sent a lot of music in his capacity as a programme consultant for Channel 4 TV’s music arm back in the mid-1980s. A surprising amount of it would come in home-compiled cassette format. One such tape was simply called ‘Dance Music’ – I’ve still got it somewhere.

Most of it was fairly standard Brazilian and Blue Note stuff but one track stood out a mile and became somewhat of an obsession for my brother and I: Shannon’s ‘Behind Plastic Faces’, from the 1985 album Decode Yourself. It was the beginning of my love affair with his music and drumming.

He lays down one of his patented military grooves on Simmons drums underneath slithering fretless bass, chattering Reid guitar and Onaje Allan Gumbs’ summery keyboards.

But then the track suddenly changes gear halfway through and turns into a Afro-Funk/No-Wave rave-up, with Shannon moving over to the acoustic drums and Eric Person rhapsodising on alto sax.

The track and attendant album were recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York and produced by Bill Laswell. Decode Yourself seems very difficult to find these days, like many of Shannon’s numerous other ’80s albums.

Shannon Jackson was born and brought up in Forth Worth, Texas, just like Ornette. His father’s jukebox introduced him to BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck, but there were many other influences in the mix too, as he told writer Gary Giddins in 1985:

‘You’d wake up and hear hillbilly music on the radio. In school, we’d play (Wagner’s) “Lohengin”, at night we’d hear Bo Diddley or Bobby “Blue” Bland. On Sunday, we’d hear gospel. It was a total black community, and music wasn’t categorised as jazz or pop – nobody told you you weren’t supposed to like something.’