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.

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West Coast Bliss: Lee Ritenour’s Rit 2

ritenourSequels are seldom a good idea in the movie business, and thankfully they’re a lot less prevalent in the music game. But one of the most successful ‘franchises’ of the ’80s was guitarist Lee Ritenour’s Rit/Rit 2 combo, now re-released by Cherry Red on a single CD, and they’re two of the best-sounding albums of the era. Of course that shouldn’t be a huge surprise when you notice the presence of names such as Humberto Gatica, David Foster, Harvey Mason, Jeff Porcaro, Jerry Hey, Abe Laboriel, Alex Acuna and Greg Philinganes on the song credits, but then again a lot of albums at that time featured all the right ‘names’ but didn’t deliver the goods.

LEE RITENOUR rit rit 2

But if 1982’s Rit 2 is not quite in the same league as its predecessor, it’s still another classic piece of sumptuously-produced, blissed-out West Coast AOR with touches of jazz and soul, helped by the excellent vocals, keyboards and songwriting of Eric Tagg. To these ears, it sounds as if Quincy Jones had produced Toto and got a good singer and a few decent songwriters in.

Promises Promises‘ is superior disco/funk/rock and wouldn’t sound out of place on Quincy’s The Dude or Jacko’s Thriller. ‘Dreamwalkin‘ is kind of the ‘happy’ version of Earth Wind & Fire’s ‘After The Love Has Gone‘ and would make a great theme song for a an early-’80s, California-set Chevy Chase/Goldie Hawn vehicle. Ditto ‘Keep It Alive’.

‘Tied Up’ and ‘Voices’ initially seem like standard AOR fare, but reveal their superiority with interesting, layered vocal arrangements and surprising chord changes (and a classic bit of Porcaro drums on the latter). But the real standout is killer instrumental ‘Road Runner’ featuring Harvey Mason’s incredibly intricate hi-hat work, a spicy Jerry Hey horn arrangement, some tasty Fender Rhodes from Philinganes and a corking set of solos from Ritenour.

Ritenour tried to repeat the formula on ’84’s less successful Banded Together before embarking on a decade of underwhelming instrumental smooth jazz with the occasional high point (like this). But Rit and Rit 2 are classics of their kind and belong alongside Steely’s Gaucho, Randy Crawford’s Secret Combination, Quincy’s The Dude, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and George Benson’s Give Me The Night as key albums of the era.

Time for that long-delayed trip to the West Coast – Malibu beckons…

Wayne Shorter’s Atlantis: 30 Years Old Today

Wayne-Shorter-Atlantis--Press-K-486376Columbia Records, released 1985

9/10

It’s not easy to write about an album that’s so much part of your musical DNA that it haunts you in the middle of the night and yet reveals fresh nuances every time you listen to it.

But first of all, I have to declare an interest – Wayne is one of my all-time musical heroes and has been since I was a teenager when his sax playing and compositions with Weather Report and Miles Davis totally bewitched me.

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that it took me 20 years to really appreciate Atlantis, and also to realise that it had to be listened to on CD and listened to loud. The recent remaster, as part of Wayne’s Complete Albums Collection, is the best I’ve ever heard it.

Wayne at The International, Manchester, 1989. Photo by William Ellis

Wayne at The International, Manchester, 1987. Photo by William Ellis

How to describe the magical though totally uncompromising music on Atlantis? It was Wayne’s first solo release after the official split of Weather Report and it’s fair to say it wasn’t the album many fans and critics were expecting. It surely remains Wayne’s least understood work.  It’s ostensibly an album of through-composed, acoustic ‘fusion’, but that barely covers it. Someone once described it as the soundtrack to an animated children’s book.

Wayne seems to be weaning listeners away from a more bombastic form of jazz/rock towards a new combination of jazz, R’n’B and Third Stream which utilises sophisticated counterpoint and pure composition. Shorter is the only player who gets any significant solo time. Acoustic piano, flute, vocals and multiple saxes supply the dense, challenging, sometimes dissonant harmonies.

Atlantis could hardly be described as a ‘jazz’ album at all; ensemble work and composition generally override individual expression, and none of the tracks ‘swing’ in a conventional sense. And yet it’s still an utterly melodic set, full of memorable, criss-crossing themes which jostle for your attention. It takes time to work its magic, but work its magic it does.

The phenomenal opener ‘Endangered Species’ (recently massacred by Esperanza Spalding) is somewhat of a  ‘sweetener’ at the top of the album, like Sirens luring sailors to their deaths, as Shorter biographer Michelle Mercer noted. Many people, me included, struggled to get very far past it since the remainder of Atlantis sounded somewhat prim and precious in comparison. I wanted to hear Zawinul and Jaco’s blistering lines, Omar Hakim‘s colourful drumming, some virtuosity.

But when I studied Atlantis more closely, there are many subtle displays of instrumental mastery. Ex-Weather Report drummer Alex Acuna plays a blinder throughout, blazing through the outro of ‘Who Goes There’, Larry Klein’s bass playing is nimble and impressive (try playing along to Wayne’s intricate written lines), Michiko Hill’s piano comping is inventive and Wayne plays some fantastic solos, particularly his Rollins-style tenor on calypso-flavoured ‘Criancas’.

I remember seeing Wayne playing much of this music live to a barely-half-full London Shaw Theatre in late 1985 – it seems that audiences, booking agents and press officers alike were finding his post-Weather Report music a hard sell at this point. Critics were generally puzzled too, although Robert Palmer noted in the New York Times that ‘it’s not an album one should listen to a few times and then knowledgeably evaluate… It is an album to learn from and live with.’

wayne shorter

But if Atlantis was misunderstood and less than commercially successful on its original release, it seems to be gaining fans in the 30 years since. A good yardstick is that several compositions from the album are still regularly played by Shorter’s esteemed current quartet, particularly the title track, an eerie, labyrinthine tango.

‘The Three Marias’, a treacherous tune in 6/4 inspired by press reports of three Portuguese woman being arrested for writing obscene literature, has even been the unlikely recipient of a few cover versions, perhaps most notably (though not wholly effectively) by ex-Police guitarist Andy Summers.

Shorter delivered two more albums of dense and beautiful compositions before the ’80s were out, and I’ll return to them very soon.

Thanks to William Ellis for use of his photo.

(P.S. I’m taking one mark off for ‘Shere Khan The Tiger’ which was far better rendered on Carlos Santana’s 1980 album The Swing Of Delight, a version which featured Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Harvey Mason on drums.)