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.

Stanley Clarke: Rocks, Pebbles And Sand

Stanley-Clarke-Rocks-Pebbles-And-543879Epic Records, released August 1980

Bought: Virgin Oxford Street 1988?

8/10

Stanley was and is one of my all-time musical heroes. As a teenager, I loved his fiery bass playing, dramatic compositions and dynamic hook-up with drummers.

I first heard about him from my dad who bought his classic 1974 debut album on cassette in the mid-‘80s. As a burgeoning young drummer, I was immediately blown away by Tony Williams’ playing and also Stanley’s wide-reaching musical vision which took in funk, prog, post-Hendrix rock, flamenco, modal jazz and Third Stream.

 

In 1979, Stanley recorded the sprawling, slightly directionless I Wanna Play For You double which veered uncomfortably towards disco on a few tracks.

But it also featured some outrageous live recordings which suggested he was going in a more ‘rock’ direction, mainly thanks to the sonic possibilities opened up by putting his Piccolo bass (tuned a fifth higher than a standard bass, A to C rather than E to G) through various effects pedals.

But how would Stanley start off the ’80s? On Rocks, Pebbles and Sand, he thankfully pushed the rock and prog-fusion rather than disco. It also really helps that it sounds very much like a ‘band’ project, apart from funk curio ‘We Supply’ which belongs on a different album altogether.

And what a band it is – Simon Phillips on drums, Charles Icarus Johnson on guitars and Steve Bach on keys.

Phillips in particular is a perfect foil for Clarke with his meaty grooves and superchops. Though he was obviously coming from Billy Cobham with his prodigious double-bass playing, expansive tom fills and open-handed style (see below), his grooving on ‘Story of a Man and a Woman Part 2’ is just perfect.

Rocks, Pebbles and Sand‘s opener ‘Danger Street’ sounds like Stanley has been listening to The Who and Van Halen with its big drums, raucous guitar and gargantuan riff. Subtle it ain’t (and one can take or leave Stanley’s vocals), but it really works, mainly due to the mastering and mix – Rocks is one of the best-sounding albums of the era alongside Steely’s Gaucho, Lee Ritenour’s Rit and Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti.

Marcy Levy circa 1980

Marcy Levy circa 1980

The duet vocals on ‘Underestimation’, ‘You/Me Together’ and ‘A Story of a Man and a Woman’ might put some people off, but isn’t that female voice familiar? A glance at the liner notes reveals a credit for one ‘Marcy Levy’ on vocals.

It turns out to be none other than Marcella Detroit of Shakespeare’s Sister fame, an LA session singer in another life who had recorded and toured extensively with Eric Clapton (co-writing ‘Lay Down Sally’) before working with Stanley.

The funk/disco track ‘We Supply’ sticks out like a sore thumb but features a superb bassline from Louis Johnson and a hilarious spoken word intro from album engineer Dennis MacKay, proclaiming, ‘We supply all your funky needs!’ in the poshest voice you’ve ever heard. Git down and boogie with Dennis…

Stanley had a mixed ’80s to say the least, with a fair few misses but some big hits as well.