Gig Review: Little Axe @ The Jazz Cafe, 18th November 2017

The 1980s featured a smorgasbord of great guitarists and Skip McDonald was right in the thick of it. He started the decade playing on many classic Sugar Hill Records sides and ended it as a member of futuristic funk/rock titans Tackhead.

Since then blues-dub solo project Little Axe has been his chief musical outlet, a collaboration with legendary mixologist Adrian Sherwood and Sugar Hill cohorts Doug Wimbish on bass and Keith Leblanc on drums. 1994 debut The Wolf That House Built was a big critical success, but, after a run of middling albums through the noughties, Little Axe’s time somehow seemed to have come and gone.

Until now. It’s unclear whether the state of the world (and the White House) has given him a new lease of life but McDonald’s bittersweet missives seem tailor-made for these times. This packed one-off London gig – promoting impressive, surprisingly upbeat new album London Blues – saw McDonald joined onstage by Wimbish, Sherwood and drummer Andy Gangadeen.

Observing Sherwood was like watching a master cocktail-maker at work, adding his trademark delays and feedback loops with deft sleights of hand. The ageless Wimbish was in typically fine form too, creating mind-bending dub tones with some very nifty footwork – not for nothing has he occasionally referred to himself as the ‘Bruce Lee of bass’.

But McDonald’s impressive vocals were the star of the show, and he also seems to have found his electric guitar mojo again. Old favourite ‘If I Had My Way’ has never sounded so apt (‘These are demon days/It’s a time of chaos, rage and anxiety/Where you gonna be when two worlds collide?’) while new songs ‘Snake Oil’, ‘Factory Girl’ and ‘London Blues’ were instant earworms. The latter could even make for a leftfield choice of single. Best of all though was chilling closer ‘Deep River’, an eerie death-dub with a central image of ‘a flower blooming in hell’, sounding a bit like an unlikely collaboration between Gregory Isaacs and Sarah Kane.

There was a slightly valedictory feeling to the end of the gig; Wimbish, Sherwood and McDonald’s farewells were possibly more heartfelt than usual. It would be a great shame if this was the last we see of Skip’s Axe – the state of the world and a fine new album would seem to demand that he continue.

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Women And Rhythm Section First: An Interview With Keith Leblanc

keith leblanc

Keith Leblanc

When late, great bass hero Jaco Pastorius was asked about his philosophy of music, he had a stock response – ‘Women and rhythm section first!’

In the world of black music, whether jazz, funk, R’n’B or soul, the hookup between the drummer and bass player has always been pivotal. As the cliché goes, a band is only as good as its engine room.

In jazz, you can’t do much better than Tony Williams with Ron Carter or Philly Joe Jones with Paul Chambers. In funk, you can’t go wrong with Benny Benjamin with James Jamerson or Clyde Stubblefield with Bootsy. In fusion, you know it’s going to work if Dave Weckl/John Patitucci or Steve Jordan/Anthony Jackson are taking care of business.

But interestingly, possibly the most heralded rhythm section in recent black music hasn’t come out of jazz, funk or soul music (though these undoubtedly went into the mix), but rather hip-hop. Drummer Keith Leblanc hooked up with bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald when they were summoned to work on the label set up by industry veterans Sylvia and Mickey Robinson to showcase the new hip-hop artists emerging from the Bronx and Brooklyn in the mid-’70s.

Just prior to that, Keith had briefly worked with Doug and Skip in the funk band Wood, Brass and Steel but when The Sugar Hill Gang’s controversial ‘Rapper’s Delight’ became a monster hit in ’79, the Robinsons were on the lookout for a house band to lay down the foundations for the follow-up.

sugar hill records

It seems the call was inevitable, according to Keith, speaking crisply and candidly down the line from his home in Connecticut: ‘Sylvia was looking for Skip and Doug but they initially said no because they’d had a bad experience with her before. But I was new to the band and when I heard the words “recording studio” and “money”, I bugged them until they said yes! And the day we all went up there, we started recording. I didn’t want to know about the business, I just wanted to record.’

The slick, dynamic fusion of funk, rock and jazz laid down by Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald proved just the ticket for Sylvia and they were in. But in those very early days of hip-hop, the money was tight although luckily for Keith the musicianship was too. ‘I was brought up with James Brown, Muscle Shoals, Parliament/Funkadelic, Gap Band and Cameo, so playing the rap stuff wasn’t much of a stretch from what we were already doing. But the first Sugar Hill Gang album was recorded in the Robinsons’ studio which was falling to bits.’

They moved to the slightly more lugubrious surroundings of H&L Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey (also home to Rudy Van Gelder’s famous studio where so many classic Blue Note albums were recorded), and so began a golden period of recording characterised by great performances captured sometimes under great duress in the studio. Extended jams like Funky Four Plus One’s ‘That’s The Joint’, The Sequence’s ‘And You Know That’ and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘Freedom’ featured jazzy horn charts, challenging stop-and-go arrangements and extended solo sections that had more in common with Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway than Eminem and Jay-Z.

These tracks were not piecemeal studio confections; according to Keith, ‘Back then, playing live in the studio was normal. The arranger Clifton “Jiggs” Chase would get with the rappers and do an arrangement based on what they wanted to use and then make up a chart. Then we’d add things. The musical ethic was really good at that time. You had to get it right or there’d be someone else in there recording the next day.’ The work ethic was almost comparable to the famous Motown production line: ‘We’d cut a track on the Friday, drive home to Connecticut, drive back to New Jersey on the Monday and hear the track on the radio.’

In the time-honoured hip-hop tradition, sometimes sections from other records were ‘replayed’ to give tracks an air of familiarity, most notoriously on the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ which stole Chic’s ‘Good Times’ groove lock, stock and barrel. But this just provided yet another irresistible musical challenge to the young Leblanc: ‘Alot of the time, we were playing maybe a bar of someone else’s music. So we wanted to cut it better than the original!’

But then came the second seismic shift in hip-hop’s history – the release of ‘Planet Rock’, Afrika Bambaataa seminal track which was the first rap tune to properly utilise newly-affordable drum machines and sequencers. And for Keith, it was both a blessing and curse: ‘When the drum machine first came out, I saw my job opportunities flying out of the window! Now anybody could make a rap record in their bedroom. But then it dawned on me that I could program a drum machine better than any engineer. I did “No Sell Out” just to see what I could do with the technology.’

Featuring a mash-up of Leblanc’s apocalyptic beats and segments of Malcolm X’s oration, the track led to many more intriguing fusions of man and machine in his recorded output and also prefigured the Tackhead project which teamed up Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald with London dub mixologist Adrian Sherwood to thrilling effect.

Sadly, the Sugar Hill story wouldn’t be complete without reporting its demise – in less than honourable circumstances, according to Leblanc – with lots of law suits, claims and counter claims. But much of the music stands the test of time, particularly the extended jams of the ’80/’81 period which suggested a thrilling fusion of Duke Ellington, George Clinton and Trouble Funk.

Leblanc has continued to work with Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald regularly over the years in projects such as Little Axe and Mark Stewart and the Maffia. Check out what he’s been up to on his Facebook page.