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.

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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…

Lovesexy Meets Ligeti: Terje Rypdal’s The Singles Collection

terje

ECM Records, released January 1989

9/10

It’s probably a good thing for a record label to have a USP, a recognisable visual concept and/or sound. It has certainly stood Blue Note, Impulse and 4AD in good stead. When one thinks of ECM, images of fjords, mountains or trees probably come to mind, alongside a certain sonic quality, a kind of rarefied ambience (producer/owner Manfred Eicher’s choice of reverb units are apparently almost as ‘secret’ as Colonel Sanders’ chicken recipe…).

The ECM formula worked for two decades. But then along came Terje Rypdal’s The Singles Collection in 1989 to throw a spanner in the works (though, admittedly, it does feature mountains on the cover…or are they fjords?!). Though the title is a joke – there are no ‘singles’ on the album – you wish more pop music was as bold as this collection which explores hard rock, early-’60s-style balladry, techno-fusion and even Prince-influenced funk to exciting and sometimes amusing effect.

The shorter tracks start out sounding a bit like Living In A Box jamming with Jeff Beck, before completely changing gear a minute in and turning into dark, introspective mood pieces with Messiaen chords and ethereal fretless bass. They chuck in the whole kitchen sink, as if desperate to avoid a boring listening experience. The ploy works. And, yes, it cannot be denied – this is the ECM album whose first track is titled ‘There Is A Hot Lady In My Bedroom And I Need A Drink’…

terje-back-cover

Rypdal’s album feels very much like ECM’s black sheep of the family, despite coming from an artist was very much part of the furniture – the Norwegian guitarist/composer appeared on Jan Garbarek’s Afric Peppperbird from 1970, only the label’s seventh release.

Influenced by Hank Marvin, Beck, Bartok and Ligeti, and still very much active today, Rypdal is a weirdly unheralded figure, even though his Strat-with-distortion-and-whammy-bar sound and use of guitar loops are occasionally detectable in players like David Torn, Andy Summers and Allan Holdsworth.

The Singles Collection was the third album in a row where Rypdal hooked up with The Chasers, a cracking bass and drums team comprising of Bjorn Kjellemyr and Audun Kleive. But a vital ingredient here is the addition of keyboardist Allan Dangerfield who contributes three compositions and all manner of weird textures, Synclavier drum/sequencer patterns and unhinged, hysterical Hammond organ solos very much in the Prince style.

‘Sprøtt’ (Norwegian for ‘crazy’) sounds like an outtake from Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop album with its chugging rockabilly rhythms and blistering lead guitar. Luscious noir ballad ‘Mystery Man’ will be familiar to fans of the Michael Mann movie ‘Heat’. If Mann hadn’t bagged it, you can bet David Lynch wouldn’t have been far behind. Maybe Dave can still put the gorgeous, glacial ‘Somehow, Somewhere’ to good use.

Elsewhere, ‘U’n’I’ fuses rockabilly and free-jazz beats with fusion bass, Ligeti chords and Van Halen guitar styles to thrilling effect. ‘Steady’ features some serious funk/rock riffing and another nutty Dangerfield solo. All in all, a striking, fascinating album.

 

David Sylvian’s Gone To Earth: 30 Years Old Today

David sylvian

cover artwork by Russell Mills

Virgin Records, released 13th September 1986

Produced by Steve Nye/David Sylvian

Recorded 1985/1986 at The Manor, Oxfordshire, and Townhouse, Shepherds Bush

UK album chart position: 24

Recently, I was honoured to be asked by photographer William Ellis to contribute to his One LP project where he asks musicians, writers and music business figures to speak about the album that has been most important to them.

Here’s what I said about Gone To Earth (with a few edits):

I was given the album by my parents on my 14th birthday. I had heard the single ‘Taking The Veil’ a few weeks before and it had struck me immediately as something I needed to check out. Concurrently, I was getting into Japan, Sylvian’s band from the early ’80s.

But Gone To Earth had a whole new influence: ECM-style jazz. Kenny Wheeler plays some beautiful solos, John Taylor features strongly on piano, and Harry Beckett blows all over ‘Wave’. Back in the mid-’80s, pop music embraced jazz with ease, but now it seems like the two worlds have completely diverged. Sylvian combines both elements really nicely.

When I delved deeper into Sylvian’s lyrics, I realised that they could be related to romantic affairs – there was a ‘pop’ element to them – but they could also be spiritual in nature, about ‘the other’ in general, touching on religious ideas, metaphysical ideas. That concept has fascinated me as I’ve got older.

Side two of Gone To Earth is completely instrumental. Sylvian loathed the term ‘new age’ and instead produced ambient music which was more environmental, geared towards self-reflection and an appreciation of nature. He once said, ‘If I didn’t live in a city, I wouldn’t need to make this music.’ On ‘The Healing Place’, German artist Joseph Beuys speaks about his vision of art. Another track features Robert Graves reciting his poem ‘The Foreboding’. The voice of JG Bennett makes a few appearances, familiar from Fripp’s Exposure.

And then, of course, there’s Sylvian’s voice. I think of it as an instrument. Some people find him a bit doomy, depressing, po-faced, but I’m always inspired by his melodies. He’s also a great, natural musician, very underrated/understated on keyboards and guitar.

The story goes that Virgin didn’t want to fund the second instrumental side. You can imagine, can’t you? They said, ‘This pop singer’s trying to an album of instrumentals? What’s going on?’, even though Bowie had done it ten years before. In this fascinating interview from 1986, Sylvian explains that he had to work on side two in his ‘spare’ time, away from Virgin’s watchful eye. I’m glad he did.

Musically, the album is also a guitarists’ dream: Robert Fripp, Phil Palmer, Bill Nelson and Sylvian himself contribute memorable, considered work. Nelson in particular is a revelation. Sylvian gives him space to sculpt and layer his parts, and he delivers some brilliant solos. BJ Cole adds some dreamy pedal steel.

David Sylvian

In 1988, I saw Sylvian at the Hammersmith Odeon with a great band featuring Mark Isham on trumpet, David Torn on guitar and Steve Jansen on drums. It was tremendously exciting; there was a kind of ‘goth’ element at the gig which surprised me and lots of young women screaming for Sylvian!

He was still holding onto his ‘pop’ status – it’s no mean feat for an 80-minute, half-instrumental album to reach 24 in the charts. It was a time when pop music had a lot more mystique; you had to scan The Face, Wire, NME or Melody Maker to glean any snippets of information about artists of Sylvian’s calibre.

Every time I listen to Gone To Earth, I notice something new. It’s such a layered, beautiful piece of music, almost always to be enjoyed in one sitting, and it came out during an incredibly fertile period for Sylvian – the 1984-1987 run of Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth and Secrets Of The Beehive surely matches any other artist in ’80s music.

ECM Goes Rock: David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury

Cloud_About_MercuryECM Records, released 1987

8/10

The late ‘80s was a great period for avant-garde guitar playing with the likes of Vernon Reid, Reeves Gabrels, Adrian Belew, Arto Lindsay, Fred Frith, Dave Fiuczynski, Stevie Salas, Sonny Sharrock, Skip McDonald, Robert Quine, Steve Vai and Bill Frisell laying down some seriously mind-bending tones and textures.

Cloud About Mercury, David Torn’s second ECM solo album, definitely put him into the same league. Though just as influential as many of the aforementioned guitarists, he has never really gained as much of a public profile despite occasional solo albums (the latest Only Sky has just come out on ECM) and stellar sideman work with the likes of David Bowie and David Sylvian.

My dad used to get sent a lot of music for his work and I vaguely remember him passing Cloud About Mercury onto me, knowing I was a big fan of early-’80s King Crimson. My muso mates and I quickly grew to like the album’s perverse musical concepts and silly song titles. With a superstar avant-rock rhythm section of Bill Bruford and Tony Levin on board, it came on a bit like the follow-up to Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair, but also offered a strikingly original take on jazz/rock.

I recall a contemporary review of Cloud About Mercury in Q magazine which said something like: ‘Torn luxuriates in the silence for a bit…and then goes KRAOOOOOOW!’ To be fair, that writer probably hadn’t listened beyond track one (and there is an excellent counterbalancing AllMusic review).

But in its louder moments, CAM is definitely one to annoy the neighbours. Torn can certainly make a racket. His Trans-Trem guitar enables him to create some very novel effects and original lines, with micro-tones and Middle Eastern flavours, and you can really get lost in his ambient loops. As far as I know, he was the first guitarist to use the loop/delay pedal extensively.

CAM is also a very uncharacteristic ECM album, being much more in-your-face and rockist in its mixing and playing than most of the label’s output. In fact, it’s not really fair to judge it as a ‘jazz’ album at all. But sometimes Torn seems much happier playing solo or in duet with Isham; his superb rhythm section is underused, and the tunes rely too heavily on one-chord improvisations. Consequently Bruford and Levin sound somewhat muted and can’t quite bring the sort of forward-motion dynamics so crucial to jazz/rock.

Torn toured extensively to promote CAM (but presumably not London or I surely would have been there…) with ex-Japan bass player Mick Karn replacing the unavailable Tony Levin. An excellent decision, both musically and commercially. The band sounded fantastic and the tunes really came to life. Torn and Isham then accompanied David Sylvian on the ‘In Praise Of Shamen’ world tour which I caught at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1988.

Two quick questions to end, prompted by a discussion with my brother about Torn the other day: why isn’t there any music like this around these days? Or is there?

Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires: Second Sight

marc johnson

Released October 1987

Bought: Virgin Records Oxford Street, November 1987?

8/10

In rock, the two-guitar setup is standard. But in jazz and fusion, not so standard. Since 1987, there have been a number of two-guitar celebrity summits (such as Scofield/Metheny, Scofield/Frisell, Stern/Eric Johnson, Carlton/Ritenour etc) but ex-Bill Evans bassist Marc Johnson’s superb ECM solo albums, ’85’s Bass Desires and Second Sight, both featuring John Scofield and Bill Frisell, quite possibly started off the recent trend.

Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson

1987’s Second Sight was considered somewhat of a disappointment on its original release, but for me this is the superior album of the two. I was a major Scofield fan when I bought it in ’87 but didn’t know Frisell’s name at all. I’m really glad it was this album which revealed his incredible playing to me.

Some of the interplay between Frisell and Scofield is nothing less than miraculous, although one could hardly think of two more different guitarists in approach. They leave each other space to play and at times even inadvertently double parts.

John Scofield, Bill Frisell

The ever-reliable Peter Erskine slightly overplayed on the Bass Desires album but here expertly marshals the material without ever being overbearing, and the compositions are so fresh, memorable and catchy.

Only the opening ‘Crossing The Corpus Callosum’ sounds like a studio jam session, but this is no ordinary jam; Scofield’s emotive bluesy cries dissolve into a fantastically-eerie Frisell ambient soundscape, leading the track inexplicably into David Lynch territory.

‘Small Hands’ and ‘Hymn For Her’ are shimmering, moving ballads, with the guitarists’ approaches meshing beautifully. ‘Sweet Soul’ is a soulful slow swinger full of fantastic Scofield soloing. ‘1951’ is a superb Frisell composition evoking Thelonious Monk’s best work. ‘Thrill Seekers’ simply swings like hell and features a classic Frisell fuzzbox solo. ‘Twister’ is great fun, Scofield’s affectionate ode to surf rock with some very funky bass and guitar interplay and a short drum solo almost as memorable as Ringo’s on Abbey Road.

As far as I know, the band toured Europe but never the UK. Would love to have seen them. The performance below is really special. No wonder Frisell is grinning like a Cheshire cat throughout.