Scientology In Session: Chick Corea Elektric Band’s Light Years (1987)

Jazz/fusion of the late-’80s variety is sure to give any John Peel acolyte nightmares: visions of guys in tracksuit bottoms, trainers and vests, looking like extras from ‘Thirtysomething’, playing absurdly gymnastic jazz/rock based on corny ‘funk’ or Latin vamps, grinning at each other and the audience, using the cheesiest modern gizmos (Simmons electric drums, EWI wind instruments, guitar synths).

The Chick Corea Elektric Band (Corea: keyboards, Frank Gambale: guitar, John Patitucci: bass, Dave Weckl: drums) probably best epitomised this style. But guess what – revisiting their 1987 album Light Years recently, it emerges as one of the best and least ridiculous projects of Chick’s career.

He reins in the chops and gothic longeurs to produce a collection of really good themes and tight, attractive arrangements (though the three ‘extra’ tracks on the CD/streaming versions are disaster areas). The album is also musical catnip for me, bringing back memories of when I was first getting into jazz and fusion.

The thing is that Chick seems to actually relish including some pentatonic/blues-based harmony on Light Years. Some of his playing wouldn’t seem out of place in the music of Will Downing or Lonnie Liston Smith. There are even a few II-V-I chord changes.

‘Starlight’ and the title track are as catchy and immediate as David Sanborn’s ‘Run For Cover’ or ‘Hideaway’, though Marienthal’s alto tone is a bit too close to Dave’s for comfort. Weckl delivers lesson after lesson in Latin-flavoured funk and rock drumming. Gambale and Patitucci barely break sweat, or rather don’t get any room to show off, but still make a few telling contributions.

‘Time Track’ and ‘View From The Outside’ demonstrate everything that’s good about Light Years – catchy melodies, cool grooves and meticulous, gradually-escalating arrangements. The ridiculously technical last four bars of the former demonstrate some of the killer musical chops that are kept pretty much in the locker throughout the album, only to be brought out when strictly necessary. I saw them live a couple of times around this time and of course the musicianship was incredible, even if the relentlessly ‘up’ stage presentation now looks pretty embarrassing.

Light Years is obviously good. It’s brutally, clinically good. It’s almost critic-proof. The Elektric Band were the Level 42 of high-octane fusion and this album is their World Machine. Of course it’ll always sound a bit like muzak to some, but that’s quite cool too.

The CD’s inlay card features a really weird poem by Chick, kind of an ode to Scientology. It’s worth reading. And actually the album cover is pretty strange too when you think about it…

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Frank Gambale Live! 30 Years On

I’ll never forget it. Circa 1990, I was on holiday with my parents in Kent, near the Cliffs of Dover. A summer storm was chucking it down. Holed up inside, I flicked through some French music stations on my longwave radio.

Suddenly I heard this absolutely ridiculous guitar playing – deafeningly loud, hysterical, but totally precise, with great phrasing and notes that spluttered out in absurdly wide intervals. The tone was heavily distorted but the feel was closer to jazz/rock than metal. And the rhythm section didn’t sound too shabby either.

By this time, I had heard Allan Holdsworth, Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen, John McLaughlin, some pretty outrageous guitarists, but this was different. Who the hell was it? I strained my ears and just about heard the French DJ utter the words ‘Frank Gambale’.

Yes, it was the Italian-Australian wunderkind, the man who introduced so-called ‘sweep picking’ to a wider audience than before. And the album was revealed to be Live!, released 30 years ago this week and recorded at LA’s jazz/rock haven The Baked Potato on 21st August 1988.

What was really weird was that I had heard Gambale with the Chick Corea Elektric band before this, and even seen them live a few times, but he seemed pretty anonymous in that band. Not here. To this day, ‘Credit Reference Blues’, ‘Fe Fi Fo Funk’, ‘Touch Of Brasil’ and ‘The Natives Are Restless’ sound like guitar landmarks.

But he was way more than a chops phenomenon – he’s an excellent composer too, clearly influenced by Chick Corea and Larry Carlton but with some moves all of his own. The album also introduced me to the fantastic Joey Heredia on drums, a completely original player who can do fiery jazz/rock, spicy Latin and Police-style rock, sometimes all in the space of one tune. And the excellent keyboard player Kei Akagi was moonlighting with Miles Davis while playing some sh*t-hot stuff on this album.

Frank Gambale Live! was a key artefact in the golden age of shred guitar, and it gained him some crossover success with metal fans and lots of coverage in guitar magazines. Sadly his solo career refused to fire after this release, with only moments of 1990’s Thunder From Down Under subsequently holding much interest for me, but this was a sporadically brilliant live jazz/rock album – and one of the best. (It has to be said, there’s not much competition – Larry Carlton’s Last Nite, Weather Report’s 8:30, Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group Live!, Mahavishnu’s Between Nothingness And Eternity, and…er…)

Sounds Like Steely Dan?

They are of course the pop/jazz masters whose harmonic and lyrical sophistication have had the critics purring since 1972. They’ve also often been described as ‘influential’. But is that true? Does any other music sound remotely like Steely Dan?

In the 1980s, the term ‘Steely Dan-influenced’ was bandied about particularly in relation to British bands of the ‘sophisti-pop’ variety: The Big Dish, Style Council, Everything But The Girl, Curiosity Killed The Cat, Hue & Cry, Sade, Swing Out Sister, even Prefab Sprout and Deacon Blue. More recently, it’s The High Llamas, Athlete, Mark Ronson, Toy Matinee, The Norwegian Fords, Mayer Hawthorne, State Cows and even Pharrell.

None really sound like Steely. Sure, they show off some slick grooves, jazzy solos and nice chord changes. But they also generally scrimp on the hooks, harmonic sophistication, production values and soulful, distinctive vocals which characterise Becker and Fagen’s oeuvre.

However, there are random tracks over the years – by artists one wouldn’t necessarily have predicted – that have seemingly ‘cracked the code’. Here’s a smattering, not all necessarily from the ’80s. More suggestions welcome if you can think of any.

10. Billy Joel: ‘Zanzibar’

Lush production (Phil Ramone), cool chords, great arrangements, biting Fagenesque vocals, quirky lyrics and nice guitar from Steely regular Steve Khan. Also featuring two kick-ass solos by trumpet/flugelhorn legend Freddie Hubbard.

9. The Stepkids: ‘The Lottery’

Underrated American psych-soulsters deliver jazzy weirdness, a nice groove, cool chords, memorable hooks and a distinctly Fagen-like croon from vocalist Tim Walsh.

8. The Tubes: ‘Attack Of The 50ft Woman’

The bridge and backing vocals always remind me of Steely, and I’m sure the boys would also appreciate the ‘50s B-movie lyric concept and ‘easy listening’ middle eight.

7. Danny Wilson: ‘Lorraine Parade’

The Dundonians’ superb debut is full of Dan-ish moments but this (sorry about the sound quality) could almost be an outtake from Katy Lied. See also the B-side ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’.

6. Frank Gambale: ‘Faster Than An Arrow’

The Aussie guitar master swapped the chops-based fusion for this slick, lushly-chorded, Steely-style shuffle. Gambale sings, plays piano and guitar and also wrote the excellent horn chart.

5. Maxus: ‘Nobody’s Business’

The little-known AOR supergroup came up with this standout in 1981. Jay Gruska’s vocals and Robbie Buchanan’s keys particularly stand out as Steely-like (apologies for the creepy video).

4. Cliff Richard: ‘Carrie’

More than a hint of ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ in the chorus, lovely production and Cliff does a neat Fagen impression throughout. And hey, isn’t that ‘Mike’ McDonald on backup? (No. Ed.) Apparently co-songwriter Terry Britten was a huge Steely fan (as Cliff told this writer during a live radio interview circa 2008).

3. Boz Scaggs: ‘We’re Waiting’

Steely regulars Michael Omartian, Victor Feldman, Jeff Porcaro and Chuck Findley contribute to this enigmatic cracker which could almost be an Aja outtake. The oblique lyrics possibly relate to Hollywood in some way. See also Boz’s ‘Gimme The Goods’ which sounds suspiciously like ‘Kid Charlemagne’.

2. Tina Turner: ‘Private Dancer’

This Mark Knopfler-written gem pulls off the Steely tricks of simple melody/elaborate harmony and a risqué lyrical theme. There’s also more than a touch of ‘FM’ in the intro riff. Knopfler was always a big Dan fan and of course guested on ‘Time Out Of Mind’. See also Dire Straits’ ‘Private Investigations’ whose outro bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘The Royal Scam’.

1. Christopher Cross: ‘I Really Don’t Know Anymore’

From one of the biggest-selling debut albums in US chart history, this features the production/piano skills of Omartian, backing vocals from McDonald and a majestic guitar solo by Dan legend Larry Carlton. See also ‘Minstrel Gigolo’ from the same album.