Bireli Lagrene on Blue Note: Inferno/Foreign Affairs

It’s fair to say that many excellent jazz and jazz/rock guitar players emerged during the 1980s. But arguably none – with the possible exception of Stanley Jordan – made as much of an impact as Bireli Lagrene.

He’s hardly a household name but Bireli recorded a few fine albums for Blue Note Records and toured extensively with Jaco Pastorius just before the bassist’s tragic death.

The French guitarist was seen in many circles as the natural heir to Django Reinhardt at the outset of the ’80s. The teenage prodigy wowed everyone with a few independent releases (initially in a manouche style) and European tours.

The key to his sound seemed to be absolute freedom. Like Jaco and Django, he has no fear. He tries things, always pushing himself. To paraphrase John McLaughlin, he’s swinging before he even starts playing. Inferno, his debut Blue Note album, featured some excellent, freewheeling electric playing – more Mike Stern and Van Halen than Reinhardt – but the musical settings were a bit stilted and it suffered from too many changes in personnel.

But Bireli found a great foil in producer and fellow guitarist Steve Khan, and their 1988 follow-up Foreign Affairs was a big improvement. I was mildly obsessed with this album for about a month during spring 1989 – I remember buying it on the same day as seeing ‘Rain Man’ in the cinema, fact fans…

There was far more of a ‘band’ vibe on this sophomore effort, and what a band: monster drummer Dennis Chambers is in Weather Report mode, with Zawinul-style half-time shuffles (‘Josef’) and fast Latin/fusion grooves (‘Senegal’). And check out his burning solo at the end of the title track. Keyboardist Koono is a huge find and also obviously a big Zawinul fan, and recently departed bassist Jeff Andrews plays as tastily as ever.

Possibly as a result of his sad death in September 1987, Jaco’s influence is all over this album, particularly on the catchy opener ‘Timothee’ which features a mischievous, brilliant fretless bass solo by Bireli in tribute to his friend and mentor. Elsewhere, Bireli’s sometimes outrageous guitar playing is typified by the screaming octave leap at the end of ‘St Jean’, and he uses a lot more tonal colours than on the debut album.

Tunes wise, Foreign Affairs‘ formula is not really that much different to the classic Blue Note albums of the ’60s – a few originals, a few sideman compositions and a few covers (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Jack Rabbit’ and Ira Gershwin/Vernon Duke’s ‘I Can’t Get Started’). The latter in particular exemplifies a great production job by Khan, always getting a warm and ambient sound.

Foreign Affairs is almost impossible to find on CD or vinyl these days but it’s just been added to streaming platforms, featuring some extra solo acoustic guitar tracks not on the original album. It’s well worth another listen, as is Inferno. Bireli stayed with Blue Note for a couple more albums in the early ’90s, but they were far more traditional propositions.

Bill Laswell: Baselines Revisited

Bill Laswell has carved out one of the most critic-proof careers in music.

He’s probably best known as the producer of distinctive pop hits (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, PiL’s ‘Rise’, Sly & Robbie’s ‘Boops’) and rock/jazz legends in need of a makeover (Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss, Iggy Pop’s Instinct, Sonny Sharrock’s Ask The Ages, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Red Warrior).

He was the Miles Davis Estate’s go-to man for reimagining the trumpeter’s 1970s catalogue (Panthalassa) and also hugely important for bringing the P-funk sound into the ’80s and ’90s.

But Laswell is also a highly-original bassist in his own right and was a key figure of the late-’70s/early-’80s Downtown New York scene, featuring in bands like Massacre, Last Exit and Material (though he was pretty disparaging about the ‘scene’, once telling writer Bill Milkowski: ‘There never really was a Downtown community. All that means is that people don’t have enough money to get a better place to live…’).

His solo career has been interesting too, latterly showcasing a fusion of ambient, world and dub styles. But it’s his debut album Baselines (released 14th June 1983 on Elektra/Asylum) that really floats my boat. He plays a lot more bass than usual, fusing the soundworlds of Bootsy and Ornette Coleman and doing cool things like sticking objects under the strings or digging out the old Mu-Tron pedal for some memorably funky lines.

To these ears, Baselines is also the project that gave him the perfect vehicle for all his interests – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts-style found sounds, paranoid funk a la Talking Heads/King Crimson, Afrobeat, early hip-hop, avant-fusion, authentic jazz soloing and even post-punk white noise courtesy of future Chili Peppers/Marilyn Manson/Soundgarden producer Michael Beinhorn.

I wasn’t in New York in 1983 but this album would seem to be a perfect amalgam of all the hippest sh*t that was going down at the time. It’s always totally Laswell’s show, leading from the front on four/six/eight-string fretted and fretless basses and generally keeping the tracks short and sweet. Baselines is also beautifully recorded and produced – it’s easy on the ear despite some abrasive textures.

Shannon Jackson has never sounded better, supplying hilariously scattergun grooves and crunching fills. ‘Upright Man’ still inspires a kind of giggly menace, nearly 40 years on. Who supplies the scary spoken-word part? Whosampled doesn’t reveal, but the smart money’s on Fred Frith (who also plays some amusing violin on country-tinged curio ‘Lowlands’).

Baselines was certainly influential from a bass point of view too – you can bet Jah Wobble, Mick Karn, Stump and Human Chain had well-thumbed copies in their collections. But, to the best of my knowledge, Laswell has never returned to such a bass-led solo project since. A shame. He might have a future there…

Seven Breakdance/Old-School Electro Classics

Funny how a brief spell of good weather stirs happy musical memories (that’s England for you). Round my way, if the summer of 1983 was all about Thriller, Let’s Dance and The Kids From Fame, summer ’84 was breakdance and electro.

When our playground wasn’t being used for tennis-ball soccer, British Bulldog or kiss chase (all probably outlawed now…), the cooler kids were dragging an old piece of tarpaulin over from the sports hall and having a go at breaking – to various degrees of success. But there was no lack of effort.

And here is the soundtrack. Breakdance/electro was a short-lived musical relation to early hip-hop and digital funk, but some genuine pop classics emerged from era. Sure, they’re at the commercial end of the burgeoning electronic scene but they all deliver an instant nostalgia rush. The videos are great too.

 

7. Break Machine: ‘Street Dance’

Reached UK #3 in January 1984, and spent 16 weeks in the charts.

6. Ollie & Jerry: ‘Breakin’ (There’s No Stopping Us)’

Reached #5 in June 1984 and spent 11 weeks in the UK chart. Their only UK top 40 single.

5. Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five: ‘Beat Street Breakdown’

Only reached #42 in the charts but reverberated widely.

4. Herbie Hancock: ‘Rockit’

Reached #8 in July 1983. This mind-blowing performance on ‘The Tube’ opened the floodgates for a lot of kids of my generation. Has a jazz musician ever ‘crossed over’ more successfully?

3. Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel: ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’

It was just massive in the UK, hitting #7 in July ’84 and staying in the top 40 for 17 weeks.

2. Rock Steady Crew: ‘(Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew’

Hit #6 in October 1983. Co-produced by future New Order/Pet Shep Boys helmer Stephen Hague.

1. Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force: ‘Planet Rock’

Reached only #53 on its initial August 1982 release, but was an incredibly influential track.

Dedicated to Miss Walford, Mr Hall, Mr Richards, Miss Patrick, Tony Gourvish, Phil Hambridge and all the B-boys and girls at E.S.P.

Book Review: The Invisible Man (The Story Of Rod Temperton) by Jed Pitman

How many British songwriters have made their living exclusively in soul/funk/R’n’B? If you can come up with more than one name, you’re doing pretty well…

It shows just how singular and important Rod Temperton’s career was until cut short by his death in 2016. Though never ‘flavour of the month’ (i.e. not ‘rock’), he has to be in the pantheon of great songwriters, Brit or otherwise.

Jed Pitman is first out of the traps with a biography of the Cleethorpes-born melody maestro who came out of the somewhat unprepossessing mid-’70s Midlands soul scene to somehow write (or co-write) ‘Thriller’, ‘Rock With You’, ‘Sweet Freedom’, ‘Give Me The Night’, ‘The Dude’, ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’, ‘Ya Mo Be There’, ‘Love X Love’, ‘Always And Forever’, ‘The Lady In My Life’, ‘Razzamatazz’ and ‘Boogie Nights’.

Pitman’s book evolved from a BBC radio programme and as such does at times feel somewhat like a transcription, with lots of verbatim interview material but fairly limited authorial insight. But that’s nitpicking when one considers his interviewees: Quincy Jones, Siedah Garrett, Michael McDonald, Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Bruce Swedien. The only major absentee seems to be Michael Jackson.

It has to be said, the constant theme of these interviews is: I can’t believe Rod wasn’t black. But once he’s got over that elephant in the room, Pitman builds up a more vivid picture of this rather geeky guy writing his funky, hook-laden tunes on a cheap keyboard in the weird town of Worms, Germany.

The groundbreaking disco/funk band Heatwave were of course the first recipients of his signature tunes, but the book’s great success is forging a line through all of Temperton’s work, identifying common traits and signposts. All those little synth and vocal motifs were clearly planned well in advance – it’s also clear that he worked from the bassline up. And what fabulous, much-sampled basslines they were. Even Public Enemy nicked from Heatwave’s brilliant ‘The Groove Line’ for their ‘Sophisticated B**ch‘.

The other really pleasing aspect of ‘The Invisible Man’ is discovering some of the more obscure avenues of Temperton’s career – collaborations with Herbie Hancock and Bob James, ‘The Color Purple’ soundtrack, ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ theme music. The book also places a lot more emphasis on his arranging work than is commonly known.

But we never quite work out what makes Temperton tick musically. Who were his main influences? The anecdotes seldom go beyond: ‘He was the real deal’. And Pitman rather glosses over the leaner last 20 years of his career – it would have been interesting to find out more about his view on the more technology-led/minimalist R’n’B of recent years.

But on the whole this is an extremely readable, valuable book, and the world is a better place for it. It certainly had me scurrying to various streaming services to check out everything in Rod’s illustrious songbook. The Heatwave albums, in particular, have been a revelation. (Incidentally, the cover of ‘The Invisible Man’ is pretty ghastly but apparently a very accurate portrayal – almost every interviewee speaks of his obsession with the cigs…)

‘The Invisible Man’ is published now by The History Press.

Sting’s Nothing Like The Sun: 30 Years Old Today

stingA&M Records, released 13th October 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

8/10

Although he was surely the most effortlessly brilliant British pop musician and songwriter of the 1980s, people always found reasons to dislike Sting: his ‘dabbling’ in ecological affairs, jazz and acting, plus the fact that he seemed to care about stuff besides pop music.

But perhaps the thing that most riled the critics in the anti-muso mid-’80s was Sting’s insistence on improving himself, as a singer, songwriter and musician. British pop artists were supposed to exude a cool detachment from the ‘craft’ of pop, or at least not draw attention to it.

He probably didn’t give a monkey’s. And the fact is that in the late-’80s, some of the greatest rock, pop and jazz musicians were queueing up to collaborate with him (Frank Zappa, Mark Knopfler, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock etc).

If his debut album now sounds largely like an indulgent misfire, with the jazz and classical elements crudely ladled in with the pop, the follow-up Nothing Like The Sun – co-produced by Brothers In Arms helmer Neil Dorfsman –  fused all of Sting’s musical and political concerns in a far more cogent way. And it demonstrated that his voice had become a remarkable instrument. Along with Ten Summoner’s Tales, this is the one I come back to most all these years later.

But it’s a decidedly weird mainstream pop album, where political protest songs and love songs meet elements of fusion, cod-funk, cod-reggae, hi-life and even bossa nova. You might hear some of Herbie Hancock or Weather Report’s chords. Sting’s songwriting speciality is a great one-chord groove, a pretty melody and unexpectedly out-there lyric which makes you think ‘Did I hear that right?’ ‘They Dance Alone’ and ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ are cases in point. Talk about a sting in the tale.

The emotional and musical range is pretty impressive. When he closes the album with a very pretty, sparse neo-classical art-song (‘The Secret Marriage’), it doesn’t seem forced or trite the way ‘Russians’ did on the first album. Sting also excels in writing genuinely happy music – no mean feat.

The very Paul Simonesque ‘Rock Steady’ (featuring a remarkable performance from drummer Manu Katche – listen on good speakers), ‘Straight To The Heart’, ‘We’ll Be Together’ (apparently very influenced by Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’), ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ and ‘Englishman In New York’ are deceptively simple with vibrant melodies which lodge in the memory and don’t grate.

And there are always interesting musical grace-notes throughout. Percussionist Mino Cinelu, headhunted from Weather Report, gets an amazing amount of freedom – ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ is almost a feature for him. Andy Summers supplies excellent textural guitar on a few tracks. Sting nicks Gil Evans’ superb rhythm section (Mark Egan and Kenwood Dennard) for Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and coaxes one of the great guitar solos from the late Hiram Bullock.

So, all in all, a cracking album which remains Sting’s most successful solo release, selling around 18 million and hitting #1 in the UK and #9 in the US. He couldn’t get arrested singles-wise though – the first four from the album missed out on the UK top 40 (though ‘We’ll Be Together’ made the top 10 in the US) before fifth single ‘Englishman In New York’ made the top 20 (fact fans: astonishingly, he only has three UK top 10 singles to his name, all ’90s duets…).

The Cult Movie Club: Round Midnight (1986)

round_midnight_xlg‘Round Midnight’ turns 30 today, and its status as one of the great jazz movies was confirmed at a birthday screening last night at the Cine Lumiere in South Kensington.

Whilst the recent ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Miles Ahead’ were moderate commercial successes, they were subject to withering criticism in some quarters – I was with the naysayers regarding the former but, after watching the trailer, couldn’t even drag myself to the latter.

So until Woody Allen makes his long-promised big-budget ‘birth of jazz’ film, ‘Round Midnight’ is probably the best we’re gonna get. Its success even ushered in a short-lived Hollywood jazz revival – Clint Eastwood produced the wonderful ‘Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser’ (1987) and directed the Charlie Parker biopic ‘Bird’ (1988), followed by Bruce Weber’s acclaimed Chet Baker documentary ‘Let’s Get Lost’ (1988) and Spike Lee’s ‘Mo Better Blues’ (1990).

‘Round Midnight’ is loosely based on the memoir/biography ‘Dance Of The Infidels’ by Francis Paudras, a Parisian graphic designer who befriended legendary bebop pianist Bud Powell – and became his carer, business manager and confidante – during Bud’s expat period.

The film focuses mainly on the relationship between Francis and Dale Turner, a fictional mash-up of Powell and saxophonist Lester Young. My dad and I loved ‘Round Midnight’ from first viewing and, at a guess, very much related to Francis’s passion for jazz and desire to see his hero ‘living well’, rather than scuffling from gig to gig, drink to drink (Dad visited Paudras in France in the late ’80s in his capacity as a TV producer, but the proposed documentary never got made).

Put simply, the film ‘gets’ jazz; it’s immediately obvious that almost everyone involved loves the music and its players. Despite an incredibly slow, dark (as in: you can’t really see what’s going on) opening 20 minutes, ‘Round Midnight’ finally delivers the grandeur, romance and tragedy of America’s classical music.

Dexter Gordon’s Oscar-nominated lead performance still thrills, 30 years on. Though his character mainly spends the first half of the film trying to get wasted, we can forgive him anything, especially when we hear of the beatings and racist abuse regularly doled out during his time in the army (this dialogue, according to director/co-writer Bertrand Tavernier, was pure autobiography on Gordon’s part).

Elsewhere, Martin Scorsese has some fun with his portrayal of the fairly sleazy New York booking agent Goodley, while Francois Cluzet gives a strong, touching performance as the quick-tempered though loyal Francis.

Tavernier has finally found a way to represent jazz on screen, and it couldn’t be simpler – just round up the best players available (including Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, most of whom also have speaking parts), get them to play live and capture a performance in one take if possible.

It’s no great surprise that Herbie’s soundtrack won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1987, though the film’s original music arguably never quite evokes the high-energy rush of prime late-’50s bebop-tinged jazz. No matter: both ‘Round Midnight’ and its score have aged pretty damn well.