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 Sting’s chords on Herbie Hancock or Weather Report’s albums from the same period. His 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…).

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Post-Tutu Blues: David Sanborn’s A Change Of Heart 30 Years On

Warner Bros Records, released March 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond

4/10

On 17th July 1986, Tampa-born sax great David Sanborn broke off from his own European tour to guest with Miles Davis and band at the Montreux Jazz Festival, playing on ‘Burn’, ‘Jean-Pierre’ and also ‘Portia’, one of the standout Marcus Miller compositions from the soon-to-be-released Tutu. Though obviously nervous, Sanborn acquitted himself well, getting stuck in with some tasty modal solos and prompting many Miles smiles. Hopefully the performance would bode well for Sanborn’s next studio recording.

Unfortunately not. Sanborn made some fine albums during the 1980s – Hideaway, Voyeur, As We Speak, Straight To The Heart – but A Change Of Heart was not one of them. It was the kind of over-produced, under-composed, unfunky ‘fusion’ record that Tutu should have killed off once and for all.

I bought A Change Of Heart on cassette when it came out, proudly showing it off to a cool family friend who had previously introduced me to loads of great music. I hoped he would be impressed by my purchase. He turned his nose up, mumbling something about ‘Bloody muzak…’ I was puzzled and a bit embarrassed. Listening back 30 years on, he was right about A Change Of Heart but wrong about Sanborn. It would be a shame if A Change Of Heart was a listener’s first experience of his music.

The opening two Marcus-written-and-produced tracks – ‘Chicago Song’ and ‘Imogene’ – deliver a quality that the rest of the album never even remotely comes near. Miller was in constant demand around this time and presumably couldn’t commit to the whole album. ‘Imogene’ is a classic ballad with a haunting fretless bass melody and beguiling bridge, while ‘Chicago Song’ transcends its simple melody with an irresistibly funky rhythm section and biting Hiram Bullock guitar bridge. It’s still part of Sanborn’s live set to this day.

The rest of A Change Of Heart seems designed for the latest Don Simpson movie or an episode of ‘Miami Vice’. Syndrum overdubs and unsubtle Fairlight samples prevail alongside ugly synth sounds and flimsy melodic motifs, without a whiff of jazz or R’n’B. Producer/synth players/writers Ronnie Foster, Philippe Saisse and Michael Colina toil away fruitlessly and even Sanborn’s licks don’t stick.

Sanborn toured A Change Of Heart extensively with a great band featuring Bullock and Dennis Chambers on drums, even popping up on primetime UK music show ‘The Tube‘ playing Michael Sembello’s smooth jazz ballad ‘The Dream’. He was clearly at his commercial peak (the album made the top 100 in the US and UK) but the creative rot would prevail to the end of the ’80s. He got back on track with the release of 1991’s Another Hand.

John Scofield’s Blue Matter: 30 Years On

scofieldGramavision Records, released February 1987

Bought: HMV Oxford Street 1987

9/10

Occasionally a musician appears out of nowhere, ‘fully-formed’, or at least it can seem that way during one’s formative years. In my lifetime, there have been a few: Lewis Taylor, Omar Hakim, Trilok Gurtu, and probably a few more. Drummer Dennis Chambers, who plays brilliantly throughout Blue Matter, would definitely be one too.

My muso schoolmate Jem Godfrey had lent me John Scofield’s superb Still Warm album sometime around 1986. Before then, I knew John’s playing mainly from Miles Davis’s Star People, one of my mid-’80s favourites. So when the Steve Swallow-produced Blue Matter dropped in early ’87, I was primed and ready – and instantly gripped.

john-scofield-blue-matter_b

The presence of Hiram Bullock‘s rhythm guitar on three tracks gives a good indication of Scofield’s approach on this album – it’s R’n’B/funk-based jazz/rock, with great grooves, neat chord changes and no gratuitious displays of instrumental technique for technique’s sake – though Scofield and Chambers were of course quite capable of some serious chops, evident on the killin’ ‘Trim’.

The dynamic title track is clearly influenced by Miles/Marcus Miller’s ‘Tutu’ with its half-time groove, walking synth bass and enigmatic chords, but Chambers’ brilliant contribution (closely monitored by the excellent Gary Grainger on bass) transforms it into something totally new.

In the first minute of the tune, he achieves a novel ‘bouncing ball’ snare drum effect and then unleashes some of the most kick-ass kick-drum playing in music history. Chambers had already turned some heads playing with George Clinton, but, even if he had never picked up the sticks again after 1987, ‘Blue Matter’ would probably have put him right up in the drum pantheon.

‘Heaven Hill’ – named for Sco’s favourite brand of bourbon? – a slow blues with surprising chord changes and tasty gospel-tinged piano playing by Mitch Forman, influenced a whole host of ‘fusion’ guitarist/composers such as Robben Ford, Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale (compare it to Henderson’s ‘Slidin’ Into Charlisa’). ‘Now She’s Blonde’, ‘Time Marches On’, ‘The Nag’ and ‘So You Say’ manage to be both funky and catchy while retaining enough harmonic interest and ‘dirt’ to go way beyond the smooth jazz tag.

The Blue Matter band got quite a live following around this time, with good reason. They were somewhat of an antidote to the Chick Corea Elektric Bands and Al Di Meolas of this world, as musically jaw-dropping as those artists were/are. Scofield himself acknowledged as much during an interview with Howard Mandel in 1988: ‘What I hate about fusion music is the gymnastics. We are often playing to audiences who want to hear fast and loud and I have to watch myself. I’ve never been that good at doing fast stuff. Luckily, it doesn’t come easy to me. Now, Dennis Chambers is a chops phenomenon. On his solos, he destroys the drums. But he also has inbred musicianship, so it’s exciting and not so calculated…’

Hiram Bullock’s From All Sides: 30 Years Old Today

hiramAtlantic Records, released 18th November 1986

7/10

Bought: Record & Tape Exchange, Shepherd’s Bush, 1990?

In the mid-’80s, London seemed to be Hiram Bullock’s second home. The late great New York-based guitarist was in David Sanborn’s band at the Wembley Arena in November ’84 (alongside Marcus Miller, Don Grolnick and Steve Gadd, one of my first ever gigs) and also appeared in town regularly with Carla Bley and Gil Evans during this period.

At a Sanborn Hammersmith Odeon gig around ’86/’87, Hiram embarked on a solo, and, with the aid of a wireless unit, promptly jumped off the stage to serenade the stalls. He then vacated the auditorium, soloing all the while, and a few minutes later appeared in the front row of the balcony, still blazing away, illuminated by a single spot. What a dude.

Such shenanigans would earn himself column inches in the jazz magazines and a cult following but sometimes overshadow the fact that he was one of the great guitarists of the ’80s or any other decade, effortlessly mixing up the blues, funk, bebop and rock.

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By mid-1986, he had enjoyed ten years as a first-call session player (Steely Dan, Chaka Khan, Brecker Brothers et al) as well as being part of the famous ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Late Night With Letterman‘ bands. He had also recently hooked up with his one-time bass student Jaco Pastorius in the PDB trio (with drummer Kenwood Dennard) and produced Mike Stern’s excellent Upside Downside (guitar-wise, they have a lot in common).

In short, he had paid his dues. It was time for a solo album. Though From All Sides is in many ways a classic ‘journeyman’ record, covering all the bases from funky fusion (‘Window Shoppin‘, ‘Cactus’) through R’n’B (‘Funky Broadway’) to smooth Sinatra-influenced balladry (‘Really Wish I Could Love You’), it’s never boring, helped also by some good guest spots – Kenny Kirkland supplies a classy solo to ‘Window Shoppin’ while Sanborn lights up ‘Say Goodnight, Gracie’. On the witty ‘state of the world’ blues ‘Mad Dog Daze’, Bullock even comes over a bit like a Johnny Guitar Watson for the ’80s.

The album also benefits greatly from mostly sticking to the same excellent rhythm section – Charley Drayton on drums, Will Lee on bass, Clifford Carter on keys – which gives some consistency from tune to tune. Hiram plays some brilliant solos, even on somewhat cheesy material such as ‘When The Passion Is Played’ and ‘Until I Do’. The production is state-of-the-art for ’86, ie. extremely high on treble and compression but short on low-end.

But From All Sides is still mostly a blast, driven on by Hiram’s irrepressible energy and good vibes, though the followup Give It What U Got was a big improvement – more on that later.

Steps Ahead’s Magnetic: 30 Years On

steps

Is this Philipe Petit?

Elektra/Asylum Records, released summer 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond

8/10

Some improvised music hits you at just the right age, to the extent that 30 years later you can still hum along to all the solos. Baby boomers were lucky enough to have Kind Of Blue, Time Out or Mingus Ah Um, but for jazz fans brought up on Weather Report and ’80s Miles rather than Brubeck and Mingus, albums like Magnetic might well be etched upon the memory.

In the mid-’80s, recording and instrument technology was moving quickly, maybe too quickly. This development influenced all kinds of music, from rock to fusion, and, in the wrong hands, led to a lot of grossly-overproduced, unmemorable stuff that barely holds up today. As a few people have said, 1986 may be the worst music year of the decade.

steps 3But 1986 also somehow produced some really memorable fusion music. Smooth Jazz proper was just a twinkle in some bored record exec’s eye and the ever-reliable Japanese market was keeping quality electric jazz alive; Lyle Mays, Mike Stern, Wayne Shorter, John Abercrombie, Miles, Bireli Lagrene, John Scofield, Bill Frisell and John McLaughlin were going strong.

Though Steps Ahead’s Magnetic album embraces technology to a full extent, even more so than on ’84’s Modern Times, given the writing and playing talent (Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, Mike Mainieri) it’s no great surprise that they pull it off with so much aplomb. They had also now added the formidable ex-Weather Report bassist Victor Bailey.

A timeless classic it ain’t, but Magnetic isn’t any old ‘what does this button do?’ mid-’80s studio creation. Though the sound and mastering are superb, emphasised by the presence of Brothers In Arms producer Neil Dorfsman on engineering duties alongside future back-room stars James Farber and Tom Lord-Alge (fresh from Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life), the compositions very definitely come first and the audio ‘experiments’ second.

Despite all this, Magnetic is definitely the least-heralded Steps Ahead album, at least among jazz critics, probably because it’s a real onslaught of styles and sounds, closer to a ‘pop’ album in concept. The melodic themes are strong without ever getting too sugary and each track has a unique flavour. It’s hard to believe the same band can come up with ‘Something I Said’ (featuring one of Brecker’s great ballad performances) and also the coruscating avant-fusion of ‘Beirut’ (developed from a band jam session).

Hiram Bullock plays one of his many classic solos on ‘Trains’, adding some much-needed grit, while George Duke co-produces the weird but exciting contemporary R’n’B of ‘Magnetic Love’ featuring some outrageous sampled Brecker tenor lines and killer Dianne Reeves lead vocals (and great backups from Jocelyn Brown, Janice Pendarvis and Diva Gray).

A synthesized cover of Ellington’s ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ proves Steps’ link to the past masters and features some astonishing EWI (an electronic instrument with the same fingering as a sax that looks like an elongated metal lollipop) from Brecker. There’s even time for some banjo-playing on ‘Cajun’, powered along by Erskine’s superb ride cymbal work. Yellowjackets were definitely listening to that.

It’s weird seeing Steps Ahead playing this material live. They had obviously worked a bit on their stage ‘presentation’ between 1984 and 1986, maybe influenced by Chick Corea and his Elektric Band’s shenanigans. Peter Erskine and Victor Bailey had left to join Joe Zawinul’s Weather Update tour, so ex-Journey drummer Steve Smith, Sting/Miles bassman Darryl Jones and Stern came in, adding some big-name clout and a much tougher sound.

Magnetic was the last major-label action for Steps Ahead. Brecker and Erskine jumped ship but Mike Mainieri would continue with the name over the next few decades fronting a multitude of line-ups. He’s just announced a ‘reunion’ tour with a formidable band featuring pianist Eliane Elias and sax player Donny McCaslin, fresh from Bowie’s Blackstar. I hope to get to the Ronnie Scott’s gig in July.

The Bebop Roy Buchanan: Mike Stern’s Upside Downside

mike stern

Atlantic Records, released summer 1986

Bought: HMV Megastore, Oxford Street, 1988?

9/10

There’s no telling how a jazz musician will react to a bad review, whether from a critic or fellow player. Some, like Miles Davis, take a – how shall we put it – stoic view, either refusing to read any press or choosing his writer friends very carefully (Leonard Feather, Quincy Troupe).

But for every naysayer, there’s an aggressor; drum master Tony Williams laid into jazz scribe Stanley Crouch for his less-than-flattering comments on Miles’ electric-era music, while Weather Report famously took Downbeat magazine to task for its one-star slagging of 1978 classic Mr Gone.

Though guitarist Mike Stern had studied at the famous Berklee music school in the mid-‘70s and then landed a top gig with jazz/pop supergroup Blood Sweat & Tears, he wasn’t prepared for bandmate Jaco Pastorius’s succinct review of his guitar playing after a dodgy run through Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’ on tour with BS&T one night – ‘Stern, you know that shit wasn’t happening at all! You’ve got to learn faster tempos!’

Jaco and Mike, 1980

Jaco and Mike, 1980

To his great credit, Stern listened to his friend, learnt the tune note by note and in the process became one of the greatest players of his generation. His slick bebop lines played with a ‘rock’ sound were quite new when he came of age playing with Billy Cobham’s band.

Miles was also listening closely while he was in the early stages of putting together his ‘comeback’ band in early 1981. The story goes that he appeared in the front row of The Bottom Line club in New York City and poached Stern during a set-break, apparently even calling Cobham off the bandstand in the middle of a tune to issue his intentions!

Stern was then summoned to the Columbia Records studio to record the electrifying half-time strut ‘Fat Time’ (Miles’s nickname for Stern) in one take. The track appeared on the Man With The Horn album and Stern was then invited to go out on the road with Miles.

My dad took me to see Miles at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1982, my first proper gig. I’m sad to say that I don’t recall much about it apart from Miles’s white suit and a heckler shouting: ‘Turn the trumpet up!’

Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell

Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell

Critics were harsh on Stern, not believing that a chubby, jeans-wearing, long-haired guy playing a white Strat with a fuzzbox could play ‘jazz’, but with hindsight he did a brilliant job of holding down the harmony and delivering powerful, surprising solos in the keyboard-less quintet.

But the demons that haunted some of his early career wouldn’t go away. Stern recently said, ‘I played about two gigs in my life between the ages of 12 and 32 when I was sober’. Miles even got John Scofield into the band as second guitarist to cover for his increasingly unreliable secret weapon. Stern eventually missed a flight and got the boot, but after a successful spell in rehab returned to play with old friend Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri’s fusion supergroup Steps Ahead.

Stern also put together a solo record deal with Atlantic Records and began working on Upside Downside in early 1986 with his late friend and fellow shit-hot guitarist Hiram Bullock in the producer’s chair.

The album is a great excuse for Stern to play the hell out his guitar in a variety of idioms. The uptempo tracks are blessed with typically fiery solos while the ballads beautifully demonstrate Stern’s lyrical side, his Telecaster screaming emotively above Dave Weckl’s subtle drumming and Mark Egan’s springy bass.

Jaco completists will enjoy one of his very last recorded contributions on the raucous ‘Mood Swings’ while saxophonist David Sanborn’s playing on ‘Goodbye Again’ is spine-tingling. But mainly the album is a must for any lover of the guitar. His sound is a little more fluid and widescreen than on recent albums and there’s no-one quite like Stern at the top of his game, a fusion of Charlie Parker and Roy Buchanan.

mike sternMike made two excellent follow-up albums later in the ’80s, Time In Place and Jigsaw, both produced by the fine guitarist Steve Khan. For me, this was Stern’s best era, when his raunchy playing was closer to blues and rock than the lighter Methenyesque jazz and World music vibes of recent times. I saw him at the Town and Country Club in 1989, a memorable gig featuring the mind-blowing Dennis Chambers on drums.

Mike’s career thrives to this day – he’s just released a duet record with Eric Johnson. Let’s be thankful he’s still with us. Many fellow travellers didn’t make it.