Big Band Revolutionaries: 30 Years Of Loose Tubes

loose-tubes102_v-panorama

A small segment of Loose Tubes, 1985

Anyone who got into jazz in the 1980s must surely have a soft spot for the legendary anarcho-big band Loose Tubes.

I saw them play live sometime around 1986 in one of those great community-run London venues (Logan Hall? Shaw Theatre? Camden Arts Centre?) that appeared quickly, burnt brightly and then disappeared. I don’t recall much about the music but do remember the crowd; the jazz revival was in full flight so there were lots of very hip people wearing chinos, black polo-necks and sometimes even berets dancing unashamedly.

Then, a bit later, Loose Tubes played on Saturday-evening primetime TV wearing very loud clothes, dancing idiotically and generally clowning around with the audience. It was youthful and different and gave Big Band Jazz a much-needed makeover. Of course there’s always the chance that some people just didn’t think of their music as ‘jazz’ at all, and their clowning may well have put a lot of potential punters off. But the band probably weren’t too bothered about that.

loose tubes

In a way, the Loose Tubes could only have originated in the ’80s, emerging as it did from composer and educator Graham Collier‘s community big band workshops. There was no ‘leader’ per se (although keyboards/French horn man Django Bates was occasionally seen conducting in very syncopated sections) and any member of the band was free to submit compositions. Consequently, Loose Tubes’ music touched on anything that took its composers’ fancy – samba, heavy metal, folk, Weather Report-style fusion, flamenco, Hi-Life, blues, reggae, free jazz.

Their first self-titled album came out in the summer of 1985 and it was a really nice distillation of their sound (and featured one of my favourite UK drummers, Nic France, who left soon after the recording to join Working Week). Django Bates’ composition ‘Yellow Field’ remains a classic. The followup Delightful Precipice is probably their best known album, and the final studio recording was 1988’s Teo Macero-produced Open Letter.

It was probably a miracle that such a huge band lasted as long as it did (six years) but Loose Tubes was also a superb career springboard for Bates, saxophonists Iain Ballamy, Julian Arguelles and Tim Whitehead, guitarist John Parricelli, flautist Eddie Parker, drummers Nic France/Steve Arguelles and ‘bone man Ashley Slater, all of whom are going strong today.

And guess what – they reformed in 2014, playing concerts at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Brecon Jazz Festival and a sold-out week at London’s Ronnie Scott’s. Two live album have also recently been released, Sad Afrika and Dancing On Frith Street, both of which featured music from their original farewell gig at Ronnie’s in September 1990.

Check out lots more about Loose Tubes and the ’80s UK jazz revival in this excellent BBC doc:

Advertisements

Message To The Jazz Police: John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu’s Adventures In Radioland

john mclaughlin

Polygram Records, released October 1986

7/10

I first heard guitarist John McLaughlin as a very impressionable 15-year-old when I stumbled across the unsettling, brilliant ‘Dance Of Maya‘. I was instantly fascinated, excited and intrigued by the Yorkshireman’s soundworld.

Since then I’ve explored every aspect of John’s prodigious career, from his early days on the ’60s UK session scene, through his time with Miles, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti, right up to his current jazz/rock quartet.

But Adventures In Radioland, the second album from the ’80s reincarnation of Mahavishnu, was released in probably the least-heralded era of John’s music, a time when jazz and fusion seemed to be going in diametrically opposite directions and decent record deals were hard to come by (although he was still a big live draw).

john mclaughlin

With hindsight, it seems the mid-’80s popularity of Pat Metheny was having a huge influence on many instrumentalists and John was no exception; the decade was full of guitarists utilising synthesizer technology and looking to Brazilian songforms for inspiration (an obvious example is Al Di Meola’s Soaring Through A Dream). But McLaughlin’s take on Metheny was far more raunchy, rooted in bebop and the blues.

And what a shocking record Adventures In Radioland was coming from a mainstream jazz artist, a two-finger-salute to the Young Lions neo-bop boom represented by the Marsalis brothers et al. John seemed to be going out of his way to annoy the jazz purists but in doing so produced some material of worth. Like some of the best fusion music of the ’80s, its deceptively slick production obscures some pretty radical improvisations.

Is the album title wishful thinking? Is this John’s idea of ‘smooth jazz’, designed for radio play? If so, he must be living in a parallel universe because this is one of the weirdest albums of his career. But, as he said himself in a 1996 interview with Guitar Player magazine, ‘Without madness or fantasy, music’s boring’. This album sure ain’t boring, especially if you’re a guitar fan, but devotees of The Inner Mountain Flame may struggle a bit…

John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg

John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg

Opener ‘The Wait’ luxuriates in pleasant synth washes and a gorgeous chord sequence for a while before McLaughlin grabs the Les Paul and unleashes one of his most intense solos over quite a funky little R’n’B bass vamp.

‘The Wall Will Fall’ fuses a gargantuan blues riff with nutty Simmonds drums fills, and McLaughlin’s furious solo over high-speed bebop changes is both funny and exhilarating.

‘Florianapolis’ initially steers dangerously towards Metheny territory with its breezy, major-chord cod-Latin groove and nasty DX7 synth sounds. But before you know it, McLaughlin has ripped into an absolutely outstanding acoustic solo, full of rhythmic/melodic risk-taking.

‘Jozy’ is a dramatic, swinging tribute to Joe Zawinul, beautifully marshalled by drummer Danny Gottlieb with some outstanding fretless bass work from Jonas Hellborg.

Gotta Dance‘ comes on like a fusion Mr Bungle, rattling through mellow acoustic guitar, big-band jazz, Mark King-style slap bass and industrial drums all in the space of four minutes. And ‘Half Man Half Cookie’ is even weirder, a kind of post-Scritti Politti pop/funk groove interrupted by yet another incongruous big-band interlude from a multi-tracked (or sampled?) Evans.

But the mid-’80s Big Drum Sound is generally overbearing and sometimes detrimental to some fine music. McLaughlin regrouped after this album and played the nylon-string acoustic exclusively for a few years, and it’s not hard to see why – with a few notable exceptions. Adventures In Radioland is hard to find these days but worth seeking out.

Spanish Keys: Miles Davis & Marcus Miller’s Siesta

miles_davis__marcus_miller-music_from_siesta_aWarner Bros, released November 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988?

9/10

I came across this gem in a big crate of reduced cassettes in the old Our Price shop in Richmond town centre. I was a huge fan of Miles and Marcus’s ’80s work but Siesta had somehow passed me by. It was hardly reviewed anywhere and didn’t get any kind of promotion from Warner Bros despite the fact that it was the official follow-up to Tutu, possibly because it was ‘just’ a movie soundtrack and – even worse – the soundtrack to a really terrible movie.

But it quickly became the soundtrack to my summer of 1988 along with Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park to Memphis, Prince’s Lovesexy, Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick and Scritti Politti’s Provision. Its Spanish-tinged melancholia, beautiful playing by Miles and stunning bass/keyboard work and production by Miller drew me in immediately.

Miles’s stock was rising high at the beginning of 1987. He was healthy, enjoying critical and commercial success with Tutu and playing to packed concert halls. The question was, how would he follow Tutu? A film soundtrack was definitely not the predictable option. Of course, Davis was no stranger to the world of movie scoring, even though his famous Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) soundtrack was mostly improvised in just two days, and his music for Jack Johnson was similarly spontaneous though subject to detailed post-production work by Teo Macero.

miles-kix-500

But when Davis got a call from the producers of Siesta after their request to use Sketches Of Spain on the film’s soundtrack was turned down, he turned to the trusted Miller for help. Miller was also on a roll at the beginning of ’87. Fresh from co-producing and co-composing Tutu, his career was branching out in all directions. He hadn’t done any soundtrack work before and embraced the project, thrilled to work with Miles again and rightly sensing that the movie’s Spanish elements might open up some dramatic musical possibilities. But the clock was ticking, the budget was tight and time was of the essence.

Siesta is a fascinating companion piece to Tutu and it features some of the most arresting and spontaneous Miles trumpet playing from the last decade of his life. Indeed, some Davis-watchers such as critic Paul Tingen reckon it’s the pinnacle of Miller and Miles’s ’80s collaborations. Miles sounds fit and strong, investing the material with both power and pathos, consistently providing a sound that someone once described as ‘a little boy looking for his mummy’.

Apparently when Miller played the elegiac ‘Los Feliz‘ to an assembled cast and crew, several people broke down in tears. Miles solos at length with glorious open horn on several tracks. The dramatic, flamenco-tinged ‘Conchita‘ was used by American ice skater Nancy Kerrigan for her 1992 Olympic routine – she got bronze.

The ghost of Sketches of Spain/Miles Ahead arranger Gil Evans looms large and the album is dedicated to him, ‘The Master’. One can only imagine how ‘Los Feliz’, ‘Siesta’ or ‘Lost In Madrid‘ might have sounded with Evans’ full orchestral backing and arranging, but Miller and main collaborator Jason Miles consistently find just the right musical ingredients with gorgeous piano voicings, subtle synths, fretless bass and occasional guest appearances from the likes of guitarists Earl Klugh and John Scofield, drummer Omar Hakim and flautist James Walker.

As George Cole pointed out in his great book ‘The Last Miles‘, only Michel Legrand, Gil Evans and Miller’s names have shared a Miles Davis album cover, and that really proves how highly Miles rated Miller’s efforts. According to Miller, there is much more Siesta music residing in the Warner Bros vaults – here’s hoping the album gets the ‘Special Edition’ treatment soon.