My new book on master musician John McLaughlin will be published worldwide by Rowman & Littlefield in September. The design department have put together a few draft covers, and I’d like to know which one YOU most like the look of. It would be good to get your feedback, and you’ll get a thanks in the book.
Please have a look at these three images and let me know your favourite by commenting below or dropping me an email. Many thanks in advance.
The heart always beats a little faster when there’s news of a ‘previously unreleased’ Miles project. And if it’s from the 1980s, even better.
The era is still one the least understood/lauded periods of Miles’s work, despite the stellar efforts of George Cole.
It also has not been served well posthumously, particularly by his final label Warners; in recent years. there has been the weirdly undercooked/incomplete Rubberband project, and the appallingly-mastered/incomplete Warners Years box set.
So hopes were high for Sony’s new Bootleg Series 7, which takes in the years 1982 to 1985 and looks at the sessions that made up the (classic) albums Star People, Decoy and You’re Under Arrest. The packaging looks OK:
But what about the music? Before his death, Teo Macero, producer of many epochal Davis albums and also Star People, was very critical of the ‘complete sessions’ boxes that appeared after Miles’s demise. It’s safe to say he would not like this one either.
We essentially get a collection of long studio jams, with occasional familiar sections that Teo edited in to the final masters, plus some alternative versions of some You’re Under Arrest material, some full-length, unedited versions of released tracks and one or two outtakes such as ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’.
The full, unedited versions of ‘Freaky Deaky’ (Darryl Jones’ first recording with Miles) and ‘Katia’ (before Miles took his razor blade to John McLaughlin’s remarkable solo) are well worth hearing. Marcus Miller plays a brilliant bass solo on ‘Remake Of OBX Ballad’. There’s also a really strange duet between legendary jazz trombone player JJ Johnson and Miles on keyboards.
Unlike some of the previous Bootleg Series albums, there’s a lack of interesting studio chatter, which would have enlivened things (though there is the occasional funny Miles interjection). And there are still tracks that refuse to leave the vaults, such as Miles’s version of Nik Kershaw’s ‘Wild Horses’.
Disc one just contains too many formless jams, with Mike Stern, Miles and Bill Evans struggling to put together cogent solos (despite Al Foster’s beautiful drumming), and basically the band is crying out for John Scofield’s arrival in autumn 1982. He brings immediate relief, from both a soloing and compositional perspective. The live disc is serviceable and quite well recorded, but certainly not one of the best nights from the 1983 tour.
Essentially, we learn three things from the very uneven Bootleg Series 7: Scofield was a vital addition to Miles’s band and prolonged his career, Miller was Miles’s best bass player of the 1980s and Macero did a great job on Star People. But we probably knew all of that already.
So, basically, it’s another opportunity missed. I’ll stick to the original albums, with one or two exceptions. But you gotta check it out if you’re a fan of Miles’s 1980s music. George Cole covers the box in a lot more detail here.
And look out for new documentaries about Darryl Jones and Scofield.
When people say ‘I hate jazz’, I sometimes wonder if they’re really saying they know a crap composition when they hear one.
Legions of talented jazz sidepeople have been given solo record contracts only to deliver music that proves they can’t write decent tunes.
A case in point is saxophonist and William Hurt-lookalike Bill Evans. He’s had a very solid career but his solo work is distinctly underwhelming.
(And then there’s the name. If you play jazz, you probably need a stage name if you have exactly the same moniker as a bona fide legend from decades gone by – the pianist Bill Evans died in 1980.)
But give Sax Bill some credit – he was an absolutely vital figure in Miles Davis’s 1980s comeback, a good friend and carer of the trumpeter and player of several gritty solos on record (Star People is a good place to start).
But by 1983 Bill found himself inexplicably frozen out, barely getting any solo space from Miles.
He got the message and jumped ship to join John McLaughlin in the new Mahavishnu Orchestra and also embark on a solo career which kicked off with 1984’s Living In The Crest Of A Wave, a pretty anodyne collection of new-agey fusion.
Let’s call it The Metheny Effect. Many tried and failed to ape that guitarist’s mixture of Ornette Coleman-inspired melodicism, Latin flavours and down-home, Midwestern, open-sky simplicity.
With its folky themes, puny production, emphasis on soprano sax, fretless bass, ride cymbals and an ‘environmental’ bent, LITCOAW could almost have come out on Windham Hill.
Only the closing title track works up any kind of energy or interest, when Evans finally busts out the tenor and blows up a storm over Adam Nussbaum’s frenetic jazz/rock groove.
Evans’ followup, 1985’s The Alternative Man, was his first record for the illustrious Blue Note Records and as such should have been a celebration. Unfortunately it was an object lesson in how not to use technology, and just the kind of ‘80s ‘jazz’ album that illustrates what a brilliant job Marcus Miller did on Miles’s Tutu.
Evans in the main stumbles around with ugly Linn Drum patterns, electric drums, blaring synth pads and raucous hair-metal guitar solos, all topped off with some fairly insipid soprano playing. A few tracks and you’ll be wanting to break out the Albert Ayler or David Murray albums, and fast.
The only interest predictably comes with two more open, organic offerings, the excellent ‘Miles Away’ which reunites Evans with his Miles colleagues Al Foster on drums and Miller on bass.
And ’Let The Juice Loose’ is fun, a cool bebop head featuring some enjoyably un-PC Strat-mangling from the late great Hiram Bullock.
But hey – some of this music brings back good memories, when I was digging around the Record And Tape Exchange and Our Price for bargains and closely monitoring the personnel on the back of my favourite Miles and McLaughlin albums.
These albums also definitely represent a weird time for ’80s jazz, when established labels were signing all and sundry, fishing around for the next Young Lion or Metheny.
And thankfully a few dodgy early solo records didn’t hurt Evans’ career much, as he’s gone on to be one of the most respected players on the scene.
Recorded 30 years ago, Live At The Royal Festival was the beginning of John’s live career in concert halls rather than ‘rock’ venues, at least as far as the UK goes.
I’m not sure why I wasn’t at this gig, but, in those days, even major shows could easily go under the radar.
If it wasn’t listed in Time Out or The Wire, you could easily miss it. Or maybe I was just turned off by the lack of ‘stars’ appearing with John.
Which was a big mistake, because this album introduced two monster players, both hitherto unknown to UK audiences. Bassist Kai Eckhardt was yet another miraculous bass find for McLaughlin, apparently fresh out of the Berklee School of Music.
Trilok Gurtu brought the best aspects of American jazz and fusion playing but also rhythmic concepts and sounds from his native Mumbai (including a water bucket and tablas). In short, he was a perfect fit for McLaughlin.
It had been a weird few years for the guitarist, closing down Mahavishnu for good, duetting with bassist Jonas Hellborg and guitarist Paco De Lucia but also recording the fabulous Mediterranean Concerto which was finally released in 1990.
So his return to the acoustic guitar had thus far been a partial success, but Live At The Royal Festival Hall was the beginning of an acclaimed trio that lasted nearly three years (though weirdly it doesn’t appear to have made it to streaming platforms yet).
The album starts slowly but gets better and better; a gentle take on Miles/Bill Evans’ ‘Blue In Green’ is nothing special but demonstrates John’s rich, Gil Evans-inspired chord concept.
Adventures In Radioland tracks ‘Florianapolis’ and ‘Jozy’ are quite superb, beautifully rearranged for the trio. When Gurtu lays into the half-time shuffle on the latter, it’s one of the great bits of modern fusion drumming.
His ‘Pasha’s Love’ is an intricately-arranged version of a track on an impossible-to-find Nana Vasconcelos live album. But the album’s centrepiece is ‘Mother Tongues’, the debut of a tune which is a mainstay of John’s live sets to this day.
The only disappointment is the over-extended ‘Blues For LW’, almost derailed by some dodgy group vocals, Gurtu beatboxing and throwaway references to ‘Are You The One?’ and ‘Miles Beyond’.
Eckhardt didn’t stick around for long after this gig, for undisclosed reasons – Dominique Di Piazza came in, yet another Jaco-influenced chops monster.
But Trilok stayed on for the decent 1992 studio album Que Alegria. Then it was time for another change – John’s forte.
A sense of contour, of line, a bit of colour, a good tone and maybe a touch of – that horrible word – narrative. A bit of flash never heart anyone either, but mostly we’re probably listening for emotion and ‘storytelling’.
Luckily for us, the 1980s featured an embarrassment of riches on the guitar soloing front, a decade when you could hear everything from glorious cameos of post-punk insanity, slabs of avant-garde weirdness, shock-and-awe widdlefests and sometimes perfect little compositions in themselves.
Sometimes great solos came from the guitarist in the band, but more often than not they came from the ‘ringer’, the session player. Truly great players of all stripes could find themselves blowing on a top 10 single. Their job was to add the pizzazz, the zing, the memorable bit that all the kids wanted to learn.
So here’s a selection of goodies from the guitar-shaped chocolate box, featuring some rock, some blues, some fusion, some soul, some new-wave, some pop, some metal, some funk, some jazz:
27. Lloyd Cole And The Commotions: ‘Forest Fire’ (Guitarist: Neil Clark)
26. Tears For Fears: ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ (Guitarist: Neil Taylor)
25. Marillion: ‘Easter’ (Guitarist: Steve Rothery)
24. Michael Hedges: ‘Aerial Boundaries’
The whole thing is a solo, of course, but it’s one of the most astonishing examples of solo guitar in recording history, a mixture of tapping, strumming, thumping and hammering. There are no overdubs and a very strange tuning on the classic title track to Hedges’ 1984 album.
23. Tribal Tech: ‘Tunnel Vision’ (Guitarist: Scott Henderson)
An almost perfect solo from the jazz/rock master’s album Nomad. It’s so complete it sounds almost pre-composed (apparently only the first eight bars were hummed to him by the tune’s writer Gary Willis), each interesting idea following completely logically from the last. Starts at 1:13:
This one taken from the classic album The Colour Of Spring can be filed in the ‘minimalist’ category, but it’s brilliant. The way the veteran Pretenders/McCartney guitarist bends into his last note, perfectly fitting with the key change, is sublime. Starts at 2:52:
21. Johnny Guitar Watson: ‘Telephone Bill’
Johnny G pulled out all the stops for this barnstorming bebop-meets-blues breakdown, from the Love Jones album, closing out his funny proto-rap in some style. He also gets extra points for quoting Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Salt Peanuts’. Starts around 3:30:
From Booty’s now forgotten 1988 album What’s Bootsy Doin’, a brief but flamboyant classic from one of the great unhinged metal guitarists of the decade, used as a ringer by George Clinton, Bill Laswell and Shakespear’s Sister to good effect. Starts around 2:44:
19. Thomas Dolby: ‘Budapest By Blimp’ (Guitarist: Larry Treadwell)
The LA-based guitarist was part of a Christian duo backing the Pope on his infamous ‘Popemobile’ tour of American stadiums when he answered Dolby’s magazine ad, and he excelled himself on this epic track from Aliens Ate My Buick, coming up with a strong melody over the funky break and even throwing in a little Dave Gilmour homage. Starts around the 5:30 mark:
18. Trevor Rabin: ‘I Can’t Look Away’
The title track of the Yes guitarist’s 1989 solo album was a song of two brilliant solos, but I’m going for the opening salvo, a brutal, flashy classic that features all the notes he knows and more.
17. Robert Cray: ‘Waiting For The Tide To Turn’
You could choose almost any solo from Mr Cray’s Bad Influence album, but this one seems to be best encapsulate his classy string-bending, snappy rhythmic sense and ice-cold Strat tone. Starts at 1:33:
16. Nile Rodgers: ‘Stay Out Of The Light’
A brilliant player not necessarily known for his solos, but this closing track from his forgotten second solo album B Movie Matinee opened the floodgates – a fantastic mixture of Charlie Christian and Jimmy Nolen. Starts at 3:37:
15. John McLaughlin: ‘The Wait’
McLaughlin plugs in the Les Paul and unleashes one of the most vicious solos of his career, gradually developing in intensity, with even a touch of his old mucker Carlos Santana at times. Unfortunately it mostly fell on deaf ears, coming from a nearly-forgotten 1987 album Adventures In Radioland. Starts around 1:43:
14. Defunkt: ‘Eraserhead’ (Guitarist: Ronnie Drayton)
One of those unhinged solos that starts at ’11’ and then just carries on in the same vein. The underrated session great is given his head and goes for it. From the punk/funk legends’ forgotten, excellent 1988 comeback album In America.
13. Yngwie J. Malmsteen: ‘Black Star’
This piece, kicking off the Swede’s Rising Force opus, is a guitar masterclass from top to tail, but the first few minutes demonstrate some extraordinary touches like a legato section that you’d swear was achieved with a delay pedal.
12. Stanley Clarke: ‘Straight To The Top’ (Guitarist: Carlos Santana)
The song – which kicked off Stanley’s 1981 career nadir Let Me Know You – may be a disco cheesefest but Carlos’s solo is a stonker, an emotive showstopper with a luscious, creamy tone and lots of emotional moments. It was a good period for Santana – see also Herbie Hancock’s ‘Saturday Night’ and Carlos’s own ‘Stay Beside Me’ and ‘Song For Devadip’.
11. It Bites: ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ (Guitarist: Francis Dunnery)
The Cumbrian gunslingers wrote a great ballad here and Dunnery laid his claim as one of the great Brit guitarists of the ’80s with this extreme solo, a sometimes lyrical, sometimes demented mixture of flash and panache. From the lads’ debut album The Big Lad In The Windmill. Starts at 5:09:
10. Billy Idol: ‘Rebel Yell’ (Guitarist: Steve Stevens)
He produced several memorable moments alongside the 6’2” blond bombsite born William Broad, but Stevens excelled himself here with a memorable, well-organised solo full of flashy bits and unexpected ‘outside’ notes.
9. Joe Satriani: ‘Ice 9’
Satch’s sophomore album Surfing With The Alien of course produced some guitar highlights but this track featured one of his most distinctive solos ever, Allan Holdsworth meets Eddie Van Halen.
8. Randy Crawford: ‘You Might Need Somebody’ (Guitarist: Steve Lukather)
This gets in for superb tone and admirable restraint, apart from that fantastic flurry of notes in the middle. Luke could hardly do any wrong around this time. Just around the corner was Quincy’s The Dude, ‘Rosanna’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Love’ and Jacko’s Thriller.
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers: ‘Sex Rap’ (Guitarist: Hillel Slovak)
One of those great solos that sounds like it could fall apart any second, and frequently does. From the lads’ uneven but sometimes thrilling George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley album. Starts at 1:14:
6. Yellowjackets: ‘Monmouth College Fight Song’ (Guitarist: Robben Ford)
In the days when Robben’s trump card was playing bebop/blues with a distorted guitar, and when he loved blowing over interesting chord changes, this track from 1981’s Casino Lights is a classic. A super-sophisticated mixture of Charlie Parker and Albert King. Starts at 1:35:
Hiram could be relied upon to produce classic solos in the late 1980s, as he did with Steps Ahead, Terri Lyne Carrington and on his solo records, and this from Sting’s …Nothing Like The Sun was sublime. Starts at 1:27:
4. Pink Floyd: ‘Comfortably Numb’ (Guitarist: David Gilmour)
Take your pick between two fantastic solos from The Wall album, but I’m going for the first one, a beautiful feature with a killer tone and great use of whammy bar. Starts at 2:38:
3. XTC: ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’ (Guitarist: Dave Gregory)
He apparently rehearsed it alone for hours in a little room stinking of rat poison in Todd Rundgren’s rundown studio complex in Woodstock, upstate New York, but it paid off, a memorable, melodic classic. Starts at 2:08:
2. Mike Stern: ‘Time In Place’
The title track of Mike’s second solo album demonstrated definitely one of the slowest solos of his career, and also one of the most lyrical. Starts at 1:35:
1. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’
This was one of the more memorable solos of Martyn’s career, during a decade when he was more interested in songwriting than making extreme guitar statements. But he sure found his Les Paul’s sweet spot on a classic cover version from Grace And Danger. Starts at around 1:28:
If this was John’s final London gig, what a way to go out.
Though the audience’s response was at times reverential and/or strangely undemonstrative, the outpouring of emotion at the conclusion was heartfelt and seemed to come as quite a shock to the performers too.
It’s hard to think of another ‘jazz’ band which has endured for so long with the same personnel as The 4th Dimension.
This unit (McLaughlin – guitars, Gary Husband – keyboards/drums, Etienne M’Bappe – bass, Ranjit Barot – drums) has toured the world and elsewhere since 2010, playing a fiery mix of jazz, rock, blues, Indian, old-school R’n’B and industrial.
Tonight was no exception, though there was a much larger dose of spiritual jazz than usual, courtesy of not one but two Pharoah Sanders covers: ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ and ‘Light At The Edge Of The World’. You could take or leave the slightly dodgy band singing, but the message of love and understanding was powerful and still relevant.
One can also take or leave John’s guitar tone these days (sometimes one wishes for a far less ‘refined’ sound), but his playing sounded back to its brilliant, fluid, lyrical best tonight, a little like his return to the electric in 1978 after the long acoustic sojourn in Shakti.
And if the mood of the evening’s music was generally uplifting, with new takes on the frenetic modern classic ‘Hijacked’, Mahavishnu favourite ‘Trilogy’ and raunchy ‘Echoes From Then’, ‘Gaza City’ was heartfelt and touching, a lament for a lost place.
Just a few gripes: one occasionally hankered after another soloing foil for John, an L Shankar or Gary Thomas; this music asks a hell of a lot from Husband and Barot.
Also, listening to the latter’s ‘hit everything all the time’ ethos (though his konakkol vocal/rhythmic interludes are always fascinating), one realised what a tasteful, selective drummer Dennis Chambers had been during the ’90s organ trio/’Heart Of Things’ era.
John started the evening heralding a slight return not to Great Britain but to ‘Great Brexit’, and ended it with a gentle: ‘You’re all one. Thank you’. A powerful, important concert, especially if we don’t see him on a British stage again.
Singing drummers: the ’80s were chock-a-block with ’em.
But Narada seems a somewhat forgotten example, at least compared to the far more popular Phil C, Don H, Stevie W and Sheila E.
Yet he started the decade as the one you’d probably have put your money on, ending the ’70s as he did with an impressive run of R’n’B hits.
Narada had of course started his music career as a jazz/rock drumming tornado in the second incarnation of John McLaughlin’s mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra, going on to record famous fusion sides with Jeff Beck, Weather Report, Tommy Bolin, Alphonso Johnson and Jaco Pastorius.
During the ’80s, he was one of the most in-demand producers on the planet, helming Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, Aretha Franklin/George Michael’s ‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’ and Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’.
Looking At You, Looking At Me (1983) is the best of the three albums, but a frustratingly inconsistent record. Listening to the superb title track, you’d think he might have found hit his true metier, a languid, luxurious, West Coast pop/jazz, similar to the kind of music Al Jarreau or Manhattan Transfer were making at the time.
But an OK duet with Angela Bofill, passable cover of ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ and sick drum-machine/horn workout ‘Shake It Off’ aside, the rest of the album is fairly unmemorable R’n’B with occasional virtuosity from guitarist Corrado Rustici and bassist Randy Jackson.
The followup, 1985’s Nature Of Things, is even more problematic, sounding mainly like a kind of soft R’n’B version of the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack, with way too many synth-based ballads.
But Divine Emotion (1988) was a partial return to form, led by the effervescent title track (with one of the great ’80s basslines) which gave him a timely UK hit.
Narada had obviously been prompted into action by his highly successful production work – his vocals and arrangements have never been better.
But while Divine Emotion sounds like a million dollars, there are still issues on the songwriting front. Put simply, only the title track, ‘But What Up Doh’ and closer ‘We Still Have A Dream’ have memorable hooks (the latter also features some brilliant jazz/rock kit work from Narada).
One wonders what might have happened if he had hooked up with some great ‘pop’ songwriters like Kenny Loggins, Rod Temperton, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager or even Burt Bacharach at the outset of the decade rather than relentlessly ploughing his own furrow; ‘Looking At Me, Looking At You’ offers tantalising possibilities.
But looking at his career as a whole, it’s all turned out fine – Narada’s always been one of the coolest, most talented musician/producers around, and apparently he’s a joy to work with.