My Mahavishnu Moment

South-West London, 1986: after a short apprenticeship playing pots and pans, I had been given a very cheap kit by my parents and was taking my first steps towards the world of ‘serious’ drumming (yeah, right… Ed).

I was also fast becoming a major jazz/rock fan, buying the new Weather Report, Mike Stern, Billy Cobham, Lyle Mays, John Scofield and Steps Ahead cassettes from HMV on Oxford Street or my local Our Price in Richmond.

mahavishnu

One evening, my dad had my uncle round for one of their regular music-listening sessions. I gatecrashed. They cranked up the Plastic Ono Band, Santana, Monk and Miles while I sat in on a knackered Spanish guitar.

And then this other tune came on. A massively-distorted, strangely exotic riff crawled out of the speakers. All the conversation abruptly stopped. My adolescent, ‘muso’ brain kicked in – was it Hendrix? Miles? Zappa?

The riff moved through various modes, ascending into a wailing, chromatic guitar and violin crescendo, and then dropped dramatically to the main theme again. And then that drum groove…

Already being a huge major Billy Cobham fan, I had heard bits of Mahavishnu, mainly the mid-80s incarnation featuring ex-Miles sax player Bill Evans and bassist Jonas Hellborg. I was also aware of John McLaughlin’s playing due to his guest spot on Stanley Clarke’s incredible Journey To Love album (though didn’t know it was him on ‘Song To John’ until years later).

But this was different; striking, unhinged, dangerous, downright perverse. ‘The Dance Of Maya’ blew my mind and its otherness hits me just as hard today as it did 30 years ago. Cobham’s 6/8-flavoured groove sounds just as hip and surprising as ever.

Anyway, I was in: I came across a Mahavishnu Best-Of on cassette at my local Our Price, and a whole new world of music opened up. It was time to go back and explore the roots.

Miles Davis: You’re Under Arrest 30 Years Old Today

miles

Columbia Records, released 9th September 1985

8/10

My love for Miles’s music was just getting into its stride when this album hit. As a teenage jazz/fusion fan and burgeoning muso, 1983’s Star People caught my ear but it was You’re Under Arrest that really captured my imagination.

Everything about the package was designed to be provocative, from the garish cover design to the in-your-face but always funky music. It’s a far more colourful and multi-layered listen than the previous year’s Decoy, partly because Miles was going public with his views on police intimidation, racism and the nuclear threat for the first time (and also getting involved with the anti-apartheid movement on the Sun City project).

In the era of ‘We Are The World’, even Miles was demonstrating that he had a social conscience, but he used gallows humour and an uncanny ear for a gorgeous melody to make his points.

Between 1981 and 1984, the primary musical style of Miles’s comeback had been so-called ‘chromatic funk’, a hard-driving, minimalist style consisting mainly of one-chord vamps, heavy bass lines, frantic Latin percussion and fleet-fingered melodic heads, usually played by sax and guitar in unison (and more often than not based on transcribed John Scofield guitar solos).

milesBut in early 1984, Miles took his band into New York’s Record Plant studios to record a whole host of pop and AOR tunes, including ‘Wild Horses‘ by Nik Kershaw, Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, Dionne Warwick’s’ ‘Deja Vu’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’.

Though of course Miles was by no means new to recording pop songs, it’s doubtful whether any of these were anywhere near the calibre of ‘My Funny Valentine’ or ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’.

Various 1985 band members have since expressed their dissatisfaction Miles’s ‘pop’ direction and it’s telling that only ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Human Nature’ made the cut for You’re Under Arrest (and, to be fair, became centrepieces of his live gigs until the end of his life). The other covers are yet to see the light of day.

By all accounts, the album eventually came together very quickly and just under the wire; Miles took his band into the studio and re-recorded much of the 1984 material over a very short period in January 1985, later saying that the tempos had been wrong on the original takes and that they didn’t have enough punch.

The opening ‘One Phone Call/Street Scenes’, with its sound effects, darkly-comic spoken-word shenanigans (‘Smokin’ that marijaroney’!) and fleet funk, is the kind of thing you might expect from Prince or George Clinton, but not the most famous jazz artist in the world. The track was surely a big influence on Prince’s Madhouse project and also B-sides such as ‘Movie Star’.

John McLaughlin delivers an exciting modal guitar blowout on ‘Katia’ (named after his then wife the pianist Katia Lebeque) finding endless lines to play over the one-chord vamp. Despite the dated Simmons drums and synthesized horn blasts, the track is still gripping and dramatic after all these years.

Ditto the title track, the ultimate take on ‘chromatic funk’. The ‘Jean Pierre/And Then There Were None’ medley is also arresting with its eerie sound effects and childlike celeste. Listen out for Miles’ mordant closing remark too, intended either for Reagan or recording engineer Ron Lorman (or both?).

The only tracks I really can’t take are the two ballads, ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Human Nature’. Although the latter became a really powerful live number, Miles’s playing is fairly underwhelming and the arrangements don’t add anything to the originals. But, in general, You’re Under Arrest is a really strong album and quite a stunning statement from a 59-year-old ‘jazz’ musician.

Watching footage of Miles playing live in 1985 shows what an extraordinary presence he still was – stalking the stage, sometimes whispering into his bandmates’ ears, sometimes throwing mock-right-hooks towards the camera lens – coupled with possibly his best trumpet chops during the last decade of his life.

John McLaughlin & Mahavishnu: Adventures In Radioland

john mclaughlin

Polygram Records, released October 1986

7/10

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

But Adventures In Radiolandthe 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.

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 (though the bridge of ‘Floriannapolis’ sounds suspiciously like Metheny’s ‘James’). 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. ‘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 your proclivity for this album will probably be based on your acceptance of the mid-’80s Big Drum Sound. It certainly features some absolutely superb music. McLaughlin regrouped after Adventures and played the nylon-string acoustic exclusively for a few years – make of that what you will.