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.

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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…’

Miles Davis’s 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 album 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 black 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.

miles-davis-youre-under-arrest-vinil-importado-zerado-13798-MLB3377978960_112012-OThe 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 ‘pop’ 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.

Two-Guitar Telepathy: Marc Johnson’s Second Sight

marc johnson

Released October 1987

Bought: Virgin Records Oxford Street, November 1987?

8/10

John Scofield, Bill Frisell

John Scofield, Bill Frisell

The two-guitar, bass and drums setup is of course one of the mainstays of rock’n’roll. The Stones, Neil Young/Crazy Horse and Velvet Underground typify the form. Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd meshed perfectly in Television and Lou Reed never sounded better than when he had Robert Quine cajoling him from stage-left during the ‘Blue Mask‘ era.

But in jazz and fusion, the two-guitar setup is not as common. Since 1987, there have been a number of two-guitar celebrity summits (such as Scofield/Metheny, Scofield/Frisell, Stern/Eric Johnson, Carlton/Ritenour etc) but ex-Bill Evans bassist Marc Johnson’s superb ECM solo albums, ’85’s Bass Desires and Second Sight, both featuring John Scofield and Bill Frisell, quite possibly started it all off.

Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson

1987’s Second Sight was considered somewhat of a disappointment on its original release, but for me this is the superior album of the two. I was a major Scofield fan when I bought it in ’87 but didn’t know Frisell’s name at all. I’m really glad I discovered his incredible playing here though.

Some of the interplay between Frisell and Scofield is nothing less than miraculous, although one could hardly think of two more different guitarists in approach. There’s an almost telepathic empathy between them, leaving each other space to play and at times even inadvertently doubling parts. And, to me, this doesn’t sound like typical ‘ECM jazz’ at all – it’s tough music, not for the faint-hearted.

The ever-reliable Peter Erskine slightly overplayed on the Bass Desires album but here expertly marshals the material without ever being overbearing, and the compositions are so fresh, memorable and catchy.

Only the opening ‘Crossing The Corpus Callosum’ sounds like a studio jam session, but this is no ordinary jam; Scofield’s emotive bluesy cries dissolve into a fantastically-eerie Frisell ambient soundscape, leading the track inexplicably into David Lynch territory.

‘Small Hands’ and ‘Hymn For Her’ are shimmering, moving ballads, with the guitarists’ approaches meshing beautifully. ‘Sweet Soul’ is a soulful slow swinger full of fantastic Scofield soloing.

‘1951’ is a superb Frisell composition evoking Thelonious Monk’s best work. ‘Thrill Seekers’ simply swings like hell and features a classic Frisell fuzzbox solo. ‘Twister’ is great fun, Scofield’s affectionate ode to surf rock with some very funky bass and guitar interplay and a short drum solo almost as memorable as Ringo’s on Abbey Road.

As far as I know, the band toured Europe but never the UK. Would love to have seen them. This performance is really special. No wonder Frisell is grinning like a Cheshire cat throughout.

Omar Hakim, Drummer Of The ’80s: Seven Of The Best

omarhakim3Of the all-time-great drummers who emerged in the ’80s – a list that would have to include Manu Katche, Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers and Trilok Gurtu (any more? Suggestions in the comments section below) – you could argue that Omar Hakim was the main man. His hip, funky, vibrant style typified all that was good about the music of the era.

Effortlessly versatile, endlessly creative and always musical, Hakim emerged from the early ’80s New York jazz and fusion scene and quickly became the drummer of choice for David Sanborn, David Bowie, Dire Straits, John Scofield, Weather Report and Sting. He could play everything from straight jazz to heavy rock’n’roll with total ease, great feel and a beautifully light touch.

I first became aware of Omar when he demonstrated his ‘Children’s Crusade‘ beat on BBC TV’s ‘Rock School’. I was a major fan from that day on.

Here are seven great Omar performances from the ’80s:

7. Sting: ‘I Burn For You’ (1985)

Drum legend Jeff Porcaro waxed lyrical about this performance which appears in the 1985 film ‘Bring On The Night‘. One of Omar’s specialities is soloing over a static vamp, and he really takes it out about as far as it can go here.

6. Dire Straits: ‘So Far Away’ (1985)

Omar can do slick, clean, laidback rock too, as heard on this Brothers In Arms opener. Check out his lovely fills, layered in at the end of each chorus, bringing the playing of Motown star Benny Benjamin into the ’80s.

5. David Sanborn: ‘Rush Hour’ (1982)

Omar dusts off a much-imitated ghost-note-inflected groove for this track from the As We Speak album, possibly influenced by the late great Little Feat sticksman Richie Hayward. Only Hayward could have nailed this with as much panache, drive and subtlety.

4. Weather Report: ‘Db Waltz’ (1984)

Omar pulls out all the stops on this ingenious 3/4 (or is it 6/8?) groove, the centrepiece of the Domino Theory album, falling somewhere between a swing feel and straight feel just the way the old guys used to do it on the R’n’B hits of the ’50s. He also demonstrates some jaw-dropping chops towards the end.

3. Special EFX: ‘Sabariah’ (1988)

The music comes uncomfortably close to smooth jazz on this opening track from the Confidential album but Omar’s grooving is just sublime. The controlled energy explodes from his kit.

2. David Bowie: ‘Neighbourhood Threat’ (1984)

Omar could also play heavy rock with the best of them as demonstrated by this underrated track from Tonight. But as usual there’s a beautifully light touch to this playing. Not even Jeff Porcaro could have conceived of the floor-shaking fill at 2:14.

1. John Scofield: ‘Techno’ (1985)

The lead-off track from the classic Still Warm album, this perfectly illustrates Omar’s intricate hi-hat playing, as distinctive as Stewart Copeland’s almost a decade before. I dig the way he takes the tune out with some sick china cymbal/snare combinations.