Bill Evans: Living In The Crest Of A Wave/The Alternative Man

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.

Gig Review: John McLaughlin @ Barbican, 23rd April 2019

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.

Narada Michael Walden: Looking At You, Looking At Me/The Nature Of Things/Divine Emotion

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’. But his solo career was somewhat in limbo during this period, so it’s fascinating to check out a new, nicely-appointed three-album survey of his 1983-1988 output.

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 an absolute joy to work with.

Memorable Gigs Of The 1980s (Part Two)

9. David Sanborn Band/Al Jarreau @ Wembley Arena, November 1984

We were sitting high up behind the stage with a great view of two of the great modern American drummers: Steve Gadd (with Sanborn) and Ricky Lawson (with Jarreau). To be honest, my parents and I left in the middle of Al’s set but Sanborn was fantastic with Marcus Miller and Hiram Bullock running amok on the huge Arena stage. The saxophonist was at his commercial peak here and probably could have headlined the show.

8. Marc Almond @ The Palladium, 12th October 1986

I have absolutely no memory of why I was at this gig but it was a genuine eye-opener. Almond was long past his pop fame and seemed to be acting out his own private, Berlin-inspired drama. Looking at the footage today, I’m still not sure if it’s brilliant or total sh*te.

7. Miles Davis @ Hammersmith Odeon, 21st April 1982

I remember someone shouting ‘Turn the guitar down!’ Poor Mike Stern wasn’t the critics’ flavour of the month and Miles was obviously exceptionally ill, but the gig was unforgettable. One of my first and very best. I saw Miles three or four times during the ’80s but this was the bomb for sheer atmosphere and occasion.

6. Robert Palmer @ Hammersmith Odeon, 25th September 1988

There really isn’t anyone around these days like the much-missed Robert with his gravelly voice, weirdly cosmopolitan compositions and ever-present smirk. He had a highly-drilled, sh*t-hot band with him at the Hammie Odeon too featuring Frank Blair on bass and Eddie Martinez on guitar. The gig started with a five-minute Dony Wynn drum solo which fair blew the minds of my brother and I.

5. Yes/No People @ Limelight, 9th September 1986

I think this gig was part of what was then known as the Soho Jazz Festival. There was a lively crowd of ‘jazz revival’ hipsters and rare-groove fans – this was my first taste of an underground scene that was quickly building momentum. DJ Baz Fe Jazz kicked off with some Blue Note post-bop (yes, people actually danced to that stuff) and then Yes/No People featured Steve Williamson on sax and the cracking Mondesir brothers (Mark and Mike) rhythm section. The band only lasted a year or so but nearly dented the charts with their ‘Mr Johnson’ single.

4. John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra @ Hammersmith Odeon, 12th July 1984

The sign on the door said ‘Billy Cobham will not be appearing’ – heartbreaking to me at the time (McLaughlin apparently dumped Billy just a week before the tour). But Danny Gottlieb sat in with some style and John rattled off some outstanding licks in black shirt and black headband. It was bloody loud too. It was the first time many British fans had seen him since Mahavishnu Mark 1 days and as such there was a big hippie turnout.

3. Bill Withers @ Hammersmith Odeon, 18th September 1988

From memory, Bill spent most of the gig sitting at the front of the stage, talking about his life and career while Pieces Of A Dream accompanied with gentle jazz/funk. Bill wore a sweater and golfing slacks and seemed incredibly old, more Val Doonican than Curtis Mayfield.

2. Weather Report @ Dominion Theatre, 26th June 1984

The duels between keys man Zawinul and drummer Omar Hakim were spellbinding. This was clearly the dog’s b*ll*cks. Well, it was better than Duran Duran anyway. Omar’s huge shades, trash-can cymbal and big grin linger in the memory.

1. Level 42 @ Wembley Arena, 12th January 1989

Level again, but this time for all the wrong reasons. We were in the back row of the dreaded Arena, and the band were flogging their substandard Staring At The Sun album. The audience reaction to the ‘new stuff’ was distinctly subdued. After a contractually-obliged encore of ‘Chinese Way’, Mark King returned to the stage alone. ‘You ‘ad a good night?’ he bawled. The audience erupted. ‘Well, you can all go and f**k off home then’, deadpanned the thunder-thumbed one. Reply – and further encore – came there none…

Bubbling under:

Mike Stern/Bob Berg Band @ Town & Country Club, November 1989

Will Downing @ Hammersmith Odeon, 20th November 1988

Coltrane Legacy (Alice/Ravi Coltrane, Reggie Workman, Rashid Ali) @ Logan Hall, 10th July 1987

Ry Cooder @ Hammersmith Odeon, 27th May 1982

Bill Frisell @ Town & Country Club, 24th April 1989

Ornette Coleman/Prime Time @ Town & Country Club, 28th August 1988

Check out the first selection of memorable gigs here.

Were you at any of these concerts? Let me know your memories.

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.

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

john mclaughlin

Polygram Records, released October 1986

7/10

I first heard brilliant 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 (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. 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.