John McLaughlin: Music Spoken Here 35 Years On

WEA Records, released August 1982

Bought: Shepherd’s Bush Record & Tape Exchange, 1990?

8/10

All great artists with any kind of career longevity have very distinct periods, and John McLaughlin is no exception. Apart from his mid-’60s output, the early 1980s (let’s face it – the whole of the 1980s… Ed.) is probably his least understood/appreciated era.

McLaughlin had moved to France and formed a new band occasionally known as The Translators featuring a top-class American drummer (Tommy Campbell) and otherwise French unit including his new paramour, the outrageously talented keyboardist Katia Labèque. His music too had turned away from electric jazz/rock and moved towards a gentler – but still intense – fusion of jazz, classical, blues, flamenco, Indian and Latin music, centred around the acoustic nylon-string guitar.

I was a major John completist in the late ’80s/early ’90s but didn’t have a clue Music Spoken Here even existed until chancing upon a vinyl copy. You’d be hard pushed to find it in any jazz reference book these days; it’s virtually been written out of his discography. Some would say with good reason, but to these ears it’s one of the nuttiest, most piquant albums of John’s career.

At times you can feel him edging again towards the Mahavishnu reunion which happened a few years later in ’84, reaching for the Les Paul on a few cuts and pushing the drums and synths higher in the mix. But in its own way, and considering what else was going on in the jazz world at the time (Wynton, Branford and the Young Lions traditionalists) Music Spoken Here is as shocking an album as The Inner Mounting Flame.

‘Blues For LW’ is the album’s centrepiece, a thrilling, richly-chorded tribute to the Polish activist Lech Welesa with a neat quote from Miles Ahead and completely insane Chick Corea-meets-Rachmaninoff synth solo. ‘Honky Tonk Haven’ is brilliant too, a cacophony of early hip-hop beats, modal keyboards and a killer guitar/synth melody line borrowed from the Shakti track ‘Get Down And Shruti‘. You’ve gotta think that Miles would have dug it.

The cover of Egberto Gismonti’s ‘Loro’ may be taken a tad too fast but the arrangement kicks ass. Elsewhere, the album is full of sunny, fresh, cosmopolitan grooves, with frequently outrageous guitar and keyboard playing – the latter way too high in the mix though.

Music Spoken Here was another two fingers up to the purists of the music world, and another artistic success. It reached #24 on the US jazz album chart, a reasonable return but not exactly a big hit for an artist of his magnitude. It’s crying out for a remaster though, one of the muddiest-sounding records of McLaughlin’s career. The Translators played live on and off during summer 1982 too (see below).

Next stop for John was a so-so trio album with Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia, and then the aforementioned return to Mahavishnu, reuniting with Billy Cobham and also adding Bill Evans, Jonas Hellborg and Mitch Forman. Needless to say, it would be another hard sell for the critics…

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Post-Tutu Blues: David Sanborn’s A Change Of Heart 30 Years On

Warner Bros Records, released March 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond

4/10

On 17th July 1986, Tampa-born sax great David Sanborn broke off from his own European tour to guest with Miles Davis and band at the Montreux Jazz Festival, playing on ‘Burn’, ‘Jean-Pierre’ and also ‘Portia’, one of the standout Marcus Miller compositions from the soon-to-be-released Tutu. Though obviously nervous, Sanborn acquitted himself well, getting stuck in with some tasty modal solos and prompting many Miles smiles. Hopefully the performance would bode well for Sanborn’s next studio recording.

Unfortunately not. Sanborn made some fine albums during the 1980s – Hideaway, Voyeur, As We Speak, Straight To The Heart – but A Change Of Heart was not one of them. It was the kind of over-produced, under-composed, unfunky ‘fusion’ record that Tutu should have killed off once and for all.

I bought A Change Of Heart on cassette when it came out, proudly showing it off to a cool family friend who had previously introduced me to loads of great music. I hoped he would be impressed by my purchase. He turned his nose up, mumbling something about ‘Bloody muzak…’ I was puzzled and a bit embarrassed. Listening back 30 years on, he was right about A Change Of Heart but wrong about Sanborn. It would be a shame if A Change Of Heart was a listener’s first experience of his music.

The opening two Marcus-written-and-produced tracks – ‘Chicago Song’ and ‘Imogene’ – deliver a quality that the rest of the album never even remotely comes near. Miller was in constant demand around this time and presumably couldn’t commit to the whole album. ‘Imogene’ is a classic ballad with a haunting fretless bass melody and beguiling bridge, while ‘Chicago Song’ transcends its simple melody with an irresistibly funky rhythm section and biting Hiram Bullock guitar bridge. It’s still part of Sanborn’s live set to this day.

The rest of A Change Of Heart seems designed for the latest Don Simpson movie or an episode of ‘Miami Vice’. Syndrum overdubs and unsubtle Fairlight samples prevail alongside ugly synth sounds and flimsy melodic motifs, without a whiff of jazz or R’n’B. Producer/synth players/writers Ronnie Foster, Philippe Saisse and Michael Colina toil away fruitlessly and even Sanborn’s licks don’t stick.

Sanborn toured A Change Of Heart extensively with a great band featuring Bullock and Dennis Chambers on drums, even popping up on primetime UK music show ‘The Tube‘ playing Michael Sembello’s smooth jazz ballad ‘The Dream’. He was clearly at his commercial peak (the album made the top 100 in the US and UK) but the creative rot would prevail to the end of the ’80s. He got back on track with the release of 1991’s Another Hand.

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…’

Wayne Shorter’s Phantom Navigator: 30 Years Old Today

wayne shColumbia Records, released February 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1987

9/10

In the late-’80s, Wayne was seemingly about as far away from ‘jazz’ as it’s possible for a jazz legend to get. His music hadn’t featured any tinging ride cymbals or walking acoustic basses for decades. Even Miles thought Wayne was getting a bit too ‘far-out’ – he reportedly told the saxophonist as much when they met backstage during Miles’s Paris tribute show in July 1991.

Which must have come as quite a shock to Wayne – after all, his ’80s music featured strong, ‘funky’ grooves and attractive, happy melodies. On the face of it, albums like ’87’s Phantom Navigator (apparently inspired by the ‘Other Worlds’ sci-fi comic series he drew in his teenage years) weren’t that different from Miles’s Tutu and Amandla. But of course they were completely different, and Phantom Navigator is probably the most ‘far-out’ collection of Wayne’s solo career.

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Many critics couldn’t see beyond the drum machines, bass vamps and synths, missing the complexity of the arrangements and incredible care and attention that went into making the album, though maybe Wayne was asking for trouble by recruiting legendary NY beat-maker Jimmy Bralower, who had recently featured on Steve Winwood’s ‘Higher Love’ and Nile Rodgers’ B Movie Matinee.

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But these elements were just ‘sweeteners’ – Phantom Navigator was designed to be lived with, devoured in long stretches as one would a classical piece. There were so many good melodic ideas packed into every tune but it wasn’t an album for short attention spans – not ideal in the MTV-flavoured, thrill-a-minute late-’80s.

‘Condition Red’ fairly bursts out of the speakers, with Wayne’s hair-raising soprano (I’d posit that Phantom Navigator features the best soprano tone of his career), sublime harmonies and witty scat vocals. Chick Corea’s crystalline piano features strongly on the intricate, beguiling ‘Mahogany Bird’, while ‘Remote Control’ taps into a go-go groove (though Bralower’s snare is way too big – where was Ricky Wellman when Wayne needed him?) underpinning rich, endlessly-flowing soprano harmonies.

Side two’s triptych of ‘Yamanja’ (named for a sea goddess of Brazilian legend), ‘Forbidden – Plan-It!’ and ‘Flagships’ are nothing less than mini concertos for soprano sax, electric bass and synths. All would work fine with a symphony orchestra with their endlessly intertwining lines and countermelodies.

Wayne toured a lot during this period (I think I saw him three times in London between ’85 and ’88) and to a certain extent the music was a hard sell, both for audiences and the musicians. His sci-fi fusion stuck out like a sore thumb during the late-’80s London jazz/rare-groove revival when he was sometimes put on the same bill as people like The James Taylor Quartet and Gilles Peterson! I remember a really weird such gig at the old Town & Country Club in the late ’80s.

It’s the same old story – the problem of marketing music that goes way beyond category. But, in the final analysis, Wayne doesn’t play jazz, rock, go-go, funk or soul on Phantom Navigator – he plays life. And hey – another mention for Jean-Francois Podevin’s wonderful cover artwork.

Miles Davis’s Tutu: 30 Years Old Today

miles tutu1985 was a year of upheaval for Miles Davis. Though he had recorded the very successful You’re Under Arrest and was in some of his best trumpet lip of the ’80s, his relationship with Columbia Records was at an all-time low.

For one, the label’s other star trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was at his peak of popularity, and, as far as Miles was concerned, Columbia boss Dr George Butler only had eyes for Wynton.

Then Miles felt that Columbia had procrastinated over releasing his cover of the Cyndi Lauper song ‘Time After Time‘ as a single. At the time, with typical mordant humour, Miles said, ‘He (George Butler) ignored it because he’s so busy with Wynton Marsalis. He heard us do it at the Montreux Jazz Festival last year and said “We gotta do it! We gotta do it!” I said, “George, I told you man. We already did it!” And he still didn’t release it…’

And the final nail in the coffin seemed to be Columbia’s unwillingness to put any financial clout behind Miles’s stunning collaboration with Danish trumpeter/composer Palle Mikkelborg, Aura, recorded at the beginning of 1985. For unknown reasons, the music didn’t see the light of day until 1989.

Again, in contemporary interviews, Miles rounded up the usual suspects: ‘I wanted $1400 for a digital remix and Columbia wouldn’t pay it. And then George Butler calls me up. He says to me, “Why don’t you call Wynton?” I say, “Why?” He says, “Cos it’s his birthday!” That’s why I left Columbia.’ Later reports had Miles carrying out Butler’s request, barking ‘Happy Birthday!’ to Marsalis and then slamming down the phone.

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Miles officially became a Warner Bros. artist in autumn 1985. House producer Tommy LiPuma was delighted to get him – but what to do with him? Miles first took his touring band into the studio and embarked on a kind of You’re Under Arrest part two, covering tunes by Mr Mister, Nik Kershaw and Maze.

But this project was quickly abandoned, and Miles contacted various musicians including Prince (who supplied the rather humdrum ‘Can I Play With U’, later replaced by Marcus Miller’s ‘Full Nelson’), George Duke, Bill Laswell, Paul Buckmaster and Toto’s Steve Porcaro. He was desperate for new music and a new direction.

But he finally settled on an old contact, Randy Hall, the young Chicago multi-instrumentalist who had worked on his comeback album The Man With The Horn back in 1981. Around a dozen tracks were completed between October and December 1985 in what was now known as the Rubber Band project. However, again for unknown reasons, the project was shelved, LiPuma quoted as saying, ‘I didn’t hear anything. To me, it didn’t sound like nothing was going on.’

Other collaborators were quickly suggested and then discarded including keyboardists Lyle Mays and Thomas Dolby. So Miles went back to George Duke. Their paths had crossed many times over the years, particularly when Duke was playing keyboards with Cannonball Adderley in the early ’70s. As Duke remembers, ‘When Miles called, I initially thought it was a prank, one of my friends impersonating him. So I didn’t do anything, and a week later he called again. I said, “Who is this?” and he started swearing at me, “Mother****er, write me a song!”‘

It seems finally that George Duke’s demo of ‘Backyard Ritual‘ was deemed a direction worth pursuing by Miles and LiPuma. A strong, drum-heavy track put together by Duke using a Synclavier digital sampler with a simple but memorable main motif, he never intended it to be used as a final version, highlighted by the rather cheesy sampled alto sax solo. But Miles eventually used almost the whole demo for Tutu, embellishing it only with some slithering percussion by Steve Reid and Paulinho Da Costa and of course his own pristine trumpet playing.

Miles’s take on it was that he respected a quality arrangement, demo or not: ‘A guy like George Duke, he writes a composition, it’s all there. All you have to do is play on it and respect that man’s composition’, he told writer and musician Ben Sidran. And Duke revealed that he had even played a ‘sampled’ trumpet solo on the original demo, which tickled Miles. Duke: ‘He said to me, “You think that’s the way I play trumpet?” And I said, “That’s the way it sounds to me!”‘

At the beginning of 1986, Marcus Miller phoned Tommy LiPuma out of the blue. The bassist and composer had of course played in Miles’s comeback band from 1981 to 1983. He had since made two solo albums and worked with a huge variety of artists, from Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin to Bryan Ferry and Carly Simon, and was aware that Miles had migrated to Warner Bros and wondered if he was looking for new songs. LiPuma sent him the ‘Backyard Ritual’ demo; Miller was instantly inspired: ‘I thought, “Wow, if Miles is willing to use drum machines and stuff, let me show my take on that.” I wasn’t directly musically influenced by George’s track but it gave me a direction.’

Miller wrote and recorded demos for ‘Tutu‘, ‘Portia‘ and ‘Splatch‘ back-to-back, playing all the instruments himself. Previewing the tracks with Miles and LiPuma in LA in March 1986, he got an immediate green light to turn this into an album project – this was the direction they had been looking for. Miller began recording the final versions of the three tunes immediately with the help of keyboardist and programmer Adam Holzman.

There’s been a lot of speculation as to why none of Miles’s touring band were invited to play on the Tutu sessions, with opinions differing as to who made the decision. Miller insists, ‘I wasn’t party to the decision not to use the live band but Tommy didn’t push me in any direction. He let me do my thing.’ Miles seemed to resign himself to the convenience of the situation, saying, ‘Rather than get myself, the working band and Tommy into all kinds of hassles by trying to bring my band in the studio to record music I might like, but Tommy doesn’t, we do it this way.’

Consequently, although some choice session players appear on the album, such as drummer Omar Hakim and the aforementioned Paulinho Da Costa, as well as some of Miller’s trusted friends and collaborators like keyboardist Bernard Wright, synth programmer Jason Miles and electric violinist Michal Urbaniak, there’s a unified sound to Tutu that comes directly from Miller’s amazingly-assured contributions on fretted and fretless basses, keyboards, drum programming and occasional live drums. And his soprano sax acts as Miles’s main instrumental foil on the album, particularly evident on the call-and-response phrases in ‘Tomaas’.

Once the backing tracks had been laid down, LiPuma and Miller documented Miles’s trumpet playing as spontaneously as possible without resorting to too many ‘comp’d’ takes (final versions made up of several performances). Apart from this being a necessity as Miles didn’t like to do more than two takes, it was also an intelligent arrangement idea serving as a contrast to the painstaking and meticulous piecing together of the backing tracks.

According to legend, Miles’s solos on the title track and ‘Portia’ are complete takes from beginning to end. Miller found himself performing on soprano sax at the same mic as Miles during the recording of ‘Portia’. He called it ‘one of the most tense experiences I’d ever had’. But, by most accounts, Miles was a receptive and willing participant in the creative process, once telling Miller, ‘Come on, man, I don’t mind a little bit of direction! You wrote the tunes. Tell me where you want me to play.’ Again, Miles demonstrates his total respect for the composer.

Miles was also reportedly responsible for the inclusion of one of the more controversial cuts on the album, the Scritti Politti cover tune ‘Perfect Way‘. Miles apparently cajoled Miller into recording the song, believing it had the potential to be the new ‘Time After Time’, and even wanted to call the album ‘Perfect Way’ until just before release.

But Miller expressed reservations about replicating Scritti’s legendary ‘Swiss watch’ arrangements, and with good reason – the Tutu version does sound rather laboured and weedy compared to the original. But Miles remained a big Scritti fan and two years later made a memorable guest appearance on their ‘Oh Patti’ single.

So has Tutu stood the test of time? The title track, ‘Portia’ and ‘Tomaas’ would surely be right at home on any Miles best-of, with their majestic themes, engaging harmonies, slinky grooves and strong trumpet playing. ‘Full Nelson‘ remains a great tribute to Prince’s sound circa Parade and Sign Of The Times, while ‘Don’t Lose Your Mind‘ is a classy approximation of Sly and Robbie‘s mid-’80s collaborations. But ‘Perfect Way’, ‘Backyard Ritual’ and ‘Splatch’ unfortunately now sound suspiciously like beautifully-produced filler.

But, taken as a whole, Tutu is a very important album whose success was helped immeasurably by Irving Penn‘s striking cover portrait. It crystallised Miles’s interest in funk, soul and R’n’B more successfully than Decoy or You’re Under Arrest, whilst retaining a crucial ‘jazz’ flavour. It was also a statement of political intent and black pride, significantly referencing both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in its song titles. And – perhaps most crucially – it was a hit, introducing a whole new generation to Miles’ unique trumpet sound.

For much more on Tutu and Miles’s ’80s work, check out George Cole’s book ‘The Last Miles’ and also Paul Tingen’s ‘Miles Beyond’.

Six Great ’80s YouTube ‘Shreds’

SWING IN DEAUVILLE 1992

Chick Corea – look away now…

YouTube ‘shreds’ didn’t take off on social media the way trolling and cat videos did. And yes, they are possibly a little bit ‘niche’. But what I really like about these musical parodies is that they take on a quality all of their own, producing a surreal, appealingly-amateurish mash-up of cheap synths, terrible guitar sounds and fake drums.

There is some intelligence behind them too – it’s not easy to sound this bad. You need a bit of talent. The clips also bring home just how great these players are.

But hey – some possibly need taking down a peg or two…

6. a-ha play ‘Take On Me’

I like the badly-played synth motifs, Morten’s little off-mic asides and the unexpectedly-early chorus. And also the drummer’s Herculean efforts juxtaposed with the tinny, inconsequential sounds he is producing…

5. The Chick Corea Elektric Band play…something

This band were always one of the more unsavoury fusion units of the late-’80s. Their freakily-flawless musicianship, cheesy synth sounds and ‘zany’ stage performances are ripe for a bit of a rave-up…

4. USA For Africa play ‘We Are The World’

This one gets in for sheer oddness. It sounds like it’s been overdubbed by people whose first language is not English. Chinese? French? Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner and Billy Joel always get me.

3. Miles Davis plays ‘Tutu’

Sorry Miles, but I like the way this classic piece is re-imagined as a kind of remedial reggae/world music/’50s rock jam. Check out the intensity of percussionist Don Alias’s performance. That little ‘tinging’ ride cymbal gets me every time.

2. Dire Straits play ‘Money For Nothing’

This is ‘Money For Nothing’ played by a bunch of teenagers who have just been given a few cheap synths, a crap bass and a few rubbish guitars for Christmas. I particularly dig John Illsley’s backing vocals.

1. Chick Corea duets with Herbie Hancock

Yes, yes, why not some more Chick? There’s something about his smug performance style that lends itself to these clips. And of course the fact that he has made so much tasteless music for someone so near to genius…