Book Review: The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma by Ben Sidran

What exactly does a record producer do? Of course the role covers a multitude of aspects but generally falls into two categories – the techie or the psychoanalyst.

Tommy LiPuma was definitely in the latter camp, a five-time Grammy winner, label boss (courtesy of his cult imprint Blue Thumb) and bona fide music fan who worked in the upper echelons of the biz for nearly 60 years (he died in 2017).

A cursory look through his credits reveals a natural collaborator with good taste and good ears, via key albums by Bill Evans, Michael Franks, Randy Newman, George Benson, Randy Crawford, Dr John, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Miles Davis (who, along with co-writer Marcus Miller, named the track ‘Tomaas’ after him), Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney and Willie Nelson.

Ben Sidran’s hugely enjoyable ‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is the first biography of the producer, and it’s hard to think of anyone better qualified to tell his story. Sidran’s a veteran singer/songwriter and pianist who has recorded over 30 solo albums (including a few for Blue Thumb) and written some key music tomes too, including the superb ‘Talking Jazz’, and he interviewed LiPuma extensively for the book.

The fast-moving, entertaining early sections come over a bit like ‘The Godfather Part II’ rewritten by Lord Buckley. LiPuma’s rite of passage takes him through Mob-riddled Sicily, to grim, industrial Cleveland where shoe-shining and hairdressing seem like his destiny.

But a long period recuperating from injury delivers to him the power of jazz, specifically Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s miraculous bebop excursions. LiPuma thus finds his true calling, and a brief career as a jobbing sax player leads to a short period as promotions man par excellence.

But he quickly realises that production is his true metier, and embarks on a glittering career that takes him from MOR vocal acts (The Sandpipers, Claudine Longet) to classy jazz-related roots and pop projects. Cue a succession of amusing, fast-moving anecdotes: a fabulous section on the making of George Benson’s Breezin’, an amusing trawl through Rio with a blasted Jobim, a voyage to Planet Miles via the Tutu album, a surreal encounter with Willie Nelson, interesting sections on breaking Michael Franks and Diana Krall and finally all the recent machinations of the Universal Music Group.

‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is warm, witty and resolutely un-PC, initially a portrait of the music biz’s bygone Wild West era featuring an engaging roll call of shysters, hucksters and hipsters, but also encapsulating the whole history of modern recording techniques and philosophies. It’s a great companion piece to Seymour Stein’s autobiography. There’s a lot about the business, but it’s always shot through with humour and an emphasis that, finally, music is about people.

It’s also a valuable historical document too as it’s hard to believe there’ll be any space for these kinds of hands-on, ‘daddy’ producers in the future. Thankfully Sidran doesn’t scrimp on the musical detail – there’s a lot of sage advice for aspiring producers and arrangers alike.

Perhaps the key takeaway from the book is music’s healing power. As LiPuma writes to a friend, ‘I might have been on my own at times but I was never alone. When you’re blessed with the love of music, you are never alone.’

‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is published by Nardis Books.

Bill Laswell: Baselines Revisited

Bill Laswell has carved out one of the most critic-proof careers in music.

He’s probably best known as the producer of distinctive pop hits (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, PiL’s ‘Rise’, Sly & Robbie’s ‘Boops’) and rock/jazz legends in need of a makeover (Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss, Iggy Pop’s Instinct, Sonny Sharrock’s Ask The Ages, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Red Warrior).

He was the Miles Davis Estate’s go-to man for reimagining the trumpeter’s 1970s catalogue (Panthalassa) and also hugely important for bringing the P-funk sound into the ’80s and ’90s.

But Laswell is also a highly-original bassist in his own right and was a key figure of the late-’70s/early-’80s Downtown New York scene, featuring in bands like Massacre, Last Exit and Material (though he was pretty disparaging about the ‘scene’, once telling writer Bill Milkowski: ‘There never really was a Downtown community. All that means is that people don’t have enough money to get a better place to live…’).

His solo career has been interesting too, latterly showcasing a fusion of ambient, world and dub styles. But it’s his debut album Baselines (released 14th June 1983 on Elektra/Asylum) that really floats my boat. He plays a lot more bass than usual, fusing the soundworlds of Bootsy and Ornette Coleman and doing cool things like sticking objects under the strings or digging out the old Mu-Tron pedal for some memorably funky lines.

To these ears, Baselines is also the project that gave him the perfect vehicle for all his interests – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts-style found sounds, paranoid funk a la Talking Heads/King Crimson, Afrobeat, early hip-hop, avant-fusion, authentic jazz soloing and even post-punk white noise courtesy of future Chili Peppers/Marilyn Manson/Soundgarden producer Michael Beinhorn.

I wasn’t in New York in 1983 but this album would seem to be a perfect amalgam of all the hippest sh*t that was going down at the time. It’s always totally Laswell’s show, leading from the front on four/six/eight-string fretted and fretless basses and generally keeping the tracks short and sweet. Baselines is also beautifully recorded and produced – it’s easy on the ear despite some abrasive textures.

Shannon Jackson has never sounded better, supplying hilariously scattergun grooves and crunching fills. ‘Upright Man’ still inspires a kind of giggly menace, nearly 40 years on. Who supplies the scary spoken-word part? Whosampled doesn’t reveal, but the smart money’s on Fred Frith (who also plays some amusing violin on country-tinged curio ‘Lowlands’).

Baselines was certainly influential from a bass point of view too – you can bet Jah Wobble, Mick Karn, Stump and Human Chain had well-thumbed copies in their collections. But, to the best of my knowledge, Laswell has never returned to such a bass-led solo project since. A shame. He might have a future there…

Frank Gambale Live! 30 Years On

I’ll never forget it. Circa 1990, I was on holiday with my parents in Kent, near the Cliffs of Dover. A summer storm was chucking it down. Holed up inside, I flicked through some French music stations on my longwave radio.

Suddenly I heard this absolutely ridiculous guitar playing – deafeningly loud, hysterical, but totally precise, with great phrasing and notes that spluttered out in absurdly wide intervals. The tone was heavily distorted but the feel was closer to jazz/rock than metal. And the rhythm section didn’t sound too shabby either.

By this time, I had heard Allan Holdsworth, Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen, John McLaughlin, some pretty outrageous guitarists, but this was different. Who the hell was it? I strained my ears and just about heard the French DJ utter the words ‘Frank Gambale’.

Yes, it was the Italian-Australian wunderkind, the man who introduced so-called ‘sweep picking’ to a wider audience than before. And the album was revealed to be Live!, released 30 years ago this week and recorded at LA’s jazz/rock haven The Baked Potato on 21st August 1988.

What was really weird was that I had heard Gambale with the Chick Corea Elektric band before this, and even seen them live a few times, but he seemed pretty anonymous in that band. Not here. To this day, ‘Credit Reference Blues’, ‘Fe Fi Fo Funk’, ‘Touch Of Brasil’ and ‘The Natives Are Restless’ sound like guitar landmarks.

But he was way more than a chops phenomenon – he’s an excellent composer too, clearly influenced by Chick Corea and Larry Carlton but with some moves all of his own. The album also introduced me to the fantastic Joey Heredia on drums, a completely original player who can do fiery jazz/rock, spicy Latin and Police-style rock, sometimes all in the space of one tune. And the excellent keyboard player Kei Akagi was moonlighting with Miles Davis while playing some sh*t-hot stuff on this album.

Frank Gambale Live! was a key artefact in the golden age of shred guitar, and it gained him some crossover success with metal fans and lots of coverage in guitar magazines. Sadly his solo career refused to fire after this release, with only moments of 1990’s Thunder From Down Under subsequently holding much interest for me, but this was a sporadically brilliant live jazz/rock album – and one of the best. (It has to be said, there’s not much competition – Larry Carlton’s Last Nite, Weather Report’s 8:30, Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group Live!, Mahavishnu’s Between Nothingness And Eternity, and…er…)

The Curse Of 1986?

The critical consensus: 1986 was the worst music year of the decade, perhaps of any decade. But is that true?

There was certainly a vacuum between the end of New Pop/New Romanticism and the Rock Revival of ’87, exploited by one-hit-wonder merchants, TV soap actors, Europop poseurs, musical-theatre prima donnas, jazz puritans and Stock Aitken & Waterman puppets.

Also most pop records just didn’t sound good. The drums were too loud, the synths were garish, ‘slickness’ was the order of the day. Perhaps nothing emphasised these factors as much as The Police’s disastrous comeback version of ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’.

But listen a little harder and 1986 seems like a watershed year for soul, house, go-go, art-metal, John Peel-endorsed indie and hip-hop. Synth-pop duos were back on the map, the NME C86 compilation was a lo-fi classic and there were a handful of groundbreaking jazz/rock albums too.

So here’s a case for the opposition: a selection of classic singles and albums from 1986. Not a bad old year after all.

Stump: Quirk Out

David Bowie: ‘Absolute Beginners’

Mantronix: Music Madness

PiL: Album

Rosie Vela: ‘Magic Smile’

George Michael: ‘A Different Corner’

Eurythmics: ‘Thorn In My Side’

Al Jarreau: L Is For Lover

XTC: Skylarking

Duran Duran: ‘Skin Trade’

George Benson: ‘Shiver’

Erasure: ‘Sometimes’

Cameo: ‘Candy’

Chris Rea: On The Beach

Europe: ‘The Final Countdown’

David Sylvian: Gone To Earth

OMD: ‘Forever Live And Die’

The Real Roxanne: ‘Bang Zoom’

The The: Infected

Half Man Half Biscuit: ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’

Anita Baker: Rapture

Michael McDonald: ‘Sweet Freedom’

Prince: Parade

Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring

Luther Vandross: Give Me The Reason

Pet Shop Boys: ‘Suburbia’

Chaka Khan: ‘Love Of A Lifetime’

Gabriel Yared: Betty Blue Original Soundtrack

The Pretenders: ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’

Janet Jackson: Control

Run DMC: Raising Hell

Beastie Boys: Licensed To Ill

Miles Davis: Tutu

Iggy Pop: Blah Blah Blah

Courtney Pine: Journey To The Urge Within

ZZ Top: ‘Sleeping Bag’

George Clinton: ‘Do Fries Go With That Shake’

Talking Heads: ‘Wild Wild Life’

Kurtis Blow/Trouble Funk: ‘I’m Chillin”

The Source ft. Candi Staton: ‘You Got The Love’

James Brown: ‘Living In America’

Gwen Guthrie: ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’

The Housemartins: ‘Happy Hour’

Peter Gabriel: So

Mike Stern: Upside Downside

Steps Ahead: Magnetic

It Bites: The Big Lad In The Windmill

Scritti Politti’s Provision: 30 Years Old Today

A pop formula can be a dangerous thing. In Scritti mainman Green Gartside’s case, it was literally dangerous – dangerous to his physical and mental health.

He speaks of their 1988 album Provision with something akin to dread these days, lamenting the three-year recording process (no less than 10 studios are listed in the credits) and then ‘a year of hell’ – his words – promoting it (epitomised by the fairly dire ‘Boom! There She Was’ video). A full-blown breakdown followed, and he now says he wished he’d had the guts to explore the hip-hop sounds that had begun to enthrall him around ’86/’87.

But, to these ears, Provision is an almost-perfect follow-up to the classic Cupid & Psyche ’85. There’s arguably more cohesion – Gartside and keyboard-playing cohort David Gamson co-wrote and co-produced all tracks (no Arif Mardin this time) and the guest spots from Miles Davis, Roger Troutman and Marcus Miller are expertly placed.

‘Sweetness’ is the word that seems to follows Scritti around. And despite containing two classic ballads (‘Overnite’, ‘Oh Patti’), Provision is unashamedly happy music – all songs are in major keys – and for me it’s one of the ultimate summer albums (’88 was a great year in this regard, Provision sharing disc space with Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick, Prefab’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Prince’s Lovesexy and Joni’s Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm).

But Green’s lyrics are always subtly subversive. ‘Sugar And Spice’ may be about anal sex or drugs (or both!), ‘Boom’ references Immanuel Kant and a ‘pharmacopoeia’ (dictionary of drugs), amusingly lip-syched by Gartside in the video, while his interest in Marxism is never far from the surface of even the most seemingly-straightforward ‘boy/girl’ song.

And is there a Grammy award for arrangement? If so, Provision should have won. Gamson and Green do some intricate things here with backing vocals (check out ‘Bam Salute’), rhythm guitars and synth syncopation. No-one else has really explored similar areas, including the greats of ’80s R’n’B. No wonder Miles was a bit obsessed with Scritti.

Yes, the songs on side two are a bit too long and possibly point to a dearth of material, and the album could also do with a real drummer (Steve Ferrone, Vinnie Colaiuta?). Provision missed the top 100 in the States but made the top 10 in the UK (selling over 100,000 copies) and produced one top 20 hit in ‘Oh Patti’. Writer Nick Coleman gave the album a 9/10 rave in the NME, calling its songs ‘sweeties to rot your teeth and detonate your heart’.

Hear, hear. That ‘sweetness’ again…

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.