Jean-Baptiste ‘Toots’ Thielemans (1922-2016)

tootsIt is with a heavy heart that we hear of Toots’ passing.

Born in Brussels, he was one of the most brilliant multi-instrumentalists in music history, equally proficient on guitar and harmonica. His guitar/whistling combo was also a knockout.

He worked with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Jaco Pastorius, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Elis Regina, Billy Joel, Peggy Lee and Stevie Wonder, and, thanks to his playing on the ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Midnight Cowboy’ themes, was probably the most-heard harmonica player of all time.

We present one of Toots’ great ’80s works with a smile and a tear.

Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Baron Thielemans, born 29th April 1922, died 22nd August 2016

Lee Ritenour: Rit

LeeRitenour Rit-FrontElektra Records, released August 1981

8/10

When the intricate, interesting jazz/rock played by the likes of Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Miles Davis and John McLaughlin started tanking in the mid-’80s, artists such as Bob James, The Rippingtons and Spyro Gyra took the classic fusion sound, sweetened it, added touches of light gospel and soul and repackaged it as yuppiefied, post-Windham Hill chill-out music, jazz for people who hate jazz. And they made a killing.

But a different kind of ‘smooth jazz’ had emerged a decade before, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a mixture of AOR, jazz harmony, classic fusion and Yacht Rock.

It was the soundtrack for driving West on Sunset, decadent, expensive-sounding music full of dreamy Fender Rhodes playing and tasty grooves.

Musicians and arrangers such as Johnny Mandel, Jerry Hey, Tom Scott, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, Abraham Laboriel, Quincy Jones, George Benson, David Sanborn, Harvey Mason, Jay Graydon and David Foster thrived in this era when state-of-the-art production fused with jazz-tinged songwriting to create the missing link between Steely Dan and Earth, Wind & Fire.

lee ritenour

The unofficial headquarters of the sound was The Baked Potato, a nightclub in Studio City, LA, and one of the key musicians was guitarist Lee Ritenour (ironically one of the figureheads of the late-’80s Smooth Jazz scene proper).

His 1981 album Rit is a classic of its kind alongside George Benson’s Give Me The Night, Larry Carlton’s Friends, David Sanborn’s Hideaway, Casino Lights, Randy Crawford’s Secret Combination and Steely’s Gaucho.

This sort of music was America when I was 13 or 14. In my daydreams, I was scooting along the West Coast in a Pontiac, top down, loud music playing, palm trees – you know the drill. Had I been watching too much ‘Knight Rider’ and ‘Moonlighting’ and listening to too much Steely Dan? Quite possibly…

Although early Ritenour albums had been tricksy fusion, more in line with what George Duke or Alphonso Johnson were doing, Rit saw him concentrate on collaborations with gifted Stevie-meets-Fagen vocalist/songwriter Eric Tagg. To this writer’s ears, George Michael very definitely checked out Mr Tagg. The track ‘Is It You’ got to number 15 in the singles charts and features one of the great middle-eights of the era:

Drum fans will enjoy Rit too; the great Jeff Porcaro plays a blinding shuffle on ‘Mr Briefcase’ (another pop hit from the album) and produces a classic rock performance on ‘Good Question’. According to Wikipedia, MTV broadcast the videos of ‘Mr Briefcase’ and ‘Is It You’ during its first day on air (1st August 1981)!

When things get too mellow, Ritenour always seems to know when to insert a spicy solo (in the days when he delivered high-octane jazz/rock playing a la Santana or Larry Carlton).

The instrumentals are an appealing mixture of early ’80s technology (Linn LM-1 abundant) and the sparky funk of Abe Laboriel’s bass playing and Don Grusin’s soulful Fender Rhodes. And Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements are instantly recognisable and a great addition.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Rit was an influence on Thriller (compare Rit’s ‘Just Tell Me Pretty Lieswith Jacko’s ‘Baby Be Mine’and various other Quincy productions later in the decade.

Where ’80s Pop Went Wrong (In Five Songs)

screaming-man-with-headphonesAt some point in the ’80s pop parade, the subtle became bloated, the charmingly-naive became coarse and the modest became overblown.

As the decade’s greats and not-so-greats limbered up for Live Aid, artistic judgement started getting skewed, recording budgets sky-rocketed and egos rampaged out of control.

The blueprints were drawn up for pop travesties of the future. We present, in chronological order, the five singles which illustrate where things went wrong in ’80s pop. (How the hell could Nile Rodgers have produced two of these?! Ed.)

duran_duran_15. Duran Duran: Wild Boys

Released 26 October 1984

The sound of money. And not in a good way. Aiming for a Frankie Goes To Hollywood-style sex-groove, the dandy Brummies contrive to create a ramshackle piece of over-produced, under-performed pub-funk. Nick Rhodes plays like he’s just been taught a few minor chords and Le Bon’s vocal is consistently just out of tune (why didn’t they change the song’s key before recording?). And we haven’t even got to the drummer’s ‘solo’ yet. Even Nile’s production can’t save this one.

thompson_twins4. Thompson Twins: Revolution

Released 29th November 1985

This was the worst song performed during Live Aid. And that’s really saying something. It’s murder, sacrilege, an aural travesty. It’s even worse than Paul Young’s version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Tom Bailey delivers the lyrics like a sozzled Stoke middle-manager on karaoke night. Guitars are ladled on willy-nilly and multiple percussion effects merely serve to drive one to distraction. A triumph of vapid tastelessness. What was Nile thinking?

The+Police3. The Police: Don’t Stand So Close To Me ’86

Released October 1986

A weary exercise in career suicide and musical emasculation. Copeland phones in his programmed drum pattern (he broke a collarbone just before the recording). Summers’ once-vibrant, nuanced sound has become a post-Edge blur. Sting’s considerable bass skills are booted into touch in favour of a crude, mushy-sounding sample. Depressing synths chart the chord changes like clouds eclipsing the sun while Mr Sumner succeeds in removing all emotion from his vocal. ‘Dark’ doesn’t begin to cover it. Why why why?

u22. U2: With Or Without You

Released 21st March 1987

The barely-scanning, bet-hedging lyric (‘You give yourself away’? How? With your eyes, your body? Something you said? What, what?!) aims for a kind of Bowie/Ferry mystique but is basically meaningless and the precursor to all those Snow Patrol/Coldplay list songs that crowbar in increasingly-inane words to fit a flimsy melody. Adam Clayton’s remedial bassline, badly played at that, slavishly outlines a dull chord sequence which should never have left the rehearsal room. Bono attempts the first verse in a sub-Bowie croon, but you can tell he’s just itching to hike it up an octave. And when he does it’s no better than Tony Hadley. The song runs out of steam at around the three-minute mark but then aimlessly drags on for another two minutes in the vain search for ‘dynamics’.

MICHAEL-JACKSON-michael-jackson-10317030-1082-12631. Michael Jackson: Bad

Released 7th September 1987

Where to begin? The crude, obviously looped bass vamp (close listening reveals the ‘joins’ at the beginning of every two bars); poor Michael’s adolescent lyrics displaying a wronged teenager’s obsession with point-scoring and fisticuffs, a videogamer’s take on violence; a poor verse melody which never engages followed by the endless repetition of a weirdly unmemorable chorus; Quincy Jones trying to throw a ‘Beat It’-style curveball by getting jazz legend Jimmy Smith in for a Hammond organ solo which barely registers… Michael’s vocals are powerful but comparing this track to almost anything on Thriller reveals a sad indictment of late-’80s pop.