Mark Isham: Vapor Drawings 35 Years On

Did any music of lasting worth come out of the early ’80s ‘New Age’ boom? Mark Isham’s brief but inspired Windham Hill catalogue surely still cuts the mustard.

The trumpeter/keyboardist/composer’s Vapor Drawings, released 35 years ago this weekend, was a remarkably assured, fully-formed debut album, recorded when he was part of Van Morrison’s band and also enjoying a varied session career.

I distinctly remember hearing a track from it in the mid-1980s on a short-lived ‘new age’ BBC radio show whose name escapes me. And weirdly, Isham mixed the album 100 yards from my childhood home during spring 1983, at John Kongos’s Tapestry Studios.

Synths are Vapor Drawings’ main ingredient but Isham uses them in subtly original ways, using sequencers to build Steve Reich-inspired ‘systems’ or – one of his trademarks – getting them to hang in the air like sky lanterns.

The music defies categorisation, mostly hovering in the hinterland between ambient, minimalism, electronica and jazz (he even throws in a quote from Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ on ‘Raffles In Rio’). But there’s always the human element courtesy of his superb trumpet and piano playing. Erik Satie is also an apparent inspiration, and possibly what David Sylvian picked up on when he invited Isham into the studio to record Brilliant Trees later in 1983.

It’s no surprise Isham has become one of the most in-demand soundtrack composers of the last 30 years – ‘On The Threshold Of Liberty’ (named after a Magritte painting), ‘Men Before The Mirror’ and ‘Sympathy And Acknowledgement’ are epic and rousing.

’83 proved to be a bit of an annus mirabilis for Isham, hooking up with Sylvian and also working with Gil Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Vapor Drawings is the first and best of his solo albums. Happy birthday to an unsung classic.

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Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus

51dnFsTtIPLEvery serious jazz fan seems to have a favourite Sonny Rollins story. One whose origins I forget – but it may be recited in Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz’ documentary – concerns a late-night Carnegie Hall New Year’s Eve concert sometime in the 1990s.

Rollins embarked on a typically Herculean solo at around 11:30pm. This went on for quite a while. At EXACTLY ten seconds to midnight he quoted from ‘Auld Lang Syne’.*

Truth or fiction, it’s the kind of story that has followed the brilliant Harlem-born saxophonist around throughout his career. It also speaks volumes about the intellectual vigour of the man.

Robert Mugge’s excellent 1987 documentary ‘Saxophone Colossus’ spawns yet more Sonny stories, inadvertently filming an extraordinary moment during an outdoor New York gig. Jumping off the stage mid-solo to join the audience, he misjudges the height and breaks his heel in the process. Lying stricken on the floor, alone and unaided though still holding his horn, there’s the briefest of pauses before he continues soloing as if nothing was amiss.

The film also features fascinating interviews with Sonny and his wife/manager/producer (and now sadly departed) Lucille. Writers Gary Giddins and Ira Gitler contribute intelligent, revealing summations of Rollins’ career. There’s also some superb concert footage of Sonny’s ‘Concerto For Tenor Saxophone And Orchestra’ premiere in Japan.

Watching the film again has led to a period of Sonny woodshedding, and I’m unearthing some real gems. It’s exciting that he has continued to be an absolutely vital presence on the jazz scene, performing when possible and frequently contributing to media debates about the music. He has also written obituaries for his long-time producer Orrin Keepnews and long-time bassist Bob Cranshaw in recent issues of JazzTimes magazine.

More power to Mr Rollins. Here’s some of that woodshedding, in chronological order:

*(This is total BS. The concert was the day before Easter Sunday and the quote was from Irving Berlin’s ‘Easter Parade‘… Ed.)