Victor Bailey (1960-2016)


Victor in 2008

I was really sad to hear today of Victor Bailey‘s passing.

Born in 1960, he was part of the illustrious Philly bass fraternity alongside such luminaries as Christian McBride, Alphonso Johnson and Stanley Clarke.

He replaced Jaco in Weather Report at the age of just 21, teaming up with Omar Hakim to make one of THE great bass/drums team in music history. They featured on the albums Procession, Domino Theory, Sporting Life and This Is This, and appeared regularly on each other’s solo projects. They also toured with Madonna together in the mid-1990s.

I’m pretty sure I saw Victor five times in concert – first in an outrageous Weather Report gig at the Dominion Theatre (26th June 1984), then in a very cool jazz/funk/groove unit with drummer Lenny White at the Subterania, twice at Ronnie Scott’s with an electrifying Zawinul Syndicate, and finally about ten years ago in a trio with Larry Coryell and White at the Jazz Cafe. At all times, Victor’s playing was tasty, expressive, exciting.

I was pleased when he was recently the subject of a long, excellent feature in JazzTimes magazine in which he talked frankly about music, bass playing and also his illness. I hoped the piece might be the start of a healthy, fruitful period for Victor. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

Victor Bailey (27th March 1960 – 11th November 2016)


Steps Ahead: Magnetic 30 Years On


Is this Philipe Petit?

Elektra/Asylum Records, released summer 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond


Some improvised music hits you at just the right age, to the extent that 30 years later you can still hum along to all the solos. Baby boomers were lucky enough to have Kind Of Blue, Time Out or Mingus Ah Um but jazz fans brought up on Weather Report and ’80s Miles had albums like Magnetic.

In the mid-’80s, recording and instrument technology was moving quickly, maybe too quickly. This development influenced all kinds of music, from rock to fusion, and, in the wrong hands, led to a lot of grossly-overproduced, unmemorable stuff that barely holds up today. As a few people have said, 1986 may be the worst music year of the decade.

steps 3But 1986 also somehow produced some really memorable fusion music. Smooth Jazz proper was just a twinkle in some bored record exec’s eye and the ever-reliable Japanese market was keeping quality electric jazz alive; Lyle Mays, Mike Stern, Wayne Shorter, John Abercrombie, Miles, Bireli Lagrene, John Scofield, Bill Frisell and John McLaughlin were going strong.

Though Steps Ahead’s Magnetic album embraces technology to a full extent, even more so than on ’84’s Modern Times, given the writing and playing talent (Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, Mike Mainieri) it’s no great surprise that they pull it off with so much aplomb. They had also now added the formidable ex-Weather Report bassist Victor Bailey.

A timeless classic it ain’t, but Magnetic isn’t any old ‘what does this button do?’ mid-’80s studio creation. Though the sound and mastering are superb, emphasised by the presence of Brothers In Arms producer Neil Dorfsman on engineering duties alongside future back-room stars James Farber and Tom Lord-Alge (fresh from Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life), the compositions very definitely come first and the audio ‘experiments’ second.

Despite all this, Magnetic is definitely the least-heralded Steps Ahead album, at least among jazz critics, probably because it’s a real onslaught of styles and sounds, closer to a ‘pop’ album in concept. The melodic themes are strong without ever getting too sugary and each track has a unique flavour. It’s hard to believe the same band can come up with ‘Something I Said’ (featuring one of Brecker’s great ballad performances) and also the coruscating avant-fusion of ‘Beirut’ (developed from a band jam session).

Hiram Bullock plays one of his many classic solos on ‘Trains’, adding some much-needed grit, while George Duke co-produces the weird but exciting contemporary R’n’B of ‘Magnetic Love’ featuring some outrageous sampled Brecker tenor lines and killer Dianne Reeves lead vocals (and great backups from Jocelyn Brown, Janice Pendarvis and Diva Gray).

A synthesized cover of Ellington’s ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ proves Steps’ link to the past masters and features some astonishing EWI (an electronic instrument with the same fingering as a sax that looks like an elongated metal lollipop) from Brecker. There’s even time for some banjo-playing on ‘Cajun’, powered along by Erskine’s superb ride cymbal work. Yellowjackets were definitely listening to that.

It’s weird seeing Steps Ahead playing this material live. They had obviously worked a bit on their stage ‘presentation’ between 1984 and 1986, maybe influenced by Chick Corea and his Elektric Band’s shenanigans. Peter Erskine and Victor Bailey had left to join Joe Zawinul’s Weather Update tour, so ex-Journey drummer Steve Smith, Sting/Miles bassman Darryl Jones and Stern came in, adding some big-name clout and a much tougher sound.

Magnetic was the last major-label action for Steps Ahead. Brecker and Erskine jumped ship but Mike Mainieri would continue with the name over the next few decades fronting a multitude of line-ups. He even fronted a ‘reunion’ tour in 2016 with a formidable band including pianist Eliane Elias and sax player Donny McCaslin.

Weather Report’s Sportin’ Life: 30 Years Old Today

weather reportColumbia Records, released March 1985


Sportin’ Life represented the second career peak for Weather Report after Heavy Weather. Featuring the incredible rhythm section of Victor Bailey on bass and Omar Hakim on drums, the band’s penultimate album showcased a line-up that had been building up a real head-of-steam since their debut on 1983’s Procession.

It’s not clear whether Zawinul named the album after the character in Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess but it wouldn’t be a surprise. The vitality of the music on offer here belies the fact that co-leaders Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter were aged 53 and 52 respectively when it was recorded. Hakim was playing with David Bowie, Sting and Dire Straits while making this album, and he brought undeniable star quality to Weather Report.

weather report

Zawinul, Cinelu, Shorter, Hakim and Bailey

Sportin’ Life blew my mind when it came out in ’85. I was already a huge fan of Jaco-era Weather Report and could hear how their music had influenced my other favourites Level 42, Sting and Joni Mitchell, but this was something else altogether. And to say my drumming was influenced by Omar’s playing would be a gross understatement.

While Zawinul is very much in charge on Sportin’ Life (‘Hot Cargo’, ‘Indiscretions’ and ‘Ice Pick Willy’ are basically solo pieces), Wayne has returned to his best form, ex-Miles percussionist Mino Cinelu gets a lot of space and sounds as inventive as ever and Hakim has become a beautifully tasteful drummer. Bobby McFerrin and two other vocalists also contribute intriguing musical colours.

‘Corner Pocket’ may be the best-ever Weather Report album-opener, and that’s saying something. Over a superb drums-and-bass groove (possibly influenced by Trouble Funk/Chuck Brown?), Zawinul delivers a typically arresting, swinging melody and unhinged synth solo. The rhythm section gear-change when Shorter tears into his tenor break is perfectly judged.

Face On The Barroom Floor‘ is a wonderfully enigmatic Shorter ballad featuring possibly the composer’s finest soprano playing on a Weather Report album. He lets rip here with some impassioned blowing over Zawinul’s moody synths with an uncharacteristically wide vibrato reminiscent of Sidney Bechet.


The cover of ‘What’s Going On’ is funny and touching with Omar’s delicious half-time shuffle deftly moving between sticks and brushes. Cinelu’s delightfully Santanaesque ‘Confians’ closes with another joyous Shorter soprano solo, one of his most resplendent in latter-period Weather Report.

It’s a shame there wasn’t much of an American audience for this kind of jazz in ’85, especially since Sportin’ Life represented a new high for Weather Report. Unfortunately the band didn’t tour the album – their last major tour came around the release of ’84’s Domino Theory. I saw them at the Dominion Theatre in London and vividly recall the intense interplay between Zawinul and Hakim.

Shorter and Zawinul would soon go their separate ways but not before leaving us with this last classic. Dig it.