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.

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Stanley Clarke: If This Bass Could Only Talk

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Portrait/CBS Records, released summer 1988

8/10

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988

This album was a substantial breath of fresh air when it came out in 1988. I remember walking into Our Price and hearing Wayne Shorter’s majestic soprano sax over some swooning chord changes and thinking: ‘What the hell is this?!’ It was a relief and total surprise when it turned out to be Stanley’s cover of Mingus’s ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (and what a brave choice of track to play in the shop…).

It wasn’t just the Baby Boom rockers who struggled a bit during the 1980s. Stanley started the decade very well with Rocks Pebbles & Sand but then there were a few middling collaborations with George Duke and a very patchy run of albums: Let Me Know You, Time Exposure and Hideaway. 1985’s Find Out had some brilliant moments though.

But ITBCOT put Stanley back on the jazz map. Its full-on playing – with admittedly a few late-’80s production values in tow – brought to mind classic ’70s albums Journey To Love and School Days. Drum machines were out: drummers were back in (Ndugu Chancler, John Robinson, Gerry Brown and Stewart Copeland, all of whom play beautifully). The album also emphasised how much of a singular voice Clarke had now developed on piccolo bass, as distinctive on his instrument as Parker, Miles, Monk or Rollins were on theirs.

‘Working Man’ is an update of ‘Lopsu Lu’ from Stanley’s classic first album and features some ridiculously brilliant soloing leaning very heavily towards John Coltrane’s ‘sheets of sound’ approach. Gerry Brown stays toe-to-toe with Stanley, providing some spectacularly-unhinged drums, though maybe with a bit too much ’80s ‘gated’ snare for some ears.

My cassette copy of ITBCOT didn’t have any personnel listed on it, so when I first heard ‘Stories To Tell’ I didn’t realise I was getting my first exposure to the extraordinary guitar playing of Allan Holdsworth. I’m very thankful that Stanley unleashed Holdsworth onto my sensibilities. He delivers some remarkably-fluid playing with a shrill, almost reedy tone. The first and last four bars of his solo are really special. Copeland plays superbly too, with more restraint than usual.

Freddie Hubbard shines on a fine cover of Janet Jackson/Jam and Lewis’s ‘Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)’ while Stanley brings the funk with a great take-off of Zapp’s Roger Troutman on ‘I Want To Play For You’. Elsewhere there are two fun but rather dispensable duets with tapdancer Gregory Hines but they don’t outstay their welcome. Finally, ‘Tradition’ may feature Stanley’s finest recorded playing bar none and highlights a strong John McLaughlin influence (via Coltrane, of course).

In a much-maligned genre of music, ’80s fusion, ITBCOT is a minor classic that deserves critical reappraisal. It also led to a really good period for Stanley – he joined Shorter in Lenny White’s short-lived but intriguing Manhattan Project, of which more soon, and also toured as part of a supergroup with Herbie Hancock, Shorter and Omar Hakim.

Stanley was back, back, back.

10 Great Album Covers Of The 1980s

One of the many positives of the recent vinyl resurgence is the potential for some decent album covers again. For a while, it seemed as if the art was being lost.

Back in the ’80s, as the cliché goes, you would generally buy an album, stick it on and then peruse the cover at some length while you listened. The best covers seemed to take on a life of their own. Budgets were healthy, the musicians cared and you could see the time and effort that went into the work. I particularly liked those covers with a ‘psychological’ aspect, some kind of story or scene, an image that maybe enhanced the lyrical themes of the album. Or, failing that, one that would look pretty good on a wall or even in a gallery.

Here are ten album covers of the ’80s that still beguile, from the decidedly Spielbergian to the spooky/superb.

10. Weather Report: Procession (1983)

Cover artwork by John Lykes

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9. It Bites: The Big Lad In The Windmill (1986)

Cover artwork by David O’Connor

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8. Wayne Shorter: Phantom Navigator (1988)

Cover artwork by Jean-Francois Podevin

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7. Level 42: Level 42 (1981)

Cover artwork by Joy Barling

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6. Japan: Oil On Canvas (1983)

Cover artwork by Frank Auerbach

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5. George Duke: Guardian Of The Light (1983)

Cover artwork: unidentified (anyone know?)

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4. Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989)

Cover artwork by Mark Ryden

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3. Peter Gabriel: 3 (1980)

Cover artwork/photography by Hipgnosis (Storm Thorgerson/Audrey Powell)

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2. Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring (1986)

Cover artwork by James Marsh

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1. Gil Scott-Heron: Moving Target (1982)

Photography by John Ford, artwork by Donn Davenport

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The 1980s Summer Playlist (Part Two)

Neil Young: ‘Eldorado’

Castanets, Spanish guitars and dodgy dealings down Mexico way in this Peckinpahesque corker from the Freedom album.

Linda Ronstadt: ‘Los Laureles’

More Warner Bros. Americana, this time from Ronstadt’s excellent Mexican-themed Canciones de Mi Padre album.

Wayne Shorter: ‘Condition Red’

A blast of classic sci-fi-fusion from Wayne’s Phantom Navigator album, featuring some ‘sideways’ harmony, incendiary soprano sax, a Big Snare Sound and even a bit of vocal scatting.

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

A shimmering summer classic from The Flat Earth.

Joni Mitchell: ‘My Secret Place’

This duet with Peter Gabriel kicked off Joni’s underrated Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm album. Takes me straight back to summer ’88.

Mark King: ‘There Is A Dog’

The Level 42 mainman’s breezy tribute to Return To Forever. Musos behold: he played drums, percussion, bass and all the guitars on this. Taken from the classic Influences album.

The Clash: ‘Hitsville UK’

Mick Jones’ breezy, ironic rumination on the rise of indie labels featuring the Blockheads’ Norman Watt-Roy on bass. Taken from the Sandinista! album.

Miles Davis: ‘Catembe’

Takes me straight back to the summer of ’89. The breezy lead-off track from Miles’s last studio album Amandla.

Danny Wilson: ‘Davy’

A classic ‘advice’ song which kicked off the Dundee band’s excellent 1987 debut album.

Check out Part One here. Part Three and a full Spotify playlist coming soon.

Jaco Pastorius: Three Views Of ‘Three Views Of A Secret’

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click to enlarge

First of all, I’ve got to declare an interest: Jaco’s in my all-time top five favourite musicians. Ever since I started really noticing music in the late ’70s, he was always on my radar – my dad would play Weather Report’s Heavy Weather and Mr Gone around the house, and by the time I knew Jaco’s name I was totally (if subconsciously) immersed in his stuff.

I bought his legendary 1976 debut album from a secondhand vinyl shop in Blandford Forum, Dorset (don’t look for it now, it’s not there any more), sometime in the mid-’80s, and I’ve been a superfan since.

The general critical consensus seems to be that, at his best, when he was healthy and strong between the early ’70s and early ’80s, Jaco’s composing skills were improving at the same rate as his bass-playing skills. Luckily, in his short, somewhat tragic life, he left us five or six classic compositions (a list that would have to include ‘Havona‘, ‘Teen Town‘, ‘City Of Angels‘, ‘Punk Jazz‘, ‘Dania‘ and ‘Las OIas‘), but perhaps the most enduring of all is ‘Three Views Of A Secret’, a tune that has beguiled me since I first heard it.

He copped the title from a totally unrelated composition by Charlie Brent, the musical director of Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders, a hard-touring funk/R’n’B band Jaco played with in the early ’70s. ‘Three Views’ is essentially a medium jazz waltz built on three sections (A, B and C). The 16-bar A section has a bluesy feel and strong, simple melody. The B section modulates to D-flat, before returning eventually to E. The third and final C section features repetitions of a four-bar phrase centred again around E, but with added colours to develop the tonality. It is, by any standards, an expertly-crafted piece.

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The first recording of the tune was arguably the standout track from Weather Report’s 1980 album Night Passage, recorded live at The Complex, Los Angeles, in July 1980. Joe Zawinul (a very tough critic, apparently calling Jaco’s ‘Liberty City’ “typical high-school big-band bullshit” right to his face a year later) rated it as his finest composition.

‘Three Views’ represented a distinct change of pace for Jaco in terms of his Weather Report career, coming hot on the heels of the frantic ‘Teen Town’, ‘Punk Jazz’ and ‘Havona’. The closest stylistic reference in jazz to ‘Three Views’ would probably be Charles Mingus, though Jaco himself claimed to be more a Gil Evans man.

Jaco starts the tune with his trademark false harmonics (most famously heard in the head of ‘Birdland‘), aided by Zawinul’s shimmering accompaniment. Then, in the B section, Wayne Shorter deliciously deconstructs the melody in the way only he can. He refers to it, flirts with it, skitters around it, but never fully commits to it, leaving Zawinul’s strong harmony to point the way forward.

The second version appeared on Jaco’s second solo album Word Of Mouth, released in 1981. A controversial release, it was supposed to be Jaco’s big Warner Bros ‘fusion’ debut but it ended up going way over budget and making him almost persona non grata at the company.

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The basic track was recorded at the Power Station, New York, with Jaco on piano, Toots Thielemans on harmonica and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Strings, brass, woodwinds, voices and bass were added later in LA, at enormous expense; Jaco hired a 31-piece string section from the LA Philharmonic at a cost of $9,000, but later erased their contribution, not believing they had delivered the performance required.

Seven players from the section were selected by Jaco to come back a few weeks later and try again – they were overdubbed nine times each to create the illusion of a 63-piece string section!

So was it all worth it? Judge for yourself below. I know which version I prefer…

There’s also a lovely 1986 live (bootleg) version featuring Jaco’s short-lived but storming trio with Hiram Bullock on guitar and Kenwood Dennard on drums, but it’s really hard to find.

‘Three Views’ was played by a specially-selected band at Jaco’s funeral mass on 25th September 1987 at St Clement’s Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he had once served as an altar boy. It rang out as the pallbearers, including Zawinul and Shorter, led the procession of mourners out of the church.

Cover versions have been multiple and generally pretty faithful to the originals: Bob Mintzer, Gil Goldstein and Richard Bona, though there is also this ill-advised smooth jazz/funk abomination by Brian Bromberg. But no matter – it can’t erode the majesty of this classic Jaco composition.

For much more about Jaco, check out the great recent documentary, produced by Metallica’s Rob Trujillo, and Bill Milkowski’s controversial, though very detailed, biography. Here’s one more very moving version of ‘Three Views’ to close.

Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog: 30 Years Old Today

joni_mitchell-dog_eat_dog(2)Geffen Records, released 30th October 1985

Bought: Christmas present, 1985

9/10

Most music fans of a certain age probably had their favourite ‘Walkman albums’, those cassettes that worked perfectly on headphones, revealing intricacies (weird panning effects, funky little motifs, stereo drum kits) rarely noticed when played on normal speakers.

As much as I had loved Joni Mitchell‘s music ever since my dad played me ‘Chinese Cafe (Unchained Melody)’ in 1983, I’d never have predicted that Dog Eat Dog would turn into one of my top headphone albums. A clue, of course, was the presence of Thomas Dolby as co-producer and keyboard player, master of quirky soundscapes and synth textures.

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Though initially he might seem a weird choice of collaborator, with hindsight it’s not that much of a surprise that Joni and co-producer/bassist/hubbie Larry Klein should enlist his services. Joni admitted in contemporary interviews that she ‘could use a hit’ and Dolby was still pretty hot in early ’85. But, according to Karen O’Brien’s biography ‘Shadows And Light’, they didn’t get along particularly well in the studio, Dolby not enamouring himself to her by blithely calling her ‘Joan’ between takes.

One of the key aspects of Dog Eat Dog is Joni’s palpable anger, both lyrically and vocally. Her cover pose says it all – throwing her hands up in the air with indignation and/or helplessness. As she puts it, the album is a portrait of ‘a culture in decline’. She takes aim at TV evangelists, consumerism, lawyers, yuppies and Reaganites with equal candour, letting fly with an F-bomb on the superb ‘Tax Free‘ which also features some spirited spoken-word work from Rod Steiger.

The album also features some of Joni’s strongest singing on record. Her melodies are sometimes resplendent too, particularly on the title track and ‘Lucky Girl’. It’s also interesting to hear her trying out a slightly more minimalist lyric-writing approach on ‘Fiction’ and ‘Tax Free’, marrying her short, sharp lines to Klein’s music.

‘Good Friends’, initially a brooding piano ballad in demo form, kicks the album off in fine style, an AOR classic with more interesting chord changes than the usual and a typically distinctive guest spot from Michael McDonald. It was a bold though unsuccessful attempt at a hit, far too good for the charts. Joni even sung it live on ‘Wogan’ with a McDonald impersonator!

The elegant, stately ‘Impossible Dreamer’ is described by Joni as ‘a tribute to Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Robert Kennedy – all those who gave us hope and were killed for it.’ It also features some sparkling soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.

Master drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is mainly reduced to providing drum samples for Dolby, though plays some lovely stuff on ‘Shiny Toys’, the second single from the album and subject to a great 12″ mix by Francis Kevorkian

The ’80s weren’t particularly easy on Joni and her contemporaries Don Henley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Robbie Robertson. As she put it, ‘I made four albums for Geffen (David Geffen’s label). For one reason or another, they were viewed as being out of sync with the ’80s. But I was out of sync with the ’80s. Thank God! To be in sync with these times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically. Materialism became a virtue; greed was hip.’

A lot of people would probably have liked her to carry on making Blue for the rest of the ’70s and ’80s, but she was moving on. Every album was different and this may be the one most in need of critical reassessment. Some tracks would definitely benefit from acoustic reinvention, but hey… It’s Joni.