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

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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.

Joni Mitchell: Dog Eat Dog 30 Years Old Today

joni_mitchell-dog_eat_dog(2)Geffen Records, released 30th October 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 anger at the state of the world, 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.

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.

Wayne Shorter: Atlantis 30 Years Old Today

Wayne-Shorter-Atlantis--Press-K-486376Columbia Records, released 1985

9/10

It’s not easy to write about an album that’s so much part of your musical DNA that it haunts you in the middle of the night and yet reveals fresh nuances every time you listen to it.

But first of all, I have to declare an interest – Wayne is one of my all-time musical heroes and has been since I was a teenager when his sax playing and compositions with Weather Report and Miles Davis totally bewitched me.

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that it took me 20 years to really appreciate Atlantisand also to realise that it had to be listened to on CD and listened to loud. The recent remaster, as part of Wayne’s Complete Albums Collection, is the best I’ve ever heard it.

Wayne at The International, Manchester, 1989. Photo by William Ellis

Wayne at The International, Manchester, 1987. Photo by William Ellis

How to describe the magical though totally uncompromising music on Atlantis? It was Wayne’s first solo release after the official split of Weather Report and it’s fair to say it wasn’t the album many fans and critics were expecting.

It surely remains Wayne’s least understood work.  It’s ostensibly an album of through-composed, acoustic ‘fusion’, but that barely covers it. Someone once described it as the soundtrack to an animated children’s book.

Wayne seems to be weaning listeners away from a more bombastic form of jazz/rock towards a new combination of jazz, R’n’B and Third Stream which utilises sophisticated counterpoint and pure composition.

Shorter is the only player who gets any significant solo time. Acoustic piano, flute, vocals and multiple saxes supply the dense, challenging, sometimes dissonant harmonies.

Atlantis could hardly be described as a ‘jazz’ album at all; ensemble work and composition generally override individual expression, and none of the tracks ‘swing’ in a conventional sense. And yet it’s still an utterly melodic set, full of memorable, criss-crossing themes which jostle for your attention. It takes time to work its magic, but work its magic it does.

The phenomenal opener ‘Endangered Species’ (recently massacred by Esperanza Spalding) is somewhat of a  ‘sweetener’ at the top of the album, like Sirens luring sailors to their deaths, as Shorter biographer Michelle Mercer noted.

Many people, me included, struggled to get very far past it since the remainder of Atlantis sounded somewhat prim and precious in comparison. I wanted to hear Zawinul and Jaco’s blistering lines, Omar Hakim’s colourful drumming, some virtuosity.

But when I studied Atlantis more closely, there are many subtle displays of instrumental mastery. Ex-Weather Report drummer Alex Acuna plays a blinder throughout, blazing through the outro of ‘Who Goes There’, Larry Klein’s bass playing is nimble and impressive (try playing along to Wayne’s intricate written lines), Michiko Hill’s piano comping is inventive and Wayne plays some fantastic solos, particularly his Rollins-style tenor on calypso-flavoured ‘Criancas’.

I remember seeing Wayne playing much of this music live to a barely-half-full London Shaw Theatre in late 1985 – it seems that audiences, booking agents and press officers alike were finding his post-Weather Report music a hard sell at this point.

Critics were generally puzzled too, although Robert Palmer noted in the New York Times that ‘it’s not an album one should listen to a few times and then knowledgeably evaluate… It is an album to learn from and live with.’

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But if Atlantis was misunderstood and less than commercially successful on its original release, it seems to be gaining fans in the 30 years since.

A good yardstick is that several compositions from the album are still regularly played by Shorter’s esteemed current quartet, particularly the title track, an eerie, labyrinthine tango.

‘The Three Marias’, a treacherous tune in 6/4 inspired by press reports of three Portuguese woman being arrested for writing obscene literature, has even been the unlikely recipient of a few cover versions, perhaps most notably (though not wholly effectively) by ex-Police guitarist Andy Summers.

Thanks to William Ellis for use of his photo.

(P.S. I’m taking one mark off for ‘Shere Khan The Tiger’ which was far better rendered on Carlos Santana’s 1980 album The Swing Of Delight, a version which featured Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Harvey Mason on drums.)

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

weather reportColumbia Records, released March 1985

9/10

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Joni Mitchell: Wild Things Run Fast

joni_mitchell-wild_things_run_fast(4)Geffen Records, released October 1982

8/10

As Joni reported to Q magazine in 1988, she entered the ’80s in a despondent state: ‘Everyone realised at the brink of the decade that it was going to be a hideous era…’

Apparently she attended a New Year’s Eve party at the house of singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop which had the ghastly theme ‘Be nice to the ’80s and the ’80s will be nice to you’.

On the way to the shindig, her beloved ’69 Bluebird was stolen from outside Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. It was not a great start to the decade.

David Geffen and Joni, early '80s

David Geffen and Joni, early ’80s

There were other reasons to be worried. She was sued by her cleaning lady and found herself headhunted by old friend and media mogul David Geffen for his new label, though their relationship were never easy.

And then there was Reagan, Thatcher and a simmering Cold War. But Joni’s new songs avoided politics completely, though she’d make up for that big-time with 1985’s potent Dog Eat Dog.

Instead, buoyed by her marriage to new bassist Larry Klein and beguiled by The Police and Talking Heads she was hearing on the radio, she produced possibly her most romantic, upbeat album to date.

The simplistic critical reaction to Wild Things Run Fast was that she had turned her back on the ‘jazz’ period which culminated in the 1979 masterpiece Mingus (and live album Shadows And Light). But while there are some concessions to hard rock, new wave and reggae, Wild Thing‘s best tracks are the ones that most closely resemble the shimmering, jazzy, almost psychedelic tracks of the mid-to-late-’70s.

Larry Klein and Joni, 21st November 1982

Larry Klein and Joni, 21st November 1982

Another clue was that many of her ’70s ‘repertory company’ were still in place at the dawn of the ’80s – singer James Taylor, percussionist Victor Feldman, drummer John Guerin, saxist Wayne Shorter and guitarist Larry Carlton.

Her new recruits were some of LA’s finest ‘younger’ players: guitarists Mike Landau and Steve Lukather, keyboardists Larry Williams and Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante, plus ex-Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

My point of entry for this album was the superb lead-off track ‘Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody’, recently voted in Uncut magazine’s top 30 Joni songs (nominated by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason), the first music I’d ever heard by Joni. I was immediately a fan.

It’s a very moving meditation on love and loss with a haunting piano/bass motif and a beautifully intricate drum part by Guerin, a great companion piece to ‘Both Sides Now’.

‘Be Cool’ and ‘Moon At The Window’ are classic Jazz Joni. On the former, Klein stakes his claim as a great (and extremely underrated) bassist of the ’80s and worthy successor to Jaco while Shorter offers a witty, beautifully judged commentary on the latter.

The great Larry Carlton does something similar on the elegant ‘Ladies’ Man’, playing a sublime accompaniment on the left channel while Joni bitterly surveys her lover’s ‘cocaine head games’. Lionel Richie even shows up on ‘You Dream Flat Tires’ to deliver one line and add some vocal harmonies – who saw that coming?

Some tracks are a curious but engaging mixture of hard rock and fusion – the title track, ‘You’re So Square’ and ‘Solid Love’ feature some dynamic, chops-infused interplay between Colaiuta and Klein, though the latter is the weakest song on the album – Joni should probably have left reggae well alone.

The closing ‘Love’ encapsulates all that’s good about Wild Things Run Fast – a beautiful vocal, superb and sensitive guitar playing from Steve Lukather and empathetic textures from Shorter and Colaiuta. And its appropriation of Corinthians 13 11-13 sums up Joni’s romantic worldview beautifully; hopeful about the future but constantly wary, ever aware of love’s tribulations.

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Vinnie Colaiuta, Mike Landau, Joni, Larry Klein, Russell Ferrante

Joni toured this album extensively with a superb band of Colaiuta, Landau, Klein and Ferrante, dropping in to London for a date at the Wembley Arena in 1983. Wish I had been there. But thankfully we have YouTube (see below).

The album was a minor hit, reaching 32 in the UK album charts and #25 in the States, and the single ‘(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care’ reached 47 in the US singles chart.

One’s appreciation of Wild Things probably depends on when you were born. There are people who adore Blue and For The Roses who must loathe this. But as my first exposure to Joni’s music, I hold it very dear.