Victor Bailey (1960-2016)

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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)

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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Steps Ahead’s Magnetic: 30 Years On

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Is this Philipe Petit?

Elektra/Asylum Records, released summer 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond

8/10

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 for jazz fans brought up on Weather Report and ’80s Miles rather than Brubeck and Mingus, albums like Magnetic might well be etched upon the memory.

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’s just announced a ‘reunion’ tour with a formidable band featuring pianist Eliane Elias and sax player Donny McCaslin, fresh from Bowie’s Blackstar. I hope to get to the Ronnie Scott’s gig in July.

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. Here’s one more very moving version of ‘Three Views’ to close.