Memorable Gigs Of The 1980s (Part Two)

David Sanborn Band/Al Jarreau @ Wembley Arena, November 1984

We were sitting high up behind the stage with a great view of two of the great modern American drummers: Steve Gadd (with Sanborn) and Ricky Lawson (with Jarreau). To be honest, my parents and I left in the middle of Al’s set but Sanborn was fantastic with Marcus Miller and Hiram Bullock running amok on the huge Arena stage. The saxophonist was at his commercial peak here and probably could have headlined the show.

Marc Almond @ The Palladium, 12th October 1986

I have absolutely no memory of why I was at this gig but it was a genuine eye-opener. Almond was long past his pop fame and seemed to be acting out his own private, Berlin-inspired drama. Looking at the footage today, I’m still not sure if it’s brilliant or total sh*te.

Miles Davis @ Hammersmith Odeon, 21st April 1982

I remember someone shouting ‘Turn the guitar down!’ Poor Mike Stern wasn’t the critics’ flavour of the month and Miles was obviously exceptionally ill, but the gig was unforgettable. One of my first and very best. I saw Miles three or four times during the ’80s but this was the bomb for sheer atmosphere and occasion.

Robert Palmer @ Hammersmith Odeon, 25th September 1988

There really isn’t anyone around these days like the much-missed Robert with his gravelly voice, weirdly cosmopolitan compositions and ever-present smirk. He had a highly-drilled, sh*t-hot band with him at the Hammie Odeon too featuring Frank Blair on bass and Eddie Martinez on guitar. The gig started with a five-minute Dony Wynn drum solo which fair blew the minds of my brother and I.

Yes/No People @ Limelight, 9th September 1986

I think this gig was part of what was then known as the Soho Jazz Festival. There was a lively crowd of ‘jazz revival’ hipsters and rare-groove fans – this was my first taste of an underground scene that was quickly building momentum. DJ Baz Fe Jazz kicked off with some Blue Note post-bop (yes, people actually danced to that stuff) and then Yes/No People featured Steve Williamson on sax and the cracking Mondesir brothers (Mark and Mike) rhythm section. The band only lasted a year or so but nearly dented the charts with their ‘Mr Johnson’ single.

John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra @ Hammersmith Odeon, 12th July 1984

The sign on the door said ‘Billy Cobham will not be appearing’ – heartbreaking to me at the time (McLaughlin apparently dumped Billy just a week before the tour). But Danny Gottlieb sat in with some style and John rattled off some outstanding licks in black shirt and black headband. It was bloody loud too. It was the first time many British fans had seen him since Mahavishnu Mark 1 days and as such there was a big hippie turnout.

Bill Withers @ Hammersmith Odeon, 18th September 1988

From memory, Bill spent most of the gig sitting at the front of the stage, talking about his life and career while Pieces Of A Dream accompanied with gentle jazz/funk. Bill wore a sweater and golfing slacks and seemed incredibly old, more Val Doonican than Curtis Mayfield.

Weather Report @ Dominion Theatre, 26th June 1984

The duels between keys man Zawinul and drummer Omar Hakim were spellbinding. This was clearly the dog’s b*ll*cks. Well, it was better than Duran Duran anyway. Omar’s huge shades, trash-can cymbal and big grin linger in the memory.

Level 42 @ Wembley Arena, 12th January 1989

Level again, but this time for all the wrong reasons. We were in the back row of the dreaded Arena, and the band were flogging their substandard Staring At The Sun album. The audience reaction to the ‘new stuff’ was distinctly subdued. After a contractually-obliged encore of ‘Chinese Way’, Mark King returned to the stage alone. ‘You ‘ad a good night?’ he bawled. The audience erupted. ‘Well, you can all go and f**k off home then’, deadpanned the thunder-thumbed one. Reply – and further encore – came there none…

Bubbling under:

Mike Stern/Bob Berg Band @ Town & Country Club, November 1989

Will Downing @ Hammersmith Odeon, 20th November 1988

Coltrane Legacy (Alice/Ravi Coltrane, Reggie Workman, Rashid Ali) @ Logan Hall, 10th July 1987

Ry Cooder @ Hammersmith Odeon, 27th May 1982

Bill Frisell @ Town & Country Club, 24th April 1989

Ornette Coleman/Prime Time @ Town & Country Club, 28th August 1988

Check out the first selection of memorable gigs here.

Were you at any of these concerts? Let me know your memories.

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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: 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 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.

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.

Wayne Shorter’s 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 Atlantis, and 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.’

wayne shorter

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.

Shorter delivered two more albums of dense and beautiful compositions before the ’80s were out, and I’ll return to them very soon.

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.)