In a recent podcast, Donald Fagen spoke about the importance of vocal tone, saying that he’d rather listen to Ray Charles singing a mediocre song completely ‘straight’ than a jazz singer pointlessly embellishing a songbook standard.
It got me thinking about Phyllis Hyman’s crackerjack performance on ‘I’ll Be Around’ (not to be confused with the Alec Wilder standard sung by many including Frank Sinatra and Chaka Khan), from McCoy Tyner’s 1982 CBS album Looking Out.
The song, which has haunted me since I first heard it in the late 1980s, was mainly written by Stanley Clarke and recycled from his lacklustre (despite featuring some lovely Stan Getz saxophone) 1979 track ‘The Streets Of Philadelphia’.
‘I’ll Be Around’ comes from an otherwise fairly mediocre McCoy album, mainly notable for featuring Carlos Santana, Clarke and Gary Bartz on several tracks.
But Tyner’s fabled work with John Coltrane must have seemed a distant memory by 1982. In jazz terms, CBS was obsessed with Wynton Marsalis and neo-classicism, though still had time for Herbie Hancock’s hip-hop explorations and Miles’s comeback.
Phyllis and McCoy in the studio
Maybe McCoy in turn thought he’d hit paydirt by grabbing Santana, Bartz and Clarke (huge Coltrane fans, all), but Looking Out is now barely a footnote to his illustrious career – it was his second and last album for Columbia.
‘I’ll Be Around’ doesn’t feature Santana or Bartz, and was the sole LA-recorded track on the album (the other tracks being recorded at the Power Station in NYC), adding the excellent pairing of Charles ‘Icarus’ Johnson on guitar and Ndugu Chancler on drums.
Chancler and Tyner work together almost telepathically, the former driving the song forward, though always with one ear on the groove, the latter sprinkling on his majestic chord voicings.
Hyman’s vocals are huge, luscious, but she also adds some subtle flavours over Tyner’s piano solo, consciously removing vibrato and sometimes singing ever-so-slightly sharp for emotional effect.
Of course it’s virtually impossible now to assess this heartfelt performance without considering her tragic suicide in 1995. But, happily, ‘I’ll Be Around’ gives a different slant on a fine career and shows Hyman’s mastery of Black Music, from disco to jazz.
Recorded at Angel Studios, North London, 21-23 July 1986
UK album chart position: #39
Gifted saxophonist Courtney Pine‘s career is one of British jazz’s great success stories. Starting out in the early ‘80s as a sideman with reggae act Clint Eastwood & General Saint and various Britfunk bands, he became disillusioned with the outlawing of jazz as a respected, popular music in the climate of the early ’80s London scene.
As he memorably put it in the BBC’s excellent ‘Jazz Britannia’ doc, ‘I would add different notes in the scale the way Sonny Rollins did and people would say, “No man, we don’t want that.” They were saying to me, “If you’re black and you want to play jazz in this country, you’d better go and live somewhere else!”’
But all that changed when he caught US trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on TV one afternoon. Marsalis’s professionalism and dynamism were a revelation to Pine (not to mention his youthfulness); if Marsalis could bring jazz to a wide audience, he could too.
A period of intense woodshedding paid off – soon Courtney was guesting with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and The Charlie Watts Big Band, blowing all over the ‘Angel Heart‘ soundtrack and blowing people away with his solos in Gary Crosby’s groundbreaking Jazz Warriors and Jazz Jamaica groups.
Island Records came calling, and Journey To The Urge Within made the Top 40 in the UK, an almost-unheard-of state of affairs for a jazz album. This writer fondly remembers the day when, on opening the NME, he unexpectedly found Pine and Miles Davis sharingthe album chart. Happy days.
Though he had recorded the very successful You’re Under Arrest and was in some of his best trumpet lip of the ’80s, his relationship with Columbia Records was at an all-time low.
For one, the label’s other star trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was at his peak of popularity, and, as far as Miles was concerned, Columbia boss Dr George Butler only had eyes for Wynton.
Then Miles felt that Columbia had procrastinated over releasing his cover of the Cyndi Lauper song ‘Time After Time‘ as a single. At the time, with typical mordant humour, Miles said, ‘He (George Butler) ignored it because he’s so busy with Wynton Marsalis. He heard us do it at the Montreux Jazz Festival last year and said “We gotta do it! We gotta do it!” I said, “George, I told you man. We already did it!” And he still didn’t release it…’
And the final nail in the coffin seemed to be Columbia’s unwillingness to put any financial clout behind Miles’s stunning collaboration with Danish trumpeter/composer Palle Mikkelborg, Aura, recorded at the beginning of 1985. For unknown reasons, the music didn’t see the light of day until 1989.
Again, in contemporary interviews, Miles rounded up the usual suspects: ‘I wanted $1400 for a digital remix and Columbia wouldn’t pay it. And then George Butler calls me up. He says to me, “Why don’t you call Wynton?” I say, “Why?” He says, “Cos it’s his birthday!” That’s why I left Columbia.’
Later reports had Miles carrying out Butler’s request, barking ‘Happy Birthday!’ to Marsalis and then slamming down the phone.
Miles officially became a Warner Bros. artist in autumn 1985. House producer Tommy LiPuma was delighted to get him – but what to do with him? Miles first took his touring band into the studio and embarked on a kind of You’re Under Arrest part two, covering tunes by Mr Mister, Nik Kershaw and Maze.
But this project was quickly abandoned, and Miles contacted various musicians including Prince (who supplied the rather humdrum ‘Can I Play With U’, later replaced by Marcus Miller’s ‘Full Nelson’), George Duke, Bill Laswell, Paul Buckmaster and Toto’s Steve Porcaro. He was desperate for new music and a new direction.
But he finally settled on an old contact, Randy Hall, the young Chicago multi-instrumentalist who had worked on his comeback album The Man With The Horn back in 1981.
Around a dozen tracks were completed between October and December 1985 in what was now known as the Rubber Band project. However, again for unknown reasons, the project was shelved, LiPuma quoted as saying, ‘I didn’t hear anything. To me, it didn’t sound like nothing was going on.’
Other collaborators were quickly suggested and then discarded including keyboardists Lyle Mays and Thomas Dolby. So Miles went back to George Duke. Their paths had crossed many times over the years, particularly when Duke was playing keyboards with Cannonball Adderley in the early ’70s.
As Duke remembers, ‘When Miles called, I initially thought it was a prank, one of my friends impersonating him. So I didn’t do anything, and a week later he called again. I said, “Who is this?” and he started swearing at me, “Mother****er, write me a song!”‘
It seems finally that George Duke’s demo of ‘Backyard Ritual‘ was deemed a direction worth pursuing by Miles and LiPuma. A strong, drum-heavy track put together by Duke using a Synclavier digital sampler with a simple but memorable main motif, he never intended it to be used as a final version, highlighted by the rather cheesy sampled alto sax solo.
But Miles eventually used almost the whole demo for Tutu, embellishing it only with some slithering percussion by Steve Reid and Paulinho Da Costa and of course his own pristine trumpet playing.
Miles’s take on it was that he respected a quality arrangement, demo or not: ‘A guy like George Duke, he writes a composition, it’s all there. All you have to do is play on it and respect that man’s composition’, he told writer and musician Ben Sidran.
And Duke revealed that he had even played a ‘sampled’ trumpet solo on the original demo, which tickled Miles. Duke: ‘He said to me, “You think that’s the way I play trumpet?” And I said, “That’s the way it sounds to me!”‘
At the beginning of 1986, Marcus Miller phoned Tommy LiPuma out of the blue. The bassist and composer had of course played in Miles’s comeback band from 1981 to 1983.
He had since made two solo albums and worked with a huge variety of artists, from Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin to Bryan Ferry and Carly Simon, and was aware that Miles had migrated to Warner Bros and wondered if he was looking for new songs.
LiPuma sent him the ‘Backyard Ritual’ demo; Miller was instantly inspired: ‘I thought, “Wow, if Miles is willing to use drum machines and stuff, let me show my take on that.” I wasn’t directly musically influenced by George’s track but it gave me a direction.’
Miller wrote and recorded demos for ‘Tutu‘, ‘Portia‘ and ‘Splatch‘ back-to-back, playing all the instruments himself. Previewing the tracks with Miles and LiPuma in LA in March 1986, he got an immediate green light to turn this into an album project – this was the direction they had been looking for.
Miller began recording the final versions of the three tunes immediately with the help of keyboardist and programmer Adam Holzman.
There’s been a lot of speculation as to why none of Miles’s touring band were invited to play on the Tutu sessions, with opinions differing as to who made the decision. Miller insists, ‘I wasn’t party to the decision not to use the live band but Tommy didn’t push me in any direction. He let me do my thing.’
Miles seemed to resign himself to the convenience of the situation, saying, ‘Rather than get myself, the working band and Tommy into all kinds of hassles by trying to bring my band in the studio to record music I might like, but Tommy doesn’t, we do it this way.’
Consequently, although some choice session players appear on the album, such as drummer Omar Hakim and the aforementioned Paulinho Da Costa, as well as some of Miller’s trusted friends and collaborators like keyboardist Bernard Wright, synth programmer Jason Miles and electric violinist Michal Urbaniak, there’s a unified sound to Tutu that comes directly from Miller’s contributions on fretted and fretless basses, keyboards, drum programming and occasional live drums.
His soprano sax acts as Miles’s main instrumental foil on the album, particularly evident on the call-and-response phrases in ‘Tomaas’.
Once the backing tracks had been laid down, LiPuma and Miller documented Miles’s trumpet playing as spontaneously as possible without resorting to too many ‘comp’d’ takes (final versions made up of several performances).
Apart from this being a necessity as Miles didn’t like to do more than two takes, it was also an intelligent arrangement idea serving as a contrast to the painstaking and meticulous piecing together of the backing tracks.
According to legend, Miles’s solos on the title track and ‘Portia’ are complete takes from beginning to end. Miller found himself performing on soprano sax at the same mic as Miles during the recording of ‘Portia’. He called it ‘one of the most tense experiences I’d ever had’.
But, by most accounts, Miles was a receptive and willing participant in the creative process, once telling Miller, ‘Come on, man, I don’t mind a little bit of direction! You wrote the tunes. Tell me where you want me to play.’ Again, Miles demonstrates his total respect for the composer.
Miles was also reportedly responsible for the inclusion of one of the more controversial cuts on the album, the Scritti Politti cover tune ‘Perfect Way‘. Miles apparently cajoled Miller into recording the song, believing it had the potential to be the new ‘Time After Time’, and even wanted to call the album ‘Perfect Way’ until just before release.
But Miller expressed reservations about replicating Scritti’s legendary ‘Swiss watch’ arrangements, and with good reason – the Tutu version does sound rather laboured and weedy compared to the original. But Miles remained a big Scritti fan and two years later made a memorable guest appearance on their ‘Oh Patti’ single.
So has Tutu stood the test of time? The title track, ‘Portia’ and ‘Tomaas’ would surely be right at home on any Miles best-of, with their majestic themes, engaging harmonies, slinky grooves and strong trumpet playing.
‘Full Nelson‘ remains a great tribute to Prince’s sound circa Parade and Sign Of The Times, while ‘Don’t Lose Your Mind‘ is a classy approximation of Sly and Robbie‘s mid-’80s collaborations. But ‘Perfect Way’, ‘Backyard Ritual’ and ‘Splatch’ unfortunately now sound suspiciously like beautifully-produced filler.
But, taken as a whole, Tutu is a very important album whose success was helped immeasurably by Irving Penn‘s striking cover portrait. It crystallised Miles’s interest in funk, soul and R’n’B more successfully than Decoy or You’re Under Arrest, whilst retaining a crucial ‘jazz’ flavour.
It was also a statement of political intent and black pride, significantly referencing both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in its song titles. And – perhaps most crucially – it was a hit, introducing a whole new generation to Miles’ unique trumpet sound.
For much more on Tutu and Miles’s ’80s work, check out George Cole’s great book ‘The Last Miles’ and also Paul Tingen’s ‘Miles Beyond’.