Inspired by Derek, it made sense for Neil to select out five of his CJ favourites. If you know the show well, then some tracks will not be a surprise. First up was very much a first for Neil and, arguably, the start of his lifelong obsession with jazz. No – not So What or A Love Supreme but a track from one of John McLaughlin’s more obscure releases, My Goals Beyond, which offers up the astonishing Peace One. This album was released in 1971 – just before the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra – and was originally issued on Douglas Records. It’s now available (if you can find it) on a Rykodisc or Knitting Factory reissue.
I first heard it in 1972 as a teenager novitiate in jazz. With no internet and little to listen to on the radio, record shops were my introduction to the music. Icons like Charlie Parker were part of my understanding of the mythology of the music, so I knew that I really wanted to like jazz. I’d just not listened to much of it. I bought My Goal’s Beyond because of the album cover: a benign looking McLaughlin gazing serenely into the middle distance while a framed photo of a shaven headed guru (Sri Chinmoy) looks out impassively alongside him. It wasn’t like most of the jazz covers I’ve seen and it drew me in immediately. The track listing on the back confirmed things – a Charles Mingus tune, something from A Kind of Blue and a Chick Corea composition among them. But the real delight didn’t begin until I got the record home and played side B. The big surprise was right there. Peace One begins with a tanpura drone, and then Charlie Haden’s insidiously cool bass line waltzes its way through McLaughlin’s tune. Even violinist Jerry Goodman and drummer Billy Cobham (who would later appear in McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra) tame their natural excesses to complement the leader’s open soloing on acoustic guitar. Dave Liebman is in fine voice on soprano and Badal Roy’s tablas along with Airto’s minimal percussion fills fit perfectly. This track has entranced me ever since I first listened to it that summer evening over forty years ago and I come back to it every year with the same sense of wide-eyed wonder.
Here’s the thing. Lester Bowie was a trumpet revolutionary. Whether with the Art Ensemble of Chicago or in his solo work he blazed a trail that – uniquely – looked backwards as well as forwards. Back to Bubber Miley and the Cotton Club and into the future of jazz in the 21st century. So where can you hear this? Try The Great Pretender on ECM and, rather than the title track (itself a powerful deconstruction of the Platters classic), go straight to Rios Negros. Heard once, my guess is you’ll want to play it again immediately – and perhaps then, like me, you’ll want it play it again – and again – for the rest of your life.
I think I’ve only just worked out why this is. In just over seven minutes the trumpeter takes a first solo that tears the history of jazz apart. Then he creates a second coda solo that stretches out all the components of the first one and relocates them in back in the tradition – but in reverse order. The result is that we hear the history of jazz trumpet backwards so the track ends with the ghost of those early pioneers filtered through Bowie’s slurs and smears, crackles and blares. Bowie was a southerner born in St Louis, and right from the start his sound looked to jazz history and a range of other influences. Early in his career he played with blues and R and B artists including Little Milton and Rufus Thomas and in 1977 he recorded No Agreement with Fela Anikulapo Kuti – so I’ve thrown that one into to my 5 from 5 too. Of course, it’s Fela’s record rather than Bowie’s, but his contribution – which begins six minutes into the 13 minute track absolutely fits. Just listen to how he solos over the horn riffs – it’s magical!
It’s worth noting that on The Great Pretender, Bowie is backed by the most sympathetic band he ever had. Phillip Wilson on drums is perfect and Donald Smith’s solo on Rios Negros is a delight. Hamiett Bluett provides some lovely bottom end baritone and Fred Williams is a wonderfully supportive bass player. Both Rios Negros and No Agreement are very approachable. This is not complex music – but one track encompasses the history of jazz in just seven minutes while the other tells you all you need to know about the enduring power of Afrobeat. Just two months before he died from liver cancer in 1999, Bowie was interviewed by journalist Jay Babcock. He was asked about the conversations he had with Fela during the time he was in Nigeria in 1977:
“So most of the time, we talked about the music. Music and its ramifications. What it implied. What is it. What can it be used for. It’s about… Basically, I always believed art is functional. It’s not just something you put in museums, it’s better for it to be used for something functional: educational usage, therapeutic usage. But it should be USED. Music should be used, not just as entertainment. I’m not saying it’s NOT entertainment. It’s EVERYTHING. It’s entertainment, it’s religion, it’s a lot of things. That’s what most of what our conversations would be about: the spiritual aspect to the music, what binds all these different types of musics together.”
I can remember the exact moment. 08 July 2005 and I was in London for a meeting with a publisher. It was the day after the notorious London bombings in which 52 people of eighteen different nationalities were killed in a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks on the capital. I had arrived in the city around 10:30am and the sun was shining as I exited the Underground station. I could walk to the publishers’ offices and I set out – but, probably like most people travelling in London that day, rather nervously. Over my headphones came the opening bars of one of the instrumental tracks on Marcos Valle’s comeback 1998 Far Out recording, Nova Bossa Nova. Bar Ingles begins with a fade in and then Valle sets up the Fender melody and we’re off on one of his jazz fusion classics. Suddenly, I felt that, whatever evil is sent our way, music truly is the healing force of the universe. The music had became a metaphor for the way we choose to see the world. Valle was to reprise this tune when I saw him a few years ago at the Jazz Cafe, London.
Lord Echo (or Michael John August) is the much in-demand New Zealand multi-instrumentalist and producer. Originally released in 2013, his album Curiosities features a delightful summery take on The Creator Has a Master Plan with vocals by Lisa Tomlins. It’s my fifth and final Cosmic Jazz tune and – whilst it isn’t a classic cut in the way that the other four clearly are – it represents music I often return to for an inhouse daytime DJ set or simply to chill out to. The album features a typical Lord Echo mix of jazz with disco-tinged neo-soul, reggae and classic afro-beat, all in a pretty effortless way. Curiosities was preceded by the more down-tempo Melodies and followed by the excellent, more electronic and club-ready sound of third album Harmonies. All have a surfeit of cool vibes and are well worth investigating. Almost much everything is played by Lord Echo, with contributions from Lucien Johnson on tenor sax, Toby Laing on trumpet, Daniel Yeabsley on baritone sax, Will Ricketts on vibes and Julien Dyne taking care of some drum loops. Check out all three albums via the ever-reliable Bandcamp here.
So, we started in the UK, crossed over to the USA via Nigeria and Brazil and ended up way down in New Zealand. Global beats, healing sounds – truly, as Lester Bowie said, “the spiritual aspect to the music, what binds all these different types of musics together.” Stay safe.