Amandla

Miles Davis/ Marcus Miller

AmandlaI got into Miles via this late-career electronic pop & funk influenced stuff. Amazingly, though he now feels like he belongs to a long gone and distant era, Miles was still an active, live, gigging, recording artist at the time when I was getting into him. He died in 1991, just as I was digging ever more deeply into his life and music. He famously played the SECC in Glasgow during the Glasgow International Jazz Festival as part of the Year of Culture celebrations – I snobbishly refused to buy a ticket, for fiercely held reasons I can’t remember, instead choosing to see a band called The Pointy Birds at the Third Eye Centre. I became a devoted fan, too late.

The title is a Zulu word, and references the struggles against South African apartheid, which Miles was outspoken about. Aptly, it means ‘power’. Listening to this again, I’m struck by how powerfully infectious the whole thing is. It’s deeply groovy, hugely melodic with a lot to delight in. I can still sing back many of the jerky funk riffs and solo lines, hum its scattered melodies, and my shoulders and ass keep wanting to pop and shake with the groove. Apart from some dated sounding synth and the odd wank-rock solo, the textures are absolutely incredible – the bass clarinet, the tone of the sax player – and I think this is what stays with me much more than Miles’s trumpet – here, less of a solo star, more the kind of star that can light up a beautiful, colourful universe of sound. The whole thing sounds like Miles paints.

The cover art intrigued me and, after reading an article in Wire magazine I bought a book of his paintings, which still sits on my shelf. It got me into painting for a while. Miles was everything for me for about a year, probably longer.

Breakout & Morning Dance

Spiro Gyra

BreakoutI first heard these guys at a downtown street festival in June 1988 during my last days of a year long cultural exchange programme in El Paso. I was with my Bel Air High ‘homies’ – Ralph, Chris, Margot and a bunch of others. School was out, summer was hitting its stride, and my looming departure was taking every emotion to greater and greater heights.

The grid of streets around the downtown area of the city was blocked off, bands on every corner. Spiro Gyra were the headline act. They played a kind of electric jazz pop full of joyful melody and good energy on a massive stage with a big arena-busting rig, and instantly had a whole block full of people dancing, including us. I loved the sound they made, never heard anything like it. Total happy-making music. One of my friends – Ralph, I think – gifted me his copy of “Breakout”, their latest album, as a leaving present, and those tunesĀ indelibly marked that period of my life following the inevitable headlong crash of my homecoming with a painful kind of nostalgia.

That gig, that cassette, was the beginning of a love affair with 80s big-hair smooth RnB type jazz that took shape when I got into David Sanborn, courtesy of a mix tape another El Paso pal sent over. Back home in EK, I joined a few bands, acquired a sax from one of them (the Perth TA band) and started trying to play jazz myself.

But snobbery follows jazz as flies follow shit. I remember talking up this band to a few guys I’d been hanging out with, older jazzers, not quite realising that Spiro Gyra were considered beyond-the-pale shit. Noodlers. Widdlers. Popsters. Not Real Jazz. Disposable – “Biro Giro”, one quipped. I got the gist pretty quickly. I clearly had a long way to go to train my ear, but the implied insult in the knowing laughter and sideways glances I was getting still stung. Embarrassed and ashamed of my ignorance, I relegated my cherished tape and nascent jazz fusion enthusiasms to the bottom drawer.

Morning DanceListening back to them again, they’re obviously not the worst of the pop-jazz-rock stuff that was around at the time, nor are they particularly outstanding – I suppose the word you’d use is ‘safe’. It seems the biggest crime they committed in the ears of the True Jazzers was that of tunefulness. Tunefulness in jazz can often be equated with simplicity, naivety; True Jazz is supposed to be spiky and difficult, and isn’t taken seriously if it’s dancable or hummable. I don’t remember where I bought “Morning Dance”, but whatever else it might be, the title track is a fabulous tune and remains one of my favourite things to play on the alto.

Spiro Gyra and the whole jazz fusion idiom were, in a sense, rehabilitated for me years later when I was playing in the Strathclyde Arts Centre Big Band – a pretty serious & heavy-weight junior outfit that has given the world a whole bunch of amazing players – and the guy who was joint leader brought out an arrangement of ‘Morning Dance’. As well my delight at my tune belatedly receiving the kind of True Jazzer approval I lacked when I was starting out, the piece made my spine tingle just the way it did when I heard them all those years ago in El Paso.

Train the ears, but trust the tingle.

Memos from Paradise

Eddie Daniels
(GRP Records, 1988)

Memos from ParadiseEddie Daniels is a virtuoso crossover jazz-classical clarinettist on the GRP label. I can’t remember who the other dudes are that have their initials in the company name, but I know that one of them is Dave Grusin, who made his name in the movies, providing scores to big Hollywood productions. His name became synonymous in the 80s with a kind of easy listening smooth jazz with high production polish and blockbuster marketing. Kind of the opposite in every way to the ECM label.

I was introduced to Eddie Daniels’s music by a guy who used to come round the Bel Air High School band rehearsal room selling reeds and mouthpieces, slings and lyres, various musical instrument consumables. I got chatting to him, he was curious about how a Scottish kid got to be playing clarinet in a high school marching band way out in the desert heat of El Paso. He came every week and we got friendly. I wish I could remember the name of the place, and the guy’s name too. Let’s call him Bob of Bob’s Music. Anyway, Bob knew I was interested in jazz and invited me down to his store, somewhere off the I-10.

I used to go walking in El Paso. I was probably the only person who did. There were good reasons why not many people walked in El Paso – the heat was ferocious, savagely intense, particularly around the time I’d arrived which was late summer. The city blocks were enormous and the city was so spread out in the suburbs it took much, much longer to get places than you’d expect it to. Like, hours. You’d have to stop by the 7-11 to grab a Big Gulp every couple of blocks just to keep yourself hydrated – and to cool off in the air-conditioning. And anyway, everyone drove. Even kids my age drove; some, like my American brother, Fel, even drove their own cars.

I set out on one of these walks with the aim of popping in to Bob’s Music. He’d promised he’d show me around, show me the workshops where they did their repairs, that kind of thing. Which is exactly what he did, true to his word. The place was enormous – everything was enormous in Texas – and I can recall a massive backroom full of workbenches, people busily making or fixing things. Out front was a standard music shop, probably about fifteen times larger than either McCormack’s or Biggar’s that I’d grown up with in Glasgow. It sold everything you’d expect it to: instruments of all kinds from marching band to rock band, LPs, CDs, tapes, pins, posters, mugs, books and sheet music.

Towards the end of the tour, Bob asked me if, as a clarinet player, I’d ever heard of Eddie Daniels. I admitted my ignorance, which was great because Bob was eager to enlighten. He gushed about this guy Eddie Daniels who had a new album out. Bob put the LP on the listening booth, and gave me a set of headphones. The album was called “Breakthrough”, Daniels’s first on the GRP label. It was astonishing. Back home, thanks to the amazing resources of East Kilbride Central Library’s extensive collection of LPs, I had got into jazz via clarinet players Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw – they played big band swing, but this was altogether something else. All the signs were that this was a classical record: The London Philharmonia Orchestra were credited on the front cover, the first track had an impressive classical music sounding Italian name (“Solfeggietto/ Metamorphosis”) and one of the pieces was by Bach.

BreakthroughThe first track sets the pulse racing from the first beat of the baton. After an exciting intro, intense blocks of chords building up in the strings, the clarinet blasts through – like that image on the cover – with long, sinewy lines that ran from ear to ear looping round and round and up and down like water in the brain. Or electricity. Rollercoastery. And it was fast as fuck. Fast, but not fierce. It was something solid in the ear, but not hard on it. It sounded like sculpted wood. It was a demonstration of such unworldly technical facility – such speed! – that I could only boggle and drool and think, I want to play like that

And then. And THEN, everything just melts.

Those crazy arpeggio ladders he was scaling up and down turned inside out, disappeared, becoming something almost like smoke. It was intoxicating. I bought the album there and then.

“Memos from Paradise”, the follow-up album and the reason for this post, I bought months later on tape. One side, he’s with a string quartet, rather than the full orchestra; on the other, it’s straight up plugged in jazz-bop-pop. I only really listened to the string side which was mellower and more melodic; sadly, all that rewinding has obviously done for the tape, which sort of falls apart as I listen to it now. Listening back to the bits that I can, I am returned to that bedroom in El Paso, listening deeply, learning about the world, learning about music and jazz and love. Eddie Daniels still has the ability to put a spell on me, still makes me want to play like him.