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.

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The Hot Spot

Jack Nitzsche with John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis et al

The Hot SpotI bought this in Fopp, in its original incarnation in the tiny unit at the top of Renfield Street, now, depressingly, a newsagent. After East Kilbride Central Library, Fopp was the main source of many of my musical infatuations. It was the unknowing dealer in my addiction, and a frequent bolthole when I was skipping lectures or dodging the rain.

I picked up the cassette before I had even heard of the film it’s the soundtrack to. I was in the throws of a deep Miles Davis listening binge. The album got a bit of press for its unique collaboration between Miles and John Lee Hooker, who was in the charts at the time. As well as being the soundtrack to the film which bears its name, it soundtracked my bus journeys to and from university in winter 1991-92.

Hearing it again, I still find the album has the same elusive, enigmatic quality I remember from 25 years ago, possibly something that’s to do with it being made to accompany (unseen) images. There’s a definite warmth to it, the kind of spice warmth you’d get in a bowl of gumbo. Which is at odds with the memory I have of listening to it, through of all those evenings in the rain, walking down Renfield Street and waiting for the 18.

I watched the film on telly years later, a weird, forgettable modern noir-ish bit of pulp starring Don Johnson and directed by Dennis Hopper that is considerably less than the sum of its parts.

 

Hand on the Torch

Us3

Hand on the TorchThis is an album that captures a lot of what was going on musically in the 90s. Sampling, rap, hip hop grooves, acid jazz – it’s a lot of fun.  The pedigree of the sampled music is gold-plated True Jazz, from the high priest of crossover Herbie Hancock – the main riff from his classic “Cantaloupe Island” forms the bedrock of the first track here, renamed as “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”. It was a bona fide pop chart hit with a video on MTV and everything.

This album enters my world in 1996. I’m teaching English as a foreign language in a school in central Poland, a nondescript wee town called Włocławek, about two hours up the Vistula from Warsaw. Oddly, the Poles have a two week holiday in January, two weeks after everyone returns from their two week Christmas break. In anticipation of this, I had been teaching privately since the summer so that I could afford to travel over to Turkey to see my girlfriend, Arzu, whom I hadn’t seen since the summer. The night before my flight, I arranged a stopover in Warsaw with my best friend from Ankara, Paul Maddocks – he was the principal reason I too was in Poland for the simple and obvious (now) reason that, aside from Arzu, he was the love of my life. And I probably need to qualify that in some way, but maybe in another post.

Paul had been invited to a party in one of the high rise housing estates that comprises much of the Polish capital. It was freezing, temperatures around minus 40C or something ridiculous. We’d been walking for ages looking for this party, having been dropped by a crabbit taxi driver at the wrong end of a long road where all the blocks were identical, the numbering wasn’t clear and everything was iced white and covered in layers of snow.

When we arrived, we were offered a glass of spiritus – home-made firewater that was reportedly 85% proof and which did the job of thawing us out and putting a sparkle on the evening. It was a tiny flat, a lot like places I’d been to in East Kilbride. It was full of ex-pat teachers, Paul’s colleagues, plus a few locals, but apart from Paul, nobody I knew. So I put this on the stereo and danced – alone, in the middle of the living room in this high-rise apartment in suburban Warsaw – for the entire duration of the album. Nobody seemed to mind. I was all sparkling from this Polish moonshine, loved up, high and high up, and looking forward to seeing my beautiful Arzu the next day.

I don’t remember leaving, or how we got back into town, or how drunk I was, or where I stayed that night, or whether I had decided to stay up all night, or how I even got to Ankara. But I do remember this album, lighting me up from the inside, shining with love for the world and everything in it. One of the happiest times of my life.