They say Jazz died a pretty brutal death in the 1980’s. Mostly, they’re right.
This was the decade that blissfully rejected all things analogue and embraced the safe and depressingly pedestrian stylings of Chris Botti and Kenny G. Spyro Gyra for the love of Moses! ‘Lift music’ and bad, bad fusion. Even Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock have at least two (that’s a generous count) car crash albums a-piece from the 80’s.
It wasn’t all lazy and overproduced though. Very far from it. Over the next however-long-it-takes I’ll be presenting a Defence for the Accused: 10* essential jazz albums for every year in the decade that jazz 'died’.
Some of these albums are extremely difficult to find, but most 80’s jazz records have ugly as sin, £1 box-friendly cover art, so you never know your luck.
*This first list has 11 actually - there is still some dispute as to whether Sun Ra’s ‘On Jupiter’ was recorded in Dec 79 or Jan 80, so I’m pre-empting the pedants.
Former Max Roach Band soloist Billy Harper is a standout candidate for least-appreciated saxophonist. It’s something close to scandalous that he isn’t so well known. Clearly the records didn’t sell, after all this was released on his 7th different record label in less than a decade, but even critically, Harper is sort of lazily tagged as ‘another post-Coltrane saxophonist', whatever the hell that means.
His debut, ‘Capra Black’ is now an in-demand Strata East record but ‘The Believer’ showcases a more rounded Harper. Bigger, bolder, edgier. The intensity of his playing on 'Is It Not True, Simply Because You Cannot Believe It?' is staggering.
2. Biréli Lagrène – Routes To Django (Antilles Records)
It’s understandable to feel as though you’ve been teleported to 1930s Hot Club, Paris when listening to Lagrène. The tweezer-like precision of his Django impersonation is actually quite creepy. Impressive though.
True, he doesn’t add much to Django on these records, but….he’s a 14 year old. He’s not supposed to add anything!
3. Pharaoh Sanders - Journey to the One (Theresa Records)
Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax, tambura, sleigh bells), Eddie Henderson (flugelhorn), John Hicks (piano), Joe Bonner (electric piano), Bedria Sanders & P .Arslanian (wind chimes), Mark Isham (synth), Yoko Ito Gates (koto), Carl Lockett (guitar), Ray Drummond (bass), Idris Muhammad & Randy Merritt (drums), Phil Ford (tabla), Babatunde (perc) Dee Dee Dickerson, Bobby McFerrin, Vicki Randle, Ngoh Spencer (vocals)
Evergreen record. The equal of Pharaoh’s Impulse music, ‘Journey’ contains two of Pharaoh’s best; the buoyant ‘You've Got to Have Freedom’ on which pianist John Hicks excels, and ‘Kazuko’, a stunning Japanese wind chimed folk piece that was used on the "Crime D'amour" soundtrack a few years ago.
What else? Bobby McFerrin is credited as one of the background singers, Mark Isham appears on one track and the album cover art looks like the sort of thing you see hanging off a Travel Lodge bedroom wall.
Nicos Jaritz (Conga, Bongos, Berimbau, Guica, Pandeiro, Agogo, Chocalho, Claves, Maracas, Caxixi), Wolfgang Peisser (Electric Guitar), Karlheinz Miklin (Tenor Sax, Soprano Sax, Flute) Tugrul Gülenç (Guitar), Gerd Schuller (Piano), André Jeanquartier (Trombone, Piano), Ewald Oberleitner (Bass), Brüning von Alten (Drums)
Super-rare record from the Graz scene in Austria. Percussionist Nicos Jaritz’ 'Macumba' is an Afro-Brazilian-heavy workout that became far better known in Cuba (where Jaritz never visited) than in his native Austria.
The mid-tempo title track features fine Spanish guitar/tenor sax interplay, ‘Inez’ is a great little ballad, and the album peaks on ‘Samba Para Gato’, which builds nicely from bass solo to all out monster jam.
5. Abdullah Ibrahim aka Dollar Brand- African Marketplace (Elektra)
Abdullah Ibrahim (Keyboards, Sopr Sax ) ,Carlos Ward (Alto and Sopr Sax), Jeff King (Tenor Sax),Dwayne Armstrong (Tenor Sax) ,Kenny Rogers (Bari Sax), Malindi Blyth Mbityana & Craig Harris (Trombone) ,Gary Chandler (Trumpet), Cecil McBee (Double Bass)
Landmark Abdullah Ibrahim (known as ‘Dollar Brand’ after a popular brand of matches) album. He paints a complete picture of township life in South Africa with these 8 originals. ‘African Marketplace’ hops from reflective solo piano pieces like the remarkably beautiful Ubu-Suku to New Orleans second-line sounding 12-piece ensembles.
One of those albums that is technically perfect but does not use technical perfection as its currency. Includes the gorgeous ‘Moniebah’
6. Idris Muhammad – Kabsha (Theresa Records)
Idris Muhammad (Drums), Ray Drummond (Bass), George Coleman & Pharaoh Sanders (Tenor Saxophone)
Entirely off the radar, this one. Without warning. Muhammad had spent the previous decade neck-deep in funk fusion, his records getting ‘schmoover’ with each release. He strips it right back here to an unplugged trio (Coleman and Pharaoh rotate, rather than share, tenor duty on all but one track) and the result is probably his strongest record as a leader.
Pharaoh gets all ‘out-of-body experience’ in ‘I Want to Talk About You’ and that’s always worth hearing.
7. Lloyd McNeill - Elegia (Boabab Records)
Lloyd McNeill (Flute) Claudio Celso (Acoustic Guitar), Dom Salvador (Piano), Cecil McBee (Bass), Portinho (Drums, Percussion), Nana Vasconcelos (Percussion, Vocals), Susan Osborn (Vocals)
The Jodorowsky of Jazz. After spending time with Picasso in Cannes in the mid-sixties, he decided that music was only one means of artistic expression and devoted an equal amount of his life to drawing, painting and writing.
Never a man to follow trends, McNeil was the one least likely to get caught in the 80’s production trap. Every one of his 6 records between 1970 and 1980 sounds like it could have been recorded 10 years earlier.
His ease with samba material won’t surprise anyone familiar with his appearances on Dom Um Romao’s excellent Muse albums about 7 years before this one.
Dizzy’s Pablo catalogue needs revisiting. This one’s great. Three legendary musicians recorded in an intimate setting, playing without virtuosic pretentions, is a rare occurrence in any genre but that’s precisely what you get here. I guess, when you consider that these guys are arguably THE three most influential players of their respective instruments, then it’s little wonder that they’re above anything showy.
Dizzy is clearly having a lot of fun here, and is music – and comic - dynamite on every cut. Pablo’s direct, drum-biased sound engineering isn’t like any other in jazz and Purdie’s kit sounds fantastic in the mix, right out front.
Great harmonica player that he is, it’s nice to hear a guitar-only Toots set, and nicer still to hear him play so funky!
9. Toots Thielemans, Joe Pass & NHØP – Live In Netherlands (Pablo)
Toots Thielemans (harmonica) Joe Pass (guitar), Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (bass)
Enough of that Toots on guitar business. When you have Joe Pass on board, there isn’t any point in pretending that you’re not the number one harmonica player anywhere. Another live Pablo record, more great engineering and the best damn version of ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ you ever did hear.
10. Joseph Jarman - Black Paladins (Black Saint Records)
Art Ensemble of Chicago members Joseph Jarman and Fam Don Moye invited South African bassist Johnny Dyani to record with them. They came up with this cracking record, which unlike one or two AEOC albums, doesn’t lose wood after Side A.
On the title track, Jarman wrote some music to accompany the words of a poem by Henry Dumas, who was mistakenly killed in a New York subway. It’s a strong tribute.
Jarman’s flute work on ‘In Memory of My Seasons’ is another good reason to find this record, Dyani’s bass-voice combo - though not in the Major Holley style - on the wonderfully melodic "Mama Marimba” is yet another. Moye gives a percussion master class throughout.
11. Sun Ra and His Solar Arkestra – On Jupiter (El Saturn/Art Yard)
Sun Ra (Piano, Electr Piano, Organ, Vocals), M Allen (Alto Sax, Flute, Oboe) , D. Thompson (Bari Sax, Flute, Perc), R. Williams (Bass), E. Omoe (Bass Clar), J. Jacson (Bassoon, Flute, Perc), R McDonald, S Celestial (Drums), L. Ali (Drums, Vocals), S. Clarke (Electric Bass), S. McFarland, T. Richardson (Guitar), Atakatune (Perc), J Gilmore (Tenor Sax, Perc, Vocals), E. Gale (Trumpet) J Tyson (Vocals), M. Ray (Trumpet, Vocals)
Art Yard have done a great job of reissuing Sun Ra's late 70’s-early 80’s back catalogue, so this isn’t so difficult to hunt down nowadays. It’s also one of the more accessible recordings - certainly an easier way into his universe than something like ‘Atlantis’ or ‘Live At Montreaux’ -yet sounds as uncompromising as anything. Sun Ra never recorded a sterile album nor went through a weak phase and I strongly believe that this period is as essential as any in his catalogue.
'On Jupiter' is joyous moog-sax fare, with vocal mantras. On 'UFO', Sun Ra tells us what we probably already suspected; that if he’d had an enduring interest in recording jazz-funk, he’d have done it several times better than anyone else.