Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Pointer Sisters – The Lost Japan Tapes and the Power Trio

Recently, I decided to rifle through the darkest, dankest room back of the basement. The cave was once a wine cellar – cold with stone trimmed walls. Some ten years back it became a storage area when we moved in. I rarely throw much out especially those boxes of cassette tapes from my early days (1985) at Q-107 when Gary Slaight and Bob Mackowycz put me on the air Sunday mornings at 9 A.M. doing Q - Jazz – my invitation to an off and on side career in radio. I saved every show from the year and half run. Then on to CIUT 89.5 for another year and half – eventually the Jazz Report Radio Network - another year and half run – then Jazz.FM for nearly five years – and now year six with Ted Woloshyn at Newstalk 1010 and a return engagement two years back at CIUT. There was also a nineteen year run publishing the Jazz Report Magazine and all of those interviews with the greats. That was what I went digging after.

There was lung killing mold – cardboard boxes soaked from years of fermentation – old clothes belonging to us when we were starting a family. The stuff had to go!

Yes, the treasure chest was there – those hundreds and hundreds of radio shows, many preserved on cassettes - others CDs. Those hundreds and hundreds of interviews with jazz greats – many long gone: Artie Shaw, Dave Brubeck, Max Roach, Marian McPartland, Betty Carter, Steve Allen, Shirley Horn, Gene Lees, Moe Koffman, Doug Riley, Jeff Healey, Rob McConnell, … on and on.

As I’m digging I come across a couple cassettes recorded in Japan I made with my newly purchased Nakamichi 550. Now, if you have never heard of this beauty – then let’s step back in time.

During the audio craze of the mid- seventies the Nakamichi name was the gold standard. The 550 Dual Tracer sold in Toronto for a mere $1,200 – that was like lusting after a Leica camera – way out of reach for many of us. It was in Japan 1976 when I could actually afford to possess this masterpiece of Japanese technology while touring with America’s high stepping, big energy sister act – The Pointer Sisters.

Deep down I came across a few recordings I made in Japan with the Pointer Sisters and our power – piano jazz trio that suck the bag. The balance is terrible - more hiss than bliss. Yet, what is on those tapes reminded me what a wicked trio we had cobbled together with bassist Jeff Breeh and drummer Chester Thompson who came to us from Weather Report and eventually cut a righteous life-time gig with Genesis then Phil Collins.

Chester and I keep in contact. Jeff? We hadn’t spoken in nearly forty years. So, I do this YouTube search – dear God in music heaven – I thank you and your disciples for giving us unlimited access to profound music history. I found a clip of Jeff from seven years back and a connection to a band. I contacted that person and she sent me Jeff’s current email. Jeff in turn said few words but replied with an attachment - a twelve minute mp3 of a gig we did in Tokyo with big band. Holy bat shit – there it is! Jeff recorded the whole evening taking a direct feed from board and placing a Shure microphone in front of the “sisters.” Then Jeff tells me he has everything including rehearsals – soon to arrive in mail. I sent to Chester who was taken aback with the energy and tightness and interplay and suggests we record again. This was how we played it – with reckless abandon and the “sisters,” just let us fly. Here’s a bit of back story.

My last working months with Martha Reeves were exhausting and revealing, borderline insane. In between gigs I hook up with former Miss Indiana, singer Kellee Patterson, for a few dates around Hollywood. Great players. Nice woman. Then word gets around the Pointer Sisters are looking for a pianist. A fellow music director gives me a call and says he’s recommending me to the group’s new music director, Sandy Shire, and we should hook up. Not long after, Sandy calls and I drop by his Hollywood digs.

Sandy was hyper-crazy fun and brother of Hollywood film composer David Shire.

Sandy pulls out the band’s charts and hands the piano parts over to me. First up? “Salt Peanuts.” I had a look at the sketchy lead sheet of mostly chord changes and a few rhythmic shots, play and then on to an Ellington Medley arranged by Peter Matz. I play through and find nothing too difficult, then on to “Save the Bones for Henry Jones” – my kind of funky shuffle groove. Just as we were moving on to the next read, Sandy interrupts and says – “I want you alongside me.” Damn…

Sandy then gives me the lowdown on the audition to take place at Village Recorders with producer David Rubinson, at the time a rising record mogul.

The day of, I was all nerves. I knew the Pointers were a hot item around Los Angeles and gaining traction across America after having a hit country record, “Fairytales.” I also knew they had high jazz/rhythm & blues IQs and a long time departing music director/pianist, Tom Salisbury who could play his ass off.

I met Sandy in the studio lobby and waited as a couple pianists and drummers took turns and get the ceremonial toss. I could hear Rubinson yelling. Shire told me to keep cool and all would go well.

In I walk and meet a bearded Rubinson who acknowledges and thanks Shire, then points me to the grand piano. I shake hands with the group’s bassist Jeff Breeh and then Rubinson calls the next drummer in who happens to be in Warren Zevon’s band. First up, “Salt Peanuts” – you have to be kidding? Rubinson sets the tempo at a blistering pace and counts in. Thankfully, a few days of practice in between gave me an edge. As soon as the trio starts playing, Rubinson signals stop and goes ballistic on the drummer. “You call yourself a jazz drummer – you can’t hold a tempo. Don’t you know better than to come to an audition and not be prepared? This is jazz man, jazz.  Pack up and get out of here.” Holy shit! He then walks over to me and says – “Fucking amazing. You read that shit – nailed it. Stick around.”

I do just that! No more piano players, just drummers getting terrorized by Rubinson. Then Chester Thompson walks in – that would be cocky Chester Thompson. Chester had already done solid time with Frank Zappa and Weather Report. Sight reading for him after memorizing reams of music with incredibly demanding band leaders was a breeze. Chester sits down and plays everything perfectly, in fact he starts correcting charts – and yes, the tempo held steady. The three of us look at each other and smile. Not long after Rubinson says – “You got the gig. I’ve never seen anyone read such complicated music as quick as you guys.” Yes!

 Chester didn’t commit. In fact, it was negotiation time. Chester had plenty irons in the fire and it was a matter of who did the highest bidding. The “sisters” won out.

Three weeks in Japan.

The moment the plane landed, after what seemed three months in the air we were taken to a television station and the “sisters” were told they were doing back-up singing for a famed Japanese singer. Oh man, this did not go well. Let’s move on – get to the Nakamichis.

After a nights rest the boys go hunting. Jeff, Chester and I hit the electronics district of Tokyo which just happened to be all of Tokyo. We knew one word – Nakamichi. We searched, we searched – we priced – we priced. Jeff and I found what we thought was the deal of any century - $350 apiece – Chester held out. If I remember – a salesman made a special trip to the Prince Hotel and sold one to Chester for around $330. Jeff and I not only bought recorders, we bought gifts for our women – spending a good $1,000 each in a shopping spree; then hop a cab.

Back at hotel I get a call from Jeff – “Have you seen my suitcase with Nakamichi and clothes?” Nope.. “Shit, I must have left on the street corner where the cab picked us up,” says Jeff. An hour passes.” Fuck me, it was still there, Bill – no one touched a thing – these people are the most honest on the planet and so polite. Let’s have a Nakamchi party in Chester’s room.” That we did – manuals and all.

Jeff and I dragged the cassette recorder to a few gigs. I paid little attention to his set-up and even less to mine. I was overwhelmed with just being in Japan. I spent more time on streets than with my prized recorder and placed aside.

The gigs were amazing by any standard. Concerts began at 6PM and over by 7. I played on some of the finest pianos in the world. Most concert halls I had a choice between Yamahas and Steinway concert grands - one even autographed by Arthur Rubenstein and Van Cliburn, two to history’s eminent classical concert pianists - one known for his delicate readings of the Chopin, the other, the bravo of Tchaikovsky.

Chester, Jeff and I got on like brothers. We pushed the sisters to the limit. Chester kept upping the tempo on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” to where the girls sounded like they were speed rapping.
Hearing this preserved short forty years on has brought the three of us back in touch once again. So many events have filled the years in between. Hearing the trio at a time when we were in our late twenties and now pushing seventy, puts a big grin in this willing heart! Enjoy..

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