Looking For Lester

October 12, 2012

Looking For Lester.

Arguments as to its quality aside, Black Tie White Noise is one of Bowie’s most thematically coherent records. It’s sequenced as a set of pairings, all framed within the union of Bowie and Iman (which opens and closes the record): a political reading of his marriage (the title track, again a duet), reckonings with his past (his half-brother Terry Burns, his surrogate brother Mick Ronson, his secret sharer Scott Walker) and with his would-be successors (Morrissey, Madonna). The interlude “Looking for Lester,” Bowie’s duet with the trumpeter Lester Bowie, is another past visitation, if a happy, light-footed one: it’s a boyhood dream of David Jones indulged by David Bowie.

Bowie had met the trombonist Joseph Bowie in London and through Joseph had discovered his brother Lester’s music. Throughout the Eighties, Bowie had wanted to work with Lester in some manner, and finally, crafting a jazz-flavored R&B record in New York, he had an opportunity, hiring Lester to play the trumpet solo on “Don’t Let Me Down and Down.” Lester hung around the sessions at the Power Station for weeks afterward, winding up playing on four other tracks, and his presence inspired Nile Rodgers to gin up a rhythm track for Lester to use as a springboard. This eventually became a full-out improvisatory performance, with lengthy trumpet, saxophone and piano solos, riffing on a theme carried by a set of trumpeters arranged by the bandleader Chico O’Farrill.1

Bowie had been a jazz fan before he’d been a Mod (and recall how much British pop in the Sixties was played by frustrated and diverted jazzmen like Charlie Watts, Alan Price, John Paul Jones and John Entwistle)2 and some of his first singles offer a glimpse of yet another alternate Bowie past, here a light jazz-pop figure in the vein of Georgie Fame (see the Fame-inspired “Take My Tip,” whose vocal melody seems like a transposed saxophone line, or “Good Morning Girl,” which Rosemary Clooney could’ve sung).

Lester Bowie (see here for my look at pieces of LB’s recorded legacy) embodied one branch of late 20th Century jazz. With his satyr’s goatee and his lab coat, Bowie was jazz’s mad scientist, emblematic of jazz’s freewheeling faction that imbibed R&B, rock, funk and pop music in all its mutations, a faction that favored noise, commotion, activism, makeup and spectacle instead of serving as the weary caretakers of “America’s Classical Music.” The likes of Lester were the collective retort to jazz’s New Traditionalists, like Wynton Marsalis, for whom jazz was an orthodoxy with a pedigree (New Orleans-originated blues), a canon3 and a narrow aesthetic, both instrumental (“analog” instruments, no synthesizers or electric guitars) and sartorial (suits on stage, no dashikis or glitter).

Whenever the Traditionalist strand of jazz deigned to recognize contemporary pop, it often produced gassy, self-serious works (Sting’s use of Branford Marsalis comes immediately to mind) in which jazz was the elder in the dance, providing “class” and sophistication to its uncouth partner: it was a boring Henry Higgins. This was an appalling thought for Lester, a musical catholic, who consumed and covered country music, the Notorious BIG and Sade, “The Great Pretender” and “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and who happily traded choruses with the man who’d sung “Fame” and “Let’s Dance.” For Lester, jazz was an omnivorous music, a music that fed the past with scraps of the future: he refused to accept that jazz wasn’t a popular music, despite it having lost its mass popularity decades before.

So “Looking For Lester” (the title was Bowie’s, a play on “Chasin’ the Trane”) is New Jazz Swing, a set of solos over a hammering (and rather harshly-mixed) 4/4 dance beat, with a synth bass and electric bassline and an impasto of synthesizer colors (Mike Garson’s piano crops up from time to time, offering little asides, preparing you for his late-in-the-day appearance). The track breaks down like so:

Intro/Theme 1: (0:01-0:36). Lester enters with a pair of phrases, descending triplets which land on a long-held F# note that he eventually yanks down a tone. The song’s main theme, played by massed trumpets over a constant shift between D and C chords (with an E bass throughout), is fairly simple, vaguely similar to the “Peter Gunn Theme”: an opening seesaw (F#-C#-G) that Lester quickly echoes, and a descending answering phrase.

Chorus 1 (0:37-1:20), (20 bars, Lester). The solo choruses shift to B minor, the relative minor of the theme’s D major (the pattern is Em-D-Bm-A).4 Lester mainly plays riffs and variations on the main theme, finding little pockets of melody and digging into them, closing with a sweet soaring phrase.

Theme 2 (1:21-1:39), 8 bars. An aggressively-played return of the theme, with Lester now doodling in the margins.

Chorus 2 (1:40-2:15), (16 bars, Lester). Lester is freer, casting off allegiance to the theme, sounding like a French horn (1:51) and building to a run of short, punchy phrases that are abruptly choked off by a massed trumpet retort.

Theme 3 (2:16-2:23), 4 bars. Just a tiny rest before the next solo, with the main theme harried by the massed trumpet line that had finished off Lester.

Chorus 3 (2:24-4:00), 44 bars, Bowie). It’s Bowie’s album, so he gets the longest solo, natch. He starts with two long, moaning phrases on his sax (the second one goes a bit astray), changes his tone to make it harmonica-like (3:00) and after a brief time in the wilderness, he finds a sweet spot and digs into a melody he likes, just grooving into it again and again. He closes with a nice bit of skronk.

Theme 4, (4:01-4:18), 8 bars. Stage clearing.

Chorus 4 (4:19 to fade), (30+ bars, Garson): And suddenly Mike Garson returns, back in the Bowie fold after nearly 20 years and acting as though no time had passed at all—he’s the same New York oddball, a fallen Scientologist and joker (if only he’d played with Lester more), who seems on the verge of playing a fresh variation on his “Aladdin Sane” solo just for kicks. Garson spikes out a set of dancing runs up and down the keyboard, rumbling on the bass keys and musing on the treble, and keeps on through the fadeout.

Sure, “Looking for Lester” isn’t entirely removed from those rock fantasy camps at which Baby Boomers spend $10,000 for a weekend spent jamming on guitar with Peter Frampton. It’s a mediocre-at-best saxophone player getting to duet with a master trumpeter and having his producer and record company shine up and sell the results. But if “Lester” is an indulgence, it’s not an embarrassment: Lester’s joie de vivre in turn inspired Bowie to forsake his occasional forays into avant-gardisms and just concentrate on honking out a meaty solo as though he was on a bandstand. With Garson as an added spice, “Lester” transcends its role as album filler, instead testifying to Bowie’s reviving senses of texture and melodicism. It’s a preview of what Bowie would accomplish on Buddha of Suburbia.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, the Power Station, NYC. Released on Black Tie White Noise and as the B-side of “Miracle Goodnight” in October 1993.

1 The trumpeters oddly aren’t credited on the album, though there’s a photograph of Bowie and three of them in the studio in the sheet music book. There’s no evidence as to who wrote what on “Lester” (which was co-credited to Rodgers and Bowie, after the former raised a stink—he wasn’t credited on the first issue of the LP), but my guess is that Rodgers was responsible for much of the song—the chords, the rhythm tracks and perhaps the main horn theme—while Bowie likely provided his solo ideas, though of course it’s possible the theme was his.

2 Entwistle, for example, played in a variety of Dixieland bands in the early Sixties, while Jones played with John McLaughlin in a jazz collective, Jett Blacks. Bowie’s old bandmates in the Buzz, John Eager and Derek Fearnley, were also former jazzbos.

3 This canon essentially included any type of jazz pre-1960 and allowed a few stringent admissions of free jazz (basically the first Ornette Coleman records and the late Coltrane ones) but drew the dividing line at Miles Davis going electric in 1969. So much of the fantastic jazz of the Seventies was placed outside the pale thanks to this argument, which was voiced and generally unchallenged in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, for which Marsalis and his mentors Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray were primary voices and Lester Bowie was a footnote.

4: The choruses generally close with a transition progression meant to ready the listener to return to D major (Gmaj7-F#m7-Cmaj7-Bm7).

Top: Harry Benson, “Bill and Hillary Clinton,” Little Rock, Ark., 1992; Lester Bowie as off-kilter center of gravity, 1992.