Monday, 8 October 2007

LESTER BOWIE: The Great Pretender


Thinking about Richard Cook, and by extension about Lester Bowie doing “Thriller” as opposed to Jacko – assuming that there even needs to be an “opposition” – reminds me that this Bowie did understand the mechanics and emotions of pop to a sublime degree. Indeed, through his involvement as arranger and lead trumpeter on Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me,” one could argue that he helped lay the ground on which the werewolf Jackson could prowl. “The Great Pretender,” though, is his key to the pop kingdom. Recorded in June 1981 as the title track of an album he made for ECM – it was released in May 1982, at the height of New Pop, received rave reviews and incredibly (especially from this distance) very nearly charted – Bowie is perceptible on the front cover only as a white-suited wraith, intangible at the far end of a murkily blue pond in the “Atmosphere” dead of night; it is no accident that the album’s final track is entitled “Oh, How The Ghost Sings.”

On the nearly seventeen-minute title track he is accompanied by a group of mainly non-stars; only long-time collaborators Phillip Wilson (drums) and Hamiet Bluiett (baritone sax) would have been well known at the time (as well as the occasional backing vocals of David Peaston and the aforementioned Fontella), and pianist Donald Smith and bassist Fred Williams never seem to have become “big,” which in Smith’s case at least seems an injustice. The Platters original would have been familiar to the teenage Bowie’s turntable – as perhaps was Stan Freberg’s brilliant parody with the recalcitrant jazz session pianist itching to play anything other than “cling-cling-cling” – but Bowie uses the song as a basis for exploring everything he feels about music and his chosen instrument, rather than just pop alone. Certainly the track gives rein to his full range of techniques; opening with Smith’s grave, rumbling piano, Bowie’s trumpet kisses with tremulous intimacy, a tender tribute to Miles, perhaps even an unspecified requiem, leaning close to the listener’s ear, so close you can hear him breathing. Then abruptly he jumps back, increases his volume – and the band evolve, or groan, into being behind him – and interspersing darting, Mongezi Feza-style runs with raspberries, slurs and half-valve burps. This in turn leads to Bowie’s hilarious Freddy Kruger-style slurring/cackling recitation of “Yes, I’m the great pre-TEN-DER!” before he swings the tune into familiar action, complete with authentic 1956 doo-wop piano and sax honks. Even then he refuses to play it straight, with acute octave leaps as though having just sat on a pin cushion, howls, entreaties, slowing the “oh-ah-oh-ah” backing vocal bridge to a funereal crawl before “YEAH!”ing the tune back into focus.

Then he gives way to Bluiett’s solo, as the rhythm section swings into a Brubeckian 3/4 tempo, but even this doesn’t remain stable for too long since Bluiett soon slides into his habitual “tonight Matthew I’m going to be John Surman” upper register squeaks and incontinent freakouts. Smith initially comps deadpan but soon moves into Keith Tippett abstraction, followed by both sax and piano winding in and out of freedom and tune. Bowie re-enters to calm things down, authoritatively authorising Smith’s still rampant piano antics, before taking the temperature yet further down to engage in pointillistic free group interplay; Bluiett briefly roars back into focus for a tumultuous free-for-all but Smith’s piano insistently polices the proceedings, allowing Bowie’s valve manipulation slowly to gather the pieces of the song back together. Bowie teases, hints, doesn’t quite reveal, but finally – and absolutely on cue with a triumphant “YAYYYYY!!!!” goes right back into the tune, on beat and on key. He comes down one final time – Bluiett’s baritone now taking the deadpan comping role – with some sensual trumpet talk, including a brief agitated moment where he seems to be disentangling a pair of underpants from the bell of his horn, before coming back for the final chorus, played with Satchmo pride, and then brings the performance to its natural end, returning gradually to his opening, muted tenderness of remembrance – before signing off with “I’m here, baby! I’m HEEEERRRRE! I’ve arrIIIIIIved!” and ghostly chuckles which exactly parallel those of Vincent Price on the original “Thriller.” He knew how to prowl around pop, all right.

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