Matt Bianco: Gravity

It’s only been 7 months since Mark Fisher’s death, and we already have new Matt Bianco album. I didn’t know what to think about that. For me, Matt Bianco meant Mark Fisher’s catchy keyboard harmonies and Mark Reilly’s characteristic voice (I know, there was a different Matt Bianco with Danny and Basia, but that never did it for me). My favourite MB tunes were all Fisher/Reilly collaborations, so with him gone it was difficult for me to imagine what a Fisherless MB album would sound like.

While Fisher was ill, Reilly already collaborated with the dutch alternative jazzers New Cool Collective. I quite liked what they came up with: the album had some cracking tunes and I liked the New Cool Collectives idiosyncratic melange of brass and rhythm. So for the next Matt Bianco album Reilly again switched musicians: out are long time collaborators and studio heroes such as Tony Remy, Andrew Ross, Nick Cohen, Simon Finch, in are Graham Harvey (him of Incognito), Magnus Lindgren (Scandinavian Sax wunderkind), Dave O’Higgins (ditto, just not Scandinavian and already on Gran Via’s ‘Victim of Love’) , Geoff Gascoyne (British jazz bass legend) and Martin Shaw (Trumpeter extraordinaire). Elizabeth Troy – who got the background vocals job after Hazel Sim left) was allowed to stay.

So, all new personnel, new sound? Definitely, yesyes.

Out are the sequencers, the drum computers and electronic percussion. No more layered synthesizer harmonies, appregiatos and funky rhythm guitars. This is Reilly accompanied by classic acoustic jazz band, doing a Kurt Elling impersonation. This is not meant as a slight, as it works really well. A longstanding joke between the three remaining Matt Bianco fans is that you usually get two or three cracking songs per album (that’s ten pound per song if you order the Japanes import), and Reilly and his collaborators don’t disappoint: ‘Heart in chains’ and ‘Before it’s too late’ are excellent, and up there with the best of 30 years of Matt Bianco.

The album has been on heavy rotation at Chez Fordiebianco’s for 6 weeks now (tolerated by the best girlfriend ever – some sort of compliment, I’m sure) and I am still enjoying it. If you think about it, becoming more jazzy was always on the cards as Fisher and Reilly became more mature. HiFi Bossanova was already halfway there, so it feels natural that Reilly and the Jamie Cullen Band (which is what his marry men apparently are) have just progressed to where they should be.

This is a beautiful album that is beautifully produced and as such deserves a first class hifi system.

Nice one, Mark.

Ronson scores

Looking through my itunes collection sorted by purchase date, it is moderately obvious that I don’t buy a lot of music by contemporary ’new’ artists. There is Metronomy, Daft Punk, Bluey, Wickford’s own ‘The Milk’, The Submotion Orchestra and a few other stragglers, but the vast majority of new music is by old favourites such as Donald Fagen, Matt Bianco, Swing Out Sister, Prefab Sprout or Incognito. All gracefully ageing survivors of the seventies or eighties, they fill my ipod with comfort music – the equivalent of Friday’s SpagBol. So it comes with moderate surprise that for the last few days I have been listening constantly to Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Special’. Actually, this is no surprise, as it pretty much sounds like a pastiche of some of the most successful seventies and eighties styles. I have no idea how he came up with up the idea of making a seventies/eighties homage album, but it’s all there: James Brown’s rare grooves mixed with old school rap, Alan Parson’s soft rock, Steely Dan chords, Moogish bass lines with synth licks that sound like they come straight out a Juno and there’s even the real Steve Wonder making an appearance. This oevre was bought on the reputation of ‘Uptown Funk’ which must have been the first single that excited me since – wait a minute, I’ll get there in a minute – sorry can’t remember. This bastard child (the single, not Mark Ronson) of Cool and the Gang, Prince and Bootsy Collins is such a joy to listen to that even on the way to work one does a bit whistling (or even throwing in the odd dance step on arrival, severely upsetting the staff). Apparently Ronson is the stepson of Foreigner’s Mick Jones – a man with a knack for the odd million seller – who made Ronson listen to his newest records in the middle of the night, so maybe this is some sort of psychological workup of his involuntary exposure to eighties pop in the middle of the night, but It’s a long time since I had so much fun listen to new music, so I couldn’t care less: I am happy to have paid my dues to support Ronson’s apparently fabulous lifestyle a bit longer, and long may he exploit the previous decades a bit further.

Swing Out Sister: Live at the Jazz Cafe

Design? Who needs Design? We have Word for Windows.

Design? Who needs Design? We have Word for Windows.

There was a time in the eighties when suddenly having a jazzy, retro feel to the records was perfectly fine. Sade was channeling Astrud Gilberto, both The Style Council and Matt Bianco had a go at Samba and Working Week sounded like they could be from Rio (even though they were Londoners). The over all term was ‘SophistiPop’, and Swing out Sister (SoS) with their Bacharach/seventies big string sound fitted right in there. Their first album ‘It’s Better To Travel‘ sold reasonably well on the back of “Breakout’ but the SophistiPop thing was over after a year or two, and the representatives of the genre soon decamped to Japan where they like that sort of thing (many a SophistiPop band that you thought hadn’t existed for thirty years is still around making new albums on the back of their popularity in Indonesia. No, really).


Some stimulating prose right there

So in 1992, with 3 albums under their belt, SoS decided to release a live album for the Japanese market, recorded at the Jazz Cafe in Camden (ironically still Matt Bianco’s London live home in 2014) with a ten piece band. With their original arrangements being rather string heavy this feels quite stripped back (although there’s still quite a bit of midi background synth fill: the keyboarder has after all only 2 hands), but the vocal arrangements are spot on, the brass sounds crisp and the rhythm section is excellent.

So, these guys are obviously good musicians, but what about the music? Well, there’s the rub. In the humble opinion of this crtitic, their material doesn’t really lend itself to live performances: most of their material is midtempo and really benefits from large orchestration and elaborate arrangements.  On this album they even reduce the tempo on some of their normally livelier songs even more, so the whole thing sounds rather treacleish (technical term). I don’t think much dancing was going on at the Jazz Cafe during the recording. Probably more gentle nodding of heads.

Which really defeats the purpose of a live album. You really want to hear your favourite songs in a feverish, exciting atmosphere, but this sounds more like the recital of Virginia Woolf at the Women’s Institute in Torquay.

Which probably explains why I hadn’t listened to it for 20 years.


The Pursuit Of Making Your Favourite Music Sound Better

So I recently bought a SACD player.

A what?

A Super Audio CD player.


Good Question. There are a few albums that I like so much, I would really, really like to listen to them as close to the original as possible. While I do have my trusty turntable, some albums are just not available (or very expensive) on vinyl. There are also some albums that were recorded so perfectly, that a crap transfer to CD with loads of compression on the way can just ruin your listening experience. That’s where the SACD player comes in. The main difference between your normal CD and the SACD format is bandwidth: A CD packs ca 400MB of digitized music, while a SACD contains 3.7 GB. There is also a difference in encoding (PCM vs SDS) but that would be too technical. Anyway, the ultimate selling point is that the listening experience is much closer to the original recording (especially for old material that was recorded analogue) as the format is almost lossless. So yesterday my poor postman brought another package to chez fordie, containing this:


It looks very nice on the mantlepiece, next to the royal family  next to the other gear and so far was has been given the nod by the best girlfriend ever. The first SACD I bought was of course my all time favourite, the original Bossa Nova album by Getz/Gilberto. The experience is indeed impressive, with Astrud and Stan even more present in the room and now I am on the hunt to find my top ten albums ever on this format. My current charts on Last.FM suggest that I am going to struggle to find the majority of the albums I have listened to most over the last 5 years, as the chart looks like this (and yes, I know, my taste in music is atrocious):

  1. Matt Bianco
  2. Incognito
  3. ABC
  4. Steely Dan
  5. Pet Shop Boys
  6. Crowded House
  7. Mezzoforte
  8. The Style Council
  9. Was (Not Was)
  10. Level 42

There doesn’t seem to be any SACD releases out there by ABC, Incognito, Pet Shop Boys, Was (not Was) and Level 42, but there are plenty of great jazz and classic recordings out there, and as the Steely Dan records are really the most important (as most meticulously produced) I am sure I’ll be able to gather a nice little collection. There is quite an active community around SACDs and I’m sure that I will be able to source everything I need to be an even happier listener.

Now all I have to do is find the 40 quid for the Japanese SACD of Aja.


Oh look, a little parcel from Japan. From somebody called Joshi. What might it be?


Mmh. Might it be…?


Indeed, it looks like….


Yes indeed! It’s Matt Bianco’s new album, the mysteriously titled Hideaway. Released in Japan without any announcement to even their most loyal fans (apart from one snippet of a statement after the last gig at Ronny Scotts) back in Europe, it’s a veritable soft launch. From what would the fabled Mark and Mark (Fisher and Reilly, respectively. Or the other way around. The choice is yours.) want to hide away from? The pope? Surely not. Their critics? Naah. The taxman? This is Matt Bianco, not Bono (although they are so much preferable to that Irish git with a Mandela complex), so we are unlikely looking at a quadruple platinum seller in the UK. Single Platinum would of course be nice. Nope, I think they are most likely hiding away from the stressors of modern pop star life, the screaming fans, the limos, the never-ending plates of expensive mushroom dinners, the expensive Italian luxury hotels and, likely, Daleks. So, after years spent slaving away in their secret studio rumoured to be situated under the bunker of a non-descript government building in the capital of a non-descript European country , this top-secret album is now out, in the wild, to be listened to by their devoted fan base and used as beer mats.

So, what is it like?

It’s actually quite good. It’s absofeckinlutely enjoyable  brilliant (editing by best girlfriend ever). After popping it into the CD-player for the first time you might ask yourself what the big fuss is all about and struggle to keep the songs apart, but after the third listen you start humming and after one day you can’t get the bloody songs out of your brain. In my case, ‘Kiss the Bride’ and ‘Medusa’ are currently fighting a pitched battle for supremacy somewhere in my right cortex, with ‘Medusa’ slowly winning. As usual, the quality of the soloists is amazing (Tony Fisher’s flugel horn solo especially noteworthy), the songwriting is solid, and the entertainment value is as usual unsurpassed. ‘Kiss the Bride’, a cover of Nick the Nightfly‘s ode to marriage is beautifully arranged with Mark Reilly almost displaying veritable crooner credentials. There is only one slight ‘WTF’ moment when during ‘Falling’ synth chords more reminiscent of a Nolan Sisters gig in Blackpool in the early eighties zap through the Klipschs, but it’s all in good humour, and you quickly get used to it.

BTW, just in case you don’t know who the Nolan Sisters are:

So, should you buy it?

Of course.

It’s MB’s twelfth album, 45 minutes of music by two great songwriters, and as usual it will make you whistle, sing, dance and from time to time slap your forehead.