Paul Grabowsky on Prince and his inexhaustible inspiration

It was a tip off. The Purple One, the Artist, was doing some kind of show at tiny Bennetts Lane, Melbourne’s jazz heartbeat. Get there early, I was told, and not a word…

It must have been a case of “your secret is safe within the industry”, because a long, long queue was already forming by the time I arrived, and asserted myself through the door, one of the few times in a jazz musicians life when you could feel like an A lister.

After all, this was our playground. There were a couple of serious looking bodyguards, one of whom alone could occupy the entire doorway. The room could hold no more than 80 bodies, so we knew this was one of those exceptional instances where it might be possible to observe a master at work.

And so it was. Katie Noonan was there, as was a heavily pregnant Kate Ceberano, who found herself blocking the way for this wisp of a man with an elaborate coiff.

The first thing to be logged was just how physically small Prince was, something his superhuman stage presence and all-over virtuosity could easily mask.

The band were set up and ready. Maceo Parker, himself a semi-legendary saxophonist of James Brown fame, descended the staircase playing the necessary call to action for the band to chug and purr into its sinuous life.

Prince didn’t sing that night, but he played a lot of guitar, a blues player, really, and clearly under the spell of Jimi Hendrix, another shy superstar. Here was a man fascinated by grooves, allowing his band to flex its considerable muscles, enjoying playing, jamming, creating.

This was some kind of roots music, taking it back to basics, but in another way it was so much more.

When we consider the huge corpus of his work, from For You in 1978 to his most recent streaming-only release HITnRUN Phase Two it must suffice to say that Prince created a synthesis of the various streams of African American music that defined the 20th century’s overarching musical subtext.

Rock, Blues, Pop, Rn’B, Funk, Jazz: all played a role, and though it isn’t appropriate to refer to Prince as a Hip-hop or Rap artist, his influence as a master of layering of musical materials is palpable, especially in the more sophisticated creations of, say, Wu-Tang Clan or Kendrick Lamar.

My own favourites are Parade (1986), his last album with the band known as The Revolution, and Sign of the Times (1987). The former, a sprawling, complex array of grooves, dense, spectral orchestrations, and memorable hooks, and the soundtrack to the film Under the Cherry Moon, features the remarkable Kiss, possibly his most famous hit, a minimalist masterpiece that may be the only dance floor hit not to have a bass line.

The final track, Sometimes it Snows in April, is a haunting, complex ballad, one of his greatest songs. The title track of Sign of the Times is a stripped back electro-funk depiction of the dark side: drug addiction and poverty. A relentless, pared back riff dominates, with a brief excursion to a poignant bridge, another reminder of a master song writer who understood when to make a move, how to return, and the importance of constant variation to satisfy his endlessly curious musical mind.

Following the equally untimely passing of David Bowie, who seems to have saved his best-til-last with the magnificent and shocking Darkstar, this has been a sad year for music, particularly the passing of artists exporting the potential of their imaginations to redefine the parameters of popular music and take their fans on courageous journeys of discovery.

The fabled collaboration between Prince and Miles Davis, another famously enigmatic character, never quite happened, which is a great pity considering where they were both at creatively around the mid-’80s. Sometimes it is the idea, it’s very absence, which can serve as inspiration. The legacy of Prince Rogers Nelson will be a rich trove, never to be exhausted.

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