Reggie Lucas Dead at 65: 11 of His Essential Cuts as a Jazz Sideman

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Courtesy of Lisa Lucas @likaluca
Reggie Lucas

Reggie Lucas, the famed guitarist and producer who backed Miles Davis and produced Madonna, died Saturday (May 19) at age 65 as reported by The New York Times. The cause was announced as advanced heart failure.

A New York native who met lifelong friend Nile Rodgers at a Vietnam protest in Union Square, Lucas was embroiled in radical politics -- and it fed his roiling guitar sound. He dropped out of the elite Bronx High School of Science to head to Philadelphia, where he joined the nightly grind as a jazz guitarist. By the time he turned 18, he had sufficiently cut his teeth enough to join Miles Davis’ band. In fact, Lucas told The Fader exactly how it went down: “It was real simple. Miles said, ‘You wanna be in my band, motherf---er?’ And I immediately said yeah.”

Lucas spent five years in Davis’ band, joining just as his ensemble went off the deep end. Completely abandoning the dreamy modal jazz Davis had popularized with albums like Kind of Blue, he took Lucas under his wing to record the scorched-earth On The Corner, Pangaea and Dark Magus, albums that would divide and provoke jazz purists. Put on a track from any of those and identify the seething, spitfire lead guitar; chances are it’s Lucas.

But the role as Miles Davis’ sideman would only define part of Lucas’ work. He and Davis’ drummer James Mtume had developed an interest in more commercial sounds as well. The two ended up becoming a hot commodity as an R&B rhythm section. One thing led to another, and somehow, that jazz provocateur was behind the boards for a then-obscure Madonna. That odd couple wasn’t meant to be, with the two clashing over creative differences and Rodgers taking over the boards for Madonna's future albums. But not before Lucas wrote and produced Madge’s first major hit, “Borderline" -- and it rocketed to No. 10 on the Hot 100.

In the vast stylistic chasm between Miles and Madonna, Lucas enjoyed an eclectic career as a sideman in which he would leave his fingerprints all over jazz, rock and R&B for good. Here are 11 tracks that benefited from Lucas’ unique style.

“On the Corner/New York Girl/Thinkin' One Thing and Doin' Another/Vote for Miles” by Miles Davis (from On the Corner, 1972)

Everything about On the Corner, Davis’ controversial 1972 classic, less resembles jazz than fetid standing water. And jazz purists hated the heaving, atonal morass within the grooves; the feather-light tenor player Stan Getz memorably called it “worthless… It means nothing.” It’s certainly a mess, but it’s their mess; Davis was attempting to forge a connection to black listeners who may have jumped ship from jazz in favor of James Brown or Sly Stone, saying this: “I don't care who buys the record so long as they get to the Black people so I will be remembered when I die.” Here, Lucas rips into the material as part of a trio of guitarists, including John McLaughlin and Dave Creamer.

“O-Wa” by Babatunde Olatunji (from Soul Makossa, 1973)

A master of the drums and djembe who formed the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem, New York, with John Coltrane’s help, Babatunde Olatunji would memorably feature Lucas on his album Soul Makossa. Among the percussive clatter on “O-Wa”, Lucas’ guitar snarls and bites, the perfect splash of vinegar on a humanistic sound.

“Winding Roads” by Gary Bartz (from The Shadow Do!, 1975)

An undeserved obscurity, Gary BartzThe Shadow Do! is a lush yet unfussy fusion of soul, funk, and as Bartz liked to say, “the j-word.” Among the appealing chintzy synthesizers, this is an example of how Davis could say so much with only restrained, stuttering notes, never wandering the fretboard needlessly. The monoliths he built with Davis on On the Corner surely stuck with him.

“Billy Preston” by Miles Davis (from Get Up With It!, 1974)

Perhaps the album of Davis’ most experimental period that received the least applause or reaction, the minimalist Get Up With It! should immediately be investigated if it slipped through the cracks for any fan of Bitches Brew or On The Corner. Davis mostly abandoned the trumpet on this date for electric organ, leaving plenty of space for Lucas to lean on those insistent, droning motifs.

“Bubbles Pt. 2” by Shunzoh Ohno (from Bubbles, 1976)

Japanese trumpeter Shunzoh Ohno, an alumni of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, beat both a near-fatal car accident and a cancer scare to have an unfairly obscure solo career. The title track to his 1976 album Bubbles, in particular, is a great psychedelic jazz cut, one which features some great spacey leads from Lucas.

“Survival Themes” by Reggie Lucas (from Survival Themes, 1976)

Lucas’ only solo album, recorded in Japan and long out of print, is an excellent gateway for anyone curious as to what his Miles-less solo career was all about. It seems to contain all his moods, from ethereal drones to gutbucket blues and back again. Look no further than the 23-minute, improvised title track for a raw, unedited look into his guitar approach; the effect is like watching a legend woodshed alone at home.

“Painful Pleasure” by Hubert Eaves (from Esoteric Funk, 1976)

Mostly remembered today as one half of the dance act D Funk, who had a handful of hits on the Billboard Dance and R&B charts in the 1980s, Eaves cut a gem of a solo record that time forgot, featuring Lucas all over it. The guitarist isn’t a major presence on “Painful Pleasure,” but then again, he’s not the main attraction; Eaves’ playful bank of wheedly little keyboard sounds dominates the take.

“Gondwana” by Miles Davis (from Pangaea, 1976)

By 1976, Davis had stripped away nearly everything overly academic or mathematical about his sound; by the sound of Pangaea, only a raw, beating heart of black experience remained. That album’s side two, dedicated to an extended jam called “Gondwana,” flips on a dime from daydreaming ambience to full-on wah-wah meltdowns from Lucas.

“Quasimodo” by Zbigniew Seifert (from Zbigniew Seifert, 1977)

A tragic-figure Polish violinist who channeled a Coltrane idolization into the violin before dying of cancer at 35, Seifert was also briefly a major-label act, recording his self-titled kaleidoscopic jazz fusion album for Capitol Records. Listen closely to the standout cut “Quasimodo” to hear the ever-subtle bubbling of Lucas’ guitar as it underpins the track.

“Tatu” by Miles Davis (from Dark Magus, 1977)

Dark Magus is the final and darkest collaboration between Davis and Lucas on record; neither man would play so ferally before or since. Their shared nascent interest in the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen had come into full flower here, leading to songs that completely threw structure to the wind. It’s the culmination of the ponderous mass of On The Corner, leading to guitar parts less played than abused. As punk gave way to the no-wave movement among a few brainy misfits in New York City, Lucas’ malfunctioning-robot sounds on Dark Magus were a call to action.

“Angels” by Flora Purim (from Nothing Will Be As It Was… Tomorrow, 1977)

The same year that Davis released the brain-battering cacophony of Dark Magus, Lucas appeared in some music that was the polar opposite. He played on Nothing Will Be As It Was… Tomorrow, a soothing and uncomplicated gem from Brazilian singer Flora Purim. “Angels”, in particular, is a lovely jam, as Lucas alternately plays staccato funk and lets slide some George Harrison-style leads. It may seem utterly jarring to hear this in comparison with those recordings in the Miles Davis ensemble. But it was all the same to Lucas, who was steadfastly ready for any curveball while remaining in the service of the song.