Jazz guitar maestro Pat Metheny returns with a newly formed group that has once again expanded his already considerable horizons with a gorgeous sounding album and one that harks back in feel to the early 1980s in some respects with the inclusion of brass, yet Pat Metheny is certainly no revival merchant and the music typically looks forward to future climbs. The addition of new member Giulio Carmassi is a stroke of genius from Metheny in that new musical layers are added since Carmassi is a multi-instrumentalist who plays cello, clarinet, trumpet and trombone. Meanwhile Metheny himself performs on an array of instruments including synths and guitar synthesizer. Classic terrain is explored on ‘Sign of the Season’ which is arguably the album’s finest composition and it compares most favourably with his vast body of work. In particular there is some lovely soprano saxophone soloing from Chris Potter and inventive percussion. The title track is a bustling number, quite possibly deliberately mirroring the rapid technological age we are currently living through and ‘On day one’ is that most breezy of opening pieces. For some acoustic prowess, the quasi-flamenco feel to ‘Rise up’ with Metheny on acoustic guitar will enthral. One minor critique that might be levelled at Metheny is that his music might be perceived as too clever for it’s own good in that an overabundance of virtuosity can be too heavy to digest in one take. However, a counter argument and a convincing one at that is that this album simply sounds as though the group are having a ball and in an age of studio perfection, that is no bad thing. An early summer tour of the UK beckons and the virtuosity on display on this new group recording certainly whets the appetite for seeing and hearing the great musician in the flesh. Pat Metheny is quite simply the complete musician and we should all be grateful for that. Tim Stenhouse
Franco-British relations would not be the same without the pair of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin and they were the in couple of the 1970s on the French side of the Channel. This beautifully put together anthology covers all the essential parts (with a few lesser known songs thrown in for good measure), but goes one step further with a forty minute DVD documentary on the personal side of the relationship that includes previously unseen family footage. It is worth remembering that even after the intimate relationship broke up around 1979/1980, the two still were good enough friends to record again and Jane Birkin was the one who still cared for him on a daily basis at the very end of his life and that included making him her own loving bowl of soup. Musically, the CDs are neatly divided chronologically between the early recordings written and produced by Serge from the late 1960s until the end of the 1970s on the first CD and the post 1980s and beyond period on the second.
An alternative take of ‘Jane B’ will appeal to long-term fans, but for the casual listener the classic period of hits are all here and they include the irresistibly catchy ‘Di doo dah’ from arguably Jane’s strongest album, ‘Ballade de Johnny-Jane’ and a virtual signature tune in ‘Ex-fan des sixties’ which evokes a whole era. Of course the provocative ‘Je t’aime..moi non plus’ is here as is the salacious follow up ‘La décadanse’ which, viewed from the present, now seems quite timid, but at the time was considered by conservative French society as a scandalous invitation to couples to dance intimately on the dance floor. Serge and Jane were only too willing to oblige and millions of couples, young and old. followed them hot on their heels!
The second CD is notable for the provocative ‘Les dessous chics’ and Serge loved using Jane as his muse for his more vivid explorations of musical erotica, though never in an exploitative manner and Jane was as much in on the frivolous escapade as Serge. More hits followed in the early 1980s with ‘Fuir le Bonheur de peur qu’il ne se sauve’ and ‘Baby alone on Babylone’ the pick of a pretty fine bunch. In 1990 a new album resulted in the hit ‘Amour des feintes’ which was the very last project Serge was involved in with Jane and a melancholic number of great beauty it is too. Noteworthy are the numerous live versions of songs that Serge himself first recorded with live performances from 1992 and 1996 included with Olympia ’96 another highlight. It is pity that space could not have been found for the Middle Eastern flavoured versions of Serge songs by Jane from the early noughties, but that just goes to show the breadth and quality of material available for the compilation. Otherwise an exemplary anthology from start to finish. A twenty page booklet contains many personal photos of the couple and Jane individually and these are perfectly complimented by bilingual notes by French musicologist Bernard Dicale. Vive l’Entente Cordiale musicale! Jane and Serge made a monumental contribution and show how British pragmatism and French flair do go hand in hand.
The good news is that Sharon Jones, after a serious illness, is well on the way to recovery, and it is very much in this positive trajectory that the new album has been recorded and it is certainly one of the band’s strongest overall. If it is old school R & B with a honking baritone saxophone that you long for, then ‘Stranger to my happiness’ will impress and has something of a Motown feel to it in the use of drums. Muscle Shoals is surely the inspiration on the expertly delivered ‘Get up and get out’ while for melodic harmonies ‘Making up and breaking up (and making up and breaking up again)’ is one of the strongest of the laid back numbers and the album as a whole is varied. Strong hooks are a feature of the mid-tempo swinger ‘We get along’ which has definite crossover potential. It is worth pointing out that the all original in-house composed songs are both well structured and melodic and it shows in the final sound that the group have rehearsed a good deal together. In summation, Sharon Jones is back on top form and the absence of the band in the studio has refreshed their individual sound. Neo-soul with a large dose of retro does not get much grittier than this. Tim Stenhouse
If you have ever sampled the reflective cinema of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, then the chances are that you will have heard on the soundtrack the music of composer and musician Eleni Karaindrou and she has been rightly championed by the ECM label over a lengthy time period. For the latest project, the album comes in tandem with a stage production by director Antonis Antypas, a collaboration which, in an earlier joint work, resulted in ‘Trojan Women’ from 2002. Thus the music was specifically created to accompany the performance of a play and is enhanced by viewing the spectacle. From a purely musical perspective, however, the small group instrumentation is pan-Mediterranean with the use of bendir and ney from the Maghreb while the lute and lyra, expertly performed by multi-instrumentalist Yiorgios Kaloudis, harks back to an earlier time. The relatively short pieces linger long in the mind and in the case of the all too brief opener, ‘Argo’s Voyage’, are quite simply haunting with the sound of the Constantinople lute supplied by Sokratis Sinopoulos. Although the music is in part instrumental, solo and collective vocals do contribute and on ‘Do not kill your children’, soloist Penelope Sergounioti delivers a melody in the first part that is reminiscent of Greek rembetika folk music. In contrast, collective voicings permeate the wonderfully joyous ‘Backwards to their sources’. It is worth pointing out that the vocal polyphonies that are so endearing on this release are inspired by musical encounters throughout the Mediterranean including Corsica where collective singing is revered. In a wider context, the music serves as an act of resistance in a time of economic and financial onslaught. With thanks to the Athenian scholar Alex Kazemias for the informative cultural background details. Tim Stenhouse
Formerly lead singer with Free and, most notably Bad Company, Paul Rodgers is enjoying a new lease of life with a trip down nostalgia lane and on this new album it is a voyage dripped in the soul-blues that he heard as an adolescent which makes the experience all the more enojyable. Recorded in Memphis at same studios where the classic albums for Hi and Stax were recorded, Rodgers has enlisted the musical support of some of the original studio musicians of the era and collective they conjur up some driving music with memorable bass lines and stabbing unison horns. The line-up includes the reverend Charles Hodges on Hammond B3 organ, Lester Snell on piano and drummer Steve Potts who replaced Al Jackson at Stax. The classic repertoire reflects the superior songs on offer. Opening proceedings on an uptempo note is the busy and breezy number ‘I thank you’ which was originally penned by the dynamite pairing of Isaac Hayes and David Porter. In fact Hayes the vocalist is paid homage to on an elongated version of ‘Walk on by’ which differs considerably from the shorter Dionne Warwick take. For a slice of authentic gritty soul, the interpretation of Ann Peebles’ ‘I can’t stand the rain’ even includes the original percussive accompaniment which just happened to be lying around in one of the studio cupboards. In terms of mid-tempo southern soul, it would be hard to better the standard ‘That’s how strong my love is’ and it is an undoubted highlight of the album. A couple of Albert King numbers are included and of these, ‘Down don’t bother me’ stands out with some fine electric piano accompaniment. Tim Stenhouse
1982 was a vintage year for quality soul and Atlantic Starr were flavour of the year with a superb all-round album which has been released here. It was a successor to the well received ‘Radiant’ from 1981 that included the hit ‘Love calls’. This time round the group scored a major soul success with ‘Circles’ which remains a perennial dancefloor favourite and rightly so. It has something of a classic Shalamar feel to it and in general the band were augmented by some top studio musicians with keyboardist Greg Phillinganes going on to perform with no less than Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder among a host of others. A huge underground hit at the time was ‘Love me down’ which has a soulful mid-tempo groove. However, the album was varied and the excellent quiet storm ballad ‘Let’s get closer’ while the southern soul favourite ‘Your love finally ran out’ was composed by no less than Sam Dees. A favourite of this writer is the mid-tempo ‘Perfect love’ featuring the lead vocals of Sharon Bryant who never sounded better than here. Informative sleeve notes courtesy of Blues and Soul and Mojo writer Charles Waring complete the picture. No bonus cuts, but none required when the music is this tasty. Tim Stenhouse
The 1970s were noteworthy for the number of studio-based musicians who accompanied the top soul and funk acts and Seawind were a studio collective who performed with the very best including George Duke, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. This excellent value for money pairing of albums brings together their final recordings from 1979 and 1980 respectively and features the lead vocals of Pauline Williams. While not groundbreaking music, it is tastefully put together and there is the odd Latin jazz flavoured number to attract the listener’s attention. The first album featured an uptempo jazz-funk piece in ‘Hold on to your love’ while ‘free’ has a retro Brazilian feel and this was the template for the sound George Duke would deploy on his seminal ‘Brazilian Love Affair’ and it is no surprise that members of the Seawind horn section were included on that album. There is some gritty jazz-funk on the title track with echoes of steely Dan in the use of keyboards. A homage of sorts to bassist Jaco Pastorius is paid on ‘Morning Star’ and the soprano saxophone of Kim Hutchcroft sounds decidedly like he has been listening to Wayne Shorter, also of Weather Report fame. The second album is the weaker of the two, but did at least score a minor R & B hit in ‘What cha’ doin’ which was an obvious single contender and stands the test of time well. Elsewhere the Brazilian-influenced instrumental ‘Pra vosé’ impresses and one wishes more of this side to the band could have been showcased. Only the horrible rock guitar on ‘Everything needs love’ sounds truly dated and a mis-guided attempt at a crossover hit. Tim Stenhouse
By 1977 Kool and Gang had been dipping into the funk bag for several years. Unfortunately for them, though, black music had moved on and they were left behind with an album that was lacking in new creativity and the collective chanting rapidly becomes monotonous. What is truly disappointing is that there were virtually no instrumental solos. The tired funk of ‘Mighty, Mighty High’ speaks volumes for the rest of the album and this is one 12″ extended version that is not indispensable to your disco collection while ‘Slick Superchick’ deals in clichés as does ‘A place in space’ which has absolutely nothing in common with the likes of Sun Ra. On the positive side, there are subtler hints at a new, more soulful side to the band on ‘Just be true’ with jazz flute. A pity, then, that the vocals are weak. The only all too brief at their former glory comes at the very end of the album with the two minute instrumental electric piano and saxophone rendition of ‘Free’. If only this could have been elongated and the rest transformed into a jazzier groove. It is as though Kool and the Gang were pining for their former sound. A new musical identity was, however, just around the corner. Tim Stenhouse
After the relative failure of ‘The Force’ with its jaded and somewhat dated repertoire, a new approach was required and this came a year later in 1978 in the form of the more dance-oriented ‘Everybody’s dancin’, the title of which says it all. In fact the group were listening closely to the sounds of Earth, Wind and Fire and the strings of both Philly soul and Chic and it is clear from listening to this album with the benefit of hindsight that Kool and Gang were well on their way to creating a new sound and one that would catapult them to stardom a year later with the monster hit ‘Ladies Night’. It is something of a mystery why ‘I like music’ was not a major hit at the time so catchy and infectious are the rhythms. For a left-field groove look no further than ‘It’s all you need’ which certainly takes a leaf out of the Earth, Wind and Fire vocal harmonies without ever sounding derivative and the unison brass have echoes of Kool’s jazzy past. Underground disco devotes might want to check out ‘At the party’ while the percussive intro of ‘You deserve a break today’ goes straight into another dancefloor ditty of distinction. The funk was not totally forsaken, however, and ‘Dancin’ shoes’ features a heavy bass line. What does make this album so much more appealing is the variety on offer with a quality soulful ballad in ‘Stay awhile’ with a male-female duet. Everything was set in place for major chart success. The production duties of Eumir Deodato and the new lead vocals of J.R. Taylor would take care of that. Tim Stenhouse
This will be a trip down memory lane for some with the music focusing firmly and squarely on material from the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s and with a few nods to an even earlier period. Vocalist Catherine Russell has become something of a specialist in this style of jazz vocalese, but she is certainly not a mere imitation of singers of that era such as early Ella Fitzgerald or Dinah Washington. In fact Russell is well schooled in music since her late own mother, Caroline Ray, was herself a vocalist who performed in the 1940s as part of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm while her remains both an arranger and leader in his own right. The new album is in part a tribute to the two parents musical heritage and in 2012 father and daughter recorded a concert ‘Louis and Luis’ as part of Jazz at the Lincoln Center in spring of that year. It is also the follow up to the 2012 album ‘Strictly romancin’ and is Russell’s fifth album overall. She has been particularly popular in France where she has won prestigious awards such as the Prix du Jazz Vocal in 2012 and the Grand Prix du Hot Club de France. Suffice it to say that she is very much perceived across the Channel as safeguarding an earlier tradition of jazz vocal and this is reflected in the choice of repertoire which spans Duke Ellington, Johnny Otis, Fats Waller as well as an unearthed piece written by her father. She excels on laid back numbers of the calibre of Duke’s ‘I let a song go out of my heart’ and on Otis’ ‘Aged and Mellow’ also taken at a sedate pace. For swinging uptempo jazz look no further than ‘Darktown Strutters Ball’ with a fine guitar solo from Matt Munisteri who also serves as co-arranger on the album. Russell is accompanied by some fine musicianship with Earl Bostic influenced honks from alto saxophonist Dan Block on the opener and title track and punch brass arrangements throughout. Tim Stenhouse