Justin Gray and Synthesis ‘New Horizons’ CD/DIG (Synthesis Productions) 5/5

Justin Gray is a bassist, composer, producer, and educator based in Toronto, Canada. His main influences are jazz, classical, folk, Indian classical and world music.

Listening to his ‘Gray Matter’ jazz combo, you would be forgiven for thinking that here we have a great Jazz bassist with his six string electric bass playing with drums, trumpet, tenor sax and hammond organ. But that’s not the half of it!

Justin’s new ensemble called Synthesis has turned out an amazing debut album – New Horizons. This is not a jazz album but an extraordinary amalgamation of sounds that take in a diverse group of instruments and players from around the world. The list is impressive:

Dhruba Ghosh (Sarangi), Trichy Sankaran (Mridangam), Alam Khan (Sarod), Steve Gorn (Bansuri), Joy Anandasivam (Guitar), The Venuti String Quartet, Naghmeh Farahmand (Persian Percussion), Demetrios Petsalakis (Oud), Gurpreet Chana (Hang Drum), Todd Pentney (Piano), Joel Schwartz (Resonator Guitar) and Jonathan Kay (Esraj)…co produced by Ed Hanley (Tabla).….and that’s not all.

Justin is playing an instrument which he co designed called the Bass Veena. This is a six string acoustic bass, which sounds like a fretless bass, in addition to the higher pitch ten strings which he plucks and strums. The Bass Veena looks and sounds right at home with the other instruments on this album, many of which hail from the Middle East and the Subcontinent.

1. New Horizons – Up beat and positive, simple but strong melody doubled up with unlikely but brilliant combinations of instruments with Tabla supporting. Bass Veena centre stage. Sounds from the Subcontinent all over it.

2. Reflections – Nice staccato rhythm to start then a segue into dreamy tangents with individual solos over a consistent bass and tabla.

3. Migration – Dark and mysterious.. evocative of India and then a superimposed western folk guitar melody using western scales over an Indian raga.

4. Eventide – Smooth, like a jazz fusion but with a Bansuri playing a compelling melody which we absorbed rather than hear, finishing with strings.

5. Unity – Entrancing use of varied time signatures, with freestyle guitar solos…. slightly disconcerting but in a good way.

6. Break of Dawn – Overtones of rock melody from the Bass Veena with unusual blends of piano and stringed instruments almost but not quite clashing, producing a tension between the instruments which resolves finally as the waves subside.

7. Rise – Lovely folk melody and harmonies. Breaks into electric guitar solo straight from the west coast and we find ourselves in California in the 70’s… and then back to the folk melody – quite a journey.

8. Serenity – Wailing string melody against an upbeat rhythm, then from nowhere, a lovely Spanish guitar.

9. Ebb and Flow – Meandering jazz guitar against the backdrop of strings and tabla, mixing of raga with western, Spanish guitar again adding to the mix.

This album is a combination of the Hindustani Raga music tradition Justin studied during his travels in India, and his background in Jazz, World and western contemporary styles. The music is a gift, sincere and heartfelt, like an offering to the Buddha….. you have to work at it but once immersed there’s no going back.

David Izen

Kurt Elling ‘The Questions’ (Okeh/Sony) 4/5

While recently in conversation with Sean Rafferty on BBC Radio 3, singer Kurt Elling talked about his musical inspirations and this included his love of poetry alongside the great American songbook and vocalese practitioners who skilfully took jazz instrumentals and added their own witty lyrics. On this latest recording, once more featuring Branford Marsalis and band members, Elling has used all these influences to his advantage and from this rich palette has conjured up an album that has a little of something for everyone, even if long-time fans might prefer the more avant-garde to the straight ahead standards. Two classic instrumentals are tackled with a new set of lyrics, the first of which will be familiar to fans of bassist and all round musical genius, Jaco Pastorius. His, ‘A Secret In Three Views’, receives an inventive re-working as does Carla Bley’s, ‘Endless Lawns’. A love of the classic standards permeates the work of Kurt Elling and this time round the lovely, ‘I Have Dreamed’, by Rodgers and Hammerstein features a fitting solo from Branford Marsalis, while keyboardist Stu Mindeman stretches out on the Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer opus, ‘Skylark’, that closes out the album in a gentle mood. Perhaps, most surprising is the inclusion of slightly more contemporary pop/rock songwriters with a trio of compositions. The pick of the bunch is probably ‘American Tune’ by Paul Simon that was a feature of the latter’s 1973 recording, ‘A Rhymin’ Mr. Simon’, while for a left-field choice, Peter Gabriel’s ‘Washing Of The Water’, is truly unexpected. Opening up the album, Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall’, may be better served in a blues idiom. Poetry is weaved into the mix on the Carla Bley composition and an excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘From Letters To A Young Poet’, is inserted into the inner sleeve notes. A fine band that has appearances from Marquis Hill on trumpet and flugelhorn, Joey Calderazzo on piano, and for a touch of Chicago, guitarist John McLean, who has regularly performed with another jazz a singer from the Windy City, Patricia Barber. In general, a praiseworthy effort from one of the most accomplished singers around. A live recording from the Green Mill would be an ideal follow up at some stage.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Mexico – Luz de Luna – The Best Boleros from the Costa Chica’ (ARC) 4/5

Just over a decade ago, this writer went on a extended musical journey to locate one of the seemingly hardest to find compilations of roots music, searching the southern most states that border Mexico. It was a box set on the Carasón label of the very roots of Mexican folk mu,sic and it opened up a whole new world of sounds, the magnificent son de Mexico, influenced by its Cuban brother, el son Cubano, but newly adapted to the Mexican landscape and with a pared down instrumentation. The same team that brought you ‘El Son De Mexico’ returns on this terrific updating of the anthology to take on board the bolero sounds of an isolated part of Mexico, inland from the Pacific coast and where commercial labels would not even be aware of their existence. The guitar groups and the repertoire they practice is representative of diverse ethnic and musical traditions and these include mestizos (mixed race), native Indian and the Afro-Mexican traditions. A major inspiration to all musicians is the late Alvaro Carrillo, a composer who was born in Costa Chica. All of the musicians are featured at least twice which enables the listener to gain a real flavour of what they are capable of, pride of place going to the irrepressible Pedro Torres with no less than five appearances.

Indeed, it is Pedro Torres on his requinto guitar, who opens up the compilation, interpreting a Carrillo composition, and one with a mysterious ‘eso’/’that’ (the song title) in reference to the woman in the verse that hispanophiles can debate endlessly. No less than the seminal bolero band of the 1950’s and beyond, Los Panchos covered this song. Elsewhere, families are represented such as Las Hermanas García, and they interpret the highly respected composer, Marcos Martinez, on ‘Un amigo como tú’/’A friend like you’, while on ‘Cancionero’/’Songman’, the Carrillo composition refers in fact to a self-portrait of the writer’s father. Other singers worth checking out include Fidela Pelaez and the male harmony trio, Los Tres Amuzgos.

Detailed liner notes by co-Corasón label founder Mary Farquharson, with a plethora of colour photos of the musicians in traditional costume, and in some cases, being recorded and filmed simultaneously, place the music in its rightful historical context. Full lyrics in Spanish with an explanation in English of their significance. One of the year’s most interesting discoveries of roots music. This is what compilations should be all about, finding a niche where other labels have not previously trodden (outside of Mexico at least). With the twentieth anniversary of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, you might question whether there is anyway left in the world of music to (re)discover. Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar featured bolero music from mexico in his 1987 classic, ‘The Law Of Desire’, but it passed most viewers by. Mexican roots music might just be the antidote.

Tim Stenhouse

Shirley Davis and The Silverbacks ‘Wishes and Wants’ LP/CD/DIG (Tucxone) 4/5

It seems like an age but in reality it’s only a couple of years I think since Shirley’s “Black Rose” album was being played daily here and now today this excellent ten tracker is fracturing the silence with a grittier sound. The album was written by Davis in tandem with The Silverbacks’ musical director and lead guitarist Eduardo Martínez, plus song-writer Marc Ibarz. She’s packed a lot into her life, but eventually found her salvation in music, she had her successes and today, when you listen to this album, it’s clear her life has influenced what we are listening to.

She cites Stevie Wonder as her main musical influence. It’s a beautiful sunny hot day here and this brand of funk and soul just sounds so right, the advertising pack makes mention of sweet soul but there ain’t nothing sweet about any of this, it’s tough modern-day funk with a liberal smattering of soul. If you’re not familiar with this lot then you’re in for a great ride, think Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, Sharon Jones, Nicole Willis, Grace Love etc. and you have the overall sound, so that’s okay then, loads of horns, heavy bass, percussion to die for and we have our Shirl’s voice, what’s not to like.

There is truly some fine moments on here, but as usual some rise to the top, and so to “All About The Music” which has that old sounding new music sound set at the perfect ‘Crossover’ dance pace and then we move to the big cheese sound of “Smile”, what a tune, funky soul at its finest, there can be no doubt she has a superb voice, fragile with grits, a contradiction I know but at times her voice has a nervous tremble and then she’s telling you how it’s gonna be, love it, this is displayed in the down low “Troubles and Trials” an epic performance vocally, the band are seriously tight. A superb album and then some.

Brian Goucher

Various ‘Screaming Gospel Holy Rollers’ LP (Vee-Tone) 4/5

Gospel seldom receives its due and gospel 45’s and LP’s from the golden era are now near impossible to find on the side of the pond at least and increasingly difficult even in the United States. Which is where indie label Vee-Tone records out of Clackmannanshire, Scotland, are on hand to save the day for the rest of us and we, the community of vinyl junkies, should be eternally grateful for all their efforts. They have been pioneering in their ongoing set of compilations due to the devotional sounds of gospel (this time on vinyl and previously on CD), but this is gospel from an era when, instrumentally, there was in practice precious little difference between the then emerging R & B and gospel other than that of a major distinction in the meaning of lyrics, and on this mini anthology the emphasis is firmly on uplifting songs that you do not have to be of the faith to appreciate. House rocking dance material is what the listener can fully expect and this set delivers on that front.

Expertly compiled with sleeve notes to boot from music aficionado and connoisseur of myriad genres (reggae and classic R & B being just two of his musical interests), Mark Lamarr, who has selected the eighteen tracks on offer, this compilation historically covers what has now been termed the ‘golden age of gospel’ and some brief explanation is in order here. Chronologically, we are referring to the immediate post-WWII period between 1945 and 1965 when there was a rapid increase in the number of gospel groups performing and recording, with dozens of new independent record companies that specialised in black music, whether that be blues, jazz, R & B or gospel, or any combination of those genres. Of those labels, this anthology focuses attention on the Gospel label with no less than six offerings, Peacock (strong on soul-blues too) with four, Savoy (a label that equally branched out into jazz) with another four and the rest including Checker, an offshoot of Chess, and Sue. Three key areas of the United States witnessed this explosion in numbers and activity and they were across the southern state, the Mid-West, and a major source of talent was to be found on the East coast. The dividing line between religious and secular was a thin one dependent on the content of the words sung, and some singers were tempted to cross over into the secular world and make a major success, such as The Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin, and of course Al Green, to name but three.

However, others stayed true to their religious principles and of those, there are some wonderful examples on this compilation. They include The Gate City Singers with a 1958 offering, ‘John The Revelator’, that is this writer’s personal favourite and, in general, traditional songs served as a fertile terrain in which to expand their repertoire. Some of the major names on hand on this album are The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Caravans, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Full marks to the Vee-Tone team for convincingly recreating the era with their cover graphics that are in a smart red, white and black lettering, and the inner sleeve discographical notes are exemplary and shed useful light on the individual songs, some of which are 45 only, while other are choice album cuts.

Tim Stenhouse

Benjamin Boone / Philip Levine ‘The Poetry Of Jazz’ (Origin) 5/5

It was 1963 when Detroit born, Philip Levine, first had a collection of poems published with ‘On The Edge’, with over 20 others throughout his lifetime, some as early as 1973 receiving awards for poetry, with an early spell studying beside John Berryman proving to be a huge influence. His standing within the community somewhat strengthened in 1995 for ‘The Simple Truth’ by securing the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Levine left an enduring mark on the world of poetry prior to his passing in 2015 at the age of 87.

On this, ‘The Poetry of Jazz’, we first hear Levine on the opening theatrical piece, ‘Gin’, with leader Benjamin Boone on saxophone, Karen Marguth adding supportive vocals, whilst Craig von Berg; piano, Spee Kosloff; bass, and Brian Hamada; drums supporting the piece in an avant-guard fashion with more emphasis on the spoken word drawing the listener into the album. The said collection of musicians are also responsible for the ballad, ‘The Music Of Time’, further into the album, which is a much more structured composition, both numbers showing diversity between each other with the same formation. The American saxophonist/composer/professor, Benjamin Boone, is also responsible for gathering together some high-profile artists in Branford Marsalis, Chris Potter, Tom Harrell, and Greg Osby with respective homages to John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker – all perfectly placed as we listen to Levine’s iconic poems.

“My mother tells me she dreamed
of John Coltrane, a young Trane
playing his music with such joy
and contained energy and rage
she could not hold back her tears.” – Philip Levine

Of the 16 musicians involved, all delivering exceptional pieces of music, it is still the overwhelming sound of Levine’s narration that dominates. His phrasing and timing on what was to be his only work of this type, and a posthumous one at that, leaves no doubt of his presence in the huge world of poetry. And where one would immediately draw comparisons with the Beat Generation poets, it wasn’t the path he took. Whilst the likes of Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were making ground in Greenwich Village, it was Detroit/Iowa/Fresno that Philip grew up, with a fascination of the Spanish Civil War, with unemployment and with violence, with topics of inadequacy, of loss and regret and an all too infrequent mention of jazz and the love for it. So it is to the latter passion that we would have never known had it not have been for this release. We would not have heard how perfectly balanced the two would sound, and for that alone we must applaud Benjamin Boone, for he has not only produced an exceptional musical album, but given to the ears of the world a groundbreaking document of Philip Levine perhaps enjoying what he had not previously had the opportunity to do.

Each of the compositions bring to the listener a different sense of satisfaction, the poems tightening concentration to each passage with wonderful music painting the scene for each story told, none more so than on ‘Yakov’, where David Aus’s piano intro draws in the story of wilderness, of a man surrounded by nature and beauty, enjoying each day to the fullest, sunrise, sunset, without human companionship – alone but content. Benjamin’s saxophone shining through the trees amidst his group as Yakov casts aside his apron of normality to venture out into nature’s bosom.

It is the longest piece on the album, ‘A Dozen Dawn Songs, Plus One’, that perfects the balance between instrument and voice. Taking the most risks and proving to be most rewarding. Its energy of playing, the shrill of the story, each musician perfectly tuned to the quickened pace and dramatic interchange – this is poetry of unquestionable authority. Dynamic and thought-provoking, serious music – the music holding its own at every step of the performance. An incredible band playing with supreme expertise. There should be no ear that passes by. Essential.

So where should we rank this album in history, in the not too overly populated jazz-poetry cosmos? Well, for this writer it is felt highly. It is not only a superb ‘jazz’ album but an incredible album of poetry, by a talent that has left us with much written work but far too little aural. It works perfectly. Benjamin Boone, recording between 2012 and 2014, has encapsulated the ‘sound’ to provide an album of unmistakable importance – one could say of historic importance.

Steve Williams

Grant Green ‘Slick! – Live at Oil Can Harry’s’ 2LP (Resonance) 4/5

By the mid-1970’s. guitarist Grant Green had moved on slightly from his earlier Blue Note recordings and was firmly focused on covering current soul and funk songs of the day. His group was now made up of Emmanuel Riggins (electric piano), Ronnie Ware (bass), Greg ‘Vibration’ Williams, and on percussion, Gerald Izzard. Lengthier numbers were the order of the day for his live performances and this one from 1975 is probably the last of its kind we have of Green. Of interest are the medleys that make up the second vinyl disc and Green’s open-minded approach is illustrated by his expertly weaving in, ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’ by Stevie Wonder into ‘For The Love Of Money’ by The O’Jays. That said, an old evergreen favourite remains in his repertoire and that is Jobim’s ‘How Insensitive’, all twenty-six minutes here of a truly epic rendition, and one which reveals that the melodic side of Grant Green’s craft had remained undiminished, while the abiding influence of saxophonists on his work and that of Charlie Parker more especially is paid homage to on Bird’s composition, ‘Now Is The Time’. It should be remembered that by 1975 jazz was in a state of flux, with commercial venues in decline. traditional styles of the genre now seemingly under attack from jazz-fusion and jazz-funk sub-genres, but this was more reflective of a younger generation of musicians simply moving with the times, and in this respect, Green was ahead of his contemporaries.

The music is placed in context by the excellent black and white photos of the original band performing at the venue and by the national (including Downbeat) and local press reviews that are presented to us in their original typed journalistic format on the back cover of the inner sleeve booklet, and in a more reader friendly larger print over a couple of pages. These most definitely help to situate the reader in the moment and discover that Grant Green still had a grass-roots constituent audience that had listened to the Blue Note era material and stayed loyal to him. Another outstanding inner sleeve booklet contains a two-way conversation between guitarist and educator, Jacques Lesure and fellow guitarist and aficionado, Perry Hughes. Between them, they dissect the career of Green, and explain how influential his style became for other guitarists, making parallels between live recordings from the beginning of the 1960’s and another a decade later.

Tim Stenhouse

Grant Green ‘Funk in France: From Paris to Antibes 1969-1970’ 3LP/2CD (Resonance) 5/5

Sometimes classic unissued sessions are lurking in the background just waiting to be heard by a wider public and this is most definitely a case in point. Grant Green is nowadays regarded as something of a modern jazz guitar legend largely by virtue of his decade long work at Blue Note (as leader and master sideman, a de facto in-house musician of the label in fact) and this marvellous selection has the considerable merit of covering both sides of his career, the straight ahead early part, and the latter funk-tinged work. What is all the more remarkable is that the earlier recordings here were never originally meant to happen since French National Radio envisaged a ‘dream team’ line-up of jazz guitarists comprising Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow to perform live together in their auditorium. As it turned out, Tal Farlow was forced to withdraw and was instead replaced by Green. This last-minute change resulted in Grant Green being paired with Larry Ridley on bass and Dan Lanod on drums, plus for one track only a duet with Kessel. Some of his favourite jazz sides from the early to mid-1960’s are revisited including a bop-inflected tribute to Sonny Rollins on both ‘Oleo’ and ‘SonnyMoon For Two’, and it is important to stress that Green was far more influenced by saxophonists, Charlie Parker in particular.

There is, then, a languid nod to the French chanson and his immediate audience with a reprise of Charles Trenet’s, ‘I Wish You Love’ (Gloria Lynne had recorded a hit English language version in 1964), while an untitled blues reflects Green’s love of that genre, and the melodic reading of a Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes opus, How insensitive (‘Insensataez’). For the rest of the following four sides of vinyl, the mood and tone changes and we shift into the funk and soul groove of the beginning of the 1970’s. Green always prided himself on keeping up with the latest songs and would enjoy covering these, extending and embellishing them with his distinctive chords. Lengthy cuts of popular soul and funk classics of the time grace the following four sides, with the uplifting ‘Hi-Heel Sneakers’, and the soulful ‘Hurt So Bad’, being the pick of the bunch. However, these recordings make for an interesting parallel with two official Blue Note live recordings made, the ‘Up at Mintons’ double album from 1961 and ‘Live At The Lighthouse’ a decade or so later. In his notes, Michael Cuscuna refers to how Grant Green had to be prompted by Cannonball Adderley no less to make it to New York in 1959 to be first heard by the wider jazz public, yet by this stage he was already thirty-four years of age and, similar to Wes Montgomery, they were both late developers rather than childhood prodigies. Between 1967 and 1968 Green relocated to Detroit, largely to attempt to tackle his heroin addiction. He emerged from this in 1969 with a new vigour and in significantly better health.

It is incredible to think that all this was organised by André Francis (an equivalent in knowledge and status in France to Humphrey Lyttelton) on a shoe string budget and that Green himself was relatively little known in France. Jazz organisers in France historically have made a habit of making accessible the great jazz artists to as wide an audience as possible, and this writer, in 1990, managed to witness on the same evening an incomparable trio of jazz greats: the Pat Metheny trio featuring Roy Haynes and Dave Holland; the McCoy Tyner Big band; John Scofield band. All for the sum of FF120 (around £12). This makes for a well-educated younger jazz public who are not priced out of the music and a more diverse demographic distribution of the audience. The top quality 180g vinyl is matched only by the impeccable red, white and blue outer cover (plus cockerel) that leaves little doubt as to the concert location, while the lavish gatefold sleeve unfolds to reveal creatively invented covers with a giant photo of Paris and the Seine where French National Radio headquarters are situated. The quality of the issue is worthy of a Japanese edition and Grant Green famously had unissued Blue Note material that came out on lovingly first time issued LP’s complete with graphics by Japanese artists, and these have subsequently become collectors items. Terrific inner sleeve booklet that a box set would be proud of includes in-depth coverage by Blue Note and Grant Green archivist Michael Cuscuna, while all matters French are more than adequately explained by Pascal Rozet. For historical note, the recordings here emanate from the INA, or French Audio-Visual Institute and other smaller musical items can be viewed online, and the list is both exhaustive and impressive. Interestingly, while the more venerable of the two French jazz magazines, Jazz Hot, gave the concert a favourable review, Jazz Magazine did not.

Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993