Wes Montgomery ‘The NDR Hamburg Studio Recordings’ 180g LP+Blu-Ray/CD+Blu-Ray (Jazzline Classics) 5/5

During the last few years of John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery’s life, he had climbed to the very top, with a Grammy Award for the Creed Taylor produced “Goin’ Out Of My Head” in 1966, which not only sat at no.1 on the Jazz charts but also flew up what we would now term pop charts. In 1967 “A Day in the Life” topped the Billboard Jazz charts and reached no.2 on the ‘pop’ charts. These ‘pop’ successes were not his preferred choices it would seem, as much is documented of his avoidance to play these songs live. Wes had switched to playing electric guitar at the age of 20 on hearing recordings of Charlie Christian – Jazz critic Ralph Gleason would later write “Wes Montgomery is the best thing to happen to the guitar since Charlie Christian” – moving away from the use of the customary pick, which had enraged the domestic authorities, for a subtle revolutionary thumb technique that would prove to garner the reputation and public appreciation firmly stamped in jazz history. Wes Montgomery was praised for mastering his octaves and harmonies with some 20+ albums as leader and is quite possibly the most recognised modern jazz guitarist of all time. Down Beat Poll Winner for consecutive years and a no.1 slot in Billboard for ‘California Dreaming’ in August 1967.

Just prior to those accolades these 1965 NDR Hamburg Studio Recordings are presented here with 10 songs before a live audience on April 30, and a further 5 during rehearsals filmed on April 28, featured on the enclosed 34min Blu-Ray disc – an insightful snapshot of interplay during band rehearsals at a key moment in their respective careers. The line-up consists of American’s Wes Montgomery (g) and Johnny Griffin – Griffin (ts) had previously worked with Wes and his brothers Monk and Buddy – Britain’s Ronnie Stephenson (ds), Ronnie Ross (bs) and Ronnie Scott (ts) – Michael Laages’ sleeve notes nod to the highly likely chance that these four may have travelled together after performing at Soho’s Ronnie Scott’s club, Austrian saxophonist Hans Koller – who had previously worked with Ronnie Ross and here featured on alto, not tenor (unlike the ‘Live In Europe’ recording from the same period), pianist Martial Solal and bassman Michel Gaudry (of Serge Gainsbourg fame) from France.

Proceedings swing in with Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues”, a no-frills jaunt full of European nuances. It’s short and the audience is responsive. “Four On Six” settles in with strong rhythms by the leader out front with little notable excitement from the band until pianist Martial Solal takes flight. There’s a bass solo by Michel Gaudry with warm reception before Wes resumes control atop Ronnie Stephenson’s drum work. Early on in this set, you are aware of the superb quality of the recording and faultless dynamics. “Last Of The Wine” permits Ronnie Ross space to fly on baritone – this is mind-blowing stuff – as the leader sits back ahead of his solo. This is now proving to be an illuminating set even before Johnny Griffin charges forward on his tenor saxophone but to these ears, it is Solal’s fingers that reign supreme. The longest piece, “Heres That Rainy Day”, strolls along with little excitement and is disappointing by comparison.
“Opening 2”, by contrast, is a frolicking bop explosion of brass section and energy that ignites side B. Penned by Martial Solal this has a very different feel to the Montgomery compositions with its feel-good swing being a hard to fault piece – not a lot of Wes going on though! “Blue Grass” readdresses with more Wes (on Gibson?) in the frame as saxes compete for the podium. What a joy the ears of German radio would have first delighted in 1965 as the energy throughout is compelling. Remember, Montgomery’s “The Paris Session” had only been recorded the month before. He was prolific and even when working with unfamiliar musicians does not flinch or hinder the musical outcome. “Blue Monk” is 7th on the set-list and, dare I say it, those Martial Solal chords are out-there with more spontaneity through the piece. Cue applause. “The Leopard Walks” with its big band feel, drifts off soulfully and ‘safe’ with Johnny Griffin leading his own tune throughout before “Twisted Blues” by Montgomery picks up the six-string pace, rubber-stamping the Wes Montgomery ‘sound’ as the end is almost upon us. The energy is at full-pelt before we close with “West Coast Blues (Encore)”.

There is everything here one would need from a Wes Montgomery album. The addition of these specific band members is further rewarding and continues to support the importance of the NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk) studios and their remit, which records show recorded between 1958-1988. “The strategy was to bring together musicians, who usually did not – or only rarely – perform together and to broadcast the results” through organiser/producer Hans Gertberg and engineer Hans-Heinrich Breitkreuz is as important to the story of jazz as any American label. In fact, NDR regular Hans Koller would join Ronnie Ross and Ronnie Stephenson for a return to the NDR studios in July with Tubby Hayes. The quality of this mastering is wonderfully evident on the 180g disc resulting in a quality 1965 recording sounding crisp and exciting in 2021.

Deliberately setting aside the additional Blu-Ray disc, as not to confuse first impressions, it now provides further delight watching the rehearsal. With a combination of cigarette smoking, Ronnie Scott’s beacon of enthusiasm, a perched Wes and pure fire from Martial Solal, we are centre-stage at history being made, and with vibraphone pushed to one side, I can’t help but grin at the idea that very soon Tubby Hayes could be mallets in hand. The inclusion of the footage for this release is priceless.

On May 22, 1968, Wes would perform with his quintet at the Coliseum in his home town of Indianapolis and would soon die at home of a sudden heart attack. His funeral service was conducted three days later by Rev. John J. Crook. His “Down Here On The Ground” would top the best selling Jazz LP chart at Billboard in August and would posthumously win a further Grammy Award in 1969 for “Willow Weep For Me” and be responsible for recording sufficient music to see a further string of wonderful releases via the Milestone, Capitol, Resonance and now Jazzline Classics labels, a clear indication of the demand still for his music, “after all, Wes is the hero of the day on guitar” wrote Record World’s Ted Williams in March 1968, “And the Wes Montgomery story is just beginning.” A sad note to end on…

Steve Williams

Read also:
Wes Montgomery ‘Back on Indiana Avenue: The Carroll DeCamp Recordings’ 2LP-RSD/2CD (Resonance) 4/5
Wes Montgomery ‘In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording’ 2CD (Resonance) 5/5
Wynton Kelly Trio with Wes Montgomery ‘Smokin’ in Seattle’ 180g LP/CD (Resonance) 4/5

Gladys Knight & the Pips ‘The Hits 1973-1985’ 2LP (United Souls) 4/5

There aren’t that many names that are etched higher up in the annals of soul music’s rich lineage than Gladys Knight & The Pips. Famous for a slew of hit singles, Grammy awards, American Music Awards, famous as being one of the foremost notable acts amidst Motown’s revered roster which at that time boasted names like Marvin Gaye, Dianna Ross and The Temptations. And inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.

Theirs is a catalogue of music released over the course of three decades and boasting a litany of successful singles and albums. While Gladys Knight & The Pips are often cited as one of the finest acts to grace the hallowed walls of Motown Records – and despite the success of songs like the Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong penned ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ – the quintet’s biggest hits actually came in those post-Motown years.

But sticking with their Motown tenure a moment longer – while a part of the label, the group were actually relegated to Motown’s subsidiary division entitled Soul along with notable names like Jimmy Ruffin, The Originals and Jr Walker & The All-Stars. Soul was where the artists that were deemed to be missing a distinct crossover appeal were housed and it’s true to say that Gladys Knight & The Pips perhaps weren’t seen at the outset of living up to the expectations of the aforementioned front-line artists. The success of the collective’s ‘Grapevine’ (1967) ultimately became Motown’s biggest selling single to date positioning the band for far greater things.

As previously mentioned, the move to Buddah Records in 1973, and later Columbia Records, is very much where the story of this United Souls ‘The Hits’ compilation begins. Featuring nineteen of those very hits, United Souls have plucked the tracks synonymous with the collective during this time – including their first single release through Buddah – the ballad ‘Where Peaceful Waters Flow’ (1973) – and the colossal hit that would follow later that same year, the Grammy-winning ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’. Written by Jim Weatherly under the original title ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’, the song went through a variety of iterations and recordings before finally making its way to Knight & The Pips and ultimately becoming a song forever attributed to them. Another Weatherly-penned number that proved a significant hit for Knight was their timeless rendition of ‘Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me’ scoring high chart positions in the US and the UK. I’ll confess to having completely missed the cover of Bette Midler’s seminal ‘Hero (Wind Beneath My Wings)’ prior to this release so hearing Knight’s powerhouse vocal elevate this song to new heights proved a real pleasure.

United Souls have really picked some of the finest names in soul music to celebrate through their relatively new series of vinyl releases – with past subjects including The Isley Brothers, The O’Jays and the upcoming set dedicated to Phyllis Hyman – the Gladys Knight & The Pips legacy continues as a reintroduction for a potentially new generation.

Imran Mirza

Shamek Farrah & Sonelius Smith ‘The World of the Children’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 4/5

One of the rarest spiritual soul-jazz albums from Charles Tolliver’s Strata-East camp is reissued for the first time outside of Japan. Recorded in 1977, Shamek Farrah’s ‘The World Of The Children’ was added to the many great albums that came through the Strata-East label during the 1970s. It follows the saxophonist’s classic debut album ‘First Impressions’ which was released three years earlier and again, the music epitomises the particular sound associated with the New York based label and the artists on board the roster.

Shamek Farrah only released around three albums in the 1970s, yet his reputation has resonated through the jazz community over the years, featuring on various compilations and reissues put out by labels including Sounds Of The Universe and Soul Brother Records. His sound seems so effortless, carrying a great tone and lyrical curiousness.

Pianist Sonelius Smith’s unique style brings a welcome contrast and spark for Shamek’s playing on this outing. His sharp percussive angles and contrasting sparse runs sit well with Shamek’s lyrical soulful tone. The pianist brings touches of classical idiosyncrasy and free jazz to each piece with the influences of McCoy Tyner, Glenn Gould and maybe even Cecil Taylor running through most of the compositions.

The album opens up with the 10 minute ‘The World Of The Children’ composition by pianist Sonelius Smith and it’s a definite highlight from the album. Tony Waters sets the scene with an array of colourful percussive instruments creating the perfect backdrop before the track starts to build into a celebratory buoyant tempo. The rhythm and Shamek Farrah’s delivery bring to mind the late great Arthur Blythe and his classic ‘Down Santiago Way’ track… David Murray recorded the piece for his early 90’s album ‘South Of The Border’, on which the composer Sonelius Smith also featured and it’s a superb variation worthy of attention.

On ‘People Puttin People Through Changes’ the striding bass and easy drumming create a perfect tempo for Shamek’s soulful gliding tone. It’s the only composition written by the leader and the shifting rhythm creates a perfect platform for the more melodic playing of pianist Sonelius Smith who really brings something different to the track.

The track ‘Milt: A Bass Solo’ features the inventive bassist Milton Suggs bringing his distinctive brooding funky style to the forefront with a three-minute solo that is probably one of those moments best experienced live. His composition is the only piece on which he features. His style favoured many great jazz musicians including Mary Lou Williams, who had trouble finding a suitable bassist for her ‘Zoning’ album until Milton came along.

Onboard with Shamek Farrah playing alto saxophone is Kiyoto Fujiwara on bass, Freddie Wrenn on drums, percussionist Tony Waters, pianist Sonelius Smith, Joseph Gardner on trumpet and Milton Suggs on bass for his own composition ‘Milt: A Bass Solo’.

The album is reissued through Pure Pleasure Records on 180g Analog Audiophile vinyl and a welcome reissue for anyone into the Strata-East sound.

Mark Jones

Creative Arts Ensemble with B.J. Crowley ‘One Step Out’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 4/5

In 1981 The Creative Arts Ensemble recorded their debut album ‘One Step Out’ for the Nimbus West record label based in Santa Barbara, 100 miles north of Los Angeles. The private press label was founded by producer Tom Albach whose collaboration with pianist/composer/educator Horace Tapscott gave rise to some incredible music and memorable albums during the 1980s. Over the last 40 years, the album has become highly collectable and, like many of the early releases on Nimbus West, the interest in that deep spiritual jazz sound has grown along with the prices. In a similar vein to labels such as Strata-East, Tribe and Black Jazz and the collective spirit of say the Chicago based AACM movement, the music on Nimbus West epitomised the core principles of a collective desire to nurture the artistic talents from within the community without needing to conform to the pressures of a more commercially minded record label, who were often required to meet targets and audiences.

During the early 1980s a community arts centre in Los Angeles, set up by Horace Tapscott and company, provided a grounding platform for many of the emerging young musicians and artists within the area, with many contributing on albums that came through the Nimbus West label. Both Gary Bias and Dadesi Komolafe went on to record their own albums for the label a few years later.

On this debut lead role, pianist/composer Kaeef Ruzadun Ali is joined by his sister B. J. Crowley upfront on vocals, Gary Bias [alto saxophone], Dadesi Komolafe [flute], Henry “Skipper” Franklin [bass], Jeff Clayton [Baritone Saxophone], SonShip Phaeus [Drums/Percussion], Wilbert Hemsley [Tenor Saxophone], George Bohannon [Trombone] and Al White [Trumpet].

The Creative Arts Ensemble was formed from members of Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Kaeef was first inspired by the ethos of the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and their community spirit when visiting the ‘Great House’ in Los Angeles; a mansion that acted as a commune and place to bring unity and creativity to the forefront of those who were involved and illuminated by the Arkestra’s movement. The pianist went on to form this first large ensemble to follow in the footsteps of the Arkestra and ‘One Step Out’ is the result of a remarkable debut for Kaeef and company.

There’s a sense of togetherness and understanding that streams throughout the album and the lengthy compositions give each musician ample space to stretch out. ‘Flashback Of Time’ featured on a compilation by Soul Jazz Records in 2014 titled ‘Black Fire! New Spirits! Radical And Revolutionary Jazz In The U.S.A. 1957 – 1982’ and interestingly enough ‘Stars In Lightyear Time’ was the chosen track for the compilation CD ‘L.A’s Unsung’, chosen by the Nimbus West record label. It’s hard to mark out any highlights as the album works as a whole and each track evokes a timeless spirit and testament to the high level of musicianship and improvisation.

The reissue by Pure Pleasure Records comes with 180g Analogue Audiophile Vinyl Remastered from the best available sources. ‘One Step Out’ is one of the most collectable jazz recordings from the Nimbus catalogue and ranks up there with their 1983 album ‘New Horizons’ which is also in high demand by collectors.

Mark Jones

Yaniv Taubenhouse ‘Moments In Trio Vol.3: Roads’ CD (Fresh Sound New Talent) 4/5

“Moments in Trio” is a series of recordings of the Yaniv Taubenhouse Trio released on Fresh Sound Records. “Roads” is the third release, naturally following on from “Moments Vol 1” and “Perpetuation – Vol 2”. Currently residing in New York City, the pianist is joined by bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Jerad Lippi, and the group’s repertoire features original compositions by Taubenhouse, Rosato and Lippi, as well as standards by Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk and Gene De Paul / Don Raye.

In music, as in life in general, it is often the little things that make the difference. I think this is particularly true when it comes to piano trios. There needs to be an intuitive togetherness, one which conveys a creative path of interest. This trio has this in abundance. It’s not just that though. For a piano-led trio, regardless of style or jazz sub-genre, for things to stand out above the crowd, there needs to be something almost indefinable about the music being performed. It’s about those little touches of decadence, those subtle nuances, those articulate, surprising moments when the pianist does something in a split second that you didn’t realise you’ve been waiting a lifetime to hear.

As the album opens, with the wonderfully enigmatic “Blue Forest”, I am reminded, in more ways than one, of the Brad Mehldau Trio. Particularly his “Art of the Trio” series that went a long way to launching his illustrious career. “Roads” has that same feel, that same essence running through it. Taubenhouse plays his instrument with a similar drifting ease, a similar beautiful lilt of a single note, a similar deft touch that sparks illumination. He even shares Mehldau’s penchant for lengthy liner notes… and yet he obviously has his own style. The mix of original compositions from the trio is great to hear, with each tune fitting effortlessly together to create an overall atmosphere of fresh originality.

Whilst “Rush Hour Traffic” and “Sailing Over The Horizon” are good solid tunes, it’s on tracks like “Prayer”, “Flow” and “Roads”, the title track, where the trio really comes into its own. There’s a graceful nature to the elegiac “Prayer”. It’s one of those tunes that sinks into your subconscious without you realising it. “Flow” teases with its syncopated rhythm as the trio gradually wind-up with some ear-catchingly compelling interaction. The beauty of the title track is its muse. It’s like the trio are looking around at the world, contemplating which road to take next… As Taubenhouse says in his liner notes: “Creativity has a road of its own where the destination isn’t clear nor is the direction. The analogy might be someone walking in an open field, searching for a particular flower, though not a specific kind, and only upon finding it, does it become clear that that’s the exact flower he/she has been looking for. Every journey has a path of its own as does the creative process, and at the end of the day, every composition rides its own journey.”

There are some touches of brilliance from the trio here, with a path of purpose that promises much. It will indeed be very interesting to see how their journey unfolds in the years ahead.

Mike Gates

Electric Jalaba ‘El Hal / The Feeling’ LP/CD (Strut) 4/5

Accompanied by his guembri, a three-stringed instrument with a camel-skinned hollow body, Moroccan-born Simo Lagnawi continues to promote Gnawa vibes from his base in London with performances and recordings as a solo artist and in collaborative environments and also founding a school of Gnawa music in the capital.

Electric Jalaba is a group fusing Gnawa, North African, electronic and dub influences with Lagnawi on lead vocals, guembri and krakebs. The group also comprises of drummer Dave De Rose, who’s played with Mulatu Astatke, Mark Ronson and many others and siblings; bassist Olly Keen, Henry Keen on keys with Nathaniel Keen and Barnaby Keen providing guitar, additional vocals and numerous other instruments. “El Hal / The Feeling” is their third album and the first in five years.

“Tora Tora” builds from restrained guitar and shimmering synths to hand-clapping and assertive chanting. “Cubaili Ba” has its organic and natural themes rubbing shoulders with megalithic slabs of synth, vaguely reminiscent of The Comet is Coming. “Agia Hausa” has a heroic feel and the guembri and bass guitar interplay is a bottom-end delight. “Daimla” brings the pace down a little as the guembri rumblings lend to an unctuous dub with lovely lashings of heavy reverb and backward masking. The percussive “Hindewu” showcases the distinctive sound of krakebs, another traditional Gnawa instrument, sort of a cross between castanets and cymbals

The uptempo rhythm and the call and response vocals centres “Fulan” somewhere further south of Morocco. “Shabakru” dives deep into extended murky psychedelic dub, African Head Charge style. Guembri rifferama is the core of the catchy “Briando”, bouncing off the breakbeat-like drums. “Lagmami” is more laid back with lightly strummed guitar framing Lagnawi’s smooth-with-a-hint-of-smoke singing and delicate licks of keys and… is that lap steel?

Five years is a long time and this is a significant progression from “Merhaba”, their previous release. In some ways, it feels almost like a different band. “El Hal / The Feeling” is refined, direct and confident due to the band honing the sound and concept. It’s clearly contemporary and neither disrespects nor strictly adheres to its sources. It’s fascinating to see the group bring together those disparate parts and find a distinctive voice of their own.

Kevin Ward

Alostmen ‘Kologo’ LP/CD (Strut) 4/5

“Everybody, bring your dancing shoes; Come let’s party, I want to see you move.” The opening words to ‘Kologo’ as sung by Alostmen founder, Stevo Atambire, sets the tone for the joyous nature of their new album released through Strut Records.

The album’s title ‘Kologo’ pays homage to the stringed lute that forms the central focus point for the entire project. As performed by Atambire who also doubles as Alostmen’s lead vocalist, the band are also comprised of Jo Ajusiwine (goje fiddle, vocals), Aminu Amadu (talking drum) and Sowah (gome box, djembe and conga). ‘Kologo’ also boasts production from Wanlov the Kubolor who recorded the album while all parties were touring as part of Wanlov’s Afro Gypsy collective back in 2017.

With the songs built around Atambire’s stringed instrument, just how effective the entire project is with such minimal arrangements is really where the album’s charm truly lies. Even the simplicity of the repetitive vocals recited chant-like through the single ‘Teach Me’ hits instantly: “Teach me how to get cash is better than you teaching me how to spend cash”.

But my reference to “simplicity” is in no way intended to diminish the overall ambition of the ‘Kologo’ project. While there are in fact minimal arrangements – and the project does indeed excel in its effectiveness in that area – the album is very much a shining example of a contemporary and forward-thinking Ghanaian musical sound. The electronic-like inspirations for ‘Do Good’ which features rapper Medikal steer the project towards a slightly more synthetic pop territory while the range of guest rappers that are featured throughout serve Atambire’s affection for hip-hop that comfortably makes its way into the compositions. As well as on ‘Do Good’, ‘Fauziah’ should also be cited for its rap contributions in this case from Yaa Pono who injects some inspired energy into the track.

‘Minus Me’ featuring guest Ambolley is presented like an anthemic afrobeat number propelled by some uplifting horns already delivers as a soaring album highlight but I’d be lying if I hadn’t considered what the track would have sounded like if backed by the powerhouse afrobeat orchestras of Antibalas or The Budos Band.

While certainly a project that is enhanced by its many collaborators and contributors, the incomparable magic that Atambire brings to the table is completely unmatched. His performance on ‘Bayiti’ alone is enough to sell the record – between his playing on the kologo and his fiery and impassioned vocal, it’s everything you would need to hold ‘Kologo’ up as a shining example of the aforementioned contemporary Ghanaian sound.

Imran Mirza

Luis Pérez Ixoneztli ‘Santuario de Mariposas (Retusa)’ 2LP (Tokonoma) 3/5

Santuario de Mariposas (Butterfly Sanctuary) – also known as Retusa – is essentially an ambient soundscape in four movements primarily utilising pre-Columbian instruments from Mexico and Central America.

There is music and song within it, but they are no more important or prominent than the layers of sounds that conjure up visions of mountains and oceans, jungles and plains, forests and lakes, rustling grasses, whistling wind, howling animals, calling birds and the thrum and chitter of a million insects. It all flows naturally from one to the other as you fly from one community or landscape to another. One of the most endearing qualities of this recording is the sense of space around the sounds and music – you can almost feel the air pushing around and from the instruments, or the movement of leaves, clouds, animals and humans, as well as the moments of silence and stillness.

The composer, Luis Pérez Ixoneztli, started off as a rock musician in the 1970s, but has spent the best part of half a century researching and learning about the pre-Columbian instrumentation of Mesoamerica – that is, the instruments and what little is known of the music of the indigenous inhabitants prior to the arrival of Europeans in the mid-15th Century.

A reasonable amount of instruments (or images of them) just about survived the rapid colonisation and cultural devastation brought about by the Spanish however much is unknown about the actual music that existed at the times of the Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec cultures etc and all the centuries before then. The PR for this album states that Ixonezetli has tried to “give life to sleeping instruments and reflect on what the music of the Mexican ancestors was like”.

On Santuario de Mariposas (which was originally recorded back in 1989 with a very limited distribution) Ixoneztli has actually done a brilliant job of imagining this – it’s a delicate balance of the very acoustic and natural sounds of these mostly percussive and windblown instruments (all manner of flutes and whistles mostly) as well as human voice, with a more interpretive evocation of the essence of these lands and cultures. The whole work is a finely tuned mix of academia and spirituality. There are, I believe, electronic elements within this work, but you’d be hard pushed to spot them, such is the sensitive nature and ear of the composer. This guy really knows his stuff.

To be honest, I tend to get put off by anything that has the word ‘ambient’ in it – it’s usually shorthand for a self-indulgent gloop of derivative electronic mush; however, once I’d allowed myself to set aside an hour or so to just listen and react to the music without any preconceptions or expectations, I found myself slowly seduced and pulled into its world. It’s one of those albums that gets better the more you listen to it.

Santuario de Mariposas (aka Retusa) is already over 30 years old and I do wonder whether Ixoneztli would have created it the same today – or would he have been seduced by the synthesised sounds of the 21st C? Either way, I’m glad Tokonoma Records (named after a Japanese sacred alcove, but based in Madrid) have decided to reissue this now. It’s a welcome antidote to the widespread ambient gunk of bedroom-based, keyboard warriors with man-buns and (yuch!) “Tribal Tattoos”…

Yes, it’s a bit niche, but it’s very sympathetically done indeed and is a great invitation to just lie back, disconnect your mind and let your spirit fly far and wide over untrammelled semi-mythical lands. Who needs drugs? This is a total trip.

Glyn Phillips

Stanley Cowell ‘Musa – Ancestral Streams’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 4/5

Stanley Cowell sadly passed away in December 2020 at the age of 79, having amassed an incredibly important discography cementing his legacy for our joy today and that of future listeners. Cowell had worked with Polydor (later Polydor/Freedom) records as early as 1969, when much focus was on the conflict in Vietnam, with periods for SteepleChase and Columbia mixed in with smaller independents under quintet, quartet, trio and solo formations to follow. Having spent those early years working with some of the most recognised names in the field like Ron Mathewson, Reggie Workman, Joe Chambers, Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson and Charles Tolliver, it wasn’t until 1971 that New York-based musician co-operative label Strata-East and Music Inc. was born from the union between Cowell and Tolliver that the Cowell flag was fully raised. Hop, skip and jump some 20+ Strata-East albums and we find ourselves at ‘Musa – Ancestral Streams’, Cowell’s first solo piano album released in 1974 bearing the outer and inner artwork of black-American illustrator Carole Marie Byard. Byard had been awarded a grant in 1972, which allowed her to travel to Africa, a member of the Black Arts Movement, and noted for rubbing shoulders with the likes of M’Boom’s Freddie Waits. We can only smell a faint whiff now of the creativity in New York that would have been simmering.

Musa, recorded at Minot Studios December 1973, consists of nine Cowell compositions written between 1958 and 1972. ‘Maimoun’ and ‘Emil Danenberg’ had also been recorded as trio works in 1972 in New York for German ECM label with Jimmy Hopps and Stanley Clarke (off the back of Return to Forever) for 1974’s ‘Illusion Suite’ release – clearly favourites on the Cowell repertoire of the time. Unlike the trio’s interpretation of ‘Emil Danenberg’, which adds little preference over solo to these ears, the work by Clarke throughout ‘Maimoun’ lifts this number to a much more enjoyable place than the solo version presented here. Of the solo offerings, ‘Abscretions’ fires up the album with elevated energy and storytelling. I’m instantly comparing Cowell’s style to that of two of my life-long favourites; Bheki Mseleku and Abdullah Ibrahim as you hear the Musa story unfold. The refinement of ‘Equipoise’ – the balance of forces or interests – gently stokes as the ballad plays out and tingles the senses before ‘Prayer For Peace’ smoulders. Here we hear Cowell’s current writing opening up and exploring the expression of a maturing pianist. The theme is dominant and brings side A to boil.

The aforementioned ‘Maimoun’ is first out of the gate on side B. There is no doubt by this time that we are listening to a fearsome exponent of the instrument immersed in exploration. The playing is hard to fault with flamboyance throughout and a personality all of his own. There is deliberate distraction next in the work of ‘Travelin’ Man’, as over-dubbing techniques are incorporated with Stanley Cowell’s use of both Thumb Piano and Electric Piano bringing an alternative timbre to the recording. It is a mesmerising piece just short of 3min and although somewhat out of place, works to widen Cowell’s expectance, characteristic and our enjoyment. The longer ‘Departure #1’ (composed 1958) is followed by the shorter ‘Departure #2’ (composed 1965) as we enter concert-pianist terrain. The drama and pace explore his ability and writing yet fragments this writer’s pleasure of the whole. As one hears the expression, there is also an extravagance that tears away at the enjoyment felt on the other 7 numbers. One can not be judged for bringing everything to the table but it can seem a little too much at times. As ‘Sweet Song’ extinguishes the release with familiar warmth, it is clear that a star had been born and the need for a solo release was inevitable. It is truly a wonderful snapshot of a pianist free of other musicians, on his own record label and allowing an indulgence we are awarded some 47 years after his passing.

At a time when Sonelius Smith, Harold Mabern and Andrew Hill were picking up steam, the sincerity to Cowell’s vision and playing would be recognised to a wider audience both at Montreux in 1974 beside Sonny Rollins and 1976 with the inclusion to a 60-strong performance at Carnegie Hall as the New York Jazz Repertory Company stretches its wings. It is documented that Cowell was a dependable musician and looking back at the huge back-catalogue there’s little doubt now of the rewards from listing and impact on the genre he has made through his term in office.

Steve Williams

Read also:
Stanley Cowell / Billy Harper / Reggie Workman / Billy Hart ‎’Such Great Friends’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 5/5

Knimes Acoustic Group ‘Adventures in Improvised Music’ LP (Envelope) 4/5

Adventures in Improvised Music is the fulfilment of drummer, producer and composer Matthijs de Ritter’s long-held ambition to release a jazz album as a leader. His recording alias is knimes, previous releases have a hybrid electronic sound and a drum and bass vibe but headed into jazz territory with the recent addition of Jasper Blom on sax. He describes himself as ‘genre blurring’ true of previous recordings perhaps but this one is pretty much straight-ahead jazz with a distinct 60s feel to it. The music is informed by his fascination for the sound of the chord-less trios of that period, he cites Sonny Rollins’ Live at the Village Vanguard as an inspirational example. Composer and producer de Ritter is also an avid collector of records, jazz, hip hop, soul, Motown in particular and has been known to share his musical tastes by offering DJ sets following his live performances.

The quartet features Jose Cervera (alto sax) Yiannis Marinos (trombone) Ignasio Santoro (double bass) and knimes (drums). They have strong connections to The Royal Conservatory in the Hague, Cervera and Santoro being alumni while Marinos has taught there.

The opening track, ‘3.12’ sets expectations high with a spacious open sound. It’s a four minute upbeat and energised homage to soul-jazz. The addition of trombone, an instrument knimes is fascinated by the sonic possibilities of, is used by Marinos to become a wailing siren, momentarily enveloping the rest of the band with insistent waves of sound.

One of the standout tracks on the LP is ‘Journey Through Sound and Colors’ the bass intro is stately in pace with a sense of foreboding, cymbals shimmer, it feels like a spiritual jazz theme, the effect is heavy but with a balance between light and dark elements. There’s also a tension between the sax and trombone, a concentrated dialogue with Marinos’ trombone riff providing a rock solid structure around which the tune can evolve.

This is followed by the bluesy ‘DC’ which sees Cervera in a mood reminiscent of Coltrane’s mellower and sweeter 60s tones. As I listened, the thought struck me that the music has a very clean sound to it, and sure enough, the next tune up is actually titled ‘Clean’, it’s sharp, angular and brings to mind passages from the Mingus album Ah Um. ‘The Haunt’ follows in a similar vein sounding not dissimilar to Mingus’ ‘Fables of Faubus’. The two tracks make a natural pair, at first I thought they sounded too similar but once I’d figured what they reminded me of it made more sense.

Another standout track is the wonderfully titled ‘Be A Vampire’, the band explore a more current sound, its syncopated rhythms excite with the drum and bass vibe that knimes has explored on previous outings. This tune lives up to the ‘genre blurring’ promise with its contemporary edge.

‘Waltz for Gloria’ ties in neatly with the earlier hints of spiritual jazz in ‘A Journey Through Sound and Colors’ this time with the addition of Cervera’s flute making the connection explicit. The tone of the trombone really brings a deep sense of colour to the music here. The addition of this instrument and the way it’s featured throughout the album shows a real finesse at the heart of the group and from knimes himself.

The record closes with a birth, ‘The Birth of Joy’ perhaps acting as a signpost to the band’s future intentions.

James Read

Astral Travelling Since 1993