Aaron Parks ‘Invisible Cinema’ (Blue Note) 4/5

Seattle born pianist Aaron Parks has packed a lot into his relatively young (twenty-four)years. From jazz mentors of the calibre of Kenny Barron, Fred Hirsch and latterly a tenure in Terence Blanchard’s band, to university studies begun at the tender age of fifteen, Parks is one precocious talent. On his debut for Blue Note he takes in multiple influences that range from Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter on the jazz side to Bjork, Radiohead and Talk Talk in the world of rock. In this respect he is like many of his contemporaries and not dissimilar to Brad Mehldau. What is interesting about the quartet is the interplay between guitarist Mike Moreno and piano on the one hand, and the subtle use of electric keyboards and drums on the other to create a layered, sometimes rock-inflected groove. In this respect there is a nod to EST in attitude, but in the sound created this is far more in the vein of a pared-down version of Pat Metheny in a quartet setting.
Beautiful ensemble work permeates ‘Karma’ with musicians playing off each other to wonderful effect whereas ‘Nemesis’ is characterised by a catchy and effective simple piano riff after which the guitar takes off. The expansive ballad ‘Praise’ showcases the refinement and maturity in Park’s piano style. No standards and all originals makes for an accomplished debut that promises a great deal for the future. Last year Robert Glasper was rightly hailed as a major new talent. This year the mantle must surely be passed on to Aaron Parks and one looks forward to the trajectory in development of his next releases.

Tim Stenhouse

Shinichi Yuize ‘Koto Classics Japan’ (Nonesuch) 4/5

Originally recorded in 1966 by traditional music specialist Yuize, this CD showcases the rootsy stringed instrument that is the Koto. In fact the koto is an approximately six foot, thirteen-stringed instrument and one that has to be played with three ivory picks that are placed on various fingers of the right hand. There is debate over whether the instrument arrived in Japan from China during the fifth century. What is beyond dispute, however, is the sheer beauty and meditational sound of the koto. Shinachi Yuize is a world-renowned practitioner of the instrument and one who has recorded with other classical musicans from throughout the world, notably Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin. Among the five extended pieces, three are instrumental solo compositions while the remaining two are koto plus vocals and it is the former that impress most of all. The opener ‘Zangetsu’ typfies the haunting koto sound in all its glory while the lengthy ‘Midare’ incorporates several sections and explores a wider musical canvass. One minor gripe is the cover photography which is a little dull in black and white and lacking in clarity. Given the wonderful cover on the original vinyl, it seems strange this was not reproduced in full. Otherwise this is an excellent release that, because of the spiritual nature of the recording, will appeal to an audience beyond those interested exclusively in the Far East, and in particular jazz fans will find much to appreciate in the virtuosity of the playing contained within. Extended inner sleeve notes significantly enhance the listener’s understanding.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Geza Music from the Kabuki’ (Nonesuch) 3/5

Japanese art form invariably combines different aspects and one of the main forms of Japanese theatre, ‘kabuki’ incorporates elements of dance, drama, music and pantomine. Within this form, Geza music refers to the off-stage music of kabuki theatre, but can also be adapted from noa theatre. Musicians in kabuki tend to be positioned in two separate locations; on stage with the principal instruments such as the shamisen, flute and drums; a separate small room concealed by a bamboo curtain where percussion instruments are played and actors often provide the sound effects. The music itself is to this listener’s ears folkloric in sound and pared down to the bare minumum. Particularly impressive is the flute and koto solo on ‘Aikata’. Impressionistic in tone, the music is inextricably linked to the play unfolding on stage. The instructive and extensive inner sleeve notes provide much needed historical context for the newcomer to this form of music. It should be pointed out that the music here is best appreciated in conjunction with viewing a film tale of traditional kabuki theatre and the ‘47 Ronin’ is one of the all-time classics.

Tim Stenhouse

Seun Kuti and Fela’s Egypt 80 ‘Many Things’ (Tot Ou Tard) 4/5

Youngest son of Fela Kuti, Seun has largely avoided the international limelight for some time while honing his live skills with various members of Fela’s Egypt 80 band. Indeed as barely a teenager Seun opened as a live act for his father at the legendary Shrine venue in Lagos. The result is a superb, hard hitting debut album that contains all the urgency of Fela’s albums and more of a cutting edge in sound than that of older brother Femi. Like his father, Seun uses vernacular pigeon English to get across sometimes complex messages in the most concise and direct manner possible.

Produced by ace pan-African specialist Frenchman Martin Meissonnier (of Khaled and King Sunny Ade production duties), this album does not hold back in it’s critique of African governments and society. This is exemplified on ‘Don’t take that shit to me’ which is in essence a political tirade against corrupt and incopmetent government in Africa. The title track makes some trenchant observations on social conditions in Nigeria and the subtle use of keyboards and gorgeous melody creates an infectous and intoxicating rhythm. Seun Kuti is, however, not only sending out negative messages, but also encourages his (African) listeners to overcome psychological enslavement on ‘African problems’. In general the album impresses with its variation in the use of tempo and by no means all tracks are taken at breakneck speed. Clearly there is a sophisticated musical mind at work here behind these unconpromising social messages. French national radio is already heralding this as one of the best albums of the year and it is certainly a prime contender for project that most closely resembles the socio-political as well as musical edge that characterised so much of Fela Ransome Kuti’s output.

Tim Stenhouse

Amadou and Mariam ‘Welcome to Mali’ (Because) 4/5

Blind Malian couple Amadou and Mariam rose to prominence with their last CD ‘Dimanche a Bamako’, which was recorded by Manu Chao. This time the production duties fall to Frenchman Antoine Moreau with one song produced by non other than Damian Albarn. However, the overall sound is very much that of the previous album with both a deliberate and creative attempt at fusing rootsy Malian music with modern rock-influenced and on this level alone it succeeds. Little wonder that Mojo magazine have made it their album of the month and this will certainly appeal to a wider audience and one not normally accustomed to West African sounds. Uplifting songs with high tempo rhythms predominate here as illustrated on the funky ‘Unissons-nous’ with Nigerian-UK based singer Kezia Jones guesting, or ‘Compagnon de la vie’ with its catchy riff and lovely hammond organ. However, on a lengthy album that weighs in at over sixty-five minutes and fifteen songs, the most impressive compositions that depart from the script and offer an alternative side ot the couple. The hypnotic groove of ‘Magoss’ with jazzy inflections on bass clarinet and inventive flute is a highlight as is the use of Malian violin on the haunting mid-tempo ‘Bozos’. Possibly the most traditional sounding piece is ‘Djuru’ with the use of kora over a heavy backbeat. Factor in more guest vocals from French rocker Juan Rozoff on ‘Je te kiffe’ and Damon Albarn’s layered electronica on ‘Sabali’ and you have an inspired album that will surely catapult Amadou and Mariam into the big time in the English-speaking world.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘More Dirty Laundry’ (Trikont) 4/5

Following up on the critically acclaimed first volume, this second instalment explores in further depth the long overlooked relationship between the compositions of country music and the soulful interpretations of the world of deep soul and soul-blues, and is a joy to behold. For those not already initiated to the cross- fertilisation of genres, country and black music have always been unofficial, but consensual bedfellows (and ones that compliment each other perfectly), and have evolved separately on either side of the railroad track. Indeed through the medium of radio even in geographically segregated neighbourhoods in the States, the music of the other half was always readily accessible. This new volume is great value at over seventy-one minutes and includes some of the cream of the crop of soul and blues vocalists. Sixties icons such as James Brown, Solomon Burke and Joe Tex feature as do a trio of ladies including Ruth Brown, Margie Joseph and Tina Turner. Of these Brown impresses with her radical jazz-blues reworking of Tennessee Waltz’ and Margie Joseph weighs in with a lovely take on Dolly Parton’s ‘Touch your woman’. Among the discoveries Lou Johnson cut some of the rootsiest southern soul for Atlantic at Muscle Shoals typified by the blues-inflected selection ‘She still thinks I care’, while in O.B. McClinton we find a voice ideally suited to country songs as illustrated on ‘Talk to my children’s mama’. Soul-blues legend Clarence Frogman Henry cooks up a storm on ‘I told my pillow’ with instrumental accompaniment reminiscent of late 1950s B.B. King. 

Detailed bi-lingual liner notes courtesy of deep soul aficionado Jonathan Fischer place the music in its rightful historical perspective and help to shed light on why so many soul and blues singers from the 1940s and 1950s have been influenced by the incredibly souful hues of rootsy country singers like Patsy Cline, Lefty Frizell and the incomparable Hank Williams. As ever with Trikont classy gatefold cover and photos of the artists are to the fore.

Tim Stenhouse

Surinder Sanghu – The Fictionist (Saurango) 5/5

Take a centuries old 40-string North Indian instrument notoriously difficult to play, a 75-strong Philharmonic orchestra, two choirs, some of the finest jazz and rock musicians around, stir in African kora, Indian bansuri bamboo flute and tabla and then add just one man with a unique vision. What you get is music on an epic scale that is as bewitching as it is indefinable, as exquisitely filigreed as it is muscular. Welcome to the world of Surinder Sandhu.

His music takes in the classical traditions of India, Africa and Europe and blends in jazz and rock and roots – but it becomes something far beyond that. This is not mere hyperbole. Sandhu’s third album “The Fictionist” defies categorisation, yet it deserves a place not just on the shelf, but in the minds of all those to whom music is more than just wallpaper. This album is a jewel of an opus. Highly recommended.

Glyn Phillips

Eliane Elias ‘Bossa Nova Stories’ (Blue Note) 4/5

This is the second album from Eliane Elias this year and this time is devoted to paying tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the advent of bossa nova and pianist-singer Elias returns with an impressive homage that largely avoids the cliched pitfalls, and reinforces what a wonderful interpreter of the Brazilian repertoire she is. Carefully avoiding a tribute exclusively to Jobim (only three of his compositions are included), Elias showcases a number of other composers who were influential during the bossa period (Geraldo Pereira, Joao Donato, the great Joao Gilberto) as well as giving the bossa treatment to a few old chestnuts from the great American songbook. Using largely a Brazilian band of trio (Paulo Braga on drums, Marc Johnson on bass)plus Oscar Castro Neves on guitar and various guests plus British orchestrations from Abbey Road, Elias impresses on the pared down songs that use minimal or no orchestration. These include the wonderful ‘Falsa Baiana’ where Elias excels on vocals in Portugese, the delightful ‘Minha Saudade’ and the piano-led ‘A ra’ (’The frog’). Of course the better known pieces of the bossa songbook are not forgotten either and Elias delivers a cool version of ‘Girl from Ipanema’, a faithful take on ‘Desafinado’ and ‘Chega de Suadade’ for good measure. One cannot help but think that an artist as talented as Elias should be let loose on other post-bossa projects of Brazilian music and her ability to breath life into Brazilian ballads is ilustrated on the laid-back ‘Estate’ (’Summer’)that features Toots Thielmans on harmonica. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by the inner and outer sleeve cover photos of the diva in pose. Eliane Elias is a musician of integrity who deserves to be heard in a variety of settings.

Tim Stenhouse

Tu Sheng Peng ‘Trouble Time (Makasound) 4/5

Following on from last year’s debut masterpiece ‘Around’, Tu Sheng Peng return with another excellent slice of contemporary roots reggae. If anything the Jamaican presence is even more impressive this time and features some of the cream of the crop vocalists still alive (Clinton Fearon of the Gladiators, Derek Harriott, Michael Rose, Rod Taylor)and a whole host of DJs from Prince Jazzbo, Tappa Zukie and daddy U-Roy to Ranking Joe, U-Brown and Joseph Cotton. As before the aim is to create an acoustic, authentic and organic roots feel from the 1970s and one would be hard pushed to find a similar band that can convincingly recreate this sound in Kingston. One of the albums surprises is the pairing of reggae producer and singer legend Derek Harriott with Bunny Brown on ‘I’m a believer’. This was a masterstroke and from the lovely fender intro is an absolute gem of a song. Likewise the welcome return to recording of Rod Taylor, now permanently settled in France, who is back on top form on the rootsy ‘Love grows’. It would be a mistake, however, to think that French singers cannot convey the feeling of roots reggae. Ras Daniel Ray, lead singer of the band, offers a superlative modern anthem in ‘Vision Land’ with accompanying righteous lyrics. This receives a DJ version over the same riddim courtesy of Joseph Cotton. An added bonus is the instrumental piece ‘True love can never die’, which showcases the considerable talent of the recently departed trumpeter and long-time member of the Skatalites Johnny Moore. He will be greatly missed and this will serve as a fitting memory to him. One hopes that at some point promoters will see fit to bring the Tu Sheng Peng live act to the UK.

Tim Stenhouse

Franco and the TPOK Jazz ‘Francophonic VOl. 1 1953-1980’ 2CD (Sterns Africa) 5/5

Congolese guitarist Franco is still widely revered as Africa’s greatest musician and this Stern’s compilation is a great insight as to why. The opening track ‘Esengo ya mokili’ was made at the age of 15, after he had come to attention as a brilliant street busker who built his own guitar at the age of 7. The double CD takes us through 27 more years with 28 tracks in total and extensive sleeve notes. Some called him Godfather others the Sorcerer but we should just call him genius and revel in the brilliant music he created.

Graham Radley

Congolese guitarist and band leader Franco ranks alongside Fela Kuti as one of the true giants of African music. Indeed it is arguable that the influence of the former on numerous countries music on the African continent has been greatest of all. Had it not been for Franco’s untimely death in October 1989 when the concept of world roots music was still in its infancy, he may have become as household a name as members of the Buena Vista’s. Thankfully he left as his legacy an extensive discography and it is from this that Sterns have selected a first volume of his early period weighing in at over two and half hours. Even this only scrapes the surface of Franco’s genius, such was the prolific nature of his recording career. The evolution of his music is evident in the contrasting styles between CDs 1 and 2. The first focuses on the early years from the mid-1950s when Franco was searching for an individual style to the end of the 1960s when Congolese music was about to undergo a major transformation with the policy of ‘authenticity’. From this formative period key tracks includ ‘On entre O.k., on sort k.o.’ which is typical of Franco’s 1950s sound. Noticeable during this period is the influence of Cuban music, but here transposed into a uniquely Congolese hybrid. Whereas Cuban instrumentation would include flute, violins and piano, Congolese rumba would favour electric guitars and reverb. The influence of Cuban music was pervasive and on ‘Tcha tcha tcha de mi amor’ is a delicious slice of Congolese Cubanissimo with a nod towards the great Grand Kalle.

Political and cultural changes were afoot from the mid-1960s onwards in the newly independent Congo. With the coming to power of Mabutu in 1965 a new policy of ‘authenticite’ was implemented and this impacted upon music as in other cultural domains. Secondly, an unprecedented period of growth and confidence was characterised by the commonplace slogan ‘My Mercedes is nicer than yours’. It was into this new era that Franco had found his own distinctive sound as exemplified on the 1970 song Marie Naboy’. By the early 1970s Franco, along with long-term rival Tabu Ley Rochereau, had significantly extended the length of songs with the use of the ‘sebene’ section, and indeed Franco cut some of his most enduring music from this period. Vocalist Sam Mangwana had joined the band and the combination of his sweet vocals and Franco’s guitar virtuoso along with brassy horns resulted in an irresistable and cohesive sound that listeners will be enthralled by. From the melodic lyricism of ‘Cherie Brandowe 2’ to the Afro-Cuban feel of ‘Mabele’ with its beautiful use of brass and especially saxophone, through to the endless guitar riffs on the lengthy ‘Liberte’ and the anthemic ‘Azda’, Franco was in his golden era and the compilation could easily have filled two CDs alone with additional gems from the era. 
A lavish forty-eight page booklet with incisive bi-lingual notes from musicologist Ken Braun and original photos of Franco and band members round off an indispensable guide to the early part of le grand maitre’s career.

Tim Stenhouse