Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics ‘Inspiration Information’ LP/CD (Strut) 4/5

mulatu-astatke-heliocentricsLegendary Ethiopian keyboardist Mulatu Astatke came to the attention of a wider audience via the musical soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s film ‘Broken flowers’. This new recording on the Strut dance label, part of a collaborative series, intriguingly pairs him with band the Heliocentrics and on the whole it is a collaboration that works surprisingly well, and one that respects the vast Ethiopian tradition. It is the Latin-influenced ‘Cha Cha’ that immediately impresses with a heavy rhythm section, distinctive Ethiopan-sounding horns, and relentless grooves. 
Equally hypnotic and gaining in intensity as the track progresses from a leisurely intro is ‘Dewel’ with a nice saxophone solo into the bargain. 
Contrast that with the oriental flavour of ‘Phantom of the panther’ featuring a lovely keyboard solo from Astatke. Far from oriental in approach is ‘Chinese New Year’ which can be best described as an off-key jazz trip hop of a groove. Another highlight is the mid-tempo riff laden ‘Eskete dance’ with subtle use of horns. Not all the tracks have an Ethiopian influence and ‘Blue Nile’ is a drum heavy groove that will appeal to long-time fans of the Heliocentrics. This could prove to be one of those slow burner albums that ends up providing the soundtrack to early summer.

Tim Stenhouse

Madeleine Peyroux ‘Bare Bones’ (Rounder) 4/5

madeleine-peyrouxFollowing on from ‘Half the prefect world’, released some two years ago, Madeleine Peyroux returns to form with a melancholic yet gently uplifting album and one that showcases her excellent songwriting talents. One again production chores are down to regular band member Larry Klein who first came on board with the second album. The opener ‘Instead’ is an obvious candidate for a single and the pared down instrumentation sets the scene for the album as whole which borders on old-time jazz, blues and folk among other influences. One again keyboardist Larry Golding excels, particularly on the blues-inflected hues of the title track, one of the album’s most immediate songs. Highlighting the variety of songs on offer is the mid-tempo ‘To love you all over again’, which could easily have been penned during the early 1970s folk-rock boom. Ballads are equally in evidence and ‘Love and treachery’ works most effectively with a lovely wurlitzer piano solo. The extraordinary musical career of Madeleine Peyroux, which has taken in busking on the streets of Paris, now seems on a more conventional trajectory and this latest offering will appeal to a wide audience beyond the confines of jazz and to all fans of quality Americana.

Tim Stenhouse

Allen Toussaint ‘The Bright Mississippi’ (Nonesuch) 5/5

allen-toussaintLegendary singer-songwriter, pianist and master producer Allen Toussaint has delivered one of the finest albums of his glittering career with this jazz-inspired project, devoted to the great jazz writers from Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington through to Django Reinhardt and Thelonius Monk. In so doing he has enlisted the collaborative talents of Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Don Byron on clarinet and Marc Ribot on guitar and this works wonderfully well. Factor in on a song apiece the talents of fellow pianist Brad Mehldau and tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman and you have a magnificent array of the jazz world’s major exponents on offer. While this is not the first foray into jazz that Toussaint has made (the 2005 indie label ‘Going Places’ preceding the present album), it is by far the most successful. Classic renditions of evergreen blues and jazz compositions abound and this is amply illustrated on the instrumental ‘Singin’ The Blues’ which features appropriately blues licks from Toussaint and the gorgeous tone of Payton. An album highlight is the take on ‘St. James Infirmary’ on which the acoustic guitar of Marc Ribot is outstanding and he obviously delights in trading licks with Toussaint. Indeed it is the degree of collaboration between musicians that makes the album so cohesive and on Ellington’s ‘Solitude’ guitar and piano duet alone, showcasing a side to Ribot’s playing seldom heard previously. Likewise the contemplative ballad ‘Day Dream’ allows Toussaint to team up with Redman and so compelling is the end result that the two should seriously consider an entire album between the two of them to rival the Hank Jones and Joe Lovano collaborations. This will go down as one of the most effective recent interpretations of the New Orleans jazz style and the Crescent city continues to exert a major influence on countless artists from Elvis Costello (with whom Toussaint worked on the ‘River In Reverse’ album in 2006), Jools Holland to Tom Waits, and of course just about every conceivable musical form.

Tim Stenhouse

Bob James ‘Best of’ 2CD (Salvo) 4/5

bob-jamesMulti-instrumentalist Bob James has sometimes been unfairly stereotyped as a formulaic smooth jazz exponent, but this excellent value set bears testimony to a wide and varied career, and one in which James has been prepared to make regular stylistic and personnel changes. CD 1 focuses on the mid-1970s recordings on CTI and this established James as a gifted composer and arranger. Several cuts from the first three albums became heavily sampled among hip-hop and rap artists and ‘Nautilus’ and Westchester Lady’ rate among the very best and catchiest of 1970s fusion. In fact it was an instrumental version of Roberta Flack’s ‘Feel like makin’ love’ (with the original vocal featuring similar personnel) that became a hit for James and this unexpectedly resulted in his solo career taking off after numerous sideman duties. Of course most casual fans will know him best through ‘Angie’, the title track to the US series ‘Taxi Driver’.
While James is not a virtuoso soloist in the vein of Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner, it was the combination of his arranging and keyboard skills that singled him out as a unique talent and in this respect more akin to Clare Fischer or Quincy Jones. CD 2 takes the story on throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Possibly further cuts from the commercially successful ‘Sign of the Times’ could have been included. However, the compilation provides a useful overview of his career, very generously timed, and with extensive liner notes that feature original photos and album covers. As an introduction to Bob James’ craft, it could hardly be bettered.

Tim Stenhouse

Paul Clarvis and Liam Noble ‘Starry Starry Night’ (Village Life) 4/5

paul-clarvis-liam-nobleThis is a highly inventive duet between pianist Liam Noble and drummer Paul Clarvis and one that stands out from the solo, trio or quartet formats normally associated with the piano. The former musician is a well-respected pianist on the UK jazz scene and has accompanied among others vocalists Christine Tobin and Anita Wardell. On this pared down, intimate recording, the pair of instrumentalists cover an eclectic range of repertoire from the great American songbook through ragtime and on to more contemporary singer-songwriter territory that takes in Don McLean, Paul Simon and even Gillian Welch. That the apparently disparate pieces come together into a cohesive whole is testimony to the undoubted talent of Clarvis and Noble. Standards are sometimes taken at a decidely quicker tempo than per usual as on ‘Shadow of your smile’ with the pair trading off one another lick and the stripped down instrumentation allows the underlying melody to shine through. 
Pianist Noble has taken in most of the modern jazz influences from Bill Evans and Monk to Jarrett, but on the delicious take of Simon’s ‘So long, Frank Wright’ plays very much in the vein of Brad Mehldau. Matters are concluded by a minimalist take on Moondog’s ‘Paris’ with Clarvis excelling on sticks. A fine collaboration and one that indicates that good things do come in small offerings.

Tim Stenhouse

John Scofield ‘Piety Street’ (Emarcy/Universal) 4/5

john-scofieldThis is a new avenue for John Scofield on his latest project, a tribute to the gospel songs he has listened to for many years that takes in the compositions of the Reverend Jems Cleveleand, Thomas Dorsey and even country great Hank Williams. However, it is given a gritty blues feel and one with a distinctive New Orleans sensitivity, being recorded in the Crescent city with some of its finest studio musicians. While a vocal-led album, there is plenty of space for Scofield to solo and in parts this is reminiscent of Robert Cray while in others it reminds one of a Santana project. As such this will appeal to a wide audience beyond the confines of the guitarist’s faithful. Among the standout songs are a terrific version of ‘Motherless Child’ featuring the soulful vocals of Jon Cleary on which Scofield lets rip with a guitar solo, and which morphs into a catchy reggae beat two-thirds in. A churchy ambience is felt on ‘It’s a big army and Scofield obviously displays an empathy with the genre. As he explains in the reasoning for the project: ‘Gospel music is the fraternal twin to R & B and I’ve long been a huge fan so I decided to record some of the pieces I like best’. The gentler side to his playing is displayed on the Hank Williams ballad, ‘The Angel of Death’ and he stretches out on ‘His eyes on the sparrow’. All in all a coherent and well executed album which seamlessly moves from blues, funk to post-bop and reggae, and that would benefit greatly from live gigs to convey that spicy New Orleans beat.

Tim Stenhouse

Ronnie McNeir ‘Ronnie McNeir’ (Dusty Groove) 4/5

ronnie-mcneirModern soul singer Ronnie McNeir is a multi-talented musician who has combined songwriting, singing and keyboard playing duties throughout his career. Indeed he began his musical training as a pianist before setting off to California where he met Kim Weston who was instrumental in securing an album deal for him with RCA. As McNeir explained in a 1990s interview for UK Vibe, despite the early local success of the album he did not feel the label marketed it sufficiently well, “I did my first album, 1972. It was on RCA records and they didn’t push it…Although it was doing well. It went to no. 1 in Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Louisville’. The album as a whole works convincingly as a concept one and where between individual songs musical interludes and raps interweave, doubtless taking a leaf out of the Isaac Hayes approach at the time. In time the eponymously titled album would become a modern soul classic that fans would search for. Of immediate interest is ‘In Summertime’ with its fender-driven intro and beautifully constructed harmony while on the uptempo stomper ‘I’m So Grateful’, there are gospel overtones with McNeir’s voice emerging to the fore and overall a Motown feel in evidence. With the use of tambourines for effect, ‘Gone Away’ is another song with the underlying influence of Detroit. The musical collage feel to the album is created by the instrumental interludes and dialogues between songs and clearly the recent release at the time of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’ exerted an influence upon musicians at the time. This is illustrated by ‘Daddy’s Comin’ Home’, a lovely mid-tempo number that draws upon the Gaye classic, even though the laid back delivery of the vocals hint more at Leroy Hutson. The presence of Gaye is felt also on ‘Trouble’s A Loser’ with the instrumentation similar to that of Marvin’s soundtrack album ‘Trouble Man’ and came out the same year as McNeir’s album so he may possibly have heard it before recording. McNeir would go on to record for the Motown side label Prodigal in 1975 and he recorded a self-titled album for the main label a year later. However, he remained outside the mainstream and it was left to British soul fans to champion his cause as a leader with ‘Everybody’s In A Hurry’ being a particular favourite among modern soul fans. Ronnie became part of a later re-incarnation of the Four Tops and as a producer worked with the likes of Smoky Robinson, David Ruffin and Teena Marie among others.

Tim Stenhouse