Various ‘Playing For Change: Songs Around The World’ CD/DVD (Concord) 3/5

playing-for-changeAn interesting musical concept that is as much a visual as an audio experience and one where the message behind probably far outweighs the musical content itself. This is a concept album in the truest sense of the word and the brainchild of music engineer Mark Johnson who has spent ten years putting this project together. Was it worth all the effort? The answer is a qualified yes, but with some reservations. From a technical perspective the result is a feat of no little skill and the ethos behind the project is certainly a laudable one. The power of music to enact change and reach people directly is a key message and one that few would disagree with in these times of major political and technological change. 
However, covering well-known songs with a variety of largely unknown acts (with notable exceptions such as Bono and Keb Mo)was always likely to be a risky enterprise and one wonders how far this project will reach beyond Europe and the United States, preaching to a largely already committed public. The album works best on the DVD where a multitude of world roots instruments are deployed to accompany vocals songs such as Bob Marley’s ‘War’ and ‘One Love’. Community youth choirs from a far afield as Omagh in Northern Ireland and the Group Afro Fiesta from South Africa are seamlessly woven together along with individual instrumentalists from the Indian sub-continent and even a band from New Orleans. The problem lies in that the overall musical accomplishment is a fairly mundane version of songs that have been covered on numerous occasions previously and far more convincingly by individual artists. Consequently this writer scores two points for the musical content and four for the visual impact and logic behind the project. Perhaps for the future a more challenging selection of songs would enhance matters. Nonetheless this album may inspire other artists and is at least to be commended for introducing a wider public to relatively unrecognised musicians.

Tim Stenhouse

Diana Krall ‘Quiet Nights’ (Verve) 3/5

diana-krallPart recorded in Rio de Janeiro and part in California, this Tommy Lipuma produced album is Diana Krall’s take on the bossa nova. It has to be stated that this is more a revisiting of the American songbook with a few Brazilian touches than a bona fide attempt at capturing the feel of bossa nova. The collaboration of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Frank Sinatra was most successful in conveying the cool, swinging new sound at the time and more recently pianist/vocalist Eliane Elias has covered a wider range of styles. Where Krall falls down is in the predominance of rather uninspiring somber and understated numbers when some uplifting sambas might have given the album a more balanced feel. Only one song is in Portuguese, the Jobim song, Este seu olhar’, one of three Jobim compositions. The symphonic arrangements courtesy of Claus Ogerman can overpower Krall’s breathy vocals as on ‘Quiet nights’. In fact Krall shines best of all on the blues-inflected ‘How can you mend a broken heart?’ and an entire album of songs in this vein might be a better option for the future. It is only on ‘The boy from Ipanema’ that Krall begins to stretch out on the piano. Back to the drawing board for any future take on Brazilian music and a far greater input is required from Brazilian musicians.

Tim Stenhouse

Pedro Luis e A Parede ‘Ponto Enredo’ (World Village) 4/5

pedro-luis-e-a-paredeThis Rio-based group can be best described as the left-field side of samba, but one that is highly melodic nonetheless. Pedro Luis et A Parade successfully fuse traditional samba with other influences, notably funk and rock rhythms, and in this respect have taken a leaf out of the pioneering sounds of Chico Science and Nacao Zumbi from Recife in north-east Brazil. From the opener ‘Santo samba’ the alternative take on samba becomes apparent with dissonant guitar in the background. The title track is a haunting song with echoey dub guitar and drums whereas ‘Repudio’ is a laid-back samba with an indie-rock sensibility. Large-scale escola de samba percussion combine with synths on the lengthily titled ‘Ela tem a beleza que eu nunca sonhei’ while the pared-down percussive breakdown of ‘Mandingo’ reveals a funkier side to the group’s repertoire. It is the slide guitar that surfaces on the old school samba of ‘4 horizontes’ which features the indispensable sound of the cavaquinho (a small ukelele-sounding string instrument) and the cuica drum. Excellent art graphics from the interestingly named Billy Bacon (another intriguing Brazilian fusion, perhaps?)round off a highly entertaining and different updated take on a music form that is now inextricably linked to the Brazilian national character.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Panama 2’ (Soundways) 2LP/CD 5/5

panama-2The much-anticipated follow-up to the superb volume one is finally with us. 
It was the former that introduced us to the varied sounds of Panamanian music and the original liner notes read like a vinyl collectors dream. Stumbling upon a treasure trove of rare grooves in central America. Volume two takes up the story again and is a cornucopia of musical delights on offer. What is interesting is that the major Latin labels of new York used Panama as a testing ground for their products’ sounds. This exposed Panamanians to a whole range of top quality music from the Tico and Fania labels to name but a few. On this compilation the styles vary from heavy Latin descargas to tropical cumbia and funk-laden calypso covering the decade 1967-1977. The opener ‘La Murga’ by Papi Brandao y su conjunto sets the tone with a song composed and made famous by Puerto Rican tromobonist/vocalist/producer Wille Colon and inpsired by an indigenous rhythm of Panama referred to in the title. Another Colon tune, the instrumental ‘Jazzy’ is revisited by Los Papacitos while the hard-hitting guaguanco ‘La confianza’ by Menique el Panameno con Bush y los Magnificos shifts from Afro-Cuban intro to montuno section effortlessly. Camilo Azuquita has made a career in France since the late 1970s, but here we find him on a classic salsa dura song on ‘Borombon’.
For left-field music fans, ‘Juck Juck Pt. 1’ by Sir Jablonsky fits the bill perfectly. While the bass and drums are influenced by funk, the guitar riffs are roots reggae and the horns and vocals classic calypso, or at least the Panamanian take on the genre. This musical metissage should not come as a great surprise when one looks at a map of the region and realises the proximity of Trinidad and the facility with which the casual radio listener can tune in to a multitude of different sounds. Among other numbers, the percussive instrumental take on ‘Ain’t no sunshine’ by the Soul Fanatics impresses as does the Latin rock of the Santana-influenced ‘Descarga superior’ complete with saxophone solo by Los Superiores. Factor in the usual high standard of sleeve notes and graphics with original single/album labels and covers and you have one of the year’s indispensable compilations.

Tim Stenhouse

Victor Olaiya’s ‘All Stars Soul International’ (Vampi Soul) 3/5

victor-olaiyaThe Funky Lagos saga continues with this re-issue of a 1970 LP that came out in Nigeria and combines highlife and funk. The songs on the original either side segue into one another and this gives the album as whole the feel of a non-stop mix. James Brown influences are all too obvious on covers of ‘Cold Sweat’ and ‘There was a time’, the former featuring an extended saxophone solo. Of the highlife cuts, the highly melodic ‘Okere gwonko’ hints at 1960s Bobby Benson while ‘Soro jeje fum arogbo’ fuses traditional highlife with US funk to good effect even if the female vocals are not the strongest. Clearly modern Nigerian music was in the process of defining itself at this time and consequently songs such as ‘New Nigeria’ and ‘Everybody needs love’ were searching for a happy medium between external influences and updating traditional genres. Funk fans will probably be more satisfied with this album than world roots ones. As ever with Vampi Soul releases, a beautifully illustrated gatefold sleeve with detailed notes inside courtesy of Max Reinhardt.

Tim Stenhouse