Mulatu Astatke ‘Mulatu Steps Ahead’ (Strut) 4/5

This the much anticipated follow up to Mulatu’s album with the Heliocentrics, this time recorded in Addis Adaba, Boston and London, and it does not disappoint. Throughout there is an effortless feel and the original 1960s and 1970s atmosphere of his original classic albums is rekindled without it being in any way contrived. The music is inspired by Astatke’s travels, taking in residencies at Harvard university where he taught and even recent tours to France. The latter is alluded to in the mid-temp groover that is ‘The way to Nice’ , featuring a muted harmon solo, while for the former ‘Radcliffe’ has a distinctive late night set at the Village Vanguard feel with jazzy vibes helping to create a moody and reflective ambience. A lovely laid back jazz groove is conjured up on ‘Ethio blues’ which betrays a homage to Duke Ellington in the use of horns and to Milt Jackson and the Modern Jazz Quartet in the use of vibraphone. In a more uptempo vein are two reworkings of his earlier repertoire, namely the Latin-soul flavoured ‘Boogaloo’, which in style is reminiscent of both Mongo Santamaria’s ‘Watermelon man’ and Eddie Harris’ ‘Cold duck time’, and the heavy percussion workout number that is ‘I faram gami I faram’. This features a delightful Latin jazz piano vamp with wailing chanting and could just as easily be something that the Latin Jazz Sextet conjured up, with salsa-esque horns and haunting jazz-inflected vibes making this a clear album highlight. Modal piano hues in a larger setting that McCoy Tyner might be familiar with are demonstrated further on the big band latino of ‘Green Africa’ which echoes ‘Afro Blue’ in its form with an Ethiopian string instrument adding a touch of authenticity to proceedings. One minor gripe with this otherwise excellent release; the voice of Mulatu Astatke presenting the album on every single track does begin to grate by the end. This aside, ‘Mulatu steps ahead’ is a terrific example of Ethio-jazz with Mulatu Astatke’s sound as contemporary as ever.

Tim Stenhouse

David S. Ware ‘Saturinian. Solo Saxophone Vol.1’ (Aum Fidelity) 3/5

This CD captures David S. Ware in a live performance at the Abrous Art Center and is a full-on solo saxophone performance from October 2009. There are only three extended pieces on offer and at forty minutes there could have been a more generous coupling for the listener, possibly with a trio or even quartet outing. Nonetheless for devotees of Ware, this will prove to be a rewarding experience. Ware introduces reed instruments that became famous with Roland Kirk in the 1960s and 1970s such as the stritch (a kind of elongated soprano saxophone for the uninitiated) and the less well known saxello. Far from being squawking melodic-free improvisations, there is a great deal of solemn reflection in ‘Anthe’ and even joyous gospel spirit in ‘Pallene’. Not for the faint hearted among saxophone aficionados, Ware is to be commended for his no holds barred approach and no attempt at any kind of compromise to commercial pressures whatsoever. His fans would expect no less.

Tim Stenhouse

Josefine Cronholm ‘Songs of the Falling Feather’ (ACT) 3/5

Swedish singer Josefine Cronholm belongs firmly in the singer-songwriter category and if anything her music verges towards the folk-rock era of early Joni Mitchell with the odd nod to jazzier inflections as previous collaborations with former Miles Davis percussionist Marilyn Mazur have hinted at. Now resident in Copenhagen where the album was recorded, Cronholm has co-produced a reflective and intimate album that in some ways is comparable to Joni’s ‘Blue’ recording. This is most evident on ‘Winter princess’ which is, perhaps, her finest vocal performance while ‘Quiet’ enters Norah Jones territory and with the subtle use of trumpet is the closest that Cronholm gets to jazz. Pared down instrumentation on the folksy ‘Seagulls’ with just guitar to accompany impresses and the use of strings is never intrusive. In general the sparseness of the musical environment merely reflects Cronholm’s own upbringing in the wide expansive forest land of Sweden. The project is the brainchild not only of Josefine Cronholm, but of co-arranger, producer and fellow musician Henrik Lindstrand. The majority of the album is in a similar laid back mood and some change in tempo would have provided the listener with a little more variety. Nonethless this has plenty of potential to appeal to a diverse audience from folk fans through to mainstream pop.

Tim Stenhouse

Jimmy Giuffre ‘Jimmy Giuffre 3’ (Poll Winners Records) 5/5

Another superb value two LPs on 1 CD release that captures clarientist Jimmy Giuffre at his absolute peak and in a chamber jazz setting that even today sounds as fresh as the day it was recorded. The coupling brings together the ‘Jimmy Giuffre 3’ and ‘Travelling light’ sessions, both dating from December 1956. They are definitive examples of what came to be known as the west coast sound in its most intimate of surroundings. On the former the line up of Jim Hall on guitar, Ralph Peña on bass and Giuffre on clarinet produces some superlative music, none better than a seminal version of ‘The train and the river’. 
Above all it is simply the sheer joy of playing together that jumps aout at thel istener and this is no hasard encounter since the trio regluarly practiced together in bassists Peña’s Hollywood garage. The album cover says it all really with a classic photograph from none other than William Claxton. For the second album, we find a highly unusual combination of trio plus valve trombone with Giuffre alternating between clarinet and tenor saxophone with Bob Brookmeyer replacing Peña in trio duties on trombone. Despite the addition of brass, the trio still manage to maintain their individual as well as collective positions from previuosly and this is none better ilustrated than on the title track opener. Given the telepathic relationship betwene musicians contained on these albums, it is surprising that Giuffre and Hall only recorded once more and this was in 1963. One would have loved to hear the trio stretch out in a live setting. Extensive new liner notes and orginal Downbeat reviews of the albums greatly enhance our appreciation of the music within. A winner all the way and the starting point for all chamber jazz that followed including the great Oregon.

Tim Stenhouse

Sebastien Texier Trio ‘Don’t Forget You’re An Animal’ (Cristal) 4/5

Multi-reedist Sebastien Texier comes from an impeccable French jazz family background, being the son of bassist Henri and this excellent trio outing will do a great deal to enhance the standing of the former as a leader in his own right. In fact the ambience is very much that of the now defunct Label Bleu label out of France and there is sparse intimacy to proceedings that is not dissimilar to Steve Lacy, or even the classic Sonny Rollins mid-50s recordings while other influences would probably include Eric Dolphy and Jan Garbarek. The all-original compositions are at once melodic and challenging and Texier alternates between clarinet on lyrical pieces such as ‘Lilian tears’, bass clarinet on freer improvisations such as on the bizarrely titled ‘Pain de singe’ (literally ‘monkey’s bread’) and more conventional soprano saxophone on some of the other pieces. A quasi-oriental feel permeates ‘Hyena’s night’ that picks up in tempo part way through and with plenty of gusto in the reed solo. Father Henri guests on three tracks, though regular trio bassist Claude Tchamitchian impresses, particularly on the co-written composition ‘Tango’. Evocative clarinet playing on ‘Yellow cab experience’ wonderfully conveys the urgency of a taxi ride in the Big Apple. A beautiful clarity of sound on the recording simply adds to the pleasurable listening experience. Now approaching his fortieth year, Sebastien Texier is definitely a musician to watch out for in the future.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Next stop Soweto. Township sounds from the golden age of Abaqanga’ (Strut) 4/5

Coinciding with the forthcoming hosting of the football World Cup in South Africa this summer, Strut have wisely decided to take an in-depth look at the wealth of musical sounds on offer in the country and as part of a three volume series (with volumes two and three to follow during spring and summer devoted to soul, funk and hammond grooves, and jazz respectively) comes the first instalment which focuses fairly and squarely on the township music of Soweto, known locally as Mbaqanga. A variety of styles fused to create this sound and of the twenty songs on offer one hears gospel, rumba, folk and even jazz inflections condensed into the tasty singles that were released back in the 1970s. From listening to the uplifting sounds one would hardly realise that this music, predominantly from the seventies era, came at a time of major political unrest during the apartheid regime, yet it was precisely because of the extreme harshness of the then conditions (not that present daily economic conditions at least have improved a great deal from that era) that people from the townships needed music to heal the soul. Gorgeous female harmonies dominate from groups of the calibre of the Mahotella Queens and Mahlathini Queens. For the former the horn-led ‘Zwe Kumusha’ stands out while for the latter veterans ‘Umkovu’ impresses. Among the lesser known acts, the Mgababa Queens 45, ‘Maphtuthi’, contains a killer chorus and sensitive use of guitars and is unquestionably a highlight on the compilation. Jazzier hues are heard on the instrumental ‘Kuya hanjwa’ by S. Piliso his Super Seven with piano vamps and a super bassist, seemingly taking a leaf out of the innovations of Abdullah Ibrahim outside of his native country at the time. Rhythm guitars are to the fore as well as honey-toned harmonies on the opener by the Melotone Sisters and the Amaqola Band, entitled ‘I sivenoe’. With the compilation weighing in at just over fifty minutes even for twenty songs, one would ideally have liked to hear a few more examples of this joyous sounding music, but what the compilation lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in the actual quality of the sounds. Without requiring any use of synthesizers, Soweto township music nonethless succeeded in creating a deep layered sound based around terrific musicianship and this is one of the most impressive aspects of the music heard here. No details of the individual artists or songs contained therein with the promo copy reviewed. Strut are to be congratulated for unearthing these hard to find 45s in the first place and the re-mastering is crisp and clear while not taking away the earthier production skills that were an integral part of music at this time.

Tim Stenhouse

Tamikrest ‘Adagh’ (Glitterhouse) 4/5

Following on from the revelatory sounds of Tiniwaren, another Tuareg group whose native Tamashek language cuts across the political boundaries of Algeria, Libya, Mali and Nigeria, are being introduced for the first time to an international audience with their debut global album, ‘Adagh’. As with Tinariwen, Tamikrest are as much a visual as they are a sonic treat and it was via the Festival of the desert concerts during 2008 that a musical collaboration was founded between the band members and U.S./Australian rock veterans Dirtmusic who have brought their technical savoir-faire of studio procedures to help Tamikrest complete the project. There is an overall trance-like quality to several of the songs and this reflects in part the nomadic existence which the group members have experienced with especially adverse political and social conditions for their people in recent times, and certainly the band see themselves as being spokespersons who are able to use their music as a vehicle to highlight the plight of their people. The guitar riff on the atmospheric ‘Aîcha’ hints at a distinctly Arabic feel, though both funk and rock guitar influences are instantly discernable on this song and this makes for an intriguing mix. Hypnotic and encapsulating are two adjectives that immediately spring to mind when hearing ‘Tidie tille’ while the opener ‘Outamachek’ possesses a relentless driving blues-rock beat with ‘oulala’ chanting and even the hint of a reggae influence on rhythm guitars. A more reflective side to the band’s sound is displayed on ‘Aratane n’adagh’ which gradually builds in intensity and on the melodic ‘Alhorya’. Recorded at the Bogolan studios in Mali, this is a truly beautifully produced album that nonetheless enables the rougher edge to the music to come to the surface. Both Tamikrest and Dirtmusic (whose album will be reviewed shortly) are expected to tour the UK during 2010 and this promises to be a major event for fans of African and world roots music more generally. The evocative gatefold sleeve and beautifully illustrated inner sleeve provides a glimpse of both the beauty and also the harshness of the desert and bi-lingual lyrics in English and French enable the listener to better appreciate the political struggles that Tamikrest and their fellow Tamishek speakers face in the twenty-first century.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Nigeria Special. Vol. 2 Modern Highlife and Nigerian Blues 1970-76’ 3LP/CD (Soundway) 4/5

Soundway are making a virtue out of their ongoing series devoted to Nigerian music and this latest volume rightly places emphasis on the less known aspects of the 1970s music scene, namely highlife and blues alongside the ever popularjuju. This makes a very pleasant departure from the sometimes fiery tempo of Afro-Beat and Soundway are to be congratulated for their wide-ranging selection of extremely obscure 45s from the artists contained within. One of the revelations of this compilation is the influence of the blues upon Nigerian music and how this manifests itself in its localised interpretation. A fine example is to be found in the lovely blues-inflected hues on guitar of ‘Psychadelic baby’ by Fubura Sekibo with incessant percussion. More laid back in approach is the irresistible dancefloor groove of Etubom Rex Williams and his Nigerian Artists who deliver a cool collective chant with warm saxophone solo on ‘ISIP 2’. In general there are some wonderfully inventive names of groups throughout with perhaps pride of place going to the Professional Seagulls Dance Band of Port Harcourt and the delicate intro to ‘Ibi awo iyi’ before horns enter and the tempo shifts decisively upwards. Classic juju sounds arrive in the shape of James Etamobe and his All Weather Band with a relentless percussive beat on ‘Agboyabakpa’ while highlife from the masterful Bola Johnson and his Easy Life Top Beats impresses on ‘Jeka Dubu’, with a more uptempo take on the genre being offered by Commander in Chief Stephen Osita and his Nigerian Sound Makers on ‘Onyeb chi’. Afro-Beat is not altogether forgotten with one number, the intriguingly titled ‘Lords prayer’ (though bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the original) by the Don Isaac Ezekiel Combination, displaying the influence of Fela in the group sound. Overall a truly excellent overview of much neglected side to Nigerian music internationally, certainly outside West Africa, and re-mastered 45s that retain all the clarity and power of when they were first released. As always with a Soundway release, much care and attention to detail in the evocative visual cover and informative inner sleeve notes.

Tim Stenhouse

Raul Midón ‘Synthesis’ (Emarcy/Universal) 3/5

American-born singer Raul Midón comes from an Anglo-Latino background with Argentine father and American mother and this is very much reflected in the way in which he defies categorisation, sometimes entering soul, pop rock and even folk territories at different moments, though a contemporary acoustic take on R ‘n’ B seems to be his preferred genre. There is in fact something of a 1970s feel to the singer and his influences would seem to include among others the jazzy pop singer Michael Franks, various folk-rock singer-songwriters and even Sting. He may well be being groomed for crossover pop chart territory and if so the jazzy influenced bossa groove of ‘Everyone deserves a second chance’ would be an ideal candidate and by some distance the album’s outstanding track. Another potential song for release as a single is ‘Don’t be a silly man’, where his voice is almost Sting-like while a more sensitive side to the singer is displayed on the mid-tempo ‘When you call my name’. Not everything works such as the pop-rock of ‘Next generation’ or the cod-reggae of ‘Invisible chains’, where Midón may be aiming to reproduce interest that Eric Clapton kindled on ‘I shot the sheriff’. The backing band is impressive to say the least with the cream of session musicians including Larry Goldings on organ, Dean Parks on guitar and Paulinho Da Costa on percussion with overall producer Larry Klein doubling up on drums on some songs. This album may well find a bigger audience in the States, but there is no doubting the talent of the singer who positively revels in diverse musical genres.

Tim Stenhouse