Various ‘Meet me at the Mardi Gras’ (Rounder) 3/5

New Orleans music has never really been out of fashion and this handy overview of the scene old and new will help to to place neophytes in the right direction. Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers are among the stars of the show with the CDs most impressive outing being ‘Goin’ back to New Orleans’. If the superb vocals are old school with jazzy brass (featuring clarinet and baritone saxophone no less) that Ray Charles circa 1959 would have been proud of, this contemporary recording hits all the right spots and then some. Legendary pianist-singer Professor Longhhair, better known as the Fess cooks up some fine gumbo on the title track with his oh so distinctive piano licks and trademark whistling. Anyone who has not yet investigated his back catalogue should do so with immediate effect. Another Fess classic, ‘Tipitina’ is reworked by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias with a version that is heavy on percussion and brass. Brass bands are an integral ferature of New Orleans music and in recent decades the Re Birth Brass Band have been at the forefront of promoting the city’s rich musical heritage internationally. Here they offer a decidely funky ‘Do watcha wanna Pt. 3’. Time-wise, at forty-five minutes this compilation is a tad stingy and a further twenty minutes would have been welcome. No disputing the quality of the music on offer, though. Tim Stenhouse

Dr. John ‘Locked down’ (Nonesuch) 5/5

In the last few albums Dr. John has unquestionably been reinvigorated and recorded some memorable sides, but on this latest set he has surpassed even those high standards by serving up a musical Cajun stew that promises to be one of the very best of his career. Indeed it is in many respects a return to the ‘Gris Gris’ era, though with contemporary influences adding to the cosmopolitan nature of the project that include both Afrobeat and Ethio-jazz flavours. For dancefloor delight, it is difficult to outdo the superb ‘Get away’ which has featured heavily on radio play while New Orleans style soul has rerely been better executed than on ‘God’s sure good’, another album highlight. What is surprising here are the new influences such as the Ethiopian jazz inflections on ‘Revolution, another winner of a song, or the Afrobeat brass that underpins ‘You lie’. For the more subtle side to Dr. John’s extensive repertoire, look no further than the subtle keyboard work displayed on ‘My children, my angels’. This pulsating series of songs is no less than a late period masterpiece. Tim Stenhouse

Krystle Warren and the Faculty ‘Love songs: a time you may embrace’ (Parbour door) 4/5

Singer-songwriter Krystle Warren’s 2009 CD ‘Circles’ was a breath of fresh air and covered a lot of stylistic ground. If anything, the new album is even more eclectic than before and delves to a greater extent into the sub-genres of Americana, though still manages to maintain a cohesive whole. This being said, much of what worked on the previous album has been retained. Thus jazzy flavours permeate the waltz-like ‘Tuesday morning’ with both brass and strings in evidence while the uplifting ‘You can take me with you’ is an example of the pared down side to the songwriter with catchy lyrics and female background vocals to the fore. Krystle Warren sits somewhere between Tracy Chapman and Phoebe Snow in approach (the latter especially in the range of influences) and the breathy vocals on ‘Little wonder’ lend a folksy feel to this particular song. Americana surfaces once more on ‘I worry less’ which is a potential single. Not averse to taking a risk or two, ragtime jazz meets pop to good effect on ‘Five minutes late’ while even more daring is an adaptation of a William Blake poem ‘The clod and the pebble’. This album is quirky enough to attract an audience in search of something different and Warren has an imediately recognisable voice. With a UK tour forthcoming in May, a wider public will finally have access to her work and live Krystle Warren’s diversity will surely come to life even more.

Tim Stenhouse

Chico Buarqué ‘Chico. The definitive collection 1970-1984’ (Wrasse) 4/5

Singer-songwriter extraordinaire Chico Buarqué de Hollanda to give him his full title is a key figure in the development of what is now termed Brazilian Popular Music or MPB and it is surprising that no-one has previously seen fit to compile an anthology of his works in the UK so this is a welcome addition indeed. While he has long been popular in both Italy and Portugal, it took a French fizzy drinks commercial on a Rio beach in the summer of 1989 to the accompaniment of an old Buarqué samba from 1970 ‘Essa moça te diferente’ to catapult him back into the public’s imagination in Europe and this precipitated both a tour and new recordings. In Brazil, however, Chico Buarqué had already become one of the rising young stars by the mid-1960s, at first aping the then still in vogue bossa nova, but he was soon at the forefront of new sounds for a younger generation that became politically active in the face of repression from the military state. Indeed many of Buarqué’s most enduring songs contained within managed to overcome censorship at the time with carefully crafted allegories and he is adored all the more for his wordsmith talents in this respect alone. 

While some knowledge of Portugese significantly enhances the listening experience since the lyrics are imbued with a poetic quality and full of meaning, everyone else need not despair because the music is highly rhythmic and works perfectly well on that level alone. Among his most loved songs, ‘O que será’ (A flor do terra)’ is known by just about every Brazilian on the planet and was even translated into French by Claude Nougaro and became a hit all over again. Other major hits included ‘Construçao’, ‘Vai passar; and ‘Vai trabalhar vagabundo’, but Buarqué’s importance to Brazilian music goes well beyond simply chart sucess. He is one of the most influential of singer-songwriters of all time. For those in search of a rootsier Afro-Brazilian groove, they need look no further than ‘Apesar de vocé’ while ‘Fado tropical’ has a quasi-Portugese folk flavour which one might expect from a homage to that nation’s predominant traditional style. Samba inflections flow on the excellent ‘Samba do grande amor’ and even more so on the 1974 duet with guitar legend Toquinho who together offer a ‘Samba pra Vinicius’, in homage to another musical poet, the great Vinicus de Moraes. In fact there is also an unusual tribute to a thief ‘Homenagem ao Mallandro’ which interestingly was the very same subject of an Astor Piazzolla composition and it would come as little surprise if Buarqué had been inspired by the tango maestro, such are Chico’s wide-ranging musical tastes. If this anthology has whetted your appetite, the earlier mid-1960s recordings are equally well worth investigating and exist in several volumes on CD in France and Brazil. Tim Stenhouse

Rachael Gladwin and the Red Socks ‘Melodies and time’ (Inaugural) 4/5

Harpist and vocalist Rachael Gladwin has pursued two separate careers. One working as strictly an accompanyist on harp to spiritual jazzers Matthew Halsall and Nat Birchall; the other as a leader on some folk meets world beats. It is in this latter capacity that we find her on this album which showcases her songwriting talents. The fusion of cello, harp with various African and Latin percussion from cajón and dejembe through to the kora works to perfection on songs such as ‘They pray’ which is a definite album highlight while as a vocalist Gladwin puts in a fine performance on ‘Fade to brown’ which is where the folk influences are most evident. Rachael Gladwin possesses a gentle, lyrical tone and one that is ideally suited to the folk idiom. On this particular song the use of a trombone solo is unexpected, yet convincing. Elsewhere the vocal duet on the brisk cello-led ‘Right now I know’ impresses as does the gentle, melodic opener that is ‘Song for Reuben’ with the sound of the harp underpinning the vocals. Already garnering radio play, expect this album to linger on the ear. Tim Stenhouse

Alkinoos Ioannidis ‘Local stranger’ (Wrasse) 4/5

In Greek popular music the boundaries between folk and pop/rock music are more blurred than elsewhere in Europe and this can result in some interesting fusions that chart nationally whereas in other countries folk music would tend on the whole to be relegated to the margins. Young Greek-Cypriot singer-songwriter and guitarist Alkinoos Ioannidis typifies the open-minded approach to music in the country and this compilation of his albums spanning the period 1997-2009 is an example of the cross-hopping of genres that is quite commonplace. If the balance is not always in favour of folk elements and at worst ends up being a mish-mash of folk-rock as on ‘With so many lies’, this is thankfully the exception rather than the rule here. At best, however, the acoustic guitar and other instrumentation of top session musicians including Yiogos Kaloudis can lead to some scintillating music as illustrated on the impassioned vocals that accompany ‘Plea’ while the lyricism of the choir and lyra on ‘Afternoon at the tree’ is a sheer delight. Ioannidis possesses a soft, melodic voice that is best suited to a gentler musical backdrop and on the whole this is precisely what we hear with the additional use of strings on a song such as ‘The pilgrim’ blending well with the other instruments. Inner sleeve notes written by the musician in English help us to better understand the motivation behind the music, especially for the more politically and socially inspired pieces, most notably on ‘Homeland’. While what we ideally need is a meaty anthology of new and emerging Greek musicians with detailed notes by a Greek music authority aimed at an audience outside the country, this compilation of one of the finest of the new generation of musicians will do just fine for the time being.

Tim Stenhouse

Le Super Borgou de Parakou ‘The Baribb Sound’ 2LP/CD (Analog Africa) 4/5

Another volume in the ever expanding series from African rare groove specialists Analog Africa, this latest offering from Benin group Le Super Burgou de Parakou offers a musical métissage of influences that spans the whole gamut of African music from Mali to Congo and on to Nigeria. The Afro-Beat backdrop to Wegne Nda M’Banza’ with 1970s style keyboards is a definite winner while the repetitive groove of ‘Guesi-Guéré-Guessi’ with joint lead vocals is only just marginally less compelling. Cuban and Congolese influences combine on the melodic guitar lines and nasal vocals on ‘Me ton le gne’ whereas Malian flavours surface on ‘Gandigui’ with a sudden surprise shift in tempo upwards halfway through. For those in search of a subtler Afro-Beat undercurrent, A na gan garo ka nam’ features some delicious lilting guitar. Le Super Borgou de Parakou started life covering other styles, notably Congolese, but soon developed their own identity and this welcome first anthology in Europe demonstrates why.

Tim Stenhouse

Phronesis ‘Walking dark’ (Edition) 4/5

With this their fourth album and a follow up to the critically acclaimed ‘Alive’ album from 2010, Phronesis return with another beautifully crafted release that at least in terms of the equal distribution of roles between the trio’s constituent members, merits parallels with the Bill Evans trio. The trio were formed in 2005 when Danish bassist Jasper Hølby settled in London and the regular set up of British pianist Ivo Neame and Swedish drummer Anton Eger are back for an enthralling re-instalment and one that was actually recorded in Copenhagen. This begins with the shuffling beat on drums and driving bass of the incredibly catchy ‘Suede trees’ while ‘The economist is bursting with energy from its introduction and there is a flurry of activity. Possibly the finest ensemble playing is reserved for last with ‘Eight hours’ a perfect summation of the trio at this point in time while the sheer simplicity of style on the surface is evidenced on the lovely ‘Upside down’. For a more contemplative side to the trio, ‘Passing clouds’ fits the bill to perfection. Having already performed alongside the Wayne Shorter quartet, Phronesis have definitely sampled the pantheon of jazz musicians and are comfortable in such esteemed company. Their extensive UK tour in May following on from European dates promises to be one of the year’s live highlights. Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Songlines Music Award 2012’ (Proper) 4/5

World roots specialist magazine Songlines has helped keep readers abreast of the latest developments for well over a decade and as part of its promotion now has its own an annual awards list. Some of the main contenders for the forthcoming honours list are contained here in this well balanced selection of emerging and established stars. One of the major trends in world roots in recent years has been the fusion of diverse and, on the surface, seemingly incompatible traditions with explorations between musicians who operate within these frontiers. Part of the cultural globalisation of the world has been a greater interest in the inter-connectedness of national musical traditions and this is no better exemplified than on the excellent album ‘Travellin’ recorded last year by Anoushka Shankar which successfully combined Indian classical with Spanish flamenco flavours. From this the piece ‘Buleria con Ricardo’ accurately conveys the passion that both genres engender and their common historical roots going back centuries which are probably less well known to the wider public. This quest for musical commonality extends to other musical genres and Western classical and world roots genres are increasingly being redefined in new and ever exciting contexts. This is by no means a new phenomenon. Tango innovator Astor Piazzolla divided opinion sharply in his native Argentina when he incorporated both classical and jazz elements into traditional tango rhythms. Now we view this as a logical development in the evolution of tango music, but at the time tango traditionalists were outraged and Piazzolla was even the subject of death threats. Happily, there are no such worries for the likes of celloist Yo Yo Ma who on his latest recording ‘The Goat Rodeo Sessions’ has teamed up with bluegrass artists Stuart Duncan, Edgar meyer and Chris Thile with ‘Quarter chicken dark’ a fitting example of the fruits of their collaboration. 

The Kronos Quartet has long pioneered fusing a traditional classical chamber formation from a slightly edgier left-field perspective and taking on board some surprising musical bedfellows. While virtually all of their numerous recordings are highly recommended and to be applauded, this latest album ‘Uniko’ is noteworthy for bringing together electronic sampling and acoustic accordion playing from Finland (which prides itself on a highly distinctive form of the tango) and ‘Särma’ is a studio recording of what initally was a live collaboration. 

Of the major names in roots music more generally, Ry Cooder is unquestionably a giant and demonstrates just why on the superlative release ‘Pull up some dust’ which was both challenging in terms of its lyrical content and yet easy on the ear. The very pertinent ‘No banket left behind’ serves as a timely reminder, if ever one was needed, of the current financial woes in the world. Tuareg band Tinariwen have become firm favourites of the concert and festival scenes in the UK with their unique brand of desert blues and the song ‘Tenere taqqim tossam’ typifies the group’s uncompromising sound. 

New young musicians of substance to emerge this year include bluegrass and American roots singer Abigail Washburn who is certainly an artist to watch out for and last year’s ‘City of refuge’ was one of this writer’s favourite listening albums. From this ‘Corner girl’ is a fine example of the singer’s craft. Malian singer-songwriter and guitarist Fatoumata Diawara surfaced initially as support act to touring African musicians during the summer, but rapidly made her a name for herself and the excellent debut album on World Circuit ‘Fatou’ is merely a foretaste of what promises to be a lengthy career from which ‘Bakonoba’ is taken. 

What of the new discoveries? While West African music is much loved by listeners and critics alike in Europe and North America, the music of Niger has barely registered on the CD map thus far. All the more reason to revel at the singer-guitarist talents of Bombino who offers ‘Tenere’ and will be touring here in the UK at selected festivals and venues. Possibly even less is known of music from Syria, especially given the current political situation, and so the presence of oud and percussion player Khyam Allami is a most welcome one and he fuses Syrian (his place of birth) and Iraqi (his ethnic origins) with the Middle Eastern tradition more generally with ‘Tawazon: I Balance’ an inspiring instrumental. Allami will be touring in the UK from April where he now resides. One minor gripe. Among the singers who are richly deserving of wider recognition, it is deeply disappointing that Afro-Mallorcan singer Concha Buika does not feature and her latest album, a compilation of her career thus far should have been included. In general, though, a fine overview of the world roots scene and a pretty accurate summation of where the music may be heading in the near future.

Tim Stenhouse