Ivo Neame ‘Yatra’ (Edition) 4/5

Pianist Ivo Neame typifies the cosmopolitan nature of the London jazz scene and can call upon the long-term influences of John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler to inspire him, coming up with a fascinating new album on which his compositional skills are brilliantly showcased. For his latest project, an octet formation provides a lovely contrast with a four piece brass section that features bass clarinet, clarinet, alto and tenor saxophones and flute. This is wonderfully illustrated on the piece ‘American Jesus’ with a lovely flute solo and the accompaniment of vibes, performed by none other than Jim Hart, a fine leader in his own right. Post-bop hues predominate, yet this not necessarily mean an absence of a clearly defined structure. Far from it. The hustle bustle of the title track opener betrays an underlying quasi-tango rhythm with the vibes to the fore and some solid reed work from Tori Freestone who doubles up on tenor and flute, and an expanisve solo on piano from Neame. A gentler side to the group repertoire is exmplified on the intimate ballad ‘That syncing feeling’ with a haunting clarinet solo and some fine bass work. On ‘Unseen corade’ there are even shades of mid-1960s Blue Note Bobby Hutcherson and this is a fine vehicle for Jim Hart on which to shine. Neame takes a secondary role in terms of soloing, but can demonstrate a freer approach, taking on board the influence of Craig Tayborn on the altogether looser piece ‘Owl of me’ with hints of Nina Rota underneath which makes for a fine juxtaposition of styles. In short Ivo Neame is a fine bandleader who is willing to subsume his own leader’s role to the greater good of the octet and the definite winner in this endeavour is the listener. Tim Stenhouse

Nat Birchall ‘World Without Form’ CD (Sound Soul and Spirit) 4/5

nat-birchall-worldMancunian modal maestro Nat Birchall returns with his heaviest set of grooves thus far and a distinctive individual sound underpins this album. While some of the key members of his band are retained, most notably pianist Adam Fairhill and second drummer Andy Hay, there is a new atmosphere to this recording which makes it totally refreshing. Vibist Corey Mwaamba was an inspired choice and excels on ‘Speak to us of love’, the title taken from a printed quote by Eastern philosopher Khalil Gibran. The homage to Lee Perry on ‘The Black Ark’ has definite shades of Joe Henderson’s seminal Blue Note album ‘Mode for Joe’, with an especially enthralling drum crescendo from Fairhill. Multi-reedist Birchall has at times been compared to the spiritual sounds of Pharoah Sanders, but on this particular recording it is John Coltrane’s superlative album ‘Crescent’ that appears to have been a major inspiration, subconsciously or otherwise. Indeed Birchall is at his most Coltranesque on the freer flowing ‘Divine harmony’ where, with the presence of vibes, there are echoes of Jackie McLean and ‘Destination Out’. In general the all original compositions this time round are a good deal stronger and more memorable with a real treat in store on ‘Dream of Eden’ with its repeated passages and a lengthy faux intro that never really stops. This writer’s own favourite piece is the incredible reposing beauty of ‘Speak to us all of love’. Unquestionably his finest album to date, this may just be the outing that marks Nat Birchall out as one of Europe’s finest saxophonists.

Tim Stenhouse

John Coltrane ‘The Prestige Recordings’ 16 CD Box Set (Prestige) 5/5

Tenorist John Coltrane first began to make his gargantuan reputation while at the Prestige label and this was in parallel with a career he began carving out as part of the Miles Davis quintet. The Prestige recordings cover a two and a half year period from May 1956 until December 1958 when he was truly prolific, both as a leader and sideman. It is not the entire picture for the albums recorded under Miles Davis are available as a separate box set and indispeansable in their own right. However, it is damn near comprehensive nonetheless and the decision to list the recordings chronologically means that the listener has a real flavour of how Coltrane progressed from one session to another. The majority of album sessions are not interrupted and alternate takes are heard one after another, but do not clutter the the set unduly. Several members of the Miles Davis band in its different guises are featured here including pianist Red Garland who never sounded better, bassist Paul Chambers who would become an integral part of Trane’s tenure in the group, fellow tenorist Hank Mobley and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Little wonder Miles Davis saw the potential of Coltrane in his own band. The early sides witness Coltrane developing primarily as a tenorist, interpreting the American songbook with aplomb as on the ballad ‘Don’t explain’ (CD 4) with Jazz Messengers Bill Hardman and Jackie McLean in close attendance. A fine contrast is heard on ‘Dakar’, a Latin-tinged piece with polyrhythmic drumming and baritone saxophone courtesy of Pepper Adams and Charlie Payne. By CD 6 Coltrane was begin to compose his own pieces of note, including ‘Slow Trane’ while the mid-paced number ‘Black pearls’ featured a fine rhythm section of Art Taylor, Chambers and Garland plus Donald Byrd playing the role that Miles would later fill. From CD 12 onwards the lengthy bop-inflected numbers were starting to reveal hints of modality around the corner and McCoy Tyner’s ‘The believer’ was an indication that Coltrane was also sensitive to new and emerging musicians with the pianist-tenorist duo an integral part of the classic Coltrane quintet down the line. By CD 16, which contains music from three separate vinyl albums, Coltrane was listening to more exotic external influences with’ Bahia’ a precursor to the bossa nova craze that the tenorist tended to avoid on the whole because he had already progressed to soaking up eastern sounds. This said, the tender side to his craft was showcased on ‘Stardust’ with Freddie Hubbard playing a very adequate foil for Miles. What becomes apparent from hearing the recordings on this set as a whole is that Coltrane the saxophonist was fully maturing, yet the development of Coltrane the composer had not yet been fully realised and would only come to full fruition on the Impulse recordings. The compact box pulls out to reveal a tray of CDs in slimline folders, all containing the same photo and is very easy to store which is important given the amount of music within. Given the iconic status of many of the original cover sleeves (a selection of these is contained within the booklet over four pages, it surely would have made better sense to differentiate the various CDs by the sleeve covers). An extended essay by Doug Ramsey is instructive as is the useful alphabetical listing of song titles which makes them easy to identify. Tim Stenhouse

Carolina Chocolate Drops ‘Leaving Eden’ (Nonesuch) 4/5

A new group to many, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are a roots group that hails from the Applachian mountains which is both unusual and fascinating for a set of African-American musicians. However, they are anything but a novelty act and this new album from them finds them in fine form on this well balanced recording. They are in fact essentially a trio with plucked banjo, mandolin and harmony vocals all featuring prominently. This is no better exemplified than on the wonderful folk-blues of ‘Boodle-de-Burbun’ while the faster paced and impassioned vocals on ‘Ruby, are you mad at your man?’ is just as entertaining with castanet-style beatbox effects. The vocals in particular of Rhiannon Giddens make for especially compelling listening and she excels on numbers such as ‘Pretty bird’. Another album highlight is ‘Country girl’ where Giddens once again is on song. That the Carolinas have learnt from the past is self-evident and their interpretation of Alan Lomax’s ‘Real ’em John’ reveals that they have done their research on the origins of the music thoroughly. The group also have an eye and ear on the bigger picture with ‘Mahalla’ being a delightful South African song with just banjo and guitar to accompany. With a lavish digipak sleeve and lovely retro photos of the band, if you are in search of something highly entertaining and just a subtle dislocation from the norm, then you may just have found your musical nirvana. A candidate for one of the year’s most original albums. Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘A tribute to Caetano Veloso’ (Universal) 4/5

Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso occupies a unique position in the Brazilian music scene comparable only perhaps to the great master himself, Joao Gilberto. This tribute compilation, then, is a fitting way to celebrate Veloso’s wordsmith genius and the combination of English, Portugese and even Spanish language interpreters lends a distinctly cosmopolitan edge to proceedings. A major triumph is the interpretation by Chryssie Hynde of ‘The empty boat’ with Moreno Veloso and Kassin on hand to provide sympathetic instrumental accompaniment. Perhaps this collaboration could be extended into an entire album for it works extremely well. Equally impressive is the gentle lilting take on ‘You don’t know me’ by the Magic Numbers. Of the Brazilian acts, there is a folk-infused offering from group Momo on ‘Alguem cantado’, but best of all is the funky version of an early 1980s classic ‘Qualquer coisas’ by Qinho featuring some lovely fender rhodes. For a completely different take on a Veloso classic, look no further than the fado version of ‘Janelas abertas no.2′ by major new Portugese talent Ana Moura. It is important to recognise that initially Brazilian music was influenced by the culture of its motherland, Portugal, even if in the last half decade the tables have been turned. Fado artists would be well served exploiting more of the Brazilian songbook repertoire in future. From across the Iberian border, Spaniard Miguel offers a pared down piano plus vocal take on Força estranha’ and a Spanish voice performing in Portugese adds a lovely touch while Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler (now resident in Madrid) offers his own take on ‘Fora de ordem’. A few interpretations do not quite come off here and surprisingly they are both Brazilian artists. Céu delivered two supremely crafted albums of roots-inflected electronica, but seems stuck in a rock rut at present and an edgy ‘Eclipso oculto’ is not the best vehicle in which to hear her soft-toned voice. She could learn in fact from young Brazilian songer Luisa Maita who offers a twenty-first century take on ‘Trilhos urbanos’ with upfront drumming that sounds amazing and including a choppy rhythm guitar. A contemporary of Veloso’s, the Mutantes, were pioneers of the psychadelic Brazilian sound, but rather than being retro-chic, their take on ‘London, London’ simply sounds dated. Otherwise a fine overview of Veloso’s illustrious career and it will have any self-respecting music lover heading for the original versions for comparison. Tim Stenhouse

Nathalie Duncan ‘Devil in me’ (Verve) 3/5

Here is a very enterprising debut from a Nottingham singer who belongs very much to the singer-songwriter branch of music and has been championed by BBC presenter and fellow musician Jamie Cullum. Duncan’s soulful vocals come shining through on pieces such as ‘Blackthorn’ with a pared down sound on acoustic guitar and bass recalling the flavour of 1970s Bill Withers while Joni Mitchell is evoked on ‘Old rock’ with a classical-inspired piano intro. Elswehere ‘Lonely child’ has a distinctive American roots feel while reggae instrumentation and dub echo on guitar are prominent on ‘Pick me up bar’. The singer works best on the minor key numbers with ‘Keep her smiling’ the leading contender and featuring some fine use of fender rhodes and strings. This could easily have been penned by Roberta Flack in the early 1970s and deserves to be put out as a single to showcase the album as a whole. The soulful credentials of Nathalie Duncan are no better illustrated than on the uplifting ‘Became so sweet’ that ends the album on a high note complete with Chic-esque riffs on guitar. A little work on individualising the piano sound is stil in order, but the voice alone is worth the admission fee. No indication of the other musicians involved. A promising future beckons for Nathalie Douncan. Tim Stenhouse

Preservation Hall Jazz Band ‘St. Peter and 57th Street’ (Rounder) 4/5

Anyone who witnessed this band’s tour of the UK a few years ago cannot fail to have been impressed by the music of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band which is steeped in the history of New Orleans, a pivotal city in the development of jazz music. This CD captures them live in performance in January 2012 at the legendary Carnegie Hall and is an absolute treat from start to finish. The band’s creative director and tuba player, Ben Jaffe, literally grew up with the formation since his parents were instrumental in creating it in the first instance. With a guest list that is as good as it gets, the old favourite songs and tunes are on offer here. For a slice of authentic American roots where jazz and bluegrass meet head on, the Del McCroury Band come on board and offer a delicious ‘One more ‘fore I die’. A key figure in the evolution of New Orleans music in the last fifty years has been pianist, composer and singer Allen Toussaint so it is only fitting that he should be present in his various capacities and he teams up with young turc trombonist Trombone Shorty on a Toussaint original, aptly titled ‘Preservation Hall Jazz Band’. Toussaint in fact performs alongside clarinetist Tom Sancton on a gentle, swaying ‘Burgundy St. Blues’. There is even a hint of the Spanish tinger that has been so influential in shaping the music of New Olreans on an outstanding rendition of the Cuban evergreen ‘El manicero’ (‘The peanut vendor’) which is tuba-led with the famous riff played out on assorted brass to wonderful effect and vocals by Tap Seeger while the audience actively participate with handclaps. The Presevation Hall Jazz band are truly an ensemble that needs to be viewed live to be fully appreciated, but this perfomance, with excellent sound quality, is the next best thing and will bring countless hours of sheer enjoyment. Tim Stenhouse

Stéphane Belmondo ‘The same as it never was before’ (Verve) 4/5

French musician Stéphane Belmondo belongs to the sensitive school of jazz trumpeters that includes luminaries such as Art Farmer, Kenny Wheeler and of course Chet Baker. The mid-tempo waltz ‘You and I’ is a delicious cover of a Steve Wonder tune while a more esoteric left-field piece is ‘Habiba’ with pared down sound, pianist Kirk Lightsey here performing on flute and this has all the feel of a mid-1960s Yusef Lateef composition. Belmondo excels on the mid-paced numbers where he alternates between flugelhorn and trumpet with a relaxed atmosphere on the Chet Baker influenced piece ‘Light upon Rita’ with modal bass intro. That said, when required the excellent quartet can deliver a thrilling uptempo number as illustrated on Wayne Shorter’s ‘United’ with the famous main theme played simply by Belmondo plus bass and drums. A melancholic quartet performance on ‘Haunting by now’ rounds off a fine listening album. Tim Stenhouse

Arthur H ‘Les 50 plus belles chansons’ 3CD (Universal France) 4/5

The son of 1970s rocker Jacques Higelin, Arthur H occupies a left-field position in the French music scene and as such the parallel with Tom Waits is not without merit. Indeed the gruff delivery and jazzy hues are not dissimilar either. Arthur H has been inspired by the prose of Boris Vian, a writer and jazz critic/trumpeter who personified the left bank chic of Paris during the late 1940s and 1950s and undoubtedly the early part of Serge Gainsbourg’s career. His career is now past its twentieth year and this three CD set carefully interweaves the progression in his career trajectory, deliberating mixing up songs rather than opting for the standard chronological treatment. From the early period of the 1990s ‘Cool jazz’ captures the acoustic double bass accompaniment and pared down piano and drums. Possibly another influence was the English group Carmel who were a cult hit at the time in France during the mid-1980s onwards at a time when Sade was hitting the airwaves on both sides of the Channel. By the mid-1990s Arthur H was beginning to experiment with his style and a 1996 collaboration with Nicolas Repac resulted in the introduction of sampling and a veering towards a trip-hop fusion. In contrast by 2002 the ‘Piano solo’ album took H in an entirely different direction with simply voice and piano. Major success had hitherto eluded the musician and maybe this consideraiton inspired him to record an electro-pop album with ‘Dancing with Madonna’, thereby securing some much needed media attention beyond the fringes. By 2011 Arthur H had parted company with his long-time musical associates and the album ‘Baba love’ found him yet again changing musical direction. It should be apparent that Arthur H is a musician of some integrity who is eager never to rest on his musical laurels and become stuck in a given groove. The lyrical basslines of several songs including ‘La lune’, piano vamps and distinctive vocals will appeal greatly to those who appreciate their music belonging to the non-commercial variety. Tim Stenhouse

Michel Sardou ‘Les grands moments’ 2CD (Mercury France) 4/5

Singer Michel Sardou is something of a musical institution in his native France and is reputedly the singer whose songs are either played, or sung most at weddings. That gives you some indication of his wide popular appeal and since the late 1960s he has been plying his trade as a populist chanteur. Rather than being directly descended from the more classical chanson tradition (though there are clearly elements of the greats in forging his own unique style), he is more of a variété musician, in other words one who actively seeks the widest popular audience. This will attract and repel in equal measure. His initial success was earned way back in 1967 when he penned ‘Les Ricains’, a diminutive for the Americans and he constantly cast his gaze over other peoples. Sentimental lyrics and choralesque accompaniment are an integral feature of the Sardou sound as illustrated on 1973’s ‘Maladie d’amour’. Sugar-coated orchestrations greeted the anthemic Le France’ which was a major hit in 1975 while, from a memorable live performance at L’Olympia, Paris’ most prestigious and intimate popular music venue, comes ‘Aujour’dhui peut-être’ from 1978. A major critical as well as commercial success was scored in 1981 with a personal homage to the west of Ireland, ‘Les lacs du Connemara’, and its vivid depiction of the rugged terrain and traditional lifestyle have guided many a Frenchman and woman in their quest to visit the emerald isle. In the same year another anthemic song surfaced in ‘Je viens du sud’ and Sardou’s place in the pantheon of French popular music was assured. Subsequently, he has duetted with the likes of Céline Dion and his 1980s repertoire such as ‘Afrique adieu’ now forms part of the retro tradition much in vogue. If it is a moden day successor to Brel or Brassens that you are looking for, then Miuchel Sardou is not your man. However, if you wish to discover who the equivalent of say a French Elton John, or Chris de Burgh might be, then you will certainly be entertained. Accompanying the second CD are some new reworkings of his most famous song which are contained in their original forms on both CDs. The anthology contains just about every song you could possibly wish to hear of Sardou’s lengthy career. Tim Stenhouse