Singer-songwriter Michael Franks is not a musician who is easy to categorise. He is considered too smooth to be a bona fide jazz singer, yet too jazzy to be an out and out pop artist in much the same way as Steely Dan are. In reality, Franks has effortlessly straddled such limiting categorisation restrictions and has instead come up with a consistently high standard of work. This latest in the continuing series of artist box set focuses on the early period of Franks’ career between 1976 and 1980 when he cut arguably his strongest material. It is not revolutionary, shock and awe music, but it is highly entertaining, fusing jazz and Latin music influences into Franks’ unmistakably laid back delivery. First up and probably best of all is the superb debut album ‘The Art of Tea’ from 1976 that introduced Franks to a niche public. Including the likes of saxophonists Michael Brecker and David Sanborn, Franks was able to enlist the support of the top sessions musicians and crafted some lovely songs with ‘Popsicle toes’ and ‘Eggplant’ just two of several highlights and numbers that attracted interest from rock and pop fans. The formula was repeated with the follow up ‘Sleeping Gypsy’ which had a significantly beefed up Brazilian presence with orchestrations from Claus Ogerman. There was a tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim on ‘Antonio’s song’ and certainly the trademark Franks delivery sounds to have emanated from listening a great deal to the likes of Astrud Gilberto and then husband Joao. Another song worthy of the listener’s attention is ‘the co-written ‘Don’t be blue’ which has become something of a latter day contemporary jazz standard, with Jackie and Roy’s rendition on Concord an especially memorable one. The next album, ‘Burchfield Nines’ from 1978, was more of a consolidation on his previous albums and had more of a West Coast feel with a new line-up of talented musicians that included drummer Steve Gadd percussionist Ralph McDonald, with production duties courtesy of Brazilian Eumir Deodato (who would later go on to produce Kool and the Gang from the late 1970s). Among the sleection of songs on offer here, ‘When the cookie jar is empty’ and ‘In search of the perfect shampoo’ typify the Franks sound which was now deeply engrained and gradually becoming a regular feature on FM radio. By 1979 Michael Franks was starting to sound stuck in a creative rut and in order to change things enlisted the help of rock producer John Simon who, among others, has produced the Band, Leonard Cohen and even Janis Joplin. This was the least convincing of the albums recorded by Franks during this era with a more sombre character to the music and no real songs standing out. He still had some fine musicians on board, though, such as veteran jazz players Kenny Barron and Ron Carter and even the then up and coming Brazilian singer Flora Purim. With a more sympathetic producer, this could have resulted in something more appealing. Two tracks are of note are ‘Sanpaku’ and the Brazilian-flavoured ‘Jardin botanico’. Another breakthrough of sorts came with the release of the last and far more satisfying album showcased on the box set, ‘One Bad Habit’ from 1980. This now had the duet of André and Clare Fischer on arrangements, the latter being a jazz pianist himself (and would later go on to orchestrate albums for Prince and Joao Gilberto no less) and musicians of the calibre of bassist Eddie Gomez and guitarists Eric Gale and David Spinozza on board. The title track proved to be a minor hit and finally Michael Franks was being discovered by a larger public. While there are certainly more concise introductions out there which cover a larger time-span in Michael Franks’ career such as the Rhino double CD ‘The art of love’ which includes the wonderful ‘When Sly calls (don’t touch that phone)’ and the duet with Brenda Russell, ‘Lover I give my love to you’, this new box set will nonethless be the obvious place to start for fans of quality melodic vocal jazz-infused music. Tim Stenhouse
‘Occitanista’ CD (Chant du Monde/Harmonia Mundi) 3/5
‘3968 CD13’ (Chant du Monde/Harmonia Mundi) 4/5
‘Massilia fait tourner’ CD + DVD (Chant du Monde/Harmonia Mundi) 5/5
Historically up until 1789, France was effectively divided up linguistically into two halves, with the northern part known as the language of ‘oïl’ (latter day French) while in the southern half the language of Occitan prevailed. This was spoken regularly in rural parts until French came to predominate during the first half of the twentieth century and while there was an attempt by intellectuals and ecologists to revive Occitan during the 1960s and especially the 1970s, it was only from the 1990s onwards that the language started to be spoken more widely in the major cities and this new cultural renaissance was spearheaded by music aimed at a younger and wider audience. Marseilles-based group Massilia Sound System fit directly into this mould and have been very keen to promote their modern day vision of ‘occitanist’ culture which takes on board urban music styles such as rap and hip-hop, reggae and a myriad of alternative music styles that also includes Tom Waits, Afro Beat and even elements of punk in terms of independent-minded attitude. If this does not conform to the ‘Year in Provence’ stereotype of the south east of France, so much the better for this is music that is aimed fairly and squarely at young people and not tourists in search of any past nirvana. A number of Massilia Sound System CDs have recently been re-issued and ‘Occitanista’ dates originally from 2002. The very title implies a militant support of the Occitan cause and a desire to mark a very large wedge between the south of France and the centralising forces of the capital, Paris. Among the better known numbers are ‘Toute petite danse’ and ‘Les Papets, les Minots’. The group have a tendency to mix French and Occitan lyrics within one song so that one line might be in the former directly followed by the next line in the latter. Possibly their strongest album to date is their last effort, ‘3968 CR13’ which is a fictitious car registration number plate that ends with the clear designation of a Marseilles-based owner. Once again the songs tell of everyday street life with a homage to the world of reggae, ‘Sur un air de reggae’ which is one of the more melodic compositions while ‘Jovent’ deals with lyrics primarily in Occitan. There is some use of wordplay over a repetitive riff on ‘Lâche prise’ and a call and response hip-hop style duet on ‘MCs’. If there is anywhere for the neophyte to start, then it is definitely with the wonderfully presented CD and DVD live recording ‘Massilia fait tourner’. This offers an impressive one hundred and sixty minutes of numerous concerts, short documentaries and video clips of the band as well as a separate live CD, is truly an examplary way to showcase the group and in a most creatively French manner too. Surely the best way to experience the band sound is in a live context and the beautifully illustrated cartoon inner sleeve of the band members on tour gives the listener/reader a real insight into the eclectic and ultimately indie attitude of Massilia Sound System.
It was the onset of the Argentine junta dictatorship in the mid-1970s that persuaded a group of then young tango musicians, the Cuarteto Cedron, to cross the Atlantic and settle in Paris. They remained there for another decade between 1974 and 1984 before returning briefly to Buenos Aires in 1984 to perform and thereafter going back and forth for another twenty years before finally deciding to return permanently in 2004. It is this intial ten year period of residency in Paris and the music created there that constitutes this box set which is, in many ways a trip down nostalgia lane, to another era and the group influences reflect the climate of the time in South America with politico-social content of the folk singers such as Violetta Para and Mercedes Sosa present subconsciously. The strongest recordings date from the early period with both 1973’s ‘Le chant du Coq’ and 1977’s ‘Chances’ part of the so-called ‘cantata’ period in the quartet repertoire. These texts are revealing in that they tell of the atmosphere that reigned in Argentina under military dictatorship and help explain why other artists such as Julio Cortazar sought refuge in France. Guest vocalist on the recordings Paco Ibañez was similarly exiled from his native Spain during the Franco dictatorship and this lends a cutting edge to the music which cannot be underestimated. Overall if the music is indisputably tango, it is tango with a pared down folk influence and there are no major orchestrations. In fact with the prominence of the double bass as part of the distinctive quartet sound, there is even something of a jazz-inflected feel while the viola conveys a classical feel to proceedings. Cuarteto Cedron recorded the works of both modern composers associate with the nuevo tango movement as well as more established writers in more traditional forms such as Pugliese and Troilo. Excellent bilingual sleeve notes that feature extensive interviews with band members and an historical overview.
The Cape Verdean Isles and jazz are not obviously connected, though Horace Silver’s father hailed from the islands and Silver’s music invariably contained African and especially Latin elements. Cape Verdean jazz singer Carmen D’Souza definitely does not belong to the mainstream of vocalists in the jazz idiom and her sound is more a fusion of traditional Cape Verdean rhythms such as morna and coladjon as well as modern jazz, piano jazz most notably. This album (her first dating back to 2005), recorded in Lisbon, is a largely original selection of compositions co-written between D’Souza and Theo Pascal. However, it does contain two surprises in highly original reworkings of jazz standards. Charlie Parker’s ‘Donna Lee’ has never been heard sounding quite like this before and this fresh approach has all the feel of a Jazz Hot Quintet recording with accordion and strummed guitar. A more conventional take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘My favourite things’ is sung in English with a style that can only have been influenced directly by Macy Gray and is the nearest thing to a straight jazz piece with flugelhorn, though the use of Cape Verdean percussion gives this a slightly exotic twist. Of the original material, ‘Ivanira’ has a lovely shuffling beat to it with a fine piano solo from Jonathan Idiagbonya while Carmen’s voice deepens somewhat on the jazzy ‘Luta’ complete with double bass and flute. The light and breezy opener ‘Manhå 1 de Dezembro’ features a catchy repetitive chorus. In general D’Souza’s voice is an acquired taste with a high pitched delivery that is quite idiosyncratic, but her vocalese is straight out of the Ella Fitzgerald songbook which is no bad thing and her vocal influences vary between Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, while instrumentally she has listened to the music of Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Horace Silver and Joe Zawinul, hence the interest in jazz instrumentation. Having performed to critical acclaim at Womad in 2005, Carmen D’Souza is a singer who can easily switch from jazz to roots styles at the drop of a hat and with aplomb. The title track incidentally refers to a traditional gathering of friends and family in the Cape Verdean islands when they come together to eat the local soul food.
Formerly one of the founding members of the mighty roots reggae group the Gladiators, bassist and singer Clinton Fearon featured on some of the most enduring sides of Jamaican music starting with ‘Hello Carol’ for Studio One back in 1969 and throughout the 1970s he composed and performed with the very best including Junior Byles, the Ethiopians, Max Romeo and Willi Williams among many others. Indeed it may come as a surprise to some to learn that the backing group to seminal roots artist Yabby You, who passed away a couple of years ago, were none other than the Gladiators under the alias of the Prophets.
However, when the Gladiators split up in the 1980s, Fearon moved on to the United States where he settled and founded new roots group John Brown’s Body. However, he still harboured solo ambitions and signed with French independent label Makasound in 2012 for a fine recording, ‘Mi deh ya’, and has now returned on Sterns/Chapter Two with an all-acoustic album revisiting some of the classic Gladiators songs as well as some new ones. Pride of place resides with the anthemic ‘Let Jah be praised’ which has gorgeous harmonies and just acoustic guitar and bass to accompany. Fearon has always been a superb bass player and the most melodic of basslines accompanies the very Bob Marleyesque ‘Stop before you go’. Another winner of a song is ‘Richman Poorman’ with the most basic of percussion. Can reggae still work in such a pared down setting? The answer here is an emphatic thumbs up because, when stripped down to the bone, the songs reveal the sheer beauty of the melodies and Clinton Fearon still possesses a fine voice. This is a joint Franco-British release that deserves to reach a wider public and with songs such as the folk-reggae sounding ‘On the other side’, the album should achieve precisely that.