Joe Lovano Us Five ‘Cross Culture’ (Blue Note) 4/5

Blue Note’s current longest serving artist delivers another heavyweight package of an album that demonstrates once more that Joe Lovano is certainly not resting on his laurels with all bar one piece being originals. His current group with whom he both records and tours, a rarity these days, includes bassist and leader in her own right Esperanza Spalding and fellow Blue Note musician and guitarist Lionel Lueke. A novel idea this time round has been to have two drummers performing together, a concept that was pioneered during the 1960s, and this adds a certain intensity to proceedings. The fast-paced ‘In a spin’ is a quite dysfunctional sounding composition that sounds like two horns (possibly overdubbed) playing with guitar while the freer number ‘Drum chant’ is devoid of any piano and Lovano alternates on soprano. Throughout the album there is a fine rapport between Lovano and Lueke with piano often featuring as a minimalist accompaniment. However, Joe Lovano is certainly not all hustle and bustle and his gentler side is demonstrate on the classic Ellington-Strayhorn ballad ‘Star-crossed lovers’ where the leader excels on tenor and this harks back to the terrific album he recorded back in the early 1990s with Michel Petrucciani. The album concludes with a heartfelt tribute to another collaborator, Paul Motion, on ‘P.M.’ A live recording of this group would make for an excellent follow up. Tim Stenhouse

Stéphane Grappelli ‘Django’ (American Jazz Classics) 4/5

French violinist Stéphane Grappelli personifies a certain type of classic era jazz and his collaborations with gypsy jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt are among the zenith of jazz music recorded during the 1930s and 1940s right through to Reinhardt’s early death in 1953. It should come as little surprise, then, that Grappelli should wish to pay homage to that enduring rapport. By the 1950s Grappelli’s swing take on jazz had become viewed as somewhat passé by the new vanguard of French jazz musicians who were heavily influenced by the be-bop revolution occurring across the Atlantic. However, this album marked a turning point in Grappelli’s career and something of a return not only to form, but also to more positive critical favour. It was recorded in Paris and featured some of the top musicians of the day including French bassist Guy Pederson, Swiss drummer Daniel Humair and guitarist Pierre Cavalli. Several of the collaborative compositions that Grappelli and Reinhardt wrote are featured in newly updated versions here and these include the timeless classics such as ‘Minor swing’, ‘Nuages’ and ‘Daphné’. The John Lewis composition, and an obvious tribute, ‘Django’, that the Modern Jazz Quartet performed on numerous occasions fits neatly into the existing repertoire and there is equally the inclusion of a then rising American songbook standard in ‘Makin’ whoopee’. Perhaps the surprise addition is in fact that of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Pent up house’ which just goes to show that Grappelli could be equally receptive to the then modernists. There are no less than nine bonus cuts that date vary in date between 1947 and 1961. For those that may still be unfamiliar with the contribution of Stéphane Grappelli to the world of music, as well as the fabulous duets with Reinhardt, Grappelli also played an important educational role during the 1970s when a then teenage Nigel Kennedy was taught by the virtuoso player how to master the violin. By the 1970s the music that Grappelli and Reinhardt helped to pioneer was now part of French musical folklore and this was illustrated by the their music serving as the soundtrack backdrop to Louis Malle’s film on the occupation period in France, ‘Lacombe Lucien’. Stéphane Grappelli would return to this basic repertoire on countless occasions, but none have sounded fresher than those contained on ‘Django’. Tim Stenhouse

Thelonius Monk Quartet ‘Monk’s Dream’ (Poll Winners) 4/5

The major innovations that took place during the be-bop revolution could not have been achieved without the unique contribution of one Thelonius Monk and from the mid-1940s through the 1950s Monk cut music that was truly on the cutting edge of the music scene. By the early 1960s Monk was then entering into middle age and thus the music was a confirmation of that which preceded and a revisiting of his highly original compositions. The album contained within form 1962 actually went on to become his best ever seller and was the pianist and leader’s debut for the mighty Coumbia label. His quartet featured tenorist Charlie Rouse, with whom Monk would enjoy a long-term musical collaboration, bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop (shortly to be replaced by Ben Riley). Where this re-issue scores highly over previous ones is that it pitches the new versions of Monk’s classic material side by side with earlier versions of the same numbers that were recorded at least a decade earlier and in some case dating back to 1947. This represents some thirty minutes of additional music and it is fascinating to compare and contrast the versions which vary sometimes in format as well as in interpretation. However, one brand new composition was included and has become a firm favourite in the cannon of Monk disciples and that is ‘Bright Mississippi’. Key numbers include the contrasting versions of the title track, the quartet versus trio version of ‘Bye-Ya’ and the quartet as opposed to the original 1956 quintet interpretation of ‘Blue Bolivar Blues’. Producer Teo Macero is on hand to oversee matters and does an excellent job just as he did with Miles Davis for the same label. A nice addition is an alternative album front cover photo featuring Monk. Tim Stenhouse

Sonny Rollins ‘The Bridge’ (Poll Winners) 4/5

Tenor titan Sonny Rollins was prolific during the early to mid-1950s and cut some definitive music on the saxophone. However, by 1959 he was in dire need of a break and took a three year self imposed sabbatical from the recording industry. By 1962 he was ready once again to record and enlisted the considerable support of producer George Avakian who had done such a sterling job with the upcoming trumpeter Miles Davis during the mid-late 1950s on his first Columbia album ‘Round Midnight’. The pairing of Rollins with guitarist Jim Hall was a truly inspired one and the rapport between the two makes this album one to remember among those in the Rollins pantheon. The rhythm section was solid with bassist Bob Cranshaw who would be a staple on the Blue Note label while drumming duties are shared between Monk quartet member Ben Riley and Harry T. Saunders. The album combines two originals including the fiery title track alongside four standard numbers with ‘God bless the child’ a genuine standing out piece. A real bonus is the inclusion of some additional recordings, most notably two numbers from the ‘Jazz Casual’ series that was hosted by jazz critic and presenter Ralph J. Gleason (the whole session is available separately on DVD). Two alternative version of the original album complete a fine all round package. The extended sleeve notes of the original, written by George Avakian, are faithfully reproduced, while a Downbeat review of the time by Ira Gitler no less is included also.

Tim Stenhouse

Dexter Gordon ‘Go’/’A swingin’ Affair’ (Poll Winners) 5/5

If you have ever viewed the Bertrand Tavernier film ‘Round Midnight’, you are sure to have been impressed by the main protagonist Dale Gordon, played in real life by the late Dexter Gordon who was a totally convincing actor in the role. This introduced many new devotees of jazz during the mid-1980s jazz renaissance to the tenor saxophonist’s work and if you have ever wanted to know where to start off with his discography, this is now the first place of reference. Two classic albums are handily placed onto one CD that features Gordon in his mature prime period after struggling with drug addiction throughout the 1950s. By 1961 he had signed with the legendary Blue Note label and the two albums that are contained herein feature identical quartet sessions that stretch over three days in August (?) 1962 with the notable inclusion of Sonny Clark on piano. Of the two, ‘Go’ is regarded by many as Gordon’s ultimate musical statement and justifiably so. The ensemble playing is quite simply stupendous and the selection of material ideally suited to the deeply melodic approach that Dexter Gordon personified. It would be difficult to pick out individual numbers from such an outstanding release, but the title track, and a swinging ‘Love for sale’ are immediate standouts. The follow up, ‘A Swingin’ Affair’ is, in its title at least, a gentle nod to the music and style of Frank Sinatra. However, this is a resolutely modern 1960s recording with a Latin undercurrent to the magnficent ‘Soy Califa’ while there is a lovely original composition in ‘McSplivens’. Once again the ballads are of the highest order with ‘Don’t explain’ being a heartwarming tribute to Billie Holiday. No extras, but no none are needed when music is this sublime. Tim Stenhouse

KPM Music Library ‘Music for dancefloors’ 2CD/2LP/Download (Strut) 4/5

Searching for library music beats has become a whole new area of music collecting over the last ten to fifteen years and, although not initially aimed at dancefloor action, have become essential tools for DJs and vinyl connoisseurs alike. However, precious little is known about many of the musicians behind the grooves even if the sounds created are often all to familiar television and cinematic accompaniments. This is where Strut are to be congratulated for their devotion in seeking to uncover the rarer items and this compilation, which initially surfaced in 2001, groups together some of the top sessions musicians from the 1970s in a now extended deluxe edition. The name Keith Marshall for example would mean little to most listeners, yet if you mentioned that he was the creator of the Granstand, or BBC Wimbledon themes, then all of a sudden his name would assume greater significance. There are some absolute gems contained within and the funk-tinged soul groover ‘That’s what friends are for’ (1975) by Alan Parker which is a winner from the start with vocals supplied by Madeline Bell. Big band jazz of the Oliver Nelson variety meeting blaxploitation film soundtrack is one way to describe the Johnny Pearson number ‘Assault course’ which dates from 1970 and features some lovely funk beats. One US produced piece with a distinctive Latin undercurrent is the piano-propelled ‘Freeway to Rio’ (1970) by Les Baxter while for further variety there is an early dub excursion on ‘Reggae train’ composed jointly by William Farley and Denis Bovell. For straight ahead jazz grooves, look no further than the jazz combo plus vibes sound of ‘Piano in transit’ from Francis Coppieters whereas ‘Swamp fever’ is a mid-paced groover that is dominated by catchy keyboards and a gorgeous flute solo. Alan Hawkshaw backed Serge Gainsbourg during the latter’s psychadelic period as well as leading the original skinhead reggae group the Mohawks and ‘Senior thump’ is a long-time fave as is ‘The champ’. In general the numbers are relatively concise in keeping with the requirements of the genre. A second CD brings matters virtually up to date with live performances of several of the key numbers on the first CD and this was recorded by a big band at the Jazz Café in London and features among others Alan Hawkshaw, Keith Mansfield and the KPM All Stars. Tim Stenhouse

The Relatives ‘The Electric Word’ (Yep Roc) 4/5

If the concept of gospel-funk is a hard one to grasp, then the BGP compilation of inspirational music with funky flavours of a couple of years ago ‘The Gospel Truth’ introduced the sounds to a wider audience and singers such as Shirley Caesar and Rance Allen have regularly fused their devotional message with secular instrumantation. Which is where North Texan group the Relatives come into the equation. A little known group outside their native state, the group was founded in 1970s and began releasing a series of collectable 45s which eventually saw the light of day on CD in 2009 with the anthology ‘Don’t let me fall’. The group had in fact disbanded by 1980, but the interest generated by the compilation encouraged the leader Reverend Gean West to reunite the group, first of all touring together, and now releasing this brand new album. There are hints of the Isley Brothers circa 1975 in the use of guitar and the Staples Singers and deep soulster O.V. Wright in the mellifluous harmonies that emanate both collectively and individually. Stylistically the album is quite varied, ranging from uptempo songs with falsetto and baritone vocals that Earth,Wind and Fire made such good use of in their soul and funk numbers to blues-inspired ballads and acapellas that are immediately pleasing on the ear. A standout track is the beautiful love ballad ‘Your love is real’ where the tight unison harmonies and raspy lead vocals blend effortlessly while ‘Revelations’ finds the group heading back into Temptations psychadelic era. Funk permeates a tribute of sorts to James Brown on ‘Say it loud (it is coming up again’) which is directly inspired from Brown’s legendary black pride anthem and includes the Relatives own take on the famous guitar riff. However, given their Texan roots the blues are never too far away and this arrives with biting social comment on another album highlight, ‘What’s wrong with America’. An all-too brief acapella ‘Trouble in my way’ demonstrates their more traditional gospel credentials. All in all a new take on the gospel format that is anything but preachy and welcomes allcomers to the musical pulpit. Tim Stenhouse

Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, London Vocal Project ‘Mirrors’ (Edition) 4/5

One of the UK’s greatest ever trumpet player’s, Canadian-born, but resident here for some six decades, Kenny Wheeler is also an extremely gifted composer and on this latest recording, his debut for the Edition label, he teams up with vocalist Norma Winstone (the two regular performed together during the late 1960s and as part of Azimuth in the mid-late 1970s onwards) and a larger vocal ensemble, the London Vocal Project, for a fusion of instrumental and skilfully voiced music based around and inspired by Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mirrors’. Indeed parallels could also be made with the 1980s ECM double album Wheeler recorded for large and small ensembles and here it has been extended to voicing and varying degrees of instrumental formations. Horace Silver successfully attempted to fuse instrumental and vocal contributions on a series of early to mid-1970s Blue Note albums.

Wheeler succeeds in making this an extremely calm and reposing listen, but crucially one in which the London Vocal Project, under the direction of Pete Churchill, do not get in the way at all of the instrumentalists. Quite the contrary. The latter are made up of some of London’s finest young jazz musicians including excellent saxophonist Mark Lockheart and pianist Nikki Iles. The music is neatly divided between mainly instrumental pieces and primarily vocal-led ones. Of the former, ‘Humpty Dumpty’ stands out for its gorgeous vocal harmonies which lead on to some fine soloing from Lockheart and Wheeler and this is a fine way to start off the album. In fact the rhythm section is solid throughout and the instrmuental collective positively shine on pieces such as ‘The broken heart’ and ‘Through the looking glass’ which are standout compositions. This is an unsual project and one that requires no little compositional and arranging skills to bring it off, and it is heartening to know Kenny Wheeler is still searching for new avenues, which, for an octogenerian, is a remarkable feat in itself.

Tim Stenhouse

Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators ‘Tortured Soul’ (Timmion) 4/5

nicole-willis-soul-investigatorsThis is a trip back into the classic gritty soul era with just a modern twist. Lead vocalist Nicole Willis possesses a voice that sounds as though it has been honed on listening to the classic 1970s period of Chaka Khan while the Soul Investigators have listened to the likes of the Norman Whitfield era of Motown and the Hi sound of Memphis. The result is one of the strongest soul album of the year so far and a fine follow up to the critically acclaimed debut back in 2005, ‘Keep reachin’ up’. There is a terrific earthy production with collective horns and tight arrangements. Motown drum beats greet the incredibly soulful lead and harmony vocals on ‘Tell me when’ with an extended guitar solo for good measure.
Prodicer Didier Selin, who also doubles up on percussion, deserves a good deal of credit for achieving this. One of the key numbers is a Stax-influenced ballad ‘On the East side’ which provides Willis with the opportunity to deliver one of her most impassioned vocals over a rock solid rhythm attack. Moody and downtempo is ‘Best day of our lives’ may be, but an uplifting listen it most certainly is. The Norman Whitfield connection is most evident on the opener, ‘Light years ahead’ which a psychadelic late 1960s Temptations feel to it whereas ‘You got me moonwalking’ has more of a mid-1970s production sound with the use of strings. In any case it is a dancefloor winner. An unusual introduction leads into another uplifting song in ‘Now I can fly’. The surprising discovery in all of this is that the Soul Investigators are actually Finnish with a French producer. The instrumentation sounds straight out of Detroit or Chicago and that says everything about how well the band and producer have performed.

Tim Stenhouse

Robben Ford Bringing it back home’ (Provogue) 4/5

Blues guitar maestro Robben Ford is one of the hottest in-demand musicians and his CV reads like a who’s who of musical greats. In his early twenties he found himself a niche as a session musician on Joni Mitchell’s ‘The hissing of summer lawns’ while by the mid-1980s even the great Miles was calling upon his services to accompany him on a worldwide tour. However, Ford’s talents are not limited to sideman duties and he has quietly forged a career as a leader, both singing and playing some of the trademark dynamite blues licks. For this latest project, which covers a variety of blues styles, he is unsurprisingly surrounded by some cream of the crop musicians including jazzer Larry Goldings on hammond organ. A New Orleans flavour permeates the classic Lee Dorsey song ‘Everything I do gonna be funky’ and it is a great way to open proceedings on such a positive vibe. Lou Donaldson memorably covered the tune as an instrumental for Blue Note back in the 1960s. In a more laid back vein, vocals and guitar meet in unison on ‘Birds nest bound’ with an extended guitar solo over some tasty hammond comping. There is even a passing nod to Robben Ford’s jazz idols on the instrumental ‘On that morning’ which takes a definite leaf out of the Wes Montgomery guitar book and Ford is ideally placed to straddle blues and jazz genres without ever sounding out of place. A soul-blues ballad ‘Oh, Virginia’ rounds off the album with panache and Ford impresses here with his versatility to both sing and play tenderly. Finally, the moody old-school blues ‘Slick Capers’ affords guest trombonist Steve Baxter the opportunity to shine. A fine sounding album that showcases the leader’s eclecticism and virtuosity in equal measure. Live UK dates will follow in late April at selected venues.

Tim Stenhouse