English folk singer Roy Harper cut some of the prime music during the classic era of the early-mid 1970s and his 1971 album ‘Stormcock’ has acquired legendary status. This excellent package that groups together a recent live performance in both CD and DVD formats serves as an introduction to Harper’s major contribution to the folk scene and his very poetic approach to songwriting. This is heard to best effect on melodic masterpieces such as ‘Another day’ with its Tibetan tea reference. It is an endearing tale of lost love. Little wonder Roy Harper was a regular on John Peel’s radio programme and in fact he recorded over a dozen sessions between 1967 and 1978. One song to make it into the Peel festive fifty in 1976 was a song included here, ‘When an old cricketer leaves the crease’ and among his long-time fans this has come to represent the definitive Roy Harper sound. Folk-blues flavours permeate ‘The Green Man’ which is another evocative piece and allows the listener to appreciate just what a fine guitarist he is. Elsewhere there are raunchier hues as on ‘Highway Blues’ with some vocal improvisations and some musing over his career during ‘Don’t you grieve’. If folk with a gritter edge is what you are in search of, then Harper can deliver with aplomb as on ‘One man rock and roll band’. For new listeners to his music, it is important to recognise that during the 1960s Roy Harper shared the same stage with the all-time greats such as Paul Simon and Sandy Denny. The DVD is approximately ten minutes longer than the CD version and thankfully includes some of the witty banter for which Roy Harper is best known and loved. In general, this provides a lovely intimate setting which is the ideal environment in which to hear the singer-songwriter’s craft. A bonus fifteen minute interview on the DVD focuses primarily on his childhood influences.
The intricacies of being a left-handed piano player are, it is probably safe to say, not common knowledge, and pianist Robert Mitchell deserves great credit for attempting this ambitious project which aims to highlight piano compositions that either are specifically tailored for the left-handed individual, or at the very least pay homage to the virtues or otherwise of the left-hander. In his instructive line notes, Mitchell makes reference to left-handed jazz pianists such as Phineas Newborn and Kenny Drew, while others have, on occasion, been forced to use their left hand when temporarily incapacitated on their right, Bill Evans 1963 live performances at the Village Vanguard being a case in point. If this is indeed a valid musical exploration, then it does actually lead on to any interesting music? Catalan composer Federico Mompou composed one of his six piano preludes for the left hand and the ‘Prelude no. 6’ performed here has a pared down Satie feel to it. There are elements of Debussy on another piece ‘Zuni lore’ and it is surprising that Mitchell did not include one of Ravel’s most famous piano pieces intended for left-handers. More contemporary flavours arrive in the quicker tempoed ‘A Confession’ while ‘The Sage’ is one of the most melodic numbers on offer. For a slice of contemporary jazz composition, Fred Hersch’s ‘Nocturne for the left hand alone’ makes for an intriguing listen. One criticism that one might make of the project overall is that the compositions focus almost exclusively on classical pieces (Hersch being a notable exception) and it would have made for a more varied listen to have some more jazz-inspired numbers included even if that meant using a piano trio. Robert Mitchell is currently on the final part of a lengthy UK tour that continues until mid-May. Tim Stenhouse
Swiss trumpeter Eric Truffaz has for some fifteen years or more experimented with fusing hip-hop beats and electro jazz with a trumpet sound that begins somewhere from Miles’ ‘Bitches Brew’ period onwards. This forward thinking approach has sometimes taken in seemingly ill-fitting collaborations with rappers, though thankfully this has been discarded for the present album, and on this latest releases vocalist Anna Aaron is on hand to add a new folk-inspired dimmension to some numbers, most notably on the pop-tinged ‘Blue movie’. The groove-laden bassline to ‘Istanbul tango’ is where the band are heard to best effect individually and it is a distinctly mellow number with the organ accompaniment to the fore. Another, more decpetive piece is ‘African mist’ which again uses an incessant bassline while Truffaz’s trumpet floats along in Davisesque fashion. In fact the Miles parallel surfaces intriguingly on a nu-soul number ‘La luna mentirosa’ with a fine muted harmon solo from the leader. Wah wah trumpet greets the listener on the altogether funkier territory of ‘Mr K’ and this is the ideal terrain in which Truffaz can operate and it is a pity that there are not more examples of this. Truffaz is capable of great subtlety and he creates an atmospheric feel when dueting with keyboard on ‘Un souffle qui passe’. Likewise the trumpeter delivers another delicate solo on the piano-led ‘Revolution of time’ which has something of a film soundtrack ambiance to it. If there is one criticism that one could make of his music, it is that Truffaz sometimes gives the impression of not shifting out of second gear and he is certainly talented enough to move up another couple of notches at least. He should definitely be one to watch in a live context and will be performing in late March at Ronnie Scott’s. Tim Stenhouse
Multi-faceted singer-songwriter and guitarist Ben Harper has incorporated acoustic folk, soul, reggae and rock elements into his music and for this latest project has decided to explore the blues which is a logical step on from his much lauded collaborative project with gospel legends, the Blind Boys of Alabama. To add some seasoned credibility to proceedings, Harper has enlisted the support of southern blues harmonica player and leader in his own right, Charlie Musselwhite. Within the blues terrain there is some variety with the folk-blues and soulful electric blues songs working best whereas the blues-rock numbers are somewhat less successful. Bassline grooves are to the fore on the rhythm section propelled title track and on the excellent ‘I ride at dawn’ which features a signature bass that is reminiscent of the Philadelphia All Stars ‘Let’s clean up the ghetto’. Of the rootsier tracks, the pared down instrmuentation of ‘You found another lover (I lost another friend)’ is a real winner and Harper’s vocals sound akin to the early 1970s work of Al Green. Even more soulful with gospel hues, lovely female vocal harmonies and some neat slide guitar from the lead vocalist is ‘We can’t end this way’ whose lyrics have relevant and contemporary social meaning. Where Ben Harper does get a little bogged down is on the blues-rock territory’ such as ‘I’m in I’m out and I’m gone’. This simply sounds mundane in comparison to the rest and there is such an abundance of this kind of material out there on the live blues circuit that Harper would be better served focusing on what distingushes him from the rest. That caveat aside, mark this down as one of the duet albums of the year and a totally authentic slice of contemporary blues. Tim Stenhouse
Chicago has been truly blessed with two of the most singular and innovative jazz vocalists. One, Kurt Elling, has been rightly fêted as the most accomplished male vocalist of his generation. The other, Patricia Barber, has carved out a formidable reputation among jazz cognoscenti, but has yet to reach that bigger audience in the same way that say Diana Krall has. On this latest set, her ability to deliver supremely well crafted, incredibly witty, poetic and often complex lyrics into deeply melodic songs is undiminished and this is indeed her trademark. Retaining the quartet format including guitar which has accompanied most of her career (though with a relatively new set of musicians featuring the excellent John Kregor on guitar), Barber’s subtle approach and understated vocal delivery is as strong as ever and is typfied by the opener ‘Code cool’. For new listeners, if the style takes a little time to digest, then it does enter the subconscious on a longer-term basis and once hooked, you will be forever smitten. Patricia Barber marked herself out as a left-field singer in the 1990s with her chilling take on Sonny Bono’s ‘The beat goes on’ and on the dreamy downtempo number ‘The Swim’ she excels on a song that floats along effortlessly and represents a superior late evening listening experience. The singer’s love of Brazilian music and of Elis Regina in particular invariably creeps into at least one number and here it surfaces in the bossa-infused guitar piece ‘Red Shift’ which is one of the album’s highlights. However, the true beauty of Barber’s voice is probably heard to best effect on ballads and on ‘Spring Song’ it is precisely this aspect of her craft that takes centre stage with fine piano and bass interplay between the vocalist and bassist Larry Kohut. Elsewhere, guitarist Kregor engages in some Methenyesque licks on the forward thinking title track. A welcome addition is the inclusion of a piano trio instrumental ‘Bashful’ that has a rapid flow to it and there is just the faintest hint of Les McCann at one point.
Patricia Barber deserves to be heard on wider scale and with this exciting new formation, a long awaited UK tour would be an enticing prospect. Failing that an extended live set with the new quartet at the Green Mill in her native Chicago would be a most tempting alternative.