Disco came in various guises, but arguably the most panoramic fresco painted of the era in musical form came from the joint production of Canadian pairing Ian Guenther and Willi Morrison. Together they were responsible for the THP Orchestra sound and if you liked that, then the collective talents of Grand Tour and Southern Exposure emanate from the same mould of classy dancefloor action with a good deal of subtlety and, in several respects, were ahead of their time and were equally a precursor to some of the 1980s dance music innovations. Both original vinyl albums are previously unreleased on CD and feature bonus edits galore of the key songs. Grand Tour’s 1977 excursion was an understated take on the disco idiom with the selective use of strings, but interestingly reveal a reliance in parts on heavy bassline and piano vamp breakdowns that would be an integral part of Chicago house music a good six-seven years later. The title track is actually a tad mournful in its first part, but gradually builds into an uplifting number. Easy listening territory and a tad too MOR for this writer, ‘Let’s go boating’ features a trumpet solo. More compelling and a definite return to the danceflloor is ‘Flight from Versailles’ with prominent bassline and strings to the fore, and a slightly cheesy instrumental section with 1970s synthesizer. Rounding off matters is a cover of ‘California dreamin’ which starts with female vocals, but then morphs into a semi-instrumental piece with flute and strings. Overall this stylistic overview of the era has a good deal in common with albums such as USA-European Connection.
‘Headin’ south’ by Southern Exposure was late era disco from 1979, but classic disco nonetheless and borrowed heavily from the Philly International sound in its use of percussive intros, vocal harmonies and strings. However, where it departs from the soulful side of disco is with the lead vocals that hint at Dan Hartman and Euro disco hues. Its centrepiece song is the near ten minute ‘On our way’ which was an upper mid-tempo number that recalls the likes of Change, B.B. & Q Band and Hi Gloss from the early 1980s and would still have been perfect for the dancefloor two-three years after its original release. Lead vocals by Debbie Cathey are once again subtlely deployed. It is a beautifully structured song with harmonica and brass in evidence. Disco never reached more sophisticated levels and the lengthy instrumental section builds into a hypnotic crescendo. Firmly aimed more at Euro disco is the just under twelve minute ‘Love is’ which fans of Donna Summer and her Giorgio Moroder productions will appreciate and there are some lovely brass arrangements incorporated here. As for the title track, it can best be described as decadent 1970s with a strong hint of poppier elements, but still a classy take on disco. Detailed notes are once again provided by disco musicologist Alan Jones. Tim Stenhouse
This is a real return to form for saxophonist and leader Joshua Redman. In many ways it is a return to the period of the late 1990s when he was the new kid on the block and this latest recording finds him once again in the stellar company of Brad Mehldau on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass and Brian Blade on drums as on ‘Timeless tales (for changing times)’ from 1998. Where this album differs, however, is in its use of strings. Jazz and strings is a well trodden path and one not without the odd pitfall in the past. Thankfully, Redman is too astute to fall into any traps and the new recording bears favourable comparison with the historically great jazz plus strings albums from the likes of Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Jimmy Giuffre and Bill Evans. Now in mid-career, Joshua Redman is ideally suited to this kind of project and there is a nice balance of contemporary pieces and classic American songbook standards. A standout track is the interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Infant eyes’ with Redman on soprano and the simmering glow of the strings makes for a wonderful rendition. Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Let it be’ is performed at a significantly slower tempo than the original and this reposing take works extremely well with some lovely chords from Mehldau. Pianist and bassist provide gentle accompaniment on the lush strings surrounding Redman on Kern and Hammerstein’s ‘The folks who live on the hill’ while, in a more austere setting, bass and tenor saxophone combine for a fitting recital of Bach’s ‘Adagio’. Possibly more compositions from the maestro of the baroque are in order in future from Redman. Of the two originals by Redman, ‘Final hour’ features a rolling piano vamp from Mehldau while the leader lays down some genteel tenor and this is played as a duet number. The quartet unite on Redman’s second composition, ‘Let me down easy’ which is quite dark in tone. Mehldau offers one new offering in ‘Last glimpse of Gotham’ which has a theatrical strings intro and some impassioned tenor from Mehldau. A splendid take on the jazz meets strings concept and a recent May duet performance from Christian McBride and Joshua Redman at the Wigmore Hall will have whetted the appetite for a longer UK tour at some stage.
Among the sea of young musicians currently navigating their own pathway on the vibrant UK jazz scene, pianist Andrew McCormack is worthy of wider attention and this live recording which captures his trio in performance at London’s 606 Jazz club from August 2012 is an ideal environment in which to appraise his progress thus far. A mainly original set of compositions impresses with a variety of flavours on offer and a definite nod towards the longer modern piano tradition. In the opener ‘Antibes’, the use of space by McCormack hints at Ahmad Jamal being a major influence on the pianist’s thinking (Keith Jarrett is possibly another) while the bop-infused notes on the piece ‘Two cities’ with its hustle and bustle atmosphere reveals, perhaps, that the conceptual reflections of Charles Mingus’ have been taken on board. One of the most appealing numbers is the eastern-themed ‘Medina’ and here the subtle evocation of far away landscapes is greatly facilitated by the sensitive use of percussion from drummer Troy Miller on the hi-hat cymbals. So successful is the atmosphere conveyed that McCormack should seriously consider an entire project devoted to similar minded themes. Of the two standards, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ is performed at an extra slow pace in the first part, thereafter the piece takes off into a swinging mid-tempo number with some delightful blues licks on piano. Both double bassist Chris Hill and drummer Miller are on hand to provide sympathetic accompaniment throughout.
Spanish-based label Essential Classics are to be applauded for their excellent value two albums on one CD policy and their latest offering is a tasty pairing of the Bill Evans trio and the pianist as part of vibraphonist Dave Pike’s formation. Both recordings date from 1962 and historically this was a period of renewal for Evans after the tragic early death of bassist Scott La Faro. Several new formations were tested by Evans and on ‘Empathy’ the considerable skills of drummer Shelly Manne and bassist Monty Budwig are brought to bear and the sole suprise is that this is the only recorded example of this particular trio for they gel extremely well together. The album was also an early illustration of the Creed Taylor production technique and thankfully this recording is devoid of his later syrupy orchestrations. An essentially classic selection for the American songbook is on offer with a nine minute rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s ‘With a song in my heart’ featuring a lovely bass solo by Budwig and some gentle percussive accompaniment by Manne. An unusual time signature and blues inflections are two novel features of Irving Berlin’s ‘The Washington twist’ with even hints of a pre-Sidewinder piano vamp from Evans while soloing with his other hand. Evans’ predilection for covering numbers from musicals is showcased on ‘Danny Boy’ and he makes this tune his own. Here it is performed at an extra slow pace as the most delicate of ballads. By contrast a swinging rendition of Berlin’s ‘Lets go back to the waltz’ is a vehicle to hear the trio in full flow and the shifts in tempo make this a treat from start to finish.
The second album is unusual in that Bill Evans occupies the role of sideman and this at a time when he had only recently left the Miles Davis quintet. Indeed there is a definite nod to the modal innovations of ‘Kind of Blue’ on ‘Why not?’ which is both a verbal and musical riposte to ‘So what’ and a lovely flowing number that is the album’s centre piece. If Miles is evoked on the aforementioned piece, then ‘Veird blues’ has all the feel of the Modern Jazz Quartet in their prime and it is a pity that Evans did not record more with vibes (though another album with Herbie Mann, ‘Nirvana’ was indeed recorded). Perhaps overall the most convincing pieces are the slower ones and on the haunting ballad, ‘Wild is the wind’, Pike excels on the vibraphone while Evans displays a tenderness on piano that is his trademark. Both impress once more on Ellington’s ‘In a sentimental mood’ with a blues-inflected solo from Evans. The CD contains a bonus cut from a 1961 pairing of Cannoball Adderley and Bill Evans, ‘Goodbye’ which makes for exceptional value for money at just over seventy-seven minutes in total.
Nuyorikan percussion maestro Ray Barretto is best known for his mixture of hard hitting salsa and Latin jazz from the classic Fania era of the 1970s and beyond, but this particular album that dates from 1962 is actually one of his earliest recordings as a leader and is somewhat different in that it is in the ‘tipico’ or traditional Cuban style that was prevalent at the time and features a stellar line-up of exiled Cuban musicans such as José ‘Chombo’ Silva on tenor saxophone, Aleajandro ‘El Negro’ Vivar on trumpet and Alfredito Valdes Jr. on piano. The percussion rhythm section to support Barretto is no less enticing with Ray Mantilla on timbales and Rudy Calzado on assorted percussion. Typical of the charanga style is a take on ‘Exodus’ with violin and percussion making this an album highlight, and with brass entering on the famous theme with a solo from Silva. Another winner of a tune is ‘Sugar’s delight’ with a lovely flute solo from José Canura. For gentler, melodic flavours, look nor further than a relaxed take on Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and an interpretation of ‘Manhã de Carnaval’ that Herb Alpert would feel at home with. The nearest thing in fact to the now established Barretto sound is to be heard on ‘Descarga la Moderna’ which is a hard driving Latin-jazz number. An early rendition of what would become a Barretto signature tune is to be found on ‘Cocinando Suave’ which is another charanga led piece while ‘El Negro y Ray’ is a storming Afro-Cuban jazz number with El Negro soaring on trumpet.
Tenorist Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis is better known for his straight ahead jazz side on Riverside, often duetting with Johnny Griffin. However, here he is firmly in Latin jazz vein and this must have been something of a shock to his devoted fans, but a very pleasant one at that. Probably the most famous intepretation here is that of ‘Tin Tin Deo’ which must surely rate among the very best takes on the number and the big band plus percussion is something special that warrants repeated listens as does the no holds barred ‘Wild Rice’ on which Davis unleashes a torrent of notes. In a mid-tempo vein is the lazy sounding guaguanco, ‘Guanco Lament’ which is a gorgeous tune and in parts the piece reverts back to big band be-bop. A major reason why this album works so well are the arrangements and compositions of Gil López who worked with Titpo Puente among others and is an expert exponent of the Latin jazz idiom. Here he plays a non-playing musician role, but one that is an essential ingredient of the overall sound nonetheless and he sounds as though he has been influenced by the likes of Gil Evans and Stan Kenton on the jazz side and by the two Tito’s, Puente and Rodriguez on the Latin side. As ever with Malanga re-issues, extremely well presented inner sleeve notes that span sixteen pages with full original covers and notes.
In 1963 three of the all-time greats in Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach combined and recorded one of the greatest piano trio albums in modern jazz. It was particularly noteworthy for the pared down setting of Ellington as a pianist rather than in his usual role as a big band leader and the interplay between the trio was exceptional. It was with this memory in mind that drummer and leader Terri Lyne Carrington embarked upon a project to revisit several numbers from the original recording, adding some new compositions of a younger trio comprising Gerald Clayton on piano and Christian McBride on bass, but, rather than simply provide a second-hand pastiche of the former, instead the leader has made it her objective to give the music a fresh twist with some socio-political elements incorporated via the spoken word. By no means an easy undertaking, this carefully thought out approach has resulted in a beautifully executed album that allows the listener to hear the original pieces in a new light and, in addition, place the 1963 album in a much needed historical context at the beginnings of the momentous civil rights era in the United States and for the trio’s generation there is an obvious quest to learn more about the major players in the African-American struggle for equality. Max Roach was one of the foremost jazz musicians to explore these issues in musical form with ‘Freedom Now: We insist’ while Charles Mingus was consistently and acutely sensitive to and combative of disciriminatory discourse and actions. Duke Ellington, as one of the leading figues at the Cotton Club, faced numerous examples of discriminatory behaviour and sought to combat with with his famed guile.
It has in fact been Carrington’s wish to cover the ‘Money Jungle’ album for a decade and she has certainly marked her own individual imprint here.
She is ably assisted by the guest appearances of Herbie Hancock as narrator, Lizz Wright as vocalist and the collective brass vocies of trumpeter Clark Terry, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart and trombonist Robin Eubanks. There are fine ensemble performances from the trio on Ellington’s ‘Fleurette Africain’ with the voice of Hancock and sparse brass to emphasize the main theme. A rootsy folk-blues take on ‘Backward Country Boy Blues’ features the predominantly wordless vocals of Lizz Wright who is ideally suited to the task and Clayton alternates on fender rhodes to provide a modern update. The title track meanwhile, which contains excerpts of both Martin Luther King and Barack Obama speeches, stands out as an album highlight. On ‘A little Max (Parfait)’ the mid-tempo number has a distinctly Latin feel underpinning it and some fine interplay between piano and drums ensues. Two original Carrington pieces are included and of these, ‘Grass Roots’ is a straight ahead trio number that has a Mehldau-esque quality to it. Pianist Clayton offers his own composition ‘Cut Off’ which is a reposing ballad and evidence of a talented composer. An undercurrent to the project as a whole is the relationship between art and commerce and one that has disadvantaged countless jazz musicians who have either been forced to conform to formulaic constraints, or else go for the jugular by treading their own independent-minded path. This trio should stick together for some other projects for the empathy between them is self-evident.
Better known for her later mid-1980s foray into Hi-NRG terrain, these two early albums capture a then debuting singer smack bang in the middle of the classic disco era and are a useful addition to her discography. The pairing of albums is noteworthy for the choice of producer in Ian Levine who is a legendary figure on the northern soul scene and at least some of the songs here are performed at a tempo that northern soul fans would feel instantly at home with. Rewind in time to 1975 when flared trouser and wedges were the norm and judging by hair length or style alone, it was difficult to distinguish between boy or girl.
The first album, which dates from the aforementioned year, is typical of its time in that it borrows from the then in-vogue strings and horns of the Philadelphia International sound and the title track opener fits perfectly into that mould with a catchy chorus hook. For a budding disco diva, Thomas offers some surprisingly soulful sounds on the mid-tempo ‘Look no further’ which is arguably the strongest cut on the album and the nice subtle touch of a clavinet and this combines ideally with brass and strings. For northern and even modern soul devotees, ‘It’s the magic of your touch’ which will appeal and this song is dressed up in layers of smooth strings.
A second album from 1978, this time on the prestigious Casablanca label that in the same year released the likes of Donna Summer’s ‘Last dance’, Love and Kisses ‘How much, how much I love you’ as well as the soundtrack to ‘Thanks God it’s Friday’, pretty much repeats the formula, though with a few differences in line-up. The album is a fascinating end of era document in production technique with one side on the original vinyl being recorded in the UK with Evelyn Thomas cutting her vocals in Chicago and side two being an extended version of songs that segue into one another and as such will prove to be dancers delight. It is the title track which is the strongest song and once again use the trusted Philly groove as its template. Three bonus cuts are added with ‘Sleaze’ the most attractive and has a lengthy percussive Latin intro that will impress and by Evelyn Thomas’ standards is a relatively downtempo number and typical of the tempo that DJs in the 1970s would play from a set in the very early hours of the morning. Once again expertly packaged and a welcome re-issue from a label that prides itself on introducing the choicest of classic dance music to the widest possible audience.
British bluegrass acts are thin on the ground, but London-based outfit The Wagon Tales have been plying their trade since they were formed in 2007 and came together via encounters with jazz-related musicians. They are the brainchild of double bassist Ben Somers and banjoist Joe Auckland, both of whom double up on vocals. Individually the band members have gained useful experience in a wide range of musical fields and these include performing with the English Chamber Orchestra, Nitin Sawney, Dr John, Dub Colossus and Dizzie Rascal which is a vast panorama of styles.
This new CD of all original compositions captures where the band are at and this means soaking up the influences of some of the all-time greats of the bluegrass world from arguably the creator of the genre, Bill Monroe and the famous Stanley Brothers through to Emmylou Harris who cut some choice bluegrass music in the late seventies and early eighties. A new generation of bluegrass musicians in the US have emerged over the last ten-fifteen years with a major catalyst to activity being the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film ‘O Brother where art thou’ which featured the likes of Alison Krauss and her group Union Station, the folksy hues of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and a host of other names. The Wagon Tales specialise in tight arrangements and close vocal harmonies with all acoustic instrumentation befitting the genre. They excel on the gentler paced songs such as the gently lilting ‘Slowly slowly’ and it is unusual to hear a trumpet featured here, but it certainly blends in well. A folksy ballad, ‘Butterflies’ provides the opportunity for joint lead vocalist Kate Robinson to take centre stage. Instrumentally there is a good deal of promise for the future and plucking banjo and fiddle unite on the excellent ‘Trading water’ and the subtle inclusion of non-traditional elements will surely help the group to forge its own distinctive identity. Close harmonies abound on ‘Carry that load’ with a neat fiddle solo. The Wagon Tales have already performed at a Swedish folk festival as well as Glastonbury and fit neatly into the new folk revival movement that has gained new impetus since the mid-late 1990s.
Following in the footsteps of such an illustrious father is no easy task, but leader, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Femi Kuti has, over the course of several albums, charted his own distinctive musical path and this latest album is no exception. The songs are considerably more concise than those of father Fela Ransome Kuti with seven out of the eleven compositions here being under five minutes and consequently the time devoted to instrumental soloing has been much reduced. What the listener benefits from instead is a significantly more diverse range of influences that naturally flow into the Afro-Beat sound that continues to be the predominant style. However, in terms of the nature of the lyrics that have always been crucial to the classic Afro-Beat style, Femi has, if anything, returned to his father’s own uncompromising voice. The current economic and financial crises have served as a stimulating impetus for some astute observations on economic, political and social concerns, especially of the most vulnerable members of society in the early part of the twenty-first century. One of the overriding questions Femi Kuti poses in this album is what solutions do politicians have to the multifarious problems besetting the global economy. Getting straight to the point on ‘No work, no job, no money’, the piece is a compelling repetitive number with a catchy keyboard riff and keyboards that have something of a 1970s Santana feel to them. Equally trenchant is ‘Politics na big business’ which has some interesting shifts in tempo, but here the slightly less frantic mid-tempo groove works extremely well and the guitar riff is memorable. Several songs are delivered in pidgeon English which is consistent with the origins of the Afro-Beat style and ‘Action time’ typifies this, being a mid-tempo number with a lengthy saxophone intro. For fans of driving dancefloor- oriented Afro-Beat, ‘The world is changing’ will be a welcome inclusion and is a plea from Femi not to forget those in the world who are suffering from poverty. Instrumentally, Femi Kuti demonstrates an interest in the music of John Coltrane in his tenor saxohpone solo on ‘One man show’ and in general the album reveals a wide range of jazz, funk and Latin influences that are skilfully weaved into a cohesive whole and indicate that the leader looks beyond Africa for musical inspiration. With the world in profound socio-economic mutation, Femi Kuti has plenty to sing about and he has certainly not shied away from tackling some of the thornier issues of the day. He is one of a small number of musicians who are prepared to put their views into the public domain via their music and his views will echo with many around the globe.
Orquesta El Macabeo are a twelve piece salsa ‘gorda’ or heavy salsa collective from Puerto Rico who give the tried and tested salsa formula a thoroughly modern twist by incorporating elements of ska and rock, though the predominant sound is unquestionably the classic Latin music era of the early 1970s when Fania reigned supreme. The group excel on burning mid-paced numbers where the traditional musical craftsmanship of ‘sonero’ vocals and jazz-inflected keybaords combine to good effect. Fans of Eddie Palmieri and the harder hitting salsa of Conjunto Libre will find much to admire here and that includes the Fania All Stars-inspired ‘La Dieta’ which has a wonderful melody and a lovely piano solo from Anibal Vidal Quintero, or the Santana-esque groove of ‘Alacrán’ which has a killer hook and an extended electric piano segment. For dancers and salsa dura aficionados alike, look no further than the storming ‘Cogiendo pon’ which reveals elements of the indigenous Puerto Rican folk rhythms of bomba and plena that renowned musicians such as Cortijo and Ismael Rivera weaved into their music. Incidentally the album title reworks the song title (not included here) of one of salsa’s greatest duets, that of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz. They would certainly approve of them usic contained within. Factor in the full-steam ahead salsa of the opener ‘El Sueño (The Dream)’ and you have one fine all round album that thankfully deviates from the rampant commercialism of much modern day salsa.