Tenorist/pianist and leader Jerry Bergonzi has come up with a novel idea of all original compositions that are in turn based on well-known standards.
If the idea is a laudable one, the results are technically accomplished, but overall lacking somewhat in soulfulness and this does unfortunately come across as something of an academic exercise. Bergonzi in fact is both a musician and music teacher at the New England conservatory in Boston and this may be part of the problem the listener faces in that the two roles should be separate whereas on this recording the academic aspect of his career directly impinges upon the nature of the music. Taking that factor into account, there is still some interesting music on offer for the listener to appreciate. A reworking of Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ into ‘PG 2013’ is a fascinating opener with some excellent accompaniment here and on the rest of the pieces by bassist Will Slate and drummer Karen Kocharyan. However, maybe the conception itself was ultimately just too clever for its own good and this is illustrated on ‘First lady’, ostensibly a tribute to Michelle Obama, but which has nothing of the potency of the original tune it is inspired by, namely ‘Lady bird’ by Tadd Dameron’.
The ongoing debate on West African music aimed at a local versus an international audience will continue to be voiced, but on this release it seems as though one independent record company has actually released a local cassette recorded in Bamako (still the primary medium for listening to music) onto CD format. Ideally one would have liked an enterprising company to have offered better value for money in placing two local cassettes worth of music onto a single CD and the meager thirty minute overall time is reflected in the evaluation. That said, the music itself is uncompromising with no concession whatsoever to an international audience and as such this will undoubtedly be part of its charm to the listener in search of authentic acoustic Malian music. Leader Baba Sissoko performs on large ngoni, doun doun and sings as part of a five-piece group that includes the leader’s mother, Djeli Mah Damba Karuba, who sings. The music is typified by numbers such as ‘Boli’ with talking drum, ngoni and the soku (a kind of violin) all heard to great effect with the inspirational vocals of Djeli and the up-tempo ‘Tche fari’ which has a lovely rambling feel and the talking drum in the background makes for a scintillating listening experience. As for the songs themselves, they are relatively compact in length with the longest only just over four minutes long. A worthwhile release, then, but one that requires a little more thought in terms of delivering value for money for the financially hard-pressed record buyer.
French-based, but with a cosmopolitan multi-national line-up, El Después are a tango quintet that have been influenced by the classical tango tradition of Pugliese and Triollo as well as the more innovative explorations of Piazzolla. This is reflected in their overall approach, which reveals a strong classical bias, with the inclusion of French cellist Henri Demarquette, and the group is the brainchild of native Porteño (Buenos Aires) bandoneon player Victor Hugo Villena. Villena is part of a generation that grew up not automatically listening to tango and in fact in his personal case was more exposed to other folk music forms such as chamané. El Después is a formation that has been formed in tribute to a group that in turn was created way back in 1960 and the aim of the new group is perform music to be listened rather than danced to, though the two are not musically exclusive. Adding some welcome diversity to proceedings, vocalist Sandra Rumolina contributes on two non-standard pieces by Kurt Weill (both adapted to the French language) including ‘Youkali’ and ‘Je ne t’aime pas’. Rumolina has something of the commanding presence of Juliette Gréco in her voice and this lends an impressive extra dimension to the quintet sound. Indeed it would be a mouthwatering prospect to hear an entire album of the singer plus quintet devoted exclusively to the Kurt Weill songbook in the tango idiom. For dancers who know their milonga, the number ‘Ana de San Talmo’ should fit the bill to perfection and this is a deeply uplifting performance from the quintet. In a more reflective vein, the appropriately titled ‘Reflexiones’ features Villena on an extended bandoneon solo, but above all else it is the ensemble playing that shines through here.
Veteran pianist and founder member of pioneering Cuban group Irakere, Chucho Valdés has established an international reputation as an outstanding leader and composer, but from the 1990s onwards has increasingly turned inwards towards his own career and for a long time was an artist on the prestigious Blue Note label. Now signed to Harmonia Mundi’s Jazz Village off shoot label, Valdés has surrounded himself with some top new musicians and a few choice guest musicians including saxophonist Branford Marsalis. The repertoire is firmly in the Afro-Cuban jazz groove and the pianist excels in this idiom. With eight lengthy pieces averaging out at some nine minutes per number, there is ample opportunity for the individual band members to shine, not least the leader himself. For those unfamiliar with his style, Chucho Valdés belongs very much to the McCoy Tyner School of jazz piano playing and that means glorious modal piano vamps in abundance. A distinctive Spanish tinge is present on the Jazz Messengers flavoured piece ‘Tabù’ which has a delightful Afro-Cuban backdrop in the use of percussion features some tasty trumpet and tenor saxophone playing from Reinaldo Melian Alavarez and Branford Marsalis respectively. For no-holds barred Afro-Cuban jazz, look no further than the frenetic opener to the album which features elongated piano vamps from the leader some interesting changes in tempo. The virtuoso skills of Valdés are very much in evidence here. For all his potential power, Valdés is best heard here on the gentler piece such as the melodic ballad ‘Caridad amaro’ which has something of a pop tune immediacy to it and this merely underlines what a fine composer Valdés has become over time. A fitting tribute to Valdés’ father who performed well into his nineties comes in the form of ‘Bebo’ and is a mid-paced number with attractive collective horns.
American folk singer-songwriter was one of the original pioneers of the folk revival movement back in the 1960s alongside Joan Baez and Buffy Saint Marie and is interestingly a true contemporary of Bob Dylan who even moved to the same part of the United States in Minneapolis from New York and thus had a personal connection with the iconic singer from the latter’s early days. Koerner made his name primarily as part of the Koerner, Ray and Glover trio that recorded two seminal albums for the Elektra label during the early 1960s. Moroever, when touring the UK at the same time, Koerner played the legendary Les Cousins venue in London along with Davy Graham Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy. During the 1970s, Koerner briefly retired from folk music altogether, but returned to perform a few years later and had to ovecome some formidable obstacles in order to perform the music he loves, not least of which was heart bypass surgery.
If one had to make any parallel at all, then it might be with another singer of the same era, Rambling Jack Elliott. In terms of influences Spider has taken in some of the clasici folk-blues singers such as Jesse Fuller and gospel-blues singers of the calibre of the reverend Gary Davis, both of whom Dylan and others have regularly been regularly inspired by. On this new album by Koerner, the selection of songs, the majority of which are originals, are essentially a mixture of traditional numbers, some of which were composed way back during the 1960s. A particular favourite of this writer is ‘Creepy John’ which is actually a re-working of a song on an early album ‘Blues, Rags and Hollers’ for Elektra. Here the blues feel is embellished by some delightful fiddle and a lovely bassline. Elsewhere historical references abound as on the gold rush in California on ‘Acres of clams’. Another early composition which works especially well in its new format is ‘Good time Charlie’ which has a spoken intro with Spider on harmonica and a rip-roaring country-folk tune it is too. Rounding off a deeply melodic album and consistently agreeable listening experience is some outstanding packaging which may just be a contender for album cover of the year. It is beautifulltyillustrated with a lush gatefold sleeve that immediately conjurs up a truly bygone era and there are notes on every song on the album contained within which simply makes the reader’s/listener’s experience all the more enjoyable. Hornbeam are to be commended for such a fine release and Spider John Koerner is in excellent form throughout.
The Rough Guides series have come up with some inventive and thankfully more specialised selections in recent times and here is another fine illustration. This focuses on the dancefloor side of music from the African continent and covers a multitude of countries and styles. West Africa seems to hold pride of place here with the Afro-Beat drummer in legend Fela Kuti’s band Tony Allen and his Afro Messengers branching out with an elongated excursion into the genre with ‘Love is a natural thing’. The subtlest of drum grooves leads into some classic classic Afro-Beat with 1970s style keyboards, intricate guitar riffs all in evidence. A different feel to Fela’s sound, then, but the connections between the two former group members are obvious. Equally from Nigeria, the Lijadu Sisters were recently showcased on a Soul Jazz compilation in their own right and deservedly so. Here the song ‘Come on home’ features a talking drum intro with an instrumental melody that is akin to the early disco hit ‘Rock you baby’, though both the bassline and piano vamp are taken at a slower tempo. Staying with West Africa, highlife is popular in both Ghana and Nigeria (and many other nations in fact) and from the former, long-time exponent Pat Thomas offers the relaxed groove of ‘Yesu san bra’ which once again has some retro 1970s keyboards. Moving across the continent to Cameroun, Manu Dibango was one of the first African musicians to score an international success outside the continent of Africa with ‘Soul Makossa’ in 1973. Here the simple, yet effective repetition of ‘Yekey Tenge’ has a rippling groove with collective chanting over which Dibango himself performs lead vocals.
From South Africa, two choice selections have been made and of these fans of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album will probably be familiar with Mahlathini and the Mahotellas and the offering ‘Kazet’. Typically pared down instrumentation and dynamite vocals are the order of the day here while for fans of a poppier sound Yvonne Chaka Chaka is most definitely the first port of call. UK-based African groups started to emerge during the 1970s and of these arguably the most successful in commercial terms alone were Osbisa. They fused African and western sounds and pioneered their own Afro-rock sound. Here they offer ‘Dance the body music’, the title of which says it all and has become an instant dancefloor favourite of ajust about any era. Given the numerous choices that have to be made on such a compilation, some parts of Africa are under-represented and the lusophone world is totally absent which is a pity and, perhaps, a compilation of the various nations making up this linguistic entity is in order. As with recent issues, a second CD featuring a worthy lesser known artist is included and in this case it is Maloko. Excellent value for money as ever and a fine way to discover some dancefloor favourites of an altogether different variety.
Prior to their extended run of success in the mid-late 1970s, the Jazz Crusaders as they were then known, were a more acoustic-based straight ahead jazz unit with soulful references and this album catches them in transitional period on their last album (and it was already the group’s seventeenth album in total) for the Pacific Jazz label in 1970. The three Texas born musicians who initially formed the band, keyboardist Joe Sample, trombonist Wayne Henderson and saxophonist Wilton Felder went to the same high school together and it was this natural empathy that one finds on this attractive sounding recording. Drummer Stix Hooper would join the collective later. As on previous albums, there was a mixture of covers of the latest pop hits of the time plus some interesting originals. Of the latter, by far the most original and engaging is the Hooper composition ‘Anita’s new dance’ which features a memorable main theme restated. For fans of modal vamps, the eleven minute ‘Space settlement’ should fit the bill with a searing tenor solo from Felder. There is even some hard bop in the Jazz Messengers vein on the Sample number ‘Another blues’ which features some fine basslines laid down by Buster Williams and a distinctive solo from Henderson. Of the covers, B.B. King’s ‘The thrill is gone’ is is essentially a soul-jazz vehicle and frankly could have been developed further. Once again the Beatles are the principal listening interest for the Crusaders with faithful, if not especially inventive, versions of ‘Black Bird’ and the title track that follow on from covers of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and Hey Jude’ on two earlier live albums. Not essential listening by any means, but fans of both the jazz and fusion sides of the Crusaders lengthy career will want to own a copy of this. Tim Stenhouse
The debut album from Azteca on CBS finds the band in a transitional phase, varying between Latin-influenced numbers and outright funk tunes. For that reason alone, funk fans who are in search of a little more exotic grooves may well find this recording of particular interest. Among group alumni Neal Schon of Santana provides some guitar riffs of distinction with Lenny White on drums, Paul Jackson on bass and the Escovedo brothers taking care of percussion duties. This album is more soul and R & B influenced than its successor and with mixed results. A first single, ‘Ain’t got no special woman’ was a blatant attempt to cash in on the then in-vogue Santana sound, but is no bad number for all that and has something of a southern soul feel with rock elements. A second single ‘Mamita linda’ on the album follows on from a subtle, reflective instrumental opener ‘La piedra del sol’ before the listener is straight into a rhythm guitar-based Latin-rock workout with some nifty organ work. Even more impressive is the steaming Latin-jazz outing ‘Non pacem’ which is probably the strongest cut on the entire album and this begins in a Latin vein with English vocals, then morphs into a funk-tinged second part with a fine solo from Harrell. Paul Jackson contributes vocals to his own composition ‘Can’t take the funk out of me’ and plays also on the Latin-funk piece ‘Peace everybody’ with a guitar riff right out of the main title to ‘Shaft’. Eventually Azteca split up after two critically acclaimed, yet commercially unsuccessful albums, citing a distinct lack of airplay as the major factor, and with ‘Coke’ Escovedo departing and performing for three years with Santana including the ‘Moonflower’ and Oneness’ albums. Extensive four page liner notes on the band history by ‘Jazz Today ‘columnist Will Layman are instructive and as ever with BBR, the graphics are spot on. Well worth investigating. Tim Stenhouse
Latin-funk outfit Azteca were part of a much wider cultural, political and social that strived for more rights and opportunities for Chicanos (American citizens of Mexican heritage) during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Formed in 1970 by Latin percussionist brothers Pete (father of Shelia E) and ‘Coke’ Escovedo, Azteca brought on board the cream of San Francisco-based musicians that included future Headhunters bassist Paul Jackson, cult keyboardist Flip Nunez, percussionist Victor Pantoja and trumpeter Tom Harrell who would go on to enjoy a tenure with Horace Silver before forming his own Latin-flavoured formations. This was the second of the albums that Azteca recorded for CBS and is by far the stronger and more cohesive overall in outlook. It differs from Santana in one important respect: the rock element is less pronounced with a greater emphasis on the soulful and, in parts, funky side of urban black American music of the time. That said, Latin and jazz elements are still to the fore. Interestingly, with English lead vocals shared including those of Wendy Haas, there was clearly an attempt to reach out beyond Latino populations.
Listening to this music forty years on, one cannot help but be struck by how immediate the pieces are, yet at the time mainstream radio barely played so-called ‘minority interest’ music (though Santana broke the barrier among white audiences) and even Latino radio stations focused rather on more traditional music styles. The relaxing soulful groove of ‘Someday we’ll get by’ sets the scene beautifully with an instantly catchy hook and some fine playing by Harrell. Heavy Afro-Cuban percussion greets the listener on ‘Mexicana, Mexicana’ and during the early 1970s many Latino musicians were keen to explore the musical heritage of Hispanic migrants in general as well as their own ethnicity(ies). A fast-paced ‘New day is on the rise’ features some lovely brass and vocals and in general the music on the album does not sound in the least bit dated. Latin-soul was still in vogue at the time of recording and ‘Red onions’ has Spanish language lyrics and a typically soulful backdrop. With a striking painting cover from Mexican folklore, this is a wonderful example of Latin rhythms fusing with funk, jazz and soul ingredients, all adding up to some exhilarating music. A fine re-issue with excellent sleeve notes and plenty of graphical illustrations which transport you back to the heady days of the 1970s.
Although not the first album the O’Jays ever recorded (that honour belongs to an earlier 1965 album on Liberty), this first recording for Gamble and Huff’s Neptune label in 1970 was a clear indication that a soul music revolution was about to take place and that was in fact the creation of Philadelphia International records, the brainchild of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. By 1968 both the O’Jays and the Intruders were establishing themselves on the circuit scene and had indeed performed at the legendary Apollo theatre in Harlem during that tumultuous year politically. The two groups would pair up with the songwriting duo (who were in strong form writing the ‘Ice man cometh’ album for Jerry Butler – he would later join the Philly stable) and eventually be among the first artists to record for Philly International as it affectionately known. What is important to stress is that the album before you is no mere hors d’oeuvre to the later classic recordings. It is a bona fide Philly sound album in it’s own right and will be a major (re-)discovery for any lover of quality soul music. Virtually all the songs were penned by the ace duo of Gamble and Huff (who for many are the soul equivalent of Lennon and McCartney, though there are some other distinguished candidates out there vying for that particular mantle) and the distinctive and instantly recognisable Philly instrumentation was already in place. Furthermore, the O’Jays had honed their vocal harmonies when performing live and were fully formed in the studio by the time this album was recorded. The results is a glorious set of uptempo, characteristic classy mid-tempo and heartwarming ballads that so typifies the O’Jays sound as we now know it. No less than four singles were released off the album and this was probably an indication of how confident Gamble and Huff were in their new singing to the fledgling label. A first single, the mid-tempo number ‘One night affair’ was released and it is easy with the benefit of hindsight to see and hear why. It is classic O’Jays material that could easily fit into any of their greatest recorded albums and the call and response harmonies are present with Eddie Levert delivering some rasping lead vocals into the bargain. For inspirational gospel-infused voicings, ‘Just can’t get enough’ is a stunning number while the expansive film soundtrack sounding ‘Deeper (in love with you)’ has something of a northern soul beat to it. As always the O’Jays impress in the mid-tempo range and this album is no exception with ‘I’ve got the groove’ and the shuffling ‘Looky Looky (Look at me girl)’ complete with Leon Huff piano-led intro. Quality ballads abound and they include ‘Let me into your world’ and the guitar riff plus vibes of ‘You’re the best thing since candy’. A truly inspired choice of what have now become all-time standards, but at the time were brand new compositions comes in the shape of an intriguing medley that segues ‘Little green apples’ into George Harrison’s ‘Something’. The O’Jays ‘In Philadelphia’ is music from the city of brotherly love par excellence and one cannot say more than that. Rounding off an outstanding re-issue are detailed inner sleeve notes which chart the development of the group during the mid-late 1960s. Tim Stenhouse