Anita Wardell belongs to the classic tradition of vocalese singing. British born, but part educated in Australia where she studied jazz and improvised music at the University of Adeleide, Anita Wardell has been influenced by the innovatory work of Eddie Jefferson (performing with Jefferson’s late career sidekick Richie Cole) and Mark Murphy and this grounding reveals itself in the ease with which the singer performs on ballads as well as be-bop excursions. The repertoire is varied and challenging and this makes for an entertaining and informative listen. The title track was originally a Pat Metheny instrumental original with lyrics added by Wardell and the number now takes on both a decidedly blues as well as gospel tinge. For fans of the great American songbook, ‘Surrey with the fringe on top’ will prove a revelatory experience and unquestionably an album highlight. Commencing at a rapid tempo, the piece then slows down to mid-tempo with a exquisite soulful delivery from the singer. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superwoman’ was an intricate, yet undeniably beautiful song in its original format, but here Wardell tackles the number in two distinctive parts. For the first, she plays it laid back before shifting up a couple of gears and the contrast between the two is a joy to behold. It was a terrific idea to attempt the number in a jazz idiom and the result is a triumph. Elsewhere the uplifting update on eclectic multi-instrumentalist and genius Hermeto Pascoal is another example of Wardell taking on difficult pieces and turning them into something new, though here the Brazilian tradition is very much respected with a gentle and lyrical guitar solo by Guillermo Hill. A bossa favourite ‘Você e eu’ (‘You and I’) receives a lilting rendition with rhythm guitar and percussion playing their part. While Anita Wardell excels on uptempo numbers, she is equally adept on ballads and the sensitive treatment of ‘You’re my thrill’, especially in the delicate use of drums, works extremely well while the wordless vocals incorporated à la Bobby McFerrin or Al Jarreau are an indication is that here is a singer who really listens to others and is willing to take on board their techniques.
Norwegian musician and composer Geir Lysne has been heavily influenced by world roots music and, similar to his countryman Jan Garbarek, has incorporated this into his music. The result is an album that sounds very contemporary and might have been the kind of album that Joe Zawinul would have made, and is a logical progression from the former’s 1990s collaboration with Salif Keita. There are certainly hints of Garbarek on the opener ‘Please welcome!’, yet that is where the parallel ends since the Lyle Mays-influenced keyboards and Niels-Peter Molvaer trumpet sound take the music in an altogether different direction. South-East Asia seems to be a major source of inspiration for Lysne and this is best illustrated on a number such as ‘A million stars’ which features the lead vocals of Vietnamese singer Huong Tanh. Guest guitarist Nguyen Lê adds his own touch with the sensitive use of electronics that creates an additional layer of sound. Equally evocative of more tropical climates is the flute-led piece ‘Sakin’ where, after the initial solo on flute, Lysne then reverts back to tenor saxophone for a warm, relaxed delivery.
It is clear that Geir Lysne is primarily pre-occupied with breaking down musical boundaries and his talent as an arranger and leader of big bands first surfaced with the Listening Ensemble in 1999 and then with the German NDR Big Band for which he has received the Echo Jazz award this year. Throughout the latest album orchestral textures are omnipresent and a key element in the musical métissage is the participation and collaboration of musical partner Reidar Skar. This is one of ACTs most imaginative and inventive releases of the year. Tim Stenhouse
Multi-reedist, composer and leader Max Von Mosch has fit a great deal into his thirty-three years thus far, obtaining a PhD in Music at the New England conservatory in Boston and has put together a progressive orchestra that is already attracting attention in his native Germany. This album captures the orchestra live at the Jazz club Unterfahrt in Munich from July 2012 and they have been in existence since 2006. Divided into various jazz suites, the title track typifies the mood of the album overall, sub-divided into five parts with part one being an expansive waltz-like piece while part two is more reflective in nature and is arguably the most lyrical number on the entire album. The sound quality of the performance is excellent, yet still manages to retain an intimacy. If the ambition of its leader is beyond question, there is nonetheless an indefinable quality lacking here which is possibly linked to a missing ingredient of originality or even just an absence of soulfulness. Many of the new generation are extremely well schooled in the history of jazz and moreover have an eclectic approach to incorporating non-jazz elements. However, they invariably ignore one of the key factors which is whether the music has the ability to affect the emotions of the listener. Max Von Mosch would be well served re-examining this aspect of his music and if he does, then he is sure to make rapid progress. Tim Stenhouse
Perhaps the biggest compliment one could pay to this band is that if one were given a blindfold test, then one would have expected this formation to have come out of Chicago, or Philadelphia and not Germany. The idea behind the project is to pay homage to the music of Count Basie, but in a slightly different (though no less empathetic) setting of a small combo soul-jazz format complete with Hammond organ. This makes for a soulful and swinging jazz experience and the warm tenor saxophone of Gábor Bolla helps matters considerably. Pete York is a vastly experienced musician who, in 1965, recorded with the Spencer Davis group that included Miff and Steve Winwood. An instantly recognisable Lester Young penned ‘Tickle Toe’ features some tasty Grant Greenesque guitar licks from Torsten Goods while ‘Jumpin’ at the Woodside’ is infused with some Hammond grooves out of the Jimmy Smith bag. On ‘Flip, flop and joy’ the leader engages in some bluesy vocals on the infectious mid-tempo groove. Retro this may be, but boring and predictable it most certainly is not. Tim Stenhouse
Reviving the music of the swing era is not an in-vogue trend among jazz musicians, but it is precisely this attempt which lies behind the logic to American/British/German represented Echoes of Swing. They were formed in 1997 and have recorded several albums including their last ‘Message from Mars’. The opener and title track is actually a misleading number and would have been better placed towards the end. It is nonetheless an excellent interpretation of the mid-1960s Blue Note era and very much in the soul-jazz bag with a feel of a Horace Silver meets Donald Byrd or Hank Mobley collaboration. There is progressive big band on the Ellington/Strayhorn opus of the title track which originally dates from the ‘Far East Suite’ in 1966, but here has been transposed into a smaller combo setting while the latinization of ‘La Paloma Azul’ recalls the thrilling alto saxophone of one Paul Desmond.
Echoes of Swing are not a swing band in any conventional sense, but they do have to make their mids up as to what their distinctive identity is. Are they retro-swing, or progressive soul-jazz with a hint of be-bop?
They veer towards the former on pieces such as ‘Azzurro’ which is the kind of number that Paolo Conte might have recorded and could be right out of a Fellini film soundtrack. Blues inflections permeate the vocal-led ‘Blue Prelude’, though it has to be stated that the vocals, doubtless influenced by the Chet Baker approach, are a tad weak. Some of their own compositions such as ‘Out of the blue’ are somewhat twee. On the other hand, ‘The Smurf’ is an uplifting piano-led piece. In essence then, the band need to be much clearer in communicating their direction and if they wish to explore different facets of the jazz tradition, then do so in coherent separate projects. Tim Stenhouse
Swedish singer Viktoria Tolstoy is celebrating a decade of albums on the ACT label and has increasingly diversified her repertoire to include quirky takes on the modern jazz classics, often adding new lyrics penned by Anna Alerstedt, and skilfully weaving in pop tunes with interesting new arrangements. This latest set is arguably the most eclectic of all in terms of the selection, but is equally the most cohesive since it is a pared down affair of pianist Jacon Karlzon who excels in his role here and Tolstoy herself and in this respect reminds one of the Tony Bennett and Bill Evans duet recordings. Among the discoveries is a vocal version of Pat Metheny’s ‘A moment of now’ which was a deeply melodic instrumental original and now receives a delicate accompaniment on piano. The sheer musicality of Metheny’s writing comes shining through here.
On Stevie Wonder’s ‘Send one your love’, the original bass line is performed on piano with guest vocalist Jocke Bergström adding a new dimension engaging in a duet with Tolstoy. Fans of more traditional song fare will not be disappointed with an understated delivery on Cole Porter’s ‘I concentrate on you’ with minimalist piano accompaniment working especially well. Karlzon accompanies the singer on celesta on a inventive interpretation of Pater Gabriel’s ‘Red rain’. The fact that Viktoria Tolstoy struggles with bipolar disorder makes her achievements all the greater. Tim Stenhouse
Barcelona-based band the Excitements specialise in the old-school gritty R & B with a nod to 60s funk flavours in the brass section. They are greatly aided by the vocals of Koko-Jean Davis whose influences are situated in soul-blues territory and probably include Etta James and Sugar Pie De Santo.This latest album will be of interest to anyone who likes the early Stax and Chess soul 45s. In fact the influence of Booker T and the MGs is all over the stomping ‘That’s what you got’ which is an all instrumental piece with riff-laden guitar dominating. There are shades of early Tina Turner on ‘Keep your hands off’ and of Ray Charles on the uplifting gospel-blues number ‘I believe you’ which in its instrumentation is reminiscent of ‘I got a woman’. However, there is also variety to the Excitements repertoire and this is illustrated on the beat ballad ‘I’ve bet and I’ve lost again’. A single off the album, ‘Ha, Ha, Ha’ has already surfaced and poses the dilemma of a woman refusing stereotypical roles and has some lovely blues piano licks weaved in. The band can be heard in full swing on the uptempo Billy Preston original ‘Keep it to yourself’. With a rustic feel to the production chores, the Excitements are a band that revel in retro soul and should make for compulsive viewing in a live context. Tim Stenhouse
Paying homage to Nigerian Afro-Beat legend Fela Ransome Kuti and raising awareness of Aids, the illness Kuti is reputed to have succumbed to, is the rasion d’être of this compilation and it is a mixed affair that works best when the focus is firmly on inventive re-interpretations of the classic grooves. A plethora of invited artists including the worlds of hip-hop, world roots and even western classical make this as diverse a set of selections as one could wish for, but some work better than others. Where the tribute is most creative is on the African-flavoured reworkings such as ‘Buy Africa’ which features Baloji and l’Orchestre de la Katuba with French language vocals from rapper Kuku. A throbbing Afro-Beat rhythm is retained, but with the wonderful addition of melodic Congolese guitar riffs and this might be how a Fela-Franco collaboration might have sounded had they teamed up. It is a strong opener to the album. In a somewhat lighter feel, but with a nonetheless organic Afro-Beat feel, ‘Lady’ features the excellent vocals of Angelique Kidjo and members of the Roots. For a more radical departure from the original, a pared down and mainly instrumental version of ‘Sorrow, Tears and Blood’ includes the Kroons Quartet who are renowned for breaking down musical boundaries and their plucked strings in tandem with the background whistling makes for an alternative take that Fela would surely have approved of. Combining disparate, yet related musical styles has been a characteristic of world roots fusion and here ‘Afrodiscobeat 2013’ brings together an Afro-Beat undercurrent, the deployment of dub effects and French rap into one with former Fela band drummer Tony Allen and Baloji the main practitioners.
Where this compilation falls down, though, is in some of the electro and house-oriented offerings that simply lose sight of the essence of Fela’s music. It is a pity that some of the nu-soul singers could not have been invited on board. How would Erykah Badu or Raphael Saadiq have gone about the task of tackling the repertoire? Excellent in parts, then, and a missed opportunity in others. Tim Stenhouse
Keyboardist extraordinaire and key member of the legendary MGs, Booker T. Jones has been in a rich vein of form in recent years and cut a critically acclaimed album a couple of years ago, ‘The Road from Memphis’, which updated the classic Stax sound. For this latest offering, he has enlisted some contemporary musicians and producers and has creatively mixed nu-soul flavours with more traditional soul-blues and jazzy grooves. Long-time fans will marvel at the MGs feel to ‘Austin City Blues’ which is a roaming instrumental featuring Gary Clark Jr. on guitar, or the 60s style ballad in a Muscle Shoals vein of ‘Your love is no love’ with lead vocals by Ty Taylor. However, this is no mere retro nostalgia trip and Booker T. should be given credit for moving things forward into the twenty-first century. One of the strongest of several vocal numbers is ‘Broken heart’ with Jay James on lead vocals and this mid-tempo groove comes across as a proto-Motown drum beat that the late Amy Whitehouse might have excelled on. Jazzy guitar riffs abound on the excellent ‘All over the place’ which has a Stax undercurrent while for some Latin tinged input look no further than ’66 Impala’ which features notable percussion masters Sheila E and Poncho Sanchez. Perhaps a future project might involve an entire album of Latin meets soul-blues excursions. Singer Raphael Saadiq plays the role of guitarist on several pieces while production duties are shared between the Avila Brothers and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis with the latter two a surprise, but very welcome element. An excellent outing, then, and one that builds on Booker T. Jones already prestigious reputation. Tim Stenhouse
Male jazz vocalists are thin on the ground and this most promising of debuts from British vocalist Kevin Fitzsimmons is a very encouraging sign that modern jazz and male vocals are not incompatible. There is a definite nod to tradition in the voice itself which has shades of Sinatra and Mel Tormé, and Kurt Elling into the mix. However, the latter has skilfully weaved in modern elements and Fitzsimmons has cleverly incorporated electric piano, flute and big band accompaniment which is to his credit. Among the musicians flautist and leader in his own right Gareth Lochrane has been enlisted and his presence along with a host of other experienced musicians that includes Jools Holland’s saxophonist Derek Nash has added a classy level of sophistication to proceedings. The mid-tempo waltz ‘Moving’, which features a lovely bass line from Dominic Howles and the expansive flute of Lochrane, is a treat from start to finish while ‘I’ll never be the same’ may prove to be an unexpected dance-floor ditty for jazzistas to feed upon. A thoroughly modern interpretation of ‘You do something to me’ with electric piano and brass impresses greatly as does an intimate take on the ballad ‘Lush Life’ that Johnny Hartman gave a near definitive version of with John Coltrane exactly fifty years ago. Kevin Fitzsimmons is a singer with plenty of potential and his mastery of ballads will only increase with time. He excels at present on uptempo numbers and possesses a voice that can be adapted to both blues and jazz idioms and his forte and individual sound may lie somewhere between the two.