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.