Souad Massi ‘El Mutakallimun’ (Masters of the Word’) (Wrasse) 3/5

souad-massiAlgerian folk singer Souad Massi is a musician with a difference in that her early career was focused on message-laden politically infused rock and grew up in the socially turbulent district of Bab-el-Oued in Algiers. Subsequently, as a lead solo singer now settled in France, she has chosen to concentrate her attention on gentler folk hues. Now at a crossroads in her career after some critically acclaimed releases that have sold well in France and Europe more generally, this album is stylistically varied, but probably too much so. As a result, the mish-mash of genres does her an injustice and one thing is for sure: Souad Massi possess a beautifully clear as deep blue sea water voice that needs the most sensitive of instrumentation in order to hear it to its full effect. Her voice is heard to most empathetic effect on the gentle opener, the quietly introspective ‘Bima el Taaloul’ and fans of Yusef/Cat Stevens would feel very much at home here. In theory this album is supposed to be devoted to the poetry of Arabic culture. All the more reason, the, to back this up with some traditional music accompaniment. Instead Massi wanders all over the place with reggae, 1960s ye-ye pop and bossa nova featuring on given songs and this merely undermines the project as a whole which loses any sense of cohesion. There is for example a quasi-spoken delivery on the reggae beat of ‘Hadari’ the nminor chords and strings on the pop outing ‘Saimtou’ which is not Massi’s forte at all.

If one had to make a parallel with a career that developed gently, then accelerate, perhaps folk-blues singer Bonnie Raitt might be a useful comparison. She was allowed by her record company to develop her own sound over several albums and then finally found major success later on, but has pursued her own path with integrity. Souad Massi is simply to good a singer to be tampered with in this manner and the sooner she is left to her own devices to return to her favoured folk sound, the better. As it is, this release risks confusing newcomers and alienating long-term fans.

Tim Stenhouse

Romain Collin ‘Press Enter’ (ACT) 5/5

romain-collinIn the crowded field (though not over crowded – it could never be that) of piano trio releases, it is rare to come across an album that successfully delivers a unique voice. New York based Frenchman Romain Collin does just that with his third album (and his debut for ACT) “Press Enter”. Collin moved to New York in 2001 to take up a scholarship at Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music. He was later accepted into the highly coveted masters program at The Theloneous Monk Institute of Jazz in LA. On returning to New York the young pianist made a name for himself recording alongside the likes of John McLaughlin, Mike Stern and Christian McBride. Whilst touring Vietnam and India with his mentors Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Collin reflects on a conversation with Shorter; “We had a discussion about having big plans, in life, or in music – but oftentimes not really acting upon them. Wayne then paused and said to me “Press Enter!”. Then he left… But that stayed with me.” The interesting thing with this album is the fact that this trio are producing music that is both melodic and lyrical, making for an immediate emotional and positive impact on first experience. However, from second play onwards the listener is rewarded with its wonderful hidden depths. At its heart is an extraordinarily talented pianist, yet in many ways it is Collin’s intelligent and inventive post production skills aligned with the formidable performances from his fellow musicians that make this recording more than the sum of its parts. Drummer Kendrick Scott is on fire, bringing stimulation and exhilaration in equal measure. Bassist Luques Curtis glues it all together with a skillful balance and precision. In addition to Romain Collin’s piano, sound design and programming, there are also several guests on selected tracks. Again this is where the band leader excels, utilising the added instruments, whether it be guitar, voice or cello, as an integrated part of the composition. Collin exhibits a crystal clear vision with his music and no matter what style or form that might take, there is a beautifully natural cohesive quality to it all, each and every moment in time/space/sound being one to cherish.

“Press Enter” opens with the anthemic “99”, a short, stunning piece that wastes no time in creating a landscape for the rest of the album to build upon. If Hot Chip, Einaudi, Ben Folds and Led Zeppelin met up as a quartet to perform jazz, this might be something close to the outcome. The beguiling “Clockwork” exhibits the pianist’s compositional and performance skills perfectly, at times reminding this listener of the stunning yet playful nature employed by pianist Brad Mehldau. Light and breezy on the topside , deep and meaningful underneath. With its enveloping lyricism, “Raw, Scorched and Untethered” could be Esbjorn Svensson Trio at their peak. Much of Collin’s music has a filmic essence to it, partly due to the nature of his writing, but also in the way he uses instruments and voices as distant soundscapes and textures. “Holocene (Justin Vernon)” is a prime example with its subtle use of Grey McMurray’s guitar. This lullaby achieves an exquisite simplicity thanks to Collin’s sound manipulation and programming. In contrast, “The Kids” is a lively, bouncy piece featuring Jean Michel-Pilc on whistles. Again though, the added sounds are never overworked, always intelligently used to either reinforce melody or add colour. A much darker tone is felt with “Webs”, with Laura Metcalf’s haunting cello being used more prominently to help create an underground orchestrated feel. From these depths the atmosphere is then stripped right back with “San Luis”, a simple folk tune that resonates with its stark, lonesome beauty. Imagine a Wild West ghost town with the prairie wind gently blowing its memories out of focus. “Event Horizon” is perhaps the most surprising piece on the entire album. It is the artist’s mini masterpiece. Reminiscent of Nitin Sawhney’s magnus opus “Beyond Skin”, we hear spoken words fading in and out from the foreboding music. The title was inspired by the stories of wrongfully convicted men whose voices and testimonies we hear throughout the piece. “The Line (Dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being)”, picks up on the mood and drives it onwards with a repeating motif that gradually builds, wave upon wave of profound intensity. For the closing track, Collin’s solo piano brings a yearning, ethereal, other-worldly quality to Monk’s “Round About Midnight”. A fitting end to an album of divine substance.

Mike Gates

Big Daddy Wilson ‘Time’ (DixieFrog) 4/5

big-daddy-wilsonOn the day that the world of blues music and way beyond rightly pays tribute to the greatest populiser of the blues in B.B. King, a gentle take on the folk-blues tradition with the major input in both co-production and guitar playing comes from vocalist Big Daddy Wilson and this album was actually recorded in Germany, yet has an authentic southern blues feel to it throughout. That is thanks in large part to the co-production and guitar talent of Eric Bibb who has carved out a separate, though nonetheless complimentary side to his leader career. Fellow musician Steffan Astner is the commended equally for consistently strong slide guitar playing and this is no better illustrated than on the title track that coasts along on a distinctive bass line after an a cappella vocal intro from Big Daddy and the use of a Diddley bow from Astner. Even more inventive instrumentation is utilised on ‘She loves me’, the tale of a north German lady, with the xylophone in evidence and Paris Renita Gilbert offering up fine backing vocals on this essentially acoustic soul-blues number. Thanks to the wonders of twenty-first century technology the lead vocals by Big Daddy were actually recorded in a hotel room in Bordeaux, but you would never be able to tell.

Mainly pared instrumentation greets the listener on the relaxed mid-tempo opener, Time to move’, and the collaboration between Bibb and Wilson is one that generates a good deal of respective empathy and the listener is most certainly the winner. A fine tribute to the late great folk-blues singer Mississippi John Hurt comes in the shape of ‘Mississippi John’ with a spoken intro and some fine acoustic guitar licks from Bibb with whistles thrown in for good measure. Softly delivered vocals from Big Daddy makes this an outstanding song in homage to Mississippi John. The album was recorded in German with a film crew in attendance so possibly at some point a DVD may become available of proceedings and that would be a real treat. Folk-blues of the highest calibre from a French label that is now firmly established as a purveyor of quality blues, and ideal radio friendly listening.

Tim Stenhouse

Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna ‘Busco Paraíso’ CD/Vinyl (Petit Indie) 4/5

pascuala-ilabaca-y-faunaWhat wondrous joys the summer months brings in with new musicians hitherto unheard of on these shores. Hailing from Chile, singer and accordionist Pascuala Ilabaca is a woman on a mission to popularise Chilean folk music with a modern twist and is accompanied by a terrific band, Fauna, who skilfully weave their way between rootsy folk, brassy jazz and even manage to include a touch of Brazilian musical maverick and genius Hermeto Pascoal. The result is music that is as fresh as a daisy in approach and instantly catchy hooks which linger long on the ear. An interesting fact is that Ilabaca spent part of her childhood in India and has sought to incorporate the numerous sounds of that country in previous recordings, notably a duo album with Samad (aka Jaime Frez) from 2010. However, her own vocal delivery has been heavily influenced by the great folk singers of the Latin American nueva canción tradition and they do not come much bigger than fellow Chilean, the late great Violetta Parra. This cultural icon is paid homage to on the 2008 recording, ‘Pascuala sings Violeta’, which pretty much says it all and hopefully will see the light of day here at some stage. Elsewhere Ilabaca has recorded tribute albums to Victor Jaro, Parra and others on ‘Me saco el sombrero’ (‘I tip my hat’).

Lead singer Pascuala Ilabaca has the most gentle and crystal clear of deliveries, so much so that you would almost think she was a Brazilian singing in Portugese and in the Spanish language idiom maybe Mexican singer Lila Downs is a roughly comparable voice. Her voice hints at, but is not derivative of, Milton Nascimento and there is definitely a Brazilian influence going on underneath and that is part of the magical alchemy here. Her soft as silk vocals are here to full effect on the wonderful ‘Rezos en Montegrande'(‘Prayers in Montegrande’) with a gorgeous clarinet wailing in the background and rhythm guitar which makes for a lovely combination. As with several songs on the album, there is a change of gear part way through and this adds a variety to proceedings that folk-based albums seldom possess. The title track is a lively number with some lovely accordion and a melodic saxophone solo. The general instrumentation makes this writer think of Quebec folk with maybe the subtlest hint of the acoustic side of Gotan Project gently slid in. The band excel on a superior ballad in ‘Es dificil’ (‘It’s difficult’) that suddenly changes tempo and morphs into a jazz-tinged arrangement. Throughout the album clarinettist Miguel Razzouk Igor impresses and conjures up the old world charm of Paolo Conte in places. Ilabaca is fully capable of returning in kind with long wordless vocal passages and this makes the album a delight to listen to. Ostensibly aimed squarely at the Latin American market and recorded in Chile in 2012, the full lyrics and recording details are in Spanish only, but nonetheless beautifully illustrated with a pull out spread of singer and band in the fields of Chile. This might be the Chilean roots equivalent of the Isley Brothers’ seminal ‘Summer Breeze’ in the appropriate use of music to convey the flavour of a season. In the meantime the listener may well just have found their very own nirvana with this deliciously tasty album. Quite simply the ideal accompaniment to a long, hot summer.

Tim Stenhouse

Tad Robinson ‘Day Into Night’ (Severn) 5/5

tad-robinsonOkay, before we go any further I must fess up, this man can do no wrong in my world – I’ve watched his rise from a blues harmonica specialist into the consummate soul man. With seven albums on the shelves, he was destined to make the premier league. I first became aware of him in 2002 and from then on every album has been eagerly snatched and thoroughly examined, it’s been a gradual development with the soul tracks gathering in number with each album, and thus this album is the one we’ve been waiting for and expecting, soul from start to finish. Musically we have everything including horns a plenty and a fabulous bubbling organ that sounds so so Hammond it hurts, the chin strokers may well struggle with the sound, it’s very southern with the occasional guitar solo. The sound on here is very reminiscent of those two Ruby Turner Indigo Sessions albums she put out in 1996 & 2000 respectively, he’s in fine company. So what of the twelve tracks on here, mostly mid-paced strollers and the standard is set from the opening chords of track 1 “Soul Lover”, subtle guitar picks, dominant drums, bass and horns caress the whole sound and a fine song unfolds, he’s more than an accomplished singer too, “Lonely Talking” has a Jamaican vibe, musically its right on what Bob Marley was moving towards, any one who has heard his mesmerising “Kinky Reggae” live from Finsbury Park” will know what I mean, that organ is there the foundation of the track, once again some fine singing steers us away from any further thoughts of the late Mr Marley, “He’s moved on” has hogged the laser flicker, a lowrider tune with drums and base that shimmer along, horns stab in out demanding to be heard, echoes of 70’s funk emanate all around me, female backing singers rise and take control and then nothing, stunning soul music for 2015. The track that has caused more than a ripple over here gaining plays on various radio shows is “Love is a winner” a simply perfect shuffling dancer that grows in stature with each play, so instant this will be a monster at thinking mans soul nights and in those rooms where the DJ’s are allowed to experiment, gonna be a big thing. 53 minutes of scintillating blues and soul that I simply can’t get enough of, available for download with the physical album on its way, spoke to Tad via Facebook and he assures me it’s on its way to a distributor near you soon. Don’t get sucked into paying £20 plus from Germany, that greedy bastard has been at it for years, Fish and Soul Brother will have them soon for around £12 – £15.

Brian Goucher

Snarky Puppy with Metropole Orkest ‘Sylva’ (Impulse!) 4/5

snarky-puppyThere’s no two ways about it, “Sylva” is an ambitious project even by Snarky Puppy standards. Band leader Michael League has taken the bold step of marrying his New York collective with the genre leaping Metropole Orkest. The resulting album, recorded live, is a tour de force. Taking the usual Snarky elements of jazz, funk, grooves and solos and adding lush orchestration on a grand scale could have resulted in a questionable release at best. It is however, testament to the skill and sincerity of all involved in this recording that what we have here is a formidable achievement – an album that is both fully immersive and compositionally mature, providing the listener with an auditory feast. The album as a whole benefits from a far more cinematic soundscape than Snarky’s previous outings and yet the beauty of it is in the detail; the individual trademark hooks and riffs are still there, just on a bigger scale. The opening trio of tracks segue seamlessly into a three-part suite. “Sintra” quickly introduces us to The Metropole Orkest and is somewhat reminiscent of Pat Metheny’s “Secret Story” with its lush, sweeping orchestration. The music here glides effortlessly into “Flight”, a brilliantly written piece that might begin with its Cinematic Orchestra overtures, but soon develops into what could be described as a long-lost Weather Report classic. “Atchafalaya” completes this segment of the album, a piece that allows for some expert soloing and highlights the killer brass section. The fourth track, or movement, is the 15 minute epic “The Curtain”, a powerful piece that successfully combines intricate orchestration with superb individual playing. There are many different facets on show here, as the track develops into a deep groove with some New Orleans style soloing rising above a rich backdrop of sound… and the stunning final 60 seconds, a paired down keyboard duet, rounds the whole thing off in style. “Gretel” is big, bold and belligerent. A more straight forward track in some ways, it ramps things up with its horn riffs and fearless instrumentation. Acting almost as an intro to the 2nd part of the album, this leads us into the 19 minute finale, “The Clearing”. This is a much quirkier piece, with its intuitive score creating the cinematic feel that rises and falls throughout the recording. The beautiful opening, with its sparse guitar and subtle orchestration has an Ennio Morriconi like emotion within its reach. As with much of the music throughout this recording, there is a drama to it that stays with us for a short while, before quickly moving on, allowing for a change of mood to take hold. There’s an adventurous, more enquiring tone here, with a nod towards the intelligent humour of Loose Tubes or the ground-breaking Marcus Miller / Miles Davis collaborations. All in all a very satisfying, uplifting album and one that successfully combines jazz, funk and classical elements, without losing its soul.

Mike Gates

Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba ‘Ba Power’ LP/CD (Glitterbeat) 4/5

bassekou-kouyate-ngoni-baNgoni specialist extraordinaire Bassekou Kouyaté returns with group Ngoni Ba on a sumptuous new album that is sure to be one of the listening treasures of the summer. For those not already familiar, Kouyaté’s music is a trip into the very roots of Malian music and his 2007 debut ‘Segu Blue’ was both a major discovery and revelation that was on all the right end of year playlists while its successor, ‘I speak Fula’ from 2009, was equally well received. A more recent recording, ‘Jama Ko’ (2013) was voted world roots album of the year by no less than Mojo magazine, a sure sign that Malian music was gaining an audience outside the strictly world roots crowd and this is certainly music for the masses, albeit those with a love of the rebellious. Produced by Chris Eckman and Stéphane Grimm, this might just be the album to catapult Bassekou and company to greater stardom and there are some stunning moments contained within. A lovely mid-tempo burner in ‘Abé Sumaya’ (‘It will die out’) is this writer’s favourite and the infectious riff has all the feel of Salif Keita in his prime and the call and response vocals are a sheer delight to behold. The cherry on the cake is the instrumental breakdown with a fabulous extended jam riff. In fact the album starts on a joyous uptempo groove with ‘Siran Fen’ (Beware’) that features some lovely multi-layered instrumentation and percussion and these work in total harmony. A terrific instrumental solo in the middle and the piercing, yet wonderful vocals of Amy Sacko make this a close contender for the album’s runner up song. Throughout the lead vocals are shared and this provides just the right touch of variety to proceedings, though Sacko does predominate overall and guest singer/guitarist Samba Touré lends a helping hand. The latter lays down some wah-wah guitar and other sound effects on ‘Musow Fanga’ (‘Power of Women’) with virtuoso instrumentation the order of the day.
Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba will be performing at the Wychwood Festival on 30 May and at the London Scala on 31 May before returning to the UK later in the year to perform at the Shambala Festival on 29 August.

Tim Stenhouse

The Unthanks ‘Mount the Air’ CD/LP (Rabbie Rouser Music) 5/5

the-unthanksNow on their own independent label, the Unthanks are musicians in the classic folk tradition and have an intimate knowledge of their native north-east of England. On this latest release, they have expanded their intimate harmony plus instrumentation sound to encompass larger brass orchestrations and the result is a sublime cross-fertilisation of styles with a subtle and tasteful inclusion of brass that never ever detracts from the whole. This writer especially appreciated the trumpet solos, as amply illustrated on the lengthy opener of the title track.
The music here is at once reflective and reposing, yet the melancholia is never depressing, but actually a spiritually uplifting experience. Part of their success probably goes down to their impeccable background knowledge of and quest to explore the northern English folk tradition and beyond, with Ireland never too far from their thoughts. The Unthanks have taken in groups such as the Keelers and the Wilson as well as male sea shanty singers and as a result of this they sound totally authentic in their performances. However, where they win hands down is in their progressive approach, soaking up non-folk influences and then incorporating them into the mix. Pride of place on this occasion goes to the stunning beautiful ‘Magpie’ which may just be a strong enough song to become their signature tune. The a cappella vocals here are a wonder to behold. Of great interest is how the combination of string and piano combine as on the excellent ‘Foundling’ which also features the use of trumpet to good effect. In fact the use of orchestration leads one to consider the possible influence of maestro jazz orchestrator Gil Evans and it would not be surprising to this writer if that were to be the case. The group’s insider knowledge of folk history is displayed on ‘Hawthorn’, in probable reference to the Manchester folk club Gaslamp.

This must be a strong contender already for folk album of the year and make for a fine comparison with their 2005 debut, ‘Cruel Sister’ and its even bleaker follow up, ‘The Bairns’. An appearance on the BBC Jools Holland programme recently will hopefully ensure that a much wider audience are able to take in their wonderful music.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Classic American Ballads’ (Smithsonian Folkways) 5/5

classic-american-balladsIf one were to enquire as to which label is best suited to personify the American folk tradition from a connoisseur’s perspective, then Smithsonian Folkways would probably be the preferred first choice of the overwhelming majority of musicologists and rightly so. Created by Moses Asch, the back catalogue is jaw-droppingly impressive and this latest compilation of no less than twenty five songs, and ballads at that, continues the series of CDs that dates all the way back to 2002, and there is still so much quality to take in. Major names abound and include the late, great Pete Seeger whose family is no less than an encyclopedia of the folk tradition in the United States, bluegrass pioneers of the calibre of Bill Monroe (the originator top be precise) and Doc Watson and rootsy practitioners of integrity such as Dock Boggs. Where this series gains real plaudits, however, is in the inclusion of the lesser well known names who have their own superlative interpretations of the folk tradition to offer up. Outlaws have regularly formed the subject matter inspiration for folk songs and two stand out here. Woody Guthrie, a founding father of the folk music heritage, serves up a delicious ballad on ‘Billy the Kid’, who needless to say was a notorious outlaw in the Wild West. Just as infamous by reputation was Jesse James and that is precisely the title of a trio of singers in Sis’ Cunningham. Mike Millius and Wes Houston. Pete Seeger has two offerings with’ Blue Mountain Lake’ one of the earliest sides that Moses Asch ever recorded in the 1950s and on 78 while brother Mike Seeger was employed as recording engineer on Dock Boggs’ vocal plus banjo rendition of ‘Cole Younger’, the performance of which dates from 1964. From a 1963 recording at the Ash Grove venue in L.A. comes the genial pairing of Doc Watson and Bill Monroe on ‘Banks of the Ohio’ which was a wonderful slice of bluegrass melancholia.

To round off proceedings in deluxe style, the reader is treated to a sumptuous booklet which not only covers individual songs with expert incisive commentary, but goes one step further and provides extremely useful suggested further reading, both in printed and online formats. If only all re-issue labels took the time and care to do likewise, the world of music would be an infinitely richer and more informed on the folk tradition.

Tim Stenhouse