Ma ‘Live’ (Loop Collective) 4/5

ma-live-loop-collectiveIt’s 2006, a cold wintry night subsides as I walk into the warmth of the CBSO centre, Birmingham. I’m here to see alto sax man Chris Bowden perform as special guest with The Heritage Orchestra. Alongside Bowden stands a very young, unassuming tenor saxophonist. I am later to find out his name is Tom Challenger. On hearing his first solo I remember thinking wow, who is this guy? Definitely not your average tenor player, a mature sound well beyond his years, subtlety and power blended beautifully, leaving the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end… This guy is one to look out for me thinks. Fast forward 5 years or so… I was fortunate enough to see the band “Ma”, led by Challenger, a couple of times during 2011/2012. Once at The Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath and once at The Vortex, London – a venue that on the face of it seems to have become something of a spiritual home for Challenger and his Loop Collective associates. It was during this period that “Live” was recorded. The essence of Ma is this: their music speaks in a language I do not always understand. A beguiling, textural, acoustic and electronic soundscape of beautiful and at times incomprehensible bodies of vibrations, noise, improv, samples, resonance and reverboration. Like a wave from the sea that washes over the skin and then slowly permeates its way through the body, sending subconscious, confusing and enlightening messages to the brain. Ma is: Tom Challenger: sax, synths, Matt Calvert: laptop, synths, Dave Smith: drums. Plus Ross Stanley: organ, John Blease and Ben Bryant: percussion. (The band also featured Steve Arguelles on one of the gigs I frequented). It has taken the band over 3 years to decide to release this live material. In between times saw their 2013 studio album “The Last” receive critical acclaim.

Ma is part of London’s forward thinking Loop Collective. The three main protagonists on “Live”, Challenger, Calvert and Smith, have associations with Brass Mask, Red Snapper, Fofoulah and Outhouse to name but a few. Challenger has also featured most recently with George Crowley’s Can of Worms (Whirlwind Records). “Live” features three tracks: “Forge 1.1”, “Forge 1.2” and “The Last”. Atmosphere is key to Ma’s output and is at the heart of these recordings. At times ambient, at times spellbindingly free and adventurous, the defining thing for me is its integrity and soul. Challenger’s organic sax and Smith’s driving, intriguing drums are the bedrock to which the multi faceted layers of synths, samples and percussion can build. The first two tracks segue into one another and feature the full sextet of musicians. This is stimulating music that is both tenacious and slightly scary, the mix of electronica and jazz pushing boundaries beyond measure. The third track is the trio and though naturally more sparse as a natural result, is just as riveting and thought provoking. Ma’s music is a fascinating voyage of sound. On this evidence (and of 2013’s “The Last”), it is a journey that looks set to continue on, with no time to take prisoners or conscientious objectors along the way. Roll on their next adventure.

Mike Gates

Benny Sharoni ‘Slant Signature’ (Papaya) 3/5

benny-sharoniFirmly routed in the tradition of many a classic Blue Note album, “Slant Signature” is Boston saxophonist Benny Sharoni’s second release as a leader. Indeed, on first listen one can imagine a young Sonny Rollins blowing his horn, accompanied by the time honoured trumpeter and rhythm section. In this instance however, we are listening to a 2015 release that brings back such memories with its old-skool approach to music making. There’s nothing outdated here though, far from it. Sharoni is joined by pianist Joe Barbato, bassist Todd Baker and drummer Steve Langone. Also featured are special guests Jim Rotundi on trumpet and Mike Mele on guitar. Together the band perform eight tunes with a joyful effervescence, providing us with a modern day take on a classic sound with suitable reverence to their jazz forebearers intact.
The first, and most important thing that strikes me when listening to this album is Benny Sharoni’s tone. His playing is in the bebop mould of Charles McPherson or Joe Lovano, but it is his tonality that is pure gold. He truly has a wonderful sound that resonates and rings out with a quality rarely heard. Effectively blending Sharoni originals with some timeless classics, “Slant Signature” kicks off with one of the stand out tracks “Minor City”, a swinging, fast flowing tune that quickly sets the scene for what is to follow. Other gems include Lee Morgan’s sumptuous “Ceora”, the melodic “Subterranean Samba”, and the impressive title track itself. “Bitter Drops” adds a touch of variation, featuring a quality, bluesy guitar break from Mike Mele. Throughout the recording Sharoni and trumpeter Rotundi exchange solos, with plenty of room for expression also given to pianist Barbato. In fact, I found myself wishing Sharoni had been a little more selfish in this respect, listening with anticipation for the next wonderful sax solo to enrich and delight.

The title of this release; “Slant Signature”, relates to a sought after Otto Link sax mouthpiece from the 1940’s. Apparently if you are lucky enough to find one of these the price tag is huge. The story goes that Sharoni came across one for ten bucks from a street vendor on Cape Cod. His good fortune is now also ours. Yet as enjoyable as this album is, I would love to hear Sharoni playing in a more adventurous, challenging setting. It will be very interesting to see how his writing develops over a period of time and hopefully we’ll hear a lot more from him in the near future. As a saxophonist he certainly has the skill and flair to potentially follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest – the aforementioned Sonny Rollins and Joe Lovano being just two that spring to mind. Time will tell, as it always does.

Mike Gates

Samuel Blaser ‘Spring Rain’ (Whirlwind) 3/5

samuel-blaserSwiss trombonist Samuel Blaser is a musician with a difference in that he is particularly interested in the more left-field side of jazz and has been strongly influenced by both Carla Bley and Jimmy Giuffre. On this new recording, the leader, pays homage (in part at least) to the compositional genius of multi-reedist Giuffre and the music in general oscillates between freer jazz and contemporary classical elements. Recorded in New York, the album is at its most melodic on the bright and breezy ‘Temporarily’ which is certainly a contender for strongest piece and things do pick up a little on ‘Trudgin’ which has a mid-1960s feel, though maybe the inclusion of vibes is possibly required here. Overall, it has to be said that this album makes for a difficult, though ultimately rewarding, listening experience and is one aimed primarily at lovers of free improvised music with a strong dose of classical. This is exemplified on the mournful opener, ‘Cry Want’ which becomes a trombone and piano duet, or the title track which takes a while to come to life and where the trombone makes unusual sound effects with minimalist piano out of the Phillip Glass school. Blaser has collaborated with a diverse selection of musicians including Lee Perry and. perhaps for future recordings, he might be better served livening matters up with instrumentalists from outside his tradition and idiom.
The listener would unquestionably be all the richer for that.

Tim Stenhouse

Elina Duni Quartet ‘Dallëndyshe’ (ECM) 4/5

elina-duni-quartetIn almost its sixth decade, ECM never ceases to delight in exploring musical traditions and in the case of this particular new recording, it is the folk music of Albania that is in the spotlight this time round. Singer Elina Duni performs a kind of Balkan blues, but with a definite folk component to it and her songs recount tales of love and exile, and refer more specifically to the troubled existence that many face in her native country. She has in fact been heavily influence by 1980s Albanian diva Nexhmije Pagarusha and this is Elina Duni’s second album for ECM. The clarity of the voice sounds seemingly stuck in both time and space, and this is merely one aspect of her musical charm along with the relatively short length of the songs which is typical of the traditional song repertoire in Albania.
An international rhythm section is made up of pianist Colin Vallon, double bassist Patrice Moret and drummer Norbert Pfammatter complete the line up and the album itself was recorded in the Mediterranean climbs of the Midi, southern France. Albanian is the softest of spoken languages in the gentle hands of Duni and her light, delicate and wordless vocals on ‘Sytë’ (‘Eyes’) are a sheer delight to hear while on the relaxed feel of the opener, ‘The Partridge’, there is a definite roots folk element in evidence. Elsewhere an a cappella intro on ‘Kur të pashë’ with minimalist accompaniment builds into an intense uptempo number with piano and drums in hot pursuit. Of special note here are the instrumentalists who certainly help to underline the spirit of a song without being merely illustrative and they are to be applauded for their sensitive accompaniment throughout. Thankfully, for those of us not fully conversant in the Albanian language, the translated lyrics in the inner sleeve notes help fill us in on the veracity and pertinence of the words composed. For a taste of something other worldly, this could hardly be bettered.

Tim Stenhouse

Sinikka Langeland ‘The Half-Finished Heaven’ (ECM) 4/5

sinikka-langelandThe folk traditions of Norway and Finland combined are rarely heard outside Scandinavia and therefore this new recording significantly enhances our understanding of the music with vocalist and kantele (a triangular plucked string instrument) player Sinikka Langeland adding to her previous ECM leader release from 2011, ‘The land that is not’. In fact throughout connoisseurs of the various Celtic traditions will find much in common here and quite possibly old Norse for scholars of the field. Recorded in the midst of January 2013, the music has a mournful winter feel and makes for compulsive late evening listening to reflect upon. Musical partner Lars Anders Tomter makes a major contribution on viola, yet it is the combination of folk instrumentation with jazz saxophone that marks this album out as a subtle dislocation from the norm and this is beautifully illustrated on the instrumental ‘The magical bird’ with a tenor solo from Trygve Seim that could just as easily have come from Jan Garbarek. In general the pieces are quite short, but there is nonetheless a great deal to admire and take in with a nursery rhyme quality to some of the vocal numbers such as ‘The tree and the sky’ where viola and piano work in perfect harmony. On other songs an epic film soundtrack is conjured up as on ‘The light streams in’ which to this writer hints at Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’. Nothing at all is rushed about this recording and everything fits into place logically with individual group members willing to subsume their own virtuosity into a collective whole.When they are all singing from the same hymn musical hymn sheet, the results can be sublime with the gentle instrumental ‘The winter burden’ one of a series of outstanding pieces. Bilingual lyrics in English and Norwegian help the listener to navigate the richness of the lexicon of words offered up.

Tim Stenhouse

A New Life on Jazzman Records

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Thought you knew about British jazz? Think again. Diving into the unknown world of the private pressing, Jazzman Records presents some of the rarest and wildest British jazz ever recorded! Compiled by Francis Gooding and Duncan Brooker (the team responsible for the acclaimed Next Stop Soweto series), and coming with extensive sleeve notes based on interviews with the musicians, A New Life is the first major British jazz collection since Gilles Petersen’s ‘Impressed’ series, and the first ever to shed light on the forgotten legacy of independent, regional and experimental Brit jazz.

A New Life is the first survey of British jazz labels and musicians that went their own way in the 1970s, bringing to the light the unknown indie gems and outsider private pressings that let jazz musicians keep the faith into the 1980s. From the time-bending spirit music of London’s Lori Vambe to the psych-jazz of Birmingham’s Poliphony, via Spot the Zebra’s jazz dedication to David Attenborough and Indiana Highway’s modal Christmas carolling, A New Life chronicles a compelling selection of lost and obscure jewels of the British jazz underground.

Tracklisting:
01. Joy – Martini Sweet [06:22]
02. Nottingham Jazz Orchestra – Sixes and Severns [04:27]
03. Billy Jenkins & The Voice of God Collective – High Street / Saturday [05:26]
04. London Jazz IV – Death Is Near [03:17]
05. Graham Collier – Darius [09:40]
06. Spot the Zebra – Living Planet [06:32]
07. Quincicasm – Trent Park Song [07:24]
08. Cameo – Poliphony [04:28]
09. Lori Vambe – Drumsong (One) [06:53]
10. Frank Evans – The Bistro Kid [04:24]
11. Edge – Danielle and the Holly Tree [06:07]
12. Indiana Highway – We Three Kings [03:52]
13. Walsall Youth Jazz – The Dragon [04:50]

Esther Phillips ‘Baby, I’m For Real! 4 Classic Albums 1971-1974’ 2CD (Raven) 5/5

esther-phillipsUK rare groove favourite LP ‘From a whisper to a scream’ propelled Esther Phillips back into the limelight a decade or so after her untimely death aged just forty-eight and the cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Home is where the heart is’ is that rare example of a song that actually improves on the original if that is at all possible. This album along with three others from the CTI/Kudu period form the basis of this mini anthology that only spans a four-year period, yet is rich in jazz inflected soul. What is far less known about Phillips is that she had already carved out a career for herself during the 1960s on Atlantic records and these are worthy of investigation in their own right and have surfaced from the 1990s onwards on CD elsewhere (Jazz Collectables series in the US).
Come forth genial Australian re-issue label Raven, a kind of Aussie equivalent of Ace records in terms of quality single artists anthology and various artist compilations, that have distinguished themselves with terrific re-issues of Bill Withers, Bobbi Gentry and the Louvin Brothers among others. Attention to detail in the inner sleeve notes, near eighty minute length CDs with rare bonus cuts are the distinctive signs of Raven and they have come up trumps once again with Esther Phillips who scored a major hit with ‘What a difference a day makes’, but in general her canon of work has been wrongly overlooked and undervalued. In fact her contribution should be judged also on the number of subsequent singers who fused jazz and soul idioms ranging from Jean Carn and Phylis Hyman through to Anita Baker.

The follow-up to ‘From a whisper..’ stands up equally as a mini masterpiece and ‘Alone again, naturally’ was released in 1973 and features an irresistible interpretation of Bill Withers’ ‘Use me’ with Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do right woman, do right man’ a close second and a cover of the blues number ‘Cherry Red’ another fine album track. A constant in Phillips’ work is first the ability to recognise a classic tune early on its lifetime and then to envelope it with a highly individual rendition. Esther Phillips clearly had a keen ear and covered the compositions of Eddie Floyd, Marvin Gaye, Carol King, Dr. John and Eugene McDaniels to wonderful effect, and it is as if the songs were originally intended for her. Furthermore, her jazz roots were never entirely forgotten and thus one finds the occasional standard incorporated into her repertoire and among Esther Phillips own vocal influences one finds Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington as well as R & B singers such as Johnny Otis and jazz instrumentalists of the calibre of John Coltrane. One must remember that these albums were recorded at the legendary Rudy Van Gelder studios where the classic Blue Note, Impulse and Prestige albums were recorded and this under the expert arrangements of Creed Taylor. The second CD retains the listener’s interest and Esther Phillips achieved that most difficult of tasks, bridging soul and jazz idioms without losing any of the intensity or integrity of the latter in the process. A fine all round anthology that captures the singer at her creative peak and is strongly recommended to fans of quality music.

Tim Stenhouse

Chris Potter’s Underground Orchestra ‘Imaginary Cities’ (ECM) 3/5

chris-potterAs a saxophonist Chris Potter’s got it all; multi reed player with tremendous skill, power and versatility. Whether it be his incredible performances as part of Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, his sublime, thoughtful side as heard on, among others, Paul Motian’s wonderful “Lost in a dream”, or on his own dazzling Underground Quartet featuring Nate Smith on drums, Adam Rogers, guitar and Craig Taborn, keys. Indeed, the quartet’s album “Follow The Thin Red Line; Live at the Village Vanguard” is well inside this listener’s imaginary list of top ten albums. The Underground Orchestra is underpinned by Potter’s aforementioned quartet, but that’s where any similarities end for this ambitious recording.
Potter made his debut for ECM with the 2013 release “The Sirens”, an acoustic quintet album that covered new ground for Potter, seeing him leave behind his fire-brand style of previous outings for a more thoughtful, introspective recording, very much in the expected ECM mould. “Imaginary Cities” utilises an eleven piece band, consisting of his aforementioned quartet with the addition of vibes/marimba, two bassists and string quartet led by Mark Feldman. The inclusion of strings allows for Potter’s writing throughout this release to be both daring and expansive. “With strings” is a debatable subject within jazz, my thoughts on this being that it’s rare we hear an album that successfully integrates strings into a composition, rather than them sounding like a “because I can” add-on. There are obvious exceptions where it does work to wonderful effect – just two of these being Michael Brecker’s “Wide Angles” and closer to home, Chris Bowden’s “Slightly Askew”. And so the question is, does Potter pull it off here? Well, yes and no. “Imaginary Cities” has at its core a suite of four pieces; “Compassion”, “Dualities”, “Disintegration” and “Rebuilding”. Somewhat oddly, it is for me on the tracks either side of the main four-part movement that Potter succeeds in integrating the strings most successfully here. The opening track “Lament” is a beautifully arranged piece that builds around its textural opening to a point where Potter has the freedom to improvise. This is where he’s at his spellbinding best as he constructs a wonderful solo, the first of many across the entirety of this lengthy release. (71 minutes). The three tracks that follow the “Imaginary Cities” suite; “Firefly”, “Shadow Self” and “Sky” all allow Potter to experiment with the classical/jazz crossover that this release at times personifies. Of these three compositions I particularly enjoyed the closing piece “Sky”. Not only are the strings wonderfully incorporated into the feel of the tune, but it also features some of Potter’s best writing and performing on the album. An uplifting and alluring piece of music in its own right. On to the main suite then. Part One: “Compassion” begins in a dream-like nature, the piano and strings gradually combining to lead us into the melody provided by Potter’s warm tones. The tune builds to a high point with some incredible soloing from both Potter on tenor sax and Adam Rogers on guitar. There is a dance-like Pizzicato start to Part Two: “Dualities”. Bassist Scott Colley and drummer Nate Smith then drive the tune into new territory, even allowing Caribbean flavours to touch our palette. Chief soloist again is Potter along with a wonderful marimba solo from Steve Nelson. Part Three: “Disintegration” sees Potter take to the soprano, blowing freely over some far more abstract orchestration. Craig Taborn provides excellent support and we are then led into Part Four: “Rebuilding”, which kicks off with the awesome power of drummer Nate Smith. The original theme becomes evident once more, with Potter once again providing us with an awesome Brecker-like solo. Rogers also gets in on the act as the rhythm section shows its class as the track first develops into a hard groove before twisting and turning its way through a series of complex arrangements to its final conclusion.

On the upside, throughout the four piece suite and the other four tunes, there are undoubtedly passages of brilliance. The highlights are, for me, provided by the exceptional musicianship of the key performers, rather than the compositional nature of the tracks. I can’t imagine hearing a better soloist than Potter anywhere.
On the downside, it is heavy going in places and the use of strings does at times sound somewhat superfluous and overworked. Personally, I am both a huge Chris Potter fan, and a huge ECM fan. I’m just slightly unsure at this point in time whether the two parties sit that well together. Time will tell I guess. Whilst I am sure “Imaginary Cities” is an exciting challenge that Potter quite rightly wanted to write and record, I do wonder, rightly or wrongly, if the ECM ethos has helped or hindered Potter in his music making here. One could perhaps argue either way; has he been constrained a little or has he actually been able to be more adventurous? Whatever your view, and in the end it’s all down to personal preference, Chris Potter remains one of the jazz world’s leading lights and I look forward with great anticipation to hearing his next musical adventure.

Mike Gates

Emanuele Primavera Quartet ‘Replace’ (Alfamusic) 3/5

emanuele-primavera-quartetSicilian based drummer/composer Emanuele Primavera has boldly taken elements of the jazz tradition and combined this with a free-flowing dynamic expression, not unlike the jazz/rock overtones of The Brian Blade Fellowship. His quartet comprises Seby Burgio on piano and keys, Fabrizio Brusca on guitar, and Carmelo Venuto on bass. This young quartet have been performing together for some time now and it’s clear this has allowed them to forge their own sound and style. “Replace” is their debut release and deserves recognition; the musicians both individually and collectively performing to a very high standard and positively shining in moments of brilliance. There are eight tunes on the album, all penned by band leader Primavera. There are a couple of tunes that disappoint slightly, being fairly standard fare, but this comment is based on the high standard the rest of the album sets. Special praise must go to the third track of the session “Clara”. (There seems to be a developing theme here of recently reviewed albums, track three knocking me for six). This track is simply stunning. Not only is it a wonderful composition that shows what promise Primavera has as a writer, but from the opening notes of Brusca’s guitar intro, through to the satisfying build up and release towards the end of the tune, it is a truly captivating piece. I enjoyed it that much I had it set to “repeat” on the CD player for an hour. Throughout the album the star of the show performance wise for me, is pianist Seby Burgio. Not only does he deliver a beautiful lightness of touch, (particularly on the thoughtful, gentle title track), but he really can swing when he wants to and his wonderful playing lifts several of the tunes to a higher place. One to look out for as they say. Other stand-out tracks include the hard driving “Say Cheese” which features excellent solos from both Burgio on piano and Brusca on guitar, the enthralling, anthemic “Beco” and “Kamuth”, a daring composition infused with some very pleasant Eastern flavours.
All in all a very enjoyable album that not only showcases the talents of Emanuele Primavera as a drummer and composer, but also highlights the promise of an emerging quartet to be reckoned with.

Mike Gates

Victor Haynes ‘My Time is Here’ (Expansion) 3/5

victor-haynesI love this guy’s voice and this time around he’s given us a very dance orientated album, which at times I struggle with. I don’t do Garage or House music or any other type of handbag music, but the sheer quality of this album’s presentation is leading me down a path I have fervently resisted. I have all of the Blaze albums here at home and listen to them quite often, and this late 2014 album reminds me of those great albums too. The opening title track is a free-flowing, very Philly influenced, dancer that I’m sure has had some serious reaction. Having listened intently for what seems weeks upon weeks, I am leaning towards the slower tracks ala “So real” and the sultry “Feel it” with some nice Van McCoy type touches, a quality dancer for sure. “Stay with me” is perfect radio fodder but is for sure a a grower, “Together” is a jazz flavoured mid tempo piece with piano, horns and a vocal that suits. Something for everyone then.

Brian Goucher