Various ‘A New life. Private, Independent and Youth Jazz in Great Britain 1966-1990’ 2LP/CD/Dig (Jazzman) 4/5

a-new-lifeThe ongoing search for rare and hitherto unavailable jazz grooves has reached a logical conclusion here with a timely exploration of the lesser known side to British jazz. While the likes of Tubby Hayes, John McLaughlin and co have rightly been eulogised, even these all-time greats had to serve an apprenticeship somewhere and so re-examining the youth aspect of British jazz was always likely to be a win-win situation. So it proves on this excellent overview of the mid-1960s through to 1990 with the usual meticulous attention to detail and lavish illustration that has become a Jazzman release hall-mark. While a single release could never aim to be fully comprehensive, this nonetheless fills in more than the odd gap in our knowledge base and in the process throws up a whole host of jazz musicians, the majority of whom have been woefully neglected. By the 1970s jazz was very much on the retreat in the UK and thus it was left to independent labels to hold the fort. A very US sounding piano vamp greets the listener on the intro to ‘Martini Sweet’ by Joy, a group that makes one think of the Elvin Jones formations on Impulse. This writer especially likes the use of collective brass that included US trumpeter Jim Dvorak. Alongside drummer Keith Bailey, Dvorak co-founded the group in 1973 and the fiery alto saxophone solo comes courtesy of Chris Francis. There is even a slight Strata East independent sounding feel here which is surprising and this reviewer would like to hear more of them. Of any of the names, Graham Collier is one that will ring a bell with some and ‘Darius I’ is a fine piece of jazz fusion with subtle and catchy repetitive electric piano from Geoff Castle and trumpet/flugelhorn from Harry Beckett, a stalwart of the London jazz scene.

What impresses in this selection is the importance of jazz in the regions and the Midlands East and West both seem to have been fertile ground for the development of new jazz talent. In Walsall leader John Hughes founded in 1975 the Walsall Youth Jazz Orchestra and this served as an extremely useful training ground for musicians of the calibre of the Argüelles brothers, Jason and Steve, and Martin Shaw among many others. An interesting selection of a Chick Corea/John Patitucci original from the late 1980s, ‘The Dragon’ is the pretext for an enticing and delicate number that showcases piano and flute and is the most recent recording on the anthology. Moving from west to east, Nottingham did have a famous jazz record shop and Ken Clarke hails from that area too. What is less well-known is the existence of the Nottingham Jazz Orchestra and they offer up a terrific number, ‘Sixes and Severns’ that is part of a larger suite and the Severns in question is a homage to a long-established restaurant that date from medieval times and was re-assembled in the late 1960s. Back to the very heart of the West Midlands and its major city, Birmingham, and we have a group in Polyphony that should have enjoyed a far greater following. From 1973 comes the album title track, ‘Cameo’, the group was the brainchild of former Aston University student and pianist Dave Bristow who invited guitarist Richard Bremner and another member and Polyphony was thus created. The piece is a mainly acoustic number with jazz-rock guitar gently in the background, but never too intrusive. Another mysterious group that we need to know and hear more of. In a downbeat and reflective vein, the group Quincicism offer ‘Trent Park Song’ from 1973 and this includes a lovely soprano saxophone solo from Ken Eley and wordless vocals from Katy Zezerson. Fusion flavours trickle through in parts during the overall listening, but one of the strongest contenders for combining disparate genres is West Country group Indian Highway where flamenco and Wes Montgomery guitar licks seemingly collide in harmonious unison on ‘We Three Kings’. Quite possibly a second volume will be required at some point with Scotland a next potential destination of choice. In the meantime, revel in the rare sounds of UK jazz.

Tim Stenhouse

Fresh Cut Orchestra ‘From The Vine’ (Ropeadope) 3/5

fresh-cut-orchestraPhiladelphia based large ensemble Fresh Cut Orchestra (FCO) is a young 10 piece band that draws on many different musical genres and influences to create its own unique sound. With three band leaders, trumpeter Josh Lawrence, bassist Jason Fraticelli and drummer Anwar Marshall, it is perhaps no surprise that “From The Vine” encompasses such a wide musical spectrum. This album well and truly mixes things up, from big band swinging jazz to electronica to funk to rock to ambient and back again. For a debut album it’s a brave and noteworthy choice and I applaud the band’s efforts and confidence in producing their first release with such intent. For this listener, there are times when this approach works well here, but there are times when it doesn’t.

The core of the album is the ambitious “The Mothers’ Suite” which is made up of six movements. The inspiration for this came from the death of a family member, shortly followed by a birth into the same family. These experiences had a profound effect and were a strong influence on the writing for this album. Two further tracks are included, “Uptown Romance” and “Sanguine”, both fitting in well to the tone of the overall session. I very much like the way the band are confident enough to take chances, sometimes we hear the full-on ten-piece in all its glory, whilst at other times the music is stripped right back to a trio or quartet setting, and even a stunning bass solo piece as performed by Fraticelli. Whilst much of the album works well, criss-crossing its way through well written, well performed music, I do feel that in places it is as if two different bands have turned up to play together. The electronica/keys/ambient sounds performed here stand up very well in isolation, but don’t always integrate that well into the rest of the band or structure of the composition. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, but it sounds like the studio only had one recording suite available so two different bands came together to see what they could achieve. The many varying musical styles and rhythms work well together and for the most part the writing is strong and inventive. My only gripe here is that on occasion a tune starts with a good solid riff but doesn’t actually develop into anything beyond its initial theme. Saxophonists Mark Allen and Mike Cemprola produce some great performances, along with Josh Lawrence on trumpet and flugelhorn and Brent White on trombone. I also particularly enjoyed the synergy provided by guitarists Matt Davis and Tim Conley, percussionist Francois Zayas and pianist Brian Marsella. Together with bassist Fraticelli they succeed in creating some lovely percussive based grooves that hold much of the music together.

“From The Vine” is filled with some great ideas and on this evidence FCO are a band to look out for in the future. If they can hone their writing skills into a slightly more musically focussed effort, where the different styles are brought together in a sharper, more cohesive way, the possibilities are limitless.

Mike Gates

Cheikh Lō ‘Balbalou’ (Chapter Two) 5/5

cheikh-lōVeteran Senegalese singer Cheikh Lō returns for his first album in a full five years and what a superlative recording it is too. At his best in the mid-1990s Lō succeeded in combining his West African roots with Brazilian, Congolese and even Cuban rhythms and this brand new venture is every bit as good, if not slightly superior. A melodic mid-tempo opener, ‘Baramba’ features talking drum and collective female harmonies and this is classic Lō terrain. This writer’s favourite remains the trio with Brazilian singer Flavia Coelho and accordionist Fixi on’ Duegg Gui’ and the clipped reggae guitar, West African percussion and accordion combine to marvellous effect. For a major departure and fascinating title track, ‘Balbalou’ has a sparse feel with guest trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf adding to the gentle layered texture. In contrast ‘Suzanah’, with its subtle use of kora and other percussion is the kind of song that Paul Simon might have written and that is praise indeed. On the driving ‘Doyal Naniou’, which is an ode of sorts to Africa, the atmospheric horns and monologue add credence to the ‘Africa unite’ chant and Malian diva Oumou Sangaré is o hand with supporting vocals. Matters are rounded off by a splendid and instantly recognisable digipak black sleeve with useful English language biographical notes. A milestone recording for Cheikh Lō and set to be the new African album of the summer.

Tim Stenhouse

Andy Sheppard ‘Surrounded by Sea’ (ECM) 4/5

andy-sheppardIn his previous two albums for ECM, saxophonist Andy Sheppard focused on work with Trio Libero. However, for this new recording he has chosen a new format and one that provides an understated, yet nonetheless layered texture with the use of guitar from Norwegian musician Eivind Aarset. Double bassist Michel Benita and drummer Seb Rochford complete the cosmopolitan line-up on a terrific set of originals that takes in pared down musical landscapes, Scots Gaelic tradition courtesy of Julie Fowlis, and even manages a cover from that fine contemporary singer-songwriter, Elvis Costello. A sparse virtual duet performance between saxophone and guitar on ‘Impossiblity of Silence’ sets the atmospheric scene beautifully and provides the perfect riposte to those who have been unnerved by the guitar orchestrations. In fact the closeness of the pair’s interaction hints at Sheppard’s collaborative work with Gil Evans and that influence has remained with the latter serving as an important mentor. The contribution of Aarset is both gentle and understated and this lends something of a folk air to proceedings. No more so than on the three-part ‘Aoidh, Na dean cadal idir’ which is in fact a traditional number from Uist and one that he learnt from folk singer extraordinaire Julie Fowlis. A delightful reading of Costello’s ‘I want to vanish’ is the only non-original not to be composed either by the leader, or in tandem with other band members. Andy Sheppard has recently been on tour with Italian pianist Rita and, if their live performance broadcast on Radio 3 is anything to go by, a live CD of their current tour is surely a priority.

Tim Stenhouse

Ginger Johnson and his African Messengers ‘African Party’ (Freestyle) 4/5

ginger-johnsonNigerian musician, Ginger Johnson (real name George Folunsho Johnson) migrated to London in the 1950s and became a staple of the live jazz scene, recording with Edmundo Ros and Ronnie Scott among others, and most notably Johnson and rhythm section backed the Rolling Stones at their Hyde Park concert from 1969. This excellent and timely re-issue from the enterprising London label Freestyle dating from the 1970s, focuses on Johnson the percussive leader and has a heavy Afro-Latin feel with flute that recalls Herbie Mann and his own Afro-Latin period. The pace is set by the rapid opener, ‘I Jool Omo’, that has a strong Afro-Latin flavour and a veritable battle between percussionists and collective chanted vocals and is the pick of the bunch. The fast-paced ‘Jazz Morocco’ reveals bop inflections and quite possibly Kenny Dorham’s ‘Afro Cuban’ served as an inspiration for this recording originally. Manic percussion and free-flowing flute combine terrifically on ‘Adura’ while there is an all-out percussion discussion on ‘Ire’. Ginger Johnson was a mentor to a young Fela Kuti and that Afrobeat rhythm does occasionally surface, most particularly on ‘Talking Drum’, which features jazzy collective horns and a divine Afrobeat rhythm section. Latin Soul briefly makes an appearance on ‘Watusi’ which is notable for some catchy collective chanting. An informative and colourful inner sleeve booklet provides useful photos and deserves full marks for reproducing the original vinyl sleeve notes in a clearly legible manner. File this between Art Blakey’s take on ‘Cubano Chant’ and any 1970s album by Fela Ransome Kuti.

Tim Stenhouse