30th Jun2015

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

by ukvibe

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

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29th Jun2015

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

by ukvibe

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

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28th Jun2015

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

by ukvibe

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

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27th Jun2015

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

by ukvibe

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

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27th Jun2015

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

by ukvibe

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

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26th Jun2015

Warmth ‘The Best of Don McCaslin’s Warmth’ (Tramp) 3/5

by ukvibe

don-mccaslinThe jazz scene has always had a broad selection of contributors, from super successful legends to relatively unknown local heroes, with Don McCaslin falling into the later category. Quite an obscure character outside of his hometown and a handful of record collectors, but Santa Monica musician Don McCaslin was the bandleader and keyboard player for Warmth, a group of mainly local musicians of whom this compilation focuses on.
The story goes that Don McCaslin and Warmth played outside a café in downtown Santa Monica, a suburb of LA from 1971 to 1989, which was next to the Cooper House building. Here, the band played a mixture of standards and original compositions and during this time they also recorded and released a number of albums in very limited numbers, mostly on their own Cooper House record label. These albums are quite rare and although they don’t have massive price tags on the collecting scene, they do command a reasonable £30–£50 each. It’s difficult to say how many of these albums were pressed, but this compilation from German label Tramp cherry picks from their discography of what may affectionately be called private press West Coast hippie jazz.

And as like the Warmth set list, this collection contains a mix of jazz standards and originals, with nine instrumental and nine vocals tracks, and the band themselves having a varied lineup over their duration that comprised keyboards, piano and vibes by McCaslin, electric and sometimes upright bass, saxophone, trumpet, drums, percussion and some very effective flute playing. Prominent saxophone player Donny McCaslin, son of Don, was a member of the band during the early stages of his career.

Warmth’s influences come mainly from 60s and 70s jazz and also Latin, with some of this Latin tinge evident in their version of ‘Poinciana’, which is based around flute and Rhodes electric piano. Other personal favourites include ‘Afro Blue’, with this version more akin to the Mongo Santamaria original than the more well-known Coltrane version with Don displaying some sharp vibraphone playing, and ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ with its again effective electric piano and flute meanderings.

The vocals are performed by a variety of male vocalists of differing aptitude, and while they never outclass Mark Murphy, they suit the styling of the band and the sound they deliver. The album does have an obvious West Coast feel and will appeal to fans of that sound. And while it never gets into the funkier side of jazz or the heavy jazz-fusion world, cuts such as ‘Praise Poem’ and ‘Simon Rodia’s Song’ let the drummer play much looser with Don’s electric piano playing always strong.

This compilation for me is as much a celebration of the underdog as it is about the music. With Warmth playing continually in Santa Monica for decades, who’s to know the number of people or musicians that Don and this band would have influenced during that time.

Most jazz players will never get chance to play with Herbie or record an album for Bluenote, but we cannot ignore the majority of hard-working musicians like Don who continually entertain and enrich our lives for the better.

Damian Wilkes

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25th Jun2015

V/A Henry Stone’s Miami Sound – The Record Man’€™s Finest 45s (Athens Of The North) 4/5

by ukvibe

henry-stones-miami-soundHenry Stone was a Miami-based record label owner, producer and entrepreneur with a career in the music business spanning over 60 years. In that time Henry signed James Brown to his King record label, distributed records for Motown, Stax and Atlantic and set up T.K. Records and dozens of other notable and influential record labels, touching the careers of almost everyone involved in the Miami black music scene including Betty Wright, George McCrae and Bobby Caldwell.
This posthumous compilation comprises of 20 less common funk and soul singles released between 1970 and 1977 from a variety of significant Henry Stone run record labels, but mainly from Drive, Dash, Alston, Dig and Blue Candle.
The set focuses mainly upon vocal tracks within only two instrumentals and includes music from Robert Moore, Beginning of the End’s Raphael Munnings and William ‘Little Beaver’ Hale. The inclusion of T-Connection’s ‘Do what you wanna do’ is a bit of a strange addition being the only outright disco record here and also the most well known and doesn’t really sit with the rest of the compilation.
But highlights include Stevens & Foster ‘I want to be love’ from 1977, a funky but sweetly sung female vocal number that on original 45 can cost more than a European holiday, Wildflower ‘You knock me out’ from 1976, an in demand 2-stepper and the breezy funky soul of Formula 1 ‘Walking with my eyes closed’ featuring vocals from Rodney Mathews, later of The Mighty Ryeders.

Other interesting gems include Oceanliners ‘Cutting room’ a brass heavy funk instrumental who later became The Sunshine Band, the main in-house band for T.K Records and K.C.’s group. Phillip Wright’s ‘Keep her happy’ is a jolly vocal piece from the brother of Betty and Milton and the 1972 breakbeat bomb ‘Bahama Soul Stew’ by Funky Nassau being one of the more known cuts.

Some of the other lesser known releases here fall into what many collectors call modern soul, a very loose term which is impossible to define as it’s a rather subjective tag applied to certain soul records. But nonetheless, Friday, Saturday & Sunday ‘There must be a better way’ and Brand New ‘Thousand years’ from 1971 and ‘72 respectively provide rare soul comfort to any discerning record collector. I’m personally not a fan of applying descriptive branding to records, especially calling something ‘modern’ when it’s 40 years old – they are just great soul records.

If you’re a fan of the Miami soul/funk sound then this will very much appeal to you. It does include some very rare but worthy 45s with most on CD for the first time. But as we all know the high cost of some rare records does not always equate to high quality, but these are mainly well-produced and crafted records, reminding us of the quality output that Henry was known for.

There will always be difficulty in curating compilation albums of this nature by aiming to strike a balance between including a mixture of interesting and less known songs with more common and accessible material that will also appeal to regular music buyers, but this compilation from Athens of the North is geared towards the less obvious releases from Henry’s catalogue, although, due to his large catalogue, there will always be omissions.

A separate Henry Stone rare disco compilation album might be a nice touch, and some of the recordings were obviously taken directly from vinyl pressings rather than the master tapes, which is a shame. But generally this is another strong release from AOTN, which will hopefully go someway in highlighting the massive impact and influence that Henry had on the music scene.

Damian Wilkes

Miami has an important, if understated role in the history of black music in the United States. In the present day era, it is more associated with Latin grooves (and in fact it is the de facto entry to Latin America from the USA for many migrants as well as record executives alike), but the 1970s proved to be a fertile period of music for Miami from both a soul and funk perspective and this excellent compilation showcases some of the tastiest 45s that came out of the production house of Henry Stone. George and Gwen McCrae are far more famous alongside K.C. and the Sunshine Band, but some of the lesser known musicians could certainly give those chart entrants a good run for their money. This is certainly the case of Milton Wright whose 45s have become rare groove collectors nirvana and the offering on this occasion, ‘The silence that you keep’, is a deeply moody affair with a slight hint of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s going’ on’ and jazzy orchestrations that are reminiscent of Johnny Pate in his prime. Marvin is evoked further in terms of his social message on the rasping delivery of one Johnny K on ‘I got bills to pay’, a mid-tempo number that recounts the daily constraints on life and is close both in approach and content to ‘Inner City Blues’. Curtis Mayfield’s influence is most certainly felt on the sweet classy soul of ‘You knock me out’ by the Wildflower with a falsetto male lead and lovely production values that were a feature of Stone’s studio. In a more uptempo vein, Funky Nassau offer up a Caribbean soul gem in ‘Bahama Soul Stew’ and this comes across as a neo-Booker T sound with the added bonus of Caribbean percussion while the psychedelic period of the Temptations were surely in Stone’s mind on the decidedly uptempo and groovy, ‘Hey there Jim’ by Jimmy Bo Horne. A slow burning funkster of a tune from the 1970s comes in the underrated vocals of Lynn Williams and ‘It takes two’. Elsewhere a real discovery and contender for inclusion on a Richard Searling or Ralph Tee radio show is Leno Phillips’ Confusion’ that is a connoisseur’s cut while Raphael Munnings’ ‘Sleep on, dream on’ has a grittier edge with clipped guitar hinting at James Brown and a soulful vocal delivery. T-Connection offer up more familiar material on ‘Do what you wanna’, but in general this anthology is a treasure trove of little heard of discoveries and that makes it required listening for the summer months and indeed well beyond.

Tim Stenhouse

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24th Jun2015

Julian Argüelles ‘Let It Be Told’ (Basho) 5/5

by ukvibe

julian-argüellesFat boys don’t dance. At least that’s always been my excuse. Up until now that is. Begrudgingly I have to admit that my many years of steadfast refusal to participate in this ancient, dubious pastime have finally been laid to rest by Julian Argüelles and The Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Ex girlfriends, the wife, daughter, calypso, John Travolta and Strictly had all failed in their pointless, vain attempts to get these legs, arms and body to move in any kind of coherent methodology. Even the Okey Cokey felt awkward to me. But the minute I put this album on, an involuntary minor miracle occurred. My limbs started moving and before I could say “I am the Lord of the Dance said he”, I was dancing around the room like a lunatic. Laughing. “Let it be told” is so joyous, so alive, its infectious rhythms and startling performances are a breath of fresh air. After all, there really is nothing quite like a big band that uses intelligent arrangements, with its key protagonists performing with skill, soul and adventure. This recording has it all. Julian Argüelles and The Frankfurt Radio Big Band are joined by the inimitable Django Bates and drummer/percussionist Steve Argüelles, and the resulting tunes are to be treasured, enjoyed, and recommended to anyone you know who gets pleasure from listening to music: jazz or otherwise.

This is the music of the South African Exiles. When the five musicians of the Blue Notes left the apartheid state of South Africa to settle in Europe in 1964, finally establishing a home in London the following year, they brought with them a sound whose echoes are still evident after half a century. Julian Argüelles is a member of the second wave of British based musicians to have experienced the influence of The Blue Notes. Argüelles makes comment in the album’s sleeve notes; “The music of these South Africans always had a wonderful balance between something accessible, melodic and grooving, and something challenging, a little bit crazy.” He continues; “There was the township thing on one hand, and free jazz on the other. Maybe Sun Ra and Charles Mingus were others who could do that. But the Blue Notes’ music had its own character, and it influenced a lot of people who heard it.” And that’s what’s so wonderful about this album. Argüelles doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and indeed his arrangements hold true to the original character of the music being celebrated here. There’s a sincere reverence that sits well alongside the exuberance and freedom that the music naturally personifies. Argüelles refers to this, once again in the sleeve notes; “I knew all the people I was writing for, which was a big help. I tried to keep elements of the original music more than I might with other material because I have such a love for this music and I wanted the focus to be on the people who originally created it, without trying to redefine it too much. I wanted the vibrancy that made it so remarkable to shine through.” It certainly does that… and some.

Of the many highlights, here are just a few:
Dudu Pukwana’s “Mra Khali” opens the album. Right from the off with the guitar intro, the scene is set. Layers upon layers of golden brass build gleefully creating a sound so pure that the listener is pulled in immediately, sharing in its sumptuous rhythm. Django Bates’ alluring piano adds the icing on the cake. “Mama Marimba”, a Johnny Dyani composition, begins with an orchestrated cacophony of sound and develops into a wonderfully relentless groove with Christian Jaksjo supplying an awesome trombone solo, and Tony Lakatos continuing the flow on tenor sax. One of the remarkable things about this album is its ability to surprise and delight time after time. None more so here than on Jikele Maweni’s “Retreat Song”. Once again the soloing is inspired. As with all of this recording, the arrangements are written and played in such a way that after the first listen, it’s impossible not to go back for more. Chris McGregor composed and arranged the tune “Amassi”, the only non-Argüelles arrangement on the album, and it gives plenty of room for Julian’s brother Steve to show his percussive talents off to their best. The vast majority of tunes are joyously upbeat in nature, but special mention just has to be made to Abdullah Ibrahim’s “The Wedding”. 9 minutes’ worth of the most hauntingly beautiful brass I have ever heard. The instrumentation and harmonisation are of such a stunning quality I was left in awe when I first heard this track. Add to this the incredibly poignant and spellbinding soloing from Rainer Heute on bass clarinet and Heinz-Dieter Sauerborn on alto sax, and we have one of the finest pieces of music heard anywhere this year.

“Let it be told” is an album that inspires the listener to reach out and share with fellow music lovers. Its invigorating exuberance shines through at every turn. And yes, undoubtedly, it will make you want to dance.

Mike Gates

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23rd Jun2015

Saun and Starr ‘Look Closer’ (Daptone) 4/5

by ukvibe

saun-and-starrThe New York based Daptone label is best known for its leader group Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. An integral part of this band in live performance are the two female background singers and the duo of Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan-Lowe aka Saun and Starr have a varied and impressive portfolio, having recorded separately with the Glory Gospel Singers and Desco label and collectively throughout the 1990s as the Good ‘n’ Plenty Girls. The new album is, as one might expect from a quality label such as Daptone that promotes live studio performance, an all analogue affair and consequently has that authentic 1970s feel. The British media have picked up on ‘Big Wheel’ and, with its Meters style guitar intro, it has ‘instant classic’ written all over it and a rare grove tune in all but name. The Stax sounding horns and no holds barred vocals make this the strongest song of all. However, the album as a whole holds up remarkably well and the duo have made the mid-tempo soulful groove their trademark and this is wonderfully illustrated on ‘Sunshine (You’re blowin’ my cool)’ which, with its clipped guitar, conjurs up those great recordings from Muscle Shoals. A first single, ‘Hot Shot’, is a catchy ditty with a memorable horn riff and this is to date Daptone’s best-selling 45. Southern soul in the Shirley Brown ‘Woman to woman’ vein is evoked on ‘Another love like mine’ and features one of those lengthy monologue intros. If there is one side to the duo that will develop with time, then it is surely the ballad repertoire and of those on offer on this debut, it is the mournful sounding ‘If only’ that stands out and offers just the right balance of variety to proceedings. For some classy Philly soul, the horns and guitar breakdown of ‘Look closer (can’t you see the signs?)’ could scarcely be bettered and this is another dimension to the pair that might be more fully exploited in future recordings. As a gritty slice of retro soul, this works a treat and one can only refer to the duo henceforth as Dapettes of distinction.

Tim Stenhouse

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23rd Jun2015

Alice Testa ‘Alice’s Room’ (Azzurra) 3/5

by ukvibe

alice-testaAs referenced in the liner notes by Andrea Pozza, it is always with a sense of trepidation as well as excitement that the first excursion into listening takes place, as therein lies the beauty of the adventure of discovering new music, artists and singers. Being taken on an unexpected journey with several potential destinations ranging from bliss to disappointment, not knowing where you’ll find yourself at journey’s end. I was therefore eager to hear Alice Testa’s debut album.
The album without doubt has a European Jazz feel to it, not unexpectedly. The band, comprising several leading players on the Italian jazz scene, supports her voice beautifully, creating shifting landscapes resonant to the tone and mood of the song without dominating. Atmospheric and immediately accessible, this isn’t challenging jazz by any means and yet there is an elegance in the apparent simplicity of the compositions and arrangements. A mix of standards, covers and originals, Alice is obviously wanting to demonstrate her breadth as an artist, rather than limiting herself to what might be expected of a new songstress. The mix works relatively well with material ranging from the immediately recognisable in songs such as ‘Pure Imagination’, ‘Skylark’ and ‘Nature Boy’ to an unexpected smoothed out version of Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’ and on to the edgier original number ‘The Core’ which feels much more in keeping with current jazz trends with playful meter changes and a less customary standard feel in its approach.

For the most part the album stays true to a somewhat traditional sound, rather middle of the road with no radical departures to disquiet the listener from a Sunday afternoon sojourn say; an enjoyable, comforting encounter or background soundtrack, both appealing and palatable but perhaps lacking the indefinable magic of say relative newcomer Cécile McLorin Salvant singing similar standards.

Although pleasant with its laidback feel and accomplished instrumental solos, vocally ‘Pure Imagination’ doesn’t inspire in the way that Jacob Collier’s a cappella version does, where the emotional connection to the song is clearly apparent in his engaging performance and dramatic harmonic re-working. Much more convincing is Alice’s more inventive take on ‘Black Hole Sun’, a brave choice but one that shows her own diverse taste in music which has no doubt influenced the singer she has become.

Her tone is clear and pure, occasionally airy and light, whilst her vocal approach genuine and true to the melodic lines, staying almost rigidly ‘straight’ with little to no deviation. She demonstrates a natural sensibility to phrase well musically and has good control of her instrument showing precision in pitching and timing, however I personally missed hearing a truly undeniable emotional connection to the lyrical content of the material for the most part. Her supporting cast on the other hand – Matteo Alfonso, Lorenzo Conte, Kyle Poole, Giancarlo Bianchetti and Francesco Geminiani – delivered much more on the expressive level alongside moments of improvisational beauty, creative but always in keeping with the cohesive group sound and direction of the song. Although there are a couple of moments where Alice herself is freed from singing text using the voice more instrumentally, replicating horn lines and delivering wordless melodies, I was left wanting greater glimpses of her own improvisational ability or even just more of a sense of her own vocal personality which for me perhaps isn’t quite developed yet. Finding your own voice as a singer in jazz is no mean feat and one which remains imperative if you’re to stand apart and be instantly recognisable in your own right from the very first note uttered. This may well come on subsequent albums which I look forward to hearing as no doubt creating this debut has been an inspirational learning curve which will further inform her evolution as an artist.

Donald Palmer

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