Diana Krall ‘Wallflower’ (Verve) 3/5

diana-krallPianist-singer Diana Krall established an international reputation via her delicious covers of the Great American Songbook tradition, yet there is another sides to her that is interested both in composing her own songs and in interpreting more contemporary pop tunes. It is the latter that is the focus of this latest album, and, while the numbers are as tastefully executed as ever, the jazz content has been diluted in the process and Diana Krall is not so much as pop singer, as a jazz singer fully capable of reaching out to an audience beyond the confines of jazz and there is a nuanced difference between the two. Be that as it may, her voice displays true emotion on an intimate interpretation of the soul song, ‘Superstar’ with stirring strings. This compare favourably with the superlative rendition that Luther Vandross gave to the number. An understated and decidedly down tempo ‘California Dreaming’ provides an entertaining alternative reading to the old chestnut and some delightful finger snapping indicates that the jazzer in Krall has not entirely vanished. However, some of the material covered does verge on the MOR such as Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘Alone again (naturally)’ and even that gem of a pop original from 10CC, ‘I’m not in love’, sounds plain out-of-place here devoid of any meaningful context. Now fully refreshed from this brief departure, hopefully Diana Krall will return to her more familiar terrain and that more compelling of formulas as part of a piano trio plus guitar.

Tim Stenhouse

Julie Dexter & Thehc3 ‘The Smiling Hour’ (Ketch A Vibe) 3/5

julie-dexterWe are impressed by Ms Dexter’s new album “The Smiling Hour”. Julie Dexter, from Birmingham, UK to Atlanta, US with talent! She has been performing and growing in reputation for over a decade. Her newly released album comes on her own record label, Ketch A Vibe. She has toured with Courtney Pine, collaborated with Khari Simmons on Moon Bossa (back in 2007). Worth noting, Khari Simmons notably worked recently with another hugely talented lady, Cecilia Stalin, on her “The Story of Love” EP. So on her new album, Dexter has Thehc3’s trio close by: Henry Conerway III on drums, Nick Rosen on keys and Kevin Smith on bass.
An amalgam of jazz, soul, funk, Julie Dexter manages to come across as her own self. To be clear, there could be a few parallels drawn here, but suffice to say, Dexter has succeeded to create a real persona because she has real talent. This, in itself, is quite rare these days. Her soft and clear voice ability is astounding especially on jazz standards like “Afro Blue”. And talking about standards, there are quite a few on the album, but the smoothness with which Dexter performs these only adds on to the massive points she has already accumulated. Her reputation is impeccably intact and rising all the time. Listening to a song like “Never Let Me Go” (Joseph Scott) explains why, but then again…. there is also the beautiful “Black Nile” (Wayne Shorter), Rosen’s solo on this track is smooth as ice and combined with a perfectly pitched voice by Ms Dexter, it is indeed a good rendition.
“The Nearness of You” a 1938 jazz standard by Hoagy Carmichael sees Julie Dexter sing this with a calm and deeply meaningful tone. Not too serious, not too deep, one can tell she is feeling it. Love the way the artist makes this song hers. It is done simply and elegantly. No frills.
“The Smiling Hour” could almost be the perfect night-time album, it has tones that go so well whilst listening deep throughout the dark hours, but then one realises it is easy smooth sailing from morning to night: Julie Dexter and Thehc3 offer the listener a different kind of work. In “That’s Livin”, the singing comes across with pain, we need to pay attention to the words, Dexter portrayal is accurate, no need to add more to the presentation, there is real drama in her voice.
“Cotton Tail” – a sheer journey of solos turning the tempo up with the great Kevin Smith on bass whilst Nick Rosen and Henry Conerway complement the playing in equal manner.
The album concludes with “Afro Blue” – a jazz standard played and sung by many but not always rendered as it should. Ms Dexter sings it with effortlessly lustrous tones. My favourite track, for sure. A good album to return to the scene with.

Erminia Yardley

Weldon Irvine ‘Live at Dean Street’ (Squatty Roo) 2/5

Weldon IrvineBorn in Virginia in 1943 before moving to New York in 1965, Weldon Irvine became an accomplished musician and songwriter playing organ, piano, electric piano and synthesiser, but he was also a composer, arranger and producer during his diverse career. His achievements are quite varied, including writing ‘Young, gifted and black’ for Nina Simone while her bandleader, arranging Tom Browne’s party anthem ‘Funkin’ for Jamaica’ and towards the end of life, acting as a somewhat mentor to Mos Def, Common and Q-Tip and even giving them piano lessons and playing organ on Mos Def’s seminal ‘Umi says’.
His most significant work however are his 1970s solo albums, Liberated Brother (1972) and Time Capsule (1973) released on his own tiny independent Nodlew record label, In Harmony (1974) on the legendary Strata East label, and then his three distinguished RCA Victor albums with an obvious increased budget and personnel, Cosmic Vortex (1974), Spirit Man (1975) and Sinbad in 1976. All are highly recommended and incorporate his masterful blend of jazz, soul and funk influences.
Interestingly, some of his compositions have become more popular by others with Freddie Hubbard’s version of ‘Mr. Clean’ becoming somewhat of a standard and Stanley Turrentine’s funky breakbeat nugget ‘Sister sanctified’ often sampled by the hip-hop community. And even Jamiroquai got in on the act by regular performing ‘We getting down’ within live sets, probably Weldon’s most well-known track.

So where does this 1992 live recording from Dean Street, Brooklyn fit in? Well, this was when there was a significant resurgence in Weldon’s musical output with record collectors clambering to find his original 1970s vinyl albums. Unfortunately, he doesn’t perform any of those well-loved recordings here, with this 16-song set consisting of 13 standards, which include quite a bouncy Latin-esque 13 minute version of ‘Summertime’, a somewhat smooth jazz rendition of Grover Washington’s ‘Just the two of us’ and even an extended version of ‘Tequila’ (yes, that ‘Tequila’).

Other standards include a funky version of ‘Blue in Green’ the classic Miles Davis piece, Nica’s Dream (Horace Silver) and a blistering version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Rocket love’ – a song I’ve never heard covered live before. An uncredited female vocalist presides over the classic ballads ‘Since I fell for you’ and ‘Teach me tonight’, which in the jazz world was popularised by Dina Washington.

This recording features Weldon mainly playing organ but also piano and electric piano during the set. Personally, I prefer his piano and electric piano work here rather than his organ playing, with ‘Song for my father’ another classic Horace cover displaying his fluid piano chops.

Being a personal fan of Weldon’s music, it is quite difficult not to be frustrated when playing the album due to the very poor recording quality. It’s bad meaning bad not bad meaning good. This would have been called a ‘live bootleg recording’ pre-internet and passed around on cassette tape.

In the digital age, you can find unreleased live shows of artists uploaded to Blogs and other platforms for free and maybe this should also be the case here. Nonetheless, this is the only way to obtain this recording and there does not seem to be much in the way of unreleased material available since Weldon unfortunately committed suicide in 2002.

So if you’re a die-hard Weldon aficionado or a completest then maybe yes, track down this release to complete the collection, but be warned that the quality is the worst I’ve known for a CD release. But if you’re not, just return to Weldon’s other releases to enjoy his genius, as this should not be your first exposure to Weldon’s music.

Damian Wilkes

Charles Aznavour ‘Encores’ (Universal France) 4/5

charles-aznavourThis is actually Charles Aznavour’s fifty-first album and, while the voice is not quite like it was at his peak from the late 1950s through to the mid-1970s, what it may lack in some respects, it has gained in emotional intensity. Indeed the quality of the song writing from this melancholic minstrel are as strong as ever and this is one of his best albums in years, if not a decade or two. A decidedly breezy accordion led, ‘Les petits pains au chocolat’, is firmly in the classic chanson tradition and a lovely uplifting song at that. His multiple influences are showcased here with gospel discernible on ‘Sonnez les cloches’ while the jazzier elements to his career take on a Brazilian bossa nova feel on ‘Ma vie sans toi’. Quite possibly, a future Brazilian music project might just suit Aznavour down to the ground. Musical reminisces abound on ‘De la môme à Edith’, the Edith in question being Piaf and Aznavour is on top from when philosophizing on the trials and tribulations of falling in and out of love as illustrated magnificently on ‘Avec un brin de nostalgie’ and the heartfelt ‘T’aimer’.
One online reviewer has remarked of Aznavour: ‘ ça swingue, ça jazze, ça émeut’ (‘He swings, with a jazzy and emotional beat’) and that pretty much sums up Charles Aznavour and his craft. What is beyond argument, however, is that nobody masters melancholy, or nostalgia in the French language better than him and that will remain his lasting legacy.

Tim Stenhouse

Bernard Lavillers ‘Acoustique’ (Wrasse/Universal France) 4/5

bernard-lavilliersA recent BBC documentary focused on a brief history of the French chanson tradition and within time constraints made a pretty good stab at introducing a wider public to the music, but in so doing it missed a few major singers, including Renaud, Jacques Higelin and Alain Bashung. Bernard Lavilliers is one such example and he occupies the unusual territory in France of using his extensive travelling throughout the globe as the pretext for his song writing and, from the late 1970s onwards, that has invariably incorporated world roots beats with some of the finest practitioners of those rhythms. Among the guests one is likely to find the late Cesaria Evora, numerous African, reggae and even salsa musicians of the highest calibre. Khaled is the only other French resident (but of Algerian nationality) to even approach Lavilliers in terms of musical métissage and one who has fused different roots influences, invariably that has been reggae with rai.
Now in his sixth decade, Lavilliers has widened his repertoire and this current release from 2014 is both a retrospective of his earlier material and a reworking of some old favourites. While it is emphatically not a rehashed ‘Best of’, it does serve as a useful introduction and foot in the door to the Lavilliers canon of work. A potential hit single and duet with Faada Freddy in ‘Melody tempo harmony’ ends the album in an uptempo vein and on a somewhat triumphant note and introduces a newer element of fusing dance style, with reggae and funk added to the mix

Balladry is not something normally associate with the persona of the singer, yet he is capable of the most delicate of love songs and ‘Betty’ is a fine example of his late 1970s period. His travelling has inspired many a song and in the case of ‘On the road again’, it was a trip to Ireland that motivated him and this folk-tinged number is one of his most melodic ever compositions and an ideal way for non-French speakers to hear him. The gentle sounding ‘Manila Hotel’ from the mid-1990s is helped on its way by the use of accordion.

An ode to his native Saint-Etienne from the mid-1970s now has a new added significance with the inhabitants of that city facing the wrath in recent years from the hallowed pen of Le Monde and this features a heavy bassline and spoken introduction. The profoundly humanist and universal message behind Lavilliers’ music never found a better vehicle than on the mid-1980s hit ‘Noir et blanc’ that argues in favour of a diverse and cosmopolitan France and the apparent simplicity of the lyrics disguises a far more complex reality. Lavilliers early period as a rocker (and that earned him a reputation as a ‘loubard’ or bad boy) is only fleetingly alluded to on ‘Les barbares’ and ‘Traffic’. He has clearly moved on since then and expanded his horizons. In its place a new social conscience is and the dire consequences of youth and gun culture is explicitly referenced in ‘Petit’. A lavish booklet with full lyrics in French only will delight many a student of French. Another consistently high quality release from a singer who matures like a fine Bordeaux.

Tim Stenhouse