Lucas Arruda ‘Solar’ (Favorite France) 4/5

lucas-arrudaBorn in 1983 near Rio de Janeiro, Lucas Arruda initially studied electric guitar, before a shift in emphasis led him to Rhodes and Keyboards. Whilst expanding his range of skills he started his own studio and began forging a musical career in Brazil. In 2012 Fabricio Di Monaco (from Modo Solar) introduced Arruda’s music to Favourite Recordings’ head honcho Pascal Rioux, and one year later the Brazilian released his first solo album “Sambadi”, receiving impressive acclaim for the writer’s compositions and arrangements. “Solar” further develops Arruda’s growing reputation, with its stylish and smooth mix of elements from his Latin musical background creating a magical fusion of jazz, soul and funk.
One could say “Solar” is a throwback to Brazilian 70’s music at its best. Soulful, warm and heartfelt tunes blend with subtle rhythms and melodies to create a highly expressive and enjoyable album. There are some key influences in Arruda’s music, think Azymuth, Marcos Valle and Ed Motta, but Arruda manages to combine these with his own voice, creating his own individual sound. His vocals sound so natural, with a soulful expression that adds to the grooves and rhythms of his Fender Rhodes, leaving us with a vintage sounding mix to be treasured.
The intro to Solar is a sweet and chilled piece that gently leads us into the album, with a warm and uplifting vibe that simply glows with its subtle musicality. Then it’s into the cool laid back groove of the wonderful songs with their funky bass lines, melodic synths, über-cool Rhodes and luscious vocals. On the catchy “Melt The Night” Arruda asked legendary producer Leon Ware for assistance. His 80’s collaborations with Marcos Vale are evident here, adding a sophisticated boogie and soulful Californian touch to this immediately likeable tune. For “Uma Onda” Arruda collaborates with Azymuth bassist Alex Malheiros and together they pay tribute to their specific fusion sound and influence on the Brazilian music scene. “Agua” is a song co-written with Arruda’s longtime friend Fabricio Di Monaco and is a beautifully worked ballad which illustrates perfectly the writer’s passion for Soul Music stars such as Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield.

“Solar” is an accomplished album from an artist who truly “feels” the music he is making. Track after track of natural flair and gorgeous grooves are performed with style and sensitivity – the result being a recording that once you’ve listened to it, you’ll keep coming back for more. Uplifting and celebratory. An extremely joyful experience.

Mike Gates

Nat Birchall ‘Invocations’ LP/CD (Jazzman) 5/5

nat-birchallIt was Sibelius who said: “Music begins where the possibilities of language end.” And there endeth this review. Or not (obviously). I am far from alone in having been fortunate enough to have had the pleasure at one time or another, to listen to music that somehow seems to bypass the usual route to our senses by directly affecting us in a way that transcends our normal thought processes, even taking us beyond what we would consider to be a heightened emotional response. It goes deep. Deep into our very being, into what it is to exist as a human being. Buddhists might experience this as the awakening of the lotus flower that rests within us all. A spiritual awakening that sets a person on the path to Enlightenment. In musical terms, it is the point where we don’t even need to think, extrapolate any information or consider anything to do with what we are hearing and feeling; it just is. A oneness within us that touches, holds and is effortlessly joined with the music we are listening to. This is how I felt when I first heard this album.

John Coltrane once said: “All a musician can do is to get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws.” An apt and relevant quotation in more ways than one. Nat Birchall’s musical journey began in the early ’70s, listening to Jamaican music. Throughout the decade he delved deep into roots and reggae music, with passion and enthusiasm. To Birchall, it was the “sound” of these recordings, as much as anything else, that meant so much. Sometime around 1978 Birchall purchased his first Coltrane album, “Blue Train”. It felt slightly foreign to his tastes at that time but once again, it was the “sound” of what he was listening to that really struck a chord. A year or so later, after a brief flirtation with playing the guitar, Birchall bought his first saxophone. He explains: “So in gathering together the records featuring saxophones it gave me a taste for the saxophone myself.” Having made the purchase he goes on to say, “I went home with it, intending to fool around with it and impress people at parties. But as soon as I put the mouthpiece in my mouth and breathed air into it the sound spoke to me. It spoke to me in a way that the guitar never did. The sound had some kind of meaning to me. I decided there and then that I had to take it a little more seriously.”

Fast forward to 2015 and I think we can safely say he has. Despite the fact that Birchall, to some extent, still appears to be, in jazz terms “The UK’s best-kept secret”, he has pursued his own path of discovery that has led him to become one of jazz’s true exponents of the kind of soulful, spiritual jazz perhaps first embodied by the trail-blazing recordings of John Coltrane. For “Invocations”, his latest album, Birchall is joined by his regular pianist Adam Fairhall, bassist Tim Fairhall and drummer Johnny Hunter. Birchall’s previous release, the excellent “Live in Larissa” featured Cory Mwamba on vibes and although he doesn’t feature on this session, we do have the addition of Christian Weaver on congas and percussion. What makes this album so special, apart from the obvious: outstanding compositions and a bandleader at the peak of his powers, is the contribution of Birchall’s fellow band members. They perform with such unity and skill that the resulting recording is lifted to an even higher place than one may have imagined. This is especially noticeable with pianist Adam Fairhall. His performance here is simply stunning. Throughout the session, he performs at such a high level of mastery, virtuosity and above all, intrinsic understanding, at times the listener is left speechless. There appears to be a rare natural musical bond between the musicians here, one that elevates the music well beyond normal expectations. Interestingly, in a recent interview for UK Vibe, Birchall makes reference to part of the recording process: “When we have a new song, usually at a recording session, I explain the different parts to the players and how they fit together. We then have a brief run through the beginning of the piece, maybe once or maybe twice, and then we go for a take. Each player has to really find his own space. The musicians are free to deviate from the written part after it has been played for a few bars or for the duration of the melody statement, but even this is not strict, it depends on the song.” Birchall’s approach pays huge dividends on this recording, allowing space and freedom for the band to shine. Without doubt this approach requires the players to be on the same wavelength, and it works with an unerring cohesion here. Birchall sums it up well: “I believe the best music is made when the musicians are free to play as they wish within the character of the song, and you have to be a certain type of player to do this.”

“Invocations” features five tracks, four Birchall compositions and Coltrane’s “To Be”. All the pieces sit very well together, the album as a whole being more like one conceptual spiritual vessel rather than separate individual tracks. The journey begins with “Song to The Divine Mother”, a searching, emotively powerful composition that draws the listener in from its first breath. The percussive and bass-led opening soon develops into a Coltrane-like floating hymn, the music caressing and comforting the soul with Birchall’s evocative and expressive tenor reaching out to the listener, at times subtle, at times explosive, but always with a deep meditative balance. The rhythm section plot their own course half-way through the tune, with pianist Adam Fairhall taking the lead in breathtaking fashion. There seems to be an awareness here, one of mindful unity and understanding from the musicians. It’s such an open, honest vibe being created that when the band leader’s sax brings the tune back in, it’s totally natural, nothing being forced, allowing the music to simply live and breathe. It’s almost as if Birchall and co are the divine vessels through which the music flows. Tim Fairhall’s double bass leads us into “Invocation”, a thoughtful piece that gradually builds on its reflective opening with Adam Fairhall’s piano holding it all together as Birchall soars. The extended intro, punctuated by some great drums and percussion from Hunter and Weaver, takes us into more familiar territory as the melody kicks in, underpinned by a cool, time-honoured bass riff that allows pianist Fairhall and saxophonist Birchall to express themselves, weaving in and out of the subtle nuances created by the band as a whole. One can only sit and marvel with a deep respect on hearing Coltrane’s “To Be”. Originally recorded during 1967’s “Expression” sessions, the tune featured Coltrane on flute, sharing the ambience with Pharoah Sanders’ piccolo flute. Birchall’s tenor playing suits the feel of the track perfectly. There’s a universal energy emanating here, one which sees Birchall leading his band to an ultimate truth through the lineage of Coltrane and Sanders. And when pianist Fairhall rides the waves of consciousness with such passion, it’s hard to imagine anyone else enhancing an old Trane tune with such skilful beauty and heartfelt understanding. Continuing in the same mood, “Njozi (Vision)” is a truly stunning piece of music. Birchall disappears into freer territory here, yet his soloing is so immersive and involving, that there’s never a doubt in my mind as to just how poignant and melodiously wondrous his playing can be. He’s on fire here, his inner flames darting out with metaphysical strength and prowess, engaging and atmospheric. During this tune he hands over the torch to Fairhall who provides us with an equally memorable passage of virtuosic piano playing. The emotional power in his performance lifts things to an even higher plane. The final track, “A Luta Continua” translates as “The struggle continues”. No matter what tongue we are speaking in, the universal language here is undoubtedly in the music itself. The improvisations around the core themes create an aesthetic of purity and unbridled, unashamed freedom of spirit and expression. Listen to this album by letting yourself go… by letting everything go… and you will be transported to a place where music rarely takes us, to the heart and soul of our very being.

Mike Gates

Artyom Manukyan ‘Citizen’ (Ghost Note) 4/5

artyom-manukyanArmenian born Cellist Artyom Manukyan studied classical music in his home country, along with Russia, Germany and Greece before becoming inspired by the jazz of Avishai Cohen (bass) and Marc Johnson. His influences spread far and wide, seeing him perform with his own Armenian based bands, along with the funk-fusion band Katuner, Joe Zawinul, Night Arc, Karim Ziad and many more. His love and passion for all styles of music led him to form the hip-hop influenced band New People, before moving to Los Angeles and taking to the stage with Tigran Hamasyan and working as a session musician with the likes of Peter Erskine, Bobby Brown and Gretchen Parlato, to name but a few. Having travelled the world and fully immersed himself in so many different musical styles and genres, it comes as little surprise that “Citizen” is filled to the brim with so many multi-cultural, genre-bending flavours and influences. What could be more surprising is how it all fits together so well. Manukyan is obviously one driven musician, and it is his skill, passion and understanding that seems to hold everything together on this excellent recording. His innovative approach to playing the cello like a bass emerged from a combination of his conservatory training and exposure to the music of legendary bass players, in particular Jaco Pastorius and Marcus Miller. “We listened to jazz 27 hours a day in our house,” he says. “At the time I didn’t know a cello player who played jazz, so I copied what the bass players were doing.” Out of this was born his unique style and sound, with this album the result of many years of nurturing and developing his playing, combined with a whole host of world-renowned musicians that add their own impressive contributions to what is a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining album.

“Citizen” delivers 10 original compositions by Manukyan, some of which are breathtakingly bold and energetic whilst others employ a thoughtful, stirring beauty. One thing that is consistent throughout is the composer’s strong sense of identity, as heard through his confident cello playing. Highlights are many, and just as the listener thinks he knows what’s coming next, Manukyan is very adept at springing a surprise; from jazz to classical to rap to folk and electronics, there really is never a dull moment. This festival of music begins with the expressive “Sailors Song”, a rock-driven anthemic number that introduces the cellist in bold fashion. “Waltz for Maya” mixes subtle electronics with hauntingly beautiful laid back vocals, all in a classical setting. The gorgeous “CityZen” features the bass style of playing from the cellist before leading us into a lovely piano-cello folk melody, somewhat reminiscent of a Lars Daniellson tune. The energetic “Dark Matters” leads us into “3 Mas Dub” which highlights the technical skill and jazzy edginess of the cellist. Really nice production values here as rapper A. Chilla, pianist Tigran Hamasyan and percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan all combine to create a highly original piece of music. The darker “Old New Home” allows the core band; bassist Tim Lefebvre, pianist Vardan Ovsepian, drummer Jamire Williams and electronics maestro Troy Zeigler to lay down a wonderful platform for the unique improvisations of the cellist. “Turgut to be true” is awash with Brazilian/Flamenco flavours featuring the percussive talents of Arto and the guitar of Vahagni. Manukyan once again employs some clever and thoughtful production techniques, reminding me very much of Nitin Sawhney. “Duet N.1” is a stunning piece of music, with pianist Tigran and the cellist at their peak. There’s a distinctly cinematic feel to “All Yours” with the combinations of violins, electronic drums and rap artist A. Chills working very well together. The album closes with “Words”, a chamber music piece which rounds off this musical adventure very nicely as it slowly turns into a warm and welcoming jazz tune.

“Citizen” gives much to the listener, not least an introduction to a cellist who is anything but the run of the mill cello player one might have imagined prior to listening to this innovative and invigorating album. Supremely talented and with an extremely bright future, I can’t wait to see where Artyom Manukyan’s journeys take him next.

Mike Gates

The Sorcerers ‘The Sorcerers’ (ATA) 4/5

the-sorcerersLeeds, England does not at first seem to be the epicenter of contemporary Ethiopian influenced jazz, but new band, The Sorcerers are beginning to create an authentic buzz with their take on probably the hippest of all sub genres.
With their self-titled debut released on local Leeds label ATA Records, The Sorcerers have created an absorbing, unique and quirky eight-track album that is full of rich ideas from across the musical spectrum, but it’s their obvious Ethio-Jazz references that the music press are mostly talking about.
Fluid organs, rhythmic brass parts and a driving percussion foundation provide a solid outlet for some well written and constructed groove heavy tracks, coupled with some nice flute touches on top and the instantly Ethio-Jazz-esque use of vibes – I would have actually liked greater use of vibes as they are only featured on certain tracks, but maybe that’s just me!
Being honest, it probably isn’t an album for the purists who want something with the integrity of a Mulatu Astatke release, the undoubtable king of Ethiopian Jazz, but those with a bit of a broad mind will truly love this album. I’ve already mentioned it amongst my circle of like-minded music fiends, geeks and nerds and no one has been disappointed, as it is very original. ‘The Horror’ takes its influence from, guess what, creaky, old organ horror film soundtracks, but it actually works. My personal favourite is ‘Night Of The Sorcerer’, which is a little more traditional sounding.

My only gripe is the short track count and running times, (although ‘Kasalefkut-Hulu’ and ‘Kulunmanqueleshi’, my favourite pieces from Mulatu’s 1972 masterpiece “Mulatu of Ethiopia” combined only clock-in at just over four and half minutes in length). Thankfully the album is available on vinyl – at the moment, and will surely be a short vinyl run and definitely one to collect.

My hope that this isn’t a one-off project and that the group can continue to grow and develop, as they may succeed in what Antibalas did for contemporary Afrobeat but for the Ethio-Jazz world.

Damian Wilkes

JD Allen ‘Graffiti’ (Savant) 4/5

jd-allenTenor saxophonist JD Allen has been on the New York jazz scene since 1993, when his youthful precociousness earned him many admirers. Since then, the Detroit born musician has released eight albums, “Graffiti” being his ninth, and his fourth consecutive outing on the Savant label. For this trio recording, Allen is joined by his frequent collaborators bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. This accomplished threesome know each other well, having performed together now for several years… and it shows. The intuition they so obviously share allows them to make trio music of the highest standard, effortless interplay combining with well written, open and honest compositions. Allen’s playing style might well be compared to two of the greats; Coltrane and Sanders. One can also hear touches of Shorter, Webster and Hawkins. He plays with such fluency, his imagination and expression creating a wholesome, spiritual, post-bop vitality that is at times breathtaking. “Graffiti” is a no nonsense recording; the sound captures the essence of the music perfectly as the trio work their way through nine compositions, leaving the listener in no doubt that they are experiencing three musicians so effortlessly integrated with one another and on top of their game that it’s difficult to imagine hearing a more accomplished sax/drums/bass outfit.

The album opens with “Naked”, a drum and sax duet. There’s an immediate spontaneity which grabs hold, yet at the same time managing to retain its cohesion which underlines much of this album’s success – the fine line between the two points being met with skill and poise. Inspired by the African-American folktale, “Jawn Henry” has an urgency and purpose to it that spills out of the saxophonist’s mind, sounding like there’s an uninhibited outpouring direct from thought to mouthpiece. “Third Eye” is looser, with its free flowing energy setting up some back and forth responses from drums, bass and sax. Whilst the title track “Graffiti” charts a course firmly routed in historical jazz trio symbolism, “G-dspeed, B. Morris” pursues a very different path. The trio know how to groove, with this melodic and lyrical blues-inflected piece really hitting the spot. Infectious writing and playing from all three musicians, August’s bass is just so on the money here, this is a prime example of how well the trio combine, time and space afforded by the composer for the drums and bass to work their magic. “Little Mack” sways with its own jaunty rhythm, leading into the soulful blues of “Sonny Boy”, a deep groove allowing the tune to ring out with hope and deep affection. There’s a comforting and familiar feel to the swinging “Indigo (Blue Like)”. Allen’s sax speaks the words of many time-honoured saxophonists, yet somehow manages to herald a new beginning with its uncomplicated and honest, open attitude. The session closes with “Disambiguation”, a more lyrical, free flowing take on what has come before. Sharp, incisive and totally at ease, drums and bass add some wonderful textures and embellishments to Allen’s supreme saxophony.

As a newcomer to the music of JD Allen, “Graffiti” has now inspired me to check out his back catalogue. With more than a handful of albums already under his belt, I somehow think I won’t be disappointed. There’s something special about this man’s playing, he has such a natural sound and feel, I look forward to immersing myself deeper into Mr JD Allen’s musical adventures.

Mike Gates