Drifter ‘Flow’ (Edition) 4/5

drifterCo-led by Finish pianist Alexi Tuomarila and Belgium saxophonist Nicolas Kummert, Drifter is effectively the new name for the Alexi Tuomarila Quartet which was initially formed when the pianist/composer was studying in Belgium. Their first album “Voices of Pohjola” was released on the Brussels label Igloo, leading to what promised to be a major step in signing for Warner with the release of their 2003 album “02”. Then just as the band were on the up, touring and garnering a growing reputation, Warner axed their jazz and classical departments and the band were left with nowhere to go and disbanded. Tuomarila went on to work with Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and in 2013 found a new home at Edition Records, releasing the trio album “Seven Hills”. Edition then suggested the Finn put his quartet back together which one would imagine took little persuasion. Drifter is 3 parts of the original 4-piece, with Tuomarila on piano, Nicolas Kummert on sax and Tuen Verbruggen on drums, with a new bass player, Alex Gilain.
“Flow” features eight original compositions by the quartet, along with a reworking of Sting’s “King of Pain”. The writing and performing throughout this session has a very lyrical, song-like quality to it, reminiscent perhaps of some of the European jazz quartets working in the 70’s on the ECM label, bringing to mind recordings made by Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stenson and Jan Garbarek. The music is inventive and evocative, whilst still radiating an inner serenity and accessibility which makes for a very enjoyable listen. An interesting development on this album is the use of vocals on three of the quartet’s tunes. These are provided by saxophonist Kummert and bassist Gilain, who know each other well from their time together in the soul band eNKa. In the main, they use short phrases taken from the song titles along with a few written words here and there, utilising their voices as a backdrop to the tune itself. This is a clever and effective use of the voice and certainly adds an original touch to the music as it works very well indeed, creating an enhanced edge to the instrumental tunes without getting in the way or muddying the waters. The first evidence of the vocal element comes in half way through the slowly burning “Lighthouse”. This thoughtful, reflective tune gradually builds and is lifted to a new place when the duo start singing “I’m looking for a lighthouse…” One of the album’s strongest compositions “Nothing Ever Lasts” is a wonderfully brooding piece of music and features a Coltrane-like Kummert before the engaging vocals come in towards the end of the track. The voices are used more prominently, more as a spiritual, gospel inflected chant, on the storming “Breathing Out My Soul”. This is a reinterpretation of gospel-blues at its best. It’s funky, groovy and highly infectious. There’s a classical sounding edge to the piano on “The Elegist” which is perhaps more reminiscent of Tuomarila’s playing heard on his trio recording, before the tune develops rhythmically and Kummert brings an authority and presence with his saxophone. There’s an unflustered energy to “Vagabond” which is a good example of how this quartet work so well together, the nuances and interplay between all four musicians being exemplary. Sting’s “King of Pain” is played here with Latin flavours, offering up a lighter, breezier touch from the band.

Drifter undoubtedly have a tightly knit foundation that is apparent throughout this recording, with melody, touch and feel at the heart of their tunes. There is some wonderful soloing from both Tuomarila and Kummert, providing an earthy, acoustic jazz album with depth and sincerity. Let’s hope the quartet don’t drift away once more and that we get to hear plenty of music from them over the coming years now that they have found a new home at Edition Records.

Mike Gates

Freeez ‘Southern Freeez’ 2CD (SFE) 4/5

freeezThe late 1970s and early 1980s were a key period in the evolution of UK jazz-funk music and bands sounds varied from the grittier Hi Tension who took a leaf out of Brass Construction, to the more soulful hues of Central Line and Light of the World, and on to the early instrumental sides by Incognito and Level 42. Freeez initially belonged in the latter category and this welcome re-issue brings together their first, acclaimed album and supplements it with a whole host of 12″ versions as well as separate singles all not previously available on CD format. Chronologically the story starts on the first few numbers on CD 2 with the relentless bassline to ‘Keep in touch’ and the keyboards betray a nod to Lonnie Liston Smith. This was no compromising instrumental music that had a clear group sound imprint firmly in place. Interestingly, the follow-up single, ‘Stay’, contained the genesis of the future Freeez sound with female lead vocals and groove laden guitar riffs and, since it was written by Incognito founder Jean-Paul Maunick, in hindsight the commercial potential of the group was already perceptible. Cross back to the first CD and you can then enjoy how the first album progressed. It is full of American influences in tis use of keyboards and horns, yet still managed to create an earthier UK sound. This is best heard on the moody Latin-tinged ‘Mariposa’ (‘Butterfly’) that opens the album and gave the Japanese jazz imports of the time a run for their money, or the more frenetic bass and drum pleasures of’ Easy on the onions’. However, already a more dancefloor friendly groove was morphing with an early nod to boogie/late disco of ‘Caribbean Winter’. What propelled the album at the time was the release of a hit single ‘Southern Freeez’ that entered the national charts and here both the superior original album version and the later 12″ extended version are included. It is a classic slice of UK jazz-funk and revealed a new side to the remainder of the album with Ingrid Marshall Allman taking lead vocals. A catchy chorus and discofied handclaps with trademark heavy bass and percussion combine and this was the band’s highpoint. One hidden album burner is ‘Sunset’ complete with Earth, Wind and Fire style vocal harmonies and a bass line seemingly straight out of Roy Ayers’ ‘Running Away’ era. The second CD remixes several of the original album cuts in a newer 1984 setting when the second chapter in the group’s history was underway. In fact on the 12″ remix of ‘One to One’ one could already hear a new sound emerging and ‘IOU’ was not far off with both electro and hip-hop grooves replacing the former funk and jazz influences.

A later and more electro friendly side to Freeez’s reprertoire would emerge in 1983 when the group scored a major US and UK dancefloor hit with ‘IOU’ that was produced by Arthur Baker no less and received the Jellybean Benitez remix treatment. Some will argue that the addition of regular vocals took away the instrumental prowess of the earlier material and now in its full glory the listener will have the opportunity to debate the merits of both points of view and make up their own mind. A fine re-issue that stands among the pantheon of UK albums alongside Incognito’s ‘Jazz Funk’ and Level 42’s ‘Starchild’.

Tim Stenhouse

Corazón ‘The music of Eleanor McEvoy’ (Moscojazz) 3/5

corazónIrish singer-songwriter Eleanor McEvoy serves as the inspiration for this album of instrumental reworkings of her repertoire and it is both an enjoyable and melodic excursion. One does not have to be familiar with the originals to appreciate this album, but the song melodies are strong enough to carry the listener. McEvoy has established an international reputation for her songwriting that veers towards the country-folk idiom and one of the compositions here was co-written with Rodney Crowell who is better known for his collaborative work with Emmylou Harris. Corazón are an Irish jazz quartet that seem to be influenced by the work of Dave Brubeck and it is the alto saxophone/clarinet playing of Ciaran Wilde and piano of Myles Drennan that really drives this formation with fine interplay between the duo throughout. The duo flow through the opener ‘Please heart, you’re killing me’. An uptempo bossa groove accompanies ‘Wrong so wrong’ with some plaintive Desmondesque musings from Wilde and blues licks from Drennan. It is the latter who takes a delicate solo on ‘you’ll hear better songs (than this)’ while he reserves a piano treatment worthy of Bill Evans (surely another major influence) on the lovely ‘Harbour’. Clarinet comes into play on the ballad ‘Don’t blame the tune’ while the gently paced ‘The thought of you’ is catchy tune with a lot in full flow and quoting the Beatles in the middle of a solo. Perhaps surprisingly for a wider audience, there is no explanation in the sleeve notes as to why the band chose to cover these songs. A tastefully executed series of covers, but one wonders what the group might sound like with a few original compositions.

Tim Stenhouse

Jon Irabagon ‘Inaction Is An Action’ (Irabbagast) 1/5

jon-irabagonA few years ago, an acquaintance of mine showed me a review he had seen of his band’s new album. (I won’t mention the band but they went on to receive a high level of critical acclaim and success.) The part of the review that stood out read like this: “Who is responsible for this shit and more importantly how can it be allowed to happen?” The relevance of this here, and why it came to mind will be explained shortly.
“Inaction Is An Action” is Jon Irabagon’s ninth release as leader and is an exploration into solo improvisations on the sopranino saxophone. It is music at its most extreme. In fact, I would argue that it is not music at all, but we’ll tackle that in a little while. This month also sees the release of Irabagon’s acoustic jazz album “Behind The Sky”, an excellent album featuring Tom Harrell with some awesome writing and performances. I reviewed this album and gave it 4/5 stars. Now then, let’s make one thing clear. My ears are open to all kinds of music, including the avant-garde and experimental end of the spectrum. And even if there is music that is not particularly to my taste, I would like to think I can at least appreciate the thought and skill behind it. Irabagon’s skill and technical ability is not in question; far from it. He is an extremely talented musician capable of writing and performing across a wide range of musical styles and genres. I commend any artist for pushing the boundaries and not being afraid to stand up for what they believe in, but the question has to be asked as to whether there comes a point where an artist’s introspection loses any relevance to a watching, or in this case, listening audience. “Inaction Is An Action” is made up of several exploratory compositions, written and performed by Irabagon. He takes the wonderful sopranino sax and creates sounds and noises using many blowing and playing techniques from different parts of the instrument, resulting in a diverse and extremely challenging recording. Irabagon explains the premise behind the album: “There is a deep and varied tradition of solo saxophone recordings, and I have been influenced by a lot of it, mainly by the works of Ned Rothenberg, Douglas Ewart, Evan Parker, John Zorn, Steve Lacy, John Butcher, Lol Coxhill, Roscoe Mitchell, Lee Konitz, Anthony Braxton and Jeffrey Morgan. It has been intimidating and humbling to try to contribute to that lineage. As I started playing sopranino saxophone more in recent years, I realized that because my relationship with this instrument is so new and not influenced by other sopranino players, it was the right opportunity to dig into the possibilities that the instrument offers and build a solo record from the ground up. I dedicated last year to over a dozen solo shows, almost a hundred sessions with like-minded musicians and countless hours in a practice room breaking the ‘nino’ down and experimenting with anything that came to mind to try to expand my sonic palette and discover more usable extended techniques.” All very noble and justifiably well intended, and I am not in any way questioning Irabagon’s sincerity and his own personal reasons for making this recording. But this is not music. It is an exploration into the possibilities of sound that in this case, can be cajoled and summoned from the internal and external workings of a musical instrument. Technically speaking Irabagon has achieved something nobody else has. Having listened to this album several times there can’t possibly be a sound emanating from the sax that Irabagon hasn’t discovered here. But it still isn’t music. And it isn’t something that 99.9 percent of mankind would want to listen to. And so on to that quotation from the reviewer at the beginning of this piece. Well, it isn’t shit. It is actually very clever. But other than Irabagon and a handful of musicians, what’s the point? Yes, I understand the relevance to the saxophonist himself, but seriously, why release this? On to the second part of that quotation; how can it be allowed to happen?… Well, herein lies my biggest gripe and one of the pros and cons of heading up your own record label. On the one hand it gives the artist the musical freedom to release what they want to make, but on the other hand, there is potentially a serious lack of control or self discrimination over what gets released. Would a decent indy or major serious music label have released this album? I think not. Is there an audience? Is it a valid and relevant release? No.

If I put my serious hat on, “Inaction is An Action” includes slap tonguing, multiphonics, vocal manipulation, flutter tonguing, growling, extreme registers, circular breathing, squeals and squeaking, blowing into the bell end of the horn, playing without a reed, playing without a mouthpiece, quarter tones, overtone manipulation, air/spit experimentation and much more. If I put my childishly cynical hat on, “Inaction Is An Action” includes bottom burps, spluttering, an old woman choking to death, arm pit farts, cranky old machinery, screeching hyenas and a nightmarish vision of something masquerading as music… and much more. At the end of the day it’s all about opinions I suppose. I have mine, other people will have theirs. The only way for you to formulate your own opinion on this album is to listen to it. So go on then, if you feel so inclined.

Mike Gates

Lizz Wright ‘Freedom and Surrender’ (Concord) 4/5

lizz-wrightVocalist Lizz Wright emerged during the early 2000s as a new singer who escaped categorisation by straddling gospel, blues, soul and jazz, all the meantime developing and nurturing her own voice. Nothing revolutionary, but quietly establishing a solid base with a series of critically well received albums and now her debut for Concord in her mid-thirties. Originally conceived of as a standards project, the album went in the diametric opposite direction and this has motivated Wright to compose some quality songs of her own. Produced by the empathetic Larry Klein who has worked with Joni Mitchell and Madeleine Peyroux among others, Lizz Wright is surrounded here by a whole host of top session musicians including bassist Dean Parks and keyboardist Billy Childs and they weave their subtle magic throughout.
In contrast with the 2010 album ‘Fellowship’ that was gospel-infused, this new recording has a classic but more contemporary soul feel with Anita Baker springing to mind at times. Wright has taken on board myriad influences from the jazz of Abbey Lincoln, to the gospel of Oleta Adams and the classic soul of Aretha Franklin while listening to Cesaria Evora hints at a more investigative musical mind. Interestingly, it is actually the sound of Al Green that is conjured up on the excellent ‘To love somebody’. Ballads are becoming a strong point of Wright’s repertoire and here she offers sublime harmonies on the quiet storm ‘Real life painting’ while the duet with guest vocalist Gregory Porter casts the latter in the role of Luther Vandross and will likely attract attention far beyond Wright’s traditional fan base. Pared down accompaniment with lovely eerie Hammond organ makes for a compelling take on Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’ and the restrained interpretation plus use of trumpet breathes new life into the piece. A moody rendition of ‘Here and now’ is where the Anita Baker comparison is at its most compelling and there is some gorgeous fender Rhodes work. Lizz Wright has sometimes been likened to a neo-Cassandra Wilson and the folk-guitar intro to ‘Somewhere down the mystic’ might hint at that and Wright has certainly taken in Wilson’s earthy approach. However, the song then turns into a gentle mid-tempo groove with Wright’s soulful alto delivery requiring little embellishment. Bookending the album are two compositions by J.D. Souther that create the framework for the double title. Only on the rocked-tinged guitar on ‘The new game’ does the instrumentation sound a little out of place and not truly complement her voice. Otherwise, a fine recording that should add to her already burgeoning reputation.

Tim Stenhouse

Terri Lyne Carrington ‘The Mosaic Project: Love and Soul’ (Concord) 3/5

terri-lyne-carringtonDrummer Terri Lyne Carrington chooses to follow up her critically acclaimed reworking and updating of the classic ‘Money Jungle’ album with an essentially R & B flavoured (in the modern sense) recording that, while infinitely superior to a good deal of contemporary music that charades as soul, is something of a lost opportunity to stretch out with some of the instrumentalists in the way that say Erykah Badu has accomplished and the musicians here are seriously good, but for most of the time under-employed. Quite possibly, Carrington had in mind the recent Robert Glasper ‘Black Radio’ album projects that fuse R & B with jazz and a whole host of singers spanning several decades are invited guests.
The project has a clear rationale, to use the talents of numerous women musicians and singers to focus on male-female relationships and in this intention alone works quite well. An atmospheric ballad, ‘Somebody told a lie’, features the seldom heard Valerie Simpson on lead vocals and is a lovely update on the original with moody keyboards and the surprise of an Afro-Latin percussive breakdown that seemingly arrives out of nowhere. A pity there were no similar surprises elsewhere. Chaka Khan demonstrates what a fine interpreter she is on what was originally a ballad vehicle for Frank Sinatra on ‘I’m a fool for you’ and the restrained performance is enhanced by a lyrical soprano saxophone solo. Khan should be heard over a full album of jazz grooves at some point.

When a major reworking is attempted, as on Duke Ellington’s ‘Come Sunday’, it sounds plain odd with a dub step drum beat accompanying Nathalie Cole. Had the beat been less frantic and more funk-tinged, then it would have worked better which is a pity since the Headhunters style bass and keyboards are enticing. There is something of a Marvin Gaye mid-1970s production feel to ‘Imagine This’ that showcases veteran Nancy Wilson with a quasi-spoken delivery. Coming back up to date, Lizz Wright is a fine vocalist in the prime of her career and an old Patrice Rushen ballad, ‘When I found you’, serves as the pretext for the singer to deliver a more contemporary urban sound that makes a change, and Carrington takes the beat up a gear towards the end. Gospel hues are evident on the interpretation of Luther Vandross’ ‘I’m a fool to want you’ that remains largely faithful to the original. A tale of two cities, then, with contemporary soul fans delighted to hear such an array of vocal talent in one place whereas jazz fans are more likely to be frustrated at the lack of improvisation and spontaneity.

Tim Stenhouse

Billie Holiday ‘Lady Love – Live in Basel 1954’ (Poll Winners) 4/5

billie-holidayBy the mid-1950s the combined ravages of drug addiction and a dysfunctional life style had taken its toll on Billie Holiday and the vocal range had become more limited. However, within those parameters Holiday was still fully capable of achieving moments of sheer magic. Thus it is with this approach in mind that one should view what amounts to a snapshot of a European tour from 1954 that takes in the singer mainly accompanied by a trio in Switzerland and, to a lesser extent, surrounded by an augmented band of vibes, clarinet and guitar in Brussels.
This is the nearest thing that most of us will ever get to hearing Billie Holiday in a live context and Poll Winners are to be congratulated for having provided us with as comprehensive a re-issue as is possible with extremely generous bonus songs from earlier in her career, from 1951 with a similar trio and a much earlier orchestral date. In terms of song selection, Holiday samples the main lyricists of the era such as Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein and fellow jazz musicians such as Fats Waller. What is sometimes overlooked is that she wrote her own songs and a couple are featured here. It should be stated that some of the standards are performed in truncated form (with all the feel of mini medleys) with ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Lover come back to me’ especially fine examples. However, on ‘I cried for you’, Holiday demonstrates what a superior act she was in suddenly taking the tempo all the way up with the trio in hot pursuit in the second half after a somewhat sedate introduction. That said, the singer excels on the slower ballad material and an English language version of ‘My man’, while ‘Don’t explain’ which Holiday co-wrote has seldom been more lovingly executed. Of major interest is the self-penned ‘Billie’s Blues’ that lasts all of eleven and a half minutes and features the floating clarinet of Buddy de Franco and extended piano solos by both Sonny Clark and Beryl Booker. Above all else, we have the opportunity to hear Billie ad-lib on this essentially blues-inflected number and it is a major highlight. Clark’s participation in the concert is certainly fleeting and one is left to wonder what studios recordings between singer and pianist might have yielded. Certainly, Holiday was sensitive to high quality pianists and attracted Mal Waldron and Teddy Wilson among others.

Previously released as a United Artists LP for the Basel concert alone, this excellent CD weighs in at almost seventy-five minutes with numerous bonus tracks. Full marks to Poll Winners for the beautifully illustrated inner sleeve that includes covers of previous vinyl issues, graphic drawings of Lady Day and wonderful colour photos of the singer that truly bring her to life. Only marginally short of a five-star billing and, like the original Down Beat review that is also included here, a fine example of the singer live and the sound quality is surprisingly good given that it was taken from a tape recording.

Tim Stenhouse

Karima Nayt ‘Quoi d’autre?’ (Ajabu) 4/5

karima-naytIf the folk sounds of Souad Massi whetted the appetite for acoustic music from Algeria, then this relatively new singer with a more elastic voice range is likely to be of interest. In fact the album was released in 2012 and won the best world roots album at the Swedish folk music awards in 2013 where it was produced and there is a folk input from Swedish musician Mikael Augustsson and another key figure is co-composer of several songs, Frederick Gulli. Singer-actress Karima Nyat has an interesting CV in that in 1988 she moved to Cairo where she became a modern dancer with the Cairo Opera Company. However, this led on to her singing with folk groups there and after almost a decade in Egypt, Nyat moved to Sweden. Her music tells of the strife caused by civil war in her native Algeria, but also of the Arab Spring as witnessed first-hand from residence in Egypt, and thankfully the lyrics to the songs are translated into both English and French for a wider audience to understand and appreciate.
Egyptian and Turkish string accompaniment feature along with the use of the bandoneon, normally associated with tango, yet here it merely adds to the roots feel. What impresses here is that the disparate elements weave together seamlessly, with the Swedish influence making eminent sense, and that the instrumentation is allowed space to breathe; consequently there is no need to add modern beats. This is illustrated on the atmospheric ‘Dadou’ with dramatic use of strings while the pared down, intimate feel to ‘Méli’ has something of a tango theme and is especially melodic. The mournful instrumentation on ‘Keyf’ stretches Nayt’s voice to the limit with violin incorporated. A repetitive chorus makes for a catchy number on ‘Laissez-les say’. This sleeper of an album deserves wider exposure.

Tim Stenhouse

Mariachi Los Camperos de Nani Caro ‘Tradición, Arte y Pasión’ (Smithsonian Folkways) 4/5

mariachi-los-camperos-de-nani-caroFor some mariachi music conjurs up a cliché of sombreros, trumpets and bushy moustachioed musicians at tourist venues and it is certainly possible to find that in Mexico and bordering areas in the southern United States if you remain within closed circles. However, the real roots of mariachi music lie elsewhere, the direct result of internal migration from the rural areas to the capital which transformed mariachi into a truly national music form, and are the heart of Mexican culture with several regional variations are identifiable. This is but one of the joys of the latest recording by roots group Los Camperos and serves as a lasting tribute to their leader Nani Caro who passed away in 2014 and to whom this recording is primarily dedicated. What is fascinating is how the son de Mexico sub-divided into regions with distinct styles emerging during the colonial era and thus one finds a son Jalisciense (from Jalisco), sones Jarochos (African-influenced from the southern state of Veracruz and with regional guitars called jaranas), son huaestco (from Huasteca) as well as música ranchera, or Mexican country music, but not at all in the stylistic of their North American neighbours across the border. Instrumentation normally includes at least two guitars, violin and trumpet(s) plus stunning lead and collective harmony vocals. A lovely addition is the use of harp that creates a wonderful balance and the joyful music is exemplified by the bright and breezy opener, ‘El Súchil’, where vocal ad-libs, guitars, trumpets and violins all combine. On a medley from Huasteca, ‘La Petenera’, syncopated rhythm is matched by falsetto vocal breaks and this writer especially liked the harmonies in evidence. A big favourite of this writer is ‘La Morena’ (‘dark woman’), a song that belongs to the Veracruz song tradition and the call-and-response vocals work a treat with harp breakdown and whirling violins adding to the effect. It would be inaccurate, however, to reduce mariachi music to happy dance tunes because there is a more mournful side and this is illustrated here by the ballad, ‘A los cuatro vientos’ (‘To the four winds’), with impassioned vocals and harp and strings in abundance.

Musicologist and author on Mexican mariachi music Daniel Sheehy provides incisive bi-lingual inner liner notes that cover the evolution of the genre historically and explain in some depth the importance and significance of individual songs, with a close relationship developing over time between mariachi music and the golden era of the Mexican film industry when actors of the stature of Jorge Negreto and Maria Felix dominated. At only thirty nine minutes, the music time could be more generous, but mariachi songs are generally short by nature, the music compelling, and the extensive notes do provide that supplementary incentive to discover. If interested in exploring further, then try the stunning ‘Antologia del son de Mexico’ box set on Corason records (see cover below)* which is a pretty definitive guide to the distinct regional variations of the classic son sound. Unlike its Cuban counterpart, percussion is not , though one could argue that harp and guitar bring their own percussive contribution of sorts.

antologia-del-son-de-mexico

* Previously reviewed for Manchester Evening News and the music formed the backdrop to the 2006 Spanish and Latin American Film Festival at the now defunct Cornerhouse, Manchester.

Tim Stenhouse