Chronicling daily life in twenty-first century cosmopolitan London is where this trio is all about, and with the occasional support of strings from the Ligeti Quartet, the three musicians accomplish the task admirably. Comprising pianist Liam Noble, Danish double bassist Jasper Hølby and multi-reedist Mark Lockheart, Malija offer an all-original selection of compositions that are pretty evenly divided up between the members with Lockheart composing five of the eleven pieces. At least three of the numbers are tributes of one sort or another, ‘Almost a tango’ being a staccato-themed piece that echoes Monk in its treatment and there is a fluidity to the piano and saxophone performances here. A strong contender for most lyrical composition is ‘One for us’ that is an uplifting mid-tempo number. Strings enter on the repetitive piano vamp of ‘Mr Wrack’ which becomes increasingly free in form as the piece progresses. The historical duet between Duke Ellington and John Coltrane is conjured up on ‘Blues’ while both Duke and fellow pianist Earl Hines are evoked on ‘The Pianist’ with fine interplay between Noble and Lockheart. The genesis of the trio creation dates back to 2009 with a collective collaboration on Mark Lockheart’s album as a leader, ‘In Deep’.
A second tribute, this time to saxophonist Wayne Shorter, comes in the form of ‘Wayne’s world’. The title track is no less than a ray of sunshine on a wet, cloudy day and makes for ideal winter listening to recharge the soul. In general, the music is optimistic and encompassing in nature and a bright future seems assured for this trio.
MadOnJazz maestros, Thea and Mark played a track from the LP on the superlative sound system at Brilliant Corners during their Autumn session. Its impact stung a need and I set off from the evening to feast on repeated listens that raised ‘Things that Grow’ to the summit of this year’s crop.
Cara Stacey creates a terrain far beyond genre. Time relative to spaces is a theme that crosses the fluid compositions and improvisations gravitating around the core of Cara’s flowing bow music. The album is a stand-alone, singular vision on which Cara plays umrhubhe, uhadi, (bows) alongside Shabaka Hutchings (clarinet, tenor saxophone), Seb Rochford (drums), Ruth Goller (bass), Crewdson (concertronica), and Dan Leavers (synths/production).
A little investigation to displace my ignorance of the bows revealed that Cara is a scholar of these instruments and their cultures. The academic understanding of their use and traditions seems necessary to their application in a fresh reinterpretation however the World that Cara gives life to is from an outstanding creative vision.
‘Things that Grow’ rolls in over with fairy tale odysseys over ocre burnt and barren plains, familiar meditations and the recall of distant dreams rolling across Cara’s pitched backdrop for the umrhubhe, and uhadi bows new chapters to root.
Cara initiates the scene for her odyssey as ‘Oscillations’ drifts on to the horizon with its hypnotic meditations, magically absorbing, blowing oscillating gusts across the subtle textures, evoking private festivals in the darkness, distant sounds of closeness carried over gnarly, misty fells, barren and oppressive night falls.
The meditative groove of ‘Dark Matter’ has Ruth Goller’s commanding bass that transports Shabaka and a shipment of percussion out of reach. Cara punctuates the melody with folklore and magic. Stirring the mix, hypnotizing, creating worlds for stories and myth to tumble and a backdrop for Shabaka to enchant.
‘Sunbird’ is nestled on earthy tones resonating from Cara as the dreamy synth glides over vast territories, drifting and meditative, experimental glitches warp the landscape into the alien horizon, as sunbird rises through darkness above.
Light touch of industrial machinations bringing a sharp focus to the microscopic lens searching inner space.
The orbiting movement of ‘Circadian Clocks’ is summoned and steered by Shabaka, with Cara’s bows racing into the fading night. Rhythmic intensity connects the motion across dark worlds and the breaking day.
‘Theta Waves’ brings the apex of the album, driving rhythm and warmth. Shabaka playfully demonstrates a new generation of improvisation heading out from safety, syncopating ideas and breaking new textures. There’s a depth to Cara’s work reminiscent of Dollar Brand at his most spiritually shamanic. It’s no surprise that Cara is a classical trained pianist, cultural anthropologist, ethnomusicologist and Phd candidate as she literally breathes her compositions to life with the alchemy of cultural knowledge, myth, art and spirituality stirred with fresh for the canon.
An opposition of extremes, ‘Duvee’ brings us the album at it’s most stripped back, exposing a central vocabulary to the work a feeling that ties the directions together and connects imaginary places of tension and isolation. Fern and bracken wilds of Sun starved northern territories to the vast, baked plains of her instruments and origins.
Towards the final chapter a friction grows on a changing landscape. Interplay between the rooted, earthy tones and the heavenly electric collide on ‘Music of Spheres’ with Cara providing the centrifugal spine that her bow work ruggedly punctuates.
The intensity of ‘Fox’ at the curtain drop is provided by Rochford & Shabaka leading the slow exit dance, flirting around the end as the hunt Peters out across Cara Stacey’s mapped territory of sound.
‘Things That Grow’ by Cara Stacey has been the revelation of 2015.
One of this year’s major world roots music discoveries has been the sacred music of Armenia via the considerable efforts of Tigran Hamsayan and this second offering of that country’s music from ECM is another pearl of a release that transports the listener into an entirely new world where Eastern and Western instrumental musical traditions meet and with hypnotic results. The music here celebrates the compositions of one Komitas Vardapet, an Armenian composer of some distinction who lived between 1869 and 1935. Contained within is a mixture of both sacred and secular music, the former associated with the Eastern Orthodox church. This is a journey into the folk music roots of Armenia with unfamiliar instrumentation such as the duduk, pogh and the santur are par for the course. Performed by the Gurdjieff Ensemble under the expert direction of young Lebanese conductor Levon Eskenian, who has studied in depth the music of his adopted land, the music combines elements of modal music fused with Western classical and it is this combination that creates a unique sound that both calms and cleanses the mind. This is exemplified by the deeply spiritual, ‘Hov Arek’. Meditative music abounds with ‘Manushaki’ and ‘Shushiki’ especially reflective pieces. A major highlight is the haunting high-pitched flute-like sound of the pogh on ‘Lorva Gutanerg’, which conveys the daily routine of a plough song from the Lori region of Armenia and there are subtle Indian and Spanish influences discernible here. In general there is a simplicity about the inspiration for these compositions that marks them out from other music forms. The Gurdjieff Ensemble made a brief tour to Brazil in November of 2015. However, a more extensive tour is in preparation for 2016 and, hopefully, this will include the UK. ECM are to be congratulated on promoting this style of music that no other label would even contemplate releasing.
Guitarist Baden Powell occupied a special place in the Brazilian psyche and his status in the field of music is akin to that of Segovia in Spain: a maestro of his instrument who is revered by musicians and the greater public alike. This concert, dating from 2000, only months before Powell’s passing, has taken fifteen years to surface because of legal complications. but finally here it is in all it’s glory and available as a multi-LP, 2CD and even DVD edition. It was part of a larger festival tribute to the five hundredth jubilee of the discovery of Brazil and it is therefore fitting that one of Brazil’s greatest musical icons should be asked to participate. The occasion was all the more special with hindsight since it would prove to be Baden Powell’s last ever live performance and fortunately it has been recorded for posterity in both audio and visual formats, and we should be truly grateful for that foresight on the part of the festival producers.
What of the music? Baden Powell performs a solo set (with an uncredited drummer on one piece only) that showcases the sheer virtuosity of the musician and, considering he was in his very last months of life, what is really impressive is that his mastery of the guitar remained undiminished and that he was still fully capable of delivering both lengthy and intricate solos. As for the repertoire, it cherry-picks the great Brazilian songbook and includes composers of the stature of Dorival Caymmi (on two numbers), the great Tom Jobim, but equally the rootsier side of Brazilian folk with Pixinguinha and even Luiz Gonzago and Humberto Texeira masterpiece, ‘Asa Branca’. Of note are the inclusion of several co-written pieces by Powell and his long-time vocal companion, Vinicius de Moraes, the poet of Brazilian music. Baden Powell made a major contribution to Brazilian music in his exploration of the Afro-Brazilian samba tradition(his ‘Os Afro-Sambas’ album from 1966 with de Moraes is a masterpiece) and he talks in some details about the sub-groups of samba that he has performed. One of his most endearing compositions was co-written with Billy Branco and ‘Samba Triste’ speaks volumes of his commitment to the genre. Another classic was co-written with de Moraes and ‘Berimbau’ brings together the martial art meets music form that is capoeira, a uniquely Brazilian art while the duo regularly performed the mournful, ‘Samba da Benção’. No Brazilian songbook would be complete without at least a couple of Jobim numbers and Powell adds his own touches to ‘Chega de Saudade’ and ‘Garota de Ipanema’ (‘The girl from Ipanema’). In a rootsier vein, ‘Samba de minha terra’ by Caymmi is an outstanding example of Brazilian folk music and Powell lovingly cresses the melody. More experimental in nature and showing off Powell’s guitar skills is a variation on the ‘Asa branca’ theme where his technique and magnetism shine through. Powell’s musical interests stretched way beyond even the Brazilian tradition and encompassed baroque European music, most notably Bach. It was this wide-ranging knowledge base that made Powell such a technically gifted musician and ‘Tocata 147’ pays homage to the German composer.
Sound and visual quality are excellent throughout and subtitles available in several languages including English, help the non-lusophone speaker to better understand the lyrics and the frequent banter between numbers from Powell himself. At some point a documentary of Baden Powell’s career will be mandatory. In the meantime, this document helps to give some flavour of what the musician was capable of.
Dating from between 1978 and 1980, this excellent box set groups together the only remaining parts of John Abercrombie’s ECM work that hitherto was unavailable on CD. Collectively, they constitute a small, yet cohesive early career overview with an identical line-up throughout. Berklee educated guitarist John Abercrombie was, during his twenties, introduced to some of the jazz greats and performed with the likes of Chico Hamilton as well as recording with Billy Cobham. By 1978, Abercrombie had already recorded six albums for ECM and, in his mid-thirties, was a fully matured musician. The fixed formation comprised pianist Richie Beirach who was his closest writing partner on all three albums, double bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald. The latter two were in fact former Berklee alumni whom Abercrombie met while studying there. In the case of Beirach, the guitarist met him at a latter date when he moved to New York. In fact they recorded together in 1974 as sidemen on Dave Liebman’s ECM album, ‘Workout Farm’.
The first of the trio of album’s, ‘Arcade’, is probably the least accomplished in that the band were only getting to know one another and had yet to tour extensively. For all that, the music is deeply melodic with a hint of the early Pat Metheny ECM albums about them. If some of the original compositions (five in total and divided up between three written by the pianist and two by the guitarist) meander a little too long, then the laid back, ‘Nightlake’, impresses and was an indication of what was to come. The second album, ‘Abercrombie Quartet’, is a marked improvement with significantly stronger and more concise writing, one more composition than on the previous album and equally divided up between pianist and guitarist. A particular favourite of this writer is the Spanish-flavoured intro to ‘Blue Wolf’, with fine interplay between Beirach and Abercrombie. This piece has something of a modal feel to it. With a nod to the prevailing jazz-fusion era, ‘Riddles’ takes off and features some lovely supportive piano comping while Abercrombie explores. For lyricism, the reflective, Dear Rain’, was a clear indication of the quartet gelling nicely with fine in tandem work. By the time of the third recording, ‘M’. the group had left the refined sound of Oslo and relocated to Ludwigsburg. John Abercombie has gone on record as stating that this was by far the most difficult of the three albums to record and consequently insists that the sound was harsher and rawer in nature. To these ears, the general tone is more layered with the quiet, introspective opener, ‘Boat Song’, revealing a more pared down and minimalist approach. What should be stated is that Abercrombie did not really sound like any of his contemporaries and, unlike an older generation of guitarists such as George Benson, Pat Martino who were more riff-oriented, Abercrombie had been far more influenced by Jim Hall and pianist Bill Evans and these were musicians who were more motif-driven. Of interest equally is how utterly different this essentially acoustic formation sounded from what was happening elsewhere in the late 1970s with jazz-fusion and jazz-funk in the ascendency and disco and punk emerging more widely the field of popular music.
If these recordings do not quite hit the balmy heights of the ‘Gateway’ albums that featured the dynamic rhythm section of Dave Holland and Jack de Johnette, they nonetheless represent an important pivotal stage in John Abercrombie’s career and one in which his compositional skills began to develop immeasurably. For that experience alone, these albums are worthy of re-investigation. In keeping with ECM tradition, the box set has minimalist packaging with plain white sleeves plus the album titles in black. However, the twenty-five page booklet leaves no stone unturned and contains an informative mini essay by writer John Kelman.
Re-issues do not come more historically important than this and the re-activated Impulse label is virtually synonymous with the most prodigious output by the John Coltrane classic quartet. Generally acknowledged as one of the towering achievements of the saxophonist’s career, this spiritual homage has long featured as one of the favourite all-time jazz albums and rightly so. Now, exactly fifty years after its original release in 1965, an expanded version appears that builds upon the 2 CD deluxe edition that first surfaced in 2002. For those who purchased that edition believing it was the final and definitive one, this new 3CD version will generate debate as to whether the new elements are truly worthy of a new purchase and it will be up to the individual to make up their own minds on the matter. This writer, however, was only previously familiar with the original vinyl and its CD re-master and thus, the new package, marks a significant addition and supplementary aid.
A key question is what do the different versions contained within tell us about the direction that John Coltrane was taking? For this listener, the genius of this newly expanded version is that allows us, if however fleetingly, to briefly dip into the mind of the great musician and hear and view how his own vision of ‘A Love Supreme’ oscillated between quartet and sextet interpretations. Further, it enables us to hear within a given section how different takes reveal that Coltrane was experimenting to the very end and within the studio as to how the final version should sound. This is best exemplified on ‘Acknowledgement’ where Archie Shepp joins the quartet and this modifies how the piece sounds. With a second horn player entering the fray, John Coltrane and Shepp play off one another and consequently a freer sound is created while there is absolutely no lessening in intensity from the dynamic rhythm section. At times, this is quite simply music on another planet of expression and challenging for even the most seasoned of jazz aficionados. Compare take 1 with take 6 where an eastern-influenced drone sound emerges in the intro and this writer especially liked the polyrhythms of Elvin Jones that are much in evidence. The jousting between Coltrane and Shepp is akin to a modern jazz equivalent of the classic cutting edge sessions between reed players.
If the complete sextet takes are a revelation to these ears, mono versions of the original quartet add very little new to our understanding. Nonetheless, the live concert at the Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes remains intact and is still an extremely useful document of how John Coltrane envisaged the album to be performed in front of an audience and the sound is perfectly acceptable. Some have seen fit to criticise the packaging, yet to these eyes at least, it is tastefully contained within a gatefold sleeve excellent quality photos of the original sessions, with original master tape graphics, personal rough draft notes by Coltrane, and an informative and extended essay by jazz writer Ashley Kahn. On musical content alone, this is an outstanding historical masterpiece and Universal deserve credit for treating it with this degree of reverence and respect. Owners of the 2CD set may grumble at having to fork out more for a relatively small new amount of music, but in the fullness of time, this and not the 2002 edition will be the benchmark against which all subsequent generations of jazz lovers evaluate the recording as a whole.