Aaron Mayer Frankel ‘Behind Those Eyes’ (Private Press) 2/5

aaron-mayer-frankelFrankly Mr Frankel it’s all a bit confusing. The first time I put this album on, my initial thoughts went like this… This guy’s got a great voice. His songs don’t quite cut it, but what a promising voice. I was in the middle of writing a song that went along the lines of; I won’t give up on you Aaron, with a voice like John Martyn, I won’t give up on you Aaron, with a voice like John Martyn, even if your songs are like an old Mini Clubman, not a brand new Aston Martin. So I gave up on that pretty quickly for obvious reasons. It should be pointed out however, that my intentions were true. Here’s this guy with an incredible voice, reminiscent of the late, great John Martyn, but who’s tunes are just a bit pants. But I was willing to give him the benefit of my doubt, thinking that if this is a debut album, if this guy learns how to play the guitar better and write some meaningful tunes, he has the voice to take on the world. Alas, no press release came with the album. So once again I resort to google. On finding his website I discover that actually this might be his third or fourth release. Oh damn I thought, there goes my hopes that he might mature into a great singer-songwriter. With hardly any info available on the website I looked more closely at the release dates. And it says this album was released in the year 2000. Really? I don’t know, maybe that was a mistake. But then why have we been sent this album for review? I don’t know, it’s all just far too confusing for a tired old impatient man like me. I was just hoping to hear something special when I heard him sing.

So, due to a lack of information, let’s focus on the music at hand. “Faith in hand” is a promising opening track. Nice and lazy, laid back. Frankel’s no Nick Drake but this is nice, likeable. Indie-folk in style, this tune has a very slight country feel to it, country in the way that Johnny Cash was country, not Dolly Parton. The problem is however, that what I was hoping might develop into a great album, actually went downhill from there. The title track is a bit more Dylan-esque but that’s where the comparison stops. It’s also where the doubts begin. Whilst some of Frankel’s guitar picking is rather nice, there are other times where it sounds a bit lacking in skill. Not always a key issue, but on an album where it is just guitar and voice throughout, the poor execution does stand out somewhat. I do like the songwriter’s voice- especially on some of his slightly higher singing, but again, there are some tuning issues that spoil the flow. And the writing is just a bit lacking. He might be a storyteller but rather than wanting to hear and find out more, I’m just left thinking; so what, I’m just not interested. There is a highlight I must mention; on “Produce Market” Frankel does deliver the classic line “Maybe we need vegetables, as much as we need rock and roll.” Excellent. “Jersey Wall” shows a bit of class with its lovely off-kilter style and delivery. Most of the tunes though just come and go, like stories from a storyteller who either doesn’t have much to say or can’t quite be bothered to make a decent effort at conveying to the listener the whys and wherefores of his tales. Some of the tunes begin with real promise, like “Truckstop”, with its cool vibe. But the tunes don’t seem to develop or go anywhere. There are nice vocal harmonies on “Amsterdam”, with Frankel sounding more and more like a pissed off Evan Dando. Which I like, a lot.

“What’s behind those eyes” has a ‘can’t be bothered’ feel to it. Which could have been very good, but ultimately leaves the listener wondering why they bothered. He does have a great voice though. Did I mention that already? It’s worth mentioning again. If only his songs were as wonderful. Maybe one day they will be. We live in hope.

Mike Gates

The Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band ’55’ (Big Crown) 3/5

BC013-FL_HIRES(FRONT)A contemporary funky German steel pan band may not sound like a winning combination, but The Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band have carved themselves a niche in crafting 1970s influenced funk gems with a Caribbean twist. Having previously released four different 45s on various labels, BRSB now release their first full-length album on Brooklyn’s Big Crown Records, owned by DJs and vinyl enthusiasts Danny Akalepse and Leon Michels, with this being their debut label release.
The album includes 16 songs, including six that were only available previously on limited 7” vinyl pressings, but the album excludes their first two recordings, covers of The Meters ‘Look-A Py Py’ and ‘Ease Back’. And having found a market for their brand of 21st century funk, ‘55’ continues along the same pathway of raw funk instrumentals, which are very much aimed at DJs, funk fanatics and the Hip Hop community.
Highlights include the drum thick ‘Was Dog a Doughnut’, an infectious cover of the New York Cat Stevens club classic, the afro beat meets disco stormer, ‘Port of Spain Hustle’ and the spacey ‘Beetham Highway Ride’. The sped up Dennis Coffey ‘Scorpio’ remake unfortunately removes the legendary bass solo originally by Bob Babbitt of the Funk Brothers, but it gratefully keeps the drum and percussion parts flowing. And the Faith Evans ‘Love Like This’ cover will be an obvious DJ favourite.

Steel pan is played on all tracks and it does match the raw funk grooves provided by the group, but the only deviation from funk here is the John Holt ‘Police in Helicopter’ cover. And thus, maybe there is a predictability with the album; heavy funk breakbeat instrumentals mixed with fluid steel pan playing. Nonetheless, the album is very enjoyable and will undoubtedly be heard in the cooler clubs and parties around the world.

The origins of the band are said to be that multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Björn Wagner spent time in Trinidad & Tobago learning to play the steel drums before returning to Germany to incorporate the instrument within a new enterprise. And so it has taken nine years for the band to release an a full LP, but it was hip hop DJs who were searching for new dance floor friendly funky records who first noticed Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band. And as mentioned, most of their now collectable early 7” releases are thankfully added here including their now classic ‘P.I.M.P.’, originally by 50 Cent and which is thankfully much more interesting than the original, ‘Bacao Suave’, which is nod to J Dilla’s ‘Rico Suave’ (via a Milton Banana Trio groove) from his 2001 ‘Welcome to Detroit’ album and ‘Tender Trap’, which contains elements of Jaylib’s ‘Strip Club’ via another sample, ‘Opus Pocus’ by Jaco Pastorius.

The Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band tick a lot of boxes and if they begin touring they will surely be heard at a music festival near you this summer, and the album is a strong start, with very contagious grooves and DJs will gain a lot of mileage of this release.

Damian Wilkes

La Grande Sophie ‘Nos Histoires’ (Polydor/Universal France) 4/5

la-grande-sophieSinger-songwriter Sophie Huriaux aka la grande Sophie is little known outside France, but highly respected within and is now one of the leading lights of French musicians in their mid-forties. The mood throughout is intimate and pared down. While her early albums were energetic, the last two have been more intimate in nature (her previous recording, ‘La Place du fantôme’ from 2012 won the prestigious Victoires de la Musique award) and this repeats a winning formula of tried and tested musicians plus a poetic vision of life in France in the twenty-first century, as well as her frequent travels that inspire the subject matter of the repertoire. If the songs are relatively concise, then there is absolutely no filler. La grande Sophie began singing in small bars and this has undoubtedly influenced her style with the emphasis very much on quality songs and storytelling. While the musical accompaniment is predominantly acoustic and could date from any era, there is a subtle use of electronica that hints at more contemporary times. The combination of instrumentation works a treat on the opener, ‘Les portes claquent’, (‘Doors slam’) which has a catchy funk-tinged bass line. This writer liked the sparse sounding, ‘Les lacs artificiels’ best of all. In places the album is akin to having an intimate conversation with someone and grande Sophie’s quasi-spoken delivery and pretty voice adds to the mystery. Her uncertainties are those of a forty something and make for compelling material as on, ‘La maison de doutes’ (‘The house of doubts’) with a lovely repeated piano vamp. Inspired equally be women writers such as Delphine de Vigan, la grande Sophie offers a poetic reading on, ‘Je n’ai rien vu venir’ (I saw nothing coming’). Allusions to distant places where the singer has performed is the subject of ‘Hanoi’, where la grande Sophie’s previous tour ended. Political interest is sustained on ‘Maria Yudina’, in tribute to a Russian pianist who was opposed to the Stalinist regime. A basic knowledge of French would help to better appreciate the richness of the text, but the music is strong enough to appeal in its own right.

Tim Stenhouse

Tord Gustavsen ‘What Was Said’ (ECM) 4/5

tord-gustavsenNorwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen came to prominence in the noughties with a succession of superbly crafted and intimate piano trio and quartet recordings and, in some respects at least, has occupied part of the mantel where the late Esbjorn Svensson’s untimely passing left a gaping chasm. However, for this latest album Gustavsen has made a major departure from his normal sound in two notable respects. First of all, while he retains a trio format, it is a trio with a difference. No bassist this time round, though long-time drummer Jarle Vespestad remains, with instead the inclusion of a vocalist, which adds the new element of the human voice and one predominantly in a language most listeners will be unfamiliar with. Secondly, the pianist has been eager to explore Norwegian church hymns, but have them translated both into the Afghan language of Pashto. For Gustavsen the songs that he heard and grew up with as a child represent his own standards in the same way that US jazz singers familiarised themselves with the Great America songbook. If translating from Norwegian into Pashto comes seems overly ambitious and unusually complicated, the results are certainly pleasing on the ear and to these ears comes across as an attempt at recapturing some of the ambience of the early 1970s ‘Blue’ album by Joni Mitchell. This is perfectly illustrated on a song such as ‘Your grief’. German-Afghan singer Simin Tander is still at an early stage in her career and possesses a soft-sounding voice that lends itself to sparse accompaniment and could be compared to Mitchell in tone, if not in compositional talent. The leader has been extending the range of textured instrumentation over the last eighteen months and, here, incorporates moog-tinged samples and sound effects that are more commonly associated with electronica music. It should be stressed, though, that the multi-keyboardist uses this panoply of sounds in a restricted and tasteful manner.

If, overall, the inclusion of songs makes the album more concise than per usual, for this writer the ones that work best are those which are longer and enable Gustavsen to revert from background accompanist to soloist. This is the case of ‘Journey of life’ where the second half of the near seven and a half minute piece is devoted entirely to minimalist soloing of the pianist while in the first subtle electronica provides the backdrop to Tander’s ad-lib vocals.
In places, Gustavsen’s participation is relegated to a secondary role and he comes across more as a devotee of Erik Satie than as a jazz pianist. That said, the austere delivery of ‘Imagine the fog disappearing’ features some delightful interplay between piano and drums while Tander’s whispery delivery on the English language ‘I refuse’ conjurs up the voice of Leonard Cohen who is surely another major influence on both the singer and project as whole.

While this writer has a marked preference for the instrumental side of Tord Gustavsen’s work, with plenty of space afforded for his soloing, this new project at the very least adds a new dimension to his work and may well find a newly appreciative audience, but does require repeated listens to truly sink in. Tord Gustavsen and trio will be undertaking an all-too brief UK tour in March that commences in Southampton on 3 March and takes in the CBSO Centre in Birmingham on 11 March. For once no Manchester dates. This forms part of a much larger European and indeed North American tour during 2016.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Praise Poems Vol.3’ CD/LP/DIG (Tramp) 4/5 & 2/5

praise-poems-3Germany’s Tramp Records offer another rich and deep compilation of obscure and lesser known jazz, soul and funk related material that continues in the tradition of their previous releases in the series. And thus, there are no real superstar artists featured here or major label records, just solid music.
Generally speaking, I would say that there isn’t a stand out track, which commonly transpires with new compilation albums, but overall the quality control is high with only a few less exciting numbers and with 19 songs featured, the strong/weak ratio is very high.
But personal favourites include the Rhodes heavy jazz/soul instrumental ‘West 15th Street Strut’ by The Rosewood Trio, which is quite a modern sounding record for a tiny 7” release from Chicago in 1975. Toby Cooper & Brick Street ‎’The Guru’ is a loose, Louisiana funk instrumental with sax, Rhodes and a touch of Hammond in the mix and also Lexington with ‘The Loving Side of Me’, is a slice of Bay Area funk from 1973 with its laid back soulful female vocal – all very credible and worthy pieces.
Other notable additions include Keyboard player Geoff Tyus and ‘Mt. Vernon Ave’, which is another Rhodes led jazzy soul instrumental 7” from 1980, Jennie Misty’s cheeky jazz vocal swinger with its slightly off kilter and maybe dubious vocal performance of ‘Nature Boy’, the 1948 Nat King Cole standard is great fun. And Project IV ‘Just a Little More Time’ is a fantastic Philly soul groover and something that I wasn’t aware of previously.

Praise Poems Vol. 3 also features a new recording from trumpeter Lucky Brown, ‘Buddha On The Road’, a funk instrumental that appeared on his debut 2015 album, ‘Mystery Road’, also out on Tramp Records. This is condemnable to include newer material on an album of this kind.

But as like all compilations, there are a few oversights that tended to come from obscure funky-ish rock/pop bands, but these are heavily overshadowed by the other inclusions here. And the album promo material states similarities between many of the songs here and Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters, but the Herbie stuff is musically much ‘heavier’ than what’s contained here, but you can’t take nothing away from the fine work Tramp have done in curating this unyielding album and of the 19 cuts here, at least 15 of them are very strong, and so this is a recommended album for any soul, jazz or funk fan wishing to dig a little bit deeper.

Damian Wilkes rating 4/5

In the space of a year the German label Tramp, have reached number three in their series of Praise Poems compilations. The mission statement of these releases is to take us on “a journey into deep, soulful jazz and funk from the 1970’s”, with the emphasis on tracks that have not previously been compiled. I must admit that I approached this compilation with some reservations. Whilst the subject matter, 1970’s soul, funk and jazz is pretty broad and has lots to give, is number three a release too far?

By and large I think my concerns were well founded. There are tracks that I quite like, indeed, one or two I even own, but I felt underwhelmed by the overall content.

Lets start with the positives. Overall the blend of styles works, and is sufficiently varied to maintain interest. Folk-funk, psych, jazz funk, soul and lounge jazz all figure in the mix.

My favourites are the jazz funk tracks – Geoff Tyus on the laid-back “Mt Vernon Avenue”, The Herbie-esque electric grooves of The Rosewood Trio on “West 15th Street Strut” and Plas Johnson on “Lift Off”. Finding out that Plas played the sax solo on the Pink Panther Theme may have influenced me here.

Elsewhere, Shebbi Smart sounds like an interesting singer, in the style of Carmen McRae, if “Love is Like the First day of Spring” is anything to go by. The up-tempo bossa beat of Wanda Stafford’s “Happy Sunday” is pleasant without being jaw dropping. However both songs would sound at home on compilations from ten years earlier, the same could be said of some of the folk-funk.

Reviewing music is inevitably subjective, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that Cal Andrews and his Trio’s “O Sing to Me” is poorly played, poorly sung and poorly recorded. That said it has to be heard.

There is something about Abraham Battat’s “Listen Baby” (I should know I went to great lengths to get hold of a vinyl copy some years ago), but in the grand scheme of things it’s not a classic. If you have ever thought to yourself that the one thing Nature Boy was missing was a steel drum accompaniment, then Jenny Misty’s version will not disappoint.

Flippancy to one side, across the whole album I find that there are just not enough quality songs on offer although I admire Tramp’s approach to look around at the less obvious.

Andy Hazell rating 2/5

Jae Sinnett ‘Zero to 60’ (J-Nett) 5/5

jae-sinnett“Zero to 60” is drummer/composer Jae Sinnett’s 14th recording as a band leader, one which marks a stunning return to straight-ahead jazz in the classic quartet setting of sax, piano, bass and drums. This album not only swings like hell, it’s filled with such incredible musicianship one just has to sit back and marvel at the skill of the performers involved. It’s exciting, brilliantly written and so full of energy and verve you can’t help but want to hold it up and shout; this is how it should be done! Joining Sinnett on drums are saxophonist Ralph Bowen, pianist Allen Farnham and bassist Hans Glawischnig. Each is an accomplished band leader, in-demand sideman, and all are tremendously respected by their contemporaries. On listening to this album, one doesn’t need to ask why. Whilst the complexities of the music on “Zero to 60” present each musician unique harmonic, melodic and rhythmic challenges, the simple fact is that the listener can walk away feeling totally satisfied, not only fully content with what has been heard, but humming a tune with glee. That’s the beauty of Sinnett’s writing. The compositions are clever in a jazz writing sense, but they’re just so tuneful, catchy even. Add to that the incomparable performances from each member of the quartet and what we have is an awesome album of straight-ahead jazz at its very best and most rewarding.

Every track on “Zero to 60” stands out, there are no weak links here. Passionate, driving grooves, inventive soloing and fiercely enigmatic performances make for a wonderfully dynamic album. The writing never resorts to cliche, the whole album being full of a spirit that sets its apart from the vast majority of recordings one might hear in this field of music; refreshingly authentic and oozing class. As “Double Dribble” opens the session, with its immediately engaging intro, the listener is drawn completely in. By the time the 2nd track “Farm Hands” begins, it’s blindingly obvious we’re in for a masterclass of writing and performing from this wonderful quartet. Saxophonist Bowen is clearly a consummate, seasoned musician, his touch, feel and virtuosity apparently knowing no bounds. This is perhaps best exemplified on “Quail Creek”, the longest, and for me, one of the stand-out tracks of the album. There is so much depth and variation to his playing. Add this to the lovely tone he employs, and it all adds up to top marks in my book. I can’t express enough the skill of Sinnett’s writing though. Just talking about the two tunes mentioned thus far are perfect examples of a master at work. Take for example the change of pace on the last few bars of “Farm Hands”, or the melodic beauty of the chord changes on “Quail Creek”; simply stunning. There’s such invention throughout the album it can’t help but put a smile on your face. “Hans Up!” is one of those tunes you think you must’ve heard somewhere before. A great example of how to make the unfamiliar sound familiar. The swinging “Watch Your Step” gives way to the subtleties of the ever youthful “Never Let Me Go”, with its warmth and classic standard elegance. The tempo rises to fever pitch on the effervescent “Bowen’s Arrow”. The saxophonist is on fire, burning up this tune, smokin’ Brecker-esque in style, with the killer rhythm section holding everything down and then exchanging musical glances before driving on once more. “Whispering Souls” is a more reflective piece, not quite a ballad per-se, with a lovingly crafted solo from Bowen, warming the heart. Pianist Farnham has a touch and feel that works so well throughout the album, and he is the driving force on the the title track “Zero to 60.” Yet more memorable melodies and positive energy ensue as Bowen once again raises the roof with his soloing. The album draws to a close with the luscious “Omega”. Musically soulful and so uplifting, this is a fitting end to a great set of tunes.

“Zero to 60” is one fine album. As the band leader himself puts it; “Zero to 60 is filled with the emotional sensibilities that bring home the point of why you listen to the music in the first place. How it makes you feel.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Mike Gates

Ed Motta ‘Perpetual Gateways’ CD/Dig/LP (Must Have Jazz) 5/5

ed-mottaIn the interests of disclosure I think you all should know that I’m a big Ed Motta fan. In my head he’s a superstar, and whilst he certainly is in his native Brazil, worldwide exposure is only relatively recent.
This is Ed’s 12th studio album in almost 3 decades. His music is not steeped in the musical heritage of Brazil but covers a range of musical styles, primarily American, from pop and rock to soul and jazz, with influences as diverse as Donny Hathaway, Stephen Sondheim and Donald Fagen. In essence Ed is a music fan, like the rest of us, but one with the talent and vision to translate this in to his own musical identity, one that isn’t constrained by musical stereotypes.
His last album, AOR, is an unabashed love letter to the commercial soul-inflected pop/rock of the 70’s as exemplified by Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers and Christopher Cross, the music Ed grew up listening to.
Perpetual Gateways was recorded in LA in September last year. It’s produced by Gregory Porter’s mentor and producer, Kamau Kenyatta, and features some serious players from the West Coast scene – Patrice Rushen and Greg Phillinganes (on piano and keyboards), Hubert Laws (flute), Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith (drums), Tony Dumas (bass) and Charles Owens (saxophone). This is music just how Steely Dan used to make it.
The first 5 tracks are collectively titled the “Soul Gate”, the last 5 the “Jazz Gate”. Whilst it is true that there are stylistic differences between the two sets, they are not significant and represent more of a subtle shift. The titles can also be seen as marking the break between sides of a vinyl LP.

The album starts where AOR left off. The music is bright, uplifting pop with soul and jazz running right through it. A key difference to the last album is the absence of a guitarist, which in AOR helped create that classic Becker/Fagen feel. However their influence remains in the form of the bewildering song titles, which sound like they are smart and full of symbolism, but are just as likely to be random words pulled from a dictionary.

The first tune, “Captain’s Refusal” is an upbeat opener, serving to set the musical scene. Ed’s smooth, soulful vocals hit home over a small but perfectly formed horn section with Greg Phillinganes on keyboards. Common features of many of the tracks, including this one, are short, but delightful keyboard solos. As the song trails off I’m energized, left wanting more.

The tempo drops by the third track, “Good Intentions”, and is one of several where you can concentrate on Ed’s vocals. These are full of soul, deep and rich in tone and harmony. It is worth mentioning that Ed sings the entire album in English, a choice that he feels is natural given the inspiration behind it. This is also the first time that he has written all of the lyrics himself.

My favourite track from Soul Gate is “Heritage Déjà Vu”. A funky keyboard rhythm underpins insistent horns before giving way to Ed’s vocals. The chorus just pops with energy.

Kicking off the second half, “Forgotten Nickname” is a ballad with gentle Rhodes and a flute solo from Hubert Laws. “Owner” lifts the tempo and shoots a glance back at earlier tracks although piano and trumpet solos help centre this in the jazz idiom.

“I remember Julie” is a straight-up jazz tune. For me it evokes a cross between Vanessa Rubin’s Simone and the jazz dance of Elizabeth Shepherd’s version of Four.

The press release describes the album as exploring the musical ground “between Spiritual Jazz with a deep sense of soul and prog-rocking fusion”. Ed has explored Spiritual Jazz before and here the songs “A Town in Flames” and “Overblown Overweight” best fit that description. Both retain the production values and strong sense of melody exhibited elsewhere on the album, so don’t expect a full-on spiritual workout, but the results are pleasant nonetheless.

In Perpetual Gateways, Ed Motta delivers probably his most consistent and accessible album to date, demonstrating his various musical passions in a cohesive collection of songs. More of the same please..

Andy Hazell

Ibrahim Maalouf – Je vous souhaite d’être follement aimée [Soundtrack] (Mi’ster Productions) 4/5

ibrahim-maaloufTrumpeter/composer Ibrahim Maalouf is proving to be one of the most versatile musicians on the current jazz/world music scene. His two album releases from 2015 were stunning, not just for their originality, but also for the fact that they were so different in style. “Kalthoum” was a wonderful acoustic jazz album, whilst “Red and Black Light” successfully mixed Arabesque folk and jazz with dance music. On this album, Maalouf further enhances his standing with a set of beautiful, haunting tunes, based around melodic riffs and motifs, largely performed on acoustic piano. The film from which the music is taken, by director Ounie Lacombe, is about a physiotherapist who unsuccessfully tried to find her biological mother. They then meet each other without even being aware of it, when the mother is admitted as a patient into the medical office where the unknown daughter works. I haven’t seen the film, so I am basing this review on the music as a stand-alone release.
There is a gentle, romantic feel to the entire album, one which shows great sensitivity from the composer. The themes within each piece of music often repeat throughout the set, with lyrical and melodic phrases beautifully performed on Maalouf’s piano and less prevalent trumpet. There’s a very subtle use of electronic percussion on some of the tracks, just giving a slight edge to the tunes when needed. Occasional strings drift effortlessly in and out, adding to the gently rolling landscapes of sound thoughtfully crafted by the composer. Perhaps akin to the piano music of Einaudi, the tunes presented here are quite beautiful in their simplicity. Nothing to set the heart racing, just well written and wonderfully performed in an honest, uncomplicated way. It’s all about the melody and a lovely lightness of touch. The majority of the tracks are short, anything between 30 seconds and a few minutes. Whilst one might argue that this is the nature of a film score, I do wonder if Maalouf might not have considered developing some of the tunes further for the release of this album. Many of the pieces are musical vignettes; the listener gets a taste of the melody, then the tune ends and we move into the next track. In some ways I do like this, the mood from one track to the next rarely changes so it does work as a whole, but it might have been nice if Maalouf had re-recorded, or used extended versions of some of the tunes, thereby adding more depth and involvement in the album as a stand-alone piece.

As a composer Ibrahim Maalouf has that rare gift of engaging the listener, regardless of the form or genre that the music takes. One can hear the key elements of his music within all of his different types of writing, his unique playing, feel and compositional style apparent through each of the recordings he has released. This album is the least adventurous of his recent releases, but it’s just as enjoyable nonetheless. It is after all a film score, so one would expect the music to reflect the nature of the film itself. It is however, an album I will undoubtedly return to time and time again, its purity and beauty a joy to behold.

Mike Gates

Duke Robillard ‘The Acoustic Blues and Roots of’ (DixieFrog) 4/5

duke-robillardFour times voted blues guitarist of the year and, having worked with musicians as varied and prestigious as Bob Dylan, Roomful of Blues and Tom Waits, Duke Robillard returns with an all-acoustic blues album which is a heartfelt homage to the roots of American folk-blues, taking in Appalachian, old-time, boogie-woogie, country, honky-tonk and a whole gamut of music styles that are performed in an acoustic setting. It is a highly entertaining journey into the very roots of the American music tradition and in so doing focuses attention on the close connections between the genres and explores compositions associated with Big Bill Broonzy, Sleepy John Estes, W.C. Handy. Meade Lux Lewis and Hank Williams. Early barrel-house piano accompanies Duke on the delightful ‘Big Bill Blues’ while clarinet and guitar combine on ‘I miss my baby in my arms’. Maria Muldaur guests on vocals on the excellent ‘Evangeline’ while Duke reverts to dobro and mandolin. In fact Duke Robillard throughout the album performs on a multitude of stringed instruments and on ‘I’d rather drink muddy water’ records on all instruments bar the bass solo which is left to the late John Packer to fill in on. The original 1930s style is adopted for this all-time classic composition and this is a most refreshing reading of the old chestnut. Country-blues is another style showcased and Jimmy Rodgers is the subject matter on ‘Jimmy’s Texas Blues’. Bonus tracks from a previous US 2004 album ‘Blues Mood’ make this an excellent value CD. A beautifully illustrated fold out sleeve with notes by the leader and a lovely hand painted picture provides the ideal personalised touch to an album that is sure to be among the best albums of the year awards. Par for the course for a musician as distinguished as Duke Robillard.

Tim Stenhouse

GoGo Penguin ‘Man Made Object’ (Blue Note) 3/5

gogo-penguinShortlisted for the Mercury Prize in 2014, “Man Made Object” sees yet another step towards international recognition for the Manchester based trio as they move from UK label Gondwana for their debut with Blue Note Records. Pianist Chris Illingworth, drummer Rob Turner and bassist Nick Blacka continue on a similar path to their previous output, with their trademark mix of minimalist piano themes, propulsive bass lines and electronica inspired drumming. “The title is inspired by my fascination with my ideas of robotics, transhumanism and human augmentation” says pianist Illingworth. “We’re recreating electronic music on acoustic instruments. It’s like a man-made object that has become humanised.” Indeed, this is a good description of what we hear with GoGo Penguin. Many of these tunes might have started their life on sequencers before evolving into an acoustic improv setting with the trio developing the themes in a jazz inflected, trance-like way. Perhaps more appreciated by clubbers than jazzers, the trio’s recordings sit somewhere between a stripped-down Cinematic Orchestra and a piano-led jazz trio akin to the likes of EST.
The music on “Man Made Object” straddles a line between group improvisations and thematic, repetitive, compositions. A common theme throughout the album is one of classically influenced piano, with deep bass grooves and rhythmic, dance-influenced drums, all combining to create an uplifting, thematically rewarding set of tunes. There is no doubt that Illingworth, Turner and Blacka obviously have a very clearly defined vision for their music, one which they attack with confidence and gusto, seemingly relishing the task of making music together. This is to be applauded as too many bands clearly lack this vision. Yet whilst “Man Made Object” is filled with deft craftsmanship and incredibly strong musicianship, it does, sadly, ultimately flatter to deceive. Far too often what we actually get is an intelligent, promising beginning to a tune, with either a stunning melody or a spiky, intriguing opening, only to be let down as the tune develops into a mash-up of overly repetitious piano lines. The opening track “All Res” is the perfect example of this. Delicate piano and bowed bass draw the listener in before cascading drums lift the piece up into the stratosphere. But then it all becomes too obvious. Yes it builds, drops back and there’s some nice contrast here, but it all just sounds too familiar by the time we get halfway through the track. “Unspeakable World” employs a catchy and exhilarating intro with Blacka just oozing class on double bass. “Branches Break” has a depth to it that resonates outward, the tune developing into a potential dance-floor classic. “Weird Cat” is a great piece of music, apparently inspired by a recording made by Turner, of a stray cat wailing one night. It’s on tunes like this where the trio work so well together, thoughtful, intricate patterns of music gleefully performed by the three excellent musicians. “Quiet Mind” and “Smarra” are both hypnotic numbers, and depending on your outlook, could be either intimately rewarding, or just a bit dull. “Initiate” benefits from its Zero7 inflected tones, with a lavishly warm and lyrical sensibility. The slower, touching sensitivity of “GBFISYSIH” truly sparkles. One of the simplest and least complex tunes on the album, it’s also one of the most rewarding. “Surrender To Mountain” is another track that will inevitably be popular with club-goers, its anthemic nature lending itself to such an environment. The album closes with the fiendish “Protest”, a track that perhaps best encompasses everything that is GoGo Penguin.

Undoubtedly “Man Made Object” will have its plaudits. And rightly so in some ways. Yet in other ways one has to make the point that on some levels it just fails to deliver. Extremely promising, with superb ideas and musicianship, one can’t help feel a little frustrated and ultimately disappointed with the album overall.

Mike Gates