Nils Landgren with Janis Siegel ‘Some other time. A tribute to Leonard Bernstein’ CD (ACT) 4/5

nils-landgrenThe compositions of Leonard Bernstein have regularly been covered by jazz musicians over the decades, no more so than the evergreen music of ‘West Side Story’. Among the artists, Dave Brubeck (cool jazz), Bill Charlap (piano trio jazz) Cal Tjader (Latin jazz) and Sarah Vaughan (vocal jazz) have all interpreted in their own distinctive way. For this new project, however, the vision is slightly grander in scale with the Bochum Symphony Orchestra expertly conducted by Vince Mendoza in overall charge and he has already overseen other projects with Herbie Hancock and Al Jarreau. Manhattan Transfer vocalist Janis Siegel needs little introduction and has long pursued a successful parallel career as a solo jazz vocalist while Nils Landgren is the de facto house musician for the ACT label. That said, some of the pieces that work best are more intimate in nature and feature a jazz trio comprising Jan Lundgren on piano, Dieter Ilg on bass and Wolfgang Haffner on drums with subtle orchestrations as illustrated on ‘Somethin’s coming’ which is probably the most individual reading. A lesser known piece, ‘The story of my life’, receives a straight ahead delivery from Siegel. Nils Landgren, while a fine trombonist, has a somewhat limited vocal range, and that is exemplified on ‘Somewhere’ which is far more of a pop interpretation than a bona fide jazz one. For all that his voice is a melodic one. If one had to make a minor criticism, then it would be the paucity of rousing uptempo numbers and that is a little surprising given the uplifting nature of much of Bernstein’s work. Otherwise, this is an impeccable selection and delivery of the composer’s output.

Tim Stenhouse

Mo’ Blow ‘Live in Berlin’ CD (ACT) 3/5

mo-blowIf jazz-funk with subtle Fender Rhodes touches is your bag, then this live recording at the A-Trane club in Berlin from German outfit Mo Blow will be of interest. While not ground breaking music, the compositions are competently performed from a quartet that have honed their live craft over ten years and debuted with ACT in 2011, completing three studio albums thus far. The opener, ‘Ricky the lobster’, with tasty horns courtesy of Felix Falk, is notable for brooding fender work of Matti Klein and bass excursion from Tobias Fleischer. Guest vocalist Pat Appelton adds some welcome variety on the soulful mid-tempo burner, ‘No particular way’, and, in general, the band would be well served to have a regular vocalist in order to attract a wider audience beyond jazz-funk diehards. Nils Landgren guest on trombone and vocals on two numbers.Influences range from Weather Report to mid-1980s Miles Davis, but it is the Headhunters who are the inspiration on the fender-led jam groove of ‘Slingshot’ with bass straight out of the Marcus Miller school. The repertoire here covers the last decade of the group’s activity and is a fine entry point into the music.

Tim Stenhouse

Nicolas Bearde ‘Invitation’ CD/Dig (Right Groove) 3/5

nicolas-beardeWow, this is a rarity, a male jazz singer. Off the top of my head I could think of no more than a handful of singers who’d released albums in the last few years – Al Jarreau, Gregory Porter, Kurt Elling, Jose James, Jamie Cullum, Ian Shaw. I’m sure that there are more, but it does feel as if they belong to a protected species. Nicolas Bearde is a new name to me, although this is his fifth release. I am sure that the reason for this is that all of his albums have been self-released through his Right Groove label, without the benefits of big label promotional backing.
Lets start with stylistic and vocal comparisons. Lou Rawls is the first name that springs to mind, a similarity acknowledged by the artist himself with his 2008 release “Live at Yoshi’s: A Salute to Lou”. He has also been compared to Jon Lucien, and whilst they are both baritones, and Bearde readily admits to his influence, for me his vocals do not have the same depth of emotion. Other comparisons go further back, to the likes of Billy Eckstine and Johnny Hartman.
Musically “Invitation” is a straight ahead jazz album from top to bottom. All 9 songs are cover versions.
The album opens with the breezy “Come Back To Me”, from the musical “On a Clear Day”. Whilst it does not have the gusto of a full orchestra like the Yves Montand-film or Frank Sinatra versions, it still swings and works well in a quartet setting. In particular I really enjoy the break down at the end of the track, which features seemingly effortless interplay between vocals, piano and sax.

Nat Adderley Jr plays piano on most of the tracks and his relaxed, subtle style is a strong feature throughout.

Next up is Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi”. This is one of two tracks inspired by Jon Lucien versions, the other being “Maiden Voyage”. Again both are downsized versions compared to their inspirations, but work reasonably well in these more intimate jazz surroundings.

Another highlight is the final track, “Save Your Love For Me”, the most soulful on the album.

On the downside, I find Bearde’s version of “Nature Boy” quite dull. To be honest this is a song I’ve heard too many times, by too many singers. His voice seems quite stretched in some of the faster, higher passages on this recording, as it does on some of the other songs.

Overall the album is enjoyable enough although there are times when I find Bearde’s vocal style a little limited. The choice of covers is interesting and I think gets the balance right between the obvious and not so obvious. However when all is said and done this is an album of covers and therefore lacks something creatively.

Andy Hazell

Johnny Hallyday ‘De l’amour’ (Warner France) 3/5

johnny-hallydayFrench singer Johnny Hallyday is something of phenomenon in his native land and the sheer ability to survive through six or more decades is, if nothing else, testimony to his sustainability. This explains, perhaps, why Melvin Bragg was moved to feature a full length documentary on the singer as a programme on the South Bank Show several years ago. Rather than mirroring the French chanson tradition of Brassens, Brel and Ferré, Hallyday instead chose an altogether different direction, though always delivering his repertoire in French. The early rock and roll music of the United States has always served at the major inspiration for Hallyday’s work, with Elvis Presley arguably the strongest influence of all. For an English-speaking audience the combination of American-style rock instrumentation with French lyrics may seem alien and contrary to their stereotypical images of the music of Françoise Hardy and even Serge Gainsbourg, but in a French context it makes eminent sense and, in any case, the French have always enjoyed an ambivalent love-hate relationship with the USA. Johnny Hallyday has something of a cult following in France (a male farmer in his fifties living in Auxerre being his typical fan base) that is mocked by his dissenters, yet adored by his fellow worshippers and these include a former president and close friend, Nicolas Sarkozy. If one had to make any comparison at all, and there is no direct equivalent, then Hallyday has the longevity of Cliff Richard, the bad boy image of the early Rod Stewart (plus the coterie of women admirers, invariably blond also!) and the avowedly macho approach of Tom Jones, who also happens to be closest to him in age.

For this new recording, Hallyday’s fiftieth studio recording in total, an alt.country instrumental accompaniment serves as the backdrop with American musician Greg Leisz performing on dobro and acoustic guitar, and the album works best in this vein as on the uptempo ‘Mon Coeur qui bat’. Hallyday has always, like Yves Montand before him, been an interpreter of songs rather than an outright singer-songwriter, and he reserves his finest performance for a lovely ballad, in ‘L’amour me fusille’, which is at once lyrical and melancholic. This would be an ideal song for a single to showcase the album as whole. Young rock producer Yodelice keeps the music sounding contemporary and co-writes on several of the songs. A sign of the fully mature musician and human being can be heard on a song such as, ‘Dans la peau de Mike Brown’ (‘Inside Mike Brown’s skin’, which is a homage to a young African-American who was shot dead by the American police. Behind the tough guy exterior, there is a more sensitive individual who cares about humanity and this interpretation may come as a surprise to his detractors. In general the songs are well crafted and suited to his throaty delivery. Further evidence of Hallyday now observing the world is provided on ‘Un dimanche de janvier’ with an intimate acoustic guitar and voice only intro. This is an appropriate way to end the album on a reflective note.

Johnny Hallyday is nothing less than a prolific live performer and numerous studio albums are followed by a live recording. He will be performing this winter and spring the length and breadth of the Hexagone (the French refer affectionately to the shape of their country in this manner).

Tim Stenhouse

Ches Smith ‘The Bell’ (ECM) 3/5

2474 XFor this, his 5th release as band leader, drummer, percussionist and vibraphonist Ches Smith is joined by Craig Taborn on piano and Matt Maneri on viola. Smith is much in demand, having performed over the last few years with artists that include Tim Berne, John Zorn, Fred Frith and Marc Ribot. It is however, this trio that sees the drummer focussing his time on of late, sharing a like-minded synergy with familiar performers Taborn and Maneri. The trio made their debut in New York in 2014. Since then, this has become a priority project for the three musicians which now sees them making their debut on ECM with “The Bell”.
The album as a whole takes a somewhat meditative approach, with the odd moments of fuel being added to the slow burning fire, giving a lift to the otherwise reflective nature of the music. The title track sets the tone, with some lovely interplay between the three musicians, especially noticeable for the creative sounds and textures from Maneri’s viola. The pieces throughout the album are all quite lengthy, giving time and space for each participant to sketch out their paintings, before bringing it together in a wash of colour and sensitivity. A more avant-garde feel ensues on “Intervallic” and “Isn’t It Over?”, with the trio charting an improvisational course that journeys beyond the minimal structures of the tunes. Although there are moments of beauty and eyebrow-raising creativity, for this listener they are too few and far between. It feels as though the whole thing lacks a little focus and whilst some of the music is engaging, I found my thoughts drifting elsewhere; rather due to the failure of some of the tunes to draw me in, rather than a natural engagement with the tunes that might have fuelled my imagination. The second half of the album does lift things up a tad, with a brighter intensity coursing through “I’ll see you on the dark side of the Earth”. A chamber music approach seems the order of the day, and on “I Think” we are treated to some particularly fine playing from Maneri in particular, with Taborn’s cascading piano and Smith’s musical drumming all adding up to a finely balanced and intuitive piece of music.

Having listened to “The Bell” several times over, there is plenty to enjoy, but for me it lacks that compelling pull that makes the listener feel involved, or even intrigued by what he is hearing. Fine musicianship yes, feel and wonderment no.

Mike Gates

Jimmy Castor Bunch ‘Butt of Course’ / ‘Supersound’ / ‘E-Man Groovin’ 2 CD (Cherry Red) 3/5

jimmy-castor-bunchMulti-instrumentalist, singer and leader Jimmy Castor enjoyed a varied career spanning several decades and had the knack of adapting his sound to new musical trends. He started off in New York as a doo-wop singer in the 1950s, but with the onset of the 1960s and a new Latin sound, Latin soul or boogaloo, Castor scored a major pop (top forty) and R & B (top twenty) hit in 1966 with ‘Hey Leroy your mama’s callin’ you’. The song was revived in the 1980s with the jazz-dance generation and ended up on a Street Sounds ‘Jazz Juice’ compilation. Thereafter Jimmy Castor became interested in Latin and Caribbean percussion and both elements featured in his later funk period. This handy three albums on two CD set takes the story that bit further to the post-Troglodyte period, when arguably Castor was at his creative best, and Castor, like other musicians, was reacting to trends rather than creating them. The three Atlantic albums contained within cover a relatively short period, 1974-1976, but major stylistic changes were afoot in black music and Castor was clearly sensitive to them.
Funk-tinged jazz, jazz-funk and classic soul were the principal sounds one could hear in 1974 and ‘E-Man Boogie’ is a de facto résumé of these disparate styles. The influence of early Kool and the Gang and the Fatback Band is evident on ‘Bertha Butt Boogie’ which has what would become a trademark humorous monologue from the leader with the addition of psychedelic layered sound effects (influenced here, perhaps, by Norman Whitfield). It is a catchy, if somewhat gimmicky song, but definitely grows on you. A stronger number is ‘Potential’ that has the loveliest of bass lines with a minor rap and trumpet straight out of Donald Byrd circa 1973 and the Blackbyrds era plus wah-wah guitar. Elsewhere Stylistics-influenced soul ballads and proto-smooth jazz instrumentals make up the rest and for the latter a cover of Elton John’s ‘Daniel’ comes as something of a surprise. Even more in a Blackbyrds vein is ‘Let’s party’ with another prominent bass line. The Christmas themed bonus cuts are in a laid back soulful groove.

The second CD begins with the ‘Supersound’ album from 1975 and the emerging disco sound was beginning to influence Castor’s musical approach. While ‘Bom Bom’ with simple catchy chorus line and a pan-Caribbean percussion was ideal for party music, a fusion of funk and disco could be heard on ‘A groove will make you move’ with another seriously funky bass line while the guitar riffs are lifted directly from disco. Once again the formula of smooth jazz instrumentals and Philly-style soul ballads was repeated. For the final album, ‘E-Man Groovin’ (1976), disco was taking over the airwaves and this is reflected in a track such as ‘Space Age’ which comes here in its elongated 12″ version, complete with Chic-esque guitar licks and mid-1970s synths. The title track repeats the much earlier ‘Troglodyte’ formula and has just about enough in female vocal chants and Latin percussion to carry it off, but by now the public had simply moved on. Castor was stuck in something of a stylistic rut that he found difficult to shake off and that is discernible on ‘Dracula Pt.1 and 2’ which rapidly wears a little thin. The sound of Earth, Wind and Fire can be heard on the pleasant, if derivative, ‘I love a mellow groove’. With Jimmy Castor chasing new sounds, the problem was always likely to be that in the process the musician would lose some of his individuality. Easy-listening jazz-funk is in evidence on ‘Everything is beautiful to me’.

This double CD works best when selecting individual tracks rather than listening to the albums as a whole since the latter are not quite strong enough to sustain repeated interest in their entirety. The fact of the matter is that Jimmy Castor was primarily a singles artist and consequently his music is best appreciated via that medium. That said, this an inexpensive place to find several of his mid-1970s 45s including a bonus 12″ version. Ideally, an anthology that groups together his singles would make for a preferable pared down way to hear Jimmy Castor in his prime.

Tim Stenhouse

Bänz Oester and The Rainmakers ‘Ukuzinikela [Live in Willisau]’ (Enja Yellowbird) 5/5

bänz-oester-the-rainmakersBandleader and double bassist Bänz Oester has been active in the Swiss and international improvised jazz scene since the early eighties. For this highly inventive quartet he brings together tenor saxophonist Ganesh Geymeier, one of the most popular Swiss sax players of the younger generation, with two highly respected South African musicians; pianist Afrika Mkhize and drummer Ayanda Sikade. The band have toured extensively and their 2012 release “Live at The Bird’s Eye”, recorded at the Basel jazz club, was an excellent introduction to the band’s collective talents. Further tours of South Africa and Europe ensued, leading to the release of this live recording made in Willisau, Switzerland. The band have benefited a great deal from touring and performing together over the last few years, their heady mix of joyous, exciting jazz now being wonderfully refined to the point that I would venture to suggest they are potentially now one of the must-see acts on the world circuit.
There are many reasons to wax lyrical about this album, the most obvious being the band’s energy. You can feel the essence of what they’re all about right from the off. The opening track, and for me, undoubtedly the high point of the album, is an incredible rendition of Jacque Brel’s classic folk tune “Amsterdam”. There are many outstanding moments throughout this release, but this track sums up everything that is great about this band. The first few minutes take up Brel’s tuneful intro and listeners familiar with the song will smile at the warmth and clarity with which it is performed. From this point on, the band take the piece into new ground with daring, exciting, energetic gusto, led by the brilliant sax playing of Geymeier. Coltrane-esque in his playing, with splendid back-up from the band at the top of their game, this is one of the best jazz interpretations of a classic tune I have ever heard. It’s worth buying the album for this track alone. But the brilliance doesn’t end there. The album as a whole focusses on a selection of originals and Swiss and Bulgarian folk tunes, all performed in a mouth-watering style that incorporates African polyrhthyms, seductive and funky blues patterns, post-bop jazz, mixed with some spellbinding improv from each and every member of the band. At times reminiscent of the Jarrett/Garbarek European quartet of the 70’s, there is a deeply felt connection emanating from the musicians, their intense and dynamic interplay giving the listener a highly immersive and thoroughly enjoyable experience. The tunes performed have some lovely variation to them, with many ‘wow’ moments to be enjoyed along the way. Perhaps at their best when the quartet get into a groove and run with it, the whole band are on fire, but a constant source of wonder is Afrika Mkhize’s piano playing. Having reviewed his wonderful album “Rain Dancer” late last year, I was already familiar with his prodigious talent, and this recording just further solidifies my belief that he is set to become one of the jazz stars of the decade.

A European tour begins in ernest this Spring with the band taking their evocative, refreshing mix of jazz/folk/blues on tour once again. One to look out for most definitely, the two album releases to date having both been recorded from live performances, both albums being a breath of fresh air. Bänz Oester and The Rainmakers are just that; a breath of fresh air, putting some much needed joy and excitement back into jazz. If they continue to play together with such stylish abandonment, one can only imagine what they might be capable of.

Mike Gates

Allison Au Quartet ‘Forest Grove’ (Private Press) 3/5

2076-Duplium.eps“Forest Grove” is the follow-up to the 2013 JUNO nominated “The sky was pale blue, then grey” and features nine of Au’s original compositions. The emerging Canadian saxophonist/composer is joined by Todd Pentney on piano, Hammond B3, Rhodes, Wurlitzer and synths, Jon Maharaj on bass, and Fabio Ragnelli on drums. Since its formation in 2009, The Allison Au Quartet has performed at jazz venues across Canada, garnering a reputation for imaginatively written and performed modern jazz.
“Forest Grove” opens with “Tides”, a free-flowing, lyrically engaging piece that explores subtle harmonic textures. “Bolero” is a lush ballad that draws inspiration from the classic Latin American love song. The composer shows a deft touch here and the tune is lifted with the beautiful vocals added by Felicity Williams. Maharaj’s bass solo is also a highlight to enjoy. The pace picks up on “Aureole”, a swinging number that features some excellent Hammond playing from Pentney. Williams’ voice once more adds a different dimension on “The Clearing”. One of the album’s stronger compositions, Au’s saxophone playing is thoughtful and provocative, making for a very enjoyable piece of music. “Deluge” is a jazz-rock tune that drives forward in a searching manner. Au employs a hard-edged tone to some of her playing, one which to these ears is not always the most likeable, but it works very well here. There’s a slick feel to “Through Light”, with Au’s alto sparkling with energy and invention. On “Tumble”, we are in more impressionistic classical territory. I do like Au’s ballad writing, there’s a subtlety and grace to it that is impressive. “You Ordinary Stranger” is a slowly moving piece that leads into the album’s final track “They Say We Are Not Here”. The tune crescendos into a saxophone feature buoyed by the strength of the rhythm section, vocal harmonies and overlapping layers of synths.

“Forest Grove” makes for an enjoyable listen, with fine performances from the musicians involved. There is however, an overall feel of what I would best describe as “take it or leave it music”. It’s all…ok. Good in fact. But it doesn’t have that edge or originality which would make me shout about it as something you just have to listen to. Hopefully the band will develop further and build on the best elements of Au’s compositions, hopefully finding something of a more unique sound or fresher originality along the way.

Mike Gates

Larry Young ‘Selections From Paris – The ORTF Recordings’ 2CD (Resonance/INA) 4/5

larry-youngThis is a fine example of the digital era being used creatively. Search through the four hundred plus hours of archives at the French National Audio-Visual Institute (INA) and select the very best for re-issue on a de-luxe gatefold sleeve and lavish inner booklet of some sixty-eight pages which would be impressive for a box set, let alone a double CD. Such was the joint enterprise of Californian independent label Resonance and INA, ably assisted by French Jazzmag journalist Pascal Rozat who also happens to work permanently for INA. The first result of these endeavours is a two CD set of live performances by Hammond organist Larry Young who was always on the avant-garde side of his favoured instrument and, as well as recording some thrilling albums for Blue Note, also found himself participating on the controversial best selling Miles ‘Bitches Brew’ set. He was just twenty-three years of age at the time of these recordings in the mid-1960s and, tragically, died at the age of only thirty-eight in 1978.
A major bonus is that as well as shedding light on the musicians activities in Paris in 1965, the re-issue as a whole serves as a mini-guide to the Paris jazz scene at the time and that includes some of the key media actors. One such figure is André Francis who, for some forty-nine years, worked for French national radio as its principal jazz commentator and, while now retired, is still going strong at the venerable age of ninety. Born in Paris in 1925, Francis belongs to the generation that discovered jazz during the German occupation and were instrumental in the development and expansion of jazz festivals in the post-WWII period. It is his voice that introduces the official recording of Miles Davis and his band at the Antibes Juan-Les-Pins performance in 1963, recorded on Columbia, and on the 1965 live performance of ‘A Love Supreme’ by the John Coltrane quintet at the same venue, recently re-issued as part of the fiftieth anniversary edition of the original album and supplementary versions.

As for the music itself, it is divided into two separate live sessions recorded at the French national radio recording studios in Paris, one with an all-American band, while the second is with a mainly French ensemble. Interestingly, it is the latter that impresses most with a sizzling near fourteen minute interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Black Nile’ and wonders why Young did not record this on record at the time. It is ideally suited to his sound. Young cut a seminal album for the Blue Note label in ‘Unity’ and from this ‘Zoltan’ is heard here in an epic twenty minute extravaganza. There is fine interplay between the brass players and this live performance breathes new life into the original that graced the Blue Note album with one of the most iconic Reid Miles covers. The first CD focuses on some of his earlier pieces for Blue Note, of which a tribute to Coltrane is the pick of the bunch on, ‘Talkin’ about J.C.’, and on the original Coltrane alumni Elvin Jones was the featured drummer while ‘Larry’s Blues’ is an impromptu number that organically emerged from the live sessions.

Rounding off matters in fine style is the highly informative and lengthy booklet. This features insightful interviews with major figures from the jazz world including Michael Cuscuna, André Francis among other notable observers and participants as well as a testimony from the son of late Woody Shaw, a musician who was an integral part of Larry Young’s studio band. This is unquestionably an exemplary re-issue that sets new standards of excellence in its informative use of notes and interviews, plus iconic black and white photos of the musicians in performance by Jean-Pierre Leloir and Francis Wolff. One awaits with great anticipation which of the cornucopia of live performances Resonance and the INA may come up with next. A selected number of tracks from this set can equally be purchased via a US only 10″ vinyl.

Tim Stenhouse

Chris McGregor & The Castle Lager Big Band ‘Jazz – The African Sound’ CD/LP/Dig (Jazzman) 2/5

chris-mcgregorThe latest Jazzman reissue is Jazz – The African Sound performed by Chris McGregor and the Castle Lager Big Band. This is the first recording of McGregor as a bandleader and one of his few recordings before he left South Africa in 1964. Having won the 1963 Cold Castle National Jazz Festival with his group The Blue Notes, Chris McGregor used the prize money and recording opportunity offered by the sponsors to bring together the best jazz musicians from the festival.
However, this was South Africa in the midst of its most intensive phase of repression under Apartheid and therefore opportunities for a multi-racial group were limited. This album was recorded over two days in September 1963; a year later McGregor and his Blue Notes had left to play in Europe before eventually settling in London.
The original album, recorded on Gallo, the oldest independent record label in South Africa, is difficult to come by, as is a 1990’s re-issue.
The 17-member big band included fellow Blue Notes Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza and Nikele Moyake, alongside other influential musicians such as Kippie Moeketsi.
The 6 songs on the album are all written by South Africans (McGregor himself, Kippie Moeketsi and Dollar Brand). These are musicians influenced by Ellington, Strayhorn and Monk and interpreting American jazz within their own socio-cultural context.

What of the music? Well, it’s just as you would imagine a jazz Big Band from the 1960’s would be. And this is my problem with the album. It’s not that the music is poorly played, uninviting in its tone or difficult to interpret, far from it, it just that it is very much of its time.

The first track, ‘Switch’, is a good example. An up-tempo tune that swings along, showcasing Kippie Moeketsi’s fine sax playing, but when the brass comes in I hear easy listening, or the sounds of earlier, mainstream big bands. It’s similar with ‘Early Bird’, the track named after the drummer Early Mabusa.

For me, where this release does deliver is as an archive piece, an insight in to the early work of a talented group of musicians, whose subsequent careers flourished primarily because they left behind a political system that constrained their freedom of musical expression.

Andy Hazell