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