Robert Stillman ‘Rainbow’ (Orindal) 5/5

robert-stillmanI love a musician who wears his heart on his sleeve. A musician who defies any trends in music, any necessity for genre, any need for a commercial leaning. Robert Stillman is one such musician. If I was to try and categorise his music I’d say it’s an ethereal jazz/folk/ambient/experimental hybrid with a gorgeously shameless dose of melancholia. And yet therein lies the strange beauty of this album; “Rainbow” is surprisingly uplifting. Maybe this is in part due to the fact that it makes me so happy listening to it, knowing that few artists can summon such beauty from the depths of the soul to create a living, breathing, timeless masterpiece such as this. Or maybe it’s just the fact that the music sways like an errant wind, or an endlessly flowing river, seemingly care-free in its abandonment to what will be in that particular moment of sound, time and space. Stillman’s music is full of life, energy and soulful expression. Instantly sorrowful yet joyous all in the same breath.
So who is Robert Stillman? Well, he is a composer and multi instrumentalist hailing from Portland, Maine, USA. A move to Boston to study jazz introduced him to formative teachers George Russell, Danilo Perez and George Garzone. It was there that he also met like-minded colleagues and planted the seeds for future collaborations in bands such as Glass Ghost, Caveman and We Go Magic. Upon arriving in New York in 2011, his circle widened bringing new work with Luke Temple, Grizzly Bear and Chris and Kurt Weisman. Stillman then relocated to England, working in bands led by Kit Downes and Tom Skinner. His musical journeys can only have added to the diversity and depth of sound he successfully employs throughout “Rainbow”. Stillman shares what seems to be a very personal journey on these tunes, inviting the listener into his world, allowing us to observe through his music his last four years of life; one of love, birth, and death, a thoughtful and meditative process that rewards the listener with its depth and generosity. The album is written and performed in its entirety by the multi instrumentalist, and is built around dedications to his family and to the surroundings of his current home in East Kent.

What Stillman does so well, is to create a fragile dreamworld within his music where darkness meets light and vice-versa. His complex arrangements bely an honesty that is rarely heard these days, poetic in its beauty. Bringing together ideas and building stylistic melodies upon one another, he uses piano, keyboards, drums and tenor saxophone, to highlight just a few instruments, creating thought-provoking pieces of music. Subtle and beautifully crafted, each moment is a work of art unto itself. His sax playing throughout these recordings is remarkably touching. Earthy and melancholic, it speaks a language that all great musicians convey; one that allows the listener a fleeting glimpse into his own soul, through listening to someone else’s soulful outpouring. Full of spirit, unafraid to question himself and the listener, for me, it truly feels as if I’m walking alongside the composer on his journey, battling against the breeze on the open fields of the Kent countryside, taking shelter aboard his blue station wagon, Warren, or sitting in his living room, consciously sharing a moment of reflection. His visionary music brings the outsider in, with warmth and compassion. As the sleeve art/ words by Thich Nhat Hanh suggest; “To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time.”

Mike Gates

Jean-Luc Ponty ‘Original Album Series Vol. 2’ 5 CD Box Set (Warner Brothers) 3/5

jean-luc-pontyFrench jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty was a prodigious talent, born in Paris of musician-teachers, and initially trained in classical music at the Paris Conservatoire. By the mid-1960s his attention had shifted to jazz and he performed with the George Duke trio and, then briefly, alongside John McLaughlin as part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, though the two musicians fell out over a contractual dispute concerning the ownership of a Ponty composition. Volume 1 in this budget price series focused on the early period as a leader when Ponty signed for Atlantic records and cut arguably his finest music was recorded between 1975 and 1978 when the band sounded fresh. Albums such as ‘Aurora’ and ‘Imaginary Voyage’ have stood the test of time and combine virtuosity with melodic compositions and are near definitive examples of jazz-rock. This new box set takes over the story in 1979 when Ponty recorded his sixth album for Atlantic with ‘A taste for passion’ and goes through to 1983 while he was resident in Los Angeles. Overall, while there is undoubtedly no shortage of virtuoso performances and a consistently high level of performance from the musicians, the music itself began to become formulaic in nature and by the early 1980s technological innovations in the use of instrumentation had resulted in the sound of individual musicians being lost to some extent. Paradoxically, just as Jean-Luc Ponty’s band became a more cohesive whole, the period of jazz-rock’s dominance was coming to an end and the collection has something of an end of era feel, though not without its individual charms.

Beginning with ‘A taste for passion’ (1979), Ponty and his six piece group were far more controlled in outlook and consequently the music contained a good deal less freedom. At best, the folk-jazz sensibility of ‘Beach girl’ harked back to a more acoustic sound. However, the ARP synthesizer made its appearance on the album and was a sign that technical gimmickry was about to compete with individual musicianship. A first live album, ‘Jean-Luc Pony Live’, surfaced in 1978 and was a recording made in Los Angeles. It contained extended versions of favourite pieces from the previous period 1976-1977 such as parts one and two of ‘Aurora’ from his second album and parts three and four from his third album, ‘Imaginary Voyage’. This is probably the strongest of any of the albums contained in this selection and comprised the same band line-up as on ‘Cosmic Messenger’.

What was significant, however, was that none of the more recent numbers were considered worthy of inclusion. For ‘Civilised Evil’ (1980), the group was reduced to five with a brand new line-up and the sound was considerably more orchestrated with a more prominent use of synthesizers. ‘Mystical adventure’ continued in much the same vein. The band was increasingly being diverted by new electronic technology and, ironically a newly revamped Mahavishnu Orchestra still under John McLaughlin was heading in a similar direction with a seeming obsession for the synthesizer guitar and the synclavier. Pat Metheny would later take up the latter instrument and incorporate it into his own group sound. ‘Mystical adventures’ (1982) was another average recording where Ponty had, it seems, run out of new melodic compositions and fell back on a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘As’ and it does stand out as out of kilter with the rest.

More of a solo album project than a group one, ‘Individual choice’ (1983) is more of a personal experiment with Ponty on electronic violin over a sea of layered synthesizers. Guitarist Alan Holdsworth guests on a couple of numbers, but this a long way from either the early Atlantic albums, or the looser live album and as such jazz-rock fans may not appreciate the departure. Nonetheless, it is a worthy project in its own right and an indication that Ponty the musician was still striving to move forward. Jean-Luc Ponty would go on to record another two albums for Atlantic from the 1980s neither of which were particularly memorable and by then the synthesizer had largely taken over from his former trademark acoustic sound.

Tim Stenhouse

Sam Crockett Quartet ‘Mells Bells’ (Whirlwind) 3/5

sam-crockatt-quartetBritish tenor saxophonist Sam Crockatt leads an exciting quartet on this recording that has something of a live feel and there is certainly a genuine vibrancy to the recording sound. Joining the leader is pianist Kit Downes who has graced many a contemporary jazz album, bassist Oli Hayhurst and drummer James Madden for an all-original set of compositions by the leader. The flowing opener, ‘Canon’, creates the environment in which the rhythm section can intensify and this is aided greatly by the floating feel created by Madden on drums. What does impress here is the quality of the balladry work and this is exemplified on ‘Breath’ which has a lovely tone on the saxophone and piano duet with subtle accompaniment on bass and drums. This writer would like to hear more of this side to the group’s repertoire. A semi-ballad piece in ‘I found you in the jam’ could easily be from an early Coltrane Impulse recording from the 1960s and Madden’s polyrhythms makes one think of Elvin Jones at his most sensitive. At present in tone Crockatt comes across as composite of various tenorists with Joe Henderson, 1950s Sonny Rollins and, on the ballads, Dexter Gordon, possible influences and in time will surely develop his own distinct voice. A deep awareness of the jazz tradition comes across on numbers such as the gentle-paced, ‘Tiny steps, top of the mountain’ which could be off a late 1950s jam session while the piano-less ‘A stroll on the knoll’ hints at Sonny Rollins from his ‘Way out west’ period where the melodic theme is repeated. Not everything necessarily works as well. A quasi-jam session atmosphere on the title track is, perhaps, a little too messy in parts while the staccato tempo of ‘The Masterplan’ does drag on a little too long. However, this is a varied set and one in which the individual members have plenty of space in which to operate. The group are at their most lyrical on the melancholic sounding, ‘The land that time forgot’ which actually comes across as an ECM piece and the fine group interplay is an ideal way to end the album on a high. A brief live January excursion will be followed by select dates in early February in Birmingham and Pizza Express in London. A more substantial number of concerts will take place during the second half of April.

Tim Stenhouse

Andrew Hill ‘Whataya Want’ Dig (Nagel Heyer) 3/5

andrew-hillThis album is a collection of songs from Andrew Hill’s early recording sessions on Blue Note, showcasing his burgeoning talents as a writer, performer and leader. ‘Carolyn (alternate take)’, ‘Me ‘n You’ and ‘Three Way Split’ are taken from Hank Mobley’s ‘No Room for Squares’ (1963); ‘Dedication’, ‘Flight 19’, ‘Spectrum’ and ‘New Monastery’ from Hill’s own ‘Point of Departure’, (1964); and ‘Ghetto Lights’, ‘Catta’, ‘Jasper’ and ‘Les Noirs Marchant’ from Bobby Hutcherson’s ‘Dialogue’ (1965). Technically two of the tracks, ‘Jasper’ and the alternate take of ‘Carolyn’ did not appear on original releases but were recorded in the same sessions and added to later issues.
This is Blue Note at a time when some of its artists, like Andrew Hill, were moving on from Hard Bop, exploring and integrating Modal, Avant and Free jazz in to what became known as Post Bop.
The stand out tracks for me are from the Bobby Hutcherson set. These are Andrew Hill compositions with Hill playing piano alongside Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Sam Rivers on saxes, flute and bass clarinet, Richard Davis on Double Bass and Joe Chambers on drums.
The upbeat, latin-influenced ‘Catta’, the blues of ‘Ghetto Lights’ with Freddie Hubbard on muted trumpet and Sam Rivers on soprano sax, are solid tracks but the highlight for me is ‘Les Noirs Marchant’. This overtly political title starts at a military marching pace before descending in to a darker, more complex and freer composition. The marching tempo ebbs and flows throughout the piece.

My problem with this album is I can’t see that it brings anything new to the table. For me it’s not a greatest hits, there’s no ‘Illusion’, no ‘Lift Every Voice’. As a compilation of early works it does give a taste of things to come and it is probably fair to say that Hill does not get the exposure of some of the more lauded Blue Note artists, but these are Blue Note recordings; they are already available in their original contexts.

Andy Hazell

Dr. Lonnie Smith ‘Evolution’ CD/Dig (Blue Note) 3/5

dr-lonnie-smithDr. Lonnie Smith returns to Blue Note after 45 years. Few current labels can lay claim to such a strong back catalogue, and with the likes of Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire and GoGo Penguin, also have artists turning heads on the jazz and popular music scenes. This album fits nicely in to this context; at once it evokes the label’s heritage but thankfully does so in a contemporary setting. The first thing that struck me about this album is the quality of the sound. It’s so engaging, and with such depth you could be forgiven for thinking you’re sat in the middle of a live set. Hats off to label head Don Was for the production.
The album comprises of seven songs featuring regular Smith collaborators like John Ellis (tenor sax and bass clarinet) and Jonathan Kreisberg (guitar), together with guests and stable mates Robert Glasper and Joe Lovano.
Most of the tracks are up-tempo, whether it be the funk of the first track, ‘Play It Back’, or the soul jazz of his updated version of ‘Afrodesia’. The exception is the laid-back slow jam, ‘For Heaven’s Sake’, which I think just about edges it as my favourite track on the album. This has a decidedly modern feel to it that could easily fit in to a Robert Glasper or D’Angelo project.

I’m not so sure that returning to ‘Afrodesia’ is one of the album’s high points. 1970’s Afrodesia has a big, big sound, with echoing vocals and a hard funky rhythm, whereas this version sounds like a tamer, albeit more intimate, jam session.

Evolution contains two standards, ‘Straight No Chaser’ and ‘My Favorite Things’. Before listening I did wince a bit, as both of these are old, old chestnuts. For me ‘Straight No Chaser’ is the stronger one of the two, with a great organ groove interspersed with Kreisberg’s intricate guitar playing.

‘My Favorite Things’ on the other hand does not resonate so well. It starts and ends with what I can best describe as music from a low budget film score, which I imagine is intended to add something different, but does not really work for me. The meat of the track, the tune we all know and love is fine, but because of its familiarity, it is difficult to get too excited.

Andy Hazell

Hammond organist Lonnie Smith graced several of the mid-late 1960s Blue Note albums and, moreover, hit a creative high with the superb ‘Turning Point’ that featured a stunning brass section of trumpeter Lee Morgan, tenorist Bennie Maupin and trombonist Julian Priester plus some of the funkiest guitar licks imaginable from Melvin Sparks. While some may prefer the poppier hues of another album, ‘Think’, and the down home funk beats of Lou Donaldson’s ‘Alligator Boogaloo’ on which the keyboardist starred, Lonnie Smith’s sound was always a heavier one to the classic soul-jazz of ‘Big’ John Patton and namesake Jimmy Smith. In live performance, Lonnie Smith could certainly cut the mustard and ‘Live at Club Mozambique’ is an essential recording in his work. However, Smith was equally preoccupied by educational matters and became a PhD, hence his full title of Dr. Lonnie Smith. His return to the Blue Note label over forty years later is a most welcome one and he has among guest musicians tenorist Joe Lovano, now the longest-serving musician on the Blue Note label of any era, and fellow label mate and pianist, Robert Glasper. The inclusion of two drummers is another unusual approach to the session. In general, the numbers are overly long and detract from their individual impact. That said, Dr. Smith and associates impress on a near ten minute take of ‘African Suite’, that is a delicate Afro-Latin number with fine flute playing from John Ellis and where Smith plays more of a supportive role. The standard ‘My favourite things’ has seldom been covered by Hammond organists and the listener is initially left wondering if this is indeed any relation to the original with an extremely slow intro before the tempo suddenly shifts upwards several gears and the famous theme comes into focus. This writer likes the interplay between drummer, organist and guitarist here. Uptempo grooves predominate with the fourteen minute opener ‘Play it back’ typifying the sound and Glasper takes an extended solo with Smith relegated to a background accompanier. All but two compositions are originals and all would benefit from shorter and more concise interpretations. Joe Lovano takes off on an extended tenor excursion on a revisited ‘Afrodesia’. This number, the title track of a 1975 album by Smith was in fact the very first album on which a then youthful Lovano recorded. In recent decades Smith has recorded regularly and even performed with some of his first tenure at Blue Note label musicians such as altoist Lou Donaldson. Dr. Lonnie Smith and band will perform live at Ronnie Scott’s on February 24.

Tim Stenhouse

Anglo-Saxon Brown ‘Songs for Evolution’ (SoulMusic/Warner Brothers) 4/5

anglo-saxon-brownThis welcome re-issue is one of the jewels in the crown of hard to find Philly soul from the classic era of the 1970s. Recorded at Sigma studios and featuring several Philadelphia International studio musicians ranging from guitarist Bobby Eli and percussionist Larry Washington to the impeccable sound of the Don Renaldo strings, this is a consistently strong album that had little impact at the time of release, but in the fullness of time has come to be regarded as a rare modern soul album of distinction.
Interestingly, despite the above details, Anglo-Saxon Brown were in fact a largely self-contained group who wrote from within the group. They were formed out of another group Ujima, a little known outfit, who recorded some tasty 45s during the early to mid-1970s. A change in direction and sound emerged with the arrival of Deborah Henry as vocalist in 1974. The original album was divided up into two distinct parts entitled ‘beginnings’ and ‘endings’, which just adds a touch of authenticity to proceedings and the individual personality of the group is stamped all over this release and one of its undoubted charms. Classy production and superb mid-tempo numbers predominate on this set that oozes Philly chic and one of the key numbers is ‘Gonna make you mine’ with Henry’s lead vocals not dissimilar to those of the late Phyllis Hyman. Just as compelling is a gem of a song, ‘Call on me’, with gorgeous harmonies and the subtlest of grooves. It has one of those stunningly elongated 1970s intros with the additional personal touch complete with finger-snapping and a cappella keyboard breakdown. Of note to soul fans who prefer the shorter single version of a song on this extended edition is the inclusion of the 45 of ‘Straighten it out’ which is not the more famous Latimore song.

Rounding off matters in fine style is an extended fourteen page de facto mini essay on the band’s history that leaves no stone unturned and the incisive notes emanate from the pen of Mojo writer and soul aficionado Charles Waring who knows a thing or two about the finer side of soul. A fine album, then, from a little known band and fully deserving of re-issue. Among other classy acts who are little heard of and have only featured on the occasional compilation is flautist Artie Webb. Some of his mid-late 1970s Atlantic albums contain beautiful soul tracks alongside more Latin-tinged numbers and with a jazzy undercurrent overall. There is no shortage of under-valued musicians who merit a re-appreciation of their work and that is what makes this on going series such a delight.

Tim Stenhouse

The James Hunter Six ‘Hold On’ (Daptone) 5/5

the-james-hunter-sixFrom the same label that brought you Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones and with musicians that have backed the late Amy Winehouse, British born and Essex raised Rhythm and blues singer James Hunter is very much in the old school of a throaty vocal delivery of Sam Cooke or Ray Charles, and dipped in the tradition of an era when blues met the emerging soul sounds head on. His first US release in 2006, ‘People gonna talk,’ catapulted him into the US blues charts and was also a top ten album by discerning British music magazine Mojo. The key to Hunter’s vocal prowess is the time he has undoubtedly spent soaking up all those musical influences and these range from Bobby Bland and the grittier side of soul-blues through to the Motown greats and then practising in live performance. A fast-paced R & B song, ‘(Baby) hold on’ would make an ideal single and has the catchiest of riffs with fine polyrhythms on drums that recall the mighty Joe Dukes who backed Bobby Bland and owned the independent Duke label out of Texas. That sound in particular has served as an inspiration for the instrumentalists and their crisp and tight accompaniment is a joy to behold. If this writer had to choose a favourite number then it might be the horn-led, ‘If that don’t tell you’, which has something of a Latin undercurrent, though close on its heels is the rumba-tinged mid-tempo groove of ‘Light of my life’. A proto-Motown feel comes across on the uptempo, ‘Free your mind (while you still got time)’, and for sheer variation the quality deep soul ballad, ‘Something’s callin’ is a quality song with punchy horns and a thoroughly authentic 1960s sound. If ACE records had placed this on one of their excellent compilations and concealed the real author, listeners would be desperately seeking out the singer’s origins.

Musicians these days can tend to be over-hyped and receive too much exposure before they are fully matured and this is a downside to the industry as a whole that is heavily reliant on immediate payback. In James Hunter’s case, it is the complete opposite because he has more than paid his dues and honed his craft over a long period. He has recorded with Van Morrison who regularly calls upon the singer to support him on tour and has opened for musicians of the calibre of Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Willie Nelson, which is praise indeed. James Hunter’s time has definitely come and boy is he now ready and able to deliver!

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Soul Sok Séga: Sega Sounds From Mauritius 1973 – 1979’ CD/2LP/Dig (Strut) 4/5

soul-sok-ségaStrut have over recent years made a regular incursion into the danceable world beats rhythms from parts of the globe that larger labels would otherwise not touch with a barge pole such as the excellent, ‘Haiti Direct’. It is with this open-minded approach in mind that one should view the latest compilation from the former French colony of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, formerly known as Ile-de-France. African slaves were brought to the island against their will, but, as with other small islands, a new Creole culture emerged that took on board the vestiges of their ancestors African homeland from places as far apart as West Africa, Madagascar, Mozambique and Zanzibar. A new indigenous music and accompanying dance thus began to take shape during the 1960s and by the middle of that decade had become a source of national pride and identity for the inhabitants of the island, not dissimilar to the origins of samba in Brazil.
This identity cut across a multitude of religions and ethnic groups as Mauritians of African, Chinese, European and Indian heritage enjoyed the séga rhythms that are extremely varied and difficult to compare with other musical styles elsewhere. It is this multitude of musical styles that is celebrated on this new anthology, the first on modern Mauritius music to be compiled from an English-language label to this writer’s knowledge. The sheer diversity of the artist names and rhythms are testimony to the inclusiveness of séga and this is typified by the shuffling Afro-Latin beat of ‘Eliza’ by Georgie Joe, or the high tempo and repetitive groove of ‘Bonom Chinois’ by Claudio. For some old-school 1970s organ beats, ‘Ségar Lenoir’ by the evocatively named Les Stardust (no relation 1970s UK pop idol Alvin, one presumes). In parts, the sound effects are bizarre and take a little time to come to terms with, but underpinning much of the compilation are the funk beats and both coincide on the album title track performed by Ti L’Afrique. Soul music from the United States clearly made an impact on the island and the soulful intro combined African guitar riffs combine well on ‘Mademoiselle’ by Jean-Claude with the catchiest of choruses, ‘Mademoiselle, donnez-moi la permission’. A love of English language musicians seems to be reflected in the names chosen by musicians on the island and this proves to be the case for the percussive and funk guitar riffs of ‘Manuel Bitor’ by John Kenneth Nelson. Perhaps not as immediate as some of the previous compilations, but definitely worthy of your attention.

Tim Stenhouse

Gerard Presencer and Danish Radio Big Band ‘Groove Travels’ CD/LP/Dig (Edition) 4/5

gerard-presencerThis is a welcome return to recordings duties as a leader. To a younger audience, the name may not be that familiar, but the trumpet will be because Gerard Presencer was the sound behind the 1990s jazz-dance hit cover of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Canteloupe Island’ by US3 that became a smash pop hit. The trumpeter has previously recorded three solo albums, but this is his first in over a decade when he recorded with the German ACT label in 2001. On this new effort, Presencer arranges and leads a significantly larger ensemble, the Danish Radio Big Band, and if one had to make any kind of meaningful comparison, then it might be Miles Davis’s ‘Aura’ with Palle Mikkelborg from the mid-1980s. In recent years the big band format has slowly but surely made a return to the jazz scene, with the obvious financial obstacles hindering regular live performances of this extended setting. Joining the musical party are guest trumpeter Adam Rapa and percussionist Eliel Lazo and the music comprises new originals and creative arrangements of covers, most notably a reprise of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’. A new reading of the epic ‘Footprints’ from the classic Miles quintet era begins with the main theme established and repeated by tuba and once again Presencer intervenes with a lovely understated solo. From the arranging perspective, the piece stands out for its mixing of time signatures with a general uptempo Latin-tinged theme running through. Funk flavours emerge on the uptempo groove with James Brown guitar licks that accompanies ‘Blues for Des’, with the number settling into a minor chord number with Fender Rhodes and saxophone solo by Karl-Martin Anqvist.

Another interesting cover is that of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and this is reworked completely and performed at a rapid tempo cha-cha tempo and is undoubtedly an album highlight. This version compares well with the mid-1960s interpretation by the Jazz Crusaders or the famous vocal take by Ray Charles. Impressionistic hues are a distinguishing feature of this new album and the atmospheric bass line of a nocturnal eastern setting gives way to a soprano-led number on ‘Istanbul coffee cup’ that is far from clichéd, but conveys with due clarity the pace of life in the Turkish city, with fine ensemble work and prominent guitar riffs.

What comes across in general on this new album is the subtlety of Presencer’s arrangements and this is no better illustrated than on the minor Latin theme that permeates ‘Ballad of the tango of the misunderstood’, here played as a gentle bossa nova with a gorgeous Fender Rhodes solo from Henrik Gunde who has clearly been influenced by mid-1970s Herbie Hancock and with a fine soprano saxophone solo from Peke Fridell. In sum, then, there is a well-balanced mixture of tempi, with a gently paced opener in ‘Another weirdo’ and even a rock-tinged piece, ‘Devil’s larder’. Gerard Presencer is one of the less media-present musicians of the British jazz scene, yet judging by the maturity in the orchestral arrangements, he fully deserves to be more widely known and this recording may just introduce him to a wider and appreciative audience.

Tim Stenhouse

Bill Evans ‘Original Album Series’ 5 CD Box Set (Warner Bros) 4/5

bill-evansAfter a somewhat quiet and introspective period in the early 1970s, Bill Evans signed for Warner in 1977 and there then began a highly creative period resulting in some of his most consistent studio recordings in well over a decade. This culminated in the superb ‘Turn out the Stars. Complete Live at the Village Vanguard’ sessions from 1980 on Warner, re-issued on a pared down edition, or as a single CD sampler.
For those on a tight budget, the 2005 double CD ‘Anthology’ was a useful overview of Evans tenure on Warner, covering the four years between 1978 and 1980, and including examples of the two Elektra live in Paris recordings. This is now superseded by this bargain five CD set offering, part of the budget price original album series. A real favourite of this writer is ‘You must believe in spring’, which must rate among Evans’ strongest studio albums of the 1970s. Frustratingly, the three bonus cuts on the single CD re-issue are not included here, but this is a judicious selection of popular pieces all the same. Jimmy Rowles’ ‘The peacocks’ receives a suitably refined treatment while the television sound track, ‘Theme from Mash’, became a staple in Evans’ repertoire from that point onwards and never has that song sounded more beautiful than in Evans’ most capable hands. Rounding off a high quality album is a reworking of Bacharach and David’s, ‘A house is not a home’, that is impressionistic in tone and meditative in outlook. Aiding and abetting Evans were bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Elliot Zigmund.

The third instalment of Evans performing a solo recording, effectively duetting with himself is to be found on ‘New Conversations’, a riposte of kind to ‘Conversations with myself’ from 1963 on Verve. Here the pianist has a ball with himself, alternating on both acoustic and Fender Rhodes. Stand out interpretations include Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s, ‘Nobody else but me’ and a cover of Duke Ellington’s ‘Reflections in ‘D”. As one might expect with Evans, the touch is exquisite throughout. Jazz and the harmonica are not immediately connected to one another, but then Belgian musician Toots Thielmans was an out of the norm individual and the duet album with Evans, ‘Affinity’ is surprisingly good and the two blend with a natural empathy developing. This album is notable for the first appearance and rendition of ‘Do it for love’, the Paul Simon composition while in a more traditional songbook vein, the ballad, ‘Body and Soul’ receives a sumptuous interpretation from the pair. Long-time fans of Bill Evans will be wondering where the excellent ‘We will meet again’ album from August 1979 is and the truth is that Warner have seen fit to exclude it from this anthology which is a major disappointment. All the more so because it afforded the listener the rare opportunity to hear Bill Evans in a larger ensemble setting, with that most sensitive of trumpeters Tom Harrell and tenor saxophonist Larry Schneider, Marc Johnson and Elliot Zigmund making up the quintet. This is an oversight and the listener is very much the poorer for not being able to hear the album.

Of interest to fans of live Bill Evans performances are the two Elektra albums, recorded at the French national radio studios in Paris. Evans had finally found a trio that was, if not the exact equal of the superlative 1961 trio, then could compare favourably with that formation. Bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe La Barbara collectively reached a degree of intensity that has seldom been rivalled since, and this was unquestionably a precursor to the ‘Turn out the Stars’ recordings. The first volume is slightly the stronger, but both have to be heard in their entirety.

While this may not necessarily be the first, or only place to search for the beginning of a Bill Evans collection, the three studio albums and two live recordings nonetheless represent an accurate summation of Evans in the late 1970s and already hint at the creative peak he was about to achieve with his final Village Vanguard performances of 1980. Evans would tragically pass away later in that year at the age of just fifty-one. His departure was an absolute travesty and musical fans were deprived of what could have been an extend new golden era in his musical career.

One final point of clarification. For the music alone this set deserves a five star rating and it is indeed excellent value for money at budget price, but with both the exclusion of the ‘We will meet again’ album, the absence of available bonus cuts and the incredibly tiny writing on the back covers that makes a magnifying glass de rigueur in order to decipher liner information, this has been reduced to a four. Warner Brothers really need to treat all-time great musicians such as Bill Evans with a little more respect and six CDs would at least have ensured the package could be retitled, ‘The complete Warner sessions’. That said, it has to be remembered that Verve did the unthinkable way back in the late 1990s and released a complete ‘Bill Evans on Verve’ in a metal box that deliberately goes rusty. That feat alone must win the accolade for the most inappropriate packaging ever conceived for a musician of distinction. Thankfully, their slimmed down re-packaged complete set avoids that pitfall second time round.

Tim Stenhouse