Cortijo ‘1969-1971: The Ansonia Years’ (Vampi Soul) 4/5

cortijoPuerto Rican master percussionist Rafael Cortijo is a legend in his native island, but relatively unknown outside. He formed a crack collaborative partnership with sonero (Latin sing with the vocal dexterity to ad-lib at want) Ismael Rivera in the mid-late 1960s, but here the focus is very much on his solo leader albums that explore indigenous Puerto Rican bomba and plena rhythms. Covering just a four year period, the compilation is hardly definitive and you will need to supplement it with both collaborative albums with Rivera and the stunning mid-1970s Latin-fusion album, ‘Time Machine’. That said, for the first time listener and seasoned admirer of Cortijo’s music, this re-issue has much to commend itself. Perhaps of greater interest to world roots fans in search of the folkloric music of Puerto Rico than Latin jazz fans who are advised to search for ‘Time Machine’, Cortijo was part of the post-big band era and closely linked to the African-American civil rights era as viewed from a Latino perspective. Music and culture were closely inter-linked with political demands and the desire to create a distinctive Puerto Rican culture within the US. This mirrored also the demands among Americans of Mexican heritage, especially on the West coast, referred to as Chicanos.. The music contained within is universally of a high standard and concentrates on authentic Puerto Rican folk rhythms as illustrated by ‘Alegria bomba es’, ‘Amancer Borincano’, ‘Borincano’ being the indigenous name for the island and its inhabitants as well as ‘El negrito balidaor’, a positive affirmation of blackness among the Puerto Rican population and a shared interest in issues relating to their common African heritage with African-Americans in cities such as New York. Music worthy of re-investigation and with strong cultural, political and social connections.

Tim Stenhouse

Stan Getz and João Gilberto ‘Getz and Gilberto ’76’ LP/CD (Resonance) 4/5

getz-gilberto-76This is music to put a smile on your face at a time of great uncertainty, fear and a questioning of the society in which we currently live. It tells of a bye gone era when people were far less reliant on technical gadgetry, when people were far more content with simple pleasures, and, as with all great music, it is timeless and possesses universal qualities.
A good decade after the bossa nova explosion, Stan Getz and Brazilian singer and guitarist João Gilberto briefly reformed to record and perform together. While not reaching the same dizzy heights as the early-mid 1960s recordings, these live performances from dates at the now defunct Keystone Korner in San Francisco from May 1976 nonetheless are very worthy in their own right and thankfully avoid the trap of repeating the same repertoire by interpreting a whole new song selection as well as a few selective choices from the classic bossa nova era.
A non-Brazilian rhythm section may be off-putting to some, but these are seasoned jazz musicians and perfectly competent accompanists for Getz and Gilberto. They include Joanne Brackeen on piano, Clint Houston on double bass and Billy Hart on drums, the latter of whom is particularly sensitive to those unique poly-rhythmic Brazilian rhythms, with roots that go way back to Africa. The classic Tom Jobim composition, ‘Agua de março’ receives a subtle reading from Gilberto and a fine parallel to the Elis Regina version that she recorded with the composer himself on piano from 1974, just two years previous. The Caymmi family are to Brazilian folk what the Watersons are to English folk and ‘Samba de minha terra’ here receives a sumptuous treatment. No less than Miles Davis once opined that João Gilberto could read a newspaper and still sound wonderful and that is praise indeed. Getz plays a largely supportive role, but his exquisite soloing is much in evidence on a lesser known number, ‘E preciso perdoar’ while the tenorist takes centre stage on ‘Eu vim de Bahia’. This was most certainly a relationship of equals and that makes the music all the more enjoyable. One of the all-time great bossa nova songs is reprised to stunning effect on ‘Chega de saudade’ and here Getz lays down a delicious solo with Hart in full flow on the hi-hat cymbals. A stunningly detailed and beautifully illustrated inner sleeve that is all but a mini book in name provides countless informative testimonies on the recordings.
Already a prime contender for Brazilian re-issue of the year, though bear in mind this is in fact the very first time that this music has been issued commercially.

Some reviewers have commented on the quality of the sound and, in comparison with the optimum studio sound of the 1960s originals of this pair, a live recording will necessarily not be . However, the voice of João Gilberto and his guitar is perfectly acceptable and possibly only the bass and drums are not as upfront and clear as one might hope for. The emotional tenor of Getz is immediately discernible and the following question to dissenters needs to be posed: would you rather not have this recording at all, or accept some minor imperfections? In a musical world full of re-mastered classics, we sometimes lose sight that music, like human beings, can still be beautiful because of their imperfections and not in spite of them.

Tim Stenhouse

Nonch Harpin’ ‘Native Sons’ (Private Press) 4/5

nonch-harpinDiscovering a great new band is always a thrill, especially when they write and perform new tunes with a fresh originality. And so let me introduce you to five musicians from Boonville in Northern California. Collectively known as Nonch Harpin’, the band name derives from ‘Boontiling’; a jargon spoken in that part of the world, which roughly translates as ‘dirty talk’. An apt name if ever there was one when you hear their music. Chinh Tran plays tenor and soprano sax, Shawn Ellis double bass, Andy Markham electric and acoustic guitars, Daniel Raynaud keyboards and piano, and Alan Spearot drums. Together they forge an incredibly unique sound, delivering jazz with a heavy dose of blues, funk, grunge and Americana. And it’s not just their exciting tunes and impeccable performances that deserve praise, it’s the band’s ‘sound’ that also stands out a mile. How rare is it these days that a band take the time to create an original feel to best deliver what they’re about? They obviously knew what they wanted and they found a way of achieving it. The band resolved that the means by which they recorded “Native Sons” needed to be as funky, rough-hewn and as DIY as the music itself. The first attempt, at the 150 year old Native Sons Hall in Pescadero, CA, fell a bit short of the mark, sonically. So they set about building a project studio in a barn on keyboardist Daniel Raynaud’s property. They created their own environment in which they had all the time and creative space to let fly. And somehow, the spirit of that initial attempt to record in an old rustic gathering hall had led them to the album’s name, and more importantly, their sound. I love this story, not just because it really does have relevance when you listen to the album, but also it reminds me of how well a ‘lo-fi’ sound can work for some bands. Think Neil Young’s “Tonight’s The Night” or any of his ‘cow shed’ recordings from the mid 70’s, or even the early albums of someone like ‘The Black Keys”. It works so well ’cause it’s just so right for the music. But as a jazz recording?… well yes! But then this is jazz entering the room by the backdoor, the dirty blues and funky grooves ricocheting off all four walls.

The quirkiness of the music on “Native Sons”, the band’s debut album, is also reflected in the choice of song titles. The session kicks off with the spirited “Mr Rocket Boots Celery Man”. Need I say more? This is a band enjoying themselves as Markham’s guitar riff soon enters new territory with no-nonsense drums and a developing funky groove that would get any old timer’s cowboy boots dancing. Some of the tunes work better than others, and for me there are a half a dozen absolutely brilliant stand-out tracks. These are where the band’s togetherness and wonderful writing really sparkles. The first of these is “Melody For a Woodland Cabana”. Tran’s soprano saxophone soars above a deep groove expertly laid down by Ellis’ double bass. The chord changes on the ‘chorus’ send a shiver down the spine. Thoughtful and inventive, “Lil Antonin Scala” begins with some great guitar harmonics before a cool bass riff leads us into full band showering the listener with a gorgeous melody, keys and sax intertwining and breaking out into rich, provocative solos. And then we have sheep. Why? Who cares? Welcome to “By The Way, Frances”, an awesome piece of groove-laid exuberance. You just cannot fail to love this- man it’s sooooo good! Markham and Tran are on fire, letting rip with pure unbridled enigmatic energy. There’s a nice change of pace on “Souphounds and Strays”, featuring some lovely, sensitive playing, especially from Markham’s acoustic guitar. The kick-ass drumming of Speakot throws down the gauntlet on “Brown Rice Is A Bummer”, with the band responding with equal passion. There’s not that much room for subtlety here, but on “A Forgotten Guitar” the quintet show they’re more than capable of making music that’s deeply moving and sensitive too. A long track, it gives each member of the band room to solo, with Markham sounding like a Bill Frisell/ Richard Thompson hybrid, Raynaud doing that Zawinul thing, and Tran providing a Lavano-like melody, it all makes for a memorable piece of music. And all in all, an excellent debut album.

My God how I would like to see this band live. Come on guys, get your passports out, get a plane, a boat, whatever, and visit us here in the UK. OK, so it rains a lot over here, but who cares, we’ll cook you breakfast, hire you a beat-up bus, and unleash you on the unsuspecting public. You’ll knock ’em for six. The warm beer awaits my friends…

Mike Gates

Teddy Pendergrass ‘Joy’ (BBR) 3/5

teddy-pendergrassPost Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, soul singer Teddy Pendergrass was catapulted to superstar status in the US with an acclaimed series of solo albums for Philly International. However, his career and life was seriously called into question with a life-changing car accident in the early 1980s which resulted in him being paralysed from waist down. A 1984 album marked a partial return to form and included a top 20 R & B single in ‘You’re my choice tonight’. In 1987 Teddy Pendergrass signed for another branch of the Warner family in Elektra and by this time the soul music industry was in a state of flux with machines replacing top studio musicians. Moreover, a new king on the throne was in full bloom, Luther Vandross.
The album ‘Joy’ was co-produced by some of the in-house producers of the day and included Miles Jaye who was a long-term fan of Teddy, Reggie and Vincent Calloway and hit make, Nick Martinelli, who had been producer on Loose Ends’ ‘Hangin on a string’, a major number one R & B hit in the States for a British band as well as a UK hit for Fat Larry’s Band with ‘Zoom’, and a classy re-working of ‘I’ll be around’ for Terri Wells.
In truth, Teddy Pendergrass is a shadow of his former self on this album and the production now sounds dated and overly glossy. That said, some of the old magic was not lost and both the title track and ‘2 A.M.’ were songs that stand the test of time well. Fans of this era of Teddy have a treat in store for them since among the bonus cuts are on less than three mixes of ‘2 A.M.’ and two of ‘Joy’. The title track would become a number one R & B success and there was a classic ballad for Teddy to master on ‘Good to you’. Where he fared less better was on the funk-tinged, ‘I’m ready’, where his older self might have risen to the challenge, the post-accident Teddy did not sound as convincing.

Tim Stenhouse

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes feat. Teddy Pendergrass ‘To Be True’ (BBR) 4/5

harold-melvin-blue-notesThe third album that Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes recorded, this finds the group in classic Philadelphia International territory with uptempo gems and classy ballads. Pride of place here is the second single that became a number one R & B and disco classic and that is ‘Bad luck’, which here is no less than an extended re-edit from Tom Moulton. This represents a fabulous bonus for the listener and the CD is worth purchasing for that alone. For once Moulton does not lengthen the intro, but instead allows the vocal to enter as on the original. However, he more than makes up with a middle section breakdown that then builds up the tension again with punchy brass and subtle vibes that are brought to the fore in thrilling fashion, and Teddy Pendergrass ad-libs on a truly uplifting gospel-tinged finale. This is quite simply an all-time disco classic.
Gene McFadden contributes three songs on the album and of these, the excellent mid-tempo dancer, ‘Where are all my friends?’ was the very first single to be released and features an especially strong vocal delivery from Pendergrass. In contrast Teddy is at his most intimate on, ‘Pretty flower’, that begins as a delicate ballad, but morphs part way through into a mid-tempo number with gospel inflections. Another song, ‘Nobody could take your place’, cannot make its mind up whether it wants to be a shuffling disco number, or a quality ballad, but listening to it veer in one direction and then the opposite is an entertaining few minutes. The album was noteworthy for the inclusion of a ballad duet with guest female vocalist and Sharon Page performs admirably with Teddy. A lovely wah-wah guitar plus percussion intro leads into a stunningly cool Philly International terrain, and this is a precursor of sorts to the soul two-stepper classic, ‘Two hearts’, from 1981 with Stephanie Mills.

Not quite on a par with ‘Black and Blue’, which had ‘The love I lost’ and ‘If you don’t need me by now’, but pretty fine for all that. Excellent photos and graphics of the various single releases and full marks to BBR for including the original liner notes as well as a detailed update on the album and career of the band from writer/journalist Christian John Wikane.

Tim Stenhouse

Danny Green Trio ‘Altered Narratives’ (OA2) 4/5

danny-green-trioSan Diago born composer/pianist Danny Green has been influenced by many styles of music over the years. From early adventures into grunge rock, listening and learning to play Nirvana tunes, through to studying and developing a passion for Latin Jazz, in particular guitarist/composer Guinga, and on to a deep love of 19th century European classical music, including Wagner, Mahler and Ravel. It is perhaps this rich tapestry of sound that has led him to take all these influences on board and develop his own style of writing and performing. What is quite striking about “Altered Narratives” is the freedom with which the musicians appear to approach things; this being largely a jazz trio album – and one of the finest I have heard this year. A string quartet features on three of the tracks mid-way through the album, and again the arrangements and performances are a pleasure to behold. Despite the pianist’s wide-ranging influences (or indeed, because of, I should actually say), this is very much a jazz album in the clearest of contexts; great writing, great musicianship, great vibe. Sounds simple, but it rarely is. The moods and grooves created are stimulating to the ear, with the pianist’s melodies and lyrical approach to music making ringing out in joyous fashion. There’s a wonderful feel to the whole session, and although jazz is at the core of it all, there are plenty of musical flavours that enrich the recording; blues, Latin, swing, classical and contemporary folk being just some that I would highlight. The tunes themselves are like short stories, with each and every tale branching off, sometimes sincere and in ernest, sometimes playful and adventurous, yet always with a consummate skill and passion.

“Altered Narratives” is Green’s fourth album release. Making up his trio are drummer Julien Cantelm and bassist Justin Grinnell. And it is in fact Grinnell’s bass riff that pulls the listener in on the opening track “Chatter From All Sides”, a deliciously bluesy number. The feel of the tune, and indeed, the riff itself, immediately reminded me of an old Hancock/Metheny/DeJohnette track from their surprisingly little-known scorcher of an album “Parallel Realities”. As with the vast majority of “Altered Narratives”, it is the skill of the drums and bass that add so much to this tune. And when Green plays the blues, the piano shimmers with a gorgeous, infectious life-giving resonance that rewards the listener with all of its depth and beauty. “The Merge” is a tune that is so full of lyrical spirit, it just flows effortlessly, textural and colourful in its themes, as if in pursuit of something that can never quite be found, searching, twisting, turning, The evocative “October Ballad” embodies the pianist’s gift for crafting emotionally evocative motifs. Inspiration often comes from many directions, and the late night gin joint reverie of “I used to hate the blues” came out of a concert Green participated in, along with Southern Californian jazz scene officianados the brothers Sprague, where everyone agreed to bring in tunes pertaining to the theme “Things I love that I used to hate”. The three tunes at the centre of the album offer up a change of style somewhat. Whilst on some levels one could argue they seem a little out-of-place in the context of the album as a whole, the strings add a different dimension, and are arranged and performed in such a skillful way that one can’t argue with the quality of the resulting pieces of music. The most intricate and beautifully unsettling of these tunes, “Katabasis”, takes its name from a Greek literary term that can refer to visiting the underworld. From the darkness there is light, visionary and real. There’s plenty more riveting and exploratory trioism yet to be heard though, with the threesome on fine form, intelligent, intuitive and inspirational. And then it’s back to the blues that the pianist clearly now loves, for the closing track “Serious Fun”, a kind of bar-room boogie meets manically depressed effervescent and over-the-top party clown…kind of tune.

Danny Green and co. deserve recognition for this album. A proper trio, making great music together. The development of Green as a writer and performer is perhaps explained best by the man himself; “I have always been the type to immerse myself in one genre of music, artist or composer for months to years at a time. From Nirvana, ska, and Latin Jazz, to Brazilian music, straight ahead jazz and Wagner operas, all these different musical phases that I went through helped shape who I am as a pianist and composer”. May your journey continue on Mr Green. I look forward to hearing the musical delights you create in the future.

Mike Gates

Daniele Morelli ‘Misión Azul’ (Private Press) 3/5

daniele-morelliItalian guitarist Daniele Morelli provides a breath of fresh air on “Misión Azul”; a gentle mix of Western European and South American jazz flavours. Composed and arranged by Morelli, the guitarist recorded this album along with a band of musicians from Mexico, El Salvador, Panama and Chile. The combination of these cultures gives rise to a lovely sounding album, where subtlety and grace win the day. Born in Tuscany, Morelli is a well-travelled musician who clearly brings out some fine moments, musically speaking, from the places he has visited. Initially Morelli focussed on the blues, his jazz chops following later. He participated in the Atmaniam orchestra, playing world music, especially that of Africa, India and Turkey, before later joining several projects playing blues and gypsy music. Moving to France, he entered the Conservatory National de Lyon, studying jazz guitar. He currently lives between Amsterdam, Brussels and Mexico, performing with various jazz groups. There’s a cool, laid-back feel to his playing that suggests a willingness to take on board the many influences from his journeying and learning.
“Misión Azul” is inspired by, and dedicated to Mexico. The title track sums up the mood well, where a subtle and clean guitar is soon met with South American percussion, before the tune develops nicely with the melody provided by a light and airy tenor saxophone. Throughout the album the guitar and sax take turns to create melody with a lyrical puissance, often interchanging, yet happily never vying for attention. “Chiapas e Nuvole (1)” enjoys a joyous sense of hospitality; imagine taking a seat in a street cafe on a warm sunny day, with a cool drink and the subtle colours and textures of a jazz quartet drifting in on a gentle breeze… Morelli has a knack of letting the music gradually gain your attention in a sweet way, never abrasive of asking for attention, just…there. Technically and emotionally at home with the music he writes and performs, “Regreso Lacando” beggins with a short guitar intro, with the tune developing into the kind of sound one would imagine hearing as the distant sun goes down, disappearing behind the mountains. If I had to pick a favourite track from this album, it would be “Popo c atepetl”. There’s such a cool vibe to this tune, partly created by the groove of the bass and drums, with the percussion swimming nicely in and out of the river of musicality. But it is the sax, and especially Morelli’s wonderful guitar that sing out on this tune. Think late night jazz club in a Mexican setting, where most of the crowd have dispersed, and the indigenous people sit around drinking and chatting, enjoying the luscious sounds drifting in the air.

There are a few changes of pace along the way, with some welcome piano on the odd tune mixing things up a bit, but overall it’s a fairly easy listening album, not that there’s anything wrong in that at all. The only challenge here is finding a sunny spot to sit and listen, undisturbed, where I can enjoy the music whilst watching the world go by.

Mike Gates

Logan Richardson ‘Shift’ CD/DIG (Blue Note) 4/5

logan-richardsonBorn in Kansas City, Richardson left at 19 to study at the Berklee College of Music before moving to the New School in New York, an establishment with a strong reputation having developed the talents of Robert Glasper, Brad Mehldau, Bilal, Florian Pellissier and Marcus Strickland, to name but a few. Since graduating Richardson has performed as both leader, with his group Shift, and sideman, with the likes of the drummer Nasheet Waits and pianist Jason Moran. Both of these return the favour on this, Richardson’s third album.
Jason Moran’s participation alone is probably enough to garner significant interest amongst the jazz fraternity, but Pat Metheny’s involvement ensures that this reaches a broad audience.
Pat’s brother Mike introduced the pair to each other; when Richardson first tentatively posited the idea of collaboration it was with the hope that Metheny might appear on a few tracks. However, his enthusiasm for the project was such that he wanted to be part of the whole process rather than just a musician for hire.
Having such established players, jazz royalty in the case of Metheny, on board can have its pro’s and cons, but it’s to their credit that all are involved from start to finish, bringing as it does a cohesive musical vision.

The release was originally due to come out last year on Concord Jazz, the label Richardson was signed to at the time, but when that relationship ended the album was brought to Blue Note, originally getting a release in Japan in September 2015 before worldwide distribution this year.

So does Richardson cut it in such exalted company? Overall I think so. First up he is confident enough in his narratives to allow these more established names to express themselves within the group context. Most of the compositions build around a melodic theme that is expanded upon through a mixture of soloing, call and response, simultaneous playing or supportive accompaniment. Richardson and Metheny’s individual styles compliment each other well. For me, Richardson’s sound mirrors that of a guitar at times, with lots of long notes, emphasized by a little echo here and there. Both have an emotive, intense expression about them, particularly during expansive solos such as on tracks like “Mind Free” and “Slow”. The former stands out for me as the highlight of the album.

The one track Richardson did not write is “Locked out of Heaven”, a Bruno Mars song. Richardson’s mournful saxophone replaces Mars’ vocals, surrounded by plenty of effects and reverb. The tune isn’t instantly recognisable until the chorus and once you get the reference it’s a bit like playing a single at 33 1/3 instead of 44 RPM. The impact is to take an upbeat, up-tempo pop song and create a dense, epic piece jazz-rock.

I don’t get the point of the two short pieces, “When I wake” and “In between”, other than as respites between some fairly forceful playing, but this is a minor criticism.

Blue Note is building a notable roster of progressive talents together with the more established names. Only time will tell whether this album is seen as an adjunct to the extensive Metheny canon or the starting point of Richardson’s notable body of work, but in the here and now there is plenty to enjoy on “Shift”.

Andy Hazell

Esther Phillips ‘Original Album Series’ 5 CD Box Set (Warner/Rhino) 5/5

esther-phillipsBorn in Galveston, Texas, Esther Phillips was something of a child prodigy, known as little Esther, and began performing aged just thirteen as part of the Johnny Otis band. Indeed, she recorded a single as early as 1949, covering a Dinah Washington song and the latter is clearly the voice that most influenced Phillips’ own distinctive delivery. It would be six years before Esther Phillips eventually split up and the transformation form the teenager into the fully matured woman singer would become reality when she signed to Atlantic records in the 1960s and this would mark a crucial phase in her career.
This superb value for money box set groups together her Atlantic albums and is the ideal introduction for fans who only know her Kudu period that culminated in the seminal, ‘From a whisper to a scream’, album from the mid-1970s. Chronologically, the album contained within date between 1964 and 1970, though in the case of ‘Confessin’ the blues’, this was issued for the first time once Phillips had enjoyed success with the Kudu albums.
A stunning live recording, ‘Burnin’. Live at Freddie Jett’s Pied Piper Club, L.A.’ captures Esther with a crack line-up of musicians who at the time were playing behind Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. They included guitarist Cornell Dupree, tenorist King Curtis, trumpeter Joe Newman, fender bassist Chuck Rainey, while among others drummer Donald Bailey had been a long-time member of Jimmy Smith while Richard Tee was a respected keyboardist who shares duties on hammond organ with Paul Griffin. The whole album cooks from beginning to end and is a lovely balanced mix of R & B such as an interpretation of Aretha’s ‘Don’t let me lose this dream’ and even Lennon and McCartney’s ‘And I love her’ with some choice jazz covers. The back cover of the album is designed like separate articles from a faux newspaper page.

What is even more of a treat for the listener is that a much later album, ‘Confessin’ the blues’ has the second side devoted entirely to additional numbers from the live L.A. concert. However, side one of studio recordings is outstanding with big band jazzy accompaniment and Dinah Washington-esque vocals as illustrated to perfection on, ‘I’m getting ‘long alright’, an intimate guitar and vocal duet with guitarist François Vaz on while the title track is a storming uptempo piece with a lovely piano solo from Rodgers Grant who around the same period was part of Latin jazz percussionist, Mongo Santamaria’s group.

In several respects, Esther Phillips personal life played out in a similar way to that of Amy Winehouse decades later and the former’s addiction to heroine resulted in her being dropped by Atlantic. In Phillips’ case, however, she went into rehab and succeeded in kicking the habit sufficiently to re-join the label in 1969 and record the live album already referred to. One album worthy of attention bombed at the time, but in retrospect was a harbinger of things to come. The title, ‘The country side of Esther Phillips’, says it all and at the time the pairing of a black female singer in an
R &B/jazz idiom with country music may have appeared strange. Now viewed with the fullness of time, the combination of country with soul/blues seems an obvious complementary one and not all a pairing of polar opposites as perceived at the time.
In a jazzier vein, ‘Esther Phillips Sings’, was co-arranged by Oliver Nelson and Ray Ellis and was a clear indication that Atlantic were trying the singer out in different musical environments in much the same way that Columbia did not know how to
situate Aretha Franklin in a single musical genre before Jerry Wexler came in and signed her to Atlantic.

With a plethora of biographical and discographical information on the back covers, once again the microscopic print required a magnifying glass, but there is plenty of useful historical detail for all that. As useful as this box set unquestionably is, the reader/listener will ideally want to supplement it with a single budget CD anthology, ‘The Atlantic Years’ (Warner/Rhino) and going the extra mile with this means you have some of the classy singles that are not included on the box set.

Tim Stenhouse

Renee Rosnes ‘Written in the Rocks’ (Smoke Sessions) 4/5

renee-rosnesCanadian pianist Renee Rosnes emerged at the very end of the 1980s when the hard bop revival was in full swing as one of the leading new talents on the piano scene and recorded early 1990s albums for the prestigious Blue Note label that featured Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. Now a fully matured musician, Rosnes has recorded a new set of all-original compositions and the album as a whole is inspired by her love of the natural beauty of the topography of West Canada where she grew up in proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Surrounded by a stellar line-up of some of New York’s finest session musicians, including Peter Washington on bass, Bill Stewart on drums, Steve Nelson on vibraphone and Steve Wilson alternating between flute, alto and soprano saxophones, this is a highly enjoyable recording that recalls the great collaborations between McCoy Tyner and Bobby Hutcherson. Indeed both Tyner and Herbie Hancock remain seminal influences on the playing of Rosnes, although her composing talent has flourished in recent years and this new album, with an extended seven piece suite, ‘The Galapagos Suite’, indicates that Rosnes is a keen student of the suite work of Duke Ellington as well as the post-bop excursions of John Coltrane in ‘A love supreme’.

The music is at its most evocative on numbers such as the main piece to the suite, ‘Galapagos’, with a flute-led intro and modal vamps from Rosnes, and underpinning it all a subtle Latin jazz undercurrent. Equally impressive is the gentle waltz, ‘Lucy from afar’, where the delicate combination of vibes and piano combine beautifully and is exactly the kind of composition that Bobby Hutcherson might have recorded during his mid-1960s tenure for Blue Note. Elsewhere more contemporary influences are discernible as on the piece, ‘Cambrian explosion’, which betrays a love of Steps Ahead and Weather Report in its phrasing.
On a more reflective note, Rosnes and the trio excel on ‘From here to a star’, with Wilson out of proceedings while the cohesive nature of the rhythm section is showcased on the delightful ballad, ‘So simple a beginning’.

Renee Rosnes’ career is typical of those musicians now in their fifties who were embraced by the major labels in the 1990s boom, then unceremoniously dumped when commercial sales did not match the critical plaudits. The truth of the matter is that the pianist is now recording some of the finest music of her career and now has a panoramic vision of her craft. The listener is very much the beneficiary of this greater wisdom.

Tim Stenhouse