Various ‘God Don’t Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson’ (Alligator) 4/5

blind-willie-johnsonBlues singer-songwriter and guitarist laid down thirty songs for the then fledgling Columbia label between 1927 and 1930 and in the process created blues musical history. It is this legacy that is the cause of celebration on this tribute by a wide-ranging cast of musicians, all of whom have felt compelled to pay homage. Such is Johnson’s stature among musicians that his songs have previously been covered by no less than Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Led Zepplin.
Lucinda Williams shines on the roster of singers contributing and this is not so much a revelation as a re-affirmation of what she does best and a return to her earliest folk-blues recordings. Williams excels on the title track with an echo-induced voice and instrumentation that enters gradually. The time is surely ripe for an entire album of recordings in this vein from the singer and she follows this up with a rousing take on ‘It’s nobody’s fault but mine’ with wailing vocals that conjure up a dervish-like trance. The unbridled enthusiasm is most certainly infectious and there is fine accompaniment from slide guitar and a thumping drum beat. In a decidedly rootsier vein, this writer immediately took to the old-time sound of Luther Dickinson who leads on vocals and slide guitar with the Rising Star fife and drum band on the catchiest of melodies, interpreting, ‘Bye and bye. I’m gonna see the King’. A fine duet of distinction is to be found on ‘Keep your lamp trimmed and burning’ from Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, arguably contemporary blues’ finest current pairing. Tedeschi’s smoky sounding vocals and wonderful guitar accompaniment keeps this reading of the song constantly on edge and is all the more enjoyable for it.

Arguably, the most anticipated of the interpretations are the two offerings by Tom Waits and while he warbles somewhat incoherently through the opener, ‘Soul of a man’, the second song, ‘John the Revelator’, finds him in more comfortable territory and his idiosyncratic delivery works rather well. For some authentic gospel hues, the Blind Boys of Alabama take some beating and the heart warming lyrics and smooth harmonies combine to stunning effect on, ‘Mother’s children have a hard time’. Not everything is as successful. The throaty vocals of the Cowboy Junkies seem a little out-of-place whereas the contemporary beats and breathy vocals of Sinead O’Connor place the classic repertoire in a twenty-first century setting.

Exemplary sleeve notes and packaging that convey something of the flavour of the original masterpieces.

Tim Stenhouse

Machito Y Sus Afro Cubanos ‘Tanga -The King of Afro Cuban Jazz’ (ÉL) 4/5

machitoFrank Grillo aka Machito is one of the founding fathers of what we now call Afro-Cuban jazz (or it’s more generic title of Latin jazz, though in terms of the actual style Afro-Cuban jazz is more appropriate). This CD, while never aiming to be a complete or even definitive account of the music, nonetheless provides a necessary and extremely useful overview of the roots of Afro-Cuban jazz from the late 1940s through to end of the mambo dancefloor era in the early 1960s (the mighty Palladium dancefloor in New York had closed altogether by 1966), cherry picking some of the essential moments. One of these is unquestionably the extended suite that trumpeter and brother-in-law of Machito, Mario Bauzá composed, namely ‘Tanga’. This was a true fusion of jazz and Cuban music, and, from somewhat awkward beginnings in the early-mid 1940s, jazz and Latin musicians would gradually study each other’s music intently and consequently come to a greater understanding of what was required to bring them closer together. A four piece Latin rhythm section combines beautifully with five non-Latino reed musicians including Flip Philips on tenor saxophone and Bobby Woodlen on trumpet and the rest is history. Radio stations have recently picked up on the Chico O’Farrill penned, ‘Vaya! Vaya! (Vaya Nina)’ and this is a fine example of the genre. Many of the sides found here were originally released on 10″ vinyl and that was the case of the classic ‘Freezelandia’, once again under the tutelage of Chico O’Farrill’s expert arranging talents. A seminal Latin jazz album where some of the very greatest jazz reedmen featured was ‘Kenya’ from 1957 and three pieces have been selected here. Alongside one of the greatest ever rhythm sections that included Candido Camero, Carlos ‘Potato’ Valdes, José Mangual Sr. and Ubaldo Nieto, jazz musicians of the calibre of Cannonball Adderley, ‘Doc’ Cheatham and Joe Newman let rip on the appropriately titled uptempo number, ‘Frenzy’. A pared down line-up, this time with Herbie Mann on flute, Johnny Griffin on tenor and Curtis Fuller on trombone, would return the compliment just a year later on ‘Brazilian soft shoe’, from another essential album entitled, ‘With flute to boot’ aka ‘Afro-Jazziac’.

By 1950 jazz musicians were more comfortable performing Afro-Cuban jazz and once again Chico O’Farrill’s masterly arrangements led to another key recording on Norman Granz’s Verve label, ‘The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite’, this time with Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison and Charlie Parker among the alumni and the various moods created within are no less than a master class in the evolution of Latin jazz and expertly delivered. Elsewhere the Tico albums of Machito are briefly showcased, as on the excellent 1956 album, ‘Asia Minor’, and the title track is but one example on this compilation of the exotic eastern-derived themes. Another illustration of this is ‘Oboe mambo’ from 1951. One has to bear in mind that in the immediate post-WWII period, after such deprivation and suffering, the general population was in search of entertainment that would take their minds temporarily off their current struggles and the mambo dance craze partially filled this gap in their lives admirably.

In order to fully comprehend the roots of Afro-Cuban jazz, one would need to supplement this release with the Verve double CD ‘Cuban Blues: The Chico O’Farrill (the arranger and band leader arrived in New York from Havana during the 1940s where remained thereafter) sessions’ as well as other albums hitherto referred to, but as a starter this is an ideal place to begin and, as ever, with El/Cherry Red releases, unbeatable value. Excellent black and white photos and full line-up information.

Tim Stenhouse

Rich Brown ‘Abeng’ CD/DIG (Private Press) 3/5

rich-brownRich Brown is a Bass player from Canada who has played with the likes of Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Coleman and Angelique Kidjo. His two previous albums have flown under the radar somewhat. This album has been self-released, albeit that part of the finance has come from crowd funding, an increasingly popular resource as the bank balances of record labels shrink.
Abeng is the name of the album and the group. The name comes from an animal’s horn used by escaped slaves (maroons) in the West Indies as a musical instrument and a means of signaling. It resonates of Brown’s heritage and musical intent.
The group is made up of fellow Canadians, Luiz Deniz (Alto Sax), Kevin Turcotte (Trumpet), Kelly Jefferson (Tenor Sax), Chris Donnelly and Robi Botos (piano and Fender Rhodes), sometime Snarky Puppy Larnell Lewis (drums) and Rosendo “Chendy” Leon (percussion).
Stylistically the music on offer is Jazz Fusion, before that term got confused with smooth jazz, with some progressive influences. On the evidence of this album Brown’s style is more Jaco Pastorius than Marcus Miller, neither of which is a bad thing.

The opener “Mashishmatish” (named after one of the album’s executive producers) starts fittingly enough with the cry of the horn, hitting its groove as the tempo hits frenetic and the saxes really open up. Melody and groove are also firing for “Window Seat” this time with Alto Sax and Fender Rhodes. Throughout Luiz Deniz’s sax playing is first-rate, wonderfully articulate and melodious.

The title track is deliberately subdued, evocative of the Abeng’s origins amongst the slave communities of the West Indies. The starkness of “Chant of the Exiled” is is in contrast to the gentle, melodic “Promessa”, a likeable ballad in the Robert Glasper mould. This is one of the few tracks that features an extended bass solo and gives Brown a chance to be more expressive.

“This Lotus Ascension” does as it says on the tin, slowly building to a rolling crescendo of flailing drums and sax before pausing for air and rolling out wistfully.

The last tune, “Achilles & the Tortoise”, is probably my favourite combining all the elements that make this album work.

The album has grown on me the more I have listened to it, although I’ve not quite been able to shake my initial reservations. The main reason for this is that at times I find the bass, and the drums to a degree, to be a little too prominent, overwhelming my senses. That said there are plenty of good tunes on offer so if rhythm is your thing then fill your boots.

Andy Hazell