Johnny Hunter Quartet ‘While We Still Can’ (Epfi) 4/5

johnny-hunter-quartetManchester based drummer and composer Johnny Hunter formed his quartet in 2011, handpicking Ben Watte (tenor saxophone), Graham South (trumpet) and Stewart Wilson (bass) from Manchester’s burgeoning contemporary jazz scene. The quartet released the EP “Appropriations” (Epfi) in 2013, and now this, their full debut album, sees the band build on the initial concept of that recording, collectively exploring the possibilities and challenges afforded by the absence of a harmony instrument. In this particular setting, one would normally expect to hear piano as the harmony instrument, therein making it your tried and tested jazz quintet. To my mind, this approach can work incredibly well, but it is often dependent on two things; firstly, the listener needs to be prepared to engage with the music, listening carefully and being open to what the musicians are doing. Secondly, the success (or failure) of the music itself relies far more upon the quality, understanding, and intuitiveness of the musicians performing it. And when those two factors are in place, it can create a startlingly engrossing atmosphere, taking the listener on a quite wonderful journey. And this is exactly what we have on “While We Still Can”, with Hunter’s chosen line-up of musicians taking a richly sympathetic approach. The front-line tenor sax and trumpet combines to form harmonious melodies before breaking apart to solo as either a lone instrument, or together with drums or bass, to create layers of tension and intrigue. As well as standing out individually, the four players work incredibly well collectively, a consequence of countless gigs together as members of various groups over a number of years. Band-leader Hunter is comfortable in any number of settings, having worked with the likes of Nat Birchall, Adam Fairhall, Cath Roberts’ Sloth Racket, Mick Beck, Blind Monk Trio and Dub Jazz Soundsystem. He leads his own quartet with confidence and style, unafraid to explore challenging concepts and fresh ideas.

The session opens with the fiercely swinging “Overture”. This acts as an introduction to the themes of the recording and to the musicians involved. There’s a distinct Middle-Eastern flavour which runs through the whole album, as Hunter explains; “For a while I’ve been fascinated by the music of the Middle East and have found many similarities with contemporary jazz – with this album I wanted to explore some of the traits which draw me to it. I combined rhythms such as the Turkish Laz (7/8) or Karsilama (9/8) – odd time signatures split into groupings of twos and threes – and the idea of tetra chords/Arabic maqam which are groupings of four notes, taking the approach of ‘here’s the theme, now let it go’, with very little predetermined structure for the solos to follow.” This really is the album’s key signature as the quartet blend East-West musical influences to create a uniquely intriguing sound. Stewart Wilson provides a sumptuous and thoughtful bass intro, leading into “Ayca”, a tune named after the composer’s old friend from Turkey who happened to get in touch during the writing of the tune. “Misty’s Tail” is a homage to Hunter’s girlfriend’s 19-year-old family cat and explores the common Turkish Karsilama rhythm. “While You Still Can”, the title track, is based on a different mode of the harmonic major scale, and contains a hidden Billy Strayhorn reference in the second half of the piece. “Clockwork-Shy” is an obvious pun, whilst “Sum Dim” is a sister tune to “Five Stories High”, a track that appeared on the band’s “Appropriations” EP. The closing track “Reprise” is a haunting piece of music, featuring a textural bass solo over very minimal backing and is based on melodies heard throughout the course of the album. It also hints towards Hunter’s plans for the next phase of the quartet’s evolution; a very enticing prospect.

“While We Still Can” is adventurous and engrossing. The performances from all of the musicians are first-rate, with some incredible soloing from both Ben Watte and Graham South. At times it really is spellbinding. The thing that stands out most to me is how the band have successfully integrated Hunter’s themes and ideas, making for a collectively inspiring album. And the beauty is, it sounds like there’s more to come.

The band will be performing two album launch concerts to celebrate the release of the recording: 25th June 2016 at Kings Place, London (Epfi Festival), and 25th July 2016 as part of Manchester Jazz Festival. My advice would be to catch this quartet while you can, I would imagine they’ll be awesome in a live setting.

Mike Gates

Sarathy Korwar ‘Day To Day’ LP/CD/DIG (Ninja Tune / Steve Reid Foundation) 5/5

sarathy-korwarChanges in the music industry over the past decade or so have been significant and rapid. Digital distribution is now more popular than the physical product. Industry revenues have dropped dramatically and whilst these have recently rallied thanks to the popularity of streaming, they are at much lower levels than before.
These shifts have led musicians to explore new business models, such as DIY recording and the increasing use of the Internet not only as a means of distribution, but as a marketing tool and a source of financial backing.
Another means of support was made available to Sarathy Korwar when he became one of five artists to receive the inaugural InNOVAtion Award from the Steve Reid Foundation in 2015. The charity, founded by Gilles Peterson to serve as a legacy to the jazz drummer, has two main goals: to assist artists in difficulty, and support new talent. The Award provided Korwar with the additional financial backing required to complete the album, as well as expert mentoring from the charity’s trustees: the likes of Four Tet, Emanative, Floating Points, Koreless and Peterson.
Korwar was born in the US, but moved to India before completing his studies in London, where he is now based. Initially he has trained as a tabla player, but an interest in Jazz led him to study Jazz drumming and from there to explore how classical Indian percussion techniques could be applied to non-Indian instruments. Whilst in London, Korwar has performed with classical Indian musicians and from the jazz world – Shabaka Hutchings, Karl Berger, Cara Stacey and Arun Ghosh. This cosmopolitan background and cross-referencing of different traditions is manifest in “Day To Day”, Korwar’s truly captivating debut.

His music is an enthralling blend of Indian folk music, jazz and 21st century production, within the world fusion tradition of Don Cherry or Bengt Berger or more contemporary artists like Mala or Chassol. At its heart is the music of the Sidi community, an ethnic group in India and Pakistan that can trace their roots back to East Africa. Korwar recorded the Sidi Troupe of Ratanpur whilst on a trip to India and their vocals and percussion form the genesis around which the compositional and creative processes emerge. The studio-based musicians take their inspiration from these field recordings responding to or developing themes around them.

Korwar has surrounded himself with kindred spirits, Shabaka Hutchings on sax and members of the Kefaya Collective – Guiliano Modarelli (guitar), Al McSween (keys) and Domenico Angarano (bass).

The results are wonderfully rich in texture and tone. At times the mood is quite minimal, ambient even. Tracks like “Dreaming” and “Lost Parade” create subtle immersive soundscapes with sparse melodic content.

Elsewhere the sound is progressive and more energised, such as “Bhajan” of “Indefinite Leave to Remain”, compositions that build and expand from repetitive chords.

Even within an album as strong as this two tracks stand out. I doubt whether I will hear anything as beautiful as “Karam’ for the rest of this year. Guiliano Modarelli’s guitar playing is exquisite; intimate and joyful in equal measure, with Indian as well as Spanish flamenco influences, over Angarano’s bass purring softly in the background. When the sampled voice comes in it’s passion perfectly matches the emotional tone.

The opening chants of “Bismillah” are reminiscent of an African-American spiritual’s call and response, with Hutchings extemporising in the fills. Slowly the track shifts through the gears, with ever more urgent solos from sax and keys to a point of ecstatic rapture.

The release, a joint venture between the Steve Reid Foundation and Ninja Tune, is a great starting point for Korwar and really stands out from the crowd. More please…

Andy Hazell

Bill Evans ‘Some Other Time – The Lost Session from the Black Forest’ 2CD (Resonance) 5/5

The late 1960s proved to be a creative period for Bill Evans who took time to recover from the devastating loss of bassist Scott La Faro in his classic piano trio with Paul Motian. A stunning live performance at Montreux Jazz Festival was the harbinger of a new period in Evans’ career with Mexican Eddie Gomez a fine replacement for La Faro who was a gifted enough individual to be assessed on his own merits. However, what the listener and even aficionado could not have taken into consideration is that Bill Evans recorded a series of trio, duet and occasional solo recordings in Bavaria for the MPS label that were never originally released. They contain examples of Evans’ in superlative form, re-exploring both the American songbook and breathing new life into his own compositions. In some cases, the same pieces are interpreted in duo and trio formats and being able to hear these sides for the very first time in optimum quality sound is little short of a gift from heaven.

Accompanying Evans in this endeavour are bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack de Johnette and it is the participation of the latter that will raise a few eyebrows among Evans cognoscenti. not least because of the drummer’s subsequent lengthy tenure with the Keith Jarrett piano trio. Listeners can marvel at the duo and trio versions of, ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’, with the gentler duet interpretation building in intensity and Evans at his most delicate. Of Evans own pieces, ‘Turn out the stars’ has proven to be an evergreen composition and this gorgeous rendition does little to diminish one’s appreciation. Elsewhere, both Evans and Gomez engage in fine interplay on ‘I’ll remember April’, with the bassist prominent. The varying of tempi within a given piece is a constant attraction and illustrated to perfection on ‘Green Dolphin Street’ that starts slowly and develops into an infectious mid-tempo number.

As one might expect from previous Resonance re-issues, no stone has been left unturned in the attention to detail with a sumptuous inner sleeve that contains informative interviews with de Johnette and Gomez, and an incisive historical overview from Marc Myers. An outstanding release that immediately has to be counted among Bill Evans finest output from the 1960s.

Tim Stenhouse

Julien Alour Quintet ‘Cosmic Dance’ CD/DIG (Gaya Music Productions) 3/5

julien-alour-quintetHere is yet more evidence, alongside the likes of Ibrahim Maalouf, Florian Pellissier, Géraud Portal/Etienne Déconfin and Benjamin Faugloire, that whilst the current French jazz scene may not be littered with big name stars it runs deep with burgeoning talent.
“Cosmic Dance” is the second album from French trumpet/flugelhorn player, composer and bandleader Julien Alour and his Quintet. Their first, “W.I.L.L.I.W.A.W”, was released in 2014 and earned Alour recognition as the French breakthrough artist of that year by radio station TSF Jazz.
Born in Quimper, Brittany, Alour followed his older sister, Sophie to Paris to study music, firstly with the Belmondo brothers, Lionel and Stéphane, at the Institut for Artistic & Cultural Perception and then on to the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Music et Danse de Paris, from which he graduated in 2008. During this time Alour gained experience and craft playing with the likes of organist Rhoda Scott, pianist Eric Legnini, the aforementioned Belmondo brothers and drummer Tony Allen.
The Quintet, which has not changed in personnel since their first album, is led by Alour on trumpet and flugelhorn with François Théberge on tenor saxophone, Adrien Chicot on piano, Sylvain Romano on bass and Jean-Pierre Arnaud on drums. Aside from this group, the members also perform together on other projects and this shared understanding and inter-relationship is apparent in their playing.

Musically “Cosmic Dance” carries on where “W.I.L.L.I.W.A.W” left off. Their sound is energetic with a drive reminiscent of The Jazz Messengers or, more recently, Soil and Pimp Sessions or Quasimode. OK, maybe without the intensity and brashness of Soil and Pimp Sessions, but they do capture a lot of their dynamic fluidity. Supported by a tight rhythm section the main focus is on the dialogue between Alour and Théberge, whether in close harmony or juxtaposed as improvised solos. In the main Théberge’s role is that of the supportive partner, adding emphasis and depth to Alour’s narrative. Alour’s playing is not dissimilar in style to Tom Harrell, its rich in melody and texture, purposeful in tone without pressing too hard.

Overall I found “Cosmic Dance” to be entertaining without being spectacular. Favourites include tracks like “Super Lateef”, charged with hard bop vigour; a tour de force from Adrien Chicot, who not only drives the rhythm, adds colour in the fills and, if that were not enough, finds time to snap up a cameo solo, or “Black Hole in D”, which has some retro flair about it and really swings.

Although there are no ballads, slower tunes like “Solstice” and “Eternel” are a welcome contrast with gentle, seductive melodies. “Big Bang” is arranged around a bass line lifted from the smokiest, dingiest 1950’s jazz club, with some nice improvisation from Chicot. The album ends with the only cover, a pleasant version of Thelonius Monk’s “Think of One”.

On a final note I should highlight the label behind this album, the Gaya Music imprint, set up by saxophonist Samy Thiébault in 2009. In this relatively short space in time the label have released a number of notable albums (from the likes of Jeremy Hababou, Géraud Portal/Etienne Déconfin and Thiébault himself) and are definitely ones to watch.

Andy Hazell

The Trammps ‘The Trammps III’ Expanded Edition (BBR) 4/5

the-trammps1977 was a prolific year for the soulful disco group the Trammps and they recorded two albums that practically defined the disco era. It is the second of these that is contained within and expertly remixed by Tom Moulton who had a close association with this group’s output. The music has the Philly International stamp all over it with the substantial instrumental accompaniment of MFSB/Salsoul Orchestra and the glorious harmonies of The Trammps allied with those distinctive lead vocals of Jimmy Ellis do the rest. Extended dance floor grooves are really what this album is about and ‘The night the lights went out’ is a worthy successor to ‘Disco Inferno’ that graced the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack. in this case, the energetic dance number reflects some of the atmosphere that reigned as a riposte of sorts to the adverse social conditions affecting New York City at the time with a total black out on the streets. Equally stunning, though, is the epic nine and a half minute opus to dance in ‘Love per hour’ penned by Leroy Greene and Ron Kersey, who also wrote ‘Disco Inferno’, and the combination of sublime collective harmonies and Isley Brothers-style lead guitar makes for a classic disco number. A third dance floor winner comes in the form of, ‘People of the world, rise’, with lengthy intro and dramatic strings and a thumping bass line that simply will not relent, and another nine minute plus slice of fever pitch action.

However, the Trammps were a class act who could vary their repertoire and the mid-tempo flute and strings-led, ‘I’m so glad you came along’, is concise, yet still packs a catchy hook with Ellis’ impassioned vocals to win the day. Two bonus cuts include shorter 45 version of ‘The night the lights went out’, and a second single, ‘Seasons for girls’, a song that is more laid back in character. It is left to the moody, ‘Living the life’, to round matters off in a deeply soulful vein, the kind of song that either the O’Jays or the Temptations in their prime might have conjured up. A fine illustration of the soulful side of the disco idiom and one that stands the test of time remarkably well.

Tim Stenhouse

Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra ‘A.H.E.O’ CD/LP/Dig (Glitterbeat) 4/5

afro-haitian-experimental-orchestraHaiti has a special place in the historical roots of the African diaspora and this manifested itself in the retaining of African musical roots, combined with regional influences in the Caribbean. This pioneering release, inspired by the director of the French Institute on the island of Haiti, Corinne Micaelli, and with guitarist Mark Mulholland, leader of the musical side of the project, aims to bring together acoustic roots, psychedelic guitar and electronica keyboards in a heady mix that on the whole works extremely well. it comes across as an updated take on Salif Keita’s memorable ‘Soro’ album where modern western instrumentation and African voicings fused in perfect harmony and while the vocals are not nearly as distinctive here, the use of instrumentation is both creative and convincing.
There is certainly an authenticity to the heavy African beats with layers of synths on ‘Bade Zile’, which takes a leaf out of the classic William Onyeabor albums with lovely chopped rhythm guitar riffs. Of course having master Afro-Beat drummer Tony Allen on hand ensures a constantly propelling rhythm section and so it proves on the stunning build up of tension and release on ‘Yanvalou’ with collective chants and a compelling bass line.African instrumentation in the form of what sounds like the marimba is a feature of ‘Pa Bat Kow’, which has a male rap part-way through and female-led vocals. This writer warmed to the rawness of the recording sound with an Afro-Beat undercurrent on a piece such as ‘Wongola’, complete with bass line intro and male chanting.

Only on the rock-dominated guitar number, ‘Chay la Lou’, does the music become a tad tuneless. Ideally, the album could do with a few more leisurely paced numbers and it is left to the final track, ‘Mon ami Tezin’, to demonstrate that melodic guitar and keyboards allied with sensitive percussive accompaniment can still make for thrilling music.

Tim Stenhouse

Luis Perdomo ‘Spirits and Warriors’ (Criss Cross Jazz) 4/5

luis-perdomoWhen Criss Cross proprietor Gerry Teekens offered pianist Luis Perdomo his fourth band-leader date for the label, the 45 year old, Caracas born pianist accepted without hesitation. “I wasn’t planning on doing this record.” says Perdomo, a New Yorker since 1993. “But there are so many great people in New York I’ve never played with before, or have played with but not enough, and I’ve taken these opportunities as occasions to do something with them. For me, putting together these bands is like cooking – get the right ingredients, take a lot of time to prepare and you know it’s going to be great.” And on this evidence, Perdomo is indeed a head chef par excellence, with his hand-picked band dishing up a real treat on “Spirits and Warriors”. Perdomo is joined by Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and Flugelhorn, Mark Shim on tenor sax and EWI, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Billy Hart on drums. An A-list quintet then, brought together for this session by the pianist and band-leader to perform 6 Perdomo original compositions, along with tunes by Cl. Jordan, H. Pascal and J.R. Robinson.
The first thing that strikes me about this recording, is the apparent togetherness of the band. There’s clearly a great understanding between the musicians, one that helps create a very warm mood, with some bold and at times high-octane performances, most notably from Perdomo himself, and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin. As Perdomo says, “Alex made a huge impression on me the first time I heard him, and has done so many times since”. And the regular Criss Cross leader and contributor certainly makes a big impression throughout this recording, his trumpet and flugelhorn solos being simply stunning from start to finish. All of the band members make their mark in a positive way though, creating a cool, modern jazz vibe that is simply delicious.

Perdomo’s compositions are excellent. Each tune gives the listener something different to enjoy, whether it be luscious horn harmonies, spirited soloing, or calm and collected interplay between the quintet. The late and much missed bassist Dwayne Burno, who played on Perdomo’s album “Links”, is the subject of the opening number “Face Up”. The pianist/composer says “I imagined the type of changes Dwayne liked to play on, and the kind of song he played masterfully.” This is a storming opener that swings like crazy and highlights the combined skills of Sipiagin and Shim. “Sensei” evokes the aura of Woody Shaw’s and Bobby Hutcherson’s musical production at the cusp of the 1970’s, a feeling reinforced by Sipiagin’s mercurial, virtuosic solo, and Perdomo’s lilting, uplifting declamation. The evergreen Billy Hart leads the listener into “Aura”, a real foot tapper, before the anthemic “Ralph”, featuring some incredible interplay from the two horn players. “Her Eyes” benefits from some expressive playing from the quintet, whilst the beautiful “Year One” is a ballad that is so sweet and poignant, largely due to the lovely tone employed by Sipiagin. Clifford Jordon’s classic “Glass Bead Games”, Hermeto Pascoal’s “Little Church”, and J.R. Robinson’s “Portrait of Jenny” complete the album, with consummate performances from the quintet throughout.

“Spirits and Warriors” is a very enjoyable album, and undoubtedly one of Criss Cross’s highlights of the year so far. Luis Perdomo has made one of his finest albums to date here, one that will be enjoyed for a long time to come.

Mike Gates

Brad Mehldau Trio ‘Blues and Ballads’ (Nonesuch) 4/5

brad-mehldau-trioSimple things get lost over the course of time. We all get caught up in life’s incredible journey and sometimes, for whatever reason, lose sight of such things. And then, when something happens that helps us rediscover these simple things, they become astonishing. Like feeling a gentle breeze, seeing the happiness that lies behind a smile, or understanding the history of a man through the look in his eyes. Brad Mehldau has the gift of making the simple things astonishing. His touch and feel just on one note has that rare capacity to reveal the simplest of things in one astonishing moment. On his latest trio release “Blues and Ballads”, together with Jeff Ballard (drums) and Larry Grenadier (bass), the pianist leads the trio through a set of standards and classic tunes, with an almost nonchalant depth of beauty that provides the listener with one of his best trio albums in recent years. Perhaps reminiscent of one of his much earlier trio albums “The Art Of The Trio Vol. 3: Songs”, there’s a generally laid-back feel here with some of the trio’s interpretations of the music at hand quite stunning. There’s no Nick Drake or Radiohead covers this time, the choice of tunes ranging from traditional jazz compositions to pop ballads, but once again Mehldau proves himself incredibly adept at putting a new, intriguing slant on the music he chooses to perform. The music is warm, captivating and thoughtful, with more than a hint of romanticism coming across in Mehldau’s own inimitable style. Rather than the album featuring a few blues numbers and a few ballads, the pianist’s gorgeous melancholia successfully merges both of these themes, each style melting effortlessly into the other.

The stand-out track by far is the trio’s interpretation of The Beatles’ classic “And I Love Her”. Having thoroughly lost myself in last year’s incredible release “Ten Years Solo Live”‘ which featured Mehldau performing this same tune solo, I was keen to hear how this version compared. Whereas the solo version takes the listener on a deep, dark, meandering journey of emotional power and brilliance, this version is much lighter, with the pianist generally keeping more to the main tune. But it is no less incredible. If I had to choose a top 10 individual tracks for the year, this would be right up there. It’s the perfect example of how Mehldau doesn’t so much cover a piece of music by playing the tune and then soloing over it, he kind of lives and breathes inside the tune, with improvisations and major/minor chord changes creating a meditation on the tune that develops into new and surprising experiences along the way. And in this case, as the last 3 minutes build toward an almost operatic, emotional discourse, I felt shivers down my spine at the change of a chord or the thrill of a few notes. Simply stunning. Many of the tunes are all about the melody, and Mehldau’s deft interpretations therein. Once again, I love the simplicity of “Little Person”. The melody at the centre of the tune needing little embellishment. “Since I Fell For You” and “Cheryl” both bring together the blues and the ballads in the way that the trio create space and time, the energy coming from the occasional flurry of excitement and the thoughtful intensity in between. “I Concentrate On You” has a slightly Latin feel to it, the bass and drums effortlessly driving the tune itself. Whilst “My Valentine” and “These Foolish Things” could be seen as perhaps more like Mehldau sitting at his piano with Ballard and Grenadier enjoying the laid-back vibes.

The music of “Blues and Ballads” is fresh and poignant. Whilst some of the tunes might not reach the heights of former glories for the trio, as with many of Mehldau’s recordings, there are tunes on this album that most definitely do. And once more it highlights the seemingly endless talent and invention that Mehldau gives to the listener.

Mike Gates

Mark Murphy ‘Live in Athens, Greece’ CD/DIG (Harbinger) 4/5

mark-murphyFor some time prior to his passing in October 2015 Mark Murphy had rightly been elevated to the status of doyen, in part out of respect for the length of his career, but emphatically because of the mastery and class with which he performed his art.
The New York-based label, Harbinger Records, have released a recording of a live date at the Gazarte Club in Athens from April 2008. Whilst his studio-recorded albums have left us with a rich legacy, it is in this environment that Murphy does what Murphy did best.
The set list is nothing too revolutionary, but encapsulates his essence – a blend of ‘greatest hits’, staples from the Great American Songbook and some Jobim thrown in for good measure.
Murphy’s voice is less dynamic and a degree or so frailer around the edges, relying a little more on vocalese, but the wonderful control of tone and pitch are still there. The mix of songs, mostly at mid tempo with the occasional ballad, suits Murphy in the autumn of his career (he would have been 76 at the time of the recording). He is also helped by the arrangements, which open up many of the numbers, giving scope for soloing from an excellent quartet, lead by Spiros Exaras on electric guitar and with Thomas Rueckert on piano, Alex Drakos on drums and George Georgiadis on acoustic bass.

Part of Murphy’s magic was to be able to reinvigorate songs that had become overexposed in the jazz canon. Take “My Funny Valentine” or “Summertime”, two archetypal standards. Murphy turns in toe-tapping, smile-inducing versions, thanks to his sensitive phrasing and expressive, melodic improvisations. The arrangements are joyful, with a sense of optimism and feature some neat soloing. “Autumn Leaves”, a song no less covered, contains one of my favourite Murphy stylings – the half-spoken, half-sung opening/close and is about as ‘fierce’ as the tempo gets on the recording.

It’s hard to imagine Murphy getting through a gig without including his classic vocal renditions of “Milestones” and “Red Clay” and he doesn’t disappoint here. The former, originally featured on “Rah”, his 1961 album on Riverside, is opened up allowing room for solos from Exaras, Rueckert and Drakos. Only on “Red Clay” does Murphy seem a little stretched at times and this version falls a little flat for me.

Murphy closes the set with a Jobim medley featuring “Inútil Paisagem” and “Dindi”.

I make no bones about the fact that this review is touched by a degree of sentimentality. As his swansong, “Live in Athens” gives the listener the opportunity to reflect on Murphy’s career with a mixture of joy and a sense of loss.

Andy Hazell

Curtis Hairston ‘Curtis Hairston’ Expanded Edition (SoulMusic) 3/5

curtis-hairstonThose readers who did not live through the soul music of the 1980s will probably never have heard of singer Curtis Hairston and that is a great shame since he possessed a truly stunning voice. His main claim to fame in the UK came as the result of an underground dance floor hit in ‘I Want You All Tonight’ as well as a rare 12″ in ‘Summertime’, and it is a pity that neither are included here because they would have provided a de facto ‘Greatest Hit’s’ package. Sadly, Hairston’s life was tragically cut short by terminal illness and this 1986 album has to offer an alternative opportunity to hear his voice in full bloom. In fairness, this extended edition does contain no less than 5 12″ mixes and with it coming up to the thirtieth anniversary of the original release this year, it is, then, somewhat fitting that Hairston should be remembered now.
Some of the finest studio musicians of the era were enlisted to accompany the singer and these included Amir Bayyan of Kool & The Gang, guitarist Mike Campbell of Change, and Clifford Branch with background vocalists of the calibre of Jocelyn Brown and Alyson Williams providing excellent back up. Moreover, the song writing talent of Labelle member Nona Hendryx was deployed and while the results are not earth shattering, there are some strong dance-oriented cuts that typify the mid-1980s layered production sound. A strong opener in ‘The Morning After’ showcased Hairston’s deeply melodic and soulful delivery and saw substantial dance floor action with catchy melodic guitar and keyboard riff, and strong vocal harmonies. A second uptempo groove predominates on, ‘Let’s Make Love Tonight’, with a bass line that is reminiscent of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. However, Curtis Hairston was a versatile performer and that is illustrated on the ballad ‘(You’re my) Shining Star’ as well as on the acoustic sounding, ‘All We Have Is Love’. Hairston could and, perhaps, should have enjoyed a wider pop audience at a time when Luther Vandross ruled the roost within the world of soul music. Another thumping dance floor oriented track is ‘Take Charge’ and this sound was very much flavour of the month at the time, even if in retrospect it is rather formulaic in nature. More impressive is ‘Chillin’ out’ where Hairston’s distinctive voice comes to the fore. A well packaged and excellent value for money set for those who wish to revive the era of shoulder pads and frizzy hair dos.

Tim Stenhouse