Ramsey Lewis ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ (Cadet/Universal) 5/5

ramsey-lewisIn the pantheon of the great Chess label recordings, this deserves a major place even if it is on the Cadet jazz off-shoot, and is as ‘out’ a recording as Chess could possibly muster. In this respect alone it is both a parallel and companion piece to Muddy Waters late 1960s psychedelic blues classic, ‘Electric Mud’. Pianist Ramsey Lewis recorded prolifically for the Cadet label, but never quite sounded like this elsewhere and part of the reason are the magisterial orchestrations of Charles Stepney who would go on to find fame with Terry Callier in the early 1970s, and then at a later stage with Earth, Wind and Fire. This splendid re-issue reproduces the iconic cover which is practically worthy the price of admission in its own right.
From the outset, this album purports to be a Beatles cover album, but in reality it is so much more, revisiting old chestnuts and imbuing them with a whole new and instantly funkier flavour, and, in addition, exploring songs that even hardened Beatles fans would not consider to be obvious candidates as covering material. Who, for example, would think of an R & B reworking of ‘Everybody’s got something to hide except me’? Be that as it may, the inclusion of an early version of the Moog synthesizer works wonders and transforms the songs. The earthy funk of ‘Back in the USSR’ features some lovely piano licks on top while a groovy interpretation of ‘Black Bird’ ends the album on a thrilling high. Another highlight is the soaring take on ‘Julia’, but in truth the whole album has to be soaked up in its entirety over repeated listening intakes.

ACE records a few years back did a sterling job of bringing together a variety of blues and R & B musicians on their tribute album to the Beatles, part of a series that includes Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan, but Ramsey Lewis, alongside Booker T and the MGs, is a prime contender for the single, most distinctive and personal rendering of the Beatles back catalogue, and this splendid re-issue reproduces the iconic cover. How about a re-issue of ‘Maiden Voyage’ by Lewis as a future re-release? Too many of his Cadet LPs remain unissued in the UK, but hopefully with this superlative re-issue that oversight will soon be remedied.

Tim Stenhouse

Fela Ransome Kuti ‘And his Koola Lobitos’ 3CD (Knitting Factory) 5/5

fela-ransome-kutiAmong the ongoing series of classic Fela Kuti re-issues, this one stands out as a real discovery and begins with Fela’s immersion in the jazz and R & B scene of late 1950s London nightlife. Covering the early years where other previous anthologies had focused on the early to late 1960s period (‘Lagos Baby 1963-1969’), this new compilation instead focuses attention on the pre-Afro beat era from the early 1960s onwards. However, in reality the embryonic stages towards the Afro beat sound are chronicled within and neatly delineated into three separate and contrasting CDs. The incredibly hard to find original 7″ and 10″ sides on the first and third CDs makes this a genuine hive of new information on the development and evolution of the Fela sound. Certainly in comparison to the later 1970s sound that Fela pioneered, the overall sound here is pared down and consequently the jazzier side to his repertoire is emphasized. The first CD showcases the early singles from 1963/4 and may come as a surprise to those familiar with the fifteen and twenty-minute plus sides of the mid-late 1970s and include the Fela Ransome Kuti Jazz Quartet that would morph into Koola Lobitos in 1964. Of particular interest is that in both formations, drummer Tony Allen was present and therefore playing a pivotal role from the outset. Of this period, the numbers ‘I know your feeling’ and the Afro-Cuban hues of ‘Amaechi’s blues’ stand out as archetypal examples of the young Fela sound in the making.

A second CD concentrates on the first album Fela recorded and this must surely be one of the rarest full length recordings Fela ever made. Whereas the singles are necessarily limited in time, Fela began to stretch out a little more here, though still relatively concise at around the five-minute mark on average. Highlights here include the perennial favourite ‘Lagos baby’, ‘Olulofe’ and a nod to the pan-West African groove that was equally popular in Ghana and Nigeria, ‘It’s highlife’ time’. The third CD concentrates attention on live recordings, largely club dates.

Commentators have denigrated the noise reduction made by Knitting factory and it is true to say that the sound quality varies somewhat among the singles and live material and is not on a par with the classic Afro-Beat period sides that were in general recorded in professional studios. Two observations are in order. This three CD set focuses on a period when the modern Nigerian music industry was in its infancy and thus it is to be expected that the sound quality will not be optimal. Secondly, the music itself has been sourced from original singles where master tapes may no longer exist. For some the rustic nature of the sound is an attraction in its own right, but you cannot reasonably expect the same standard as for the 1970s recordings, and it is unfair to criticise the label for putting out the music in the first place when they have gone to the trouble of annotating it in such detail, and the inner sleeve notes are fully comprehensive.

Topped off by a luxury gatefold sleeve with graphics of Fela on the cover in a fetching black, red and white and with stunning black and white photos of the young Fela, this fills in an important gap in the musician’s career and as such is essential listening.

Tim Stenhouse

Spare Parts ‘Warehaus West Sessions Vol. 1’ CD/DIG (Ropeadope) 5/5

spare-partsHad this album been released 40 years ago it probably would have been in small quantities on a local Chicago label (the band are based there) or as a private press, a forgotten gem only to be sought out years later by collectors for inflated prices. I say this partly because the music they play reminds me of the Jazz Fusion supergroups of the early ‘70s, but also because you get the sense that whilst the band have developed a local following they lack broader recognition. Now though Chicago, Illinois is just a click away. Spare Parts are Kevin Kozol (Fender Rhodes, Moog Little Phatty and Hohner Clavinet C), Colin Scott (electric bass) and Mike Bruno (drums and percussion). Scott and Bruno began playing together at high school, before forming the band with Kozol at Southern Illinois University in the early Noughties. Since then they have built a solid reputation as a live band performing in and around Chicago. “Warehaus Sessions..” is their sixth album to date.
Their music is not so much influenced as immersed in the sounds of ‘70s Jazz Fusion and groups like The Headhunters and The Tony Williams Lifetime, with shades of Bob James and George Duke thrown in for good measure. In my book that’s really no bad thing. Over time the term Jazz Fusion has become synonymous with radio-friendly smooth jazz, but in its early years this electrified sound felt groundbreaking, spawning classic albums like “Agharta”, “Head Hunters”, “Light as a Feather” and “Emergency”. That said this isn’t just music for nostalgia’s sake; it’s living and breathing with modern sensibilities.

This is a great little album packed with melodic, funk-filled, fluid grooves. The compositions, five of which were written by Kozol, are vividly captured, the “Session” really feeling fresh and live. Whilst the results are a group effort, the lasting takeaway is of Kozol’s playing, which provides a fantastically broad spectrum of sounds and textures, some layered or overlapping, others more linear, but all flowing quite effortlessly.

Highlighting individual tracks feels churlish within such a consistent set, but gun to my head I’d pick the slightly progressive vibe of “V6”, featuring guitarist Fareed Haque on solo and the tender, blissful “Park Avenue” featuring another guest, saxophonist Rajiv Hakim.

Elsewhere the cover of Joshua Redman’s “Jazz Crimes” is fairly faithful to the original, except the organ and sax lines are replaced by synths and a neat bass solo. Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks” is the other cover; an interesting choice, with rockier overtones and a heavier rhythm line.

Once you realise that there is a world of great music outside mainstream radio playlists, opportunities to ‘find’ albums like this are almost endless. Don’t let the self-deprecating name put you off, Spare Parts, are anything but.

Andy Hazell

Ludere ‘Ludere’ (Private Press/Tratore) 4/5

philippe-baden-powell“Ludere” is a Brazilian release, performed with a fresh, lyrical and melodic vitality. Led by pianist Philippe Baden Powell, son of Brazil’s legendary guitarist Baden Powell, he is joined by Rubinho Antunes on trumpet and flugelhorn, Daniel de Paula on drums, and Bruno Barbosa on double bass. The idea for this project was born out of the friendship and musical partnership shared by Philippe Baden Powell and Rubinho Antunes. Having initially met in Paris in 2011, it was four years later when meeting for a series of concerts to be held in Brazil that they decided to focus their energies on the quartet and take it from the stage and into the studio. Ludere is the Latin word for verbs play, play, express and also touching. A fitting title to the album then, given that the music the four musicians perform is wonderfully expressive and playful in its nature. Rubinho Antunes comments on the recording; “The disc is clearly a contemporary jazz work, which makes the listener travel through different musical universes, with Brazilian music as a backdrop.” And I have to say I couldn’t agree more. There is an obvious, unsurprising Brazilian feel to the album, yet stylistically it sounds more Pan European. Clearly the quartet have taken on board various global musical influences, successfully fusing styles with their own musical personas to create a very warm, joyful and highly enjoyable contemporary jazz album.

I love the honesty and spirit with which this music is made. It’s at once joyous and uplifting, yet there’s also many depths to it that make repeated listening even more enjoyable. Brilliantly written tunes, expertly played with verve, passion and elegance. There’s a catchiness to many of the tunes that not only comes from a warm, light touch from the composer’s manuscript, but also from a freedom of expression with which the music is performed. The obvious enjoyment radiating from the musicians themselves making the music is mirrored in the recording itself, making the listener’s experience all the more rewarding. None more so in my opinion, than on two stand-out tracks that really do hit all the right buttons for me. “Garfield” captures the essence of what this band are all about. The catchy, tuneful melody, the subtle lyricism, the free-spirited energy and the replayability of the track all combine to create a humdinger of a jazz tune. If jazz can be stylishly sexy in a cool, uncomplicated way, this is it. The quartet of musicians shine as they let the gift of their roots combine gleefully with the world that surrounds them. Awesome music making. “Elegy For Brad” is the nearest this foursome come on this recording to a ballad. As soon as the muted trumpet drew its first few breaths on this tune I was completely hooked. It pulls you in, gently holds you, and caresses your soul with its intimacy and quiet beauty. A stunning piece of music. Seven tunes in total make up “Ludere” and there are plenty more highlights to be heard in addition to the ones I have just mentioned. This is one of those albums that is deceptively simple and uncomplicated. With every listen I discover something new. And once familiarity kicked in after repeated listening, I found myself waiting impatiently for some of the magical moments I had previously discovered, only to be pleasantly surprised with something incredible I hadn’t noticed before. Excellent music making from a wonderful quartet.

Mike Gates