Iro Haarla ‘Ante Lucem: For Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Quintet’ (ECM) 3/5

iro-haarlaThis largely symphonic live recording is taken from commissioned pieces for the 2012 October Jazz Festival in Umeå, Sweden, and brings together the piano and harp playing of leader Iro Haarla, in demand saxophonist Trygve Seim and others in tandem with the NorrlandsOperans Symfonieorkester, conducted by Jukka Lisakkila. Fans of classical music will enjoy the music here as
much as fans of chamber jazz and the four lengthy pieces vary between fifteen and almost twenty minutes. In general the musical tone is mournful and this is attributable to the recent passing of Haarla’s mother who was an opera singer. Different seasons are evoked in the numbers and these include, ‘Perseverence with winter’, which evokes the time of hibernation. The bowed double bass of Ulf Krokfors comes to the fore here with piercing strings and crashing cymbals. On ‘Songbird chapel’, the Debussy-esque tones impress with harp in the background. Introspection is to the fore on this most recent ECM release and once again it cuts across musical boundaries which pretty much typifies the whole ECM ethos.

Tim Stenhouse

Mike Wheeler Band ‘Turn Up!!’ (Delmark) 4/5

mike-wheeler-bandIf the soul-blues sounds of Little Milton and Robert Cray are to your liking, then lead vocalist and guitarist Mike Wheeler provides a modern twist on the soulful blues groove. A veteran of the Chicago blues scene from the mid-1980s onwards, Wheeler founded the band in 2001 and made his debut CD in 2003. A previous release on Delmark from 2012, ‘Self made man’, set the scene and this new recording with a two horn section has a slightly rougher edge than the Cray sound, but is just as compelling. A tribute to Little Milton comes in the shape of a new reading of, ‘That;s what love will make you do’, and there is a beautiful soulful ballad, ‘Nothing lasts forever’. However, with time and experience, the tight sounding band has developed its rhythm section and this is on fire on the stomping beat of the opener, ‘Sweet girl’. Some critics have remarked that the guitar phrasing recalls Vernon Reid and it is certainly true that Wheeler has soaked up myriad musical influences that range from blues and R&B to funk and even disco. The good news is that with regular live performances throughout the city of Chicago Wheeler and the band have created their own sound, and their diversity of influences even takes in New Orleans, as on the drum beat to, ‘I can’t do that’. A fine new release on Delmark and one that demonstrates beyond doubt that the blues is still rocking in the windy city for sure.

Tim Stenhouse

GQ ‘Standing Ovation: The Story of GQ and the Rhythm Makers 1974-1982’ 2CD (BBR) 4/5

gqFor British fans of disco, GQ were a short-lived band who scored a minor hit with ‘Disco nights (rock freaks)’ and then their biggest success with the title track to this compilation that crossed over into the lower echelons of the pop charts. In fact, the group had started way back in the mid-1970s when they were known as the Rhythm Makers and this extremely well annotated anthology sheds useful new light on their rise to fame. Mr GQ was none other than Emmnuel Raheem LeBlanc and the group’s big opportunity came when they were signed to Arista records under the tutelage of Larkin Arnold. It was he in fact who was responsible for signing A Taste of Honey, Maze and Nathalie Cole among others. Remixer Jimmy Simpson helped catapult GQ into the disco charts and his full-length remixes including an interesting interpretation of ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’, a hit for a Taste of Honey, are contained within. Like many other acts, GQ were more than a dance band and some of the strongest albums cuts are their updating of soul classics such as, Billy Stewarts’ and the Chantells, ‘Sitting in the Park’, whereas tracks like ‘Spirit’ and ‘Wonderful’ were inspired by hearing Earth. Wind and Fire. GQ would be at the height of their popularity in 1979 when they opened for Teddy Pendergrass at Madison Square Gardens in New York in June of that year. Sadly, their early 1980s efforts fall into the gimmick sound effect of the era with ‘Try smurfit’, a low point and consequently they lost their distinctive voice.

Tim Stenhouse

Trygve Seim ‘Rumi Songs’ (ECM) 3/5

trygve-seimNorwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim has featured as sideman on various recent ECM recordings, but on this occasion he is leader for a recording that is inspired by the poems of thirteenth century poet Jelahuddin Rumi that have been transposed into English by an American translator in the 1970s. if this sounds a tad complex for a music project, then the lyrics sung in English by Tora Augestad are folk-inspired and do facilitate our understanding of the poetry. Even by ECMs usual standards, this is an eclectic affair. However, this writer would have preferred from a musical perspective if the lyrics had been dispensed with altogether and instead the instrumental side had been emphasized more. That oversight is a pity because Seim is a gifted tenor and soprano saxophone player who on this album is simply not afforded the space in which to stretch out fully. That said, the use of violincello by Svante Henryson and accordion from Frodi Haltlil hints at Piazzolla, as on the intro to ‘Seeing double’. The combination of instrumentation and vocals works best on the downtempo, ‘In your beauty’, where the cello acts as a kind of double bass. Overall, the saxophone here is lost and would have been enhanced by tablas and sitar rather than vocals. Full English lyrics are contained in the detailed inner sleeve notes (another recent ECM innovation) by Steve Lake.

Tim Stenhouse

Scrapbook ‘Scrapbook’ CD/DIG (Spark) 4/5

scrapbookI remember a program about jazz which was presented by my favourite of the two Marsalis brothers, Branford. In it, he looked at how jazz music has permeated most parts of the world and he made what I thought was an over simplistic statement and said that ‘real’ jazz was only written and played by American musicians – or words to that effect. This made my blood boil a little because for one I am British and I love jazz music and whilst we Brits may not boast a Duke Ellington, Monk, a Davis or Coltrane, we do produce some fine musicians that make some wonderful music.
Here we have a collection of nine songs that sounds as British as bangers n’ mash. The group/ensemble (whichever way they want to be considered) are collectively called Scrapbook and is led (if you had to name names) by pianist and man behind all of the compositions, Angus Bayley. The rest of the ensemble comprises:
Bass: Paul Trippett
Drums: Dave Hamblett
Violin: Nick Sigsworth
Viola: Daisy Watkins
Trumpet: Alaric Taylor
Trombone: Kieran McLeod

And what a sound they make! The two horns and two string instruments take this from mere acoustic jazz to something that is minorly symphonic. (P.S. the squiggly line underneath the word ‘minorly’ tells me it’s not a real word but I’m leaving it in any way…)

From the very start, with ‘Alex’s Song’ (co-written with Alex Chilton), the listener is embraced and bathed in a warm and subtle jazz waltz-like sound with the first bars of the melodic piano, to the horns stating the theme and the violin and viola reassuring the us that this will be a delightful experience. It was.

‘Henno’ is up next and begins with Angus setting the moment with a gospel sounding intro before being joined by the strings and then the rest of the instruments. This one is slightly more complex in composition than the first track with everyone playing to a nicely paced climax 2mins in before the violin and viola usher in a beautifully layered, but short, piano solo and a short and almost restrained solo from the trumpet. Another very listenable piece that almost puts me in mind of composers such as Mike Westbrook and Mike Gibbs.

‘Triads’ begins with piano and trumpet, then not too long in comes the strings to accompany. What a majestic sound they all produce together. Although this begins almost symphonically, it is a jazz piece and trombonist Kieran McLeod acquits himself well with a tasty solo – pure heaven.

‘Wrioter’ is a sparse arrangement, almost improvisational in feel but no less worthy than what we have listened to before.

I could go on and on about each track here but to me there isn’t really a bad piece of music on this release. Having said that, ‘My First Friends’ is another standout with the piano sounding decidedly Mehldau-esque and Dave Hamblett’s drums adding a percussive flair to the whole proceedings.

These seven musicians simply make wonderful gentle meaningful, (almost) elegiac music together. They don’t get in each other’s way musically and with the benefit of such insightful and thoughtful writing, the resulting sum is definitely greater than its component parts. Beautiful.

Look out for the band at these venues soon:

4th Oct The Stables, Milton Keynes
8th Nov The Spotted Dog, Birmingham
9th Nov The Lescar, Sheffield
9th Dec Spark Label night @ The Vortex, London

Sammy Goulbourne