Aaron Neville ‘Apache’ (Tell It Productions) 5/5

aaron-nevilleThe 75-year-old veteran of all things that are musically real, black and beautiful, returned in the summer with this sublime eleven tracker proving to be one of the main ‘hoggers’ of my laser flicker this year. It’s one of those albums I never want to tire of, you know the sort of thing, you stumble over it on the shelves and say to your self “I’ll play that another time”, so I’ve limited my access to it, but it just creeps its way back to shatter the silence of the music room and the car. It really is a thing of beauty, with all of the last 50 years of black music shaping its heritage. And then there is of course, those unmistakable vocals cementing the whole album, and taking it to a level rarely reached by other mere mortals. As with the majority of his output, he appears at times to be singing about past mistakes and regrets with always one eye on the future.
Kicking off with the explosive “Be Your Man”, soulies of a certain age will be transported back to dark and dingy cinema in the early 70’s when black exploitation movies could be seen, this could be a Willie Hutch production, huge potential here for an aspiring DJ to make a name, but it’s Aaron Neville, it has a southern influence – wasn’t he one half of the Neville Brothers? So no chance then, well hang on, I’m on at 4am at an allniter and this will be aired, so that’s at least one play then, next up is “All Of The Above”, a mid-60’s influenced stroller with its chink chink base line, stabbing horns… oh yes this is superb, the kind of tune the late Amy Whinehouse would have excelled on (incidentally the horns are borrowed from the Daptone stable and don’t they sound just so right). Another highlight is “Orchid In The Storm”, a lovely free-flowing dancer that will be played for years to come, it has real staying power, oh and there’s a sneaky Wurlitzer in there too.

“Hard to Believe” has a Caribbean feel to it, with those horns dominating the opening seconds, however it develops into a superb stepper. The other track that hit me first time round was “I Wanna Love You”, another down tempo stroller of immense depth and of course our man’s superb voice sits atop the rhythm effortlessly, telling his lady “It aint complicated baby, I wanna love you” telling her to open up her heart. I just love it.
“Sarah Anne” takes us on a foot-tapping Doo Wop ride, with all the glorious subtle key changes you would expect (including that Wurlitzer), horns bathing his vocals, and played loud this really is the business. “Make Your Momma Cry” is another horn drenched insidious groove which seeps into your head – simply fabulous.
The album ends with “Fragile World”, a spoken piece of social commentary over a busy musical back drop – listen, the great Linton Kwesi Johnson could have done this to huge acclaim, so what’s wrong with Aaron Neville giving it to us? What an album.

Brian Goucher

Craig Hartley ‘Books On Tape Vol. II Standard Edition’ (Private Press) 4/5

craig-hartley“Oh Great!” said I, as I was sent this album to review “…another album featuring music from the past by Ellington, Fats Waller, Bill Evans, Bach and Lennon & McCartney…”
Being English, I was of course being a tad sarcastic at the prospect of listening to another technically able but rather staid jazz recording.
I then clicked the play button to listen to Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ and in no uncertain terms was told to shut my stupid mouth by the members of this very creative trio of Hartley on piano, Carlo De Rosa on bass and Jeremy ‘Bean’ Clemons on drums. What they do with ‘Caravan’ is quite clever, enthralling and delightful. Piano and drums and bass set a serious, strident tonal introduction being moving up a gear with a latin overtone. It is so easy to let go with this song because of Ellington’s extraordinary writing, anyone can just have a party with this but this trio completely own and control the context.
Again, with Waller’s ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ they turn this near 80-year-old song into a modern whimsical listen with echoes of Guaraldi.
Bach’s ‘Prelude No 2 in C Minor’ begins in robust confident fashion with Hartley providing excellent left-hand control and right-handed improvisation decadence before going pure unadulterated bop on us. And just so we all know that we’re not just dealing with any old mortal here, the trio throw in a little ‘Solar’ by Miles Davis –a true delight!
Paul McCartney’s ‘Junk’ is a more subdued affair which doesn’t stray too far from the original arrangement but here it is given a much more classy jazz trio edge with a big delicious helping of double bass.
‘Mood Indigo’ is another well-played piece but given less of a modern arrangement like ‘Caravan’ but no less listenable.
The guys cleverly intertwine Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece’ with Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. I didn’t find this one as enthralling as some of the other songs on this album but I get the impression that this was designed to be one of the signature tracks on the album. I am probably doing the track a disservice as I’m much more a fan of the Evans song than I am of the Lennon one. I suggest you judge this one for yourselves.
Do listen, once again, for another bass solo that is good enough to eat!

The album ends with ‘Just Wait’ which is a solo piece and every bit as engaging as the trio tracks before it.

A very strong album and one deserving of a 4/5.

I will not prejudge again (I promise)!

Sammy Goulbourne

Frekvens Frekvens ‘Vandborg’ (Jaeger Community Music) 5/5

frekvens-frekvensSince the 1960’s Nordic jazz has slowly but surely found its place in the world with its unique blend of traditional folk and contemporary music. Helped along the way not least by labels such as ECM and ACT, with now familiar artists such as Jan Garbarek, Arild Anderson, Bobo Stenson and EST to name but a few, some of the finest, most innovative jazz from this last half century has been originated and exported from Scandinavia. Whilst Norway and Sweden have arguably produced the majority of the music we are accustomed to hearing today, this year in particular has seen some wonderful music coming out of Denmark. Frekvens Frekvens are a Danish quartet, with Frej Lesner on drums, Nis Helleroe Myrtue on baritone sax, Mathias Jaeger on piano and synth, and Tejs Dragheim on bass. ‘Vandborg’ is their debut album, released on the small ‘Jaeger Community Music’ label, based in Aarhus, Denmark.
One of the things I love about reviewing album releases is that I get the privilege of listening to new music from around the world that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise heard of. This is a perfect example of such music. Frekvens Frekvens certainly capture that Nordic sound that as jazz listeners we have become somewhat accustomed to hearing, but as with much of this region’s music, it continues to develop and sound fresh and invigorating. This band employ an almost ambient, minimalistic approach to music making, successfully crossing the borders of jazz, folk and classical music, whilst benefiting from a quirky avant-garde leaning that is both surprising and adventurous, despite its minimalistic nature. The group communicates basic emotions such as love, fear, hope and friendship through wonderful melodies, free play and musical conversations and connectivity between the musicians.

The album takes its name from Vandborg, on the West coast of Denmark. There is an atmospheric peace and clarity to the music that suggests tranquility and reflection coupled with a sense of hidden longing and love. I particularly like the fact that this is far from what you might expect a jazz quartet to sound like. Yes it’s jazz, but there’s a unique sound to this 4-piece that sparkles with a fresh originality. The music is at times fragmented, almost awkward, and yet lovingly crafted in a way that what you might think shouldn’t work, but obviously does. Nothing sounds forced and the music itself suggests warm companionship with a natural glow of inner beauty. The opening track “Skumring” is gentle yet decidedly eery with its gorgeous piano offset by the disjointed sax. One of the key elements to this album is the drums/percussion. To be honest, it’s quite unexpected in such a positive way, the textural embellishments adding light, depth and at times humour to the proceedings. The melodies are strong, with a haunting quality to them that range from stark, breathy interludes, to quietly meandering adventures with a sensitive lyricality. The closing track “Hjemve” is a masterful piece of writing and is performed with a quiet elegance that suggests a skill and intelligence from a band that have been performing together for years, not one who are making their debut. “I morke Haender” is reminiscent of the 70’s ECM sound brought to us by the Garbarek/Stenson quartet. But that said, it has its own feel and touch to it, and as the track gradually winds down, it conjures images of footprints slowly disappearing into the snowy distance. The more conversational “Svanesang” offers a delightful example of how many of the tunes ebb and flow, rising and falling like the sea breeze on a forgotten shore.

‘Vandborg’ is a wonderful debut album. Lovers of Nordic jazz should make this release a priority. There are more than mere glimpses of brilliance here, and I truly hope the band continue developing their own unique sound and successfully manage to find an audience that grows in numbers in the years ahead.

Incidentally, for further reading on the history and impact of Scandinavian jazz, I recommend reading “The Sound of The North – Norway and The European Jazz Scene” by Luca Vitali; a fascinating read.

Mike Gates

Matt Slocum ‘Trio Pacific, Vol.1’ (Chandra) 5/5

matt-slocumMatt Slocum is a new name to me and, therefore, quite possibly to many of you reading this. So here’s some background information. Drummer Matt was born in New Richmond, Wisconsin in 1981. He has studied with Peter Erskine, Alan Pasqua, John Clayton and Joe LaBarbera. He’s worked with Seamus Blake, Alan Broadbent and Wynton Marsalis and even the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He cites his compositional influences as Duke Ellington, Wayne Shorter, Tom Harrell and Dave Holland together with Debussy and Ravel. As a drummer he’s influenced by Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Bill Stewart and Eric Harland. With this list, expectations for this disk were high.
So to the music. Alongside Slocum we have Steve Cardenas on guitar and Dayna Stephens on saxophones. Cardenas is the ‘veteran’ here having been around the jazz scene since the mid-1990’s and having worked with the likes of Paul Motian, Charlie Haden and Steve Swallow. Stephens, in addition to leading his own group, has worked with Kenny Barron, Ambrose Akinmusire and Taylor Eigsti amongst others and has released five albums as leader.

Recorded in March of this year, all of the music, as one used to say, comes from the pen of the leader with the exception of ‘I Can’t Believe That Your in Love with Me’ by Jimmy McHugh and the Charlie Parker line ‘Relaxin’ at Camarillo’. The McHugh standard for me recalling the classic interpretation by fellow saxophonist Art Pepper.

The focus is firmly on group interplay rather than solo fireworks. Each of Slocum’s six compositions are carefully thought out. Cardenas seems to be the perfect guitarist for this session. Listen to the delicacy employed by all on ‘Atlantic’ with an unexpected and subtle drum solo near the start of the piece. Stephens on soprano saxophone is equally expressive.

‘Relaxin’’ begins with a delicate drum solo on brushes before the guitarist and saxophonist (this time alto) enter, together creating an abstract tapestry of sound. The drums take centre stage making a fleeting reference to the familiar be-bop line before saxophone and guitar re-enter to clearly state the Charlie Parker theme to conclude the performance.

‘Afterglow’ is a gem of a composition with Stephens romantically expressive on tenor saxophone. In fact, Stephens is a revelation throughout the album. He has a soft, luxuriant tone. For him there is not the edge of many contemporary saxophone stylists. If you are looking for musical reference points think in terms of Stan Getz and Joe Henderson.

‘Yerazel’ opens with wonderfully sensitive yet abstract guitar and more delicate tenor sax and drums follow.

At times during this recording I’m put in mind of the music that Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell made together, but, of course, Cardenas is his own man throughout and is certainly no Frisell clone.
Slocum is certainly a ‘musical’ drummer, not given to excesses of bombast. He can swing when the music requires him to do so, but more often he is tracing out delicate patterns punctuating and brining into sharp focus the work of his colleagues.

Recorded sound is excellent. I recommend that you savour the delights of this album using headphones. This is music that is at once immediately accessible but also gives up further delights upon repeated listening.

Alan Musson

Adam O’Farrill ‘Stranger Days’ (Sunnyside) 3/5

adam-o-farrillA few factoids to kick things off about Adam O’Farrill: he comes from a musical family (some may even start to call it a dynasty. He is the son of jazz musician Arturo O’Farrill and grandson of latin jazz musician, arranger & bandleader Chico O’Farrill).
In 2014, O’Farrill entered the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition. The judges were Ambrose Akinmusire, Randy Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Quincy Jones, Jimmy Owens, and Arturo Sandoval. He won 3rd place amongst very stiff competition.
‘Stranger Days’ is his debut solo album – out on the ever brilliant Sunnyside Records.
Adam’s brother Zack plays drums and plays on the album.
He was born 10 whole years after I left senior school!
(That last factoid will not in any way bias my opinion of this release whatsoever – I promise…)
If we have to put an age on this young man then he is 22 (as at the time of writing this) and what a talent he is.
The quartet is completed with the addition of Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, saxophone and Walter Stinson, bass.
In a nutshell, what you have is a modern jazz album with a salute to Clifford Brown and the heady days of Blue Note with some leanings towards the avant-garde.

First up is ‘A & R Italian Eatery’ – a gently pulsing piece with sax and trumpet making a nice rhythmic voice together. A very pleasant opener.
After a solo trumpet introduction on ‘The Stranger’, the rest of the group first slowly begins to stir with military-style drum pattern which then opens out briefly into a cool bop section before going back to that drum pattern while O’Farrill provides a very competent solo followed very ably by Lefkowitz-Brown in blistering fashion and then a solo by Walter Stinson on bass. You can tell that this is probably a signature piece when this group play live.

‘Survival Instincts’ features some nice sync playing from trumpet and sax with bass and drums in fine fiery form.

Up next is ‘Why She Loves’ which is a subtle piece with a meaty and dynamic solo from O’Farrill which seems to move this subtle piece to another more heady place. Things are never what they seem on this album.

‘Alligator got the Blues’ starts off quite bluesy but then moves to a more up-tempo affair with another strong saxophone solo but before ending up… back in the blues.

If we skip to the curiously titled ‘The Cows And Their Farmer Walt’ – we have a song that shows that jazz doesn’t always have to be so serious. The band start nice and easy but then change to what I can only describe as ‘caper’ music (the kind of thing you might hear at a circus with clowns running around the arena). This is augmented by a nice bass solo to straighten things out before trumpet and then saxophone make their respective marks. This one will, if nothing else, raise a smile.
Look, this album, whilst very competent, will not set the world on fire but it shows that there is still some formidable talent out there that is being honed and nurtured. The song writing on this album is extremely good and the playing is also of a very high quality. Well worth a listen if you take your jazz seriously.

Sammy Goulbourne

Steve Gadd Band ‘Way Back Home – Live from Rochester NY’ CD + 2DVD (BFM Jazz) 4/5

steve-gaddMaestro drummer and all-round percussionist, Steve Gadd is a name you may not have heard, but you have undoubtedly heard his drum patterns on numerous recordings that range from the 1970s recordings of Paul Simon, to the propelled beats of epic disco classic, ‘The hustle’, by Van McCoy, to Bonnie Raitt and James Brown, and least, but by no means least, the countless jazz albums from Chick Corea and Bob James, to Stan Getz and beyond. The only surprise is that he has not received this kind of tribute earlier.
This package that coincides with his seventieth birthday is less an audio-visual reflection of his latest live project, but more of an overview or summation of his career to date. It works best when it chronicles his musical career as on the excellent forty-five minute documentary that includes testimonies from close friends, family and musicians such as Chuck Mangione. These reveal what a prodigious student of music Gadd was and how he quickly moved from sleepy Rochester to the heart of New York City. His teacher and fellow pupil, bassist Tony Levin cast valuable light on his rise to being one of the most in-demand drummers of the modern era. Moreover, the leader’s laid back character, yet virtuoso musicianship is the subject of interesting tales that gives us a real insight into the real Steve Gadd.

What, then, of the music itself? Given, the historical nature of the package as a whole, the musical content is far more contemporary and the material chosen by his own band focuses far more on his previous two studio albums, which veer towards the jazz-fusion and R & B side of the equation. Plenty of space for musicians to solo, with trumpeter/flugelhorn player Walt Fowler the other stand out, but the compositions as a whole are not all that memorable. It is pity that for the live recording so many of the most recent compositions were selected. The strongest of these were written by keyboardist Larry Goldings who excels throughout, but especially on his own, ‘Cavaliero’ and ‘Sly Boots’. For a jam session groove, fellow drummer Buddy Miles’ number, ‘Them changes’, ends the evening on a high note. That said, no questioning the enthusiasm of the local audience, or that Gadd himself is genuine humbled and moved by the experience. The only standard is an understated take on the Great American Songbook standard, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, that Keith Jarrett interpreted for ECM.

To recap, then, the quality of the package with excellent fold out digipak, crystal clear sound and visual presentation is first-rate. The music is pleasant, though not exactly essential, and a more balanced programme of newer material coupled with a re-working of the classic songs he has performed on would have made for a more cohesive whole and kept the listener’s attention the live CD and DVd recording . Nonetheless, for Steve Gadd fans and drumming enthusiasts, this is a real treat and a fine example to other musicians of who you can promote yourself.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘The Ultimate Guide to English Folk’ 2CD (ARC) 4/5

ultimate-guide-english-folkIn recent years the English folk scene has been reinvigorated by new musicians coming onto the scene, yet it is important to have some historical perspective in order to fully appreciate the achievements of the younger generation currently performing and this well-balanced two CD set does a pretty good job of addressing different generations of audiences interested in folk who can learn from each other.
This is by no means the first attempt at chronicling the English folk scene and Sanctuary brought out a series of mini box sets of the folk tradition of the British Isles and Ireland in the early noughties. However, whereas those focused primarily on the Transatlantic label, this new anthology trawls the priceless back catalogue of Topic plus some more recent independent label releases. As such, there is little or no overlap, and the casual listener has the opportunity to listen to a variety of styles over several decades, going back to the 1960s.
Of the 1960s generation that emerged, Martin Carthy was unquestionably one of the most influential and his interpretation of, ‘Scarborough Fair’, was taken up by no less than Paul Simon who first heard the traditional English piece while travelling the country in the early to mid-1960s. Likewise, the Watersons emerged as England’s premier folk group in the 1960s and offer up, ‘The plains of Mexico’, which is an example of the kind of song that was performed on the then nascent folk club scene which had a strong social and even political ethos. One of the very finest of women singers was Anne Briggs who recorded sparingly and, ‘My bonny boy’ is a fine example of her work from a terrific anthology of her early work on Topic.

Going back further in time the a capella harmonies of the Copper Family offer up, ‘Come write me down/ye powers above’, are required listening for any serious folk fan of any era. Moving into the 1970s, a major new talent who dominated the scene before serious injury halted his career was NIc Jones and from the seminal, ‘Penguin eggs’ album comes, ‘Canadee-I-O’. Two musicians who were starting up in the 1970s and went on to greater things were guitarist/singer Martin Simpson and singer June Tabor. Together they have recorded several albums for Topic and one example of their combined talents is the excellent, ‘Heather down the moor’, while in his own right, Simpson scored a critical success with the title track of, ‘The bramble briar’. Achieving major popular success, Steeleye Span with their later mid-1970s work were pioneers of the folk-rock sound, but, ‘The weaver and the factory maid’, is more traditional in outlook.

Where this compilation wins hands down over others is in showcasing current day folk musicians and one of the major new acts to emerge over the past fifteen years are the Unthanks from the north-east English folk tradition. On, ‘Trimdon grange explosion’, they combine with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Bellowhead have consistently recorded award-winning music and this is exemplified by, ‘Rigs of the time’. The Watersons family has by now progressed a generation or so to daughter Eliza Carthy, a fully matured artist, and she opens up proceedings with, ‘Worcester city’ and combines with other family members on ‘The light dragoon’. A friendly rival to Carthy in the female singer category has been Kate Rusby and, along with others, have rejuvenated the folk scene. Here she duets with Kathryn Roberts on, ‘The recruited collier’. For the men, Jim Moray is a new talent who contributes, ‘Early one morning’.

Excellent value for money at over seventy minutes per side, with thirty-five separate songs with a plethora of new and emerging musicians, and the graphically illustrated inner line booklet leaves no stone unturned with detailed sleeve notes written by Jon Boden who just happens to be a member of one of the hottest of the new folk groups, Bellowhead.

Tim Stenhouse