Yusef Lateef ‘Live at Ronnie Scott’s, 15th January 1966’ (Gearbox) 5/5

yusef-lateefIt’s fair to say that it’s not every day you get to listen to a previously unknown and unreleased recording by one of the true icons of jazz. Even more to the point, one at the peak of their musical powers. And yet, this is exactly what we have here. London label and vinyl specialists Gearbox Records seem to be making a habit of unearthing hidden gems – old and new – and they have raised the bar once more with this one. This is a live recording from Yusef Lateef, the brilliant, trailblazing multi-instrumentalist whose fusing of jazz and Eastern music was a significant influence on some of the finest musicians of an era, including John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. Recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s on 15th January 1966, Lateef is accompanied by the house band of that time; pianist Stan Tracey, double bassist Rick Laird and drummer Bill Eyden. Most of the repertoire played comes from Lateef’s earlier recordings for Savoy and Prestige such as “Jazz Moods” and “Eastern Sounds”. The evening’s performance was recorded by Les Tomkins at the request of Ronnie Scott. The musicians were unaware they were being recorded as Scott believed they would be at their best and most unselfconscious this way.

The set begins in a somewhat reflectively esoteric mood with “Angel Eyes”. Lateef plays the flute on this opening track, immediately enthralling the listener with his subtlety and gorgeous phrasing. Sensitive backing from the rhythm section help create an atmosphere of laid-back late night jazz indulgence.

There’s a lovely warmth to the recording that makes me feel like I’m actually sitting in the audience, listening and watching attentively. My initial impressions however, did give me some cause for concern. I’ll be totally honest and say that at first I was disappointed with the overall sound of the recording. Even allowing for the fact that this was 1966 and was most probably recorded with limited mics and equipment, it felt like I was listening to a slightly above average bootleg recording, rather than an album that had been lovingly mastered from the original 1/4″ tapes. The piano can barely be heard and the drums are too low in the mix. There’s also a fair amount of incidental noise here and there. But… and this is important, I now have 2 points to make on this. 1; the importance of this recording in its historical context and the performance from Lateef and co on the night, by far outweighs the relevance of the sound recording, and 2; the more I have listened to the album as a whole, the more I have come to think that I actually really like the sound. Yes, there are flaws, but surely that’s all part of the atmosphere itself. Once I embraced this instead of questioning it, I came to appreciate the whole thing so much more, and it enabled me to enter into the spirit of the performance and the recording to the point that I’m now loving everything about what my ears are hearing.

On “Blues For The Orient” Lateef plays the shenai, a kind of oboe. This live version of the tune that first appeared on “Eastern Sounds” is slightly longer than the studio version and really swings. The handclaps from the audience just add to the groove and the cool vibe. Lateef gives room for his fellow musicians to take the lead and collectively contribute – especially Stan Tracey on piano. Lateef is generous and gracious in introducing his band for the night, and the feeling I get is one of collaboration and pleasure from all four of the musicians on the stage.

The band-leader switches to the Chinese flute for “Song of Delilah”. His performance on this tune especially is quite magnificent. I love the bass as its bluesy overtones work wonderfully around Lateef’s awesome free playing. When he gets into the groove on this track and really goes for it, it’s truly a pleasure to behold.

Back on a more conventional flute for the more spiritual sounding “Last Night Blues”, Lateef shows all his skills in blending an emotive Eastern spirituality with Western jazz. The results are mouth-watering with the bass riff once more holding everything in place whilst Lateef improvises around a theme.

The final track “Yusef’s Mood” is the only track that features the multi-instrumentalist on tenor sax. Easily the most upbeat tune of the session, it brings the house down with its infectious rhythm and crowd-pleasing joyous nature. I love the fact that you can hear the audience getting involved in the tune as it all adds to the atmosphere of what must have been a fabulous night at Ronnie’s.

Full credit has to go out to Gearbox Records for unearthing and making this long-lost recording available. It’s a little gem of a find, and a must-have purchase for Lateef fans and jazz officianados alike.

Mike Gates

During the 1960s, Ronnie Scott’s venue hosted some of the all-time great musicians in their prime, and the house band, comprising here pianist Stan Tracey, bassist Ricky Laird, and drummer Bill Eyden, would invariably back the American leaders. This proved to be the case of multi-reedist, Yusef Lateef, from this mid-1960s recording that captures him in modal mood throughout. In fact, Lateef was recording for Impulse at the time and this live performance find him between two studio sessions, ‘Psychicemotus’ and, ‘A flat, G Flat and C’. An obvious contender for listening pleasures is, ‘Song of Delilah’, the original of which was from a biblical score by composer Victor Young. Here, Lateef transforms the piece into a sparse sounding number complete with a strong bass motif, and accompanied by the leader on flute. This was no ordinary flute, however, for Yusef Lateef was at this juncture of his career heavily into world roots instrumentation from around the globe and particularly interested in eastern sounds, that is to say from the Indian subcontinent and throughout the Far East, with Japan being a particular favourite of the leader. Thus, the flute in question, was the Chinese Xun, or globular flute. The excellent trio operate in empathetic tandem with Yusef with bass and piano in close harmony, but are especially impressive on the more introspective numbers such as the deeply evocative, ‘Angel eyes’, where Lateef is once again on flute, and his lengthening of the notes makes this interpretation an album highlight. It is the sound akin to that of the oboe, the Indian shenai instrument, that one hears on, ‘Blues to the Orient’, which has a lengthy silence before the musicians commence, and one can but speculate that Lateef was composing himself to capture that very essence of the Orient in musical form, and there is a prominent blues-inflected bass line with piano and drums in a more supportive role.

That evocative music is further embellished by some lovely black and white photos from Val Wilmer, who managed to capture so many jazz and blues musicians in their prime in the 1960s and beyond. Remastering has resulted in a clear sound for the leader and bassist. The piano is a little distant, but still audible, and drums are in the background. It should be stated that this is entirely due to the original tape recording, a Ferrograph Mark 2 tape recorder, which was made by Les Tomkins on what was available and at the time in the vanguard of tape machines. Nonetheless, the overall sound is perfectly acceptable. The vinyl weighs in at just over forty minutes, and the CD edition contains no additional tracks.

Tim Stenhouse

Yussef Kamaal ‘Black Focus’ (Brownswood Recordings) 4/5 

yussef-kamaalI had heard the name Yussef Kamaal mentioned a few times and saw what would now become the album cover here, there and everywhere. In my uneducated mind set, I think I expected a spiritual jazz type album by a young precocious talented individual. I smile as I type this because ‘Yussef Kamaal’ are 2 talented individuals not 1 precocious one and the music contained within these grooves are a modern day take drawing in many influences from the streets and city Yussef Dayes and Kamaal Williams (aka Henry Wu) grew up in.
Both are drummers with Kamaal showing his stabbing prowess on the electric keys. The sound produced, whilst often familiar owing debts of gratitude to Herbie Hancock, Atmosfear, Kaidi Tatham, Souldrummers, 4Hero and Level 42 – does have a fresh perspective.
The whole project has been put together to not sound particularly polished and I like that. The energy that you hear is good, the ideas are still creative enough to please some of the jazz heads but it’s not trying to be clever and I like that also.
We kick off with the title track ‘Black Focus’ which starts with the sound of percussion fills, a voice saying a few words in an African language vocal, a riffing trumpet, saxophone and some soft electric keys. Those elements come more together as the theme is stated and the instruments fall into line. This eases us into this record and gives us some idea of what we can expect.

Cut No. 2 is a more busy affair featuring drums, strings (played from a keyboard I’m thinking), a very dexterous electric bass and a trumpet that at first felt a little ‘foreign’ when it first jumps in but makes up for it later on.

This one has small element of 4Hero but you never think that it’s trying to emulate what the Dollis Hill guys did. There are 3 stages to this track where the drummer gives it his all which keeps on pushing and propelling this almost hypnotic dance piece along.

‘Remembrance’ – the 3rd track on offer gives us the musical trio of drums, bass and keys – but the roles are somewhat reversed with the drummer being pushed to the fore and the keyboard almost acting as the rhythm section keeping pace. The bass is ably supporting but at the same time floating with the other 2 instruments here as they begin to build to a beautiful and intense climax. These 3 instrumentalists read each other so deftly – this is what jazz is about.

Now is the turn of the keyboard to solo and a fine one it is too. You can tell they are enjoying this one as a vocal exaltation can be heard from one of the musicians testifies. A fine fine track indeed and certainly the highlight of this set.

‘Yo Chavez’ is a shuffling piece with a nice synth theme running through its heart – a shorter but strong track.

After a couple of very short interlude type tracks, things get decidedly funky on ‘Lowrider’. There’s nothing wrong with this one: a fine guitar solo, funky bassline and, again, full-on drumming make this a winner all day, every day!

2 more short tracks is followed up (and concluded with) ‘Joint 17’ – mid paced funky groover.

This album sounds like a jam session in which the musicians had a rough idea and themes but essentially just went into a recording studio and produced the sounds based upon those sketched they had.

Because of that, there is a rawness to this set which I like but I don’t know whether that might put the uninitiated off.

I like what I have heard hear and want to hear more so good luck to Messrs Dayes and Williams and congratulations on a fine debut.

Sammy Goulbourne

If the name is a tad misleading, then the music is not and is rather a mellifluous blend of acoustic jazz and electronica beats. Drummer and percussionist Yussef Dayes and keyboardist Kamal Williams, aka Henry Wu, are relative unknowns hailing from south-east London and who met in their teens a decade or so ago. Now in their mid-late twenties, the pair have come up with an album that is retro in some respects and futuristic in others. This creates quite a unique sound with the depth and sophistication of jazz, more specifically from the 1970s jazz-fusion era, and the street-wise cred of beat-based music.

This writer warmed to the electric bass playing on, ‘Strings of Light’, that seems to hark from the Headhunters era and with the strongly influenced Fender Rhodes of Herbie Hancock never too far away, while the drum and bass percussion propels this track along at a rate of knots. For an altogether moodier ambience, ‘Remembrance’ impresses with its improvisatory feel and lovely rapport between drums and electric piano, with elements of Robert Glasper hinted at. Clipped rhythm guitar sounds surface on the neo-soul flavoured, ‘Lowrider’, that might just serve as a useful entry point to a wider audience. The beat ballad, ‘Yo Chavez’ features an eerie synthesizer and another mean bass line, whereas the title track has a Cuban chango-influence spoken intro onto which Fender and trumpet dominate and flourish. In general, the combination of acoustic and electronica has been well thought out and blends, and in this respect one cannot but think back to the musings of Herbie Hancock, including one of his more underrated offerings from 1980, ‘Mr Hands’. A very promising debut.

Tim Stenhouse

E.S.T. / Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra ‘E.S.T. Symphony’ (ACT) 4/5

9034-2_Titel.inddFor those not familiar with jazz in the last fifteen years, EST were a major new jazz trio out of Sweden that combined the discipline and dedication of jazz tradition with the catchiest of melodies and a DIY rock attitude/sensitivity that opened up new avenues in the evolution of the piano jazz trio format. Tragedy befell the trio when, in 2008, pianist and leader Esbjörn Svensson drowned in a diving accident, and this deprived the world of music of a trio that were at their peak, yet fully capable of reaching higher climbs due to their ability to reach beyond traditional audiences. They had already made significant inroads into the US jazz market, championed by the likes of Downbeat, and were by some distance the best selling act for enterprising German label ACT who have had a penchant/predilection for keyboard-led formations. The genesis of this project goes back further than you might think to 2003 when leader Svensson was still alive and had in mind creating chamber orchestra readings of the trio’s compositions for live performance. This is precisely what the remaining band members have carried through on this project with the live performance taking place at the Konserthuset in Stockholm in the first half of June 2016 on three separate evenings, and the best has been captured and selected here.

This new recording pays tribute to the compositions of the band and places them in a newer/wider perspective of a larger symphonic classical ensemble. However, the intimacy of the trio that so enthralled listeners has not been lost and much credit for this achievement must go to the arrangements of conductor Hans Ek, on the one hand, and, on the other, to the two remaining band members, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström who have carved out their own careers subsequently. The seemingly impossible task of filling Svensson piano duties is accomplished with aplomb by Iiro Rantala who has been making his own waves as a leader with ACT, while for added diversity a two-pronged brass section of saxophonist Marius Neset and trumpeter Vernieri Pohjola along with pedal steel guitarist Johan Lindström provide a further dimension to the music.

On the opener, ‘E.S.T. Prelude’, the scene is set for what is to follow and serves as an impressionistic hors d’oeuvre for the main course. One characteristic of the band in its prime was the quirky and often humorous choice of track titles and one fine illustration of this is, ‘When God Created The Coffee Break’, which is taken at a brisk tempo with strings prominent until brass suddenly break in. Thereafter, the chamber jazz ambiance of the piano trio takes over. Trumpeter Neset comes into his own on, ‘Seven Days Of Falling’, while Öström provides sensitive accompaniment on brushes on ‘Viaticum Suite’.

Thankfully, at no stage does the celebration ever enter into schmaltzy territory and the interpretations here operate fully in their own right as on the gorgeous minimalist piano of Rantala on, ‘From Gagarin’s Point Of View’, with just the rhythm section while the strings heighten the tension. Indeed, this makes for a fine and viable alternative to rival the original version. A good indicator of an album’s strength is how it ends and in this case, two of the strongest compositions are left to last with the soothing, ‘Viaticum Suite’, and the breezy, ‘Behind The Yashmak’, both impressing.

A heartfelt way to pay homage to Esbjörn Svensson, then, and the music of this trio will linger long in the memory. Historically, the musical innovations of EST represent an important step forward in European jazz as a whole.

Tim Stenhouse

Peter Erskine Trio ‘As It Was’ 4CD Box Set (ECM) 5/5

peter-erskine-trioAs far as piano trios go, this was one of the finest to grace the jazz scene during the 1990s, using the innovations of the Bill Evans trio as a starting point, but then veering off in other directions, and this four CD set is an outstanding example of what is possible with the format when three musicians of the highest calibre combine in unison on a project that is devoid of egos and where the music is uppermost in their minds and hearts. The music in addition, serves as a fitting tribute to the late John Taylor who left us last year and was arguably at his most comfortable in the setting of a trio. Chronologically, the albums showcased cover a period of some five years between 1992 and 1997 during which time the trio performed live in the UK to great acclaim, but the quality of the playing and the overall excellence of the in-group compositions make this music seem utterly timeless in character.
One towering feature of the recordings as a whole is the extent to which John Taylor dominates as principal author of the largely self-contained compositions, fifteen in his own right and another two as co-composer. During the 1990s Taylor’s reputation soared and his output increased both as sideman and leader, with regular performances within the ECM roster. If anything, the pianist was something of a late bloomer and had found a happy medium between creative writing and performing on the one hand, and teaching on a quasi-permanent basis on the other. By the early 1990s Taylor was at ease in that environment and the music is enriched as a consequence, though it is important to stress that it is the ensemble performances that entice the listener first and foremost.

The debut CD from 1992, ‘You never know’, has a natural freshness to it and is a favourite of many precisely because of that. Typifying the sound is the Taylor-penned, ‘New Old Age’, which commences as a solo piano number before the rhythm section gently enter. Boasting the prettiest of melodies, ‘Groundhog Day’, retains a floating feel throughout while ‘Clapperclowe’ offers something of a Latin feel with Erskine’s work on rim drum, taken here at a rapid tempo. and indeed this became a regular live number in the trio’s repertoire.

An initial attempt at collective writing occurred on the second album,’Time Being’, from 1993 and here the compositions were more evenly spread, with Taylor and Erskine predominating. However, bassist Palle Danielsson did offer up both his own piece and a joint number. Impressionistic hues are the order of the day with Erskine’s ‘Bulgaria’ actually having more of a South African feel with intricate bass and drum work. In comparison Taylor evokes closer to home pleasures on, ‘Ambleside’, an ode to the Lake District and a joyous piece with blues inflections and album highlight.

Arguably, the most compelling of all the recordings is the third,’ As it is’ (1995), which is notable for a sumptuous re-reading of William Walton’s classical opus, ‘Touch Her Soft Lips And Part’. By now, the trio were comfortable together and delivered an outstanding album overall with the positivity of ,’Esperança’ and the evocative, ‘Au contraire’. In 1997, the trio released a fourth and final outing, ‘Juni’, with Erskine more in charge and a varied set of pieces. If the opener, ‘Prelude no. 2’ is something of a free form composition, then the gentle crescendo of cymbals on, ‘For Jan’, is a simpler offering with catchy riff, while the pièce de résistance is probably, ‘The Ant And The Elk’, where on the surface not a great deal appears to be happening, yet underneath the music is more complex with a staccato feel and more improvised in nature. Mention must be made of the inclusion of compositions by Vince Mendoza and Kenny Wheeler, both gifted arrangers and writers, and their contributions allied to the high level of interaction of the constituent members creates the defining gel that marks this trio out from the rest.

In recent times, ECM inner sleeve notes have become more expansive in their outlook and this latest collection proves no exception with extensive notes courtesy of John Kelman who sheds important light on the music and individual musicians. Impeccable sound quality. The only pity is that, at this juncture at least, the trio do not appear to have been recorded live and hearing the trio stretch out on some of these endearing compositions would help complete the picture for the listener.

Tim Stenhouse