Lee Konitz ‘Frescalalto’ (Impulse!) 3/5

Now entering his last year as an octogenarian at eighty-nine, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz returns with a recording backed by the ever excellent Kenny Barron trio comprising double bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. While not a definitive example of the Konitz craft (his mid-1950s Atlantic albums with the likes of Warne Marsh and the verve recordings including the wonderful trio outing with Elvin Jones from 1961 are the basic starters for any jazz saxophone collection), this is still worth a listen, especially when just Konitz and Barron are left to duet. In fact the pairing goes all the way back to 1992 with the album, ‘Jazz Nocturne’, that also featured Kenny Washington.

Konitz personified the cool school approach of the 1950s, though was never a musician to be pigeon holed and capable of truly innovative playing. On this new recording, he revisits some favourite chestnuts and includes three original compositions. Of these, the uptempo swing of ‘Kary’s trance’ impresses most of all and Konitz’s trademark plaintive alto voice is wonderfully showcased here.

The only faux pas is a wordless vocal intro by the leader on the ballad, ‘Darn that dream’, that the listener could have done without, but even then the pared down piano plus saxophone outing is a treat and Barron is that most sensitive of accompanists. Otherwise, there is fine interplay between the leader and pianist in the intro to, ‘Stella by starlight’, before Peter Washington enters immediately with an emphatic bass solo. This writer warmed to the mid-tempo rendition of, ‘Invitation’, which the leader infuses with a new approach and some lovely vamping from Barron.

Tim Stenhouse

Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita ‘Transparent Water’ (World Village/Harmonia Mundi) 4/5

World roots fusion albums can sometimes be something of a hit and miss affair, with disparate musical traditions not blending in total harmony. However, when there is a profound respect for these musical traditions and, in addition, a genuine attempt to marry them without losing the very essence of the roots, then the results can be at once outstanding and surprising with the recordings, ‘Talking Timbuktu’ or ‘Making music’, being famous and illustrative examples of successful fusion music. Happily, this new recording fits into the latter category and the pairing of a Senegalese kora player with a Cuban pianist proves to be an especially entertaining and insightful experience, and one, moreover, that enlightens us on the musical connections between West Africa and the Caribbean.

This is quite simply music that allows you, temporarily at least, to take your foot off the fast breaks and simply soak up the slower and infinitely more creative pace of life in an increasingly interconnected world. At the heart of it is the relationship between two musicians, although the substantial contribution of multi-instrumentalist Gustavo Ovalles who performs on multiple Afro-Cuban percussive instruments such as the bata drum, clavé and guataca, is most certainly worth mentioning. Thus gentle tones emanate from, ‘In the forest’, with piano and kora blending beautifully. Likewise, the lovely riff laden number, ‘Mining-nah’, impresses. For some extra helping of world roots flavours, the Japanese koto is incorporated onto the dream-like repetition of the piece, ‘Black dream’, with vocals provided by Keita himself, and another unnamed instrument that sounds akin to an accordion.

Interestingly, the kora instrumentation was recorded back in 2013 and further layers added on. Co-produced by jazz musician Steve Argüelles and Omar Sosa, this album may just end up on the ‘best of the year’ list for world roots aficionados.

Tim Stenhouse

MEM3 ‘Circles’ CD/DIG (Private Press) 4/5

Another week and another piano trio, but does this one have what it takes to make a lasting impression?
This trio is MEM3 comprising Michael Cabe (Seattle) on piano, Mark Lau (Sydney) on bass and Ernesto Cervini (Toronto) at the drums. This is their second release, but the first to reach my ears. On offer are nine original compositions from individual group members together with a traditional hymn. It is significant that the penultimate track is titled ‘4ES’ for it is a dedication to the Swedish pianist Esbjorn Svensson and EST are a clear influence of this trio’s thinking. There are influences from contemporary masters, the Bad Plus and I’m reminded of the sometimes delicate music of the wonderful Peter Esrkine Trio which featured the piano magic of the late John Taylor.

The opening track ‘Centrical’ starts with some electronic wizardry before quickly settling into a gently loping theme so reminiscent of EST. What is so beguiling about this piece is the ‘mood changing’ nature. Just when you think you know what is happening, a change of dynamics hits you square between the ears, a quick change of musical direction wrong-foots the listener and this happens time and time again and then the subtle electronics re-appear.

‘Native Dancer’ follows and is somewhat reminiscent of many a Scandinavian piano-led trio, at first that is, then suddenly there is another change of tempo and mood, as slowly but surely, the intensity of the performance is increased.

There follows the album title track, the aptly titled ‘Circles’. The electronics are back and we are plunged into a musical pool frequented by the likes of “The Necks”. Minimalistic jazz, perhaps?‘Quiescent’ is yet another change of pace. This is a wonderfully delicate ballad with subtle brush-work from the drummer and a fabulous bass solo, almost a folk-tune in its simplicity. This is the outstanding track of the album for me.

Then along comes ‘Shire Song’ so very song-like in its construction, just waiting for someone to add lyrics. Again, the Scandinavian jazz trios come to mind. More great bass soloing. Two-thirds of the way through, the song almost comes to a premature conclusion, but then, seems to draw new breath with an insistent rhythmic figure developing on piano and it’s not long before bass and drums add to the mix stressing the urgency of the piece.

‘Anthem’ develops into a catchy bluesy then and more bass playing par excellence.

‘Faith of our Fathers’ is, I imagine, the traditional hymn and is the shortest piece at just under three minutes and is quite touching.

In a complete contrast ‘Olympic’ is next with the bassist picking out the melody line initially, but with the pianist quickly taking over. This is another example of the co-operative nature of the trio with no apparent leader and with the musical ‘baton’ being passed back and forth between trio members. There are elements of folk, rock, blues and more pastoral impressionism in this piece, at times is most delicate in a Bill Evans kind of way.

‘4ES’ features initial pulsating bass figure with pianist filigree piano figures above, gradually becoming more complex, only to lay out and for the bass to introduce a rock pulse and then take the heat right up, much as EST would have done.

After the intensity of ‘4ES’ the set concludes with ‘AFJ’, quietly bluesy and funky. At times during this album the music of Keith Jarrett comes to mind, as in the final track here, but at times we are edging towards a more freely improvised area.

In a field so full of piano trios, does this one have what it takes to break the mould of what has gone before? If EST were still performing today, would they sound like this? It’s rather too early to answer these questions and impossible on the basis of one album. Let’s see what they do next. In the meantime, this is a completely absorbing set of contemporary mainstream jazz. Available through Bandcamp and cdBaby

Alan Musson

Philippe Baden Powell ‘Notes Over Poetry’ LP/CD/Dig (Far Out) 3/5

Brazilian pianist Philippe Baden Powell is none other than the son of samba-jazz great guitarist Baden and this is his debut offering for London’s Far Out label. There is a variety of settings, ranging from intimate piano trio to an expanded horn section, and five vocal offerings that include rap and take in wordless vocalese. Adding his inimitable drum licks is French musician André Ceccarelli who jazz fans will know from his work with vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater when she resided in France.

The music works best when it remains instrumental and combines funk-tinged bass with acoustic piano and Afro-Brazilian percussion. A fine example is on the busy, bubbling mid-tempo groove of, ‘Vamos donatear’, with horns entering. Another take on the funkier side of town is provided with, ‘Chica’, with electric bass and horns combining, and with Powell performing on piano and singing gently in the style of Caetano Veloso. Two other vocalists participate on the album and they include Paula Tesser who contributes Brazilian Portugese vocals on, ‘Recado pra você’ which is an attractive uptempo samba-jazz number. Belgian vocalist David Linx reverts to rap on the title track and this sounds somewhat out of place compared to the rest of the album.

However, he redeems himself with some tasty vocalese on the duet with the pianist on, ‘Hues’. Stylistically, Powell comes across as something of a Brad Mehldau devotee with Keith Jarrett another possible influence and the leader is gifted in communicating simple, yet effective melodies as on, ‘For you know’. Future albums would be better served focusing on just one or more stylistic variations, and ideally a separate vocal and piano recording would best suit the collaboration with David Linx. Otherwise, this is a promising debut and one that establishes Philippe Baden Powell as a musician to be reckoned with in his own right.

Tim Stenhouse

Soul Basement ‘What We Leave Behind’ (ITI) 3/5

This is an 8-track foray into what I would say would best be described as a modern soul/jazz album. With large amounts of piano, Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ parts blended with programmed but live sounding drums and horns, ’What We Leave Behind’ is a outright retro album that unashamedly takes its influences from 1970s soul and vocal jazz records for this the forth Soul Basement album. Fabio Puglisi aka Soul Basement is an Italian musician and producer who this time out adds jazz vocalist Jay Nemor, originally from Houston, Texas on all eight tracks, who has also released previous material including a solo album in 2014 titled ‘Just Sayin’.
Regards the songs themselves, all are perfectly crafted with the ballad, ‘With You’ being a standout. The more uptempo ‘I’m Doing Fine’ with its catchy chorus holds an Incognito quality, and I enjoyed the more contemporary ‘Future Reminiscence’ with its Dilla/Ummah sounding sub bass and finger snaps, combined with Jay’s Gil Scott-Heron type rap poetry lyrics considering past memories and positive thoughts, with added saxophone included.

Being critical, the album is quite old fashioned with nothing new here that is going to attract an audience outside of the modern soul/jazz world – but that’s probably the point. The vocals are perfectly delivered with Jay obviously being influenced by baritone jazz vocalist Jon Lucien as well as the previously mentioned street poetry of Gil, but lyrically the songwriting is very literal with not a great deal of abstraction. And the level of musicianship is competent throughout the album, but maybe the use of some additional musicians to augment the production here would provide alternative ideas could be seen as a positive. This isn’t a massive criticism but it is common with albums where an individual or a small team has handled the entire production. The reason we all love Marvin, Stevie and Miles is also because of their collaborators.

Comparisons with artists such as Mario Biondi and Incognito are clear, and if that’s your lane then this is very much for you. But in a world where Gregory Porter is so dominant, it is genuinely very difficult for vocal based soul/jazz artists to create an impact or to market albums like this. But it will fit in nicely with the Jazz FM crowd and music fans who tend to stay with albums that are firmly rooted in the 70s soul sound.

Damian Wilkes

Soul Scratch ‘Pushing Fire’ (Colemine) 5/5

I’ve been hoping that this lot would eventually get an album out, the 45 “Telephone” has been hammered here at home and I’v managed to play it out too. A funky dancer with a real choppy sound, great vocals ride the rhythm effortlessly. Then the album arrived and thankfully it’s more of the same – you may remember me raving over the St Paul & The Broken Bones first album, well this ain’t a million miles from that sound, Dale Spollet and Paul Janeway should consider a duet, what a tune that would be!
First up two tracks hit me big time, “Kiss me in the morning” and “Thankyou”, both are majestic downtempo cuts oozing with soul and would sound the dogs bollocks on radio, the rest are funky danceable well-sung tunes. The group consists of Dale Spollett on vocals, Joel Givertz on guitar, Johnny Chou on Bass, Adam Greenberg on Drums, Matt Reale on trumpet and Ian Anderson on Sax supported by Roger Rivas, Dan Hastie and Joel on keys and Kassandra Kocoshis on percussion. First of the funky cuts to impress is “Be kind” and horn and percussion fuelled gem, there are people out there who claim to be into funk, in fact at the minute an all nighter exists for the genre but you won’t hear any from this group, far to real, far too James Brown, Bobby Byrd, Lyn Collins… having mentioned those icons, they have there own sound but you can feel the inspiration in there.

The big tune for me though is “Look how far we’ve come”, as deep as you can go with lots of horn support, just the way it should be. Colemine records are slowly becoming a real force in soul & funk circles with many essential releases, they appear to have great distribution too, keep them coming I say.

Brian Goucher

The Mark Masters Ensemble ‘Blue Skylight’ (Capri) 5/5

I had been aware of the name of Mark Masters for some time but this was the first opportunity that I had had to hear any of his output.  Masters is an American trumpeter, composer and arranger who “has emerged as one of the great jazz arrangers of the 20th and 21st Century.” His first recording as leader, the aptly titled “Early Start” was released in 1984 when he was aged just twenty-seven. Since then he has released some ten albums as leader.  
Aside from writing charts, Masters has dedicated much of his time to education. In 1997 he founded the American Jazz Institute, concentrating on interpreting the music of Bill Holman, Lee Konitz, Sam Rivers and others. His initial recording in tribute to jazz greats was “The Jimmy Knepper Songbook” and subsequently “The Clifford Brown Project.”
Masters’ modus operandi is to assemble groups of all stars and the best local West Coast musicians to record his arrangements in concept tribute albums. His latest release continues this tradition by focussing on the work of Charlie Mingus and Gerry Mulligan. At first these two might seem to be strange bed-fellows, but the affiliation seems to be a marriage made in heaven. The play list includes ‘Peggy’s Blue Skylight’ and ‘Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love’ by Mingus and ‘Apple Core’ and ‘Birds of A Feather’ by Mulligan. Otherwise, less well-known compositions have been chosen for Masters’ arranging pen.  

Amongst the soloists in this seven piece group are Gary Foster sounding at times rather reminiscent of Lee Konitz on alto saxophone, Gene Cipriano (the sound of Tony Curtis’ sax playing in ‘Some Like It Hot’) on tenor sax and Adam Schroeder on baritone sax. On the Mingus tracks the ensemble sound is varied with trumpet and trombone replacing tenor and baritone saxes.

I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable set, so much so, that I immediately ordered two other Masters’ releases.  

Despite the stress placed on Masters’ arranging skills, he does not over-write and allows plenty of space for his soloists. Each group member gets solo features throughout the eleven tracks.  

It is important to say that these are not slavish imitations of the originals. This is no repertory band and the charts are a wholly original re-imagining, almost re-compositions. After all, as trumpeter Tim Hagens points out in the liner notes; “arranging is composing and if the arranger’s voice is highly personal and developed, the original composer fades in function against the arranger’s musical opinion”. It’s clear too that Masters had the personalities of the various band members in mind when writing, in much the same way as Ellington had done many years previously.

There really is something for all musical tastes here, burly swing, tender balladry, swaggering bluesy interludes, and be-bop fuelled bravura.

One final comment, the wonderful Edward Hopper painting adorning the album sleeve seems to depict perfectly the music to be found within.

From start to finish this album certainly delivers the goods.

Alan Musson

The Chappells ‘Are You Ready’ (Bedford) 5/5

This album came as a monumental surprise and to up the anti a little further on vinyl too. The Chappells were one of a myriad of groups who came together briefly, released two 45’s, got ripped off by some one they thought was looking out for them and subsequently walked away from music finally shutting up shop in 1972. Both 45’s are revered as classic mid 60’s and much sought after, in more recent times “You’re acting kinda strange” has had a revival, due in the main to the plethora of Sunday soul sessions that have sprung up over the past 18 months, most of which are presenting the slower side of our music. The aforementioned tune is a lovely well produced mid-pacer that fits the bill perfectly, I’ve spun it several times at my Sunday Soul Sessions at Stanwick.
The four sides of the two 45’s are here but the remaining seven are unissued and it’s these I acquired the album for and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest, all could quite easily have made it to 45, in fact if this album had come out in 1964 it would be considered a holy grail today.
Let’s get straight to the real meat on here, “Searchin” and “She needs him” are gloriously produced skipping dancer’s, very much in the Constellations’ “I don’t know about you” sound – and just how big is that now? Once word is out amongst the Northern Soul fraternity I can almost guarantee some ars-hole will boot them (all in the name of getting the music out there of course). The reason we have this album now is that a set of lo-fi demos tracked on portable reel to reel were found in a basement, capturing the evolvement of the group to a self contained band.

The crossover boys will cream there pants when they hear “Moan for you” with its relentless choppy beat, tinkling pianos, muted horns, superb tune every way, “Don’t take a trip” is straight out of that wonderful ‘Newsounds’, ‘Pretenders’ sound, a strolling beast of a sound. I must warn you though the sound is lo-fi but that doesn’t affect the sound quality at all, I have “Everybody needs someone” playing as I type this and I’m shaking my head in sheer wonderment, another dancer that would have them up dancing at any thinking mans soul night.
This album isn’t easy to get hold of and it ain’t cheap but just buy it and like me wallow in the shear beauty of a lost sound from a time long gone and never to be repeated. For me, the release of the year so far and it’s going to take something quite special to knock this off top spot. There is a suggestion that this surfaced at the tail end of last year but it certainly wasn’t available to the likes of me until February this year.

Brian Goucher

La Mambanegra ‘El Callegüeso y Su Mala Maña’ CD/LP/Dig (Movimientos) 4/5

Pan-Caribbean grooves are the order of the day on this slice of driving Colombian salsa with funk and the occasional hip-hop influence and underlying it all, some of the literary magic realism for which Colombia is so rightly famous. The music is inspired by an anonymous and mythical hero of one of the popular working class neighbourhoods in Cali, called barrio obrero. In fact on the Pacific coastline of Colombia, there is a thriving music scene and in the case of La Mambanegra one that in the choppy rhythms and chanted vocals takes a leaf out of Cuban band Los Van Van, and that is most certainly the case of the opener, ‘Puro Potenkem’. This writer immediately warmed to the 1970s style horns that echo the classic salsa dura of New York. Where this album wins hands down over contemporary salsa is in the variety of styles with great subtlety displayed on the muted trumpet and electric piano accompaniment of, ‘Cantare para vos’, which features what sounds like a Cuban trés and with nasal male lead vocals reminiscent of Rubén Blades. There is even some retro cha-cha in the intro to the mid-tempo burner that is, ‘El sabor de la guayaba’ with the guest vocals of Santiago Jimenez. More contemporary dance flavours with hammond organ and funk tinges are evident on, ‘La compostura’.
Neither reggaeton nor salsa romantica, this authentic salsa meets son fusion offering promises a great deal and succeeds on all fronts in delivering first rate dancefloor grooves. Little wonder they cooked up a musical storm at the 2016 Womad festival.

Tim Stenhouse

Thundercat ‘Drunk’ CD/LP/DIG (Brainfeeder) 4/5

Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner, returns for his third full-length album ‘Drunk’ which follows on from his last release in 2015, the EP ‘The Beyond / Where The Giants Roam’, and is again released on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label. This is another esoteric journey through the mind of the world’s favourite electric bass player and contributor to some of the most regarded artists in the modern music climate, from Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin and label boss FlyLo.The album contains 23 tracks, although the Japanese CD release has a bonus track (more later), but only six tracks are more than 3 minutes in length. This is quite typical of Thundercat so this is definitely not an album of singles. And as the title suggests, the alcohol/being drunk and escapism theme permeates the set with Thundercat’s added soulful vocals being quite accomplished, and it does remind me of a time when bass players would be given recording contracts on major labels to create fully formed albums, such as those by Stanley Clarke and Michael Henderson, with Michael also providing vocals, so this isn’t an album designed strictly for bass players, but obviously his playing is virtuosic and impeccable.  

As common with recent Thundercat material, his West Coast home is a major musical influence, with The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan being obvious reference points here, including getting Michael McDonald to guest on ‘Show You The Way’. Other vocal guests include Pharrell on ‘The Turn Down’, Kendrick Lamar (‘Walk On By’) and a pointless appearance from rapper Wiz Khalifa on ‘Drink Dat’. But for some frantic musicianship, check the 2’16” instrumental jam ‘Uh Uh’ with its speed up ‘Ashley’s Roachclip’ breakbeat and dexterous bass guitar timing, piano rushes and mollifying vocal harmonies over the top. ‘Show you the Way’ is possibly the only real radio playable track, and it does sound like a contemporary Doobie Brothers song, with electric piano chords, LA synth movements and additional vocals from Kenny Loggins – yes, the guy who did ‘Footloose’ (but play ‘Make The Move’ from the Caddyshack OST in 1980 for some sample heaven).

And in this cynical world, Thundercat doesn’t take himself too seriously with lyrics such as ‘everybody wants to be a cat’ on the otherwise soulful, ‘A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)’ which blends jazz tones with smooth vocal melodies. And he must be one of the few musicians to reference Japanese Anime, Manga and video games within his records. Thus, it’s refreshing to hear an artist that incorporates something else other than failed relationship material within their releases. And so it’s a very difficult album to categorise, other than it sounds like a typical Thundercat album. And with production from Flying Lotus adding his own unique twist on modern electronic black music, the Brainfeeder label continues to show the world how to be eclectic but also familiar at the same time. There’s modern soul in there, frantic new age funk, a bit of Frank Zappa humour and video game electronica – but all with integrity and honestly, plus some mesmerising bass playing.

But it also has its unfortunate moments such as ‘Drink Dat’, with its poor guest lyrics from Wiz Khalifa, which could have been written by a 14-year old kid trying to impress his school friends on his experiences of getting drunk. And the bonus Japanese CD track ‘Hi’ which features Mac Miller, a Pittsburgh MC, but here he sings rather than raps. This ‘bonus’ is not missed in the rest of the world as it sounds like an unfinished demo – and not a good demo. These may be Thundercat’s drinking buddies, but best to leave them at the bar and go drinking elsewhere. And even Kendrick’s verse on Walk On By’ (not that one) seems a little disjointed and was probably not needed. Added guests from the Hip Hop community I find rarely work on more progressive contemporary music, and coming from a strong and lengthy Hip Hop background, I feel I can identify and comment upon this. Thundercat deserves equals, and artists such as Pharoahe Monch or Black Thought from The Roots would have been a better fit here.

But to redeem the release, ‘Drunk’ also contains the now modern soul classic ‘Them Changes’ from his 2015 EP, with its Isley Brothers ‘Footsteps in the dark’ drum loop and infectious bassline groove. And thankfully, the vinyl release was issued at the same time as the other formats, with it being another Brainfeeder boxset piece but this time pressed on 4 red 10” vinyl records.

Damian Wilkes