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