With a striking orange and pink front cover, this album stands out from the rest and the music within is just as stunning. Backed by one of the tightest of Kingston’s conglomerate of musicians and with the harmonies of group The Chosen Few, this wonderful recording serves as a de facto greatest hits package and has, to boot, another thirteen choice cuts that expand the original album to almost seventy-five minutes, and there is no filler. From the original album that surfaced in 1970 on Trojan records, this music stylistically straddles the rock steady and early reggae era, with the nascent Motown sound and the creative catalogue of composers re-interpreted for a reggae audience. The psychedelic era of Norman Whitfield productions bears heavily on the songs selected here, with the classic ‘Message from a black man’, featuring Harriott’s trademark falsetto vocals, as does the unusual time signature on the intro to ‘Slave’, which is delivered at a surprisingly slow tempo. Harriott is in his absolute prime on the tragic side of romantic material such as ‘The loser’, and ‘Riding for a fall’. Instrumentals were a speciality of The Crystalites and the title track is one such example on ‘Psychedelic Train Part One’, which the extra tracks continues with ‘Psychedelic Train Chapter Three’, though no indication of what happened to chapter two. The high standard of vocals is maintained on the supplementary songs with especially fine 45s included such as ‘Do I worry’ and ‘Solomon’. Motown again was fertile terrain for Harriott to cover and his reading of Smokey Robinson’s ‘You really got a hold on me’, compares favourably with the original. As befitting the Doctor Bird series thus far, exemplary graphical illustrations with a showcasing of the Crystal 45s, Derrick Harriott’s own Jamaican label, the Trojan and Pama UK album releases, flyers of the era when Harriott and band toured, and a four pages crammed with detailed notes on the singer and a fascinating insight into how the music fitted into the UK reggae scene of the time by reggae archivist and aficionado Laurence Cane-Honeysett.
If, at any point whilst listening to Tali, the opening track on Ladilikan, you think ‘so Tubular Bells has finally reached Africa,’ please stop listening, pick up your glockenspiel, and kindly vacate the room.
Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s enjoy one of the most artistically beautiful albums made in recent times. Ladilikan is a project by the Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI), launched by His Highness the Aga Khan to support talented musicians working to preserve, transmit, and further develop their musical heritage in contemporary forms. On the record, Southern Malian musicians Trio Da Kali join forces with string virtuosos, and seasoned collaborators, Kronos Quartet.
The well-travelled San Franciscan four-piece do not let their status overshadow three of Mali’s most talented griot musicians, skilfully accompanying Mamadou Kouyaté’s punchy ngoni rhythms.
David Harrington, founder of Kronos Quartet, likens Hawa Diabate’s voice to American Gospel queen Mahalia Jackson. On God Will Wipe All Tears away we hear the full extent of Hawa’s extraordinary vocal talent, effortlessly sliding across ranges to give a moving rendition of an early Mahalia Jackson recording.
More than anything, this is a showcase of Fodé Lassana Diabaté’s hypnotic balafon skills. A long-time member of the excellent Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra, Lassana Diabaté is note perfect with his controlled and mesmeric beatmanship. I’m first and foremost a fan of guitar music, but I would trade in any garage rock ticket to go and see Lassana Diabaté’s solo in Lila Bambo. With twenty-one wooden keys to hit at such speed, the margin for error is so great that seeing the likely occurrence of Lassana play without a single mistake would be one of life’s most exhilarating musical experiences.
Ladilikan is a stunning demonstration of modern-day, cross-cultural collaboration, combining griot story-telling with Western craftsmanship. For those of you who wish to know the history of the album, buy the record and absorb the brilliance of the detailed liner notes, which not only shed light on the background of production, but give a track-by-track breakdown of the inspiration behind the songs, offering deeper understanding of Malian tradition. Each song has been translated to English so the poetry is not lost on unversed ears.
Sometimes it is the impromptu music collaborations that work best and who would have thought that a Malian Griot trio of folk musicians would pair up with a highly respected western classical music string quartet that has developed a reputation for left-field recordings that include Elvis Costello, Phillip Glass and Terry Riley among others. The reality is that the musical meeting of minds works magnificently, and producer Nick Gold deserves great credit for making it sound so authentic. A wonderfully evocative scene is set from the outset by the glorious opener that is, ‘Tita’, with the simple, yet highly effective and repetitive use of the balafon by Fodé Lassana Diabaté, with the piercing vocals of Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté. A truly stunning start and one of the year’s most compelling African numbers. Where this musical métissage works so well is that the southern Malian component is allowed to flow and the western strings blend in, yet remain respectful. In the process, this enables some sublime layered textures to be created as on the string motif led piece, ‘Eh y a ye’, which is a genuine fusion of styles. That said, the Kronos Quartet do bring their own national folk influences to the table and this is illustrated on the very western swing country feel to, ‘Garba mama’, with the use of fiddles, and here, the Malian vocal contribution is slightly more restrained, and a delicious jazzy bass line. In other places, such as ‘Kanimba’, the layered strings serve as de facto background vocals. Another winner of a release from World Circuit and this must rate among their very greatest world roots fusion releases.
Once upon a time in the bye gone era of the 1950’s, groups such as The Cadillacs and The Hi-Lo’s dominated the airwaves with the sweetest of vocal harmonies, and the Four Freshmen belong to that period in time with a slight twist. They were interesting in harmonizing jazz and related styles, and while there is undoubtedly a quaint charm to their sound, they utilized the top session musicians at Capitol records for whom they recorded, and this is in practice meant serious jazz musicians coming on board. Conducted and arranged by Pete Rugolo and with other instrumentalists of the calibre of Laurindo Almeida and Herbie Mann, this is music that may have been easy on the ear, but one that had more serious intent underneath and expertly arranged. In some respects, they were a precursor to the kind of sound that Manhattan Transfer and others would revisit two decades later.
Four separate albums are included here and chronologically, they are not in the correct order or, in the case of ‘Freshmen Favourites Vol. 2’ complete, something that has been picked up by online reviewers elsewhere who would have preferred the whole of one album to be contained on the same CD, rather than sold separately. That caveat aside, the complete ‘Four Freshmen and Five Saxes’ from 1957, and ‘Voices in Latin’ from a year later, do grace the first CD and are the star turns on this quadruple bill of recordings. For the former, five saxophones to some jazz devotees might conjur up more avant-garde musings. However, here the combination works in perfect harmony with the vocals and the quartet work their way diligently through the Great American Songbook, interpreting ‘East of the sun’, ‘For all we know’, and ‘The very thought of you’. Among the saxophonists present, West Coast legend Bud Shank performs alongside Bob Cooper and Ted Nash. Hints of other vocal influences that have guided the Four Freshmen surface on ‘This love of mine’, co-written by Sinatra, and, in general, this is an enjoyable, if not entirely taxing listen.
Things liven up considerably on the follow up with a strong Latin flavour throughout, possibly influenced by the Nat King Cole album of Cuban compositions from the late 1950’s. An epic and dynamic sounding ‘Granada’, has a Hollywood-esque quality about it, with Chico Guerrero on drums, Conrad Gozzo on fiery trumpet, and Herbie Mann intervening at various stages on flute from a period when he was getting heavily into Latin rhythms. Stylistically, the cha cha cha rhythm predominates and enables the vocalists to lay down individually and collectively their identifiable sound. Highlights include, a rendition of ‘Brazil’, giving Grant Green a run for his money; an uplifting ‘The Breeze and I’, and the three cuts included from ‘Freshmen favourites vol. 2’, retain an essentially Latin undercurrent. The second CD tends towards the lusher, more romantic side on ‘Voices in love’, which also happened to hit number eleven in the pop album chart in 1958. Of greater interest is ‘The Four Freshmen in person vol. 1’, which is in fact a live performance from the same year, with the quartet doubling up on instruments including bass, mellophone, drums, guitar and trumpet. Once again they interpret the standards, with Billy Eckstein’s ‘Mr. B’s Blues’ – impressing. The Four Freshmen are a breath of innocent fresh air viewed and heard from a distance of some sixty years, and best digested in small, but nonetheless regular doses.
Tumi Music has long strived to champion the very finest, yet unrecognised names, in Latin rhythms and this has motivated label owner Mo Fini to make regular trips over to Cuba in order to unearth some of the hidden talent and très player and vocalist Arturo Jorge is one such find. He is an exponent of the trova, or singer-songwriting style, of which Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes are historically two of the major influences, but this is wrapped up in the campesino, or country style, which in practice means a pared down band comprising acoustic bass, maracas and bongos, guitar and all musicians doubling up on background vocals.
Devotion to the cause is the name of the game on ‘No va morir la trova tradiciónal’, which roughly translates as the trova style of performing will never die, and that sentiment is certainly endorsed by this writer, especially when, if this recording is anything to go by, it is in such a rude state of health. Simple repetitive riffs build up with added percussion and collective harmonies on the exquisite ‘Gózalo vacilalo’, and there is fine add-libbing on guitar on ‘De canto cristo a rio canto’, which is an instantly catchy mid-tempo affair. At times, it seems as if the instrumentation is caught up in a delicious loop, as on the more uptempo ‘Guajiro en la Habana’, where bass and guitar work wonders in tandem, while a similarly lively ‘Bailen nengo’, emphasizes how keeping things simple with collective harmonies pays dividends in the end. Handily, written in bi-lingual English and Spanish inner liner notes, and with the title track lyrics in both, this enchanting music visually conjurs up the very essence of the Cuban countryside and is heartily recommended to anyone with a love of fine rhythms and vocal harmonies. As a further step on for Latin neophytes, this music follows in the footsteps of 1960’s singer, Guillermo Portables, whom the World Circuit label did so much in the UK to publicise back in the 1990’s. This latest recording is a fine example of Cuban roots and a sure fire contender for best Latin roots album of the year.
With this last album, the world-renowned bass player Avishai Cohen departs from his usual stellar jazz recordings and offers us a groovy and mellow compilation of original and traditional songs, inspired by music of the 1970s. It is not the first time Avishai Cohen enchants listeners with his vocal talent but this album is entirely vocal and thus, very different from his previous releases. It is a concise album with an array of soundscapes and influences (pop, soul, African, Yemenite etc) that appeal to a wide audience. The various tempos ebb in and out, all interlaced in a musical continuum and yet, unified by Avishai Cohen’s acoustic balladry.
Avishai Cohen was particular in his choice of musicians. There is no doubt that having Tal Kohavi on drums, Yael Shapira on cello and Jonatan Daskal on keyboard play an important part in shaping the album, both emotionally and musically. And of course, the delightful Karen Malka, with whom he had performed before, provides excellent back vocals. She has a deep and colourful range and there could not have been a better match for Avishai Cohen’s own voice and exploding spirit. Percussionist Itamar Doari, who is a regular in Avishai Cohen’s entourage, and Elyasaf Bishari on oud, add that Oriental tinge which is so dear to the bass player. While he is honing his vocal talent on the album, he clearly demonstrates what a universal, all-encompassing musician he is, how he can take any musical genre and make it his own.
With a strong feminine imagery throughout the album, its recurring theme is that of lost love and hope. All songs are intimate and listeners are given a window into Cohen’s world, and are undoubtedly moved by it. For a moment, we almost forget the iconic jazz bass player and, through the lyrics, the rhythms and his musicality, he becomes even more human. We recognize and empathize with the feelings he expresses and the hurt he sings about. He sings both in English and Hebrew. He sings with transparency and his voice is resonant and warm. It is so modulated — deep and languorous, at times serene, sometimes sad, but forever eloquent.
The album opens up with the groovy ‘Song of Hope’, which is a plea for unity and, given that it is the lead track, clearly shows how the bass player cares and craves for a better world. Politics aside, the song still seems to come at the perfect time, given the ongoing state of affairs in the world. Another electrifying moment is delivered with ‘My Lady’, which is an upbeat love declaration, devoid of any soppiness, and which quickly evolves into a catchy tune.
‘Sei Yona’ and ‘D’ror Yikra’ are traditional songs which reveal Avishai Cohen’s deep connection to the Eastern heritage so present in Israeli jazz musicians. ‘Sei Yona’ is a Jewish Yemenite tune, which has been sung in countless ways. Here, Avishai gives it a hopeful, upbeat, happy rhythm while ‘D’ror Yikra’ sounds almost liturgical. Avishai’s raspy voice on the latter is beautiful, while the combination of the oud, cello and percussion lend it a hypnotic drive that is so alluring.
‘Motherless Child’ is one of Cohen’s most popular tunes of late. The lyrics are not particularly recherché and I feel the whole song relies entirely on the spirited groove, which unfolds like a kaleidoscope. Karen Malka’s back vocals are magnetic and it is a pity that they last for only such a short time.
On the other hand, I am particularly fond of ‘It’s Been So Long’. I like how the tune unravels its simple and yet touching lyrics and, once again, Karen Malka’s deep back vocals. ‘For No One’ is another one that tickles my sensitivity. I actually prefer it to the original McCartney song. Both the lyrics and the melody speak for themselves and Avishai Cohen’s rendition is even more soothing than the original. His soft-spoken voice and singing, combined with the piano, display pure emotion and vulnerability.
‘Vamonos Pa’l Monte’ is slightly different from the rest of the album. It definitely has the upbeat tempo of most South American popular songs. Listeners are offered some great cello and oud performance, which add a different angle to the song.
All in all ‘1970’ is a warm and earnest album, with a throng of rich tones and groovy melodies. Once again, Avishai Cohen nailed it.