Brzzvll ‘Waiho’ LP/CD/DIG (Sdban Ultra) 3/5

Ghent based indie label, Sdban, have made reputation for themselves as a superior producer of compilations on various aspects of the Belgian music scene. However, they are now venturing into more contemporary beats with a new group to these ears, though this is in fact their seventh studio album. Brzzvll are a seven piece band whose influences veer towards the darker side of jazz-fusion with a grittier funk edge in the Headhunters meets mid-1970s Miles Davis vein. A brooding atmosphere permeates the entire album and they follow on in the historical footsteps of Marc Moulin and group Placebo whose 1970’s recordings have been re-discovered by a new and wider audience.

While the group are not that intent on extended improvisation, which may be a drawback for some, they do succeed in laying down heavy bass lines over shifting drum beats, with repetitive motifs, and collective and individual horn work. This is then added to psychedelic guitar and keyboards, and it all comes together beautifully on ‘Wizzly Whop’. Hints of early 1970’s Santana circa ‘Caravanserai’ can be heard in the eerie sound effected intro to ‘Andromeda’, and the shuffling drum pattern give this a more modern twist even if the bass is straight out of the 1970’s. Plucked bass strings à la Jaco Pastorius are prominent on ‘Mantra’, which is notable for its extensive use of sound effects and with a distant flute and soprano saxophone. In live performance, Brzzvll have share the stage with some impressive company ranging from Marcus Miller to the Neville Brothers, and with the excellent British singer, Alice Russell, also in attendance. A pretty melody, conveyed by the medium of synthesizer, dominates ‘Mighty Mylou’. Perhaps deliberately, the sound quality is at times lo-fi and slightly blurred on ‘De Vlijtige Kip’, though the overall quality is still high. The band can be credited for their quality of the compositions and ensuring a balance between virtuosity and danceable groove with memorable hooks.

This is a musical journey into the darker side of 1970’s jazz with a strong funk-tinged bass and drum, and as such can be recommended to those searching for less obvious jazz oriented grooves.

Tim Stenhouse

Aki Rissanen ‘Another North’ LP/CD/DIG (Edition) 5/5

If I may quote from the Edition records web site, “Aki Rissanen delivers an all-encompassing, powerful new album….that explores new heights of rhythmic intensity, pulsating grooves and hypnotic loops.” This statement is certainly not hyperbole. It is an accurate description of the music that you will hear on this album. This is an all-star Finnish Trio. Alongside Rissanen on piano, is Antti Lötjönen on bass and Teppo Mäkynen at the drums. In the somewhat overcrowded arena of jazz piano trios, the challenge for these three is to produce something compellingly original and which stands out from the crowd.

The seven track album opens with ‘Blind Desert’ and this piece immediately grabs one’s attention. It is an exuberant and energetic piece of music making, marking the trio out as confident in their presentation. This is high energy music. I’m reminded in places of the more extravagant minimalism of the likes of Terry Riley in the repeated rhythmic passages which weave in and out of the piece. In contrast the following tune ‘John’s Sons’ is somewhat more restrained, but no less intense, and the rhythmic device from the previous piece is utilised again to great effect. ‘New Life and Other Beings’ incorporates elements of rock beats and has almost free-form passages. Amongst the intensity there seems to be a large helping of good humour on this piece. Something for everyone. Most unexpectedly the next piece is a singular interpretation of a piano étude written by György Ligeti which, to me, in parts, sounds strongly reminiscent of the music of the late John Taylor. ‘Nature of the Beast’ is next and opens with a delicate tracery of piano arpeggios which are soon joined by ruminative double bass figures. Gradually, the intensity is built up once again before a more contemplative middle section which is followed with more high-powered minimalism. The tune ends as delicately as it begun. Something of a musical rollercoaster ride.

Drumroll herald the introduction to ‘Before the Aftermath’. The trio are constantly exploring new sounds and textures which hold the attention of the listener. They sound almost restless in their desire to attain new heights of musical expression. The final piece, ‘Hubble Bubble’, commences with insistent drumming and more minimalist piano and bass gradually building up the intensity. Just when you think you know where the music is taking you, there is another abrupt change of gear and we are thrown into a highly swinging section. A delightful change of pace. Then towards the end, the drummer gets a chance to shine. If I were to pick just one piece from this highly enjoyable album as my favourite it would be this one.

These are three master musicians working in a classic jazz trio format who are constantly bringing something new to the table. The ‘Nordic’ piano trio has a particular approach to music-making. Rissanen and friends are far from what we have grown to expect from this genre and they are none the worse for that.

Alan Musson

Cécile McLorin Salvant ‘Dream and Daggers’ 3LP/2CD/DIG (Mack Avenue) 5/5

Part recorded live before an audience at the legendary Village Vanguard club in Greenwich Village, New York, part recorded with strings in the studio, this extended take on Cécile McLorin Salvant is typically individual and quirky, and breathes new life into some of the Great American songbook standards, while equally demonstrating that the singer is developing into a gifted and innovative songwriter. The material is at once thought-provoking and challenging, and Salvant is extremely well supported by regular Aaron Diehl on piano, Paul Sikivie on double bass and Laurence Leathers on drums. Adding layered texture to proceedings are the Catalyst String Quartet.

It may surprise some to know that Cécile McLorin Salvant has been the recipient of the Down Beat critics poll for best female vocalist for four years in a row and this critically acclaimed reception is really an indication of how her idiosyncratic and ever entertaining take on standards and own originals has found favour with the critics including this one who has been repeatedly impressed by the quality of her work. What this writer especially likes about the voice is that it communicates directly to the audience and radiates warmth and a uniquely individual take on life’s narrative. It is often the awkwardness of every day life that provides the material for the singer to stamp her own imprint on. This time round, some of the originals are quite inward looking in character and, while not wholly autobiographical, McLorin Salvant does draw upon personal experience for inspiration. Five songs were either written solely by, or co-written by the singer, invariably with Paul Sikivie. There are echoes of Betty Carter on, ‘Never will I marry’, with full-on vocals and a drum solo. Compare this number with Carter’s own, ‘Some gentlemen don’t like love’, and you can begin to hear a logical evolution

A lengthy homage to the US songbook takes in Irving Berlin, Noel Coward, George Gershwin and Kurt Weill, while the blues is not forgotten with a Buddy Johnson composition in, ‘Tell me what they’re saying can’t be true’ and the traditional, ‘Wild women don’t have the blues’. For the latter, the storytelling quality of McLorin Salvant in a live context is showcased and the subtle use of strings is never intrusive, or overly lush.

The trio excel in this repertoire and the elasticity of their improvisation allied with McLorin Salvant’s own elongating of lyrics makes for some thrilling listening. A breezy, ‘I didn’t know what time it was’, contrasts with an austere reading of the ballad, ‘You’re my thrill’, and in her phrasing there are elements of both Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, but it still comes out sounding her own. An unexpected singer inspiration turns out to be Bob Dorough and McLorin Salvant tackles both, ‘Devil may care’ and, ‘Nothing like you’, the latter especially convincing.

Sound quality is excellent and captures the intimacy of the rapport with the audience that the Village Vanguard is rightly famed for, with individual instrumentation clearly distinguishable. Reproducing handwritten lyrics is a nice touch on the inner sleeve notes, even if they are not always easy to decipher, and the evocative illustrated drawings on the outer cover are another indication that Cécile McLorin Salvant wishes to have a direct input in all aspects of the recording process and why not when the final result is as enjoyable as this. A marvellous individual voice and a star of the future.

Tim Stenhouse

Stefano Bollani Trio ‘Mediterraneo’ (ACT) 3/5

ACT has made it a virtual trademark to showcase the very best in up and coming pianistic talent and has invariably done so in challenging settings that stimulates creativity and label boss Siggi Loch is to be commended for such an open-minded approach. This live recording is a coming together of a fourteen piece string and brass ensemble that are part of the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the so-called, ‘Mitglieder’, or orchestral members, and the repertoire is re-interpretations of classical opera pieces in a piano jazz trio milieu with classical elements added and arrangements by Norwegian Geir Lysne. Danish jazz accompanists Jesper Bodilsen (double bass) and Morten Lund (drums) make up the closely knit trio and there are a few more contemporary Italian pop and film soundtrack numbers added in for good measure and a little variety. If the idea behind the project is an excellent one and fully deserving of support, then the execution needs to be clear about where classical and jazz elements coincide and can be complimentary, and where they are better separated to avoid sounding too stilted.

Where this works best is when the trio get down to business and create an intimate environment in which to take off in new directions on well known themes, as with Nino Rota’s ‘Amarcord’, from a famous Federico Fellini film of the same title. If anything, the project as whole would have been better served sticking to more contemporary fare and they perform well again on ‘The good, the bad and the ugly’. A medley of Leoncavallo and Puccini numbers, ‘O mio babbino caro’ for the latter and ‘Mattinata’ for the former, showcases the trio at their best recalling the Brad Mehldau sound. However, the strings and brass, however well performed by member of arguably the premier western classical orchestra in the world, simply sound too rigid in a jazz context, and there is no improvised feel which sounds strange when one is accustomed to a swinging big band jazz orchestra. That is no fault of the musicians themselves who are fine individuals in their own right and, moreover, need to be in order to regularly perform with the Berlin Phil. Rather, they are being asked to perform in an idiom which is not their own and ultimately that structural weakness has to be addressed.

Maybe a project devoted to the music of Paolo Conte, or another composer of the same calibre might prove to be fertile terrain for a future follow up. The now distinctive artwork comes courtesy of Federico Herrero, with a gatefold sleeve that reveals inner notes in English and German.

Tim Stenhouse

Jon Hassell ‘Dream Theory In Malaya: Fourth World Volume Two’ LP+CD/CD (Glitterbeat) 4/5

This remastered re-issue from 1981 follows on from the first volume, still available on Glitterbeat, and collectively these albums that have inspired other trumpeters such as Scandinavians Arve Henriksen and Niels-Petter Molvaer to explore improvised music with sound effects. Trumpeter, Hassell, grew up in Memphis and went on to study composition and incorporating electronics into music with no less than Stockhausen in Cologne. If that were not enough, he then moved to New York and while there studied under Terry Riley, Lamonte Young and Phillip Glass as well as being mentored by Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath. Among collaborations, Hassell can count David Byrne and Talking Heads, Ry Cooder and Peter Gabriel as co-musicians, an impressive list to say the least. The album is part of a wider series that explore the relationship between non-Western modalities and sound processing, and are as experimental sounding now as they were when they first surfaced. Indeed, Jon Hassell is credited as the musician who coined the term, ‘Fourth world’, to define trans-cultural music.

This album finds him collaborating with Brian Eno who was living in New York at the time. Typical of the music as a whole is the eerie textured sound of the title track where the trumpet repeats a riff ad infinitum while in the background the listener hears multiple other sounds. Javanese world beat flavours meet Pygmy music in places, with a strong Polynesian feel to ‘Dato Ointung at Jelong’, which is notable for showcasing a cacophony of South Asian sound effects, and this hints in part at a ship’s horn lost in fog with muted harmon trumpet playing this role. Elsewhere frogs, children singing and laughter are all incorporated. Ambient and exotic in equal measure.

Jon Hassell liked to refer to his concept as ‘Coffee-coloured music of the future’, and this is most certainly other worldly and futuristic even by today’s standards. Inner sleeve notes by the leader shed light on the creative process.

Tim Stenhouse

Qotob Trio ‘Entity’ CD/DIG (Choux de Bruxelles) 5/5

Brussels-based independent label Choux de Bruxelles comes up with one of the most interesting new releases in recent years and a bona fide ECM sound recording in all but name. The genesis of the album is the encounter between three musicians from disparate and seemingly polars apart traditions and a previous quartet album recorded in Damascus between four young Syrians looking to mentally escape the confines of war. One of these, Syrian cellist Bassel Abou Fakher, left his native land to settle in the Belgian capital and has a strong Middle Eastern classical background. Belgian pianist Jean-Baptiste Delneuville is resolutely francophone in outlook and oscillates between classical and jazz. Accordionist Piet Maris comes from the Flemish-speaking community in Belgian, yet stylistically belongs more to the French chanson tradition. Collectively, this is less East meets West than East to West, and the musical balance constantly shifts, including within a given composition, and it is that ingredient that makes the music so enthralling from start to finish. Part improvised, part simple structures, the music has elements of J.S. Bach, early music, Arabic classical, and jazz all ingeniously fused into one.

Beautifully recorded, and of a quality that ECM devotees will doubtlessly appreciate, the music is at once meditative, challenging, and deeply spiritual in character. Hauntingly stark in tone, the mournful, ‘Cone’, begins with a single and lengthy note held by accordion before the cello enters and it is as if the spontaneity between musicians is akin to that of a practice session, albeit one where the music is carefully thought out. Pianist Delneuville fills in the gaps.

A genuine contender for the most melodic piece is ‘Yara’, which has a gorgeous Middle Eastern feel and a sensation of great intimacy with piano and accordion working in tandem. The music unfolds like a fairy tale, with cello resisting the temptation to join in the festivities until late on in the number. Strongest of all, however, is the stunning ‘Deconstruction’, that ends the album with eleven and a half minutes of sheer brilliance. A floating layered texture emerges from the piece with the strings acting like a synthesizer and minimalist piano serving as a counterfoil to bowed cello. Accordion takes centre stage on ‘Al Ruba’, and for some additional sounds, voices, while piano and cello plays a merely supportive role. Instrumental breakdowns are a feature of ‘Resistors’, where the piano repeats a motif and the bowed cello engages in some improvised passages. Musicians double up on trumpet (Delneuville), guitar (Maris) and voices (Maris again).

Albums like this only come along once in a while and should be savored. Breathtaking in outlook and delivery.

Tim Stenhouse

Mike Downes ‘Root Structure’ CD/DIG (Addo) 5/5

Here’s another helping of great jazz from Canada. Mike Downes is a bassist of some repute having been prominent on the Canadian jazz scene since the early 1980’s. Not only does he play wonderful bass but he is also a talented composer, arranger and educator. He’s played with the cream of the Canadian musicians and some of the biggest names in jazz including Pat Metheny, Chris Potter, Michael Brecker, Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor, to name just a few. On top of all this he is a Juno award winner for his 2014 album, ‘Ripple Effect’.

The emphasis for this album is melody. The album presents 10 compositions, the majority of which are written by Downes. There is even an interpretation of a Chopin ‘Prelude’. This is clearly a quartet of very talented musicians. As stated on Mike’s website, the album “has everything a jazz lover looks for in a record – outstanding compositions, tight ensemble play and dynamic soloing” and “demands repeated listens”. Is there anything more for me to say? Well, yes, plenty.

The quartet features the talents of Robie Botos (keyboards) Ted Quinlan (guitars) and Larnell Lewis (drums). The album opens with ‘Momentum’ and the first thing that one notices is the leader’s warm bass sound, deep and low-down. This seems to me to be a quite complex piece of writing which succeeds in displaying the evident skills of all involved. ‘Heart of the Matter’ is a spine-tingling ballad. The guitarist is well featured on this track. From mellow acoustic guitar we move to electric guitar reminiscent of John Scofield on ‘Miles’. Indeed, this could almost have been a Scofield composition in terms of the spirit of the piece. ‘Moving Mountains’ is different again, more intense than what has preceded it. Insistent pulsating rhythms are a characteristic of this tune. ‘The Raven’ is a delightful medium swing composition and amongst other delights, includes another feature for Downes. The title track is pure funkiness and drummer and bassist are clearly having fun on this one. More please. Then it’s back to more reflective material with ‘Flow’ with seductive guitar from Quinlan. A contemplative ‘Pre-Prelude’ follows and is a lovely feature for Botos. ‘Prelude and Variations’ is next. Aside from inspiring a certain Barry Manilow, this tune proves to be a perfect vehicle for these four master improvisers. This, for me, is the highlight of the album. The acoustic guitar fitting the mood of the piece perfectly.

The recording is completed by ‘Matter of the Heart’. A fine relaxed piece which brings to mind the best of Pat Metheny.

This album is as close to perfect as it is possible to get and fully warrants its rating here. Buy it!

Alan Musson

Zara McFarlane ‘Arise’ CD/LP/DIG (Brownswood Recordings) 3/5

The follow up to the excellent jazz-tinged debut, ‘Arise’. This is more of a pan-Caribbean affair and incorporates lovers rock-style harmonies, folkloric kumina rhythms, nyabinghi drumming and dub-soaked echo. Some of the finest of young British jazz talent is onboard here, with Moses Boyd on drums and the overall producer, Peter Edwards on piano, Binker Golding on tenor saxophone, and Shabaka Hutchings guesting on one track. If the ‘variety is the spice of life’ approach is the overarching raison d’être of this new album, it does succeed in producing one gem of a song in the cover of a Nora Dean song, ‘Peace Begins Within’, and this is a glorious piece with inventive use of horns that constantly soothes the mind, while Zara McFarlane is on the top of her game with a stunning performance. Nothing quite matches this, which is a pity, but, if released as a single, it stands a good chance of helping promoting the album as a whole to a wider public. Another cover, this time of the Congos’ 1977 opus, ‘Fisherman Row’, impresses with a gentler reggae beat than on the classic roots reggae original, some neat nyabinghi drumming to accompany and those subtle horns once again in evidence. Crossover potential is evident in the Caribbean drum pattern to, ‘Fussin’ and Fightin’, and McFarlane delivers some quality soulful vocals. In between songs, short instrumental vignettes such as, ‘Riddim’ Interlude’ and the keyboard-dominated dub of ‘Freedom Chain’, hint at an artist who is looking beyond purely commercial considerations to create something of artistic longevity. Another instrumental, ‘Silhouette’, features Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet and is, perhaps, the closest that this album gets to jazz.

Perhaps the one frustrating aspect of this new album for this writer is the overall jazz-lite content, though clearly that was never going to be the objective on an album that proudly showcases the Caribbean roots of the singer. Zara McFarlane should definitely pursue this fusion approach to music and it will surely pay off big-time. The balance is not quite there yet, but it is definitely heading in the right direction and there is still a good deal to commend. Looking forward to hearing Zara McFarlane in live performance at some stage.

Tim Stenhouse

Mista Savona Presents ‘Havana Meets Kingston’ (Baco) 5/5 & 4/5

Long overdue, given the geographic proximity of these two musically historic Caribbean Islands. Cuba and Jamaica brought so much music to the world over the decades, roots reggae, dub and dancehall and son, salsa, rumba and Afro-Cuban which has been exported far and wide, from entirely different political situations. Bringing together 52 artists (that’s one for each week of the year), including from Cuba – Barbarito Torres (Buena Vista Social Club), Félix Baloy (Afro-Cuban All Stars) Changuito (Los Van Van), Rolando Luna (Buena Vista Social Club); and from Jamaica Sly & Robbie, Bongo Herman, Ernest Ranglin, Burro Banton Prince Alla, to name just a few, this release totally rocks from start to finish. What is more astounding is took an Australian, Mista Savona (aka Jake Savona), to bring it all together as a producer. The project also goes on global tour in 2018 starting from March in Australia. Not sure if this means an entourage of 52 musicians as logistically that might be a challenge but the concept is massive all the same as a release. There are too many tunes on this set which meet the expectation of standout and for different reasons. ‘Chan Chan’ starts as you would expect until the double rim shot around 30 seconds signals a different bubbling drum and bassline recipe which just chugs along so sweetly that you could keep it on play all day (and night for that matter!). And the vocals are majestically delivered on this by Maikel Ante, Félix Baloy, Solis and Eugenio Rodriguez. ’Carnival’ featuring Solis & Randy Valentine is a blazing bi-lingual (Spanish/English) tune complete with a massive horns version that celebrates the biggest celebration of them all. ‘100 Pounds of Collie’ feat. Cornel Campbell (who also did the original version), Prince Alla, the Jewels, Leroy Sibbles, Cali P, Lutan Fyah & Exile Di Brave – what a line up – chanting on the virtues of the herb. ‘Fisherman Row’ has Prince Allah rounding up the release in a fine style singing for the fisherman Rastaman leaving Babylon and reaching ashore on another land. It’s a fitting ending for a release that connects two neighbouring islands in the Caribbean that have given the world such good vibes. If I had to be stranded on an island with a complete album from 2017, this would be it, as it is one of the most original and outstanding releases of this dramatic and turbulent year.

Haji Mike Rating 5/5

When ska ruled the waves in Jamaica, the Cuban-Jamaican musical connection was at its height and several Jamaican instrumentalists and singers could point to Cuban family roots there. These included Roland Alphonso and Lionel Aitken among others. Stylistically, Cuban piano vamps were sometimes a feature of ska in the early-mid 1960s (taking the Latin-soul music of Mongo Santamaria as a model), but with this brand new project, recorded at Egrem studios in Havana, by DJ/producer Mista Savona, aka Australian producer Jake Savona, that music connection has been given a major update, while still being faithful to the roots of Cuban and Jamaican music traditions respectively.

An ‘A’ grade listing of musicians includes Sly and Robbie, the Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of reggae music, percussionist Bongo Herman and guitarist Ernest Ranglin, while for the Cuban component, Rolando Luna from the Buena Vista Social Club conglomerate and Barbarito Torres from Los Van Van are just some of the musicians that make this cross-fertilisation of styles so appealing. While some of the tinkering is minimal, elsewhere there is a genuine fusion of musical traditions and, as a whole, this works extremely well.

For the former, the cuatro intro to the anthemic, ‘Chan Chan’, then takes on a subtle Jamaican flavour with nyabinghi bongo, and reggae riddims courtesy of ace drummer Sly Dunbar. Another classic Cuban tune in, ‘El cuarto de Tula’, is a full steam ahead percussive outing complete with piano vamp and Spanish rap that definitely works and gives the song a more contemporary feel

For the latter, there is greater experimentation as on the instrumental version of ‘Carnival Horns’, which starts off as pure roots reggae, but then dramatically veers off back to the Cuban tradition, yet throughout the complementary styles play off one another organically. The vocal version, ‘Carnival’, has been released as a single and, with lyrics in Spanish and Jamaican patois, it sounds like the ideal song to showcase the album as a whole, and with the right amount of publicity, should ensure the music reaches a wide audience. A 50/50 split between Cuban and Jamaican music is achieved on ‘Vibración Positive’, where instrumentation and vocals effortless rub against one another and give off an intoxicating musical perfume.

While this record can never claim to even begin to solve the multiple social and more recently meteorological problems facing the Caribbean, it does at the every least bring a small ray of sunshine into our lives and that is no bad thing.

Tim Stenhouse Rating 4/5

Lo’Jo ‘Fonetiq Flowers’ CD (World Village) 3/5

French roots group Lo’Jo hail from north-west France, but their pioneering brand of world music takes on board multiple influences from North Africa (the two lead female vocalists have Algerian roots) to instrumentation that incorporates the musical traditions of Iran and even Korea. Despite this, the sound is still immediately identifiable as French, and therein lies part of the problem with this latest album, which is overwhelmingly bleak in tone.

The music has a tendency to be wildly eclectic in places, with the emphasis on French lyrics as befitting the French chanson tradition. For non-francophone speakers, this combination of traditional French language lyrics and experimental world beats is likely to confuse and, sadly, there are no obvious songs to these ears that can elevate the band sound to a wider and non-specialist audience. Thus, the dissonant guitar and use of piano on ‘Chabalai’, is pure French chanson, but without a commercial hook. Further on, the slightly futuristic sounding ‘Figurine’ has electronica accompaniment alongside violin and female vocals. It is true to say that the band have sought to diversify by including English lyrics, as on ‘Noisy Flowers’, but this is delivered in a quasi US rap fashion, and with a female chorus that is straight out of a South African township. All wildly eclectic, but will a general audience be enthralled, or bemused by it all?

Lo’Jo are a group who are uncompromising in their ethos and that is to be applauded. This is probably their most reflective album thus far. However, it remains to be seen whether an audience beyond those already committed, will understand and be able to follow the music itself.

Tim Stenhouse