Various ‘I’m Gonna Be A Wheel Some Day’ (Jasmine) 4/5

The Twisted Wheel in Manchester has acquired legendary status and is regarded by some as one of the seminal places in which the early UK mod movement first developed. The music played at the venue incorporated gritty urban blues and R & B, and one of the DJ’s who spinned the sounds was Roger Eagle, to whom this compilation is dedicated. Originally from Oxford, Eagle moved to Manchester to feed his collecting habit and, while working in the industrial heartland of Trafford Park, he managed to combine this with late night DJ-ing (the all-nighter concept arguably started at this venue before later becoming a staple of northern soul nights) and also editing a magazine for aficionados, ‘The R & B Scene’. Initially a left-wing club that was founded by the Abadi brothers and catered for a diverse selection of students, academics and trad jazz fans, the Twisted Wheel became the place to hear the latest sounds and this is reflected on the CD.

Harmony groups were popular in the early 1960’s and among these, The Coasters were especially popular and ‘Poison Ivy’ is a prime example, while The Clovers were close competitors whose, ‘Love Potion No.9’, was a hit 45. Collective male and female harmonies are a feature of, ‘Sixty minute man’, from The Dominoes. Novelty dance crazes came and went and one such song, ‘Dish Eag’, by Nat Kendricks and The Swans was popular on the dance floors. Blues was still hitting the juke boxes and clubs, and fine examples of urban blues come from Elmore James And His Broom Dusters on ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’, and John Lee Hooker imbues the blues with a grittier urbanity on ‘Dimples’. Meanwhile Bo Diddley offers up ‘Pretty Thing’, complete with drum rolls and guitar operating in tandem. Some major soul singers emerged on 45’s that were released in the UK and these included the late and great Solomon Burke who here contributes ‘Cry To Me’, and the equally great Bobby Bland, whose ‘Call On Me’ has become a classic. Instrumental R & B numbers were a staple of the scene and of course no more so than ‘Green Onions’, by Booker T and the MG’s, while a honking saxophone dominates ‘Long Distance’ by Garnell Cooper & The Kinfolks. A very own British version of the Mods is represented by Dr. Feelgood & The Interns, with the appropriately titled, ‘Doctor-Feel-Good’. Extended notes by Rob Fisher help recreate the atmosphere of the time, with black and white photos and flyers to illustrate.

Tim Stenhouse

Anouar Brahem ‘Blues Maqams’ 2LP/CD (ECM) 5/5

In the late 1990’s Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem recorded one of his most memorable collaborative albums with Dave Holland and John Surman in ‘Mathar’, a live performance of which was aired at the South Bank in London and viewed by this writer. Brahem this time round reprises his collaboration with Holland, and intriguingly adds the significant talents of drummer Jack deJohnette, and one of the UK’s most talented pianists in Django Bates on this all-originals composing date. The result is one of the year’s most successful fusions of world roots and jazz, and this may just be Brahem’s finest ECM album to date.

The music develops its own logical and natural patter, with all instrumentalists afforded sufficient time and space to explore. A fine way to commence the album is with the relaxed groove of ‘Opening day’, and here the rhythm section enters gradually, with some delightful Oriental sounding vamps that thankfully do not descend into parody. On the reposing title track, a solo oud intro leads into some subtle percussive work from deJohnette, and then piano and oud engage in a duet. As with the rest of the album, the most is reflective and thus the mood and mode is blue throughout. Interestingly, two of the most interesting melodies are of compositions that the leader has had in his locker for some time and they both allude to the music and spirit of Brazil. On ‘Bom dia Rio’ (‘Good day Rio de Janeiro’) the lengthy intro on oud includes voicings, presumably by Brahem, but what truly impresses here are the long silent spaces between notes. Both Miles Davis and Ahmad Jamal have used this technique to devastating effect and it is one of the major attractions of this recording, made at the Avatar studios in New York, the de facto North American home of ECM. The mood is distinctly Latin on ‘Bahia’, on which the oud is made to sound like a flamenco guitar and the catchy motif makes this a sheer delight. Anouar Brahem has made a virtue out of quirky titles for his instrumentals and with ‘The recovered road to Al-Sham’, the tone struck seemingly depicts a much starker vision with an extended piano solo in the intro. What is clear from this recording as a whole is that Anour Brahem has a clear vision of what he is seeking to achieve and the musicians on board this project are of a sufficiently high calibre to deliver the goods with aplomb. An outstanding recording that easily fits into the best albums of the year category.

Tim Stenhouse

Jim Kweskin ‘Unjugged’ (Hornbeam) 4/5

An original stalwart of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960’s, Jim Kweskin has now settled in the United Kingdom and this is his second album on the excellent indie label Hornbeam out of Sussex. Hailing from Boston, Kewskin headed one of the most influential of jug bands and several musicians in that band have gone on to achieve prominence, notably Geoff and Maria Muldaur. For this new recording, Jim Kweskin has enlisted the support of some of the UK’s and North America’s finest folk musicians, with Ben Paley on fiddle, Canadian Bonnie Dobson, and Sean Read on vocals. The repertoire is wide-ranging and takes on the Great American songbook which, here, is given a lovely country swing feel on, ‘Is is true what they say about Dixie?’. At the heart of this recording is the warm nature of the duetting between Kweskin on banjo and Paley on fiddle and this drives the music along. This writer immediately warmed to the inter-weaving of musical influences with blues, jug music, jazz and rhythm and blues all featuring at some point. Covers of folk greats includes some lovely harmony vocals on Donovan’s ‘Colours’, and a reading of Pete Seeger’s ‘Living in the country’. This is precisely the kind of relaxed pace album that is the perfect antidote to the stresses and strains of the hectic, and at times chaotic, build up to the festive season.

Tim Stenhouse

Mavis Staples ‘If All I Was Was Black‘ (Anti-) 4/5

For the best part of 60 years, the Staple Singers have performed the task of being black America’s conscience, tackling all the sensitive subjects like race, slavery, injustice and all the aspects of love and hate, all with gospel fervour. In most people’s mind they hit the big time in the 70’s when they landed at Stax Records and had million dollar seller’s like “I’ll take you there”, but in truth they were more than that and throughout the lifetime of the group the vocals of Mavis have been a constant comfort. To my ears her finest moment just has to be her crushing “If it wasn’t for a woman”, a searing ballad of such epic proportions, deliberately limiting the playing of it so I don’t get fed up of hearing it, not that there’s much chance of that.

Today the voice has mellowed and she appears to be less angry, like most of us as we get older, but she’s still addressing the injustices that permeate society today. This isn’t the traditional soul album, in fact her last album and this have taken a slightly more folk angle, lyrically it makes you stop and listen intently, I suppose you could call this a thinking man’s album as it does just that, it challenges the way you look at every day stuff. “Who told you that” is so relevant today in this world of fake news and false information, the toe tapper, “Aint no doubt about it”, might make the odd brave radio jock’s playlist, but I seriously doubt you will hear too much off this album on any UK soul radio show any time soon. The use of a fuzz guitar isn’t an instrument you hear too often in the soul music world but you do get used to it. “We go high” is very reminiscent of past album tracks and is a genuine nod to her past musically, the track that has had repeat plays is the mellow stroller, “Build a bridge”, addresses the growing issue of modern-day life, people not talking to each other, avoiding each other’s gaze, not wanting to interact, creating loneliness.

For me an enjoyable album both lyrically and musically, but I may just be in the minority on this one.

Brian Goucher

Various ‘Can You Feel The Force? – The John Luongo Disco Mixes’ 2CD (Groove Line) 4/5

Flash back to 1979 and Liverpool’s finest soul/pop band, The Real Thing, released ‘Can you feel the force?’, which was an immediate acquisition in its 12″ version at the time for this writer. This song in fact serves as the title track back drop to a retrospective of Boston born DJ/disco label promoter John Luongo who is rightly paid tribute to here with a sterling selection of extended length versions. Enterprising Glasgow-based label, Groove Line, have brought out this excellent overview of John Luongo’s re-mixes for Epic and other related labels, and this is where listening to disco for the second time around is such a fine experience, with the possibility of obtaining long lost gems alongside well worn bed fellows from the vinyl crates in one single place.

Starting off as an engineering student and one who had a love of turntables, Luongo combined his two loves into one with the advent of the disco phenomenon and had already learnt to produce his very own first remix as early as 1974. It was only a matter of time before the commercial possibilities of the technique would enable him to earn a living. Promoting the very first Chic 12″ ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ in Boston earned him the opportunity to work as a disco label promoter and this provided him with direct access to new singles which he could then elongate and dissect at his will.

One of the lesser known gems that is a real discovery is the nine and a half minute version of gospel-disco from the Mighty Clouds of Joy with ‘In these changing times’, and the title could not be more apt for the current chaotic world in which we live. Luongo was quick to facilitate the careers of soulful divas who adapted to the disco idiom including Melba Moore, whose 1978 smash, ‘You stepped into my life’, was an early success for the remixer and he followed that up with the superb ‘Pick me up. I’ll dance’, which had a strong Philly flavour. Patti LaBelle came to prominence with the hit, ‘Marmelade’, when part of Labelle, but her own solo career progressed during disco and one of the endearing anthems to the genre comes in, ‘Music is my way of life’, which is a definitive slice of the classier side of disco. The career of former soul singer Jackie Moore was resurrected with a late disco winner in, ‘This time baby’, while arguably the most prolific of the disco divas, Loletta Holloway, who then duetted with Dan Hartman on a song that crossed over to the pop charts and has been covered since by boy bands, ‘Vertigo/Relight my fire’. By far the most significant collaborations Luongo had were with The Jacksons and no less than three remixes are to be found on this anthology, and of the trio, ‘Shake your body (down to the ground)’ impresses the most, although in commercial terms it was the later, ‘Walk right now’, that charted higher.

By the early 1980’s, with disco rapidly on the wane, remix singles were less in demand, and in any case, the remix was more focused on pop musicians. A notable exception was Luongo creatively reworking a Sly Stone classic, ‘Dance to the music’, which enjoyed renewed success with a younger audience as a result of a new remixed version. While not available with this promo review copy, the full CD contains a lengthy twenty-four page booklet covering individual singers and providing useful historical context to the life and career of John Luongo.

Tim Stenhouse

Syleena Johnson ‘Rebirth Of Soul’ CD/DIG (Shanachie) 5/5

I’ve protested in ink before about ‘covers’ albums, my general feeling is that it’s lazy and lacks imagination, but every now and again one arrives that actually does the whole project justice and this one is such. Syleena possesses a voice that could melt a soul man’s heart a thousand miles away. Add to that, the production duties of her father – the one and only Syl Johnson, a legend of the RnB, Blues and Soul world from back in the day – and you really do have to pay attention. I have everything Syleena Johnson has ever released, so I am no stranger to her voice and style.

So let’s get started. If like me, you listen to soul radio, then her version of Betty Swan’s “Make Me Yours”, will have filled the airwaves at some time with Syleena already making the sound her own, although none of the songs on this album actually steer too far from the originals, but they do all add a new modern twist that will please most listeners. Her father’s “We Did It”, is more urgent and has Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records sound stamped all over it. Then we have “Is It Because I’m Black?”, which is nothing short of sensational and could really break on black radio stations and is so so relevant to what is happening in these unstable vulnerable times – what a modern-day anthem this is and one that truly deserves an extended 12” release. The often recorded, “I’d Rather Go Blind”, is another stunning tune but I’m afraid of all the modern versions around, the Ruby Turner version still gets my vote! But hey, if you’re listening to this for the first time without any knowledge of the previous covers, then listen and enjoy it for what it is, an honest heart-felt piece of music.

I’m somewhat unsure about how I felt when first hearing her version of “These Arms Of Mine”. It’s an Otis classic and I just can’t help myself comparing, it does work well yes, so nothing negative to say other than there’s been a huge original out there. As for her take on “Lonely Teardrops”, that is one that should have been left alone however, the Major Lance cover of “Monkey Time” works surprisingly well. For me the repeat play favourite is the breathtaking “There’ll Come A Time”, an eye-opening moment for me, with an effortless rare groove rhythm, strong vocals travelling up and down the range, horns that sound like those you’ve heard on a million Chicago soul records, just special. I also love the sugary sweet “The Makings Of You” which meanders along effortlessly. To summarise; if you haven’t got this on your Christmas list, you best be quick, as I reckon Santa will be sending these out to his friends and family.

Brian Goucher

Various ‎’Too Slow To Disco, vol. 3′ 2LP/CD/DIG (How Do You Are?) 4/5

For those unfamiliar with the concept, dance music sub-divides into multiple smaller sub-categories, one of which is a cross-pollinating style that is just a tad too slow on the BPM to warrant dance floor action, but still with a strong melodic beat. Which is where the third volume of the ‘Too slow to disco’ series offers a refreshing overview of disparate and lesser known artists among the more familiar, if in unexpected musical settings and compiled by DJ Supermarkt. Who for example would expect the Grateful Dead to turn up on a compilation that purports to be related to the disco genre? Yet appear they do on, ‘Shakedown street’, that dissects the roots of the disco groove.

Some of the more successful attempts here are those that aim at a laid back west coast sound, and that is certainly the case for David Gates, who is surely inspired by mid-1970’s Boz Scaggs on, ‘Silky’. Cult band the Cornelius Bumpus Quartet offer one of the most sought after numbers in, ‘Inside you’, and the soulful vocals of Archie James Cavanaugh impress on, ‘Take it easy’. Overall influences hint at Steely Dan, but elsewhere the sound of Earth, Wind and Fire permeates, especially on the jazz-fusion guitarist Lee Ritenour’s excellent, ‘It is you’, that sums up that early 1980’s groove to perfection. Another instrumentalist, the rare groove keyboardist par excellence, Weldon Irvine, contributes a hidden gem in, ‘Fallin’ in love’, with vocals by Sheila Lowe and this has a marked indie Philly Soul flavour. French Canadian disco seemed to evaporate with Patrick Hernandez, but re-emerges here with the the unlikely name of Dwight Druick and, ‘Quand tu te laisses aller’.

Not everything is essential, but the informative inner sleeve notes help shed useful light on each individual song and artist and crate diggers will find this an invaluable source in order to dig deeper on the musicians. Roll on volume 4!   

Tim Stenhouse

Maciej Obara Quartet ‘Unloved’ (ECM) 3/5

Newly signed up by label owner and aficionado Manfred Eicher, Polish alto saxophonist has recorded several albums elsewhere, but this is his major debut for ECM. The tone is warm and lyrical and hints in influence at Jan Garbarek. Delicate interplay is an endearing feature of, ‘One for’, which, to these ears, is the classic ECM honed to perfection. An understated intensity permeates the piece, with some beautifully stated lines on double bass from Ole Morten Vågan, and there is a relaxed solo from pianist and fellow Pole, Dominik Wania. To these ears the contender for best track on the album. All but one compositions are original, but interestingly the title track is a Krzysztof Komeda number.

If there is one critique of the album as whole, then it might be the lack of variation beyond the purely contemplative, enjoyable though that is for the listener. The slow and mournful opener, ‘Ula’, sets the scene for what is to follow and, as a whole, there is a calmness about the music which will endear some and deter others. A dream-like piano with left and right hands playing simple notes with alto in the background impresses on the opening number, while the only track which gradually springs into action after a reflective beginning is, ‘Jolibord’, with fine and delicate piano work by Wania and some excellent ensemble performances. Obara is on occasion content to let others do the musical talking, as on ‘Echoes’, and it is a full three minutes before we even hear him, but instead the listener has the opportunity to listen to a lovely piano solo intro. Thereafter, the altoist takes over and the rhythm section are heard in full flow as the temp rapidly accelerates. A storytelling quality to the leader’s playing bodes well for the future and maybe in the future he will wish to extend the music beyond the forty-eight minutes laid down here.

Tim Stenhouse

Laurent Voulzy ‘Belem’ CD/DIG (Columbia/Sony) 4/5

Best known in France as a highly respected and in-demand songwriter, Laurent Voulzy came to prominence at the end of the 1970’s when as a leader he scored a pop hit with ‘Le coeur grenadine’ (1979), then followed it up four years later with ‘Bopper en larmes’ (1983), and then a decade later with ‘Caché derrière’ (1992). In between time, he has been a long-time collaborator with major singer-songwriter, Alain Souchon, and has regularly performed on guitar on Souchon’s own albums.

However, Laurent Voulzy has long been passionate about the music of Brazil and wanted to devote an entire album to the samba tradition. As early as 1977, this love of Brazilian music had been hinted at on ‘Rock Collection’ (1977) and again on ‘Recollection’ (2008). Moreover, Voulzy’s interest in music that evokes the sea and sun has been a constant and best illustrated by hit songs such as ‘belle-île-en-mer’ and ‘Le soleil donne’.

For this new album, the ninth in total as a leader, Voulzy has opted for a more somber-tinged tribute to the samba style and it has to be said that his soft and sweet sounding voice is ideally suited to the gentler pace and rhythms of Brazilian music, though the samba itself can be an uptempo and uplifting genre. Participating in the enterprise and contributing their specialist native knowledge of Brazilian music is pianist Philippe Baden-Powell who, earlier this year cut a well received debut album for London label Far Out, but here is in a largely supportive role. Some have criticised the music for being too laid back, but that is to miss the point and raison d’être of the recording. Garnering airplay has been the song, ‘Spirit of samba’, which is heard here in a fuller length version and differing from the truncated one available separately. An eighteen-minute song, ‘Quand le soleil couche’, ends the album with the sounds of a Rio beach to evoke the tropical atmosphere of the album as a whole. The ultimate mood music to calm the soul, yet just sufficiently joyful to uplift the spirit, this is a grower of an album.

Tim Stenhouse

Gilad Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble ‘The Spirit Of Trane’ CD (Fanfare) 4/5

Now resident in the UK and having undertaken a UK tour during October, Israeli multi-reedist, Gilad Atzman, returns with a tribute recording to the music and spirit of John Coltrane, with his regular band, the Orient House Ensemble, but including the Siganos string quartet. For those younger or beginner jazz fans who may find the work of Coltrane somewhat overpowering and indeed overwhelming, this new offering is far more accessible and provides a useful stepping stone to the canon of work that John Coltrane created and alternating on soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet, clarinet and flute, this provides just a snapshot of how one of the towering figures of modern jazz operated. This diversification is typified by a lovely string-led interpretation of the gentle ‘Naima’, with Atzmon soloing on soprano saxophone, which on occasion is transformed into a high-pitched squeal with strings overlaid on top. Creative licence is afforded on the normally uptempo opus, ‘Giant Steps’. Here the mood is a good deal gentler where the original motif is stated, but then Gilad and band strip this down to bass and soprano, with sensitive use of cymbals by drummer Enzo Zirilli. An original composition by Atzmon, ‘Minor Thing’, fits easily into the greater whole and has a strong modal feel with a Coltrane-esque introduction. Duets were a feature of John Coltrane’s work and a reading of ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ recalls the pairing of Duke Ellington and Coltrane. Piano and soprano combine effectively here, with intimacy created by the deployment of strings.

An attractive all-red gatefold sleeve is opened to reveal personal sleeve notes by the leader who reveals his devotion to Coltrane which began when, as a young musician, Atzmon picked up the saxophone aged just seventeen. With the emphasis firmly on celebrating the legacy of John Coltrane and revealing his gentler side. This new homage can be heartily recommended to a wider public that may be reluctant to approach the intensity and immensity of Coltrane’s work.

Tim Stenhouse