Various ‘Even A Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk & Rock 1969-1973’ (Light in the Attic) 5/5

How was the 1960’s folk revival viewed far away in Japan? Few would have cared to pose such a question, but indie label Light in the Attic did and the result is an extremely well researched and beautifully presented package that introduces the listener/reader to a whole new world of sounds, and one where the instrumentation may be familiar, but the voices and names most certainly are not. Japanese society was undergoing major transformation in the 1960’s and this was reflected in a generational split with the younger generation questioning the objectives and values of a more traditional society of their elders. Into this, the ‘ungara’ or underground movement emerged and younger musicians were able to establish their credentials which is this is where this anthology scores highly for capturing that five year moment in time so well.

Drawing upon the expertise of four compilers including native Japanese musicologist Yosuke Kitazawa, this compilation has been lovingly produced and illustrated. It focuses attention on the key locations where folk music flourished, both in Tokyo with the satellite district of Shibuya, and equally, other cities such as Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka where key musicians developed.

A major discovery to this writer is a group by the name of Happy End who contribute, ‘Hatsu nau desu’, and it is the pared down minimalism of the instrumentation and lovely rhythm guitar allied with fine harmonies that make this band one to look out for, and they will not be unfamiliar to western ears since their music featured on the film soundtrack to, ‘Lost in translation’. A separate anthology of the band’s work would be an ideal follow up. Another group of interest, and a near equivalent to say Crosby, Stills and Nash with hints of Simon and Garfunkel, are Gypsy Blood, and this Kobe based group offer up from 1972, ‘Sugishi hi wo mitsumete’, and this has a lovely US West Coast feel. If Japan had a rough equivalent to Donovan, then it might just be Takuro Yoshida and he was a Hiroshima-born singer who became a figurehead for the mainstream Japanese folk scene. Here he is accompanied by just guitar on, ‘Aoi natsu’. Originally an obscure album track from 1973, some twenty-six years later, the song gained notoriety when released as a the theme song for a popular ghost film series.

The Japanese enjoy a special relationship with nature which has added symbolic meaning and thus it is the sound of cascading water that greets the listener on Fumio Nunoya’s ‘Mizu tamarai’, and Nunoya is a singer with a throaty delivery more akin to that of a blues singer. Dylan devotees will the thrilled to learn that he is revered in Japan where of course he recorded the seminal ‘Live at Budokan’ double album, and the Dylan II group released an album of re-interpretations of the singer in Japanese of which ‘I shall be released’ is given a makeover. Not an obvious cover, this takes a few listens to truly sink in and the far more restrained reading here is devoid of the gospel roots of the original save for the piano.

To top off an outstanding introduction to Japanese folk music, the lavish inner sleeve contains English language translations of the lyrics so that you can actually take in what the musicians are communicating and that makes the experience infinitely more enjoyable. Light in the Attic are setting an extremely high benchmark against which other labels will be measured. A contender for roots compilation of the year.

Tim Stenhouse

Max Roach ‘Four Original Albums’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 5/5

One of the most committed political activists among jazz musicians, Max Roach, combined his love of exploring percussion from throughout the globe, incorporating it into jazz rhythms, with a passionate interest in social justice. On this foursome, we hear two albums of the political activism side, with another combining post-bop with a gospel-influenced chorus, while the earliest album, dating from 1959, is probably the most conventional in outlook, though even here the emphasis is on the freer and more experimental side of hard bop.

Arguably Max Roach’s greatest artistic achievement, ‘Percussion Bitter Sweet’, still sounds as astonishingly fresh and innovative now as it did when it first came out in 1961, on an imposing gatefold Impulse album. With a stupendous line-up of musicians, that featured a four piece brass of Eric Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, Booker Little, and Julian Priester, it was sheer genius to pair these titans with a heavyweight rhythm section comprising Cubans Carlos ‘Potato’ Valdez and Carlos ‘Totico’ Eugenio, Art Davis on bass and Mal Waldron on piano. Breaking up the instrumental mayhem are two vocal numbers with Abbey Lincoln in fine form. Both are outstanding with the opener, ‘Garvey’s Ghost’, an impressive uptempo number is in homage to Jamaican Marcus Garvey who did so much to promote a more positive and proud image of African-Americans, while the slower ‘Mendacity’ allows the listener to focus on the lyrics. Another key piece, ‘Tender Warriors’, was specifically written for the children of Birmingham, Alabama, who had fallen victim to the bomb of a racist individual. This is an indispensable album that should be required listening in any modern jazz collection. No less than two full pages of original sleeve notes and plenty to explain about the thoughts of Max Roach on the condition of African-Americans.

Although separated on the two CD’s, the aforementioned Impulse album and writer/indie jazz record producer Nat Hentoff’s short-lived Candid label, ‘We Insist, Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite’, are very much a connected pair, with writing duties shared between Oscar Brown Jr. and Roach (who fell out over the writing which remained incomplete), and once again Abbey Lincoln featuring on vocals. A similar brass line-up replaces Dolphy with Coleman Hawkins and Jordan with Walter Benton, and no piano, but African and Latin percussion from Michael Olatunji and Ray Mantilla. Equally thrilling, and firmly focused on the struggle for freedom in Africa and the system of Apartheid in South Africa, this recording pulls no punches and, in purely commercial terms, it cost both Lincoln and Roach, the mistrust of major labels who were reticent to have on their roster musicians with such dogmatic views, however accurate, premonitory and praiseworthy they would prove to be. Collectively, the two albums have stood the test of time remarkably well and must be rated in the same bracket as Duke Ellington’s ‘Black, Brown and Beige’, which is the leading contender for the recording that is most reflective of the history and condition of African-Americans. That album was premiered in 1943, when riots took place in Harlem, predating the be-bop revolution. Max Roach was not immune to what was happening around him and sought to offer his own vision of matters.

More experimental in its use of a choir to supplement the instrumentalists, ‘It’s Time’, was a second album on Impulse, and one that featured for a third occasion, the vocals of Abbey Lincoln. A three-pronged brass with Clifford Jordan returning alongside Richard williams on trumpet and Julian Priester once again on trombone, with Mal Waldron returning on piano. The all-original compositions by Roach enable the wordless choir vocals to fuse seamlessly with the instrumental music and this album has gone on to be a minor success for Roach. The lesser known and more straight ahead bop of ‘Quiet As It’s Kept’, is nonetheless a worthy addition since the Turrentine brothers Stanley and Tommy are on board, with Priester a regular once more on trombone. A lovely cover of Kenny Dorham’s endearing ‘Lotus Blossom’ is a highlight while two originals co-written by Priester and Turrentine, a Latin-themed ‘Juliano’, and a hard bop filled ‘As Long As You’re Living’. As a whole, then, a wonderful chronicle of Max Roach in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s period of political activism. What would make a splendid follow-up would be to take the story one step further with the towering mid and late 1960’s Atlantic albums including the wonderful and hard to find ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing’.

Tim Stenhouse

TootArd ‘Laissez Passer’ LP/CD/DIG (Glitterbeat) 4/5

There aren’t many bands which can pull off being named after a fruit. Mountain Rock Reggae band TootArd wear their strawberry moniker well, not physically of course. Their second album was released on November 10th, six years after 2011’s debut Nuri Andaburi. It’s a mash up of genres well worth the wait, border-hopping across West African and Saharan grooves, then leaping to the sun spattered coasts of the Caribbean.

TootArd come from Majdal Shams, an Israeli-occupied mountain-side village in the Syrian region of Golan Heights. This area has long-been contested over by Israeli and Syrian forces due to its strategic importance, the high elevation giving Israeli forces unimpeded views to monitor Syrian movements. Southern Syria and the capital, Damascus, are clearly visible from the top of the Heights.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The event of the internet reaching Madjal Shams caused a proliferation of creativity within the town, transforming it into a hot-bed of counter-culture. Brothers Hasan and Rami Nakhleh were affected by the artistic boom. Both were raised on Classical Arab music, with Hasan studying Oriental Violin. After listening to Bob Marley, and becoming briefly obsessed with Tupac, they discovered Miles Davis, completely transforming their musical direction. Banding together with guitarist Shady Awidat, saxophonist Amr Mdah, and Yezan Abrahim on bass, TootArd was formed.

Although they live in Israeli territory, TootArd’s laissez-passer’s, travel documents issued by national governments, state their identities as ‘undefined.’ Contrary to what their documentation may say, their music is far from indistinctive. On Laissez Passer, societal issues are tackled with upbeat passion, joy being the vehicle of their message, much like how Mbaqanga carried messages of conflict in South African township Soweto. The album’s marriage of genre represents TootArd’s belief that borders should be non-existent, and universality celebrated.

On the title track, Hassan Nakhleh sings ‘No nationality, no borders, if you ask me, I’m an oud player.’ Statements such as this run throughout Laissez Passer, accompanied with a Tuareg inspired groove, or dub guitar. It makes for an interesting listen, with many unexpected time signatures and break downs. If you don’t like reggae, there’s enough of a feel of the traditional to provide cover. This is a thought-provoking record which makes you want to bob your head and shake your hips. Can’t ask for more than that.

Sam Turnell

The Floyd Harvey Robinson Project ‘Here To Stay’ (Private Press) 4/5

Anything to do with FHR is acquired asap, he has a very unique way of presenting the music I have listened to all my life, his voice has an instantly recognisable timbre and musically he is never afraid to try something different. This album has a cavernous production for a contemporary album but even within this genre he’s created a sound that won’t be imitated too often by his peers. This project has presented us with 8 tracks, all danceable with not a ballad in sight which is a shame, but hey, I’m not complaining. Not a duff track on the album, you can play from start to finish or pop it on shuffle – it will not disappoint.

Let’s point you in the direction of the tracks that hit me on the first play. ‘Friends Indeed’ is a rolling mellow toe tapper which seeps into your head, you do wonder for a moment if you have popped on an old friend from the shelves rather than a new tune. ‘Don’t You Know’ is another slightly more urgent but not by much, with huge production making it clear that the calibre here is high. ‘We Got The Loving’ is simply stunning, sounding like it could have come off an Isaac Hayes’ album – this is a serious rewind here. As for the title track, well it is destined to become a weekender anthem once the word gets out, its got that heavy weekender swaying going on, you know the score; your favourite woman in one hand and your beer in the other (and you don’t spill a drop), head back giving it your best vocal. I feel like a kid in a sweet shop these past few weeks. It appears to be raining soul music releases and ‘Here To Stay’ is a fine example of what is big right now.

Several tracks have already been plundered on soul radio shows, it just remains now for the club jocks to get on board. As is always the case here, we really would like this release to be pressed on vinyl. Failing that, at the very least a CD as it thoroughly deserves it. It would be a travesty if it simply got lost in the world of ‘Downloads’.

Brian Goucher

Ibrahim Maalouf ‘Dalida’ (Barclay/Universal France) 3/5

Franco-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf has established himself as a major talent in France and regularly performs at prestigious rock festivals and has been featured extensively on the French media, circumventing both the specialist jazz media (not that he has been absent from them. Far from it) and traditional smaller jazz venues. His unique and highly personalised brand of Oriental-influenced music, drawn from the rich Arabic classical tradition (Egypt being a major influence upon the Levant and Maghreb), coupled with jazz improvisation has resulted in some scintillating music, and Maalouf has diversified further, with acoustic projects, such as interpreting the music of singer Oum Kalthoum, and electronica-jazz recordings.

For this new album, he has once again chosen to focus on the music of an individual artist, in this case Dalida, who is a much loved popular singer and actor in French society as well as elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world, and Maalouf plays more of a producer role on this occasion, relegating his own trumpet playing to that of a secondary status. It is as a whole a mixed affair, with so many guest singers on board in spite of a consistent soul oriented backing with brass ensemble arrangements. At best, it allows more established singers such as Alain Souchon to reinvigorate the repertoire of Dalida as on the soulful sounding, ‘Bambino’, that opens up the album. An unexpected and extremely pleasant surprise is the contribution of melody Gardot who duets with Maalouf on, ‘J’attendrai’, and this has something of an intimate Caetano Veloso feel about it and an obvious contender for a single.

Younger singers such as Ben l’Oncle Soul, offer up neo-soul in French with a big band brass accompaniment that continued throughout the album on, ‘Come prima’. Less successful is the whispered delivery of Thomas Dutronc on, ‘Les gitans’, who comes across as a Serge Gainsbourg circa 1975 wannabee. New life is breathed into the evergreen Italian classic song from the 1970’s, Paroles, paroles’, with Italian actress Monica Bellucci, now permanently settled in Paris, providing a monologue in her native tongue, while French lyrics are added by singer M and this duo works well. Maalouf only surfaces sporadically, with a solo intro on, ‘Salma ya salama’, with a gentle vocal contribution by Mika over a sparse guitar and Fender Rhodes accompaniment. One instrumental only enables the listener to hear what Maalouf is truly capable of as an instrumentalist and this is, ‘Il venait d’avoir 18 ans’. As a whole, the mood is melancholic. The focus on Ibrahim Maalouf as a producer, and even on occasion as a singer, is at best a mitigated success and his undoubted instrumental virtuosity is placed on the back burner for a release that is aimed fairly and squarely at a mainstream pop audience.

Tim Stenhouse

Nicole Mitchell & Haki R. Madhubuti ‘Liberation Narratives’ CD/DIG (Third World Press) 5/5

With contemporary Hip Hop vastly underperforming in its role as social commentarian, there has never been a greater need for active and conscious voices to be heard within music than in 2017. But jazz and poetry have always had a healthy relationship from as early as the 1920s, acting as a social barometer and communal conduit for many. And it’s here that this album brings together composer and flautist Nicole Mitchell with Haki R. Madhubuti, the renowned author, educator and poet for this bold set of jazz poetry – for want of a better description. This ten-track live recording features nine musical contributors in total including Pharez Whitted on trumpet, Tomeka Reid (cello), Renee Baker (violin), Miguel De La Cerna (piano), Harrison Bankhead (bass), Tomas Fujiwara on drums and percussion, with sung vocals performed by Ugochi.

The project begins with the aptly titled ‘Poetry’, a fantastic introduction to what’s to come with Madhubuti’s vivid insight into the role of poets and their medium of choice, together with a spacious soundtrack that is more of a foreground than a backdrop setting for the composition. This relationship continues throughout with all group members working symbiotically and harmoniously. The visceral ‘Woman Black’ is a personal ode to women, which builds and develops from its steady introduction into a more complex piece with its numerous sonic layers and textures intertwining with each other. The cello and upright bass heavy ‘We Walk In The Way Of The New World’, offers a solo by trumpeter Pharez Whitted, together with commentary on gentrification within established and longstanding communities in US cities. ‘Peace Starts Inside Of You’ which more so utilises hypnotic vocalist Ugochi, is essentially a duet between the two vocal performers and is mesmerising as it is absorbing.

At nearly 11 minutes in length, ‘Rise Vision’ is the ‘groove’ track of the set, with all members comprehensively contributing to its composition and arrangement, and the dynamic ‘Too Many Of Our Young’ is not so much a message to young people, but more of a wake up call to the elders in the community to recognise their role in shaping and molding the young. And ‘Gwendolyn Brooks’ is a deep bluesy tribute to the writer and poet who was the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950.

Haki R. Madhubuti has had an illustrious career, including possessing an extensive catalogue of writing and publications, establishing the largest independent black-owned publishing house in the United States with Third World Publishing in Chicago and has also been a long term educator within the city. But poetry has been a mainstay in Madhubuti’s varied and fruitful life, with his work presented here originating from his 2012 book also titled ‘Liberation Narratives’, a collection of his poetry from the start of his career until 2012. And it’s interesting and somewhat worrying that none of the content would be considered old or outdated considering that some of the work performed here stretches back over 50 years. And Nicole Mitchell, who was commissioned by the Jazz Institute of Chicago to write the music inspired by the poetry of Madhbuti, has also had an esteemed career as a performer, musician and educator, and a sense of synchronisation between the two is obvious.

And although this is a live set, the recording could have been taken from a studio session with only the crowd applause in-between compositions indicating otherwise, and thus, this is a well-recorded and mixed album. But on numerous levels this is an extraordinary project. The combination of high quality musicianship, excellent compositional work and the outstanding concepts, texts and delivery by Haki R. Madhubuti make this is a difficult release to fault. But if I were to find a criticism it would be the underuse of vocalist Ugochi. And finally, albums of this nature are crying out for a vinyl release.

Damian Wilkes

Clarence Dobbins ‘Soul Blues Uprising’ (Private Press) 5/5

A most satisfying eight-track album and very welcome return for the golden voice of a modern day Southern Soul genius. There are some scintillating knee trembling ballads on here including his finest moment to date, ‘I’ll Go Crazy’, which is 2/3 years old already, searing balladry of unequalled status, an instantly recognisable voice and a musical backdrop that should be a lesson to other exponents of the genre. His version of ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ is an instant replay from the off and for more of the same drop into ‘Don’t Give Up On M’, and then straight into the sheer magical ‘Call Me’, which is another that has been doing the rounds for some time. Listening to these tunes can overwhelm you if you’re in the mood to have your life presented in front of you, we’ve all experienced the pain and suffering of relationships and Clarence is one of the true great modern day story tellers. There is nothing theatrical about him, just an honest Soul boy from the South. Cultured Southern Soul doesn’t get any better than this; the title track is another strong grower, a swinging bluesy stroller that is so infectious. Mick O’Donnell and Mark Merry have been hammering away at this man’s output on their respective Soul shows. It is great to have this man back.

Brian Goucher

Schnellertollermeier ‘Rights’ (Cuneiform) 5/5

This album is a short ode to the harmonic. They’re all over the four tracks of ‘Rights’ by this Swiss three-piece. Perhaps as some sort of musical reply to the Futurist Manifesto? Probably more likely that they sound boss when you whack tonnes of delay on them. Looking at the press release, this musical spoonerism (Andi Schnellmann, Manuel Troller and David Meier) appear in some modest photos stood near a fish tank in a spartan, if smart, room. They look like interns in an office, and so I can fully accept Troller stating that he has “so far never listened to a (King) Crimson album or Yes or Genesis or other “classic” Prog bands”. Indeed, one could accept that even their parents might be too young for such dusty monoliths of yore. And, I must add, I personally find their fierce injection into “progressive” music far more fulfilling than gazing into the, often, rose-tinted “classics”.

‘Rights’ sounds more like the good bits of Battles, the confident bits of Health, kinetic bits of Swans. You could point this brash release at a lot of influences, but I doubt you’d get any of them right. They all look like they listen to Newton Faulkner anyway, and they don’t care whether you know it. The important thing is that in four tracks, ‘Rights’ has more activity, ideas and less naval-gazing than most. It is a spiky affair with bass, drums and guitar, all working in very close formation. Clear harmonics (as mentioned), compelling bass that often doubles (but never pointlessly) the guitar and drums that feel a bit like watching someone in a queue at a cheap airline check-in trying to force their entire wardrobe into a rucksack. It’s all awfully fraught, but from this comes a great tension and thrill. I can imagine the live performance would be much like the recorded. Practised, measured and calculated. Part of the threatening atmosphere of ‘Rights’ is how uncompromising it seems to be. Each instrument is being played just on the side of metal that jazzers will probably still accept.

I couldn’t get the thought out of my head of how much it reminded me of violin and drum two-piece, Hanged Up. There feels like a comparable thread of trying to cut the chewy edges of rock or jazz (or whatever genre vomit you want to pick from the press release… “experimental-avant-psych-minimal rock”… I visibly shudder). They don’t want the solos, don’t want the faff of hooks. There really isn’t even much lyricism or feeling, not much humanity. I don’t mean this in a bad way as sometimes you just want a record to feel a bit like being battered about the face by an over-engineered robot with metal chopsticks for fingers. ‘Rights’ is a crackling little ride of four tracks, each rising out of plinking metallic calmness to brutal climaxes. Highly recommended if, like me, you enjoy ruining your own dinner parties with “hard work” songs coming on your shuffle.

Thomas G.J. Sharpe

Django Bates’ Belovèd ‘The Study Of Touch’ (ECM) 4/5

What a departure from his 1980’s leader albums with Sticky Fingers and even more recent big band recordings with for example the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. This is a new, mature (not that he was not mature previously. Just that there was a youthful exuberance to his earlier work) sound and with a trio that came about while Bates was serving as a music lecturer in Copenhagen in 2005. Double bassist Petter Elda and drummer Peter Bruun formed a trio and first recorded together in 2010 with, ‘Beloved Bird’, a tribute to Charlie Parker, and revisited the experience on, ‘Confirmation’ (2012). The latest recording is their third as a collective, but their debut for ECM, and this time round all but tow are original pieces, with just one of these being written from the pen of Parker. 
The mood is reflective and it is the piano sound of Bill Evans that springs to mind, with a lightness of touch that Evans would surely have approved of. Bates,however, has his own individual voice and this has undoubtedly been greatly aided by his participation in so many disparate musical projects. Bates’ own compositional talents are wonderfully showcased here, as on the extremely attractive theme of, ‘Giorgiantics’, which is a real favourite, or on the charming balladry work of, ‘Little Petherick’. What seems to have gelled so well here is the apparent simplicity of the compositions, yet which underneath open up to a veritable Pandora’ box of musical substance.
Some of the pieces come across as classical standards that were seemingly destined for Broadway, as with the gorgeous, ‘Peonces as promised’, and here piano and bass work wonders in tandem. The music has a spontaneity to it illustrated in the freedom with which the trio stretch out on, ‘This world’, a number that has a mid-1960’s Miles Davis quality with Herbie Hancock in the leaders’ chair, and on, ‘We are not lost. We are simply finding our way’, which is an apt title for what the trio is seeking to achieve. 
Django Bates has sprung a real surprise with this recording, and a most welcome one as this year draws to a close, and one longs for this outfit to be heard in a live setting.   

Tim Stenhouse

Melanie De Biasio ‘Lilies’ LP/CD/DIG (Le Label) 4/5

A native of francophone Charleroi in Belgium, singer-songwriter Melanie Di Biasio emerged on the scene three years ago with a highly original debut, ‘No deal’, and followed this up with an equally well received EP/mini album in, ‘Blackened cities’. She returns with her long-term collaborators for a sumptuous album that effortlessly combines jazz, blues and electronica, yet is instantly recognizable as her own voice. If the influence of both Billie Holiday and especially Nina Simone still permeates her stratosphere, the outstanding production and quality of the songs are all her own. Little wonder DJ’s such as Gilles Peterson have been singing her praises and rightly so. Classically trained, the mood that dominates this new recording is altogether bleaker, yet is still highly enjoyable for all that.

On the title track, it is old-school jazz that is creatively evoked and there is both an awareness of and deep respect for the jazz tradition. Minimalist piano, vocals and electronica all combine on, ‘Your freedom is the end of me’, while the early blues of field hollers is wonderfully conjured up on, ‘Sitting in the stairwell’, complete with appropriate blues vocals and handclaps. Twenty-first century modern updates on jazz standards is a highlight of, ‘Afro blue’. Whereas, one might have expected an uptempo Latin-jazz reading, here the subtle use of electronica and restrained vocals take the tempo all the way down and this provides a highly entertaining and richer interpretation of the song and a fine and distinctive alternative to the 1974 Dee Dee Bridgewater interpretation that is rightly held in such high esteem. In fact, the nearest this album gets to uptempo is on, ‘Let me love you’, which has a percussive intro, but an ice-cold vocal delivery that is behind the beat and this created the feeling of being on a dark, yet atmospheric journey of discovery. Metronome beats coupled with what sounds like an accordion and whispered vocals by Di Biasio greet the listener on, ‘All my worlds’, another brooding number.

At just under forty minutes, Melanie Di Biasio simply does not offer her craft in large quantity, but that is more than made up by the unrivaled quality of the final product. That includes the luxurious gatefold sleeve and inner sleeve black and white photos that would not be out of place in a special edition of Vogue Paris.

Tim Stenhouse