The Return of Bill Black’s Combo ‘2 Albums Plus Singles’ (Jasmine) 3/5

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, and originally a bass player, Bill Black became the leader of a combo that catapulted to chart success in the United States with a mixture of R & B influenced instrumentals, covering famous songs of the day. He was a staple musician at Sun records in Memphis, and was hired on some of Elvis Presley’s early sides, most notably, ‘That’s alright’ and backed him on live performances. These two albums contained within are examples of the Hi label that would later be known for the soul-blues of Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles, and of course Al Green. The group enjoyed brief success and hit the big time in 1960 with, ‘Smokie Pt.2’ and especially, ‘White silver sands’, from the same year. In total, they would enjoy nineteen singles on the US charts. As for the music from these two albums that date from 1961, covers of, Ray Charles’ ‘What I’d say’, ‘Be bop A-Lula’ and an ode to, ‘Hey Bo Diddley’, on the first album and, ‘Smokie Part II’, Chuck Berry’s, ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and a taste of the exotica with the evocative sounding, ‘Hot Taco’, are among the stronger numbers. Instrumental pop-driven R & B with hints of jazz has its limits and the music had a tendency over time to become a tad formulaic. Enjoyed in small doses, the music is agreeable on the ears and has a fresh and uninhibited feel, if not necessarily endowed with any deeper intellectual interest.

Tim Stenhouse

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings ‘Soul Of A Woman’ (Daptone) 5/5

No mere left-overs recording, this is a fitting finale to a tragically all too short career by a vastly talented singer who had found her niche and is in storming form on this beautifully varied and wonderfully executed release, produced by Bosco Mann. Jones made her name singing in a gritty 1960’s soul vein with doses of funk, but she is in fact a far more rounded singer, capable of effortlessly fusing blues, funk and soul, and this is reflected on this last studio album. As on opener, ‘Matter Of Time’, creates a late 1960’s feel with warm Hammond organ and James Brown-inspired drum beats. However, the rhythm guitar hints also at the 1970’s Hi sound that accompanied Al Green and Sharon Jones manages to successfully span three separate decades of soul music and still make it sound her own, which is a considerable feat. A lovely composition by band member Binky Gruptite, and, in general, the original writing on this releases is truly inspired, possibly in the knowledge that Sharon Jones has little time to live and to make the most of this experience.

A real stunner of a song and the favourite for this writer is the mid-tempo groove of ‘Searching For A New Day’, and the achingly soulful delivery is matched by the female harmony background vocals and a trumpet solo. Jones enters into deep soul territory on the ballad, ‘Pass Me By’, that has real depth and once again impeccable accompaniment. On one song, ‘Just Give Me Your Time’, the echoey sound generated by the vocals hints, perhaps, at a small indie label, and this intimate sound, reinforced by the guitar, provides a lovely contrast with the big horns. To round off matters, some songs have a gentle Latin undercurrent with a 1950’s R & B back beat. This is the case firstly on ‘Sail On’ (not the Commodores epic), with catchy horn riffs and call and response background vocals. Mid-tempo Latin soul flavours are heard equally on ‘Come And Be A Winner’, which shows a more sensitive side to Jones’ approach that has hitherto not figured as prominently on previous albums.

This may weigh in at just thirty-five minutes, but every second counts here and it is music that is aimed straight at the heart, expertly crafted with tight arrangements, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have parted company with the strongest album of their entire career. RIP, Sharon.

Tim Stenhouse

Ella Fitzgerald ‘The Complete Birdland Broadcasts’ 2CD (Essential Jazz Classics) 4/5

How many epic concerts from the distant past have never been recorded and thus remain solely in the memories of the few who witnessed the musicians that day? This is where this kind of unreleased series of concerts acquires the status of an important historical document. The generous timing (both CDs weigh in at over seventy-five minutes) captures a then young Ella on no less than four separate occasions at the legendary Birdland venue between December 1951 and the summer of 1952 while she was still recording for the Decca label. Moreover, they find the singer accompanied by some of the very greatest accompanists, with pianist Hank Jones present throughout, but with the rest of the pared down rhythm section varying between Ray Brown and Nelson Boyd on bass, and Roy Haynes and Charlie Smith on drums. Interestingly, the repertoire hints at what was to follow when she moved to Verve to record the seminal series of composer led albums. Here, she interprets the songs of various members of the Great American Songbook, from the Gershwin brothers through to Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. While there is a degree of overlap with some songs receiving two separate treatments, in the case of Ella they were always likely to be treated to a subtly different reading, and there are some fascinating songs covered that are more usually associated with other singers’ interpretations.
Where the listener is in for a treat is in hearing Fitzgerald adding lyrics to instrumental jazz numbers that have become classics, deploying her favourite scats and ad-libs to stunning effect at times. These include, ‘Jumping with Symphony Sid (Lester Young)’, ‘Flyin’ home’ (Lionel Hampton), guitarist Charlie Christian’s, ‘Air mail special’, and, in a gentler mood, Duke’s very own, ‘In a mellow tone’. Both Lorez Alexandria and Sarah Vaughan were noted for their version of, ‘Thou swell’, but Ella was fully capable of offering a strong rival take. As a young singer making her way up, Ella was fully prepared to take risks and so it proves on, ‘How high the moon’, where the initially relaxed tempo then shifts up a couple of gears to medium-quick.
Surprisingly good quality sound from the radio broadcasts, with just the occasional shift in tone, but both the vocalist and instrumentalists are clearly identifiable. New liner notes are supplied by Matias Rinar. In a year where the later Verve recordings of Ella Fitzgerald have received a major re-issue campaign, these slightly earlier sides cast valuable light on her vocal prowess.

Tim Stenhouse

Mina ‘Renato + Il Cielo In Una Stanza’ (Jackpot) 4/5

Italian singer Mina Mazzini, better known by her first name, was a major pop singer in Italy from the early 1960’s all the way through to the mid-1970’s and, possessing a three-octave voice, she was highly versatile and regularly performed on television shows as well as in concert, and consequently has become immortalised in Italian popular folklore. Still alive and now in her mid-seventies, there has been something of a minor retrospective of Mina’s work in recent times and this second Jackpot re-issue of her work focuses attention on two albums from 1960 and 1962 respectively, when she was enjoying at once a creative and popular peak. So much so in fact that the song, ”Eclisse twist’, was selected by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni for the soundtrack to his film starring Alain Delon, ‘Eclisse’. 
Mina could adapt to various genres, but the early 1960’s was a period of major musical shifts and this is reflected in the repertoire that includes early examples of R &B meets pop, with gentle Latin big band arrangements especially suiting her vocal delivery, and even the odd nod to the then nascent bossa nova beat. It is indeed the latter that stands out on the flute-led,

‘Stringimi forte i polsi’, which even manages to incorporate some calypso accompaniment into the bargain. The cha cha cha was a favourite dance craze of the era and a kind of watered down version of the mambo ensured for Italian audiences (as heard on Fellini film soundtracks), with the frothy lightenss of, ‘Un piccolo raggio di luna”, highly entertaining, and not only was the phrasing exquisite, but full of humour, and that most certainly endeared her to her native Italian audience. Mid-tempo Latin big band rhythms are a redeeming feature of both, ‘Bricole di baci’, and, ‘Coriandoli’. There is more of a rock and roll feel to, ‘Personalità’, and this is repeated on the aforementioned, ‘Eclisse twist’. However, emotional ballads were another area where Mina excelled, and one would fully expect Italian listeners to be weeping buckets to the dramatic strings plus harp opening to, ‘No paura (de ti)’, with orchestral arrangements creating a lush texture.  
In total, Mina recorded a staggering seventy-nine albums and released seventy-one singles that charted, testimony to her enduring appeal among Italian audiences. As with other Jackpot releases, excellent quality in the facsimile gatefold sleeve that opens up to reveal both original album covers. 

Tim Stenhouse

Abel ‘Rough Or Smooth’ DIG (Atjazz Record Company) 3/5

This 13-track affair is essentially a deep house release from a producer unknown to this writer but released on Atjazz’s (aka Martin Iveson) own label imprint, the UK-based DJ and producer who has had a long and successful career over the last 20 years within the club based music world. The information provided for the release was rather vague, but Abel was joined by former studio associate Craig James, Atjazz himself and (sporadic) vocalist Marcel Nouveau, who appears on two cuts, but neither are full length vocal recordings but intermittent vocal additions to the featured tracks. And finally, Abel’s seven-year-old son Elliot is included on ‘Tornado’, alongside Marcel. All very deep house.

As is common practice within the deep house community, minor key signatures are in abundance, namely A minor, A# minor and G minor and G# minor – for those that care. This provides a less ‘joyful’ musical context for the listener. And this release doesn’t deviate away from the standard 120 or so beats per minute tempo either, but it does provide a varied palette of sonic colours that are always pleasant. Relatively simple but infectious one or two bar baselines together with infective drum and percussion rhythm tracks, warm synth pads and other synthesised sounds that all successfully gel together well throughout ‘Rough Or Smooth’ (not a great album name though).

Within house music and its many subgenre classifications, albums are less common than in other electronic music forms. This is fundamentally DJ music and sales of albums of this kind or type tend to be relatively low, with individual track purchases on specialist digital dance music retailers such as Beatport and Traxsource more warranted. So are albums of this nature needed? It could be argued that releasing three or four separate EP projects over the course of a six-month period rather than on one single album would be more beneficial financially and strategically. And it is obvious that house music has pretty much ceased in being a place of creative innovation for years, and this is from someone who was buying the first house 12” singles from Chicago in the mid 1980s and still purchases new house records some 30 years later. But that’s not to say that interesting and valid music isn’t being created, but with the sheer volume of new releases each week, it’s difficult for many producers to make their mark, or avoid conforming to the known rules and expectations of the genre, although, this is an issue throughout contemporary popular music.

But Abel’s debut is a solid release. An entire listening experience is probably more appropriate as many of the productions will seem quite ‘samey’ to those outside or unfamiliar with deep house, and so, it’s difficult to pinpoint specific standout tracks. But house music needs a revolution. It needs another Marshall Jefferson, a DJ Pierre, a Todd Terry, a Masters at Work and so on, who can transform and update the genre.

Damian Wilkes

Zucchero Sugar Fornaciari ‘Wanted: The Best Of’ Deluxe edition 3CD + DVD (Universal Italia/Wrasse) 4/5

Italian singer and guitarist Zucchero, Adelom ‘Zucchero’ (Italian for ‘sugar’ and the singer’s nickname since a child) Fornaciari, is something of a phenomenon in his native Italy and his own take on a diluted form of the blues aimed squarely at a mass market pop audience has resulted in big selling albums. That said, Zucchero has a genuine love of blues and soul music, and as a teenager was taught the guitar by a black American student. His mid-1980’s debut recording, ‘Blue’ (1987) sold one million copies and he enjoyed UK pop chart success in 1991 with an unexpected duet featuring Paul Young,’Senza Una Donna’, which went into the top five. Numerous musicians of standing have guested on his albums and they include Eric Clapton, Jimmy Smith and Rufus Thomas among many others.

Full marks are due to Universal for this extremely well thought out and generous package that amounts to a deluxe ‘greatest hits’ package. The CD’s are chronologically divided up into separate eras, with latter taking the Zucchero story bang up-to-date between 2005 and the present. Another hit duet, with Randy Crawford, ‘Diamante’, found favour with British audiences in 1992.

This writer found it difficult to warm to the large pop concert atmosphere of the live DVD recording in Verona and unlike say Paolo Conte, there is nothing specifically Italian about his sound (aside of course from the lyrics which are predominantly in his mother tongue). However, for those already devoted to the cause and they are seemingly numerous, this will prove to be something of a revelation and consecration of the singer’s craft. To the DVD is added another lengthy documentary that sheds light on the persona behind the pop image, and features enlightening interviews with the live musicians, culled from the crème de la crème of American and Italian studio musicians. In sum, three marks for the actual musical content, but, given the outstanding package as a whole, four marks in total.

Tim Stenhouse

Sly & The Family Stone ‘Small Talk’ / ‘High On You’ / ‘Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I’m Back’ 2CD (BGO) 4/5

Best known for the seminal dance oriented recordings from the late 1960’s, the youthful ‘Stand’ (1969) and especially the socio-political commentary of ‘There’s A Riot Going On’ (1971), by 1974, when the first album on this trio of mid-1970’s recordings was made, Sly Stewart was considered to be experiencing something of a creative decline and the original band was gradually falling apart. In its place, however, a new and mature Sly and the Family Stone was emerging and one that was taking on board the new, mellower sounds of soul. It is in this vein that one should approach these recordings which, though falling somewhat short of the aforementioned zenith of the band, are now in retrospect surprisingly interesting and ahead of their time, and they present a more varied stylistic ethos and one that has influenced musicians subsequently, most notably Prince.

To these ears, the first album, ‘Small Talk’, bears the mark of the Hi Records’ sound of Al Green and this is illustrated on ‘Say You Will’, that is an organ-led ditty with strings and a pared down rhythm section. A softer, more reflective side to the Family Stone is heard on the brief ballad, ‘Mother Beautiful’, whereas fans of the old style dance groove can still find echoes of ‘Family Affair’ as on the uptempo ‘Time For Livin’, which is a strong contender for album highlight, and on the funkier-edged, ‘Loose Booty’, which was a minor US R & B success. It was actually the second album, ‘High On You’, that met with greater critical acclaim and once again, Sly delivered an evenly paced set, with new band members including his model wife on vocals. The third album is, perhaps, the least successful and furthest away from the classic sound of the Family Sound. Released in 1976, when disco was starting to hit big, it was mixed at Sigma studios in Philadelphia and had the imprint of Kenneth Gamble who also wrote the original sleeve notes. Rock star Peter Frampton guests on ‘Let’s Be Together’, but as a whole this album is far less coherent and directly led to a period of steep decline in Sly’s commercial and personal health, with a long-term drug addiction blemishing both. His career thereafter became increasingly chaotic and by 2011, there were sadly reports of the singer now being homeless and living in a camper van on the streets on Los Angeles. The extensive notes by Mojo writer and soul authority Charles Waring amount to an extended essay on Sly’s career and rightly place this trio of albums in a much wider context. Iconic black and white cover photos on the first two albums hint at the greatness of the Sly and the Family Stone legacy. Not definitive Sly by any means, but for those who are already familiar with his greatest work, these recordings are nonetheless worth exploring, especially if you are hearing them for the first time.

Tim Stenhouse

Baden Powell ‘Tristeza On Guitar’ (MPS) 5/5

Bavarian label, MPS, rightly prided itself on its superb sound quality and capturing some of the key American and European jazz musicians at their peak. However, the label also went one step further and recorded some gems of Brazilian music. Unquestionably, one of the jewels in the crown is this superlative recording that is one of the finest examples of Afro-Brazilian music with a strong jazz bent ever laid down in a studio setting. It certainly helped that it was recorded in Rio de Janeiro with the cream of Brazilian musicians and these included the great Milton Banana on drums, Copinha on flute and a significantly enhanced percussive section that featured three specialists and another two musicians doubling up. The varied set has a strong emphasis on Afro-Brazilian grooves and this contrasts with the more reflective side of the leader, heard here also in a more intimate jazz setting with pared down accompaniment.

Three fabulous samba-jazz numbers evoke the Afro-Brazilian influences. In the case of ‘Canto de Xango’, Orisha gods are invoked and the delicate flute solo intro with classical guitar leads on to a sudden transformation with some meaty percussion. For the equally compelling ‘Canto de Ossanha’, a bass-led intro with percussion takes off with the leader on rhythmic guitar and the rhythm section in full force. Completing the trio of pieces is ‘Saravá’, where the initial cuica percussion intro then takes on a mini festival with the added bonus of a repeated guitar riff. In a more sophisticated mood, ‘Tristeza’, is yet another winner with some deft guitar work from Powell, while the percussive instruments, the abataque, pandeiro and surdo all combine on ‘Som do Carnaval’, which contribute percussion mania on this homage to the sound of carnival. Contrast this with the other side of Baden Powell, and the guitar and bass duet of ‘Round midnight’, or the quasi-classical hues of guitar and intringuingly guitar playback technique on ‘Invencâo em 7 1/2’.

As with the new MPS re-issue series, the packaging is nothing less than sumptuous, lovingly assembled and is on a par with Japanese quality. Inner sleeves for the CDs that are crammed with additional details, a lengthy set of original and new notes in English and German by jazz author and authority, Joachim Berendt, beautiful facsimile covers and in this instance the gorgeous illustrated front cover by Gigi Berendt of a woman holding a guitar, with a bird of prey behind her and the stunningly evocative covers showcased with the contrasting black background. Psychedelic art design of the highest calibre. This is quite simply what Brazilian music is all about and why it is held in such reverence. Only the minor error on the original cover of the name of a cuica drum being misspelled with a ‘g’ and even this has its own quiet charm of an era when the discovery of world beats was still in its infancy.

Tim Stenhouse

Mônica Vasconcelos ‘The São Paulo Tapes: Brazilian Resistance Songs’ (MOVA) 4/5

Now resident in London, but a native of Brazil, Mônica Vasconcelos has quietly established a reputation and both accompanied and supported some major name musicians, ranging from Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, Gilberto Gil and Joyce on the Brazilian music tour circuit, to Brian Ferry and Courtney Pine further afield. Moreover, she has performed at prestigious venues and festivals with Barbican, the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, the Jazz Café and Ronnie Scott’s all figuring in the mix. This new recording has a wonderfully sparse feel to it and that is largely down to the expert production talents of Robert Wyatt, with this fruitful collaboration resulting in arguably Mônica Vasconcelos’s most accomplished album to date. She deserves credit for tackling the slightly less well-known side of Brazilian singer-songwriters, with the pairing of João Bosco and Aldir Blanc covered on several songs, while other worthwhile composers such as Geraldo Vandré and even Caetano Veloso are interpreted. A multi-national band featuring Liam Noble on piano provide empathetic and sensitive accompaniment.

The album title of resistance songs is in reference to the Brazilian military dictatorship that existed between 1964 and 1985 and it was the subversive and often coded messages contained in songs that provided the main form of resistance to the military junta. A gentle, reflective mood permeates the album with the opener, ‘Agnus sei’, illustrative of the acoustic and pared down use of instrumentation. There are hints of both Flora Purim and Joyce here, but starting off at a sedate pace, the song gathers force and morphs into an uptempo vehicle. Mid-tempo numbers predominate such as the lovely, ‘Abre alas’, that was originally penned by Ivan Lins and Vitor Martins, and their writing talents are further showcased on the very Joyce sounding ‘Aos nossos filhos’. Pianist Liam Noble stretches out on ‘Angélica’, while Monica is in more reflective mode on ‘Disparada’, which may well be thus titled in reference to those Brazilian citizens who disappeared in less than clear circumstances by the military. An English language song that Caetano Veloso wrote while in London in the early 1970s, ‘London, London’, adds a new dimension to the album as both Gilberto Gil and Veloso sought political refuge from the military by moving to Europe for a period. This is an album that departs from the previous records of Mônica Vasconcelos and certainly deserves to be heard by a public not accustomed to the folksier side of Brazilian music as this is a completely different style to the bossa nova re-interpretations that predominate in Europe and North America.

Tim Stenhouse

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