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 Pooley-Tolkien-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