Kyriakos Sfetsas ‘Greek Fusion Orchestra Vol.1’ LP/CD/DIG (Teranga Beat) 5/5

Some music is quite obviously from a certain era. The sound, the feel, the style; all combine to make the listener sit up and think ‘that has to be from…’ And so it is the case with this release. As soon as the music hits your ears you’re taken back to the 70’s in all its glorious prog-rock-jazz-folk technicolour.

Kyriakos Sfetsas grew up on the island of Lefkada where he studied classical music from an early age at the local conservatory. At the same time he was genuinely connected to traditional music and especially to the sound of the clarinet, the lead instrument in the region’s folk music. From a young age Sfetsas would perform with Gypsy orchestras in local feasts. It was this experience that inspired him to create the GFO after his return from Paris in 1975. Sfetsas founded the orchestra while working at the National Radio, an orchestra comprised mostly of members of the Variety Music Orchestra, who had a solid background in both classical and traditional music.

Jazz wasn’t at all fashionable in Greece at this time, yet Sfetsas, having received the first ever degree in percussion at Athens Conservatory, decided in 1976 to fulfil his vision of combining jazz with traditional Greek musical styles and decided to form a band which was called the Deftero Programma Jazz Band. It featured Terezakis on piano, Nikos Tatsis on guitar, Yorgos Theodoridis on bass, Manikas and Stelios Vihos on sax and Manthos Halkias on clarinet. Sfetsas wrote themes based on Greek traditional music which he would then set in this unique contemporary jazz style.

The recordings on this album, from 1976, form only a small part of the composer’s overall body of work with GFO, all of which being previously unreleased. The music was recorded Stereo on Reel Tape and with high standards for the time, with the current mastering process highlighting even more the quality of the recordings. Featuring some of Athen’s finest musicians of the time, the result is an intriguing and highly listenable mix of progressive jazz fusion.

The album opens with “Gypsy Pattern”, with its rousing intro playfully fooling the listener into thinking this could be a spiritual jazz kind of thing. Pretty soon though the composer reveals his true colours, with a funky back-beat offering a firm bedrock for some gypsy style sax and piano soloing. There’s an unmistakable Eastern identity pushing through, with the Greek musical traditions combining effortlessly with free-flowing jazz. A beautiful solo flute leads us into the much folkier “Morning Expectations”. As other instruments join the flute, it sounds more 17th century than 1970’s. Any such thoughts are soon blown rapidly away though, as a bluesy piano drives things back into the 20th century. And just when you think you know where you are, the traditional folk music enters to mix things up even more. This is like listening to a 70’s Jethro Tull album, only with an added contemporary jazz element. It’s funky, it’s groovy, but above all it’s unashamedly prog-folk-jazz. “Transition” is a touch more avant-garde, with a bolder, more abrasive musical attitude filling the spaces in between this traditional sounding folk tune. And then once again the mood changes, as the band create a sound more in tune with a 70’s Starsky and Hutch episode than a Greek anthem. The intrigue continues with the theatrical “On the Cliff”. This could well be music for an American/Japanese/Greek fusion spaghetti western b-movie. Clintiothopolis Eastwood rides in on his horse; the man with no name, metaphorically taking no prisoners. There’s also some lovely brass harmonies going on here, reminding me of Frank Zappa in his “Hot Rats” heyday. “Overturn” opens with a haunting solo sax. Piano takes over and leads the piece into its folk-rock overtures. Beautifully melodic, the music sparkles with ingenuity as it twists and turns, dancing with frivolity. The mesmerising opening to the final tune, “Towards the Castle”, highlights just how skilfully the composer blends contemporary jazz with Greek traditions. Almost inevitably, the jazz gives way to the folkier leanings of the composer, but the two genres are never at odds with one another, always delighting the listener with a flowery cross-pollination.

Greek Fusion Orchestra Volume 1 is a joy from start to finish. One wonders how many volumes there are to follow, but I personally cannot wait for the next one. This music makes for a very pleasant diversion from the more formulaic straight-ahead jazz that often gets released these days. It’s like a trip down memory lane for this middle aged prog-jazz-folk-rocker.

Mike Gates

Tyler Higgins ‘Blue Moods’ (Clean Feed) 2/5

Minimalist brush strokes from Zen Master Awakawa Yasuichi. The art of the Japanese haiku. Johnny Depp’s performance in “Dead Man”. Flying over Mount Everest. The simple beauty of watching a waterfall flow. Brad Mehldau in reflective mood. Bill Frisell’s thoughtful guitar ruminations. Nat Birchall’s spiritual jazz. Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now”. Any Jim Jarmusch movie. Tibetan singing bowls. The sound of one hand clapping. All of the above are excellent examples of the beauty and poignancy of ‘less is more’. Unfortunately this album is not one of them.

Known primarily as a guitarist, Tyler Higgins is a multi-instrumentalist and utilises many of his skills on “Blue Mood”. There’s a slow ‘n’ easy late night feel to the proceedings, with most of the recording led by the composer’s gentle, repetitive guitar licks. The Atlanta native’s approach is an intuitive synthesis of traditional folk, blues, and jazz material through the filter of experimental techniques. And some it works well. I like the subtleties and the little melodies that hover delicately above the main themes. His use of space is graceful, and there’s a nice warm sound to the recording. But that’s as far as it goes for me. The tunes seem to lack any real purpose, whether minimalistic and esoteric in intent or otherwise. The album is definitely not without merit though. There’s a nice choice of instrumentation on many of the tunes, and the whole album makes a nice backdrop for a one-in-the-morning last lingering whisky before bedtime.

Words and sound bites such as ‘atmospheric’, ‘cinematic’, ‘minimalist soundscape’, and ‘ethereal storytelling’ are often used to describe the nature of the music being performed. But sometimes one should simply admit to there being a simple lack of depth and meaning. To the listener anyway, as I don’t doubt the sincerity and meaning with which a musician writes and performs, it’s just that sometimes it just doesn’t strike a relevant chord with the listener. Occasionally because said listener is in the wrong mood, but more often than not because quite simply the music just isn’t that good.

Mike Gates

Avi Darash ‘Nomadic Treasures’ (A.MA) 4/5

After delving into different genres, ranging from the Amsterdam’s Andalusian Orchestra, Mohamed Ahaddaf Quartet or contemporary jazz, Israeli-born pianist-composer Avishai Darash is back with a very exciting new project, Nomadic Treasures, under the label A.MA. Evolving on an ever-changing musical terrain, and in search of blending different musical cultures, Avishai Darash offers us a beautiful and inspiring new album filled with aural surprises.

The album offers a collection of original songs about all types of journeys and soul-searching, carefully penned by the Greek jazz vocalist Irini Konstantinidi and musically arranged by Avishai Darash.
Backed up by Daniele Capucci on bass and Joan Terol Amigo on drums, each member of this impressive group contributes to the album’s colourful musical landscape and in weaving a tapestry of moods and emotions.

Each song reveals a distinct atmosphere, taking the listeners on a different voyage. North-African hints can be heard, interlaced with strong jazz leanings and Avishai Darash’s graceful sophistication and endearing personality.
The album opens up with Gnawa Vibe / New Born, and immediately we are introduced to Irini Konstantinidi’s impressive tonal range. Her lower vocals later on perfectly fit this rhythmic piece. The album moves into the feet-tapping Strong: Meditation, in which the musicians engage in a lively repartee, before Avishai Darash’s use of the Fender Rhodes, which adds an unexpected twist to the song.
Irini’s voice is pristine; she sings with honesty. Her lyrics speak directly to the listeners. She sings about longing, introspection, healing, reaching out and faith. Her songs are candid and we can all relate to them as part of our life’s experiences at one time or other. She and Avishai Darash complete each other to a tee — her singing is punctuated with his creative outbursts without ever clashing. The music breathes, it is never constrained by a surge of notes.

Avishai Darash’s expressive melodies and playing are always entrancing. His solos are full of light. He mesmerizes us with his fluidity and vulnerability. His minimalist approach dazzles the listeners – he has a natural knack for playing the exact right note to convey emotions. He doesn’t throw himself into an innumerable amount of notes, played at high speed, which some jazz aficionados are looking to hear, and yet, he outshines himself on this latest album, offering us soft caresses and a magical pull that sweeps the listeners along the melody lines.

Verlangen is a touchingly intimate composition introduced by gentle drum strokes before Avishai’s playing waltzes in with elegance, while Taqsim jumps out with its desert echoes that end abruptly, leaving the listener to wander.
I am particularly fond of Avishai’s solo in This Is How the Story Ends for its depth and tempo, or in Who’s Asking for his fragility. Another one of my favourites is the melancholic How Introspective for its authenticity. Darash’s playing and compositional talent is eloquent, poignant even; it is cerebral without being overpowering or daunting. His music has too much humility for that and the listeners are never left indifferent.
Maybe the only thing I slightly regret is not hearing more solos from the bass or drums, but this is not the type of album that demands it. Avishai Darash’s musical essence is complex and this album only reveals one layer of it. All in all, Nomadic Treasures is a listening adventure, bearing much emotion in every song and Avishai Darash is a name to watch as he continues his ascent into the musical and artistic world.

Nathalie Freson

The Magnificent Tape Band ‘The Subtle Art of Distraction’ (ATA) 4/5

What a fabulous name for a band that in itself got my interest but then I saw that the album features Rachel Modest who in 2016 slayed us with a deep soul 45 called “Forbidden Love”, which surfaced on ATA Records – one that is still out there and recommend you grab a copy.
To this album then, well it kicks off in fine style with the mournful horn laden dark “Let The Church Say”, the shimmering “Danger” is a real throwback grower, “When I Saw Your Face” is a stunning ballad that just envelopes you, a very simple sparse backdrop allow for this great voice to really get into your head, a real tune of beauty, I can well see “Requiem” getting radio plays, all very 5th Dimension in feel, from the moment I heard those crying strings I was hooked and “Heading Towards Catastrophe” should be coming your way soon, I can well see Soul radio picking this up and running with it, morphing into a mid tempo head nodder of the highest order, sounds like a cast of thousands, a lovely falsetto vocal takes you on the ride – stunning, simply stunning.
“Black Tiger” has that funky choppy sound that’s so in vogue now, the late Charles Bradley’s ghost floats all over this. And finally we go out with a real bang with a head nodding foot tapping funky stroller, a great album and I want more.

Brian Goucher

The Uniques ‘Absolutely… The Uniques’ (Doctor Bird) 4/5

As far as harmony trios go, The Uniques were one of Jamaica’s finest and they spanned the period from rock steady through to early reggae, before some of their work was revisited in dub format during the roots reggae era. Lead singer Slim Smith will need no introduction to reggae fans and has one of the most distinctive and lyrical of all voices, a fine falsetto vocalist. Jimmy Riley came to the fore as a lead singer slightly later during the roots era and cut some superb slices of that sub-genre. Lloyd Charmers found his forte as a producer and set up his own label where his sensitivity towards other singers endeared him to his fellow musicians, especially Delroy Wilson, who recorded for him. Collectively, the Uniques were extremely popular in the UK where they recorded for myriad labels, from the original Trojan orange label (an early happy fiftieth birthday to that label and these columns will be seeking to commemorate what Trojan contributed to the world of music which was some of the sweetest sounds on the planet). The original album is added to with another twelve songs that make this unbeatable value and an indispensable purchase even if you are lucky enough to own the original vinyl album. It is amazing to look back and realize that this album was recorded fifty years ago. It still sounds as though it could have been recorded yesterday and that is sign of a timeless recording.

What is sometimes forgotten is the extent to which Jamaica was listening in via radio channels to the emerging soul music coming out of the United States, and the covers on this illustrate this argument. Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions were hugely influential as heard on ‘Gypsy Woman’, while prototype Motown compositions abound and include the immortal, ‘My Conversation’, which quite simply contains one of the greatest of all ‘riddims’ in Jamaican music. A Bunny Lee produced ‘Speak No Evil’, is yet another winner. A few songs that could have been added like, ‘Girl of my Dreams, ‘Give Me Some of Your Loving’, would have enhanced the music, but really a 2-CD anthology is required to do full justice to the Uniques over a wider period and this CD really focuses on the single album and expands, which is certainly to its credit. Expertly researched by reggae archivist and historian, Laurence Cane-Honeysett. A plethora of labels are once again beautifully illustrated so the inner sleeve reader can view the magnificently coloured labels of Duke, Island, Lee’s, Nu Beat, and Pama, not forgetting Trojan (the latter worthy of a facsimile T-shirt print for some enterprising soul out there).

Tim Stenhouse

Justin Hinds and The Dominoes ‘Travel With Love’ (Nighthawk/Omnivore) 5/5

Missouri based label Nighthawk records recorded some of the finest late period roots reggae from the late 1970’s onward and this included a 12″ by Bunny Wailer as well as some outstanding albums by the likes of The Itals, The Gladiators, and this artist, Justin Hinds. who effortlessly has straddled the various transformations in Jamaican popular music. He started off as a youngster singing in the ska era, but came into his prime during the close harmonies of rock steady, ably abetted by his fellow male vocalists, The Dominoes. A brief gap in the early 1970’s was broken by two excellent Jack Ruby produced albums for Island/Mango in the mid-1970’s, but as the political situation and violence worsened in Jamaica at the end of the 1970’s, Hinds, like many Jamaicans, moved to the United States.

This album, however, was recorded at the Aquarius studio in Kingston with the cream of the capital’s session musicians and some famous names at that. For the rhythm section, the Barrett brothers, ‘Carly’ on the drums, and ‘Family man’ on the bass, backed Bob Marley and The Wailers throughout their most famous albums on Island, while ‘Sticky’ Thompson has featured on thousands of roots albums as the main percussionist. Factor in the dream horn section of Bobby Ellis, ‘Deadly’ Headly, and Tommy McCook. and, last but by no means least, add some tasty keyboards from Gladstone Anderson and, guitars by Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith and Bingy Bunny Lamont, and you have an instrumental backing that means to deliver, which of course they do. Above all else, though, it is the glorious harmonies that Hinds and The Dominoes have perfected over decades together which makes this an extra special musical event. These are never more beautifully exemplified than on, ‘Weeping Eyes’, this writer’s favourite, or on the gentle nod to an earlier era on, ‘Get Ready To Rock Steady’. In truth, the whole album rocks melodically from start to finish, and with the new CD edition, there is the major attraction of ten bonus cuts, of which three are songs never heard on the original vinyl, ‘Valley Of Reality’ being especially noteworthy, with seven version and dub tracks.

For those not already in the know, Robert Schoenfeld set up the Nighthawk label, to start off with as a tribute to blues legend Robert Nighthawk, but soon a passion for roots reggae took over, and the label prided itself on finding the premium recording studios and the finest musicians they could assemble to carry on the reggae tradition. A second album from 1992, ‘Know Jah Better’, has been re-issued simultaneously, and will soon feature in this review column. If you like your roots reggae, then discovering the Nighthawk records’ back catalogue is an absolute necessity.

Tim Stenhouse

Justin Gray and Synthesis ‘New Horizons’ CD/DIG (Synthesis Productions) 5/5

Justin Gray is a bassist, composer, producer, and educator based in Toronto, Canada. His main influences are jazz, classical, folk, Indian classical and world music.

Listening to his ‘Gray Matter’ jazz combo, you would be forgiven for thinking that here we have a great Jazz bassist with his six string electric bass playing with drums, trumpet, tenor sax and hammond organ. But that’s not the half of it!

Justin’s new ensemble called Synthesis has turned out an amazing debut album – New Horizons. This is not a jazz album but an extraordinary amalgamation of sounds that take in a diverse group of instruments and players from around the world. The list is impressive:

Dhruba Ghosh (Sarangi), Trichy Sankaran (Mridangam), Alam Khan (Sarod), Steve Gorn (Bansuri), Joy Anandasivam (Guitar), The Venuti String Quartet, Naghmeh Farahmand (Persian Percussion), Demetrios Petsalakis (Oud), Gurpreet Chana (Hang Drum), Todd Pentney (Piano), Joel Schwartz (Resonator Guitar) and Jonathan Kay (Esraj)…co produced by Ed Hanley (Tabla).….and that’s not all.

Justin is playing an instrument which he co designed called the Bass Veena. This is a six string acoustic bass, which sounds like a fretless bass, in addition to the higher pitch ten strings which he plucks and strums. The Bass Veena looks and sounds right at home with the other instruments on this album, many of which hail from the Middle East and the Subcontinent.

1. New Horizons – Up beat and positive, simple but strong melody doubled up with unlikely but brilliant combinations of instruments with Tabla supporting. Bass Veena centre stage. Sounds from the Subcontinent all over it.

2. Reflections – Nice staccato rhythm to start then a segue into dreamy tangents with individual solos over a consistent bass and tabla.

3. Migration – Dark and mysterious.. evocative of India and then a superimposed western folk guitar melody using western scales over an Indian raga.

4. Eventide – Smooth, like a jazz fusion but with a Bansuri playing a compelling melody which we absorbed rather than hear, finishing with strings.

5. Unity – Entrancing use of varied time signatures, with freestyle guitar solos…. slightly disconcerting but in a good way.

6. Break of Dawn – Overtones of rock melody from the Bass Veena with unusual blends of piano and stringed instruments almost but not quite clashing, producing a tension between the instruments which resolves finally as the waves subside.

7. Rise – Lovely folk melody and harmonies. Breaks into electric guitar solo straight from the west coast and we find ourselves in California in the 70’s… and then back to the folk melody – quite a journey.

8. Serenity – Wailing string melody against an upbeat rhythm, then from nowhere, a lovely Spanish guitar.

9. Ebb and Flow – Meandering jazz guitar against the backdrop of strings and tabla, mixing of raga with western, Spanish guitar again adding to the mix.

This album is a combination of the Hindustani Raga music tradition Justin studied during his travels in India, and his background in Jazz, World and western contemporary styles. The music is a gift, sincere and heartfelt, like an offering to the Buddha….. you have to work at it but once immersed there’s no going back.

David Izen

Kurt Elling ‘The Questions’ (Okeh/Sony) 4/5

While recently in conversation with Sean Rafferty on BBC Radio 3, singer Kurt Elling talked about his musical inspirations and this included his love of poetry alongside the great American songbook and vocalese practitioners who skilfully took jazz instrumentals and added their own witty lyrics. On this latest recording, once more featuring Branford Marsalis and band members, Elling has used all these influences to his advantage and from this rich palette has conjured up an album that has a little of something for everyone, even if long-time fans might prefer the more avant-garde to the straight ahead standards. Two classic instrumentals are tackled with a new set of lyrics, the first of which will be familiar to fans of bassist and all round musical genius, Jaco Pastorius. His, ‘A Secret In Three Views’, receives an inventive re-working as does Carla Bley’s, ‘Endless Lawns’. A love of the classic standards permeates the work of Kurt Elling and this time round the lovely, ‘I Have Dreamed’, by Rodgers and Hammerstein features a fitting solo from Branford Marsalis, while keyboardist Stu Mindeman stretches out on the Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer opus, ‘Skylark’, that closes out the album in a gentle mood. Perhaps, most surprising is the inclusion of slightly more contemporary pop/rock songwriters with a trio of compositions. The pick of the bunch is probably ‘American Tune’ by Paul Simon that was a feature of the latter’s 1973 recording, ‘A Rhymin’ Mr. Simon’, while for a left-field choice, Peter Gabriel’s ‘Washing Of The Water’, is truly unexpected. Opening up the album, Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall’, may be better served in a blues idiom. Poetry is weaved into the mix on the Carla Bley composition and an excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘From Letters To A Young Poet’, is inserted into the inner sleeve notes. A fine band that has appearances from Marquis Hill on trumpet and flugelhorn, Joey Calderazzo on piano, and for a touch of Chicago, guitarist John McLean, who has regularly performed with another jazz a singer from the Windy City, Patricia Barber. In general, a praiseworthy effort from one of the most accomplished singers around. A live recording from the Green Mill would be an ideal follow up at some stage.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Mexico – Luz de Luna – The Best Boleros from the Costa Chica’ (ARC) 4/5

Just over a decade ago, this writer went on a extended musical journey to locate one of the seemingly hardest to find compilations of roots music, searching the southern most states that border Mexico. It was a box set on the Carasón label of the very roots of Mexican folk mu,sic and it opened up a whole new world of sounds, the magnificent son de Mexico, influenced by its Cuban brother, el son Cubano, but newly adapted to the Mexican landscape and with a pared down instrumentation. The same team that brought you ‘El Son De Mexico’ returns on this terrific updating of the anthology to take on board the bolero sounds of an isolated part of Mexico, inland from the Pacific coast and where commercial labels would not even be aware of their existence. The guitar groups and the repertoire they practice is representative of diverse ethnic and musical traditions and these include mestizos (mixed race), native Indian and the Afro-Mexican traditions. A major inspiration to all musicians is the late Alvaro Carrillo, a composer who was born in Costa Chica. All of the musicians are featured at least twice which enables the listener to gain a real flavour of what they are capable of, pride of place going to the irrepressible Pedro Torres with no less than five appearances.

Indeed, it is Pedro Torres on his requinto guitar, who opens up the compilation, interpreting a Carrillo composition, and one with a mysterious ‘eso’/’that’ (the song title) in reference to the woman in the verse that hispanophiles can debate endlessly. No less than the seminal bolero band of the 1950’s and beyond, Los Panchos covered this song. Elsewhere, families are represented such as Las Hermanas García, and they interpret the highly respected composer, Marcos Martinez, on ‘Un amigo como tú’/’A friend like you’, while on ‘Cancionero’/’Songman’, the Carrillo composition refers in fact to a self-portrait of the writer’s father. Other singers worth checking out include Fidela Pelaez and the male harmony trio, Los Tres Amuzgos.

Detailed liner notes by co-Corasón label founder Mary Farquharson, with a plethora of colour photos of the musicians in traditional costume, and in some cases, being recorded and filmed simultaneously, place the music in its rightful historical context. Full lyrics in Spanish with an explanation in English of their significance. One of the year’s most interesting discoveries of roots music. This is what compilations should be all about, finding a niche where other labels have not previously trodden (outside of Mexico at least). With the twentieth anniversary of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, you might question whether there is anyway left in the world of music to (re)discover. Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar featured bolero music from mexico in his 1987 classic, ‘The Law Of Desire’, but it passed most viewers by. Mexican roots music might just be the antidote.

Tim Stenhouse