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