Big Daddy Wilson ‘Songs From The Road’ CD/DVD/DIG (Ruf) 4/5

If the recent Chicago soul-blues recordings of Mavis Staples and the timeless instrumental backing accompaniment appealed, then this live recording from Big Daddy Wilson may offer an equally entertaining and, in some respects, a slightly deeper insight into the history of the blues. Recorded in Switzerland in October, 2017, in the compact and atmospheric live setting of an arts centre, and with an excellent tight sounding all-Italian band, this is music from a seasoned musician who has been on the road for some twenty-five years and that well honed sound is testimony to both the leader’s knowledge base and experience. Although all but one of the songs are Wilson originals, the repertoire is in reality varied, encompassing distinctive stages in the development of blues music. An understated funky ditty is ‘Seven Years’, with some lovely keyboards from Enzo Messima, and this deeply soulful number is interesting in exploring the relationship that does indeed exist between blues and funk, and anyone who has listened carefully to 1960’s Chicago blues will hear that connection in the drum beats. Rhythm guitar and bass line from Cesare Nolli and Paolo Legramandi respectively are showcased on ‘Baby Don’t Like’, with fine collective harmony vocals. The music works best to these ears on the mid-tempo soulful side of Chicago blues ‘Drop Down Here’, being a fine example.

The one standard cover is a cool and downright funky reading of ‘John The Revelator’, and the exemplary delivery by Big Daddy makes this a fine way to open up proceedings on the DVD. It has a definite nod to the Mavis Staples retro sound, and when Wilson inquires ‘Are You Ready For Some Blues?’ to the audience, you know full well what the likely response will be ‘Yes’, when the music is as expertly performed as this. For an earthier form of the blues, the electric guitar solo and monologue on, ‘Cross Creek Road’, works a treat while the CD ends on a gentle acoustic note with ‘I Just Need A Smile’. Big Daddy Wilson has brought together disparate elements of the larger blues jigsaw and skillfully weaved them into his own tailored identity. One small caveat: the DVD starts off in black and white and looks much better in that format with a timeless quality before the rest is viewed in glossier colour. Otherwise, nearly two hours of music on the DVD with behind the scenes bonus, while the CD minus three tracks on the DVD weighs in at just under eighty minutes. Another fine release from Germany’s Ruf label.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘The Meaning of the Blues: The Legacy of Paul Oliver 1927-2017’ CD (Jasmine) 4/5

Paul Oliver was one of the foremost writers on blues music and his contribution to expanding our knowledge of early blues is inestimable and has greatly enhanced and indeed shaped our understanding of how the blues evolved. Oliver passed away last August, aged ninety, but his legacy is a towering one and this first effort at chronicling his own accompanying albums of then undiscovered musicians is a most welcome one. The music contained on this single CD is the full listing of the original vinyl album that accompanied his second book, ‘The Blues Fell This Morning’, while the rest crams in twelve tracks from the vinyl that accompanied Oliver’s third book, ‘Screening The Blues’. Great value for money at almost eighty minutes of music, even if, ideally, one would have preferred the complete listing of both albums.

For those of a younger generation who did not see these albums first time round, they were something of a revelation in that Paul Oliver assembled some of the key singers from labels such as Columbia, Okeh and Vocalion, and as such these 78’s are a priceless document of the social history of both blues music and, more generally, the evolution of African-Americans in the United States prior to the large-scale migration of this minority group to the north. It was that very same migration that would lead to a new generation of blues musicians creating the electric blues, with specific blues sounds emanating from key Cities such as Chicago and Memphis, which were stop off points for migrants from the south, and eventually the transition from rhythm and blues into what we now call soul music. The 78’s date between 1927 and 1940, although the Robert Johnson recording is best known as being re-issued in the 1960’s when the blues revival was well and truly underway.

The songs themselves could not be more evocative and communicate directly key themes of the era. This is the case of ‘Starvation Farm Blues’ (1934) by Bob Campbell that was recorded during the great depression and a musical of John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes Of Wrath’, or where issues of race and different skin complexions are directly alluded to as on the wonderfully evocatively named Barbecue Bob and ‘Chocolate To The Bone’, with a subject matter that even today may be perceived as distinctly risqué. A particular favourite of this writer is a song that reveals the close and, at times, somewhat uneasy relationship that exists between blues and gospel on ‘Denomination Blues Pts. 1 and 2’, delivered by the rasping voice of one Washington Philips from a 1927 Columbia 78. As a whole, Paul Oliver was instrumental in bringing names to the attention of a wider audience, some of whom are now household fixtures in the blues cannon such as Blind Boy Fuller, Memphis Minnie and Bukka White.

One important caveat with this particular re-issue. While the quality of the music is never in dispute and is a clear five start rating, the accompanying sleeve notes are somewhat meagre and could and should be more substantial for a writer of Paul Oliver’s calibre and historical importance. It is, then a great pity that the discographical details are not accompanied by lavish illustrations of the following: individual labels; photos of the singers from the extensive collection of Paul Oliver; in-depth individual notes on the songs, several of which have lyrics that require further explanation to place them in a historical context. For this reason, one point has been deducted from the final evaluation. Other anthologies of Oliver’s discoveries do already exist and the four CD, ‘Meaning Of The Blues’, (2011, JSP), is a more comprehensive offering.

Hopefully this will be the first of many re-issues of Paul Oliver’s wonderful discoveries and a fitting tribute to his legacy if made available in both vinyl and CD formats, and even a re-issuing of book and vinyl/CD simultaneously.

Tim Stenhouse

Shalamar ‘Uptown Festival’ / ‘Disco Gardens’ / ‘Big Fun’ 2CD (Robinsongs) 4/5

One of the classic disco groups and an early example of the Solar sound that would come to be personified by the likes of The Whispers and Dynasty. The trio comprised the dynamic vocal duet of Jody Watley and Howard Hewett, with the dazzling visual dancing talents of Jeffrey Daniels. Instrumentally, the backing band were largely anonymous, but over time the sound became distinctive as the Solar sound and in the UK, Shalamar crossed over into the pop charts. The three albums contained within chart the progress that the group made from disco wannabees to a tightly defined soul-disco outfit with serious pretensions.

Starting off with, ‘Uptown Festival’, which is no less than a medley of classic Motown songs and in truth the group getting used to a studio environment, the title track was at the very least an indication that Shalamar were far more capable than operating as a mere covers band, and could in fact create a voice of their own. Their first real attempt at what became known as the ‘Shalamar sound’ started in earnest with, ‘Disco Gardens’, and the immortal disco anthem ‘Take That To The Bank’, which is here in all its full length glory and it still sounds like as fresh at the day it was recorded. As a whole, the album was a somewhat mixed affair, with hits and misses along the way. The mid-tempo ‘Leave It All Up To Love’, was a clear sign that the band could look beyond strictly dancefloor tracks and attract the listener with a strong hook, something of a Shalamar trademark over the years, with the vocal harmonies to the fore. Equally, the group could deliver quality ballads, as with ‘Lovely Lady’, with Jody Watley taking over lead vocal duties.

The fortunes of Shalamar really took off with the third album, ‘Big Fun’, which was by far the best balanced of the trio of albums here and illustrated by the three singles that were released off it and all succeeded to a greater or lesser extent. Another dancefloor winner emerged with, ‘Right In The Socket’, which is heard in the full length version and builds into a steamy disco classic, with thumping drums and handclaps, electric piano and subtle layered strings that typified the Solar label approach. An ever bigger hit proved to be ‘The Second Time Around’, which attracted the non-disco crowd and set the template for their successful foray into the UK pop chart territory. While not reaching the same heights as a single, ‘I Owe You One’, was a subtle soul-disco song that reinforced the view that Shalamar were here to stay and for a seven year period from 1977 to 1984, they were indeed one of the finest groups to emerge. A lovely overview of the early part of the career of the band and bonus cuts include the 7″ versions of the singles on ‘Big Fun’. As per usual, excellent graphics and lengthy historical notes in the inner sleeve. The second part of their career would see Shalamar first climbing to the top of the import charts, then taking advantage of the early 1980s promotional video boom to conquer the UK pop market, especially with the dancing talents of Jeffrey Daniel, and then on the pinnacle of their career with that stunning hit ‘A Night To Remember’.

Tim Stenhouse

Hugo Fattoruso ‘Hugo Fattoruso Y Barrio Opa’ LP/CD/DIG (Far Out Recordings) 4/5

Uruguayan keyboardist Hugo Fatturoso is probably best known for fronting one of the leading Latin-fusion bands of the 1970’s in Opa, whose albums have been re-issued previously in the UK on BGP. However, Fattoruso was also a key member of the mid-1970s band of Brazilian multi-instrumentalist, Airto Moreira, on such memorable recordings as ‘Fingers’ (CTI 1974) and ‘I’m Fine How Are You?’ (Warner 1977). This was important in showcasing Afro-Uruguayan and Afro-Brazilian music with significant populations of African descent in both Uruguay and Argentina being systematically wiped out historically, and this has indeed been a regular point of contention with neighbours in Peru, and in the case of Argentina, has been largely erased from the national history in schools. How then, would a brand new album shape up after all these years? The good news is that there is something for fans old and new. Hugo Fattoruso is not simply leaning on past recordings, but has come up with an evolving sound that borrows in part from the classic 1970s period, but builds in new elements. Little wonder, then, that his music has been sampled by a younger generation of discerning musicians and DJs from Flying Lotus to Madlib. The new recording is notable for the incorporation of Afro-Latin drum rhythms known as Candmobe drumming and that injects a whole new dimension into the music.

A number which makes reference to the transport in Tokyo, ‘Trenes De Tokyo’, is one of the most engaging tracks with that distinctive subtle use of the electric piano combined with percussion that marks out Hugo Fattoruso’s music. However, the leader does not restrict himself to electric keyboards and excels on acoustic piano on ‘Botijas’, which has more of a conventional Brazilian samba-jazz feel, complete with wordless vocals and extended soloing by Fattoruso, with both numbers featuring some lovely interplay between bassist and son, Francisco Fattoruso, and Tato Bologni on drums, with added percussion from the Silva brothers and Albana Barrocas. A percussion excursion takes place on ‘Candamobelek’, with an array of percussion and hand claps, with Fender Rhodes to accompany, while the fast-paced ‘Candombe Alto’, features Fatturoso on both synthesizer and Fender. Now in his mid-seventies, like Airto, Hugo Fatturoso is enjoying a new lease of life and, if this highly enjoyable recording is anything to go by, we can expect more music in the future which would be a great bonus. A very welcome return.

Tim Stenhouse

Soul Basement ‘Oneness’ CD (Moosicus) 4/5

This landed on the doormat along with 9 other albums, two of which I had been waiting several months for as they were small label private runs, both coming back into stock within a week of each other, so sadly I put this one further down the pile than it should have been because this a fabulous modern soul album, Italian born Fabio Puglisi and Jay Nemor have been likened to Gil Scott-Heron and Lou Rawls and I can understand why too, for me it’s like listening to the genius that is Cunnie Williams, these guys really are bang on with a sound that has strong Jazz influences with hints of seventies soul, eighties boogie and funk and we have spoken word too. Heavy bass, muted percussion, tinkling piano, Sax and Trombone create that essential sound. As always, I’ll go straight to the meat on here in the name of “Count On Me”, which begins like many 70s mid tempo tunes do, muted percussion, joined by horns, all very restrained then in comes that voice and we have a sing a long chorus to boot, a sax caresses the drums and bass beautifully, this head nodding chugger will be massive given the right radio exposure, I know Mark Merry at Starpoint will jump all over this and quite rightly, but what about Solar, Stomp and 365? when they hear this I’m sure they will be all over it. A soul anthem in the making and it doesn’t stop there folks. Get a load of the opener “Better Das”, and it really does set the standard for the rest of the album, a lovely stroller for which I really did think was Cunnie Williams. The more urgent “Love to the People”, is another essential spin, with a subtle guitar bubbling away in the back ground, muted backing singers, a real grower, dropping the pace to the percussion and piano led “Slowly”, a simple tune in its execution but infectious nonetheless. And for more of a delight try “Hang On In There”. There are several spoken word tracks on here too but they all have something interesting to say and fit perfectly within this setting.

Gregory Porter came from nowhere and became the darling of the masses only to blow it totally by selling out with that Nat King Cole cash cow. These guys could and should be the next big thing, let’s hope so, I know one thing though they won’t be selling out any time soon. A memorable album with some fine moments, and somewhat essential if you’re a soul fan. Also search out their ‘What We Leave Behind‘.

Brian Goucher

Elina Duni ‘Partir’ CD (ECM) 4/5

Albanian singer Elina Duni is not a newcomer to the ECM roster having previously recorded in a quartet format on the 2015 album, ‘Dallendyshe’. For this latest project, she operates entirely on her own, performing on vocals and piano, and covers, in a multitude of languages, (nine to be precise) the traditional songs of Armenia, Kosovo, Maecdonia and her native land, as well as the occasional French language standard, and even finds tim to record in both Arabic and Yiddish. The title, ‘Leaving’ in English, is actually inspired by francophone Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Prix Goncourt winning author (the most prestigious literary prize in France), and in the inner sleeve notes, we find a bi-lingual French and English quote by Duni, that, ‘We are all departing in one way or another’. It is the emotional state of yearning for somewhere that informs and serves as the motivating leitmotiv for Elina Duni on this highly personalised recording. Adding to the atmosphere is the actual sparseness of the sound, as on ‘Amara Terra Mia’, where the voice of Duni is simply accompanied by guitar.

Where this album succeeds is in conveying the message with a convincing musicality that draws the listener into the subject matter and the judicious selection of folk songs from various parts of central Europe, especially the Balkans, makes the project as a whole all the more coherent. Duni’s voice is at once sensitive, vulnerable and quite enchanting and she comes into her own on Jacques Brel’s ‘Je Ne Sais Pas’. She ought perhaps to think about a whole album of the French language repertoire. Elsewhere, Elina Duni sings in French and Spanish on ‘Mon Amor’, a hybrid, while in English, she delivers ‘Let Us Dive In’. For some variety, a song in German, ‘Schönster Abestärn’, rounds matters off nicely. An out of the ordinary recording, yes by all means, but lyrical, melodic music and thought-provoking all the same.

Tim Stenhouse

Kristjan Randalu / Ben Monder/ Markku Ounaskari ‘Absence’ CD (ECM) 3/5

An unusual line-up of piano, guitar and drums, but devoid of any bass, this group are completely new to this writer and their music has a strong improvisational feel, but somewhere between contemporary classical and minimalist improvisational music, but not jazz.
Some of the pieces are divided up into two parts such as ‘Lumi I and II’, and the informal feel has a repeated guitar motif and piano searching for sound. While the musings are pleasant enough, one wonders whether the compositions are actually strong enough to carry the album as a whole and this is certainly not an easy listening experience to digest. Rather, it comes across as an experimental work in progress that has yet to receive the final varnish before being presented. The nine and a half minute opener, ‘Forecast’, is a reposing number that is quasi-classical in style, especially in the use of piano, but the guitar of Ben Monder does enter into a rapport with pianist Kristjan Randahl, who has composed the majority of the pieces here and is the effective trio leader. Dissonnant guitar dominates on ‘Adaption I’, while the more melodic ‘Adaption II’ focuses more on the piano and to these ears is preferable. Recorded at La Buissonne and an inner sleeve featuring colour photos of the trio in discussive mode. Mark this down in the experimental ECM cannon of work.

Tim Stenhouse

Ketil Bjørnstad and Anneli Drecker ‘A Suite of Poems’ CD (ECM) 4/5

Here is a most intriguing concept. Think of the various hotel rooms in the world that a musician might reside in and how a musician might react to that environment. Then enlist a poet to write about that very same very experience and place those words into a musical context with a pared down piano and vocal accompaniment. Perhaps, only a label with the track record of ECM would have the confidence and sheer braggadocio to issue such a release, but this precisely what they have done. Regular ECM participant Ketil Bjørnstad is joined here by vocalist Anneli Drecker who performs the totality of the repertoire in English. The voice has something of a pop/folk tone and to these ears seems to have been influenced by Kate Bush. As to the poems themselves, these have been composed by Danish poet Lars Saabye Christensen and they all refer to specific places, predominantly hotels, in major cities throughout the globe. The most compelling songs to these ears are those devoted to Hamburg, ‘Vier Jahreszeiten’, and to Lisbon, ‘Savoy, Lisbon’, while hotels that are no longer are paid homage to on with, ‘Mayflower, New York’, a hotel where Ketil Bjørnstad stayed, but which has subsequently closed down and replaced, by all things, Trump Tower! The very last hotel, Schloß Elmau, has also been used as a location for recordings of musicians on the ACT label and thus locations and music can operate in tandem.

If anything, the music has an American songbook feel to it. The only question mark this writer would raise is why the words are not also linked to the cities themselves. Where for example is the Lutetia in Paris (it is for the uninitiated located in the swanky Rive Gauche of the Latin Quarter in the sixth arrondissement, but none of this information is at the listener’s disposal), and how does it relate to the stay in Paris as a whole? We learn nothing about that experience from the lyrics which is a pity. Otherwise, a truly creative endeavour and the music does operate effectively independent of the words.

Tim Stenhouse

Valia Calda ‘Methexis’ CD/DIG (Private Press) 4/5

A real discovery here and two Greek brothers Ziarkas, bassist Thodoris and guitarist Nikos, have come up with a small-scale gem of a quartet album that has all the strengths of a classic ECM recording, yet operates separately. Mediterranean folk music meets acoustic jazz and the combination makes for a scintillating exchange of ideas. The rationale behind the album is clear from the title which means a ‘coming together’ and offers a more utopian vision for solving twenty-first century issues, especially in the Mediterranean nations on both sides, of migration, exile and social struggle.

Full marks first of all to engineer and assistant George and Tasos Botis for creating such a wonderful recording sound. Acoustic bass and bass clarinet working in tandem is just one of the endearing features of this recording and on the melodic ‘Exiles’ the intimate rapport between the two is outstanding before trumpeter Sam Warner then soars off into a plaintive solo. Arguably the strongest number of all is, ‘Trip For Nothing’, which has a simply melody that is beautifully performed by the quartet and with the clarinet and trumpet playing off one another. The influence of the Balkan folk music tradition is clear on ‘Typo’, which is a mournful tune with duets between acoustic bass, guitar and trumpet, while on the expansive opener, ‘Dilek Dogan’, bass clarinet and trumpet combine effectively.

The band departs from an all acoustic sound on one piece only, ‘Gorge’, which hints at different avenues that Valia Calda might wish to explore in future albums. Here, the use of space is dissected with a brooding bass clarinet and guitar sound that comes across as a re-visiting of the ‘Bitches Brew’ era, and this more experimental approach works well and adds a new dimension to the album as a whole. One of the year’s hidden discoveries and a slow burner of an album that should see it occupy more than just this writer’s end of year best of list. The May launch of the album was in London, at the Total Refreshment Centre, and further details of the band are available at: www.valiacaldamusic.com

Tim Stenhouse

Espen Eriksen Trio with Andy Sheppard ‘Perfectly Unhappy’ LP/CD (Rune Grammofon) 4/5

British saxophonist Andy Sheppard first teamed up with the Norwegian based Espen Eriksen Trio a couple of years back, touring Korea and Norway. And so one imagines a studio album must have been on the cards for some time now. Those familiar with Sheppard’s recent ECM recordings will be accustomed with the saxophonist’s more laid-back offerings of late, and this session certainly fits nicely into that mould. Not that that’s a bad thing by any means, “Perfectly Unhappy” being a quite sumptuously exquisite album in many ways.

Espen Eriksen’s trio has been touring and recording for ten years now, with Eriksen on piano, Andreas Bye on drums and Lars Tormod Jenset on bass, they combine with an assured cohesiveness that makes it all sound so easy. Graceful and melodic, their music exemplifies that Nordic jazz/folk thing that takes the listener on a wonderful journey across mountains and fjords and back again.

The music on “Perfectly Unhappy” may not break any new boundaries, but it’s just so well written and performed that listening is made easy and rewarding. The addition to the trio of Andy Sheppard is reminiscent in style and mood to that of another recent piano trio plus sax recording, by another of my favourite piano trios, Marcin Wasilewski Trio. The Polish outfit’s ECM album “Spark of Life” features Norwegian saxophonist Joakim Milder, and the results are very similar, with this listener taken away on a musical Nordic breeze to a land of serenity and peacefulness.

The album’s opener, “Above The Horizon”, sets the tone perfectly for what is to come, with Sheppard and Eriksen taking turns to pick out the melody and go with the flow. On tunes such as “Indian Summer” and Naked Trees”, it is Sheppard’s smokey, breathy, free-flowing sax that is more to the fore, whereas on “1974″ and “Revisited” it is the beauty of Eriksen and co that shine a guiding light for Sheppard to follow. And when the foursome combine in perfect harmony, as on the closing track “Home”, one simply has to sit back, admire, and enjoy.

An album of simple delights then, and one I shall return to time and time again when I need a little bit of calm and serenity. Here at UK Vibe we don’t do things by halves, but if we did, I’d rate “Perfectly Unhappy” as a four and a half.

Mike Gates