Various ‘African Scream Contest 2 – Benin 1963​-​1980’ 2LP/CD/DIG (Analog Africa) 4/5

If the first volume of music from the little known Benin Republic whetted the appetite, then the second installment does not disappoint, and certainly equals the former with some outstanding individual performances as well as an excursion into Afro-funk and other related cross-boundary sub-genres. A key number that has immediately been picked up radio is Ignace de Souza & The Melody Aces’ ‘Asaw Fofor’, and it is a classic of African music and, one of the few on a major label, Decca. Moreover, it is one of the earliest examples, dating from 1963. Virtually all the labels off which the vinyl was originally released are home-grown and the very names speak volumes about the independent-minded initiatives of the local record industry that has now sadly long disappeared: Disques Tropiques; Disacafric; Disc-Orient. There was a genuine pride in the post-independent francophone Africa. Connections with other parts of the African diaspora, notably in Latin America, are evident on ‘Dja, Dja, Dja’, which is an Afro-Latin delight by Stanislas Tohon. Laying down a heavy percussive groove is the admirably titled, Picoby Band D’Abomey, who offer up ‘Mé Adomina’. Lengthy and hypnotic riffs abound on, ‘Paulina’, which is a 1975 song from Black Santiago, while if it is some authentic Afro-disco that you are in search of, then the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou deliver big time on ‘Moulon Devia’; which dates from 1980. Accompanying the CD release is a luxurious forty-four page booklet that sheds more light on the individual names and the Beninese music industry more generally.

It is an ideal time to be investigating some of the so-called lesser names of African music with a brand new series already started on BBC4 and hosted by the excellent and ever enthusiastic Londoner-African musician and DJ/writer, Rita Ray. The music of Benin deserves to be heard beyond the physical limits of Benin and Samy Ben Redjeb is to be congratulated for unearthing such a varied selection of music that compares most favourably with anything else from that great continent during the same period. Terrific graphics on the front cover too.

Tim Stenhouse

Esbjörn Svensson Trio ‘Live in London’ 2CD (ACT) 5/5

It is some ten years since the EST trio leader and founder member, Esbjörn Svensson, was tragically killed on a lake near Stockholm. This live recording captures the trio at their stunning peak on a May 2005 concert that took place at the Barbican. Just under two hours of the band’s most loved numbers and what distinguished this trio from more traditional piano jazz trios was their ability to effortlessly interweave elements of rock, classical and jazz into a distinctive and fully cohesive whole that one would immediately recognise as their own. Furthermore, the band broke new ground in being one of the few European jazz formations that succeeded in gaining a foothold in the notoriously crowded and competitive American market. In live performance, the trio would diverge from studio recordings, often one number naturally seguing into another, and the music as a whole had an organic quality that could only have resulted from the amount of time the band rehearsed together and knew each other’s musical strengths and needs intimately. Thus on the lovely, ‘Tide Of Trepidation’, the main theme is identifiable from the outset, but towards the end Svensson takes the music in a different direction, setting off on a solo escapade. Another distinguishing feature was the quirky titles that immediately attracted the listener’s attention, such as, ‘When God Created the Coffeebreak’ (something Scandinavians are particularly partial to), or the seemingly impossible to fathom, ‘Eighty-Eight Days in My Veins’. EST were a band not devoid of humour, but equally capable of lengthy and dense interpretations of their work, as evidenced on a marathon-esque seventeen minute reading of, ‘Behind the Yashmak’, or a fifteen minute take on, ‘The Unstable Table and the Infamous Fable’. This writer, however, was most impressed by the delicate balladry work of the trio and in this respect, one of the unquestionable concert high points is the dazzling piano in operation on, ‘Viaticum’. Excellent sound quality and a highly charged evening in front of an audience that clearly lapped up the band’s contribution and work. Groups of the quality and artistry EST only come up every so often and that is all the more reason to celebrate their music here.

Tim Stenhouse

Sir Charles Jones ‘The Masterpiece’ (Southern King Entertainment) 4/5

First up I have to admit that I am totally hooked in every way with Sir Charles Jones. I have every album and MP3 that has surfaced, including all the YouTube tunes that haven’t featured elsewhere. Two things have been constant over the years, his voice, so distinctive with its slight southern drawl, and the percussion, sounding like the edge of the drum is being struck with a slight echo, it’s so addictive. Having had to wait some two months to get my hands on the physical album – I was sent the digital album while waiting – so I’m well acquainted with all 13 tracks. Essentially a downtempo album with a couple of dancers, one of which is a throw away “Wherever I lay my bone” might mean something to some but it’s just a waste of time, talent and my money. But the rest of the album makes up for it. Let’s go straight to the biggie on here for me, the self penned/Mike Swartz’ song, “100 Years”, which is quite possibly SCJ’s finest moment to date, almost acoustic in its approach but lyrically and vocally one of those stop you in your tracks moments, a pleading ballad stripped to the bone. Yes this is a southern soul album but the production is exactly what you would want, bass heavy, no gimmicks, just a solid musical backdrop that supports the main man perfectly. We have David Lee (Daven) Wilmon on drums, Tony Russell and Terry Grayson on bass, Phil Seed and Jonathan Ellison on electric guitar duty, we have a further five players on keys with Alan Meridith on acoustic guitar. No horn section or strings but this lot create a great sound. Okay, to the other tune on here that has captured my attentions; the simply stunning balladry of “Call On Me”, Sir Charles accompanied by non other than two serious heavy weights in my world, Calvin Richardson and Omar Cunningham and if there was any justice this would be a huge play on the likes of Solar, Starpoint, Stomp, 365 and any black music radio station out there, it should be on the playlist for sure. It has everything to reach the masses and introduce three new names to them.

To the best dancer on here then; “My Everything” has an R Kelly feel and bounds out of the speakers to create an irresistible groove from the off, the first ballad to hit your ears sets the standard for the rest of the album, “Squeeze Me”, a love song sang perfectly, but for even more of the same go straight to “This Is Your Night”, he really is the king of the southern balladeers. Moving into “Destiny”, which is another sumptuous ballad, whilst the album comes to a close, “Mother” has all of the hallmarks of being an anthem in years to come. And finally, the album finishes with a mid tempo stroller, “Fight The Pain”, where the percussion dominates the sound with subdued guitar solos, effortless. There is a subtle funker on here that’s been growing on me too, called “What Can I Say”, but took a number of plays to sink in. Without doubt the top southern soul album to surface so far this year, well worth the long wait, I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but it’s damn well near it.

Brian Goucher

Bill Frisell ‘Music Is’ 2LP/CD (OKeh/Music On Vinyl) 4/5

Guitarist Bill Frisell has been a major figure on the international jazz scene for the last thirty years or so and has recorded for labels as prestigious as ECM, Nonesuch and now OKeh/Sony. His own childhood and musical roots are in the American heartland of country and folk music, and it is the combination of these genres with improvised music that has made him one of the most distinctive and enjoyable guitarists around. In recent years, Frisell, moreover, has found the time to duet on some wonderful jazz meets world roots recording as well as covering the music of John Lennon among several other one-off projects. Here, on this new recording, however, he is very much on his own, acting as a multi-instrumentalist on electric and acoustic guitars, loop, bass, and even ukelele. The lovely opener, ‘Pretty Stars’ lays down the standard for the album as a whole with the emphasis firmly placed on musicality. A simple repetitive riff is added to with the overdubbed second guitar playing off one another. Frisell avoids the potential trap of becoming too technically detached from the music itself and instead lays down some deeply melodic lines. Folk music hues predominate with the gorgeous folk-tinged lyricism of, ‘Thankful’, a highlight as is the similarly themed, ‘The Pioneers’. One piece is dedicated to a musician that Bill Frisell has previously performed with on, ‘Ron Carter’, and this serves as the pretext for a duet between Frisell the guitarist and bassist, and in the process adopting the persona of a latter-day George Benson, or say Wes Montgomery, and that adds some tasty soul-blues licks to proceedings.

Another dimension to this solo recording is the more experimental side that Frisell is eager to participate in. This is exemplified on a piece such as, ‘What Do You Want?’, where a simple folk-based theme is then added to with layered texture in the background, and then a metronomic ‘tick-tock’ sound is created on top of that. If the album departs at all, then it is surely on the rock-tinged, ‘Think About It’, where Frisell sounds as though he has been listening to Neil Young from his Crazy Horse period. Two versions of the piece, ‘Rambler’, receive contrasting interpretations. On the former, the more experimental side of Frisell is showcased, with the use of loops. This writer much prefers the second, pared-down reading, where the guitarist is in a gentle, reflective mood, and that better suits the album.

Post ECM, Bill Frisell’s work has been as inventive as ever and this album succeeds on at least two levels: offering challenging music on the one hand; still retaining a warm human touch on the other. Recording on his own seems to have freshened up the Frisell sound and now a veteran of the jazz scene. He is less interested in blowing you away with his virtuosity and far more focused on creating beautiful music, which he does here with customary aplomb.

Tim Stenhouse

Carmen McRae ‘Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Classics’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 5/5

Singer Carmen McRae had an intimate knowledge of Billie Holiday since they lived in the same block when the former was growing up in Harlem, New York, according to the authoritative biography of Holiday by Donald Clarke. In fact, being childhood friends was not the only thing they had in common since Carmen’s birthday came the day after Billie’s and they regularly celebrated together, invariably over-indulging. Thus, when it came to Carmen McRae interpreting songs that the late Billie Holiday had immortalised, the music was in good hands and this album, recorded in two sessions during 1961, and released in 1962, more than lives up to the billing. It certainly helped that McRae was surrounded by a crème de la crème billing of instrumentalists, and ones who were used to accompanying top calibre vocalists. These included Norman Simmons on piano, Bob Cranshaw (he of ‘Sidewinder’ fame with Lee Morgan) on the acoustic bass, and Walter Perkins on the drums, and with production duties courtesy of Teo Macero, who of course also produced Miles Davis among others. Guesting were the considerable talents of Nat Adderley on cornet and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis on tenor saxophone. Carmen McRae possessed a unique voice and one that, according to writer Keith Shadwick, was not just a singer’s singer; she was a musician’s singer as well. Carmen was adept to take more liberties with the material than Billie and in this respect, she was closer in affinity to both Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, who were technically the most gifted. Furthermore, McRae, in her phrasings, dispensed with sentimentality whereas the emotive voice of Billie Holiday was the polar opposite and this was a major distinction between the two.

As the excellent back cover sleeve notes from noted San Francisco based jazz journalist, Ralph J. Gleason, one of her greatest admirers, attest, Carmen McRae imbued the songs with her own inimitable style. That meant a cool character reading of both ‘Strange Fruit’ and a dispassionate take on ‘Lover Man’, while she excelled with ad-libs on the more uptempo material such as, ‘Yesterdays’ (a favourite song of a future lady of jazz, Dianne Reeves, who emerged in the mid-late 1980s). Subsequently, Carmen McRae would record in a variety of contexts during the 1960s and 1970s, from reworking the then new standard, ‘Take Five’, with the Dave Brubeck quartet as part of the Jazz Ambassadors line-up for Columbia through to covering the new sounds of soul with string accompaniment on ‘For Once In My Life’, for Atlantic records. The album contained within represents a high point in her career and is on a par arguably with her greatest live recording, ‘The Great American Songbook’, from an intimate 1971 double album at a Los Angeles’ club, and the end of career opus, ‘Carmen Sings Monk’. Carmen McRae would go on to record for Blue Note, Concord (especially with George Shearing) and its Latin-Jazz off-shoot Concord Picante on the memorable ‘Heatwave’ album from 1982, with the latter recording especially recommended and again it was her ability to distance herself from the emotional lyrics that impresses.

Tim Stenhouse

Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’ LP/CD/DIG (Sony) 5/5

Van Morrison is in a rich vein of form at present, recording regularly and focusing on blues, folk and country in previous albums. This rates alongside his best of recent years and is firmly in the soul-jazz bag, which is ideally suited to the multi-instrumental talents of both Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco, Van Morrison expertly walking the tightrope of rhythm and blues meets jazz. Throughout his career, Van Morrison has incorporated jazz elements, whether that be deploying all-time great jazz musicians as on, ‘Astral Weeks’, or composing songs that have subsequently become jazz standards, such as, ‘Moondance’. What comes across here is the sheer joy of recording in this context, and an engineer from the old school of recording has been enlisted to give the music that has an infinitely more dynamic live feel. That they have succeeded all round in this endeavour is beyond dispute, and the listener comes out the undoubted winner. The album is a combination of older Van Morrison songs that have been revisited and some of his personal favourite standards. Opening up the album is a laid back and smoky atmospheric flavour to ‘Miss Otis Regrets’, with DeFrancecsco here doubling up on trumpet. A real favourite to these ears is the waltz-like groove of ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ with Hammond, guitar and the soprano saxophone of Troy Roberts operating wonderfully in tandem. The music harks back to the classic soul-jazz recordings on Blue Note and Prestige. Blues shouters such as the late and great Big Joe Turner were a seminal influence on the young Van and on the mid-tempo soul-blues groove of, ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’, he gives something back in the most personalised way possible to that singing tradition, with some deft guitar licks from Dan Wilson. Of note are the excellent background vocals from daughter, Shana Morrison. The latter distinguished herself further on ‘Hold It Right There’, and it is clear to all and sundry that Van Morrison is having a ball. Meanwhile, Van’s love of standards is illustrated on, ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, and the blues is not forgotten with, ‘Gold Fish Bowl’. A prime candidate for the album’s most immediate and compelling track, ‘Close Enough For Jazz’, features the tightest of rhythm sections and swings from start to finish. In a more relaxed swing, ‘The Things I Used To’ impresses also. In summary, a terrific album and one that lingers long in the mind and soul.

Tim Stenhouse

Léo Ferré ‘Mai ’68’ 3CD (Barclay/Universal France) 5/5

Here is an artist who has previously been reviewed in these columns with a separate box set of his early career. For the uninitiated, Léo Ferré was a committed singer with strongly held views, but was also possessing deeply melodic singer-songwriter credentials, and with a strong nod towards French poets. Indeed, he has at least devoted three albums in the 1960’s to poets as diverse as Aragon, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, with Verlaine another key reference. However, this box set has been released to coincide with a commemoration of the events of May 1968, when a cross-section of the French population, from discontented workers, to students and film industry personnel (including both Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut) demonstrated throughout that month their opposition to everything from the form of government (regarded as repressive by those opposed to it) to the perceived consumerist society they were living in.

A trio of music aficionados, including Matthieu Ferré, son of Léo, music industry aficionados Xavier Perrot and Alain Raemackers, have together assembled this splendid box set that rightly places Ferré’s own work within the wider framework of popular discontent and not solely related to the events of 1968. The first two CDs focus more generally on Ferré’s work with socio-political themes, while the final CD is the jewel in the crown, a first ever release of a non-professional recording of a concert performance given by Léo Ferré, along with pianist Paul Castanier, on 10 May, 1968 at the Bobino theatre in Paris, in other words during the conflict itself. As such, it is a priceless historical document and that includes his own, ‘La révolution’. The sound quality, although not pristine, is perfectly acceptable, and that is beside the point here because it is the message contained within the songs that is all important. Stylistically, the concert was classic pared down Ferré, although two songs feature orchestral accompaniment, and elsewhere the accordionist Marcel Piazzola and his band lend a helping hand.

As far as the other two CD’s are concerned, they provide an overview of Ferré’s career, though are not a general ‘Best of’. For those in search of a beginner’s guide to the work of Ferré. Universal France issued a fine 3 CD set in the 1990’s (including the lyrical, ‘Jolie Môme’ and, ‘La langue française’, which is a gentle and humorous dig at the increasing usage of English in modern-day French expression – that being in the early 1960’s) which fits that bill to perfection. However, for general French history scholars, this new box set offers innumerable treasures, and the superb inner sleeve notes (only in French and requiring an intermediate level of understanding) explain individual songs in some detail. These range chronologically from 1948 through to 1972. Early in his career, Ferré espoused the cause of exiled Spanish Republicans, with, ‘Le flamenco de Paris’ (1948), and later derided General Franco, with, ‘Franco, la muerte’ (1964). That said, Ferré was philosophical enough to see the wider picture of a French society in transition as illustrated with, ‘La vie moderne’ (1958), which in some respects is a precursor to Jacques Tati’s film, ‘Playtime’ (1967). In fact, the lyrics within the song foresaw such classic lines as, ‘Miss Robot dances the polka’. Ferré’s own utopian vision is the subject of, ‘L’âge d’or’, but by 1961, he had had enough of politics in particular and there was a personal call to insurrection on, ‘Y’en a marre’ (‘Fed up’). What comes across in all these songs is the continuity of political commitment in the lyrics, and he joins the likes of Boris Vian who, in 1954, wrote and performed, ‘Le déserteur’, in the middle of war with Indochina. Of interest is the song, ‘Les anarchistes’ (1967), which Ferré wanted to place on an album of that same year, but was first aired at the Bobino concert.

The illustrative booklet contains a black and white photo of Léo Ferré and Paul Castanier on stage during the performance and the original flyer promoting the concert and looks the part in red and black like the outer box.

Tim Stenhouse