Tom Barford ‘Bloomer’ CD/DIG (Edition) 4/5

Produced by Iain Bellamy and recorded at Real World Studios, “Bloomer” is the debut album from the Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize winner, saxophonist and composer Tom Barford. Alongside the saxophonist for this recording there’s Rupert Cox on piano, Billy Marrows on guitar, Dave Storey on drums and Flo Moore on bass.

The session begins with Moore’s energetic bass riff supported by Storey’s tight drumming, soon joined by the impressive Marrows on guitar, with Cox’s engaging piano leading us into the tune itself. Then for a while it’s a sax, bass and drums trio before the musicians come together as quintet. The title track opens the album and it’s a good indication of what’s to follow; some intricate compositions matched by some excellent soloing, especially from Marrows and inevitably, the band-leader himself.

There’s some lovely changes of pace and variation throughout the recording, and as the album’s second tune “Space to dream” begins, it’s a clear declaration of intent from the composer. This spacious, gloriously atmospheric track is followed by the quirkier “Phizzwizard”, featuring Barford’s Chris Potter-esque soprano sax. Lovely playing and a lovely tune, one which reminds me of Potter’s collaboration with Pat Metheny’s Unity Band, similar in compositional style and execution.

“FStep” takes the bull by the horns, with the funkier vibe allowing Barford and Marrows to flex their musical muscles with some exciting interplay and soloing. “Music for an imagined dream” features Cox’s piano supplying the backdrop for the melodious sax, with a very nice solo section of piano mid-course. “Razztwizzlwer” gets into a deep groove with organ and guitar surfacing in strong waves of John Scofield/Larry Goldings interwoven tapestry-like playing.

There’s an all-round lighter touch on the exquisite “Ideology”, with the closing tune “The highly strung trapeze artist” resplendent with spacey guitar and a more inquisitive and progressive outlook, nicely concluding Barford’s debut.

A promising debut from Tom Barford, there are moments of brilliance here in the writing, with some great performances as the musicians share the spoils. One might make the comment that perhaps as an overall album the music could be more expansive and suffers a little from being slightly formulaic in parts, but that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that this is an album that excites and intrigues, and leaves the listener looking forward to hearing what’s to follow from this effervescent, gifted new talent.

Mike Gates

Johnny Clarke ‘Creation Rebel’ 2LP/2CD (VP) 5/5

Singer Johnny Clarke occupies a special place in the hearts of roots reggae fans and his countless 45s, 12″ extended mixes and albums are non-negotiable items in any self-respecting reggae collectors treasure trove of sounds. This anthology follows on from the 1998 Blood and Fire 2 LP/CD set that assembled some of the greatest of Clarke’s collaborative work with the producer Bunny Lee, including many of those tracks, and is crammed full of wonderful songs, thirty in total, that remain as evergreen anthems to the roots era. What is sometimes overlooked is how young Johnny Clarke actually was when he cut some of these immortal sides. By 1975, he was only twenty years old, yet the voice had already matured and the hits singles flowed as a consequence.

A second aspect that now stands out is Clarke’s interest in and commitment to the African diaspora and related themes related. While opposing the Apartheid regime in South Africa and all it stood for, Johnny Clarke has regularly toured there over the decades and, in the process, become one of the most popular of reggae stars in Africa, rivalling home-grown acts on that continent such as Alpha Blondy, Lucky Dube, and not forgetting the undisputed King of francophone African reggae, Tikhen Jah Fakoly from Ivory Coast. Clarke was equally attuned to what was happening in US soul music in the 1970s, as evidenced by the use of a Philly International All Stars classic rhythm, ‘Let’s clean up the ghetto’, redeployed as the backing ‘riddim’ to ‘Peace And Love In The Ghetto’, and that bass line is a mighty potent musical weapon at his disposal. Another killer rhythm comes in the shape of ‘Blood Dunza’, while the steppers tune, ‘Jah Love Is With I’, features some lovely percussive work, a dub section, complete with breakdown here in a lengthier 12″ version. Arguably, one of the finest of all the songs he composed is, ‘King In The Arena’, and it is indeed one of the most reworked of all reggae ‘riddims’, while that African connection is celebrated on ‘Roots Natty Congo’, and on ‘African People’, with a daunting tale of forced repatriation. A nyabinghi drum intro to, ‘Time Will Tell’, adds a natural Afro-Jamaican flavour to the mix, while the spoken intro to, ‘Fire Brimstone A Go Burn The Wicked’, leaves the listener in no doubt that lyrics count. For a stunning example of vocal roots that is enhanced by an instrumental dub section, look no further than the aforementioned and here extended version of ‘Peace and love in the ghetto’, while for repetitive chorus line, rocking drums and catchy keyboards of ‘Dread A Dread’ is another compelling number.

Lengthy sleeve notes courtesy of Harry Hawk are accompanied by some illustrated graphics of the 45 labels, both Jamaican (Attack, Jackpot, Justice) and the premier league of British labels including Third World. Quotes by the producer, Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, and other reggae music aficionados including Steve Barrow make this an essential part of any roots reggae collection, even more so if you were not lucky enough to pick up the earlier Blood and Fire edition.

Tim Stenhouse

Stefon Harris + Blackout ‘Sonic Creed’ (Motéma Music) 5/5

In 1999 the American jazz vibraphonist Stefon Harris was noted by the Los Angeles Times as being one of the most important young artists in jazz. Since that time he has confirmed his early promise, working with some of the biggest names in jazz., including Kenny Barron, Kurt Elling and Charlie Hunter. He has also steadily amassed an impressive discography with several critically acclaimed albums to his credit.

His latest album, which is due to be released on 28th September, is a further collaboration with Blackout following on from their Grammy nominated album ‘Urbanus’ from 2009 and 2004’s ‘Evolution’.

Harris was inspired to record this latest offering by asking himself the question “If I don’t record this music will the sound of this music exist in the world? And if the answer is no, then we have to go into the studio”. Thankfully, the decision to record was the right one.

Harris states that the album is about music that chronicles the story of a people and their time on earth. It is a reflection of African-American life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Furthermore, it is a sonic manifestation and creed of family, community and legacy. The album explores afresh the music of masters such as Bobby Hutcherson, Abbey Lincoln, Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver.

This is a very varied album and all the better for that. Each performance is completely different from the last. The album opens in familiar territory with “Dat Dere” but in a very funkified mode. Harris explains that every Blackout record starts with a classic tune which we put a Blackout stamp on. This is a wonderful tribute to Art Blakey, who Harris describes as a mentor of the highest order.

“Chasin’ Kendall” was written for Harris’ two sons and is a remembrance and reflection on family get-togethers that he experienced growing up. The music reminiscent of the likes of Donny Hathaway, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye. It is clear that the group are adept at bringing elements of R&B, pop, hip-hop and funk into their modern jazz mix.

“Let’s Take A Trip To The Sky” introduces us to the talents of vocalist Jean Baylor.

Horace Silver’s “The Cape Verdean Blues” is next and is great fun to hear and, I imagine, to play on. The subtle tempo changes add to the interest on this jazz staple.

“Go” from the pen of saxophonist Wayne Shorter follows and, once again, is in contrast to all that has preceded it. The sound pallet included bass clarinet and marimba. Casey Benjamin, the saxophonist here, playing what I take to be vocoder as he does on at least one other track.

Harris has mentioned Abbey Lincoln as an influence upon his own music in the way that he learned from the vocalist how to phrase and here he produces a delicate reading of “Throw It Away”. The studio lights were turned off so that the band were performing in pitch black darkness, summoning up the spirit of Abbey Lincoln.
Fellow vibraphonist the late Bobby Hutcherson contributed “Now”. With vocals from Jean Baylor, this is an outstanding performance which is enhanced with the addition of violin and cello. Throughout the album we have subtle electronics added to the sound mix which simply enhance the overall production.

The album ends with a delightful tribute to Michael Jackson, “Gone Too Soon”. Here Harris performs a duet with a new name on the vibraphone, Joseph Doubleday. Doubleday is the first ever vibraphonist to be accepted to the Jazz Studies programme at Julliard and is already a sideman with saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Kenny Barron and Ralph Peterson. As I mentioned accolades, here’s another to end with. Harris has been named a recipient of the 2018 Doris Duke Artist Awards and also tops the vibraphonist category in the 66th Annual DownBeat Critics Poll.

If you only buy one jazz album this year make it this one. You will be rewarded many times over.

A US tour to celebrate the release will commence in October with a European tour set for July 2019.

Alan Musson

Tia Fuller ‘Diamond Cut’ CD (Mack Avenue) 4/5

A new name to these ears and, if the cover photo might suggest either smooth jazz, or a vocalist, then think again. Tia Fuller is a serious alto saxophone (with occasional forays into soprano) who, thanks to the excellent production duties of one Terri Lyne Carrington, has some heavyweights musicians on board to accompany her on this fourth album for Mack Avenue. Previously, Fuller was part of the Beyoncé touring band, and she leads a parallel career as a full-time professional with lecturing duties at the Berklee School of Music. Among other jazz artists, Fuller has performed more recently with Esperanza Spalding.

Drumming duties here are divided up between Jack DeJohnette, Bill Stewart and Carrington herself, while both electric and double bass are performed by either James Genus, or Dave Holland. For this debut on the label, it is in fact the sensitive accompaniment of guitarist Adam Rodgers that makes for a highly enjoyable listen, with just two numbers featuring organist Sam Yahel. If the majority of the compositions are self-penned, it is the reworking of classic standards that marks Fuller out as a young musician with credentials. Best of all, a lovely reworking of Mal Waldron’s’ ‘Soul Eyes’, here taken at an unusual brisker, mid-tempo with bossa inflections, and this works supremely well, with Rodgers adding some delicious guitar licks. Another modern update is that of Cole Porter’s ‘I Love You’ (another memorable interpretation of an early album from a then young Turk, was pianist Jacky Terrasson), which retains its essence, yet here emphasizes the bass line to a greater extent. Opening up proceedings is a fast-moving, ‘In The Trenches’, with alto and guitar in tandem, and Genus operating on double bass. For some intimate balladry, the maturity in Fuller’s playing is showcased on, ‘Crowns of Grey’. In terms of influences, Tia Fuller is difficult to pin down. There is fire in the belly in places that a 1960s Jackie McLean or Kenny Garrett might feel at home with, and elsewhere refined and soulful hues that might even hint at Johnny Hodges. That is illustrated on the third standard, a gentle interpretation of the Buddy Johnson composition, ‘Save Your Love For Me’. If one thing does need to change for future releases, then probably the inner cover sleeve photo would have projected a more serious side to the saxophonist whereas the present one just confuses the potential buyer and listener. Otherwise, a blossoming career and one that is worth observing over time.

Tim Stenhouse

The Whispers ‘Three Classic Albums: ‘Whisper in Your Ear’ / ‘The Whispers’ / ‘Imagination’ 2CD (Robinsong) 4/5

The Sound of Solar came to fruition with groups of the calibre of groups such as Dynasty, Shalamar and The Whispers and this 2 CD set takes us through the breakthrough albums for the label that led to major disco and pop chart success. Part of that ingredient was the highly distinctive instrumentation, with heavy bass lines prominent, clipped rhythm guitar, full brass and strings, and those oh so mighty handclaps. On the first album, ‘Whisper in Your Ear’ (1979), that sound was still in its infancy and, consequently, the album originally sunk without trace, although The Whispers soulful collective harmonies are very much in place. While nothing equated to dance floor action in the end of disco era, the quality mid-tempo soul songs hinted at greater things to come, as evidenced on, ‘If I Don’t Want Your Love’ and ‘Jump For Joy’.

Of course, the second album from the same year, ‘The Whispers’, was a different kettle of fish, and the Solar sound was by then fully in place. A lovely soulful disco interpretation of the Motown classic, ‘My Girl’, with a terrific bass and percussive intro, now sounds totally fresh and worthy of a disco reprise. The major hit was, ‘And The Beat Goes On’, a definitive piece of disco action, and it became a monster hit on the disco, R & B, and pop charts alike. However, the soulful ingredients that made The Whispers such an entertaining act were still very much in evidence, as heard on the staccato rhythm ballad of ‘Lady’, with blues-inflected electric piano, and a faithful reading of Donny Hathaway’s ‘Song for Donny’.

By the third album, ‘Imagination’ (1980), The Whispers were hitting a creative prime and this was by far the strongest of the albums on offer, and one moreover that places major emphasis on dance floor grooves this time round. A worthy successor to ‘And The Beat Goes On’, came in the shape of ‘It’s A Love Thing’, which is just as catchy, while the title track oozed those trademark Solar ingredients. Sounding ahead of its time, and one that label mates Shalamar would pick up on ‘Continental Shuffle’, featured a more left-field sound, and remains a personal favourite of this writer. For a classic disco sound, the brass and strings intro to ‘I Can Make It Better’, guaranteed chart success and this particular album sold well in the UK on import and as a UK release. As ever with this re-issue series, fully detailed notes from regular writer, Christian John Wilkane, provide the historical context, and all the usual attention to graphics in terms of original labels. As a bonus, five of the singles are added in their 45 versions.

Tim Stenhouse

The Lewis Express ‘The Lewis Express’ LP/CD/DIG (ATA) 3/5

Primarily based in Leeds, The Lewis Express is comprised of many of the musicians that have graced previous ATA releases: George Cooper, piano, Neil Innes, bass, Sam Hobbs, drums and Pete Williams, percussion. Taking inspiration from the likes of Ramsey Lewis, Young-Holt, Eddie Cano and Cannonball Adderley, they present their own take on the rich jazz-soul outfits of the 60’s, bringing their own European flavour to the proceedings.

As with many of the classic Ramsey Lewis cuts (from who this group take their name) this album was recorded live, attempting to capture the rich inter-relationship between the players and an old-school ambience that harks back to the day when classic soul jazz outfits were first hitting the streets.

Of the seven tunes, I particularly enjoyed the late-night swing of “Cancao De Momento” with its energy and uplifting Brazilian tinged vibe, the deep bluesy feel of “Last Man In The Chain Gang” which is perhaps the strongest track of the session, and the one vocal track of the album, “Straight Seven Strut”, with its French words giving a nod to 60’s ye-ye music with the injection of a jazzy backbone and percussive handclaps all smouldering from the melting pot of musical styles.

Whilst the thick, juicy, on-point grooves created by this band are never in doubt, for me it just lacks a certain spark. The compositions are strong, the musicianship mighty fine, but I can’t help feeling they are still searching for their own voice. This is a solid debut from The Lewis Express, but one that doesn’t reach out and grab me as something to get excited about. Not quite the finished article, more a work in progress that intrigues me as to what might come in the future from the band.

Mike Gates

Jimi Tenor ‘Order Of Nothingness’ LP/CD/DIG (Philophon) 3/5

Having previously worked with Strut Records to collaborate with Tony Allen, Max Weissenfeldt’s excellent Philophon takes the helm of Jimi Tenor’s latest album.

Finland’s eccentric answer to Quincy Jones returns with ‘Order Of Nothingness’, a thirty minute fly through of disco, highlife, groove, and jazz. His eighteenth record as a soloist is a nod to African culture and German nightclubs.

The multi-instrumentalist has lived a career most musicians should, sacking off convention to immerse himself in every genre possible.

It doesn’t always work on this record – ‘Mysteria’ is disappointingly boring for an opening track, I haven’t managed to listen to it all the way through – but there’s skill here, and freedom.

‘Max Out’ is oppressive, ‘Quantum Connection’ sporadic, and ‘Chupa Chups’ is plain weird – all in a good way, I hasten to add. At points, ‘Tropical Eel’ could soundtrack an 8-bit game, until Hilary Jeffery’s slide fanfare entwines with Tenor’s flute. There’s nearly, nearly, a Hailu Mergia feel to it. And then, suddenly, to play us out, we’re almost transported to medieval England on the eponymous ‘Order Of Nothingness’, mushrooms growing all around.

Track 5 will probably be regarded as the stand out song. Eight minutes of Plastic Beach-era Gorillaz euphoria rains down on ‘My Mind Will Travel.’ Plush steel drums take over from Tenor’s Tenor Saxophone. Although he may be saying ‘infinity and way beyond’, you do not feel that time is passing slowly, captured by the mesmeric rhythm of Ekow Alabi Savage’s percussion. It’s a song that builds without being overtly indulgent.

If this is your first exposure to Jimi Tenor, don’t be put off by the unstructured nature of this record, because that, after all, is the point of it.

Sam Turnell

B’s Bees ‘Kanata’ (Private Press) 4/5

Led by drummer Brandon Goodwin, “Kanata” is the third album from the Canadian outfit “B’s Bees”. Recorded following their recent US tour, this studio session also features regular band members bassist Alex Safy, pianist Joe Ferracuti and guitarist Julien Sandiford. The quartet becomes quintet with special guest Japanese saxophonist Masashi Usui, a musician who has been calling Montreal his home for several years now.

The album’s compositions are broken into two parts. The first half is Goodwin’s “Kanata Suite”, built around four pieces of music. The second half are the contributions by Ferracuti and Sandiford. It has to be said that regardless of who the writers are, it is very much the band’s own identity that marks the music out as something special, each of the musicians obviously having forged a near telepathic understanding with one another, this benefitting the writing and the performances.

Whilst there’s a clearly defined hard bop edge to this band’s music, it’s nice to hear a more exploratory feel to this recording, sometimes exquisitely delicate, and at other times fearlessly bold. This group is about as tight as they come, yet their groove and their rhythmic feel isn’t at all rigid. The sound and interaction feels organic, never forced, and it’s great to hear an album like this where everything just fits naturally together.

I love the edginess and quirkiness that rises to the surface on some of these tunes. There’s a theatrical feel to it, with a very strong and confident well written structure allowing for some mesmerising improv and soloing. I have to say I’m particularly impressed with saxophonist Masashi Usui, who I had not heard prior to listening to this release. His tone, sensitivity and uplifting solos remind me of an oft bygone era, maybe 40’s or 50’s New York sometime someplace.

A proper jazz album this one. A recording that is mindful of jazz’s rich history, whilst looking forward with energy and intelligence. Well worth listening to, uncomplicated and unpretentious, just great jazz.

Mike Gates

Fletcher Henderson ‘A Study In Frustration (The Fletcher Henderson Story)’ 3CD (Poll Winners) 5/5

With the rapid and draconian improvement in technology as a direct result of the digital revolution, culturally significant products can now be re-evaluated with both a new eye and ear, and from a fresh perspective since we have infinitely more information at our disposal with which to make informed decisions. That is reflected in cinema not only by the advent of Blu-Ray, but also in the cleaning up of imagery and sound via 4K and High Definition more generally, and ever new improvements are likely to be coming round the corner. In the field of music, however. our understanding of how genres have evolved is more limited in that precious few images of the early history of jazz are still available, though the pioneering work of documentary historian Ken Burns has made deep inroads into that field. Still, it is to the audio sound that we primarily turn, and this is where this box set, in its myriad formats. has proven to be indispensable tool over the decades. Originally, a 4 LP vinyl set for Columbia records back in 1961, then in the late 1970s, a condensed double LP for Smithsonian, it re-emerged in the new CD era of the 1990s, with some indisputable sound limitations, and these require a brief examination before the music itself is analysed. At least two master tapes exist, one of which was by the Columbia records engineer who sought to edit out ticks, but in the process removed part of the tape. One effect of this is that the music moves forward in places. A second master exists and was used for a re-issue on the Timeless label. Here, the engineer tried to remove surface noise by technical means, and this has led to an endless debate on the extent to which original music should be tampered with (modern jazz fans will remember the debates on the early CD remastering of Miles Davis’ Columbia work and in particular the tinny sound of the drums in comparison to the original vinyl). While it is not the aim of this review to split proverbial hairs, it is nonetheless instructive to note that early jazz music with its inherent sound limitations, poses dilemmas for budding re-issue labels of maintaining the integrity of the recording, while seeking to enhance the quality of the sound. Digital remastering can, on occasion, take away some of the very essence of the music and leave in its wake a more ‘sanatised’ version.

What does any of this have to do with Fletcher Henderson? Along with Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson was a musical leader and visionary, and who, moreover, is a prime contender for the sobriquet, ‘Father of swing’, and of the truly great jazz arrangers. Chronologically, the music covers the period between 1923 and 1938, but it is the 1920s and early 1930s when Henderson was really in his prime, and historically the music takes on additional significance because it accompanied an era of gangsters and hipsters, and that is reflected also in film soundtracks of the period. Fletcher Henderson’s music was highly influential on a younger generation of band leaders, including the debonair Edward ‘Duke’ Ellington and Bennie Moten. Equally important, though, some of the great individualist musicians who would go on to dominate the swing era and beyond served useful and indeed key apprenticeships in the band. They included saxophonists of the calibre of Benny Carter, Don Redman and Ben Webster among many others, trumpeters of distinction including Henry’ Red’ Allen, and at least two other figures who graced the band at one time of another. One such individual was guitarist and banjo player, Clarence Holiday, father of a daughter who would make her indelible presence felt in the world of jazz, Billie Holiday. The other was a young pianist who would use his experience in the Fletcher Henderson band as a stepping stone to a career as a very different type of band leader, taking on Afro-Futurist and other modernistic influences, through remaining true to the swing era. His name? Herman ‘Sonny’ Blount, aka Sun Ra. Of the original selection, this latest CD anthology adds another ten bonus tracks, and offers a diametrically opposing visual picture from the era to say the work of Paul White. In essence, it is the authentic story of how swing music progressed and as such is priceless to our understanding of what was to follow.

In sum, then, five stars for the quality of the music, five stars for the historical significance of the music, five stars for the wonderfully annotated and illustrated twenty-six page booklet, and only the minor blemish of some of the track transfers that, as a result of original surface noise being removed, are not exactly what was intended. Yes, ideally, one would like these engineering issues to be resolved to the satisfaction of all, but turn round the equation and ask yourself a simple question: would you want to be without this music, and thus be deprived of one of the truly great practitioners and innovators of big band jazz? If the answer is a resounding no, then this box set is still compulsory listening.

Tim Stenhouse

Sam Cooke ‘Cupid – the Very Best of Sam Cooke 1961-1962’ (Jasmine) 4/5

Less of a ‘Best of’ and more of a part two in-depth re-investigation of Sam Cooke’s work that follows on from the earlier and excellent, ‘Wonderful World 1957-1960’. This new compilation picks up on the various 45s (‘A’ and ‘B’ sides) and adds a few singles previously unavailable on CD. It is notable both for a major hit single of the era in, ‘Send Me’, and for a change in geographical location from the early west coast recordings to New York where Sam Cooke’s ambition was clear: to create more hits under his SAR label, as well as being on the major label, RCA Victor. That change in studio was accompanied by a new writing partnership that was formed from 1959 onward with James W. Alexander and this compilation showcases just some of those creative writing duos. As a whole, this new compilation sources material from a variety of albums, and it should be remembered that the concept album had yet to surface in earnest, and certainly not for the then emerging soul music or rhythm and blues. Thus, this particular CD gains over the original vinyl in being necessarily selective, dispensing with album filler tracks, and leaving the listener with the quality cream of the crop. The music reveals, in part, a socially conscious Cooke as displayed on, ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ and ‘Somebody Have Mercy’. Moreover, Cooke’s love of the blues is beyond doubt and his rendition of ‘A Whole Lotta Woman’ and ‘Talkin’ Trash’, are both penned with the aid of writing partner Alexander. However, Sam Cooke is especially loved for his love songs and there are plenty of fine examples featured here, from ‘Cupid’, ‘Baby Won’t You Please Come Home’ and ‘Sugar Dumpling’. Dancefloor action and new stylistic moves are alluded to on ‘Twistin’ The Night Away’, ‘Movin’ And A-Groovin’ and again on ‘Twistin’ In The Kitchen with Dinah’, quite possibly a reference to Dinah Washington. As a left-field offering, the classical music to Dvorak’s ‘Goin’ Home’ has added lyrics by William Fisher, demonstrating Sam Cooke’s love of good music irrespective of genre, and ripe for his own personalised interpretation. Excellent graphics include photos of the singer and 45 covers. With Sam Cooke’s canon of work now becoming more widely available beyond the obvious best sellers, this is an easy way to delve that little bit deeper into his impressive songbook.

Tim Stenhouse