Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble ‘From Maxville to Vanport’ CD/DIG (PJCE) 4/5

Jazz has played a key role in chronicling the African-American struggle for freedom and equality. Seminal recordings like Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown & Beige” and Max Roach’s “We Insist! – the Freedom Now Suite” tell the “dramatic story” of their history from slavery onward. This rich tradition continues to this day in works by Matana Roberts, Jaimeo Brown, Wynton Marsalis and Wadada Leo Smith amongst others.

“From Maxville to Vanport” looks at the quest for equality from the perspective of the African-American residents of two short-lived multicultural communities in Oregon, at a time when the state was known to be one of the most discriminatory outside the South. Both towns were built to accommodate workforces supplying local industries; Maxville, by a lumber company in 1923 to house loggers from across the South and Midwest ; Vanport in the ‘40s for shipyard workers. Neither settlement lasted more than ten years. Though concentrating on these two communities, we get an insight in to broader events, such as the large scale movement of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North.

The Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble (PJCE) has been around since 2007, set up to pursue the mutual interests of it’s member, performing new music in a large ensemble setting with a focus on community engagement and awareness.

PJCE describe the creative process for this album as “community guided”. From the outset locals, including descendants of the residents of both towns, were engaged not only in providing historical detail, but also in shaping the music which Ezra Weiss composed and S. Renee Mitchell wrote lyrics for.

The album distills these accounts in to a collection of experiences as if told by members of these historic communities through music that harks back to the roots of Jazz, through spirituals, work songs and the blues.

The opening song, “Oregon Sounds Like Freedom”, introduces Marilyn Keller’s rich and powerful voice. She evinces a detailed and convincing message of hope – a dignified, optimistic portrayal of opportunity in Oregon, against the backdrop of economic failure and systemic racism in the South. Portentous horns, bluesy guitar licks and Rob Davis’ meandering sax solo build on this sense of transition and movement.

“What Do Your Trees Tell You” is the album’s highlight for me. Like “Strange Fruit”, it poetically explores the conflicting symbolism of trees, in a way that is quite specific to African-Americans in the American South. This contextualising is best summed up in the lyrics – “It’s all about your outlook. Some see death, some opportunity.” Keller’s vocals spell out this stark reality with passion. Woodwind instruments add drama, but it’s the words and the images they evoke that resonate long after the song has finished.

“Woman’s Work” is a funkier number, giving us a glimpse of the hardworking lives of the women of Maxville. “Stacked Deck Hand”, a swinging blues, and the closing track, “Maxville to Vanport”, point to growing confidence and resilience within these communities, despite the odds. Segregation and racism were still to be found in Oregon, but the picture painted is one where the rewards outweighed the risks. “Maxville to Vanport” uses distinct musical themes to reflect on life before and after moving to Oregon, the first unsettling and anxious, all droning bass and rumbling drums, the second more upbeat and searching.

Whilst these events speak to social change, as a whole the album does not proselytise, instead inviting the listener to consider the price of freedom and how relative these values are. It also reminds us that change is not only about activism, but the extraordinary lives of everyday people.

Andy Hazell

Woven Entity ‘Two’ Vinyl/DIG (Enid) 5/5

If their first album, released a little over three years ago, was a breath of fresh air, then it’s fair to say that “Two” blows a similarly incandescent breeze through the music world in an even more satisfying, accomplished way.

The band’s mix of African-style rhythms and intergalactic sounds is an ever-intriguing and beguiling palette of sound that makes them temptingly unique. There are other acts around that walk a similar path, but Woven Entity’s stylishly crafted music is out there on its own when it comes to jazz/roots/electronica eclecticism.

Woven Entity are Patrick Dawes, Lascelle Gordon and Paul May; three percussionists and drummers with a huge range of playing experience between them, from dance music to jazz, rock and folk to free improvisation and all points in between. “Two” is the result of several studio sessions with some long term friends and collaborators including saxophonists Chris Williams and Julie Kjaer, keyboardist Ben Cohen, along with newer recruit pianist Diana Gutkind, and a mini string section courtesy of Roddy Skeaping, Abby Wollston and Fra Rustumji.

The overall vibe on this album is very similar to the band’s debut, yet to me sounds far more focussed. That’s not to say that it’s any less eclectic or experimental, with its elements of spiritual jazz, electronic dance and the avant-garde all shining as brightly as ever before. The percussive beats still make up the most important part of the music, but there are more layers here, more depth and texture with the bursts of free-jazz rising and falling across their multi-faceted musiverse.

There are shades of everyone from Sun Ra to The Art Ensemble of Chicago to Alice Coltrane to The Orb to Soft Machine… the genres blend and the captivating music ensues in its very own veritable whirlpool of expression. On one level it sounds so simple, yet on another so complex… and that’s the beauty of this music; it works so well on so many different levels. It’s technically so skilful, and yet at once so wonderfully emotive. It’s wildly expressionistic, and yet so careful and precise. It’s planned and composed, yet so intuitively improvisational.

One thing I would say about this album is you really do have to ‘experience’ it. To my mind it’s not one of those recordings you can just dip into here and there. To get the full immersive beauty of this album it’s a case of back to old-school listening for me… stick on the headphones, get into that luscious sound that’s feeding your ears, relax, give in to it, and enjoy the groove-laden vibe that follows. Play from start to finish. And replay. And replay. And replay…

Mike Gates

Forlorn Elm ‘Milya’ CD (QFTF) 3/5

Remember ​Fusion​? Some legendary ideas where accomplished when jazz met rock in the late 1960. An exploration of sound that later drifted into smooth elevator music. Easy to say, ​fusion as a ​jazz​ sub-genre receives only moderate appreciation.

Forlorn Elm​ is a jazz-fusion trio from the mountain mists of Bern, Switzerland. The name, artwork and bandleader David Friedli’s magnificent hairstyle all set the paste for what you will get yourself into, when picking up the album.

Forlorn Elm rocks!

Their second album ​Milya​ is an original accomplishment of three strong, individual musician with a hardcore passion for music, a deep understanding for jazz and much love for rock.

Hard to tell whether this is still jazz or already rock or the other way around. Who needs genre boundaries in 2018? It’s freaking good music! Powerful, passionate and straight from the heart.

Forlorn Elm ​sounds both emotional and fearless. With songs delving in space, time and color. Not to flashy, not too humble. Mysterious moods shift to piercing melodic proclamations, with a driving groove.

There are moments where the trio falls short of its potential. The album occasionally sounds over produced. Friedli’s composition and musical vision can use more character and roughness in sound and approach. Some parts and solos appear school-like and could use more rage.

Though, overall, ​Milya​ as an album, shines with collective creativity and musical excitement. A sure discovery for jazz and progressive rock fans. Watch this band in the future!


Itamar Borochov ‘Blue Nights’ CD/DIG (Laborie Jazz) 5/5

If there truly is an artist who never leaves the listeners indifferent, it is Itamar Borochov. The trumpeter is back with a much-awaited third album, ‘Blue Nights’, on the French label Laborie Jazz. And clearly, with this new album, he is on top of his game.
Teaming up with his loyal ensemble (Avri Borochov on double bass and Jay Sawyer on drums) with the exception of Rob Clearfield who replaced Michael King on the piano, Itamar Borochov cracked the code for success.
The album is chock full of emotions. This is no wonder really, as Borochov is an observer; an introverted soul whose music is full of integrity and modesty, and yet ever so present. He offers us nine original compositions except for ‘Kol Haolam Kulo’, each full of colour and enchantments.
Whereas on his previous album, Boomerang, the Middle Eastern influences of his upbringing were more pronounced; I feel he bares himself more on this latest album. A shift has definitely occurred; whilst still keeping all that he encompasses – his profound phrases and long smooth lines; his velvety warm tone, his mesmerizing style, which are all so inherent to him and make his tone and performance undoubtedly recognizable. But this goes beyond his playing; it is him as a person that comes through – a sign of both growth and bravery.

The album jumps to life with the suave opening track ‘Right Now’. Right from the first few notes, Itamar Borochov plays the seduction card. It comes easy to him and he caresses the listeners with his sensibility. This is a gentle, soothing piece where he leads the melody to meander gracefully before breaking the spell and bringing it to a gentle climax, making full use of his trumpet’s lush timbre.
It follows with the title track ‘Blue Nights’, which beautifully highlights the warmth that permeates the album. This is a meditative piece at first, enriched by the use of the oud and where the piano provides the platform for Borochov’s soaring trumpet as he sweeps us away into a hypnotic outburst.

‘Motherlands’, featuring the award-winning band Innov Gnawa gives us a lovely example of how jazz and African music is always a good combination to create a feet-tapping joy that lifts spirits. But most importantly, once again, Itamar Borochov shows us how he can embrace endless musical possibilities, as part of his artistic vision.
One particular piece that stood forth to my ears is ‘Maalem’. The gentle opening sounds as if Borochov is playing scales, but then his breathy sound, together with the piano’s shimmering playing, provide fire to the proceedings and develop it into a narrative before it returns to the opening melody. I can listen to it several times.
‘Garden Dog Sleeps’ also sits high at the top of the list, offering beautiful trumpet and piano solos and exciting bass and drums. It is obvious this quartet couldn’t be more in tune with each other.
Cranking up a notch, with ‘Broken Vessels’, Itamar Borochov reminds us that he’s also that powerful trumpet player who can easily take the mood to another energy level with those rapid phrases he so enjoys playing.

Even though it is clear Itamar Borochov is the creative force behind the album, it is very much a collective effort. All the other three members of the quartet provide the ideal support. The piano’s remarkable accompaniment blends perfectly with Borochov’s powerful trumpet solos as well as the rhythm section. Avri Borochov’s bass’s full tone and vamps, as well as the drums’ audible nods and delicate sweeps, add colour and texture precisely where and when needed. Neither of them is obstructive but definitely act on a subliminal level to capture together the consciousness of the album.

Itamar Borochov wins me over and over. His writing is sensuous; his playing flawless. His music puts you in a reflective state. He has a magical pull and vulnerability that is palpable on every track.

The album is simply divine, in the spiritual sense. It touches all our senses with its lyricism, leaving the listeners with a lasting impression.
If the pursuit of perfection is indeed Itamar Borochov’s aspiration, then he is doing a pretty damn good job of it.

Nathalie Freson

Trygve Seim ‘Helsinki Songs’ CD (ECM) 5/5

One of the unsung heroes of the ECM label, tenor and soprano saxophonist Trygve Seim delivers one of the unexpected surprises of early autumn with a wonderfully melodic quartet album which is loosely based on Finnish folklore (though the compositions themselves are entirely new and conceived of by the leader) adapted to a jazz context, and here at least there are comparisons to be made with the earlier work of Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, and to a certain extent with some of the work of Norwegian Jan Garbarek. Above all else, it is the sheer melodicism of the music that is communicated by the musicians, and the rhythm section comprising pianist, Kristjan Randalu, double bassist Mats Eilertsen and drummer Markhu Ounaskari, deserve great credit for their empathetic support throughout. This is beautifully illustrated on, ‘Sol’s song’, with, first a trio intro, and then a gentle tenor solo with the prettiest of themes, while the title track itself is a contender for the album’s most compelling piece and is notable for a gorgeous bass line intro and understated tenor solo. This scribe immediately warmed to the nocturnal atmosphere created and, as with much of the rest of the album, the leader is in no hurry whatsoever and delivers the most laid back of solos. A real asset in a world dominated by individuals who are in too much of a hurry to reach their ultimate destination. One of the multiple attractions of this recording is the myriad moods that are captured and on, ‘Sorrow march’, it is the contemplative quality of the music with Seim reverting to soprano saxophone and playing in a mode that actually sounds more like a violin, and that very effectively conveys the somber mood. In a different vein, the Eastern flavoured, ‘New beginning’, once again features a saxophone akin to a violin, but this time the high-pitched tone is accompanied by drone like piano. Seim displays his aptitude for performing ballads on, ‘Ciaccona per Embrik’, with delicate cymbal and brush work from Ounaskari. Recorded at the Rainbow studios in Oslo to this writer’s ears, this is the strongest album by Trygve Seim to date and a prime example of what the ECM sound is all about.

Tim Stenhouse

Sungjae Son ‘Near East Quartet’ CD (ECM) 3/5

ECM has regularly delved into the ongoing relationship between world roots music and jazz, but the music of the Near East, here that of Korea, is a new phenomenon to these ears at least. While the folk tradition of Korea (both south and north? One is not quite sure from the limited information at the time of review, though south is most likely) is most certainly evoked, this album, recorded in the southern capital of Seoul, has more of an acoustic jazz with the occasional jazz-rock touch to it, and is best approached as a bona fide jazz recording. In fact, South Korean pansori vocalist Yulhee Kim is on hand on various pieces, and it is, moreover, her soft delivery combined with the guitar of Suwuk Chung, who has definite echoes of Bill Frisell, that impresses most on the sparse, ‘Mot’, deploying minimalist guitar in the intro and adding bass clarinet and vocals. Indeed, the dissonant sound of Chung’s guitar added to the saxophone of the leader (who operates also on clarinet) works a treat and creates attractive layered texture to the opening number, ‘Ewha’. Delicate percussion from the excellent Sori Choi and in particular the use of echo are features of the all too brief and, once again minimalist-influenced, Garram’. Folk and jazz elements blend well on the reposing, ‘Galggabuda’, with female vocals. As a whole, the album is concise at just under forty minutes with eight pieces, all composed by the leader, Sungjae Son, Of note, the vocal pieces are translated into English which is useful.

Tim Stenhouse

Ruth Brown ‘Miss Rhythm’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 4/5

If Aretha Franklin was the undisputed ‘Queen Of Soul’, then backtrack fifteen years or more and Ruth Brown was best known as ‘Miss Rhythm’, from which this excellent Atlantic album from 1959 is taken. Among her contemporaries her voice stood out from the slinky sophistication of Eartha Kitt, or the powerful, booming voice of Big Maybelle, both of whom appealed to their constituent audiences. In fact, Ruth Brown possessed a wide-ranging voice that could easily adapt contrasting musical contexts and so it proves on this album, which, like many of its time, was essentially a collection of 45s along with a few lesser known songs before the concept album had begun in earnest. Listeners new to original R & B should note that this is not a de facto ‘Greatest Hits’ album for it does not include the immortal sides such as ‘So Long’, ‘Man He Treats Your Daughter Mean’, or ‘5-10-15 Hours’. Instead, however, you have as the opening number one of Brown’s greatest ever interpretations in, ‘This Little Girl Gone Rockin”, which showcases the raunchier and grittier side to her wide repertoire. That said, there at least two slow ballad blues on this album worthy of your attention including the excellent, ‘Just Too Much’ and ‘Somebody Touched Me’, while in a more uptempo vein, ‘When I Get You Baby’ and ‘Book Of Lies’ impress. Twelve songs in total that stand the test of time remarkably well.

One of the reasons for Brown’s wide-ranging voice is to be found in her musical origins which started in the church as a gospel choir singer with her father, the director of the choir in Portsmouth, Virginia. There was an ongoing tension between her own desire to move into R& B and her father’s wish that she remain in the sacred tradition. Ruth Brown, early on in her career, faced numerous obstacles and in actual fact it almost never got started in the first place since she had to cancel her first live performance at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in 1948, and, moreover, missed an appointment with the record executives at Atlantic records. However, once she had well and truly established her credentials, she never looked back and her immeasurable contribution to the success of the label earned her the sobriquet of, ‘The house that Ruth built’. The minimalist red, green and black front cover with photo of Ruth underneath the title speaks to the early and earthy period in record industry advertising. Now available finally in its original vinyl format, this is a welcome re-issue and highly likely to generate further interest in her back catalogue.

Tim Stenhouse

The Modern Jazz Quartet ‘The Sheriff’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 4/5

The Modern Jazz Quartet, or MJQ to give them their more commonly used and informal name, were in a rich vein of form when they cut this fine album, recorded in 1963 and released a year later on their favoured and long-time label, Atlantic records. In fact, the album formed part of a prolific two days of recording, with the first day comprising what is heard here on, ‘The Sheriff’, while the second became another album entirely, ‘Concorde’. The first of these reflects a growing interest in both Brazilian music and in adapting the music of J.S. Bach and, more generally, his approach within the jazz idiom. Both elements come together on what is undoubtedly an album highlight, ‘Bachianas Brasileiros’, by the Brazilian classical composer, Heitor Villa Lobos, who was well-known for combining his interest in native Brazilian folk music with western classical. This interpretation has a strong Bach influence to it which competes with, elsewhere in the piece, a bossa nova percussive accompaniment and piano vamp from John Lewis. Part way through this passage, the bowed bass and piano crescendo morph into a refined bossa complete with Latin piano vamp and Milt Jackson’s vibraphone in a lead role. Simply put, this is a wonderful slice of Brazilica that does not conform to the then currently in vogue bossa nova formula. Indeed, the MJQ’s love of Brazilian music was explored further on the ‘Collaboration’, an album with Brazilian guitarist, Laurinda Almeida.

A second Brazilian theme, ‘Carnival’, by Luiz Bonfa that concludes ‘The Sheriff’ on a high, is, in fact, the theme from Black Orpheus which was made into a delightful French film that dissected Afro-Brazilian culture as viewed from the finely nuanced prism of French director, Marcel Camus, and won top prize of the Palme D’or at the Cannes film festival in 1959. This infinitely subtle take makes for a thrilling way to end the album as a whole. The rest of the album is very much in the MJQ tradition, which means focusing on leader John Lewis’ own innovative and occasionally challenging compositions such as the title track which uses a staccato rhythm in the main motif, yet still reverts to basic storytelling which it communicates most effectively. A single standard from the American Songbook. ‘Mean to me’, stays close to the original. Excellent and incisive back cover sleeve notes from jazz writer Leonard Feather are right on the ball when noting, ‘Rarely, if ever, has the J [Jazz] in MJQ been more continuously observable’. Well worth investigating as is, ‘Collaboration’, which is probably this writer’s preferred studio album of the MJQ in their prime.

Tim Stenhouse

Kobie Watkins Grouptet ‘Movement’ CD/DIG (Origin) 4/5

Kobie Watkins is another fine musician who is new to me. Listening to this album I’m not quite sure why he hasn’t come to my attention before.
Watkins is a native of Chicago, Illinois. Music has been in his blood from an early age when he listened to his father playing drums in the church. Over the years he has progressed to become an eminent drummer/percussionist and educator.
Watkins has worked and/or recorded with some of the best musicians around including Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, Bob Mintzer, Jim Hall and Kurt Elling to name just a few. He’s also worked with Gospel singers, R&B and Neo Soul artists. This wide-ranging experience informs his own playing.
His Grouptet consists of Aaron Miller on bass, Justin Nielsen on piano and Fender Rhodes, Micah Stevens on guitar, Ryan Nielsen on trumpet and flugelhorn and Jonathan Armstrong on tenor and soprano saxophones. Together they form a hard-hitting group. These are musicians at the top of their game playing straight-ahead contemporary jazz of the highest order.
The drummer released his debut under his own name in 2009. This is his second release and its somewhat different from his first outing as leader. The album consists of nine original compositions contributed by various members of the band, including the leader himself together with an unusual take on Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Manteca’.
On more than one occasion I’m put in mind of latter-day Jazz Messengers. This group has a similar hard bop style and, of course, the Messengers had a drummer as a leader. In keeping with Art Blakey’s method of employing the best young musicians, the guitarist here, Micah Stevens, looks to be very young indeed with his playing belying his years.
This album is certainly not simply a showcase for Watkins’ drumming, although that quite naturally underpins everything. It is more a feature for his composing talents and those of his band-mates. What comes across to me is the confidence with which the band performs.
Stand-out tracks for me are ‘Movement’ with its initial Latin theme where the saxophonist and trumpeter acquit themselves very well. We also get a lovely piano feature and the leader makes his mark too.
‘Six Moods’ is a wonderful slower-paced piece. The tempo increases again for ‘Ga-Rum-Ban’. Another favourite is ‘Inner Motion’ opening with a feature for the bassist and including an eloquent solo from the Fender Rhodes. Similar comments apply to ‘Rivet’ which is possibly my favourite track. But then we get the fun-sounding MBDC which is quite simply in a different league.
The album closes in a pensive mood with ‘Prayer for Peace’ and I can think of no better way to conclude this rich and varied album. Watkins has certainly more than fulfilled the promise of his first album and I for one look forward to album number three.

Alan Musson

New York All-Stars feat. Eric Alexander and Harold Mabern ‘Burnin’ in London’ CD/DIG (Ubuntu Music) 4/5

Currently on tour in the UK with concerts up to and including the 20 September, the New York All-Stars are a superior formation of New York’s finest musicians and include the great Harold Mabern on piano, veteran of recordings with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Roland Kirk, Lee Morgan and Sonny Rollins to name but a few. His presence alone is worth the admission fee and the multi-talented tenorist, Eric Alexander, is a major attraction and a leader in his own right and completing the quartet are US born, but Paris resident, bassist Daryl Hall and Austrian drummer Bernd Reiter. The intimacy of the live sound, recorded at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club and produced by Ubuntu director, Martin Hummel, lends itself to the small group format and, with no need to verbally introduce the band, the music speaks for itself from the very outset. Among the classic selection of standards from the American Songbook, it is in fact a Mabern original that is the standout number, ‘Nightlife in Tokyo’. A lovely mid-tempo groove permeates the piece, with Alexander all sweet and mellow, while the pianist engages in a delightful solo in the middle, finding time and space to quote more contemporary songs from the pop and soul idioms such as, ‘Music Makes the World Go Round’, and Steely Dan’s ‘Do It Again’. A fine composition from a vastly underrated writer. Elsewhere, unusual time signatures breath new life into the evergreens, with ‘Summertime’, a praiseworthy deviation from the norm, taken at a significantly faster pace (akin to that of the epic Tito Rodriguez epic rendition, with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims in hot pursuit), with McCoy Tyneresque inflections from Mabern, and a Latin vamp thrown in for good measure.

Fans of modal jazz will marvel at the gloriously swinging version of, ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’, with both the fine drumming of Bernd Reiter and the wailing tenor of Alexander two compelling reasons why this interpretation is a winner. On the one ballad on offer, ‘It’s Magic’, Alexander reveals his profound debt of gratitude to the tenor titans with Ben Webster immediately coming to mind here and just the faintest hint of the gentle side of John Coltrane, while the deft percussion work from Reiter once again impresses as does the Mabern solo. A fast-paced waltz, ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’, and the medium tempo take on ‘Almost Like Being In Love’, both round off an excellent live set. It is important and indeed sad news to note that during the current tour, Harold Mabern has been unable to travel owing to illness and has been replaced for the whole tour by Mike Ledonne. The remaining concerts are at the Pizza Express, London, tonight and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, on September 21, before the band take to the continent and concerts ending in France on 3 and 4 November at Duc des Lombards in Paris.

Tim Stenhouse