A long awaited live recording from Polish pianist and trio leader, Marcin Wasilewski, a much earlier album was recorded in 1996. However, this new performance from the Jazz Middleheim Festival in Antwerp offers up a fresh perspective on material that is predominantly drawn from the 2014 ECM album, ‘Spark of life’. That may possibly disappoint some who would prefer to hear reworkings of the ‘Trio’ (ECM, 2005) and, ‘January’ (ECM, 2008) pieces, or even those from, ‘Faithful’ (ECM, 2011) and there are indeed worthy pieces for re-examination on all of those aforementioned recordings. However, listening pleasures are aplenty here and a few surprises in store into the bargain. Who, for example, would have expected an interpretation of Sting’s, ‘Message In A Bottle’, to be revisited in a jazz idiom? While an earlier studio reading by Wasilewski does indeed exist, this live performance far outweighs that somewhat politer and ultimately tamer version, and is significantly looser in outlook. As a matter of fact, Sting has enjoyed a long and proud association with jazz thanks to his collaborative work with Branford Marsalis, yet his reggae-tinged composition is taken in an altogether different direction here, with attractive chorus motif repeated, while the bass solo and deft percussive work breathe new life into the number. Even more of a surprise, and an extremely pleasant one at that, is the cover of Herbie Hancock’s, ‘Actual Proof’, taken from that composer/pianist’s Headhunters jazz-fusion period. Reworked in an acoustic trio setting, the phrasing conveys the delicate Hancock-esque touch, while both bass and drums are afforded the space to solo at length. A definite highlight and an indication that Wasilewski is widening his musical horizons. Combining some of the leader’s earlier originals, ‘Spark of Life’/’Sudovin Dance’, as a medley works a treat. Wasilewski first recorded in acoustic trio piano format on a tribute recording to fellow Polish composer/pianist Krzystof Komeda in 1995, when just twenty years of age. Now in his early forties, Marcin Wasilewski has gained invaluable experience as a regular member of the late Tomasz Stańko group and that training pays off handsomely on this occasion, and the exclusion of a tenor saxophonist to his regular line-up allows other musicians to take more of the limelight.
African, French Caribbean and big band jazz and classical strings all combine on this extremely well thought out and wide-ranging musical recording that has divided critical opinion. While some music writers have praised the laudable objectives of fusing such disparate musical elements, others have found the overall sound simply too complex to digest, and possibly, too all-embracing. This writer, while initially a tad reticent to the all-encompassing percussive surroundings of the opening piece, ‘All The Way Home’, was rapidly won over to the skillfully crafted arrangements of Jules Buckley, the impressive songwriting talents of Bokanté founding member Michael League, and the general production is certainly praiseworthy. In some respects, the wall of sound brings to mind the production values of Phil Spector. Here, however, there is more of a cinematic feel, invested with a jazzy tinge thanks to the considerable efforts of New York-based collective, Snarky Puppy. One key element in the overall mix is the vocals of Guadeloupean singer, Malika Tivolien, now resident in Montreal and when those superb French Creole lyrics are sung with the female lead chorus and background harmonies in English, the combination is truly enthralling. Several of the songs, as with the album as a whole, are real growers and that is certainly the case of, ‘Fanm’, which is notable for the use of western classical strings and the North African (extend that to the Machrek, with the omnipresent Egyptian musical influence on the Maghreb) oud with catchy and soulful call and response vocals. More social and political in its commentary, ‘Réparasyons’ (‘Reparations’), opens into a strong Afro-Beat number. Slide guitar, saxophone ensemble and oud in tandem with strings all feature on the marvellous, ‘Don’t Do It’, with a memorable breakdown and repeated motif.
The Metropole Orkest are a Dutch big band that has been in existence since 1945 whereas Bokanté have been a group for barely more than a year so an unusual pairing of musical minds. The 2016 debut of Bokanté (an instrumental piece from the album, ‘Strange Circles’, earned them a Grammy) introduced the mixture of African blues and funk, with elements of 1970s psychedelic soul and what this scribe especially warmed to was the subtle incorporation of acoustic world roots instrumentation and this blends in beautifully on occasion. What comes across above all throughout this album is the cross-fertilisation of the African roots (to include the global African diaspora) of the blues with the Arabic-speaking world. It is worth noting that the Guadeloupean Creole sung here is specific to that French administered island, one of the numerous Dom-Tom, or French Overseas Territories. That said, the dialect is similar to neighbouring Martinique. This could just prove to be one of those slow burner albums that grow with repeated listens.
Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara endeared herself to world roots fans with her performance at Africa Oyé in Liverpool several summers ago. At the time, it was rather her terrific debut on World Circuit, ‘Fatou’ (2010), that became required listening and she followed that up with a surprise duet recording with Cuban pianist, Roberto Fonseca.
Now, Diawara returns with a world fusion hybrid that retains the essence of her West African roots and of the Malian blues in particular, while at the same time subtly interweaving elements of western music. Produced by Pierre Juarez, the album has an overall pared down feel and that is in fact reflected in the slow build up of the song, ‘Nterini’, which has an acoustic folk flavour in the guitar riff and sparse bass drum accompaniment, complete with collective hand claps. In some respects, it is strangely reminiscent of Ricky Lee Jones’, ‘Chuck E’s in love’. That 1970s parallel is continued further on, ‘Ou Y’an Ye’, with gentle acoustic guitar, soft keyboards, but then the number goes up a notch or two in intensity with the combined entrance of percussion and wah-wah guitar. What really comes across is how well producer Juarez has allowed the music to breathe organically, as on, ‘Takamba’, which flows effortlessly with talking drum in hot pursuit. For added variety, another number,’Dibi bo’, has a light reggae influence in the use of rhythm guitar, and indeed a tranquil insouciance permeates the song while the temperature is a good deal funkier on, ‘Negue negue’, which is a real favourite of this writer and that oh so catchy chorus makes it a leading contender for a single release. A somewhat passé pop-rock crossover is attempted on, ‘Bonya’, with electric drum and western drums both in attendance. However, far more convincing is the title track that has the emotive Malian blues seeping through and is beautifully laid back as is the song, ‘Kanou dan Yen’, with a decidedly echo-bound intro and the collective sounds of kora, bass guitar and percussion to ensure a gradual build up of intensity. This is one of those understated records that ever so gently gets under the skin, and that is testimony to the excellent work of singer and producer.
A fine return for Fatoumata Diawara with an extensive European and North American tour bringing her to the UK during November.
NOV 19 MON Sage Gateshead, United Kingdom
NOV 20 TUE EartH (Hackney Arts Centre) TEME TAN London, United Kingdom
NOV 21 WED Fiddlers Club Bristol, United Kingdom
NOV 22 THU Band on the Wall Manchester, United Kingdom
NOV 24 SAT Belgrave Music Hall Leeds, United Kingdom
Some readers may first have become aware of the classic Freddie Hubbard composition ‘Red Clay’ via the sampled version from A Tribe Called Quest on ‘Midnight Marauders’ album of the early 1990s. If that is the case, then what you heard was a laid back drum groove and distinctive electric bass interpretation from a trio guitar formation headed by Jack Wilkins on the guitar, and this is the first ever re-issue in the UK of that album. In reality, the album contains an awful lot more to enjoy, not least some of the lovely self-penned pieces by the leader. Wilkins had the knack of choosing a post-bop jazz number and invest the piece with his own virtuosity. Such is the case of Chick Corea’s ‘Windows’, which Stan Getz used on one of his most compelling Verve albums. Here, the gentle intro leads into a medium tempo waltz with bass in close attendance. Even more surprising is Wayne Shorter’s ‘Pinocchio’ from the tenorist’s tenure in the Miles Davis quintet. This is more problematic for a guitar trio to capture, yet the staccato intro is skilfully weaved in and, in the main motif, the piece is instantly recognisable. A genuine treat is in store on the subtly crafted take on the John Coltrane ballad, ‘Naima’, with deft brush work, and a clear delineated guitar solo. Of the originals, ‘Canzona’ impresses most, with a rapid rhythm guitar into and some heavy bass lines while the lively drum rolls are a joy to behold. Mainstream records released this album in 1973 and it pretty much sank without trace, before rappers and the hip-hop generation re-discovered the hidden gem. Available on vinyl only, this is a re-issue that is well worth checking out. A noteworthy point to mention Bill Goodwin, who was a favoured drummer of other musicians and featured on the well received Tom Waits double live in the studio outing, ‘Nighthawks At The Diner’ as well as recording elsewhere with Gary Burton, Hal Galper, Gábor Szabó and Paul Horn. His drumming and percussion work is the foundation for this 1973 release.
In the early 1970s Soft Machine were one of the most progressive British bands to emerge and seamlessly fused psychedelic jazz and challenging rock into a wholly distinctive sound. Of the original members, drummer and percussionist John Marshall and acoustic/electric guitarist John Etheridge remain, while bass guitarist Roy Babbington has been associated with the band as far back as 1971. More recent multi-reedist and Fender Rhodes player Theo Travis completes the current quartet and the band are at pains to indicate that the new material is not a re-enactment of the past. Post-Robert Wyatt and Karl Jenkins, Soft Machine have indulged fans in some of their legacy projects, but this new recording is exactly fifty years on form their debut self-titled album.
Thus, this much anticipated new album by the group poses questions for longer term fans of how the new music shapes up to their repertoire back in the 1970s. On this evidence alone, the music has a more concise and emphasized rock tinge, and is somewhat lighter on jazz content, though there are certainly some examples of lengthy keyboard and reed dominated passages on occasion. For example, on the two part ‘Out Bloody Intro’ and ‘Out Bloody Rageous, Part 1’, the gentle sound of the Fender leads into some excellent improvisation with guitar and soprano saxophone operating in tandem. Atmospheric percussion à la Pharoah Sanders from his explorative Impulse period offers more of an ambient feel on ‘Breathe’, with keyboard to the fore, while the gentle ballad, ‘Broken Hill’, has a strong Santana-esque guitar solo in the intro. One pleasing feature throughout are the melodic bass lines and on ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’, it is the bass that combines resourcefully with Fender, electric guitar and flute. Something more akin to a jazz-folk sound is created on ‘Fourteen Hour Dream’, with a bustling bass line, while electric guitar and flute work effectively together. As the sleeve notes attest, this may well be an entirely different experience and performance when Soft Machine are heard live and playing some of their more familiar band repertoire, but this is strictly a studio recording only and judged solely on those terms. There is still a good deal of creativity in the new incarnation of the group, but some of that magic has sadly been lost with the passing of time.
Singer-songwriter Candi Staton has legendary status in the UK and rightly so. She started as a southern soul performer who recorded at Muscle Shoals and long-time soul devotees were hip to these sides, while in the mid-1970s her soulful take on disco made the highest echelons of the pop charts with ‘Young Hearts Run Free’, with the production talent of Dave Crawford. Out of favour in the 1980s when glossy drum machines came to the fore, Staton stormed back with another dancefloor take on the emergent house rhythm and resurfaced with the anthem, ‘You Got The Love’. In the early noughties, Candi Staton enjoyed a resurgence of interest via the enterprising Honest Jon’s label that re-issued some of her earlier southern soul sides, then recorded two new albums with her, with the 2006 ‘His Hands’ especially memorable and the best thing Candi Staton has recorded in the second half of her illustrious career. Re-issue label ACE then went the whole hog with the complete recordings on the Fame label, and a new generation was now au fait with her impressive back catalogue.
Fast forward to the present and to this independent release, co-produced by Mark Nevers and keyboardist Marcus Williams. The former seems to have misguided plans for Ms. Staton to be transformed into an early 1980s funkstress and that is confirmed by the opening song, ‘Confidence’, which in truth, is more Chaka Khan than Candi Staton, and features a plethora of synthesizer sounds akin to the early Prince aka ‘Controversy’. Is this really the Candi Staton we know and love? The formula is repeated time and again with, ‘It Ain’t Over’, and the drum happy, ‘People Have The Power’, which is, believe it or not, a song Patti Smith interpreted. Some of the trite lyrics elsewhere seem totally out-of-place with the Rimbaud-esque sophistication of the Smith repertoire.
Sadly, the soulstress that is so beloved is only allowed to come to the fore on the very last number, ‘Can I Change My Mind?’, almost a plea from Candi to return to the style she is most comfortable with, and both a song that could/should have opened up the album and an obvious contender as a single. It is a reprise of the 1968 Tyrone Davis soul opus and, while the original is still the definitive take, this is nonetheless a cut above the rest.
In between the two extremes, to be fair there are some interesting soul-blues numbers with the subtle keyboard-led ‘I Fooled You, Didn’t I?’, an example of what can be done when Staton’s innate soulful voice is respected and wrapped up in cotton wool. A Steely Dan meets southern blues hybrid, ‘Love Is You’, works well with fine background female vocal harmonies apart from some intrusive 1980s synths. Combining the acoustic soul balladry of the Isley Brothers with Fleetwood Mac’s epic ‘Albatross’. ‘Revolution of Change’, hints at another way of caressing that voice in something more suitable, and the pared down instrumentation is definitely a case of less means more. As a whole, the album represents a missed opportunity, a bit like covering Dover sole in a sickly sweet sauce when a touch of lemon is all that is required.
It was the 12″ single, ‘More’, that catapulted soul/disco diva Carol Williams to fame off the debut album for disco label par excellence Salsoul on, ‘lectric Lady’, in 1976. In fact, her name was kept in the spotlight by another single from 1978, ‘Love Has Come My Way’, but the follow up was still another year in the pipeline and, indeed, something of a forgotten item until now with its timely re-issue by BBE, with all the essential trimmings of a facsimile of gatefold sleeve and full discographical details. Those percussive soulful strings and brass arrangements that made the Salsoul recording so enjoyable are skilfully reproduced by little known yet highly respected producer Tony Valor who himself came to prominence via a 1976 album by Maryann Fara. As a whole, the second album combines both soulful mid-tempo numbers with out-and-out disco winners, and the vulnerability in the voice is not without recalling Diana Ross in places. Of course, the opener, ‘Tell The World About Our Love’, rejigs the Salsoul recipe and is ripe for sampling by a new generation. That dance floor action is taken a step further on, ‘Dance The Night Away’, with heavyweight percussion a defining characteristic of the Valor production.
However, it is the more relaxed pace of, ‘Love Constitution’, that features the catchiest of choruses (complete with glorious background female vocal harmonies) and then morphs into a soulful disco groove, which impresses more. Tucked away on the second side is a lovely mid-tempo modern soul number in, ‘Baby’, that merely reinforces Williams’ impeccable soul credentials. These are cemented by the soul ballad, ‘He’s My Man’, with introductory monologue, and is a precursor of sorts to the Whitney Houston soul-pop power ballad. Well worth investigating for soul and disco fans alike. No extras.
Originally released in April 1968, David Axelrod’s debut album receives another reissue, but this time on Egon’s Now-Again Records based in Los Angeles. An under performing curiosity at the time, ‘Song of Innocence’ is now heralded by many as an essential classic and has been an in demand record since the early 1990s when record collectors, DJs and sample based hip hop producers began searching for less obvious sounds to augment their expanding record collections.
‘Song of Innocence’ is a 7-track suite inspired by the 1789 illustrated collection of poems of the same name by English poet William Blake. Recorded the same year as Miles Davis’ ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro, Rotary Connection’s ‘Aladdin’ and Dorothy Ashby’s ‘Afro-Harping’, the musical and cultural climate in the US in mid and late 1960s revealed a degree of openness to experimentation and creativity with almost a disregard for commercial achievement, even records released on large record labels like this on Capitol Records. Axelrod, who at the time was a staff arranger and producer for Capitol, had previously worked with Lou Rawls and ‘Cannonball’ Adderley before producing garage rock group The Electric Prunes and their albums ‘Mass In F Minor’ and ‘Release of an Oath’ both in 1968. These two albums combined rock sensibilities with classical music elements, an avenue Axelrod would futher explore with his following work including with ‘Song of Innocence’.
The album begins with ‘Urizen’, a blend of 60s funk, soaring string arrangements and electric guitar pulses with additional church organ chops. The most well-known piece, ‘Holy Thursday’, is a deeply rich and textured composition featuring the breakbeat drumming of Earl Palmer, effective melodic vibraphone patterns, psychedelic electric guitar and highly evolved string orchestrations. In a 2013 list complied by Complex the US based media outlet, DJ and producers Kon and Amir proclaimed ‘Holy Thursday’ to be the ‘greatest hip hop sample of all time’. This template of exploiting contrasting musical elements of layered jazz, baroque rock, psychedelica and classical music is applied throughout the album and provides the listener with dense cinematic soundscapes and dynamic arrangements, which does yield a soundtrack quality including the use of repeated motifs throughout the record.
Axelrod didn’t actually play on any of the compositions as all performances were completed by high-end LA-based session musicians – now known colloquially as The Wrecking Crew. This group of musicians included celebrated bass player Carol Kaye, the aforementioned drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist Howard Roberts and pianist Don Randi, who also conducted the orchestra. Axelrod went on to further explore a more Third Stream methodology with his subsequent albums, maintaining a conceptual approach to composing and arranging throughout his career, with his follow up, ‘Songs of Experience’ (1969) also inspired by the work of William Blake.
Reports of several vinyl copies of the reissue being of less than high quality have been documented; yet others have additionally stated the opposite. ‘Song of Innocence’ has been reissued previously and it’s a pity that there has not been any unreleased material yet discovered from these sessions. And for such an epic and iconic album it’s remarkably that is has a very short running time of only 27 minutes. But for many ‘Song of Innocence’ is considered a masterpiece. Multi-layered, absorbing and original, it began a procession of albums from Axelrod that may not have been revered at the time of their release, but would later become highly regarded and celebrated.
And furthermore, I would wholly recommend ‘The Wrecking Crew’, a 2015 documentary from Magnolia Pictures regarding the LA based session musicians who performed on hundreds of recordings in the 1960s and ‘70s, often uncredited, including on many of the Axelrod albums.
Having firmly established himself as one of Norway’s most sought after bass players, Sigurd Hole has put together a somewhat unlikely threesome for his debut release in a trio setting. Bassist and composer Hole is joined by veteran drummer Jarle Vespestad and young violinist Hakon Aase. Bass, drums and violin are certainly not the usual instruments for a trio outing, but here they gel beautifully to create a Nordic/Middle Eastern flavour, rich in heritage and inspiring in purpose.
Hole has performed with some of the finest musicians in Norway, most notably with pianist Tord Gustavsen, saxophonist Trygve Seim, pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, and folk singer Eli Storbekken. And it is the Norwegian folk traditions that are brought to the fore on this recording. With inspiration from Indian and Arabic folk traditions added into the bassist’s consciousness, the resulting music takes the listener on a memorable and creative journey.
The opening track “Red Sky” pairs Hole’s bowed bass with Aase’s violin as they add colour and textures to the dramatic drums. Their landscape is multi-faceted as the violinist moves freely as if above the clouds, speaking his own language as he observes what goes on around him. The music feels like a genuine magical adventure, where the skills of the musicians allow contemplation and thoughtfulness to encourage intuitive interplay.
The percussive nature of the drumming blends wonderfully with the string instruments, “No Clouds” being a prime example of how well Vespestad creates a groove and unique energy, the bedrock from which the bass and violin dance both individually and in glorious unification.
The playful nature of “Old Branches” is both joyous and melancholic at once, highlighting the juxtaposed feelings one can experience when listening to this music. The creative flow of energy is earthy and natural, and one gets the impression that the three musicians share a wavelength that takes them out of the comfort zone and into that place where new and inspiring ideas freely flow from their hearts and minds.
The richly melodic “Pilgrimage” is perhaps the best example of how an East-meets-West musical excursion can work so well. This piece is meditative in essence, yet also emotive and uplifting, blending together borderless folk traditions and improvisation in a beautiful and creative way.
Whilst listening to “Encounters”, I couldn’t help being reminded of John Maclaughlin’s Shakti. This trio share that same sense of freedom and inventiveness, and that has to bode well for the future.
This heart-felt tribute to the great Canadian-born, but British-based trumpet and flugelhorn maestro was a long time in the making. The recording sessions span a period from March 2015 to February 2016 and only now sees the light of day. However, like all good things, it was certainly worth the wait. Wheeler’s unique horn sound was silenced in 2014. Fortunately, he left behind a legacy of compositions for others to re-cast in their own way. Here we have ten of his instantly recognisable themes re-imagined by a group of musicians who clearly revere the great man.
Wheeler always had a musically inquisitive mind. When he moved to Britain in the 1952 he was a member of the Buddy Featherstonhaugh quintet and in the 1960s began a long association with big band leader John Dankworth. He also formed part of Eric Burden and the Animals Big Band. In the mid 1960s he became involved with the free improvisation movement, working alongside drummer John Stevens and saxophonist Evan Parker in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Globe Unity Orchestra. He also found time to record the seminal big band album ‘Song for Someone’ which combined his own distinctive writing with passages of free improvisation. His larger ensemble resurfaced on occasional live BBC broadcasts and a fabulous album for ECM in 1990. He left behind a large discography under his own name and with others and these are testament both to his playing and his compositions.
It’s no surprise therefore that Jensen and Treseler’s tribute album is equally wide-ranging in terms of style. This no mere repertory band, faithfully re-creating Wheeler’s music, which has influenced generations of musicians. Wheeler was a prolific composer and the ten compositions here were picked from a list of around thirty that the musicians had shortlisted. The recording evolved from the idea for a tribute concert. Jensen and Treseler had both worked with Wheeler in the past and this enabled them to bring to bear a fresh insight into the music. Alongside Jensen on trumpet and effects and Treseler on tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet are Jensen’s regular working band on Geoffrey Keezer on piano, Martin Wind on bass and Jon Wikan at the drums with guests, vocalist Katie Jacobson and saxophonist Christine Jensen soprano.
The famous melancholy nature of many of Wheeler’s compositions often encourages a more reserved and delicate approach when re-interpreting it. That’s not the case here. The set opens with the first of two versions of ‘Foxy Trot’ and it’s almost as if you are hearing Kenny Wheeler himself with Treseler taking the part of Stan Sulzmann. However, with the high-octane rhythm section things soon get hot. The bassist, in particular, working hard to keep up the momentum of the piece. Next up is ‘Kind Folk’ and the mood becomes more contemplative.
‘546’ is next with Jacobson providing the wordless vocals, so much a trademark of Wheeler’s. After the introduction making effective use of bass clarinet, arco bass and vocals, the pace changes dramatically with Kezzer’s stabbing chordal interjections and powerful solo, before the ensemble re-enter. This is great fun. A pensive piano and double bass introduce ‘Gentle Piece’ before Jacobson and Jensen state the leisurely theme in unison. There’s more bass clarinet to enjoy too. This is a lengthy piece running in excess of 10 minutes but it holds the attention throughout.
‘Old Time’ introduces an infectious groove and “Bubber” Miley trumpet growls. This is an energetic performance from all concerned. ‘Duet’ is one of several pieces similarly named which appeared on Wheeler’s magnum opus ‘Music for Large and Small Ensembles’ and is here recreated by trumpet and tenor saxophone alone. The interplay between the musicians here is simply astonishing. A little gem running to little more than a minute.
No collection of Wheeler pieces would be complete without ‘Everybody’s Song But My Own’, a piece which has almost become a contemporary jazz ‘classic’. The extended introduction hints at a rather dramatic transformation, but as soon as the familiar and beguiling melody appears the seasoned need have no fears in this respect. This is probably the most energetic piece on the album.
‘Where do we Go from Here?’ could be said to be a tribute to another departed master, British pianist John Taylor, a regular sparring partner of Wheeler’s. This piece was originally a duet feature for them. Here, the co-leaders are in a mellow mood, putting in a near perfect performance. The heat is turned up around the mid-point of the tune when Keezer energetically enters the fray, before the understated elegance of the melody returns.
The set includes additional live versions of ‘Foxy Trot’ and ‘Old Time’ and it’s interesting to compare the different interpretations.
As we enter Autumn, it seems to me that this release could well be a strong candidate for ‘Album of the Year’. If you enjoy the music of Kenny Wheeler you will surely need to add this to your collection.