Amira Kheir ‘Mystic Dance’ CD (Sterns) 4/5

Bi-cultural singer and percussionist Amira Kheir has one foot in the native musical tradition of Sudan in East Africa, and another in the modern music of the West. What is impressive about this album is that the fusion of the two has been so well thought out and then executed with such a charming intimacy. Recorded live in London, the album is sung predominantly in Arabic, but the one diversion into the American songbook hints at very promising terrain for the future. While, in general, the music is taken at a relaxed pace, the uptempo, ‘Looli’ (‘Beautiful girl, Looli’), is closest to what one might call a Western folk groove, with electric guitar played like a layered keyboard and with the sound of the oud akin to that of strings. Another immediate attraction is the more traditional clarinet combined with wordless vocals on, ‘Nasaim Allel’ (‘Night breezes’), and this works a treat, with further accompaniment from marimba (in the intro) and a spoken male dialogue (part way through). In fact, the music of Kheir has been likened to that of a ‘futuristic desert blues’, and this at least provides some basic indication as to how the music comes across. One singer that Amira Kheir could be likened to is Algerian Souad Massi and the early folk-based albums of the latter certainly bear comparison, though the traditions of East Africa and the Maghreb are separate, they share a few common denominators. Both feature the use of the oud and that dominates the intro to, ‘Munaya’ (‘Dream’) and it indeed is the elasticity of Kheir’s voice that communicates so effectively here and one, not uncommon to other singers such as the great Oum Kalsoum, who have the capacity to make their voice sound like an instrument. While this is undoubtedly a world roots album, there is just the faintest hint at pastures beyond on a sumptuous cover in English of the Kurt Weil standard, ‘Speak low’. Anyone who thinks an Arabic singer cannot compete in the English language, will have their long-held belief cast into doubt on this gentle and altogether pared down reading of the song, and one of the joys of this interpretation is how Amira Kheir lingers with intent on individual words. An outstanding and highly personal take. This writer for one would like to hear more classic songs revisited by the singer in the future, but not at the expense of the more traditional repertoire. An ideal way to ease yourself into the New Year.

Tim Stenhouse

Read also: Amira Kheir ‘Alsahraa’ (Sterns) 4/5

Theon Cross ‘Fyah’ LP/CD (Gearbox) 4/5

Theon Cross is essential to our lives. He brings ‘prodigious’, ‘exuberant’ Tuba. He’s played with Kemet, Moses Boyd, Kano, Makaya McCraven, Jon Batiste, Pharoahe Monch, Courtney Pine, and on Gilles Peterson’s ‘We Out Here’ comp. Without him you wouldn’t have “My Queen is Angela Davis” be the beast it is. So, he already has piles of goodwill in his ‘let-me-off-when-I-mess-up, yeah?’ muso bank account. When I heard he had a new album out I physically smiled.

The new album is unsurprisingly called “Fyah”. The fyah is provided throughout by Him and, the always effortless, Moses Boyd (drums); with Nubya Garcia (sax) making up the killer trio on 6 tracks while Wayne Francis (tenor sax), Nathaniel Cross (trombone), Artie Zaitz (guitar) and Tim Doyle (percussion) form a sextet on “Candace of Meroe” and “CIYA”.

Cross drops a flabby dnb bassline on opener “Activate”, Boyd backs him up with a tight shuffle groove and Garcia dances her edgy, angular dance. There’s a quick Brit-ska break down, the tuba scratches, they indulge in some collective aggro, the tuba goes off on one, a bit of threatening harmony then Boyd finally explodes to the end. Bang. A 2nd liner Brit carnival all in here!

“The Offerings” is a lowdown deep dubby throb, rumbling under the sound of a gathered crowd. Its relentless prowl intimidates, never allowing itself to flourish or lighten its mood. Disciplined and dark.

“Radiation” emits a slick, strutting tuba groove which Boyd immediately submits to. It’s the dirty funk, hip-hop jazz trio reporting for duty on this one. Garcia is all hands in the air like she just don’t care; then a defensive, coy question and answer stand-off between Cross and Garcia before they commune.

“Letting Go” starts with the trio at their pared back best. Hypnotic, minimal loops; acoustic electronica that breaks momentarily into tender, uplifting storytelling from both Garcia and Cross before the trio take-off and soar.

“Candace of Meroe” is named after a Queen of the Kingdom of Kush and pushes exalted Afro grooves; Cross x 2, Boyd, Zaitz and Doyle keeping it tight and danceable while Francis gets vocal. It all falls over briefly, getting fun, frantic and free as Francis wails, then tightens up again allowing Cross to artily solo before bringing the sextet back together in a celebratory dance.

“Panda Village” is tight. It has a whiff of the club about it; starting with a grimy bass line, ending in a steel and steam, spaced-out middle through to end section that has Garcia in ascendance; gorgeous and soulful.

“Ciya” is smooth as. It’s sensual harmonising, sexual healing and Zaitz evoking a doting Benson/Mayfield lovechild in his rhythm playing. It’s all very adult and demands a glass of something velvety and red in one hand and a music-loving friend in the other.

“LDN’s Burning” is a burgeoning burner of a track that malfunctions as LDN crashes and burns. Fervent to the end.

This album is everything I’d hope and expect from Cross. It’s eclectic and groove-laden, sometimes tight, occasionally ferocious, at times restrained, a bit political and always fully connected to now through history. And, just like Theon Cross himself; it’s both essential and FYAH.

Ian Ward

Arianna Neikrug ‘Changes’ CD (Concord Jazz) 4/5

Jazz vocalist Arianna Neikrug is one of the Young Turks on the block, but she is in the very best of company insofar as the pianist, arranger and co-producer is none other than Laurence Hobgood, who of course was for a long time accompanist to Kurt Elling.
The repertoire covers both the Great American songbook and well beyond into more contemporary sounds that include folk and soul. However, Neikrug sounds perfectly at ease on two compositions that she co-wrote, best of which is the title track that enables the singer to stretch out over whole passages and with an extended piano solo from Hobgood, who, as a whole, lays down some lovely Evansesque touches, and the two combine seamlessly on the second, ‘New York Song’. An enduring piano riff lingers ad infinitum on ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most’, which takes on a slightly pacier, waltz-like tempo here and fine percussive work also. The trio is completed by the empathetic efforts of bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jared Schonig. There are some unexpected surprised in store on a medley that brings together the ballad, ‘Never Let Me Go’ and the Jackson Five’s ‘I’ll Be There’, while the shuffling wordless vocals of Arianna Neikrug greet the listener on the opener, ‘No Moon At All’, which develops into a shuffling trio number. Among the singer’s formative influences, are two male singers and there is a heartfelt tribute to both on, ‘Devil May Care’, for Bob Dorough and Al Green for ‘Let’s Stay Together’, which is performed as an aching ballad and a refreshing perspective on the old soul chestnut. However, Joni Mitchell is clearly also a seminal influence and there is a competent cover of ‘Help Me’/’Be Cool’. A promising debut for Concord, then, and with more of her own songwriting surely to come in future outings.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘King Size Reggae’ CD (Doctor Bird) 4/5

As the fiftieth anniversary of Trojan Records drew to a close in 2018, came another example of the label’s roster of artists and this fine compilation album bears comparison with ‘The Hot Shots of Reggae’, and a rare one at that. While most probably due to contractual reasons, three of the original songs have been left off (two by The Wailers and another, ‘Freedom Street’, by Ken Boothe), there is ample compensation in no less than nineteen bonus cuts, which all come under the genial umbrella of the Leslie Kong production machine. One of the tragedies is that Kong died so young, just thirty eight years of age when he suffered a heart attack in 1971. That deprived reggae music of one of its finest and most distinctive producers, but the music contained within, dating between 1968 and 1970, is testimony to his skills and verges between faster paced ‘boss’ reggae, much beloved or original skinheads, as well as gentler and soulful early reggae that appealed to a much wider audience. In fact, in the case of the most commercially successful singer, Desmond Dekker and the Aces, the group not only conquered the UK pop charts with a song of the calibre of, ‘007’, but equally managed to capture an audience in the United States when ‘Israelites’ entered the Billboard top ten. This was an exceptional feat given the general ignorance about Jamaican music in general at that time in the US.

If the billing on the compilation is impressive with top name groups such as The Gaylads, The Melodians and The Pioneers, to name but three, then the male lead vocalists who recorded solo were just as strong and these include the likes of Ken Boothe whose soulful delivery of ‘It’s Gonna Take A Miracle’, impresses, as does the highly underrated and under-recorded Tony Brevett (who also recorded with The Skatalites) as well as Bruce Ruffin. Indeed, the latter makes an excellent stab at covering the Stairsteps’ soul classic, ‘Ooh Child’, while Brevett offers up the equally fine, ‘Staircase Of Time’. On the bonus cuts, a duet of Tyrone Evans and Bruce Ruffin excel on, ‘I’m A True Believer’ (previously unreleased in the UK), while the uptempo, ‘Baby, Don’t You Do It’, by The Clarendonians is a fine example of group harmonies. If the original album with a predominantly black background front cover is somewhat lacking in imagination, the same cannot be said of the excellent inner sleeve notes by Andy Lambourine and ‘boss’ reggae specialist, Marc Griffiths respectively. Supporting the rest of the stellar cast of musicians, Glen Brown and Delroy Wilson add their own distinctive flavours. Then factor in some amusing tales by The Slickers on, ‘Run Fattie’, and the first-rate harmonies of a personal favourite group, the Tennors, on ‘I Can Remember’, and you have enough early reggae music to keep you in a good mood throughout. list of actors.

Tim Stenhouse

Read also: Various ‘Hot Shots of Reggae’ CD (Doctor Bird) 4/5

Refree ‘La Otra Mitad’ LP/CD (Glitterbeat) 3/5

Every so often flamenco renews its long established roots with attempts at combining with other musical genres to create a new fusion. That has been the case of flamenco jazz, nuevo flamenco, and flamenco ida y vuelta, where traditional flamenco has taken on new flavours from outside of the Iberian peninsular, most notably from Latin American music. Here, the sound of electronica and flamenco together has been experimented with. Two separate 10″ releases are brought together on this single CD and offer contrasting sides to the equation. The Refree in question is Raül Refree, a noted producer, particularly of singer Rosália, and he is ably assisted by the collaborative work of experimental rocker, Lee Ranaldo who is a member of Sonic Youth. One, a film soundtrack, ‘Entre dos aguas’, concentrates on the more traditional instrumentation, while the other uses the latest technology to incorporate elements of classic flamenco vocals (from singer Roció Márquez aka El Bolita, to be more precise) into a more contemporary electronica beat. This sampling of voice material is certainly not a new device, but is coupled here with new sounds. On the title track, for example, the flamenco singer’s voice is allied with a dissonant guitar that is straight out of the Bill Frisell school, while on ‘Niño Perdio’ the combined sound of electronic keyboards and Márquez’s flamenco voice, make for an interesting contrast of styles. On occasion, the high-pitched vocals can overwhelm the instrumentation, as on ‘Que Te Vayas’, but it does nonetheless offer a dramatic intro to proceedings. On other pieces such as, ‘Dar a Lua Mixt’, the electronica contribution is akin to that of a small transistor radio and the tinny sound emitted and one wonders what, if any connection, there may be to flamenco. Watch out, however, for one of the major up and coming voices in that of flamenco singer Rosaliá who performs on other recordings to the accompaniment of an hip-hop beat. A brave attempt at infusing traditional flamenco with contemporary beats.

Tim Stenhouse

Vargas Blues Band ‘King of Latin Blues’ 2CD (Warner Spain) 4/5

Spanish blues? Well, you can make a very convincing case for the prosecution in arguing that Spain has its very own form of the blues in flamenco. However, in the case of Javier Vargas, he is a bona fide electric blues guitarist with serious credentials who likes to fuse his take on the blues with multiple Latin flavours that can take in Argentine and Cuban grooves alongside the sounds of Chicago and Nashville. Born in Madrid in 1958, Vargas was strongly influenced by the music of Roy Buchanan, Canned Heat and Alvin Lee, and indeed during the late 1970s lived in both Los Angeles and Nashville. He formed his own Vargas Blues Band in 1990 and a second album was recorded in Louisiana in 1992 with guest musicians of the calibre of Corey Bell. Further invitees were even more eclectic and included Flaco Jiménz, Chris Rea and Junior Wells. Later, Julio Vargas began to gain a reputation for his own songwriting talents and his very own, ‘Blues Latino’, ended up being recorded by none other than Carlos Santana. By 1999, the Vargas Band had recorded its first live album, recorded in Chicago and featuring Buddy Guy. On this lengthy new album, weighing in at a tad over seventy minutes, Vargas attempts songs old and new and that means some reworkings of his earlier material. The combination as a whole works extremely well and operates in a variety of styles and tempo. Contrast the gentle, soulful strut of, ‘Passion Blues’, with male lead vocals that sound not dissimilar to 1980s Keni Burke and production that Anita Baker would feel at home in, with the uptempo cha cha cha of, ‘Vivir al alba’, that thereafter morphs into a Santana-style jam. To give some indication of the musical friends that Vargas now keeps, guests here include Devon Allman, Steve Hunter, the gospel voice of Reese Wynans and the grittier blues of Junior Wells. In parts, the blues-rock can take over too much for these ears, as on, ‘How Verso Are You?’. That said, melodic keyboards and tasty saxophone can equally be found on other pieces, most notably on, ‘Back to the city’. Some of the very best work is in fact on the instrumental work, with both, ‘Tierra Del Vino’, a flamenco-blues and, ‘Buena Aires Blues’, outstanding examples. If anything, the mid-tempo blues are where Julio Vargas finds the happiest medium (no pun intended) as on, ‘New York City Blues’, while for atmospheric guitar playing in the mold of Albert King, ‘Del Sur’, is a stunning piece. Well worth exploring, whether you are a regular blues fan, a devotee of Latin music, or just a genuinely inquisitive soul who likes their musical tacos with a hint of bitter lime.

Tim Stenhouse

Tower of Power ‘You Ought To Be Havin’ Fun: The Columbia/Epic Anthology’ 2CD (SoulMusic) 4/5

First of all, this covers a relatively small part of the overall Tower Of Power discography between 1976 and 1997, and as such excludes the classic Warner Brothers era that is conveniently available on a separate ‘What Is Hip’ anthology, equally in a 2CD format. That said, as a follow on accompaniment to the Warner years, this will appeal to devotees old and new. Tower Of Power were in fact formed in Oakland, California (1968), and signed to Warner Bros. in 1971, and it was during the period 1971-1975 that they enjoyed their greatest success, mixing funky instrumentals with a heavy dose of brass and soulful balladry work from the lead vocals of Larry Williams. Fans of that era should note that both the Columbia and Epic recordings, witness a shift away to a more commercial sound, before in the 1990s a new group emerged that wanted to perform in the former grittier sound. A new single on Columbia from 1976, ‘You Ought To Be Havin’ Fun’, heralded in a new band era, with party hearty sounding trumpet and typifying a fusion of the emerging disco as well as funk.

From this Columbia tenure, the sound softened markedly, with a mellower groove and at times a pronounced Earth, Wind and Fire influence on numbers such as, ‘In Due Time’, and equally on the mid-tempo ‘We Came To Play’. Some of the more discofied uptempo material certainly alienated many long-term fans, but the individual band members were still highly regarded among fellow musicians, and this explains why, at various junctures, they were solicited by major musicians such as Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, and even Elton John. Especially in demand was the brass section. However, a lack of commercial success led to group disagreements and eventual departures. By 1981, Tower of Power struggled to have a collective musical presence. By the mid-1980s though, there were new signs of life among band members, and the brass section reignited thanks to the request of Huey Lewis and the News to join their band. From therein onward, band members secured a place on the David Letterman late night chat show, and by 1996 the group had signed a new deal with Epic Records and a new album, ‘Monster On A Leash’, saw a welcome return to form. Indeed, the song, ‘Soul With A Capital “S”‘, revived the band’s fortunes and two further albums surfaced in 1997 and 1998 respectively. All of the best of this material is contained on the second CD which flows better than the first and among the choice highlights are the funky brass-led, ‘Souled Out’, the modern soul of both ‘You’ and ‘How Could This Happen To Me’, an ode to James Brown on, ‘Diggin’ on James Brown’, and some excellent grooves in, ‘That Was Then, This Is Now’, and ‘Rhythm And Business’. New influences included the sound of Prince which is all too evident on, ‘A Little Knowledge (is a dangerous thing)’. Inner sleeve notes from Kevin L. Goins, do an excellent job of providing the reader with detailed analysis of the group’s evolution, including solo projects from founding group member, Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka.

Tim Stenhouse

Read also:
Lenny Williams ‘Choosing You’ (BBR) 4/5
Chester Thompson ‘Powerhouse’ (Black Jazz/Snow Dog) 3/5

Ivan ‘Mamão’ Conti ‘Poison Fruit’ LP/CD (Far Out Recordings) 5/5

Remarkably for the celebrated Azymuth percussionist, this new release on Joe Davis’ Far Out Recordings is only his 4th solo album. As one-third of the trio of founding members of the group alongside José Roberto Bertrami and Alex Malheiros, Ivan Conti’s musical influence is far and wide – especially in Brazil. With experimentation always a key component of Ivan’s creative outlook, he continues with his progressive approach to music creation, which should be an inspiration to us all especially considering he’s as sharp as ever even as a young man of 73 years of age.

As Conti fans will no doubt be aware, he is actually a multi-instrumentalist, a musical polymath if you will, playing numerous instruments on every track. The album begins with ‘Aroeira’ a frantic percussion and bass led stomper with Ivan’s repeated vocal hook forcing the listener to take notice. ‘Encontro’ moves more into Azymuth territory with its jazzy samba rhythms and Rhodes chords, played by Azymuth’s Fernando Moraes (who replaced Bertrami after his death) and elegant monophonic synth parts. The more downtempo and funky ‘Ninho’ is reminiscent of a Banda Black Rio album track and includes solid bass playing from Thiago Maranhão, Ivan’s son.

The relatively short ‘Ilha Da Luz’ retains the Brazilian funk motif with its breakbeat drumming and graceful synth parts, while ‘O Ritual’ establishes a more moody and eerie temperament, providing a cinematic essence to the album. Title track ‘Poison Fruit’ uses more current production techniques with its combined acoustic and electronic drum sounds and square wave synth lines and is definitely DJ and dancefloor ready. The album remixes are only included on the CD and digital download versions as they have previously been released as singles. These five extra tracks are all very commendable with Far Out rarely getting it terribly wrong with their remixes. In fact, I thought the weakest was the ‘Poison Fruit’ Dokta Venom’s (terrible pseudonym) Digital Dub, but even that is OK.

Produced by Daniel Maunick, i.e., the son of legendary Jean-Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick of Incognito, who does an excellent job in integrating the old with the new, but not in a contrived manner which feels forced and unnatural. What this writer found interesting about ‘Poison Fruit’ is conceptually the approach to its creation. It would have been extremely easy for Ivan and Far Out to gather a roster of musically applicable musicians to ultimately recreate a new Azymuth album, utilising established stylised themes which would obviously prove to be popular. But this release incorporates contemporary ideas and not only with the added remixes. This is definitely a 2019 Ivan Conti album and not an Azymuth rehash, which has understandably emanated from its strong line-up of collaborators and Ivan’s obvious openness and sense of progression. I’ve always enjoyed the more recent Azymuth records but one feels ‘Poison Fruit’ has more of an edge. The themes themselves are deeply rooted within Brazilian jazz, soul and funk but with a freshness and a modern sensibility that should please hardcore Brazilian music fans as well as the uninitiated.

Damian Wilkes

Read also:
Azymuth ‘Outubro’ (Far Out Recordings) 4/5
Azymuth ‘Fênix’ (Far Out Recordings) 4/5
Azymuth ‘Light As A Feather’ (Far Out Recordings) 5/5
Azymuth ‘Aurora’ (Far Out Recordings) 4/5
Azymuth ‘Butterfly’ (Far Out Recordings) 4/5

Rogue Parade ‘Stomping Off From Greenwood’ CD (Greenleaf Music) 5/5

Greg Ward’s Rogue Parade is frothing with the smart and the impressive of Chicago’s scene – bassist (and wonderful composer in his own right) Matt Ulery, drummer Quin Kirchner, the dual guitars (always a good thing) of Matt Gold and Dave Miller and, the leader, my distant relative, saxophonist/composer Greg Ward.

“Stomping off from Greenwood” is Greg’s fourth album and features a band who’s obvious chemistry and energetic counterpoint has been forged by the the band’s month long residency at The Whistler and an extensive tour of the Midwest.

“Metropolis” stomps things off with urban verve. Each instrument strolls over and introduces himself one by one: “HI, I’m the busy snare, I live over there”, “Howdo, I’m probing bass”, “Alrite fellas, I’m pulsing guitar #1”, “Dude! I’m shimmery guitar #2”. Layers build, probing, pulsing, a spiky groove reminding me of a much less awkward, less art-sharp version of Belew-era King Crimson before Ward’s easy melodies, “Yo, alto”, bond the group, smoothing the edges. First leading us through a short rock-lite section and then into a beautiful open space where all is well and communicative, slowly building to a heart bursting zenith. Remarkable opener.

“Excerpt 1” is deep and swelling. Guitars and alto create themes while cymbals splash and envelope. Again there’s heartfelt connection but with tenderness this time. “The Contender” has no truck with tenderness. It’s dark bass pumping (RIFF!), angular guitar and alto, all quite prog with an occasional jab of the M-bases. It then steps back to give space for sax and guitar solos, both economic, effortless, lyrical and oh-so fluid before finally letting rip with Ulery/Kirchner fyah.

“The Fourth Reverie” is a broody and atmospheric release before “Let Him Live” returns to that pulsing, prodding, progging. It rocks back n forth, forth n back with a hypnotic urgency, like a meditative alarm played by shit hot musicians. I cannot wait to see this band live.

Ulery acoustically splutters the heck out of the start of “Black Woods” before bowing us into the densest, darkest bluesy woodland you’ve ever ventured into only to have light enter again via alto and guitar alternately answering all the big questions.

“Pitch Black” is wide open. 11 minutes worth. Initially considered, almost pensive, with sax and guitar doubling up before it expands with Gold/Miller bouncing off each other, one passing chords as the other dances Scofield-like, before Ward picks a melody for a while and then drops it back to the 6 stringers then eventually back to the doubled up motif. Not really sure why it ends. I guess because an elegant version of Hoagy Charmichael’s “Stardust” has to start. Ward is magnificent on this, his subtle, light-touch control is bobbed along on the band’s energetic current led by Kirchner. Beautiful.

“Sundown” is blues rock guitar shimmer and haze with Ward floating loose, handsome lines over and in between as Kirchner and Ulery push on. A ‘siren’ wails nightfall and it’s our bed time. Sweet dreams.

I couldn’t have asked for a better first review of 2019. It’s my personal remedy to this January’s unique UK blues. It’s a heady mix of cerebral, heartfelt, hopeful, exploratory and inclusive. It focuses and uplifts. Musicanship is tophole. And it has two guitars.

Ian Ward

Zaz ‘Effet Miroir’ 2LP/CD (Warner/Play On/Jo&Co) 3/5

This seventh album from French singer Zaz (Isabelle Geffroy) sadly pales in comparison to the promising debut with the cheeky girlish sounding voice and the new all original set panders, to these ears at least, far too much to mainstream rock norms rather than charting out her own distinctive territory as in the previous recording. The second half of the album in particular veers towards clichéd rock-guitar tinges and, in the process, confuses her natural and potentially large audience. Where the music does work is on the more traditional chanson of ‘Mes Souvenirs De Toi’, with piano and light percussive accompaniment, or on the combination of piano and strings that follows Zaz on ‘Demain C’est Toi’. Arguably, for new inspiration, Zaz might be better served recording a live context, where her outgoing personality comes across better, rather than somewhat less than successful attempts at replicating others. That is the case for example on, ‘Toute Ma Vie’, which is little more than rock music with a Motown beat while Zaz’s attempt to enter into Spanish language territory, ‘Qué me viendra’, sounds like cod-flamenco and is at best a half-hearted attempt that should be dispensed with. However, when Zaz returns to more familiar songs such as ‘Ma Valse’, she does prove to be a proficient communicator.

Tim Stenhouse