Bassist and leader Christian McBride returns with a slight variation on his ongoing big band, but one nonetheless steeped in the jazz tradition. On this occasion, the piano less quintet has a good deal more freedom to express themselves and the live recording takes place at a regular jazz night bistro in St. Louis. That said, McBride has always pursued a melodic beat wherever possible. All but one of the pieces are originals, with the one exception being, ‘Sightseeing’. This is a lesser known number composed by Wayne Shorter, which comes across as inspired by the tenorist’s sojourn with the Jazz Messengers, with McBride leading from the front with a driving bass line. A blues-inflected bass groove permeates the opener, ‘Walkin’ Funny’, which has a late 1950s Mingus feel, while the, ‘Ballad of Ernie Washington’ sounds not dissimilar to Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’. The band come into their own on the impressionistic fresco, ‘John Day’, with trumpet and bass clarinet operating effectively together. Post-bop might be one way to explain the overriding ambiance of the album with ‘Seek the source’ having a memorable lyricism that makes this writer think of mid-1960s Miles Davis and ‘Gingerbread Man’.
Aiding and abetting the leader are Marcus Strickland on reeds, including both tenor and bass clarinet, Josh Evans on trumpet and Rasheet Waits on the drums. If the modal feel to, ‘Ke-Kelli Sketch’, has the feet tapping, then the fine ballad that is, ‘Kush’, demonstrates what a fine ensemble this band has become with deft brush work, trumpet centre stage followed in turn by a burning tenor solo, and underpinning it all the assured bass lines of Christian McBride. With a talented band of this calibre, we can but await the next album with eager anticipation.
Composer and multi instrumentalist Robert Stillman is a master craftsman in his art. A conjuror of sound, his method of making music involves layering sounds and textures, allowing initial themes to evolve and develop into beautiful, rich, esoteric audible tapestries.
His 2016 release “Rainbows” was one of those rare, affecting albums that enriched my life. It had a strange, beguiling beauty to it that left me totally in love with it, even if I wasn’t quite sure why.
“Reality” follows a similar path to the composer’s previous releases, with his solo, multi-tracked ensemble of one, in which he plays saxophone, clarinets, drums and piano. The difference with this release is that Stillman focuses less on predetermined compositions and more on spontaneous interaction, producing the uncanny sound of one mind in a multi-voiced conversation with itself. The subject of these discourses is often a single melody, repeated and developed across different voices in an elaborated chant form.
As Stillman puts it, he is making an attempt to “draw attention to, and unconditionally praise, the directly experienced world”. This is his ‘reality’ sensed in small scale, momentary perceptions of beauty that reveal themselves when we are awake to the present. These moments represent the well from which this album’s music draws its energy and purpose.
This kind of music is obviously of a very personal nature. And with that said, it follows that any audience of listeners (us) will either find themselves engaging with it on a spiritual, emotional, or even intellectual level, or just be left on its periphery, wondering what it’s all about. Is it possible for one person’s reality to be shared and appreciated fully by another? I would say yes, it is. It’s different, but its sentiments are the same. We empathise and understand on various levels, what it is to be human. And so I would say it is with music. We listen and may have many differing interpretations, but the source is the same.
And so it is that the aptly titled “All Are Welcome” opens this album. From this opening track, through to the final musical breaths of the closing title “Peace On Earth”, Stillman takes us on a journey of melodic introspection, skilfully crafted landscapes of sound that are melancholic yet mischievous, loquacious yet lucid, soliloquous yet spontaneous.
In the same way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on why “Rainbows” felt to me like a magnificently resplendent album, I can’t quite put my finger on why “Reality” doesn’t. But then maybe the reality is that sometimes we are touched by genius, and sometimes we are not.
“Heritage: transmissions from the past to the future; a legacy that we receive from our ancestors and have to pass on to future generations.”
Now, I love my family dearly etc. but I feel incredibly fortunate, as a listener, that this album is forged from de Clive Lowe’s cultural roots and not mine. I’m 100% sure that compositions inspired by, half-Japanese half-New Zealander, de Clive Lowe’s childhood folk stories, the mythology of his motherland and his own personal experiences in Japan may bring a touch more creative richness than that of a football supporting, Heavy Metal-abused, generation-on-generation Midlander…Although, a concept album detailing the ups and downs of the 1993 Leicester v Swindon play-off final may have some niche appeal…
Anyway, I digress to start. On “Heritage”, de Clive-Lowe (piano, Rhodes, synths, live electronics, programming) is joined by a cast of world-class musicians: Josh Johnson (alto sax, flute), Teodross Avery (tenor sax), Brandon Eugene Owens (bass), Carlos Niño (percussion), Brandon Combs (drums) who have performed with the likes of Leon Bridges, Esperanza Spalding, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Robert Glasper, Moses Sumney etc. We are also blessed by the tone-setting album artwork of Tokio Aoyama; beautiful executed, tender, detailed, introspective, modestly spiritual and overtly naturist.
“The Offering” is the flowing, sonic emboldenment of Aoyama’s artwork. It is respectful, restrained and introspectively spiritual. de Clive-Lowe’s piano floats up layers of deep, connected heart, (interestingly, not unlike Sakamoto at his most connected) and the chaps build on this to create a space for reverent reflection. Soul-mending, structured mindfulness.
“Bushidō” is the code of great warriors. It has a serious, purposeful self-motivation driven by Combs/Owens which shrugs off, and is punctuated by, Niño’s percussion and de Clive-Lowe’s electronic whistles, gurgles and battling lazers. Piano and sax motif and solo; forging a personal path to accountable self-improvement.
“Memories of Nanzenji” is gorgeous. Harmonious, contemplative Rhodes, splashing, reaching upwards yet remaining totally balanced. It is at-one with the beauty, spirit and life found in the garden’s of the Nanzenji temple in Kyoto.
“Mizugaki” is de Clive Lowe’s mother’s family name and in ancient folkloric Japan was a natural wall of trees that would protect a deity’s abode. It’s a story of several short chapters – initially tentative piano and wind-like percussion; then an energised, expansive sax-off; finally an uplifting, thematic unveiling of the deity’s treasure.
“Akatombo” is literally short and sweet. It is 2 minutes of de Clive-Lowe’s personal, solo piano revisiting of a very famous Japanese folk-song and it’s lovely.
“Niten-Ichi” is back in warrior territory; inspired by the stories of Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest of all samurai warriors. The mood has changed; de Clive-Lowe’s piano vigilant and calmly combative, while the sax bring dark, focused, elegantly flowing agility. A powerful, brooding, blusterless, funky battle ensues; there’s only ever going to be one victor. Applause at the 5 minute mark is the first indication that this is a live performance. Remarkable.
“Asa no Yume” means “morning dreams” and that’s exactly what it is. Johnson, Avery and de Clive-Lowe’s sunlight is glimpsing through the curtains as we start a new hopeful day on the cloud-like, cotton-wool bed of Combs, Owen and Niño. Delightful, honest, connected, respectful musicianship from start to end.
Heritage is a moment to stop and breathe; to reconnect with your soul and place, irrespective of whether you’re a 78th generation Midlander in Oxfordshire or a half-Japanese, half-New Zealander in LA.
A seasoned favourite group of Brazilian music fans and pioneers from a sub-genre that has become known as the samba rock or samba soul movement. The group comprising Luiz Carlos Fritz (Fritz Escovão), João Parahyba and Nereu Gargalo debuted in the late 1960s and first served as the backing band to Jorge Ben on some of his classic late 1960s and early 1970s recordings before they recorded a debut album for RGE in 1973. This previously hard to find original and now new re-issue finds them four years later in 1977 with an identical sound, and a formula that they have essentially maintained right up until recent years when they recorded brand new albums for Crammed Discs including, ‘Samba rock’, and, ‘Beleza! Beleza! Beleza!’. Opening up the album is the classy mid-tempo groove of, ‘Não adianta’ and one of the group’s hallmarks here is the subtle addition of brass and strings. Naturally, the three-part male harmony vocals feature heavily throughout, and they are the near equivalent of Quarteto em Cy from a male perspective. However, scratch beneath the surface and you will find multiple US influences, not least of which are some deliciously jazzy licks. On the lengthy near seven minute, ‘Dilé’, rhythm guitar starts the intro which morphs into a more laid back samba complete with a restrained male lead. In fact on, ‘Sossega Malandro’, the strong guitar influence of Wes Montgomery and protégé in the young George Benson can be heard and the brass provides a wonderful uplifting support. For those in need of a more traditional form of samba, ‘Xuxu Melão’ fits the bill, while for a faster tempo, the funk-tinged bass and discofied guitar work in close tandem on, ‘Que nega é essa’. What this writer enjoyed especially was the rapid passage from melancholia into all out samba attack and no better is this illustrated than on, ‘O meu violão’/’O my guitar’. Worthy of re-issue and a fine way to start a new year with such a positive sound.
After an excursion into a more electronic sound with ‘Ba Power’ (2015), ngoni maestro returns with a more acoustic folk groove that harks back to the well received debut, ‘Segu Blue’ (2007). What immediately communicates this time round is the sheer virtuosity of the musicianship, and that is greatly aided by a beautifully clear quality of recording. Some of the duets are breathtakingly stunning, such as that between ngoni and oud, the latter courtesy of guest Moroccan player Majid Bekkas, on the opener, ‘Kanougnon, which has a strong gospel feel to it’. A new avenue to explore in greater depth on a future project is surely the Afro-Cuban ode, ‘Wele Cuba’, where the ngoni plays the surrogate role of Latin piano vamp and on this most uptempo of numbers, guest vocals by Yasel Gonzalez Ruvera from reggaeton group Madera Limpia add just the right touch of Afro-Latin flavours backed up by a strong female chorus. How about an entire album of this kind of material at some point? This is a strong contender for the album’s most compelling song. Elsewhere, it is the instrumental passages that impress as with, ‘Deli’, where calabesh and ngoni combine before the number slowly picks up with the female chorus, or in the combination of bass and lead ngoni on the title track, with Ami Sacko ably taking care of lead vocal duties. In a more laid back groove, singer Abdoulaye Diabaté contributes vocals on ‘Fanga’, whereas on the uptempo, ‘Yaharo’, it is calabesh and ngoni in tandem that make the collective female vocals sound special. For historical awareness and technical prowess, look no further than the blues-tinged ‘Wele ni’, where Kouyaté deploys a bottleneck on the ngoni to create a sound akin to the Hawaiian steel guitar which is most unexpected, yer works to perfection and the vocals of Diabaté recount the story of old Segou. An early contender for the best new African roots album of the year, then, and one hopes that when listeners have time to fully digest the music, Bassekou Kouyaté and group will return once more to the UK for a longer tour. An all too brief late January series of concerts has included the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow on 25 January and the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 30 January. This is one artist that needs to be seen during the hot summer months too.
This marks something of a watershed moment in that it is reputedly the very last album by the giant of West African music, Salif Keita, and a self-produced one at that. The gargantuan output of the ‘Golden voice of Mali’ spreads over five decades of glorious music, both as a lead singer of the Ambassadeurs and later as a solo artist, but he really came to the attention of the Western musical press as a result of his 1987 opus, ‘Soro’, that fused synthesizers with West African roots music. Thereafter, Keita has pursued a pan-African musical crusade and this latest, and purportedly his last offering, continues in the same vein. That landmark recording of ‘Soro’ is alluded to in part on the atmospheric and layered keyboards of, ‘Syrie’, where synthesizers replace horns and the female chorus supports that rasping lead vocal that has become the signature of Salif Keita, and a song in support of the plight of the Syrian people. So piercing are the leader’s naturally high-pitched vocals that they are guaranteed not to leave the listener indifferent and that is most certainly the case on the opener, ‘Were Were’. Recorded by Jean-Philippe Rykiel, the French connection with ‘Soro’ remains intact and Keita has long been a resident of Paris, which was the de facto capital of world roots music in the 1980s. On this new album, a number of guest African musicians lend a hint of diversity to matters and include Angélique Kidjo and French-African rapper MHD. A real favourite is the pared down acoustic number, complete with balafon and koro, on, ‘Diawara Fa’ and supplying the vocals is Nigerian singer Yemi Alade, while the gospel chorus of South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo can be heard on one of the final numbers, ‘Gnamale’.
Salif Keita enjoyed a resurgence of success in the noughties with the critically acclaimed, ‘Moffou’ (2002) and, ‘La Différence’ (2009), the latter of which won first prize in the world roots category at the 2010 ‘Les victoires de la musique’ awards. As an albino himself, Keita has continually fought for the plight of others living with the condition, resulting in a documentary by actress Lupita Nyong’o and creating his own foundation in 2005. Indeed his daughter now runs a charity which has close connections to the UN and their International Albinism Awareness Day. A more eclectic approach surfaces on a duet with Ivory Coast reggae singer Alpha Blondy on, ‘Mansa Fo La’, a genre Keita is ideally suited to, while the gentler acoustic guitar side is reflected on the lovely, ‘Tiranke’. Rhythm guitar and talking drum combine on the mid-tempo, ‘Tonton’, with lead vocal to the fore. If this is indeed to be Salif Keita’s last ever recording, then at the very least he goes out exemplifying why he is one of the greatest ambassadors and exponents of a pan-African sound and a musician who has successfully embraced traditional folk and modern instrumentation. For those wishing to pursue the career of Salif Keita, the Franco-German cultural channel Arte will be screening a concert on 28 January, and the singer will be present on 16 April as part of the Banlieues Bleues Festival in Gonesse.