Stephen Micus ‘White Night’ CD (ECM) 4/5

Stephen Micus is an extraordinary musical traveller, exploring the world, collecting instruments and then creating his own musical worlds for them. His beguiling music is often as surprising at it is meditative and his relationship with the natural elements of the world in which we live is just as important as the rare and evocative instruments and instrumentation he uses. Micus’ relationship with ECM Records goes back decades, and this is, in fact, his 23rd album for the label.

The ten tracks on “White Night” particularly rely on the sound of various sub-Saharan kalimba (thumb pianos) and the oboe-like Armenian duduk. Micus takes the listener on a journey into an imaginary world, with different scenes unfolding, depending on the moods created by the instruments being used. In addition to the wonderful sound of his 14 string guitar, he uses instruments from Tibet, India, Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia and Ethiopia, most of them in combinations never heard before.

And so it is that the composer’s strong and physical relationship with nature, landscapes and the people who inhabit them, is the inspiration for his music. “Nowadays people in cities have lost contact with the moon,” says Micus. “I have lived all of my life in the countryside and have had the privilege to experience many nights around the full moon. That’s why I dedicate this album to the moon which has always been a source of magic in many cultures. Music too is a source of magic which is where the two connect.”

There’s obviously a profound connection for Micus between instruments, music, people and the planet we inhabit, with inspiration coming from many cultures throughout the whole world. His expressive use of the instruments doesn’t necessarily rely on him being an expert performer of every instrument, as that would, of course, be impossible given the fact that the tradition and complete learning of an instrument can take a lifetime. What Micus does, very successfully, is to integrate the feel and sound of an instrument into his own unique style of writing and performing. And he achieves this in such an expressive way, taking influence from folk traditions the world over, and combining the elemental nature of things with his own being. The results are often startling.

“White Night” opens with “The Eastern Gate” and closes with “The Western Gate”, two incredibly compelling tracks, featuring five 14-string guitars, bass duduk and Tibetan cymbals. The eight tracks in-between range from the mesmerising “The River”, performed on kalimba and the hauntingly beautiful duduk, to the incandescent “Black Hill”, which features 8 Indian cane whistles, nay, sinding and dondon. “These are old and unique instruments” says Micus. “Most of them I found in remote villages and so each one has its own story connected with the people I met.”

In Micus’ music, you can hear the stories and see the people who told them. You can picture the landscapes and the traditions from whence they come. A visual picture is imagined from the audible sound and expression we are listening to. And that’s one of the wonders of the music he creates. He is like a vessel through which ancient tradition travels, allowing us to experience a small, yet enlightening piece of what he encounters on his journeys.

Mike Gates

Ilmiliekki Quartet ‘Land of Real Men’ 2LP/CD (We Jazz) 3/5

Ilmiliekki Quartet first came together in 2002 for the Young Nordic Jazz Comets competition, and since its initiation, this Finnish band has performed with the line-up of Verneri Pohjola on trumpet, Tuomo Prättälä on piano, Antti Lötjönen on bass, and Olavi Louhivuori on drums. The band’s debut “March of the Alpha Males” came out in 2004 on TUM Records, who also released 2006’s “Take It With Me”. Since then, all four musicians have gone on to forge their own successful careers, none more so than trumpeter Pohjola who has now recorded albums for several labels, most recently on Edition Records, winning the award for jazz album of the year in Finland for “Bullhorn”.

Pohjola is one of those rare musicians who has a clearly defined and recognisable tone. It is often his sparse, atmospheric playing that is at the fore of his recordings, and so it’s no surprise that this is the case a fair bit here. That’s not to say that he and the band don’t let loose at times, as they most certainly do, notably on the wonderful “Singharat Soi 1” and the adventurous “Twisted Thistle”. For the most part though, “Land of Real Men” is an album of quiet, contemplative atmospheres, mixed with fragmented lines and pieces of sound that build in momentum and emotional energy. “Lonely Lonely” is the perfect example of this, it’s melancholic piano telling its own tale, as the other instruments combine as if in conversation, different latitudes eventually coming together on a path of harmony. The intoxicating “Afterimage” utilises that sparse use of instrumentation that is perhaps the trademark of this quartet, it’s uncluttered and unconfused, yet with a slightly experimental edge that many of the tunes on this album have. The title track is a more lively affair, the heartbeat of the tune being the drums and bass, allowing for trumpet and piano to feed on this lifeforce, with some very engaging solos.

Each track on “Land of Real Men” has its own stylish narrative and the character of the band is never in doubt. Ilmiliekki Quartet roughly translates as ‘Quartet Ablaze’. Whilst I personally wouldn’t say the quartet are ablaze on “Land of Real Men”, more simmering perhaps, it does contain some beautiful music none the less.

Mike Gates

Sonny Stitt ‘Lone Wolf: The Roost Alternates’ LP (Warner) 4/5

Born in Boston in 1924, Sonny Stitt dedicated his life to the crafting of his artistic approach with the saxophone. Nicknamed the ‘Lone Wolf’ by a certain jazz critic because of his relentless independent touring and his dedication to jazz, the saxophonist recorded more than 100 albums during his illustrious career that spanned over 40 years, from the 1940s starting within such big bands as Billy Eckstine’s right up to his last albums on the Muse record label in the early 1980s alongside fellow musicians bassist George Duvivier and drummer Jimmy Cobb.

Sonny Stitt played and recorded with many of the great jazz musicians that ever recorded and it’s this selection from the unreleased alternate takes from the Roost Records catalogue that really highlights the beauty and lyrical warmth of Sonny Stitt’s playing, both on the ballads and uptempo numbers. This first-time vinyl release on Warner Brothers is a superb collection of alternate takes which were recorded for Roost Records between the years of 1952-1957. The label was co-founded by the larger than life character Teddy Reig, who also produced the first Charlie Parker album as well as countless other important albums within the jazz and Latin music world. It was an important label in many ways and on this album it also documents a transition from alto to tenor.

Although some spoke of Sonny sounding too much akin to Charlie Parker in the early fifties, this tag faded as his sound became more pronounced and he moved more towards the tenor saxophone. You could say that the uptempo ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ had a slight resemblance to that of Charlie Parker but definitely not in a mimicking way. On this exceptional collection, it’s the ballads and mid-tempo swinging tracks which really accentuate the mastery of Sonny Stitt’s warm and inventive tone. The impression of an interwoven story seems vivid and revealing on many of the tracks included on this selection. The quartet settings on these alternate takes seem to bring out the best in his playing with memorable moments of lyrical phrasing and an ease and deceptive effortless sound which is inviting, open and expansive.

Michael Cuscuna has been involved with many of the best reissues since his involvement with the Blue Note catalogue and the Mosaic series which he started back in the 1980s. On this release, he has pulled together the best of the alternate takes which highlight and enhance the true spirit of the artist. The photography of Francis Wolff is reminiscent of the great Blue Note cover art that graced many an album, painting a perfect picture of a moody setting and an artist in their prime. The high-end quality vinyl brings a real richness to the sound quality and depth that allows for the appreciation of this beautiful music.

As well as embellishing music by composers including Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein II and Dick Rogers this selection of 12 tracks also includes the wonderful Stitt compositions ‘Symphony Hall Swing’, ‘Sonny’s Bunny’, ‘Blues For Yard’, and the energetic ‘Engos, The Bloos’; a composition which allows more room for pianist Hank Jones and bassist Wendell Harrison to stretch out.

To name a favourite would be difficult as each part of the whole album has something special although the phrasing and sound on ‘If I Should Lose You’ is exceptional, and the sheer spark that accompanies the effervescent ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ is a joy to hear.

As Sonny Stitt progressed through to the Sixties after many great collaboration with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Bud Powell in the fifties, it was to be his friendly sparring duels with artist Gene Ammons that really brought another level of playing to his career. The soul-jazz recordings with organists Jack Mcduff and Don Patterson also suited his style and created a perfect backdrop and contrast for his rich colourful sound to reach out with more buoyancy. With later albums such as Black Vibrations, Never Can Say Goodbye, Tornado and Mr Bojangles, Sonny Stitt added a funkier edge that has since been popular amongst many collectors, DJs and radio presenters but essentially it was Sonny’s association with a rich melodic swing and his roots that seemed closer to his heart.

This welcome release exemplifies the finest of Sonny Stitts playing and thanks to the great sound quality and detailed work surrounding this release, it’s a real opportunity to appreciate an artist at the peak of their playing.

Mark Jones

Larry Young ‘Mother Ship’ LP (Blue Note) 4/5

Born in 1940 in Newark, New Jersey, Larry Young trained in classical and jazz piano as a child with early influences coming from the blues and classical composers such as Bartok. His early career saw him feature alongside Jimmy Forrest, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley and many other artists that were prominent on the east coast scene around the late 1950s.

After his early recording period for the Prestige record label, organist Larry Young recorded a number of progressive jazz albums for Blue Note, developing a modal approach to the Hammond B-3 which was loosely likened to that of what John Coltrane was doing on the Saxophone, culminating in a very different approach to such luminaries as Jack Mcduff and Jimmy Smith. Larry Young’s sound became increasingly more progressive leading up to the early 1970s and collaborations with leading innovators on the burgeoning avant-garde and jazz fusion scene began to unfold. Larry Young was the first choice jazz organist, with Tony Williams, John Mclaughlin and Miles Davis.

The ‘Mother Ship’ album was actually recorded in 1969 for Blue Note Records but the release was delayed and eventually came out over 10 years later. If you listen to his earlier soul-jazz albums such as ‘Testifying’ on Prestige and then listen to this ‘Mother Ship’ album, there’s a marked departure from the former. Blue Note’s policy allowed Larry Young to experiment and develop his own sound through a diverse range of influences which led up to this album.

On all five of his compositions, organist Larry Young is joined by legendary trumpeter Lee Morgan, Herbert Morgan on tenor sax and drummer Eddie Gladden.
The highly charged track ‘Mother Ship’ is propelled by Eddie Gladdon’s excellent drumming, full of flair and rapid shifting patterns allowing both Lee Morgan [trumpet] and Herbert Morgan [tenor saxophone] space for inventive phrasing before the latter part of the composition opens out into a wide field for both Larry Young and the drummer to explore. It’s really the drummer that makes this track and his polyrhythmic strides add colourful textures for Larry Young’s sparse probing accents.

The swinging memorable composition, ‘Love Drops’, sees Larry Young at the forefront alongside the impressionable tones of both Herbert Morgan and Lee Morgan. Yet again the subtle rhythmic gestures provided by drummer Eddie Gladdon add a special touch and an enquiring invitation for Larry Young and co. to create something special, as they do.

Another highlight is the 13-minute recording of ‘Trip Merchant’ which, of all the tracks, allows the most space and freedom for each musician to explore. It best represents the leader’s transition towards a new phase in his career. A classic album that should have been released at the time of the recording and thankfully was released alongside many other superb albums from the Blue Note catalogue which had been held back.

Mark Jones

Read also: Larry Young ‘Selections From Paris – The ORTF Recordings’ 2CD (Resonance/INA) 4/5

Noel McKoy ‘People Make Change’ CD (Macko Entertainment) 5/5

Having been away from the solo project arena for nearly ten years, a mouth-watering taster menu EP was served up in early 2019 and now UK Soul troubadour Noel McKoy is back with a delectable seventeen track main course CD high-quality ‘People Make Change’. And the wait was definitely worth it.

What is noticeable from the get-go and throughout this generous set is the high-quality production, mixing and of course Noel McKoy’s superior vocal control and delivery. The lead-off song and album title track ‘People Make Change’ masks it’s underlying sober political message of how power hunger world leaders are causing economic turmoil and uncertainty with a sublimely seducing summery musical flow – guitar, bass, drums, percussion, keys and those smooth vocals all working in perfect harmony. And yes that is another of the UK’s finest, Mr Tony Remy twanging those guitar strings so sweetly.

The back and forth sway of ‘Love Under Control’ with its urgent and incessant backbeat marries oh so well with Noel’s vocals. On ‘My Lady’s Gone’, although as the title and lyrics imply, his lady has moved on, this original album mix evokes an uplifting feel-good vibe. Three-quarters of the way in, Noel’s fluent scat alongside the lead guitar is a notable nod to the legendary Guitarist/Scat master George Benson. This combined with the intermittent jazzy keyboard interspersions wrap you up in a warm soothing musical blanket.

‘Motown Babe’ likens the memories and presence of that significant other/past love in one’s life to the unique golden era of ‘that’ Motown sound. ‘Let It Go’ is a dynamic, continuously pumping foot-stomper that would work equally well within a heaving club environment or as a backing track for a vigorous Mr Motivator fitness workout routine; it simply inspires you to get up and get moving.

The stimulating vibes continue on ‘Making Love Music’. After you’ve enjoyed a romantic candlelight meal for two together simply put this tune on a continuous loop and the rest of the night will just melt away – pure grown folks music courtesy of Mr Noel McKoy. No surprise to see Noel’s British Collective cohort Don-e on re-mix or re-fix duties – Teamwork makes the dream work. The mellowness, fragility, honesty and, sweet lyrical sentiments of ‘Only Human’ are highlighted by the track’s simplicity. The gentle undercurrent of classical guitar, courtesy of co-writer Jonathan Turnbull, intertwined with sparse piano and a baseline which is as hypnotic as it is rhythmic.

A class track will remain a class track for eternity, and the re-introduction of ‘Will You Fly Away With Me,’ lifted from his critically and publically praised Oct 2009 ‘Brighter Day’ set is a welcome addition, bringing this massively underrated tune to the ears of a newly acquired audience thanks to Noel’s association with and high profile success of The British Soul Collective. The highest praise I can give this gorgeous tune is that the late songwriter/singer extraordinaire Mr Curtis Mayfield would have been proud to record this song – Check out those silky chords and vocal throughout.

‘Real Love’, was originally released on his good friend Prince Sampson’s debut album and entitled ‘Where Would We Be’, however, Noel loved the tune so much he gave it a fresh title and makeover. The light rock-a-by-baby sway of ‘Real Love’ lulls the listener into its melodic flow from the first chord. This no doubt is hugely due to the introduction of the much-underutilised harmonica, which is subtlety laced throughout the tune. A most infectious tune which you’ll find yourself unwittingly humming as you go about your day.

Ten tracks into this generous album that just keeps on giving and I’m still hard-pressed to come across anything that remotely matches the description of a filler. ‘Night Nurse’ is no exception. Not to be confused with the stand-alone Freddie McGreggor reggae classic, however, the similarities are echoed in the yearning and longing within Noel’s vocal for a companion i.e a Night Nurse to immediately satisfy his love pangs which leave you in no doubt that only one remedy will do.

On ‘Where Does One Go’ Noel brings a touch of Ronald Isley and the Isley Bros to the proceedings. By now the grasp of life’s ups and downs that are captured so succinctly within Noel’s lyrics are almost taken for granted. Proof positive that this album is written by a man who has lived a full and rounded life and furthermore has the gift of expressing these life lessons in song. The teasing guitar, regimented military style drum cadence and light instrumental intro of ‘Mind is the Keeper’ draws you into this mid-paced finger and toe-tapper well before Mr McKoy’s vocal enters the fray. The deal is sealed midway through when those sumptuous piano and guitar chords are brought to the fore. Game over.

The musical sparseness of ‘Naked’ compliment both the title and lyrical content – a very minimalist yet captivating tune. By way of mood contrast ‘Lonely Ones’ elicits a more sombre feeling with its funeral procession style piano chords. The underlying message is a sobering one, addressing the plight of the silent minority out there who outwardly may seem to be content with life but inwardly crave companionship and affection. The subtle Soul II Soul shuffle and refreshing use of panpipes which underpin ‘World of Dreamers’ bring a touch of mystique to this impressive album as Noel extols how the love of a good woman can be so fleeting, parting can be such sweet sorrow and the rekindling of that past love can be such pure joy as they realise their dreams together, no longer in the relationship wilderness.

The penultimate track ‘I’ve Changed’ sees Noel confessing that he may have fallen short as a big brother mentor and role model to his younger sibling and is more than willing to make amends; not wanting his brother to emulate his mistakes and former wayward life. The album is rounded out with the high octane track ‘Shake’, an unmistakable nod to Noel’s South London roots having been exposed to all genres of music growing up. To this end ‘Shake’ fuses together the raw frenetic of Paul Weller and The Jam with the Rude Boy vibe which were both prevalent back in the day.

It may sound clichéd, but with every fresh listening of this album a different track stands out as my favourite – the album has so much depth. The natural and burning question on digesting this full-bodied recording is when does Mr McKoy plan on releasing tour dates to further illuminate these compositions in the live arena. Until such time, welcome back Mr Noel Mckoy, we salute you for continually pushing against the flow to bring us such wholesome musical nourishment.

Michael J Edwards