Using the pretext of Richards Wagner’s two-hundreth birthday, this project celebrates the classical composer’s music in the most unusual fashion.
Eric Schaefer is both a drummer and electronica musician who leads the quartet that includes British trumpeter Tim Arthurs. One of the main criticisms about this project that one can level at the collective is why hide behind the music of Wagner when the band seems fully capable of fronting their own compositions? The music is somewhere between prog rock and 1970s psychadelia with Arthurs supplying the majority of the jazz input and quite why they saw the need to use the music of Wagner is a mystery. It certainly is not an obvious, or even harmonious fusion of sounds. The interpretations themselves are relatively concise in nature, averaging between three to three and half minutes in length with the Miles-inspired harmon mute trumpet of Arthur raising ‘Lohengrin’ above average while in a departure from the rest, the Liszt piece ‘Dante sonata’ features some interesting organ playing from Volker Meitz. Dub flavours emerge on ‘Nietzsche in disguise’, an original composition from Schaefer and this is a perfect illustration of the band’s own repertoire being superior to reworkings of a classical composer who had strictly nothing to do with jazz music. A reggae-fied take on the epic ‘Walklüre’ is recognisable only halfway through when the main theme is introduced. Jazz musicians have, with varying degrees of success, interpreted the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (Jacques Loussier making an entire caeeer out of the endeavour) and there are very real parallels that can be made in this particular comparison. However, in the case of Richard Wagner, the attempt to link his music with jazz is both an artificially created and indeed ill-conceived one.
Here is one of the freshest sounding jazz releases to come out of the UK in the past few years. It is the brainchild of Glasgow-based saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski and Scottish pianist Euan Stevenson who were major discoveries at the 2011 Edinburgh Jazz Festival and also the 2012 edition of the London Jazz Festival. Both the title and music are inspired by the 1961 Stan Getz album ‘Focus’ which successfully fused jazz and classical genres with its creative use of strings, though the all-original compositions on the new recording are divided evenly between Stevenson (five) and Wiszniewski (four). Many other musicians have subsequently attempted to interweave the two distinct genres and with varying degrees of success. The more successful ones have up until now included among others Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman and Michel Petrucciani. With this new CD, Stevenson and Wiszniewski can justifiably belong to that exalted list in terms of finding a happy medium between classical and jazz and one that respects both traditions. What makes this new recording such a joy is that the classical elements do not get in the way of the jazz swinging. This is perfectly illustrated on the full-on power of the tenorist plus Glasgow String Quartet on the uptempo piece ‘Illuminate’ and on the wailin g number ‘El Paraiso’. A much gentler side to Wiszniewski can be heard on the delightful ‘For Ray’ with the former on soprano saxophone and Stevenson stretching out on piano with subtle use of strings. Another winner of a tune is ‘Music for a northern town’ with Wiszniewski once more on soprano. Euan Stevenson’s influences seem to range from Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson through to Debussy and Satie while Konrad Wiszniewski, who has performed with Gary Burton, Joe Lovano and John Scofield no less, comes across as a devotee of both Jan Garbarek and Stan Getz. An outstanding set of arrangements and execution of music from an extremely talented duo.
UK jazz and classical re-issue specialists Vocalion have come up with a winner here in the blues idiom. This pairing of albums groups together two early 1960s albums that pianist-singer Roosevelt Sykes recorded at the Lansdowne studios under producer Dennis Preston who, elsewhere, produced some of the classic UK Columbia series of jazz albums. At the time of these recordings, Sykes was already a veteran of some thirty-five years in the music business, having recorded during the 1920s and 1930s which was a particularly fertile period for blues music. Indeed he recorded prolifically during the period 1934-1939. However, by the 1950s with the large-scale migration of African-Americans to the north and the resulting evolution in style from acoustic to electric blues, Sykes, along with others of his generation, had grown out of favour. As the 1960s emerged, however, a new generation was discovering the roots of the blues and Sykes once again found himself in demand. The songs on these two albums are largely originals and are always witty, with sometimes a sense of self-parody and still sound as fresh as the day that they were recorded. The first album features Phil Seamen on drums and Alexis Corner on selected tracks on guitar whereas on the second Sykes is accompanied solely by Don Lawson on drums. If anything, the second pairing works best and Lawson has a natural feeling for Sykes’ playing which makes their collective efforts all the more pleasurable. Numerous highlights includes the opener ‘Sweet old Chicago’. ‘Mistakes in life’ and the gospel-tinged standard’ So tired’. By the 1960s Roosevelt Sykes had settled in Chicago and recorded for a variety of prestigious labels including Decca, Delmark, Folkways and Prestige via its Bluesville off-shoot. The two albums contained within stand up well to these other recordings and the recording quality is excellent throughout. Sykes would return to the UK in 1965 and 1966, performing not only with Chris Barber’s jazz band, but also at the Folk Blues Festival package which grouped together legendary blues figures. Excellent original sleeve notes from Charles Fox and Alexis Korner are reproduced in the inner sleeve. At just under eighty minutes, this represents an outstanding value re-issue from Vocalion.
After a forty-three year gap and now a venerable octogenerian, Wayne Shorter returns to the label where he cut some of his finest music as a leader and this heading a quartet that has performed together for over a decade. It is surprising given the above, then, that they should have recorded only three albums. Similar to the previous two, the latest offering is a live performance from the quartet’s 2011 tour (no indication of where precisely) and they have produced a cohesive and challenging set of numbers. As with the mid-1960s classics such as ‘Speak No Evil’ and Schizophrenia’, there is a real sense of adventure and a degree of abstraction to the playing here and it is astonishing that Wayne Shorter should still have the vitality and freedom to explore. There is a nod to previous musical escapades as on the opener ‘Orbit’ which is a re-working of the ‘Miles Smiles’ album piece with repetitive piano vamp and just a hint of menace about it with Shorter on soprano and fine improvisation from pianist Danilo Perez. A composition from the Weather Report era, ‘Plaza Real’ is a more intricate number. Of the original pieces, ‘Zero gravity’ impresses with its slight Middle Eastern theme, lengthy bass intro and delicate use of percussion. Here Shorter plays a largely supportive role to Perez. It is the latter’s natural empathy for Latin roots (Perez being born in Puerto Rico) that surface on ‘S.S. Golden Mean’ with a quote from Dizzy’s ‘Manteca’ thrown in and some lovely Brazilian samba vamps on piano which conjurs up the seminal ‘Native Dancer’ album that Shorter recorded in the 1970s. Finishing off proceedings is an ambitious twenty-three minute larger ensemble piece ‘Pegasus’ that includes the Imani Winds woodwind section. No details of any UK tour as yet, but this is a most welcome trip home to the the Blue Note stable for Wayne Shorter.
A triumphant 2010 UK tour helped introduce this most intriguing of Cuban music forms, the choir having Haitian roots which is quite typical of the eastern part of Cuba, and they are well versed in their ancestors music having studied the subject up to university level. The group follow up their first international album ‘Tande-la’ and this time it is more varied than the first with various instrumental accompaniment yet, as before, arresting storylines that immediately capture one’s attention. Sung mainly in Haitian Creole (with elements of French, English and West African languages creeping in), there is a healing quality to the music within such as on the reposing vocals to ‘Fey oh di nou’ (‘Oh leaves tell us’) and especially on the passionate lead voice on ‘Soufle van (mangaje) (‘Blow wind’)’. That said, in a more uptempo vein, there is the catchy rumba ‘Camina como chencha’ (‘Walk like Chencha’) with stunning call and response vocals and collectively the Creole Choir of Cuba are heard to their best effect here. On a more serious note, their songs can have a strong political message as on ‘Pale, pale’ (‘Talk, talk’) which tells of the atrocities committed by former dictators against the Haitian people. This protest song is itself based on a folk song. Creole Choir of Cuba, known also by their Cuban name Desandann, present a different side to Cuban music and performed to great acclaim as part of the London 2012 cultural Olympiad celebrations. Production duties come courtesy of John Metcalfe who has worked with Peter Gabriel, Blur and John Cale among others.
Multi-reedist Larry Stabbins was one of the pivotal figures in the 1980s jazz dance scene as a founding member of Working Week who recorded the anthemic ‘Venceremos’. He returns here with a band that is in its nucleus part of Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra with, among others, the excellent Zoe Rahman on piano. Stabbins was influenced in his youth by the playing of John Coltrane and in particular an album he bought of the saxophonist, ‘Africa Brass’. This serves as the inspiration for much of the music contained within which has a modal feel as on the lovely ‘Noetic’ with bass riff, piano comps and some fine tenor from the leader. Larry Stabbins alternates between saxophone and flute and on the latter he excels on the brief ‘Immanence’ and the inventive Latin jazz interpretation of the famous film score of The yellow brick road’ which is taken here in 7/4 time as an Afro-Cuban piece with a creative rapport between piano and flute. Stabbins has a distinctive sound on tenor, especially at a higher pitch and this is illustrated in the intro to the opener ‘Africa’ which quickly settles into a percussive groove with fine modal-influenced piano from Rahman. If the music is not always immediate here, it certainly grows with repeated listens and there is a good deal bubbling just under the surface which is always a good sign. Hopefully a live manifestation of this band will surface at some point. Tim Stenhouse
London’s Jazzman label is best known for its unearthing of hitherto obscure deep jazz recordings, but on this occasion a new band has been recorded and the album is indeed a follow up to the 2011 release ‘Dark is the sun’. Recorded in Gothenburg, Sweden, leader Greg Foat is a composer and arranger who also performs as a multi-keyboardist and even plays vibraphone and harmonium. The compositions have been inspired by the sci-fi writing of Brian Aldiss and this is definitely mood music with some tasty grooves laid down in the process, and therefore likely to appeal to an audience beyond the confines of jazz. The title track is divided up into no less than six parts and as such has something of a film soundtrack feel to it. Part two impresses with its use of hammond organ licks and brass while parts four and five are more psychadelic in approach with spaced out saxophone and a larger jazz component with Foat leading on vibes. Mancunian trumpeter Matthew Halsall guests on one track, the co-composed ‘For a breath I tarry’ which is a pared down piece with just piano and trumpet while minimalist keyboards are also a feature of the two part ‘Have spacesuit will travel’ which has the contrasting layers of synths with acoustic bass and drums and electric piano. Extra tracks contained on the CD, not available on the vinyl LP, are featured on the EP. Tim Stenhouse
Very long-term fans of Latin music in the UK may just be able to remember the first releases of Latin Jazz on the Apollo Sound label which goes all the way back to 1964! For the rest of us, a forty plus year wait is long overdue, but this new album, firmly rooted in the Cuban conjunto style tradition, is a most welcome addition. Precious few authentic Latin music recordings reach these shores beyond the standard modern day salsa and the various off-shoots of the Buena Vistas, but this London-based band, fronted by lead voclaist Yuri Moreno, is the real deal. The opener ‘Baila con mi tumbao’ sets the scene to dramatic effect and the evergreen tunes, three of which are truly classic Arsenio Rodriguez compositions, makes for an enthralling listen. Of the trio, ‘No me llores’ and ‘Dundunbanza’ are stand outs while the call and response vocals on ‘Co Co Mai Mai’ with soaring trumpet and a fine mountuno-style percussion section is probably the pick of the album. Forty years is a long time in the music business, but in the capable hands of new band Son Yambu it has been worth the wait. Tim Stenhouse
Mancunian Irish fiddler Emma Sweeney arrives on the folk scene with a fine debut album that hints at a variety of new approaches while being firmly rooted in the Irish tradition. Indeed Sweeney already has a wealth of experience, performing with the likes of Dick Gaughan, Donal Lunny and that contemporary maestro of the Mancunian roots scene, Mike McGoldrick. It is in fact in the very capable hands of the latter that this debut recording has been produced and the quality of sound is truly commendable. A fascinating combination of reels and jigs combined with some pioneering world roots fusions makes Emma Sweeney a new artist to watch out for in the next few years. She shines on the composition ‘The rose in the heather’ that builds in intensity and is part of a medley with Sweeney’s own ‘Something in a Sunday’, and on the catchiest of melodic riffs on ‘The reed that bends with the storm’. On the melancholic lament ‘The flying statue’ there is a fine fiddle and guitar duet while the uptempo ‘The mountain top’ is a medley of a Sweeney original, ‘Mucky fingers’ with two traditional pieces. There is a tribute to singer Nick Drake on an interpretation of his ‘A place to be’ on which Sweeney contributes her own vocals while on ‘Golden fiddle waltz’ due homage is paid to the late bluegrass fiddler Randy Howard and this is undoubtedly an avenue that Emma Sweeney should explore future on subsequent releases. An interest in the music of India is first indicated by a medley of Sweeney originals, ”Endless thoughts’ and ‘The last straw’, both inspired by meeting a young boy while travelling in India. However, arguably the biggest suprise is reserved for the final piece, the title track, which has a distinctive Indian classical flavour, and sounds all the better for it. An Indo-Irish folk fusion might well provide an ideal opportunity to explore the commonality of roots over an entire album at some stage and in the opposite direction this has been successfully attempted by jazz pianist Zoe Rahman (with Bengali roots and Irish roots). Anoushka Shankar thrilled listeners with her Indo-Iberian connections album of a couple of years ago. Why not a similar exploration from an Irish folk perspective? If there would be one slight change to make on future albums, then it would probably be the inclusion of a guest singer to help showcase her craft to a wider audience. Otherwise, this is an accomplished debut recording from a musician who has clearly indicated an interest in combining music from her own tradition with that of other genres. Emma Sweeney will be performing at Band on the Wall in Manchester on 9 January as part of her UK tour and at Celtic Connections in a double bill with the Tine Book Trio in Glasgow on 19 January. Watch out for an online interview with Emma to follow shortly. Tim Stenhouse
Recorded during a turbulent period during the singers personal life, this fourth album offering from Scottish singer-songwriter Sandi Thom combines acoustic folk and blues-rock hues and for that reason alone makes for a fascinating listen. In fact Thom excels on the gentle acoustic blues guitar of ‘I owe you zero’ which neatly cuts across the boundaries of blues and folk and sounds all the better for it. Another winning tune is ‘I see the devil in you’ which is also the subject of a real life break up in a personal relationship that Thom endured. There is a brave attempt at reworking some classic blues standards, most notably on ‘Stormy weather’ with a 1970s Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet solo which imbues the song with Thom’s own individual vision and the number transforms into an uptempo blues-rock piece. A moody version of Ledbelly’s evergreen ‘In the pines’ features soulful vocals from Thom and some hammond organ. Being the other half of blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa definitely helps, but Thom is already a fine musician in her own right. Sandi Thom is, then, a musician of no little talent and on this latest recording demonstrates precisely why she is one of the major new names on the block and one who is fully capable of widening access of the folk-blues and blues-rock sub-genres to an infinitely wider audience.