World roots specialist magazine Songlines has helped keep readers abreast of the latest developments for well over a decade and as part of its promotion now has its own an annual awards list. Some of the main contenders for the forthcoming honours list are contained here in this well balanced selection of emerging and established stars. One of the major trends in world roots in recent years has been the fusion of diverse and, on the surface, seemingly incompatible traditions with explorations between musicians who operate within these frontiers. Part of the cultural globalisation of the world has been a greater interest in the inter-connectedness of national musical traditions and this is no better exemplified than on the excellent album ‘Travellin’ recorded last year by Anoushka Shankar which successfully combined Indian classical with Spanish flamenco flavours. From this the piece ‘Buleria con Ricardo’ accurately conveys the passion that both genres engender and their common historical roots going back centuries which are probably less well known to the wider public. This quest for musical commonality extends to other musical genres and Western classical and world roots genres are increasingly being redefined in new and ever exciting contexts. This is by no means a new phenomenon. Tango innovator Astor Piazzolla divided opinion sharply in his native Argentina when he incorporated both classical and jazz elements into traditional tango rhythms. Now we view this as a logical development in the evolution of tango music, but at the time tango traditionalists were outraged and Piazzolla was even the subject of death threats. Happily, there are no such worries for the likes of celloist Yo Yo Ma who on his latest recording ‘The Goat Rodeo Sessions’ has teamed up with bluegrass artists Stuart Duncan, Edgar meyer and Chris Thile with ‘Quarter chicken dark’ a fitting example of the fruits of their collaboration.
The Kronos Quartet has long pioneered fusing a traditional classical chamber formation from a slightly edgier left-field perspective and taking on board some surprising musical bedfellows. While virtually all of their numerous recordings are highly recommended and to be applauded, this latest album ‘Uniko’ is noteworthy for bringing together electronic sampling and acoustic accordion playing from Finland (which prides itself on a highly distinctive form of the tango) and ‘Särma’ is a studio recording of what initally was a live collaboration.
Of the major names in roots music more generally, Ry Cooder is unquestionably a giant and demonstrates just why on the superlative release ‘Pull up some dust’ which was both challenging in terms of its lyrical content and yet easy on the ear. The very pertinent ‘No banket left behind’ serves as a timely reminder, if ever one was needed, of the current financial woes in the world. Tuareg band Tinariwen have become firm favourites of the concert and festival scenes in the UK with their unique brand of desert blues and the song ‘Tenere taqqim tossam’ typifies the group’s uncompromising sound.
New young musicians of substance to emerge this year include bluegrass and American roots singer Abigail Washburn who is certainly an artist to watch out for and last year’s ‘City of refuge’ was one of this writer’s favourite listening albums. From this ‘Corner girl’ is a fine example of the singer’s craft. Malian singer-songwriter and guitarist Fatoumata Diawara surfaced initially as support act to touring African musicians during the summer, but rapidly made her a name for herself and the excellent debut album on World Circuit ‘Fatou’ is merely a foretaste of what promises to be a lengthy career from which ‘Bakonoba’ is taken.
What of the new discoveries? While West African music is much loved by listeners and critics alike in Europe and North America, the music of Niger has barely registered on the CD map thus far. All the more reason to revel at the singer-guitarist talents of Bombino who offers ‘Tenere’ and will be touring here in the UK at selected festivals and venues. Possibly even less is known of music from Syria, especially given the current political situation, and so the presence of oud and percussion player Khyam Allami is a most welcome one and he fuses Syrian (his place of birth) and Iraqi (his ethnic origins) with the Middle Eastern tradition more generally with ‘Tawazon: I Balance’ an inspiring instrumental. Allami will be touring in the UK from April where he now resides. One minor gripe. Among the singers who are richly deserving of wider recognition, it is deeply disappointing that Afro-Mallorcan singer Concha Buika does not feature and her latest album, a compilation of her career thus far should have been included. In general, though, a fine overview of the world roots scene and a pretty accurate summation of where the music may be heading in the near future.
Guinean singer-songwriter Sory Kandia Kouyaté tragically died at the relatively early age of forty-four, but still managed to pack some glorious recordings into his career and is rightly venerated, not only in his native country, but throughout West Africa and beyond. This terrific and extremely cohesive selection neatly divides his career up into two parts for the neophyte with CD one devoted to the more immediately accessible and shorter in length larger ensemble recordings while the second CD focuses on the more extended and traditional pared down sides that Kouyaté laid down between 1970 and 1973. As with other newly independent nations, the quest for authenticity reached into the musical sphere and in Guinea artists such as Kouyaté were openly encouraged to flourish. Between the ages of eight and ten, Kandia had joined the royal court of Mamou where he quickly gained a reputation for possessing a stunning voice and by the age of nineteen the singer had developed a fully matured mezzo-soprano voice. It is precisely the very dynamism of this voice that comes across to such wonderful effect on these recordings and sets the singer apart from his other contemporaries. From the first CD, the gently lilting groove of ‘N’na’ with some gorgeous laid back saxophone playing is one of several highlights and in general the musical accompaniment, percussion especially, makes this a very special listening pleasure. Sterns are to be commended for selecting numerous songs from two key album volumes entitled ‘L’Epopée du Mandingué that date from 1973. The second CD in contrast requires repeated listens and in small doses to begin to fully digest the undiluted sound on offer, yet more seasoned listeners will appreciate the virtuosity displayed on numbers such as ‘Siiba’ while the heartrendering twelve and a half minute take on ‘Douga’ is a fine way to open the more intimate side to Kouyaté’s work. Equally of interest are the significantly shorter pieces that date from 1961 with ‘Toubaka’ and ‘Nina’ outstanding examples of the singer’s earliest songs. As ever with Sterns classic re-issues, the inner sleeve is both lavish and colourful with original photos of the artist and album covers from the period with, in addition, informative bi-lingual notes on Kouyaté’s glittering career.
US born of Indian parents, pianist Vijay Iyer followed a relatively slow progression from his 1995 debut, but this has rapidly gathered pace during the early noughties and his 2009 album ‘Historicity’ introduced him to a significantly wider audience with a 2010 Down Beat critics poll prize for small ensemble and also a 2010 Grammy nomination for best instrumental jazz album. Continuing with his tried and tested trio line up of Stephen Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, Vijay Iyer has chosen another highly eclectic selection that takes in the great piano jazz tradition with music from Duke Ellington and Herbie Nicholls, the great contemporary songwriting talents of British composer Rod Temperton as well as some excellent new material from the leader himself. If anything with greater familiarity between trio members there has come a willingness to take more chances and in this respect ‘Accelerando’ is an improvement upon the already excellent ‘Historicity’. For those not yet familiar with Iyer, his style is not dissimilar to, though by no means a carbon copy of, a cross between Andrew Hill and Thelonius Monk with other influences including Ahmad Jamal, Bud Powell and the earthier sounds of New Orleans formation the Meters. For lovers of melodic jazz with a slightly bitter-sweet twist, the unique interpretation of Tepmerton’s ‘Star of a story’, originally a hit for 1970s group Heatwave, but reprised to greater effect by George Benson on the ‘Give me the night’ album, works to perfection while ‘Human nature’, a favourite in the Miles Davis mid-late 1980s repertoire receives an extended nine and a half-minute version that changes in both mood and tempo as it progresses with a harder, funk-tinged feel on electric bass from Crump towards the end. Contrast this with the more avant-garde hues of a Henry Threadgill composition on ‘Little pocket sized dreams’ and you rapidly realise that Vijay Iyer has a breadth of musical knowledge that will make it almost impossible for him to be neatly categorised into one musical bag and he is all the better for this. Of the original pieces, all of which feature his signature sounding repeat phrasings, the title track and ‘Lude’ impress in particular and the album ends on a high with a seldom heard Ellington composition, ‘The village of the virgins’, taken from the 1970 ballet ‘The river’, the river in question being the Mississpippi. Here Iyer has inventively imbued the piece with gospel and R & B flavours. In fact there is a spontaneity to the trio’s performances here that is exemplary on this release and one longs to hear them in a live context in the UK at some stage.
Here is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises and a pairing of musical minds that definitely should be repeated. Swedish bassist Lars Danielsson has teamed up with one of the hottest new pianists on the block, Armenian Tigran Hamassayan (whose solo debut for Universal France last year was itself one of the end of 2011 discoveries) as part of a Premier League quality quintet, for an album that conjurs up the folk music side of the Scandinavian and Armenian countryside within a decidely chamber jazz envrionment. The title track in particular is a joy to behold, a piece of great lyrical beauty and an affecting bass solo from Danielsson. On the composition ‘Svensk Låt’ there are parallels with EST (and not only because EST drummer Magnus Ostrom performs throughout the album on drums) and this is an engaging piece featuring the most sensitive of solos from Tigran and a tune that remains long in the memory. Ostrom takes centre stage on the uplifting ‘Orange market’ with an extended solo from Tigran while there is a more austere and sedate ambience on ‘Hymnen’. In particular it is a revelation to hear Tigran in a jazz milieu and even though he has received a classic training, the pianist is ideally suited to jazz. With fine accompaniment from both guitarist John Parricelli and trumpeter Arve Hendriksen, the latter of whom excels on a delicate solo on the piece ‘Day one’, Lars Danielsson has fallen upon a wonderful and totally cohesive line up of musicians. If the quintet remains together for any lengthy period, it will surely produce some enthralling music. This sumptuous offering is, hopefully, the first of more to follow. Tim Stenhouse
Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca is known primarily for his participation in the more recent efforts by the Buena Vista Social Club collective, most notably the final album by Ibrahim Ferrer which he arranged to great acclaim. However, Fonseca is both an accomplished and rapidly maturing artist in his own right and his latest album finds him in relatively new territory, fusing Afro-Cuban jazz with a variety of African sounds from both west and north of this great continent. The result is a real slow burner of an album that takes a few listens to fully digest the intricate combination of genres, but becomes ever more accessible with each listen. Recorded in Paris, a number of African musicians have been enlisted to give this new project an authentic pan-African meets Cuban feel and they include some of the new stars as well as more established ones. An added bonus is the production on a few pieces of DJ Gilles Peterson along with remixes of the more danceable cuts and this is a definite attempt to appeal to a younger audience. A prime example of the successful fusion of styles is on the key number ‘Siete rayos’ which features lovely used of Cuban-style piano vamps, Afro-Cuban percussion and the inclusion of the stringed ngoni instrument. Factor in some Gotan Project-esque sound effects and this number may just be the ideal vehicle to propel the album to a wider public beyond world roots fans. Equally impressive is the acoustic piano led piece ‘El sonañdor está cansado’ with heavy bassline prominent. There are shades of Brad Mehldau in the playing of Fonseca on ‘JMF’ which then morphs into an Afro-Cuban montuno with Fonseca transferring to eery sounding organ that is akin to one of Charlie Palmieri’s classic 1970s sides on Coco. Senegal’s seminal Orchestra Baobab are evoked on ‘Quien soy yo’ with vocals from Assane Mboup and echo and voice effects that make this song a twenty-first century take on the great Afro-Latin bands of yesteryear such as the aforementioned collective and No. 1. North African rhythms are introduced on two songs, ‘Gnawa stop’ and ‘Chabani’. For the former, a mid-tempo piano dominated piece, Moroccan gnawa influences are weaved in with repeated riffs and handclaps while on the latter vocalist Faudel Amil delivers lovely wordless vocals. For some real diversity, the driving fender rhodes on ‘Rachel’ enters jazz-funk territory with hip-hop drum beat patterns into the mix. Those in search of dancefloor action should look no further than ‘Bibise’ with lead vocals from the new darling of the Malian music scene, Fatoumata Diawara, who recorded an excellent debut album for World Circuit last autumn. on this piece Senegalese kora player Baba Sissoko displays his virtuoso instrumental talents to full effect. A UK tour is imminent and begins on 23 March through to 1 April. It should be one of the most anticipated gigs of the year thus far.
It may come as a surprise to some to learn that this is the first studio outing by the trio since the ‘Day is done’ back in 2005 and long-time fans will not this time be able to engage in the usual banter of which recent pop tune has been covered since this is an all original selection of compositions. That being said, the trio are in fine form, sounding as fresh as they did some seven years ago and the new pieces are of a consistently high standard. No more so than the deeply lyrical ‘26’ which is a deeply melodic piece on which Mehldau enters into an extended crescendo of notes with drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier in close pursuit. On the opener, ‘M.B’ the influence of Keith Jarrett can be heard and this number is a tribute to the late saxophonist Michael Brecker while the title track possesses an organic earthiness with Mehldau offering a delicate solo and there is moreover fine interplay between pianist and bassist. Blues inflections surface on the excellent ‘Kurt vibe’ while there is an unusual off-beat quirkiness to the ballad, ‘G.H’, another tribute, but this time to former Beatle George Harrison. Above all what really impresses with this trio is the apparent simplicity of the themes performed, both individually and collectively, and on ‘Twiggy’ one cannot but marvel at the constantly inventive percussion playing of Ballard in particular. Quite simply a piano trio performance of Champions League quality.
Originally a spring concert from 2004 that was broadcast on National Public Radio, the American equivalent of the BBC, this live recording is a welcome collaboration between two veteran musicians who constantly keep their music fresh by entering into new musical dialogues. Here the concert is divided up roughly into three parts, the first two with the two musicians performing alone and the final section with joint vocals in English and Portugese. Caetano Veloso takes care of the first part of the performance and this is predominantly from his classic mid-late 1970s repertoire with a few classics before and after thrown in for good measure. Old chestnuts such as ‘Sampa’, ‘Terra’ and ‘O Leåzinho’ still sound as fresh as the first time they were aired while ‘Coraçåo vagabundo’ is quite simply one of Veloso’s most delightful and sensitive compositions of all. David Byrne performing acoustic is, perhaps, the welcome surprise here and classic Talking Heads material suc has ‘Road to nowhere’ is viewed in a new light when devoid of any instrumentation other than Byrne’s own guitar. In a recent interview David Byrne was quoted as being somewhat nervous at the prospect of sharing the stage with Brazilian giant Caetano Veloso, but, judging by the resulting music contained herein, he need not have been so anxious for this is very much a meeting of equals and kindred spirits. The two singers are on top form on a gorgeous rendition of ‘Um canto de Afoxé para o Bloco do Ilé’ which is sheer delight with Byrne very competently singing the original lyrics in Portugese. Veloso returns the compliment with aplomb on ‘(Nothing but) flowers’, where both singers enter into a humorous update on the lyrics in English and Caetano in particular delivers his trademark idiosyncractic vocals that are received with rapturous applause from an audience that is lapping the momentous event up for all it’s worth. The only downside of this recording is that thus far there has been no follow up studio album. David Byrne may have felt that he was going a little outside his own comfort zone, but his empathy for Brazilian music is all too apparent and a joint project would surely yield some precious offerings from two of the most open-minded musical minds on the planet.
Reggae musicians have at regular intervals toured Africa, most notably Culture and Pete Tosh, while no less than Bob Marley himself famously performed at the independence celebrations for Zimbabwe in 1980. Dancehall singers have been a good deal fewer on the ground, though in recent years Sizzla has shifted markedly to a more cultural stance. This new album is not in fact a live recording, but rather one recorded in a studio in Gambia, then mixed in Jamaica. One does wonder what served as the inspiration for the stay and why there was no collaboration with local musicians which is something of a lost opportunity. Several of the songs allude to being in Gambia, but somewhere along the line Sizzla decides that he is more interested in a performing a hybrid of contemporary r‘n’b and reggae rather than in fusing reggae and African styles. The singer is at his strongest on the uplifting lyrics and roots feel of ‘Blackman rise’ and on the falsetto-led vocals of ‘Feed the children’. Thereafter, Sizzla seems to lose the plot on ‘Woman of creation’ and ‘Where is the love?’ Does he want to record a whole album of this nu-soul material? If so, fine, but it does sit oddly here. A mixed bag of an album and not all in the reggae idiom.
Jamaican singer I-Octane, real name Byiome Muir, hails from Sandy Bay in Clarendon and was passionate about singing from an early age. He first recorded at Penthouse studios of Donovan Germaine and there came into contact with singer Bunju Banton. Three years after his work with Penthouse, I-Octane was apporached by Arrow records and this resulted in a shift in style from dancehall to cultural roots and a first single ‘Stab vampire’. The singer is now an independent musician who has severed links with Arrow, yet has only been in the music profession for five years. This brings us bang up to date with the debut album on VP contained within. It is in fact his first full length album and features a mixture of styles. It works best on the lyrical and socially conscious material such as the excellent ‘Vanity will come’ and the instant hook of’ Rules of life’, both of which features session musicians. The second half of the album is not quite as strong and in parts the production is a little too slick for this writer with I-Octane’s voice subdued among a plethora of electronic instrumentation. Nonetheless the catchy single ‘L.O.V.E. you’ will appeal to a new audience while the duets with Alborosie and Tarrus Riley will atttract a more mainstream reggae public. I-Octane needs to decide which pathway he wishes to follow and then stick to that for a whole album. Greater success will surely beckon. Tim Stenhouse
For some time now Freestyle records have been championing the new sounds of the dancefloor in myriad styles that range from Afro-beat to Latin, from jazz to soul, and from dub to funk so a compilation of these underground beats is very much the order of the day. Expertly compiled by Greg Boraman with detailed inner sleeve notes on the musicians concerned, this is a well balanced anthology of the label that showcases the recent and includes forthcoming sounds too. An immediate winner is the jazz dance piano vamps of Jessica Lauren on ‘Mr. G’, a keyboardist who first came to prominence during the 1990s on a well received Soul Jazz album, and then went off to do various sidewoman duties which included a stint with singer Barb Jungr among others. The new piece is merely a foretaste of her new album which will be released on Freestyle later in the year and there is a definite hint of Horace Silver in the use of Latin keyboard vamps. On another great tune, the neo-jazz dance number ‘Colours’ by Frootful, the enduring music of Johnny Lytle is conjured up with plentiful vibes over a heavy jazz beat. For an interesting contrast, northern soul flavours permeate the excellent vocal song ‘Hey girl’ by Jo Stance and one looks forward to hearing more of her. When disco went pear-shaped at the end of the 1970s, ‘boogie’ took over on the dancefloor during the early 1980s and ‘Something gotta give’ by Nick Van Gelder harks back to that era with vocals from Mazen. Going back further in time, jazz-funk ruled the roost during much of the mid-late 1970s and the Delicious All Stars bring this era back to life on the fine instrumental ‘Poker night theme’ while in reggae circles dub reached its zenith. However, even the likes of King Tubby had not thought of fusing roots dub with Ethiopian jazz and under the aegis of Dubulah, aka Nick Page, Dub Colossus have paved the way with a pioneering musical métissage that works and ‘Diaspora square’ is a fine illustration of this. Elsewhere the retro Afro-beat of the Riya Astrobeat Arkestra and the Afro-funk take on blaxploitation movie soundtracks from the Mighty Showstoppers impress and there is Latin funk from Ray Camacho and the Tear Drops on the pulsating ‘Movin’ on’. For connoisseurs of the harder Latin groove, look no further than some storming 1970s style descarga from Ray Lugo and the Boogaloo Destroyers on ‘Sol el ray’. All in all a terrific overview of a music scene that does not receive its full due from the mainstream music media. Tim Stenhouse