In anticipation of a new album due out this year, neo-soul singer Omar returns with arguably his most convincing song since the rare groove classic ‘Nothin’ like this’ which was actually some twenty years ago. The lovely bass clarinet and flute accompanied intro leads into a simple, yet instantly catchy hook which is mid-tempo and soulful and befitting his essentially classical soul approach this has elements of Stevie Wonder and the Earth, Wind and Fire horns. As well as two re-mixed versions of the aforementioned song, the 12″ features as a bonus a reworking of ‘Nothin’ like this’ with acoustic guitarist Pino Palladino lending a more stripped down sound, though the bassline is instantly recognisable and the brass unsion accompaniment and saxophone solo are a nice touch, and make for a fine alternative version to the original. Omar is very much back in the groove and there will be great expectations for the album when it arrives.
German label ACT has carved out something of a reputation as a catalyist for new pianists, but in this case it is for the sound of the fender rhodes and jazz fusion flavours that are showcased here. Mo’ Blow are a collective of twenty something German musicians who are heavily influenced by the 1970s sounds of the the jazzier hues of the Headhunters, the funky backbeats of the JBs and the grittier side of David Sanborn. The two principal members of the band, multi-reedist Felix F. Falk and keyboardist Matti Klein, have co-written the majority of the numbers here with additional contributions from bassist Tobias Fleischer. However, it would be both inaccurate and premature to dismiss the group as jazz-funk wannabees since there is a good deal of subtletly in the performances and if there are definite hints of the 1970s, this merely serves as the pretext to some improvisational interplay and soloing. This is illustrated by the fender-led piece ‘Ray’ with keyboard and saxophone in unison and on the jam-style groove of ‘The Wendland revolt’ with catchy riffs and an Eddie Harris inspired distorted saxophone sound from Falk. The jazzier repertoire of the Headhunters is conjured up on ‘Papa’s pancakes’ with an extended keyboard solo and bass clarinet that certainly takes a leaf out of the Bennie Maupin school and some basslines that Paul Jackson would feel at home with. A lyrical ballad, ‘Winter came early’ demonstrates that the group can operate in a different mode when required and there is some delicate saxophone and fender playing here. Overall the arrangements are tight and the intimate sound works extremely well. If the funk element can occasionally be a little repretitive, it has to be recognised that the genre thrives on musicians creating a lasting groove. Mo’ Blow are one to watch out for.
Swiss guitarist Nicolas Meier continues his musical explorations and here they are heavily influenced by Mediterranean landscapes. Wheareas on his previous release he was featured in a pared down line-up with a fellow guitarist in a live setting, he is on this new recording surrounded by a larger ensemble that makes up an octet and includes Gilad Atzmon on reeds and Asaf Sirkis on drums among its alumni. The album is a a summation of recent travels in Spain and Turkey as well as other musical inspirations such as Argentine tango. The ambience of daily life in a major Mediterranean city is lovingly conveyed on ‘From Istanbul’, the first of a three part suite, with some beautiful soprano soloing from Atzmon who is ideally suited to both Mediterranean and Middle Eastern hues. Flamenco influences from Paco de Lucia are in evidence on ‘Opening’ with cello and violin accompanying while another part of the suite, ‘To Ceuta’, has a strong Middle Eastern flavour and Meier stretches out in this context with some Methenyesque licks. Ideally this writer would like to hear a whole album of the tango-flavoured numbers which are excellent in their own right, but need to be heard separately from the rest. In places the music can be a little too intricate for its own good and the overall sound might be tighter if it were devoid of layers of strings. A starker, stripped down would better suit the project, though in fairness this is achieved in some parts between guitar and percussion in particular. This said, Nicolas Meier’s music is never less than deeply evocative. Tim Stenhouse
Rumanian reggae is only marginally less known than the folk music of the country in the UK and this project stems from a number, ‘Balkan Reggae’ that featured on a 2009 album entitled ‘Ghetto Blasters’. In essence it was a Rumanian gypsy band paying homage to Jamaican reggae and this latest CD, which is really more of an extended EP (or alternatively a take on the Jamaican ‘version’ LP format of the 1970s) weighing in at just over thirty minutes, is the same track reworked and remixed in a variety of contexts by different musicians. The first, and most conventional version, focuses on roots reggaqe and features Gregory Fabulous on lead vocals before going into an instrumental part with melodica and brass emphasized to the full. In a more soulful vein are G-Vibes take with vocals by Errol Linton and this is a lovely balance of Balkan folk meets brass and reggae rhythms. Dub producer Mad Professor is on hand to offer some echo-infused riddims and the instrumental elements are brought to the fore with keyboards and heavy drum beat featuring prominently. Kobi Israelite with singer Annique contributes a more contemporary dance feel and a more spaced out sound. For those in search of rootsier Rumanian folk meets reggae head on, then the version by La Cherga featuring the vocals of Adisa Zvehic will appeal and includes some dub echoes. Nine versions in all and something of a hark back to the past in overall approach. Tim Stenhouse
Koby Israelite is a wildly eclectic multi-instrumentalist and just the kind of musician you might expect to find on John Zorn’s Asphalt Tango label. Born in Israel, but now resident in the south of London, Israelite’s musical interests span the whole spectrum and takes on board Balkan folk, bluegrass, the blues and Hendrix. On previous recordings for the Zorn’s Tzadik label, his music emphasized his Jewish heritage, but on this new release the approach is a good deal more diverse and with mixed results. On the positive side there are some fascinating fusions of styles such as the combination of old-time and Irish folk on ‘Suite Part Four: Cray Fish Hora’ which even incorporates Balkan and bluegrass into the mix. On the ultra rapid tempo ‘Bulgarian Boogie’ there is a definite influence of klezmer and this latter component is present the clarinet accompaniment on the intriguingly titled ‘Why don’t you take my brain and sell it to the night?’ Singer Annique supplies lead vocals here with elements of bluegrass harmonies and Balkan swing all coming into play. Where Kobi Israelite comes nearest to some degree of conventional playing is on the instrumental blues-rock of ‘Blues from elsewhere! Suite Pt. 1’ and parts two and three weave in some Ry Cooder guitar licks and austere, stripped down piano. Koby Israelite is definitely an artist to watch out for and indeed he surfaces on another project on the label with a remix of his take on ‘Balkan Reggae’. This is something of a work in progress project for the musician who constantly juggles a plethora of musical styles into a spicy pot. If the complimentary ingredients are not always there in equal measure, he is certainly not far off from achieving his goal. Tim Stenhouse
Israeli bassist Omer Avital is part of a New York collective of musicians who have been eager to explore the music of the Middle East in a jazz idiom (including another more renowned bassist, Avishai Cohen) and a couple of years back he surfaced on one of the ‘Live at Smalls’ recordings from that venue in the Big Apple. Here Avital returns with a studio date that has some of the immediacy of the indepedent Strata East label of the 1970s and a project subject matter that recalls Duke Ellington’s ‘Far East Suite’, and the whole CD is in fact devoted to a series of lengthy pieces that conjures up the Middle East to perfection with some lovely melodic playing. The quartet includes Avishai Cohen, but here on trumpet while Joel Frahm occupies the other brass spot on saxophone with Omer Klein on piano and Daniel Freedman on drums. Collectively this quartet has a lot going for it and the compositions are especially strong. The opener ‘Free forever’ has a wonderful Eastern flavour with the brass performing in unison whereas on ‘The Abutbuls’ there is a real build up in tension and in intensity of the piece which features Latinesque piano vamps and a trumpet solo that harks back to Lee Morgan in his prime. A trio number ‘Sinai Memories’ is really a vehicle for some blues inflections by Klein and the influence of Abdullah Ibrahim is evident. The reflective piano-led title track features a gorgeous lyrical solo from Frahm and concluding matters is an extended bass solo from the leader on a number that pleads for a return to peace in the Middle East on ‘Bass Meditation’. Overall there album has something of a live feel to it and the musicians have plenty of freedom and space to explore while retaining a melodic underpinning. One of the most enjoyable new jazz releases of the year so far. Tim Stenhouse
Singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento is one of Brazil’s all time great performers and from the late 1960s established first a national, then an international reputation as both a songwriter of distinction and then as a singer in his own right. Raised in the hinterland region of Minas Gerais, Nascimento is in fact a highly eclectic singer whose interests take in classical, choral. jazz and rock elements (the Beatles harmonies were especially influential on Milton and his generation), and has a heightened awareness of the Latin American songbook. This combination of influences distinguishes him from his counterparts and have earned him a major global following, especially in the United States where his mid-1970s collaborations with jazz legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter (together on the seminal ‘Native Dancer’ album from 1974) and countless pop singers have been fêted over the years. His highly innovative period came during the early-mid 1970s with a collective of musicians referred to as the ‘Clube de Eqsuina’ (or ‘Corner Club’) and who included influential individuals such as Lô Borges, Toninho Horta and songwriters of the calibre of Fernando Brant and Ronaldo Bastos and the two volumes of ‘Clube de Esquina’ plus ‘Milton’ make for essential listening and the 1975 album ‘Minas’ is sometimes considered as the Brazilian equivalent of ‘Sgt. Pepper’.
The present selection of albums covers a later period of roughly a decade from 1994 through 2003. Milton and the period of great innovation from the 1970s was now behind him. However, in its place was a technically gifted singer who had honed his craft as a live performer and its was these two aspects of his singing that were now to the fore. The first album contained in this selection, ‘Angelus’ from 1994, is one of the strongest studio albums here and is actually quite varied in approach with an all-start list of guests including jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, old buddies Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and pop singers of the calibre of Jon Anderson and James Taylor on board. It is the folksy material that works best with a lovely feel to ‘Coisas de Minas’ featuring a solo from Metheny while a reprise of the classic ‘Vera Cruz’ with Ron Carter and Jack deJohnette in the rhythm section receives an excellent rendition. Milton’s wordless vocal technique is heard to great effect on the gentle ‘Amor amigo’ while there are collective choral and lead vocals on ‘No vena’. James Taylor duets with Nascimento on ‘Only a dream in Rio’ and with Jon Anderson on ‘Estrelada’. The next two albums, ‘Amigo’ (1996) and ‘Nascimento’ (1997) are something of a disappointment in comparison and fit very much into the MPB easy listening format with production that is a tad syrupy in parts (particularly the big orchestrations present on ‘Amigo’), though even they have their moments with a reprise of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Ana Maria’ in homage to his then recently departed wife of the same name a highlight of the latter album.
However, Milton the consumate live performer is showcased on a seventy-five minute concert from 1998 and this provides the listener with a more accurate picture of the artist. New technology was such that a duet with the deceased singing legend Elis Regina was possible on ‘O que foi feito devera’ and this impresses as does an a capella version of ‘Calix Bento’ which is an old classic. There then followed a six year break from recording during which time Milton Nascimento became seriously ill and there was even the fear that he might never record again. Thankfully that did not prove to be the case and there was cause for celebration and a real return to form by Nascimento on the 2003 album ‘Pieta’ which is arguably Milton’s strongest studio release in a couple of decades. Pared down production and the return of some of ‘Corner Club’ musicians of the early 1970s (Borges brothers and Fernando Brant) has resulted in a far more satisfying recording and one that is all the more triumphant given the personal trials and tribulations that the singer has gone through. What is of interest here is the presence on several songs of young female singer Maria Rita Mariano who happens to be none other than Elis Regina’s daughter and she contributes to the excellent mid-tempo ‘Beleza e cançao’ with its choral influences. Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny guest on a reworking of the former’s seminal mid-1960s Blue Note number ‘Canteloupe Island’. Milton displays an awareness of twenty-first century jazzy meets electronica drum beats on ‘As vezes deus exagera’ which is a lovely melodic piece, completely different from the rest of the album, and here he risks attracting a whole new audience. For older fans, the folksy hues of ‘Meninos de Araçuai’ complete with flute will make for happy listening as will the acoustic guitar-driven ‘Outro lugar’. At just over seventy minutes in length, this is the virtual equivalent of a double vinyl album such as ‘Clube de Esquina’ and Milton certainly sounds rejuvinated. All in all, then, a mixed package of hits and near misses and, while not a ‘Best of’ anthology, it is an accurate summation of Milton Nascimento in his later career and does reflect his eclectic approach to music.
Singer Elis Regina occupies a special place in the Brazilian psyche and her tragic early death aged just thirty-six in 1982 was the subject of national mourning for she is arguably the greatest ever woman singer in Brazil with an amazing vocal range and a wide diversity of performance styles. She came to national prominence in the mid-1960s at a time when bossa nova reigned supreme, but Regina’s entry onto the music scene would mark a departure point and one that would see the emergence of a new generation of singers of what is now termed MPB, or Brazilian popular music. This latest in the excellent value for money series from Warner focuses on the very latter period of Elis Regina’s career from 1978-1980 and if it is an introductory ‘Best Of’ package you are looking for, this is not necessarily the ideal place to start since Regina by the late 1970s had had enough of reworking her old back catalogue and there are already a plethora of anthologies that cover her more famous songs.
What this new selection does offer, however, are some priceless live performances of Elis and two CDs are devoted to live concerts and for devotees of Brazilian music these alone will prove revelatory experiences. An unissued live album ‘Elis por Ela’ which dates from around 1979/1980 is almost an hour’s worth of bliss with exclelent sound quality and she interprets the songbook of the then up and coming generation such as João Bosco and Milton Nascimento as well as a couple of homages to the great Tom Jobim whom she famously recorded a duet album with, ‘Elis e Tom’ in 1974. Here she offers a rootsy take on Milton’s anthemic ‘Cançao de América’ and an uplifting samba in ‘O que foi feito deverá’. Of the Bosco material, there is a lengthy eight minute plus take on the uptempo samba ‘Cobra criada’ with a four minute intrumental intro and then Elis entering first with wordless vocalising plus a subtle mid-tempo ‘O mestre sala dos mares’ and this is a gorgeous version with electric piano and percussion. Jobim is celebrated here with ‘Garota de Ipanema’, but Elis gives it her own distinctive twist performing it a much quicker tempo than the original accompanied only by piano and audience handclaps in both Portugese and English. For bonus cuts, Regina works in a medley of songs including Milton’s ‘Ponta de Arena’. A second live recording from a Sao Paulo concert in 1979 continues in a similar vein, though the sound quality is a little distant in parts, it is still perfectly acceptable. Unfortunately what live CDs can never capture is the theatricality of Elis Regina’s on stage performance and at some point a quality DVD of her live should be released for an international audience.
The very last studio album she recorded, ‘Essa Mulher’ from 1980, is included here and this revealed different facets of Regina’s musicality. The production is generally slicker in keeping with a lot of 1980s Brazilian music, but underneath there are still some wonderful sounds and of course her voice was still in top form. Looking back, the opener ‘Cai dentro’ is a funky bass-led groove that fans of Tania Maria from her Concord Picante period would feel at home with and this is reinforced further on by the funky samba that is ‘Eu hein Rosa!’. Elsewhere her receptiveness to other musical cultures is evident on ‘O bebado e a equilibrita’ which has echoes of French chanson with its use of accordion, but then develops into a gentle samba with string accompaniment. Possibly the strongest number of all is Elis’ trip into classy tropicalia with ‘Beguine dodói’ (a live version of the song is featured on CD4) while ‘Bolero de sata’ is a strong performance and indication that with her southern Brazilian roots in Porto Alegre, Regina could incorporate the instrumental music of Spanish Latin America into her wider repertoire. The double pair of ‘Saudades do Brasil volumes 1 and 2’ are at best an acquired taste and, in several places, come across as somewhat self-indulgent in that the production is distinctly overbearing and songs tend to segue into one another at will. This is typified by the bizarre transposition of the old Brazilian songbook chestnut ‘Aquarela do Brasil’ which has an utterly transformed intro with oddball vocal chants thrown in. Quite why Elis ever agreed to such an endeavour is something of a mystery. There is some all too brief welcome relief on the mid-tempo samba ‘Agora-ta!’ and an uplifting number ‘Maranibaia’ which has elements of the choro style in the use of flute and brass, but overall the arrangements have been messed around with too much and simply put, this seriously distracts from the listener’s enjoyment.
One major caveat with this selection. It surprisingly omits the wonderful ‘Live in Montreux’ album that Warner released originally on vinyl in 1982 and since this is now regarded as something of a late masterpiece, with a terrific line-up of musicians and superlative reprises of her classic era songs, it is a mystery why Warner have not seen fit to include it here. All the more so, since ‘Saudades do Brasil volumes 1 and 2 would have neatly fitted onto one CD and are obvious weakpoints here. At some point Warner should re-issue, possibly in a deluxe edition format, ‘Live in Montreux’ since it is a fitting farewell to a fabulously talented singer.
The Brazilian musical legend that is Caetano Veloso, who is the natural successor to Joao Gilberto and has carved out his own unique voice and sound over five decades, returns with an album that is brimming with vitality and he succeeds in bring thoroughly modern in approach, while retaining a classical underpinning that has been a hallmark of his highly eclectic career. Co-produced by son Moreno Veloso and Pedro Sa and with bassist and keyboardist Ricardo das Gomes a major contribnutor to the overall sound, the album has all the feel of a singer in his thirties rather than one about to enter into his seventh decade on the planet. Veloso Sr’s ability to combine retro and modern so effortlessly is illustrated on the repetitive chorus and pumping bassline of ‘Parabéns’. Subtlety in the fusing of genres and in the phrasing of lyrics has been a trait of Caetano Veloso’s work from the mid-1970s onwards and on the title track, he manages to weave in some gentle reggae rhythms in bass and drum without it ever sounding like a pastiche and the delivery is very understated. This is one of the most lyrical numbers on the album and a definite key song. Veloso has never been afraid of experimenting and throughout his career, his music has taken unusual twists and turns. The stripped down guitar and vocals that start off on ‘Quando a galo cantou’ typifies this and eventually the atmosphere changes with a dissonant guitar and percussion entering, the song thereafter evolves into something more experimental in nature while still maintaining its melodicism. In a more traditional vein, the gentle neo-bossa of ‘Vinco’ is delightful and here the singer is accompanaied by guitar and minimalist percussion. Eleswhere there are frequent shifts in mood and tempo on ‘A bossa nova é fodà’ and a staccato rhythm with Indian classical and indie rock on ‘Funk melódico’. Another highly enjoyable outing which indicates that Caetano Veloso is still finding challenging new avenues to explore. Tim Stenhouse
Possessing a raspy vocal delivery in the classic 1950s and 1960s R ‘n’ B tradition, and with impressive songwriting credentials, James Hunter is the consumate performer and it is surprising that he is not known and appreciated by a wider audience. His music is immediately accessible, yet rooted in the soul-blues tradition with the likes of Ray Charles and Bobby Bland formative influences. This latest releases follows on from the excellent preceding albums, ‘People gonna talk’ from 2006 and ‘The hard way’ from 2008. While both were fine all round albums, arguably this new recording is the strongest thus far with the arrangements and instrumentation tighter and expertly executed by a band that has undergone a few changes in personnel over the last decade, but in essence the sound is unchanged. Matters kick off with a punch on the raucous hammond organ and bassline of ‘Chicken switch’ which features some lovely piano vamps. Quite possibly this writer’s favourite is the minor theme ‘Heartbreaker’ with an intoxicating rhythm guitar that ceases to disappear into the background and a soulful saxophone solo. Likewise the light ska-inflected drums and piano blues that permeate ‘Let the monkey ride’ are irresistable. Latin hues are in evidence on the number ”The gyspy’ with a underlying guitar riff that recalls ‘Tequila’ while the shuffling beat of ‘Goldmine’ typifies the professionalism of the musicianship on offer. James Hunter is probably best known for regularly opening as a live act for Van Morrison, but on this evidence he certainly merits a place in your multiple listening channels all on his own.