Hammond organist James Taylor has, over a twenty-five year career, marked himself out as a stalwart of the UK jazz music scene and its funkier side sometimes referred to misleadingly as acid jazz, a spurious concept at the best of times even though the jazz dance scene it spawned has continued to thrive. For his latest project, Taylor has had something of a change of approach, although long-term fans need not worry. There are still the familiar Hammond B3 organ licks and funky beats lurking just beneath the surface. The leader has long been interested in other musical forms and in particular a life-long love of classical music. This has inspired him to come up with a more expansive and orchestral sound, performing on a variety of keyboard instruments including acoustic piano and celeste (with the hammond still predominating overall nonetheless) that takes on board these and other influences such as film soundtrack, 1970s soul and jazz-funk. There is a 1970s Latin-fusion feel with Earth, Wind and Fire-style harmonies on ‘Nightwalk’ which recalls in some respects Ramsey Lewis’ Sun Goddess’ period while ‘Tick tock’ has a clockwise asymmetric pattern with blues inflections on organ and piano with Taylor alternating between the two. One of the heaviest jazz grooves is ‘Spencer takes a trip’ which features the excellent flute of Rob Townsend and an interesting combination of tubular bells and horns. Big band hammond sounds abound on ‘Don’t pass me by’ which has some lovely unison brass and a solo by Nick Smart on flugelhorn.
Nitin Sawhney is an invited guest on the album which, in its overall concept, conjures up another of Taylor’s influences, namely the 1970s CTI recordings produced by Creed Taylor which fused classical and jazz grooves, and especially for Hubert Laws. For an uptempo organ groover the psychedelic sounding ‘Parallelo’ sums up James Taylor’s current musical vision as well any piece on the album. A radical reworking of Beethoven’s sonata ‘Pathetique’ is the nearest Taylor gets to the classical repertoire and even here he performs on hammond, and it is anything but a standard interpretation. A follow up to the 2011 ‘The template’, this is certainly not your run of the mill soul-jazz organ outing. Indeed the latest recording is a long way from the early James Taylor music of the 1980s when his ‘Mission Impossible EP was championed by John Peel among others. However, it is is certainly James Taylor’s most diverse album thus far and ultimately one of his most satisfying also.
While George Benson was growing up as a young boy, one of his main musical idols was pianist and vocalist Nat King Cole and when Benson finally made the transition from solo jazz guitarist to vocalist, ‘Nature boy’ was among the first recorded examples of his newly found status. This new album pays homage to the lasting legacy of Nat’s work and provides a well balanced mixture of orchestral and more intimate combo settings which reflects Cole’s own musical eclecticism. The Henri Mancini Orchestra are on hand to ably assist George Benson and so with great aplomb as on the swinging take on ‘Just one of those things’ which is a truly uplifting performance from all and the song shifts in tempo between mid and high with some delightful jazzy orchestrations and Benson himself engaging in a trademark guitar and scat duet. A more pared down sound greets the listener on ‘Route 66’ and we are treated to some fine piano trio plus an extended guitar solo from the leader. For some old-style jazz with jazz group vocals, ‘Straighten up and fly right’ is a winner, hinting at Manhattan Transfer, and features a lovely piano solo. In a gentler vein, the new take on ‘Nature boy’ is a beautiful interpretation that is considerably slower than Benson’s 1970s version and here the orchestrations include a strings intro with flute and violin solos while on ‘Smile’ the famous ballad is treated to a gentle rendition with solo by Brönner and some gorgeous understated flutes. The singer even sounds as though he has been taking in the influence of Frank Sinatra on the uptempo ‘I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter’ and here he sings straight with some lovely brass and piano arrangements. Top drawer guests include trumpeters Till Brönner and Wynton Marsalis and master percussionist Sheila E better known for her collaborations with Prince. Tim Stenhouse
Two founder member of Madness, saxophonist Lee Thompson and bassist Mark Bedford, were inspired by the music of their teenage years to begin performing from 2011 onwards their own vision of ska and reggae-infused material and, to add some authenticity to proceedings, have enlisted the support of one Mike Pelanconi aka Prince Fatty who also co-produced the album. The result is an engaging slice of retrospective Jamaican music that is sure to uplift the spirits of even the hardiest of souls. The first single to emerge from the album has been hitting the airwaves for several weeks now and ‘Fu man chu’ is an outstanding remake of the classic reggae song performed here very ably by Bitty McLean. Elsewhere there is a good deal to commend, not least the terrific take on the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme which is a truly inspired choice to be given the ska treatment and one, that in its new musical surroundings, sounds completely natural. The old Lester Sterling tune ‘Bangarang’, which was an original skinheads favourite, receives a faithful re-interpretation with joint vocals and some fine unison horns. For fans of the Skatalites, Don Drummond’s ‘Eastern standard time’ is an energetic version that retains the essence of the original while if it is a reggae/funk fusion that you are looking for, then ‘Hot reggae’, a reworking of James Brown’s ‘Hot pants’ will fit the bill to perfection. The excellence of the production is best exemplified on John Holt’s seminal ‘Ali Baba’ and this stands comparison with any Jamaican remake. For an unusual choice of cover, look no further than a reworking of the Allman Brothers blue-eyed soul song ‘Midnight rider’ which is taken at a leisurely minor theme tempo here and works surprisingly well. A recent live performance on the Jools Holland show will have done little to harm the promotion of both the album and band.
Among the roster of Black Jazz artists, bassist Henry Franklin is one of the least well known, yet his music is among the subtlest and most lyrical and this album (part of a pair with the skipper theme in their title) is definitely worth investigating. The brass pairing of trumpeter/flugelhornist Oscar Brashear and tenor/soprano saxophonist Charles Owens will be more familiar names and their combined talents along with the keyboarding prowess of Bill Henderson on electric piano result in some beautifully textured grooves that take in mid-1960s Miles and early 1970s Return to Forever from their Latin fusion phase. The highly sensual piece, ‘Theme for Jojo’ has a modal undercurrent to it with dream-like effects on electric piano and this number is not dissimilar to ‘Little B’s Poem’. A lyrical solo from Brashear rounds off proceedings. On ‘Little Miss Laurie’ a minor Latin theme permeates the atmosphere with once again trumpet and saxophone stating the main theme in unison and with some delightful comping from Henderson. For those who like their soul-jazz, there is catchy bassline and ‘Sidewinder’-esque brass riff on ‘Plastic Creek Stomp’ while for those in search of heavier grooves, ‘Beauty and the Electric Tub’ is sure to impress with a pumping bass, electric piano in an essentially supportive role and both trumpet and saxophone free to roam. A minor gem of an album from Henry Franklin that should not be overlooked.
Guitarist Calvin Keys has cut his musical teeth with some of the finest of soul-jazz combos during the 1960s and beyond and these include Charles Earland, Jack Mc Duff and Jimmy McGriff. It should not come as any surprise, then, that his guitar sound betrays/ owes a great deal to the work of both George Benson and Grant Green, with the latter’s sound especially prominent here. One notable band member is Owen Marshall who fans of the Jazzman label will remember his recently re-issued album as a leader while Larry Nash occupies the electric piano duties with due care. This album from 1973 has more of an esoteric 1970s feel, though very accessible for all that. The mid-temp groove of ‘B.E.’ has a somewhat introspective outlook to it with the psychedelic sounding instrument the hose-a-phone being performed by Marshall. Owens contributes an elongated and expansive guitar solo here. More uptempo and deeply lyrical in its use of a flute/guitar combination is ‘Gee-Gee’ which features some fine guitar soloing. There is an updated take on the more intimate soul-jazz combo on ‘Criss Cross’ (not the Thelonius Monk tune) where Keys has the opportunity to demonstrate his virtuosity and arguably the finest number on the album, the title track, which is a most delicate piece and has long been a favourite of jazz connoisseurs. Echoes of Lonnie Liston Smith abound on electric piano with melodic and relaxing guitar riffs while flute and guitar alternate on the main theme. Tim Stenhouse
Hammond B3 organist Chester D. Thompson is especially well known for his part as a member of cult funk band Tower of Power with whom he played for a decade and then for an extended twenty plus year sojourn as part of the Santana band. However, he did cut an album as leader for Black Jazz and this fits very much into the later 1960s/early 1970s soul jazz bag with a slightly harder edge in places. In this endeavour he is ably assisted by saxophonist Rudy Johnson who has taken inspiration from the John Coltrane school of tenor playing, trombonist Al Hall Jr and Ray Pounds on the drums. One of the strongest instrumentals is the catchy groover ‘Weird Harold’ which is the kind of track you might have found on a late 1960s Blue Note or Prestige album and there is some fine collective brass work here. Altogether heavier in approach is the title track where Thompson comes across as a Larry Young acolyte and the attractive and slightly ominous sounding main theme is followed by a blistering tenor solo from Johnson. Back in a mid-tempo vein, ‘Trip One’ is a slow burner of a tune with some lovely Hammond licks from the leader and Johnson once more taking centre stage. Ideally, one would like to hear more of Chester Thompson the soloist for he possesses a soulful technique on the Hammond B3 and sometimes has a tendency to be content with a merely supportive role.
One could never accuse Pat Metheny of sticking to the same routine so it should comes as little surprise, then, his latest project is devoted to left-field maverick musician John Zorn who simply defies categorisation and has a legion of fans because of it. Metheny just happens to be one of those devotees and has focused on some of the more folk-based compositions in Zorn’s vast songbook which are linked to the composer’s Jewish roots. He is ably assisted in the project by drummer Antonio Sanchez, but as on other recent recordings, the leader is not content to perform solely on his impressive selection of his master guitars. Rather he turns up playing at various times on trumpet, keyboards and even piano, though it has to be said that these musical forays are brief and that long-time fans will marvel at the guitar soloing which is as accomplished as it ever has been. The repertoire focuses primarily on the more folk-oriented side to Zorn’s compositions (with the possible exception of the rousing opener ‘Mastema’) and as such is deal terrain for Metheny to exploit. The engaging and intricate riff-laden uptempo number ‘Tharsis’ is notable for some fine polyrhythmic accompaniment from Sanchez while there is a pan-Mediterranean feel to ‘Albim’ which has a reposing quality to it, and Metheny here performs mainly on acoustic guitar. Even more intimate in ambience is ‘Sariel’ which features some sparse acoustic guitar and the simplest of riffs, yet highly effective at that. Elsewhere Pat Metheny excels on the free-flowing numbers such as ‘Humiz’ on which he also alternates on piano. For those not conversant with the eclecticism of John Zorn, his multi-directional musical stance takes on board easy listening, film score music, Jewish jazz, jazzcore hybrids and a whole lot more. This simply reflects Zorn’s own incredibly diverse influences which range from Ennio Morricone and Esquivel to Roland Kirk, Lennie Tristano and even Hüsker Dü. John Zorn’s music has constantly oscillated between outright eccentricity and top quality, but in the process the composer/musician has cultivated a faithful band of followers. This is another side project that Pat Metheny can proudly add to his already mightily impressive portfolio that includes duets with Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden and Brad Mehldau not to mention the fascinating mellotron experiment. An artist in full creative flow at present. Tim Stenhouse
Algerian singer-songwriter Souad Massi was a complete breath of fresh air when she first appeared on the world roots scene in the early noughties. Her brand of acoustic folk-inspired compositions begged immediate comparisons with Tracy Chapman and even Joni Mitchell, yet the North African component is clearly audible with the use of oud and percussion instrument the darbouka. This generously timed compilation rightly places emphasis on the first two albums which take up no less than fifteen of the twenty songs showcased here. If her last album was something of a disappointment and a halfway house between folk on the one hand and a desire to break into more mainstream rock territory on the other, this anthology serves as an illustration of what Massi does best and that is simply making deeply lyrical music delivered in the gentlest of voices. Undoubtedly one of Massi’s most endearing songs is the haunting melody of ‘Hayati’ (My life). Arguably this is her finest song to date and, perhaps more to the point, her most personal also. A sparser sounding song where the natural beauty of Massi comes to the fore is found on the title track to ‘Raoui’ (The story teller). Just acoustic guitar is required here to accompany. On the folk-roots song ‘Bladi’ (My country) Soaud Massi sings in both Arabic and French, and France is indeed now her place of residence and a French audience has reacted very positively to her contributions. An interesting fusion of North African and Spanish flamenco rhythms are to be found on the flowing number ‘Nekreh el Keld’ (I hate this heart that loves you still) and with violin and guest male vocalist, this is sure to entice the listener. Likewise the uptempo ‘Ech edani’ (I shouldn’t have fallen in love with you) again incorporates flamenco elements, with a Spanish male vocalist starting off proceedings and this is a driving number that in some respects reminds one of the early 1990s output of Khaled. For a more authentic Algerian accompaniment the lovely ballad ‘Yemma’ impresses with its use of oud, darbouka and Massi herself featured on guitar. Souad Massi specialises in and makes a vritue out of the multitudinous aspects of the human condition and this fine collection of songs of love lost, refound are similarly deeply rooted in the intensity of human emotion. To aid the listener, full English lyrics are provided. Tim Stenhouse
Flautist Herbie Mann has sometimes been accused and, rightly so, of over-recording during his lengthy career, but his most convincing work by far was that devoted to Latin music and he was in fact one of the earliest devotees from the United States to have actually gone to Brazil to record with native musicians. This came about after Mann had watched the film ‘Black Orpheus’ by Marcel Camus which won a prize at the 1959 Cannes film festival and he was hooked thereafter. Two years later and Mann flew to Rio to record the ‘Brazil Bossa Nova’ album for United Artists, which is one of the two albums here with a distinctly Brazilian flavour. The addition of guitarist Billy Bean adds extra character and dimension to proceedings and certainly in relation to his Atlantic studio albums at least the tracks are far meatier and longer in length which gives the listener the opportunity to hear the musicians, Mann in particular, to really stretch out. This is exemplified on a lengthy version of ‘Brasil’, virtually the unofficial national anthem composed by Ary Barroso, and is a lovely up-tempo vehicle for Mann and the band with some Ray Charles inspired electric piano. An early rendition of ‘One note samba’ is devoid of the clichés that besotted other American jazz musicians and still sounds fresh. The second album, recorded in the United States, was more in the vein of his other Atlantic studio recordings in so far as the pieces are relatively short in length in keeping with the vocal versions and once again there is an underlying Brazilian theme with two Jobim, one Bonfa and a Menescal/Boscoli compositions. However, Herbie Mann was clearly feeling more confident in the idiom since there are no less than four pieces written by him. One of these, ‘Cool heat’ is an album highlight with vibes and flute in unison over a pulsating percussive beat and this an Afro-Latin jazzers delight. A slightly more up-tempo than usual take on ‘Carnaval’ impresses and this is taken from the very same film soundtrack that motivated Mann to record in Brazil in the first place. Another melodic piece ‘Minha de saudade’ allows Mann to show off his more subtle and sensitive side and is a gorgeous interpretation. With an outstanding percussion line-up of Willie Bobo and Carlos ‘Potato’ Valdes who feature on both albums, this fine formation is supplemented by a host of top jazz musicians such as Dave Pike and Haygood Hardy who also share vibes duties.
Originally released as a limited edition double vinyl LP back in 1988, less than a year after the death of DJ Scott La Rock, this difficult to find release contains remixes of many of the tracks featured on their seminal debut album ‘Criminal Minded’ and other early Boogie Down Production material.
This is 1980s New York Hip Hop at its most raw; hard hitting drum machine patterns, 12-bit samples and gritty street rhymes from KRS-One, spurting politically and socially conscious messages, as well as the usual rap bravado from the era. Initially released on the influential B. Boy Records from the South Bronx and now released on CD, ‘Man and His Music’ was a project dedicated to the late Scott La Rock with remixes, re-edits and medleys from various producers such as Freddy Fresh, Jada Brown and Greg Peasley, although, none of these are credited.
Highlights of the set include the James Brown sampling ‘D-Nice Rocks The House’, a DJ Red Alert favourite on KISS FM in New York during 1988, one-time BDP collaborator and engineer DJ Doc’s medley mix ‘Doc Mix’ and the remixes of ‘Poetry’ and ‘Criminal Minded’. This is definitely an essential slice of uncompromising 1980s New York Hip Hop.