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Various ‘Spiritual Jazz 4’ 3LP/2CD (Jazzman) 5/5


This is arguably the most ambitious project to date in the Spiritual jazz series which has showcased esoteric and, in many cases, extremely rare sounds that have only ever been issued originally on smaller independent labels and would be inaccessible to all but the most committed. For this fourth instalment, the overriding theme is that of American musicians resident or performing in Europe and it is a mightily impressive line-up of musicians which ranges from Albert Ayler to Archie Shepp and Sun Ra, from Don Cherry to Sahib Shihab, and along the way takes on board the likes of Eric Dolphy, Bobby Hutcherson. Lee Konitz and Grachan Moncur.

If the format is by now familiar, the music contained within is anything but and there are some major new discoveries to be made. These include a superb number on the Danish Steeplechase label by pianist Billy Gault with a tribute to the titan tenorist on ‘Mode for Trane’. This could easily be a Strata-East, or Black Jazz recording and is one of the early albums on the label dating from a 1974 New York session and features vocalist Joe Lee Wilson and some fine tenor work from Bill Saxton. Another relatively unknown artist worthy of your attention is Frank Wright and his sextet. The piece ‘T and W’ is an uptempo, percussive number with a Latin undercurrent on piano and some fine interplay between tenor sax and trumpet. The piece, although free-form in parts, is always held together by a pumping Latin rhythm section. The recording dates from 1979 by the US ensemble that just happened to be passing through Munich at the time. A far better-known musician is the legendary Sun Ra and his intergalactic approach to the world of music is typified on an all too brief vocal number from a live Paris performance in 1970, ‘Enlightenment’, with vocals shared between June Tyson and Marshall Allen. Arguably even more esoteric than the Sun Ra contribution is an edited version of an original eighteen-minute opus from Don Cherry with Krzystof Penderecki and the New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra on ‘Humus – The Life Exploring Force’. Among the mass orchestra trumpeters Tomasz Stanko and Kenny Wheeler feature and there is some truly wild saxophone playing into the heady mix with folk-inspired vocals by Loes McGillycutty. Free-form and classical are fused here and this could only ever have been recorded in the early 1970s period. Elsewhere a second Coltrane homage, a reworking of ‘Olé’ by the Noah Howard group, impresses and this was part of a 1975 live session at the Latin Quarter club in Berlin. Continuing with live performances, a lengthy eighteen and a half minutes of the Bobby Hutcherson and Harold Land sextet in their prime is the focus of ‘The Creators’ which was recorded in 1970 as part of the Ljubljana festival in the then Yugoslavia. This is, in fact, the full band that was recording on Blue Note at the time and it is wonderful to hear that formation in a live context. Full marks for unearthing this gem of a track. Among the total of fourteen compositions on the compilation, Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy will attract immediate attention. The former is heard in a different context from usual insofar as his deconstruction of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ is a minimalist and, by Ayler’s standards, a relatively gentle interpretation. This date from a 1963 Copenhagen session and reveals another side to the tenorist. By contrast, Eric Dolphy’s ‘Springtime’ is one of the very last pieces he ever recorded and is the longest number on the entire anthology at nearly twenty minutes and it places Dolphy in a slightly different and more percussive context which recalls his collaboration with the Latin Jazz Quintet. Finally, some comment should be made on the Sahib Shihab piece ‘The Call’ where he plays soprano and this Danish recording dates from 1971 on the Storyville label, which like Steeplechase, was a vastly underrated independent label. At some future point, perhaps Jazzman could devote a project to other recordings from these two prestigious, yet hard to find record labels out of Scandanavia. Of all the numbers on offer, one that spiritual jazz devotees are likely to be familiar with is Lee Konitz’s modal piece ‘Five, Four and Three’ and this is a worthy inclusion among the other sounds.

Twenty-three pages of sleeve notes are impeccably presented with details on individual formations, brief histories of the recordings and original album covers in miniature. Jazzman has set the standard for inner sleeve notes which other labels would do well to follow. In addition, to present these wonderful sounds in their thoroughly modern context, the outer cover features a painting by Jackson Pollock and it should not be forgotten that art and music have invariably been closely linked and on occasion, jazz musicians have themselves devoted part of their lives to producing some worthy painting, Miles Davis being an obvious case in point. All in all, this is just over two hours of intensely charged, spiritual vibe inducing music that captures the essence of the 1960s and 1970s scene to perfection.

Tim Stenhouse

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Various ‘Spiritual Jazz 3’ 2LP/CD (Jazzman) 4/5

Various ‘Miss Lilys Family Style Vol. 1’ (VP) 3/5

The Miss Lilys in question is a restaurant specialising in Caribbean cuisine in Manhattan, New York, and a venue in which reggae music is regularly played over the air waves. Hence the idea to put together a selection of the kind of Jamaican (and other) singers that are revered here. If the first part of the compilation holds together well, the quality does dip slightly further on. Britain’s very own Gappy Ranks offers the excellent ‘Pumpkin Belly’ and one looks forward to more songs in this vein from him. A melodic roots song is in order from Sizzla on ‘Just one of those things’ and it is refreshing to hear some real instruments accompanying plus some lush female harmonies. A reprise of Delroy Wilson’s ‘Bonafide love’ from Buju Banton featuring Wayne Wonder combines old and new to good effect. On the minus side, ‘Oreiginal Dancehall’ by Taurus Riley is something of a disappointment and over-produced. Perhaps in future a more classic choice of songs might be in order. Tim Stenhouse

Amparo Sánchez ‘Alma de Cantaora’ (Kasba/Wrasse) 4/5

Barcelona-based singer-songwriter Amparo Sánchez has carved out a niche for herself by presenting her own version of the Americana sound with a Spanish twist that involves not only predominantly Spanish-language lyrics, but also the occasional foray into Cuban beats. On her last album devoted to Arizona, ‘Tucsan Arizona’. she worked these disparate three elements into a cohesive whole and returns for a second instalment that is equally enjoyable. Once again Sánchez has collaborated with Cuban composer Mane Ferret who also doubles up on vocals and chorus and Jordi Mestres is an integral member of the band on various guitars and bass. There is nothing revoultionary about the music contained within. It is simply quality melodic music. The pared down bass and vocals on ‘Pulpa de Taramindo’ (Taramindo’s Pump) features some dissonant guitar licks from Mestres and a Cuban percussion that gives the song real punch with a collective chorus. This could easily find its way onto a Jim Jarmusch film soundtrack. There is a lovely laid back feel to ‘Old Passion’ with Ferret helping out on vocals while ‘For You’ is a Ry Cooder-style number which sounds like a twenty-first century dustbowl ballad and Sánchez’s husky delivery is ideally suited here. Guitarist Mestres has the opportunity to stretch out on the mid-tempo percussion-led ‘Flower of the word’. In contrast the guitar-led ballad ‘Vueltas’ (Turnings) builds up a head of steam with Cuban percussive accompaniment. Amparo Sánchez deserves to be heard by a wider audience and the fact that she sings primarily in Spanish should not in any way detract from the fact that she can deliver authentic folksy Americana with a highly personalised interpretation. Tim Stenhouse

Goran Bregovic ‘Champagne for Gypsies’ (Wrasse) 3/5

Balkan folk music may seem to some to be a somewhat restrictive music form which does not go much beyond feelgood party music, but in the hands of Serb multi-instrumentalist Goran Bregovic there is a deliberate attempt to widen its appeal by bringing on board musicians from a variety of other European countries and overall this works quite well. Rumanian gypsy flavours surface on the fast-paced ‘Hopa Cupa’ with pumping brass and clarinet to accompany the vocals of Florin Salam. Even more eclectic is the choice of flamenco-style guitar and vocals from guests the Gypsy Kings on ‘Presidente’ and this unusual fusion comes off, although on the second number featuring the Gyspy Kings, ‘Balkaneros’, the flamenco element does tend to get drowned out somewhat. The German language Swiss singer-songwriter Stephan Eicher’s inclusion comes in the shape of an acapella with collective vocals on ‘Ciribrella, Ciribrella’ and equally on the bright and breezy instrumentation that accompanies ‘Fertig’ with a slight reggae lilt. Traditional Italian song gets a look in on ‘Bella Ciao’ and this is revisited as a brass orchestral piece with Italian vocals. The Irish gypsy tradition is evoked on two songs including the uptempo fiddle number ‘On a leash’ and the title track, both of which feature Selina O’Leary. According to the sleeve notes, some musicians were unable to participate and these include ace Spanish vocalist Concha Buika. Her presence would surely be worth securing for any attempt at a follow up. Tim Stenhouse

Rokia Traoré ‘Beautiful Africa’ (Nonesuch) 4/5

Malian singer-songwriter and guitarist Rokia Traoré is a subtle dislocation from the norm of Malian singers in several respects. Her gentle, soft vocal delivery departs from the strong, powerful tradition of her nation’s chanteuses. As the daughter of a diplomat, Traoré has experienced a significantly different lifestyle from her compatriots and this has exposed her to a vaster range of musical influences, especially from the western world. Currently residing in Paris, her approach to music is thoroughly cosmopolitan and this is illustrated by her most recent collaborative work which takes in a theatre production with novelist Toni Morrison and director Peter Sellers, and a UK tour last year with Damon Albarn as part of the Africa Express project that also included singers of the calibre of Paul McCartney and Baba Maal. For this latest album, which follows on from the critically acclaimed ‘Tchamantché’ from 2009 that won awards in France via Victoires de la Musique and in the UK from roots magazine’s Songlines artist of the year, Rokia Traoré has placed the former Malian blues component to her music on the backburner and has instead enlisted the support of rock producer John Parish who, among others, has worked closely with P.J. Harvey. A new, evolving sound, then, but not a radical departure from the past and thankfully one that retains her earthy Malian essence, but adds a rawer and, in some ways, edgier sound and was recorded in Bristol. Parish avoids the pitfall of overproducing and the stripped down sound with occasional guitar added works extremely well and is very complimentary to the overall feel. The fast-paced ‘Sikey’ with its call and response vocals and neat, intricate guitar work stands out as does the initmate ‘Sarama’ that closes the albums and recalls the acoustic side of Baba Maal. The gentle voice allied to lyrics that oscillate between Bambara and English is immediately accessible and likely to appeal to music fans beyond roots devotees. For some variation the mid-tempo ‘Mélancolie’ which is a guitar-led piece in French impresses while the floating opener ‘Lalla’ features an interesting change in tempo and the use of n’goni with backing vocals. With a new UK tour imminent in May and the right amount of publicity, this album could just be the breakthrough that Rokia Traoré has bene waiting for and an appearance at the 2013 Glastonbury during the summer will do her cause no harm whatsoever. An early contender for modern African music album of the year.

Tim Stenhouse

Giovanni Guidi Trio ‘City of Broken Dreams’ (ECM) 4/5

Young Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi makes his major label debut here and it is an accomplished recording that neatly balances shorter and longer pieces, melodic and occasional freer form numbers, and underpining it all a simplicty of execution that is a precursor of a very promising future career ahead of him. He is surrounded in the classic piano trio format by another young musician, bassist Thomas Morgan, who is currently part of the Thomas Stanko quartet while the delicate percussion is expertly taken care of by Portugese drummer João Lobo. There are hints of the young Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett in the leader’s playing with a strong classical presence in evidence. The understated title track is heard in no less than two versions that open and close the album and both possess a floating-like quality that reveals a deep passion for both impressionistic music as well as that of Erik Satie. One of the most memorable numbers, and haunting at that, is ‘The Forbidden Zone’ and what really strikes the listener first time round is how long on the ear pieces from this all original set linger. Quiet reflection imbues ‘Leonice’ whereas more intricate keyboard work is an integral feature of the bustling, energetic ‘Just one more time’. Not only is the playing mature, but so is the choice of titles with the intimate and warm sounding ‘The Impossible Divorce’ typifying the trio’s approach that belies their years. Satie is once more evoked on the gentle interplay between bass and piano on ‘The way some people live’. That Guidi can perform in other styles than lyrical and melodic is illustrated by at least two pieces which are more improvisational and looser in structure and on both ‘No other possibility’ and ‘Late Blue’ there is a gentle nod to more avant-garde hues without departing radically from the overall album sound. Monk is even recalled on ‘Ocean View’. Manfred Eicher has a proven track record for spotting new pianistic talent and in Giovanni Guidi it looks as though he has unveiled another prodigious musician and one who follows in the line of Tord Gustavsen for the label and more generally bears comparison with the likes of Vijay Iyer and Gwilym Simcock.

Tim Stenhouse

Freddie McGregor ‘Di Captain’ (VP) 4/5

Freddie McGregor returns with one of his strongest new releases in years and he has found just the right balance between interpreting classic songs, several of which reside outside the reggae tradition, and some excellent renditions of his own compositions both old and new. Early reggae flavours predominate on the uplifting call to action on ‘Move up Jamaica’ while a cover of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘You won’t see me’ has all the feel and sound of an early 1970s recording complete with vocal harmonies. Social concerns have never been far from McGregor’s work and his own anthem ‘More love in the ghetto’ has never been more relevant and is a heartfelt plea for greater social harmony. The horn-led Leroy Sibbles tune ‘Equal rights’ logically follows on in the same vein and is a strong interpretation throughout. Freddie’s love of American soul music is all too evident in his career and here he reworks the Dionne Warwick Bacharach and David penned classic ‘A house is not a home’ as an uptempo rockers with production duties by Stevie and Cleevie. More surprising is the decision to cover the Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller written ‘Rainbow country’ and the lovely echo on McGregor’s voice makes one think of a classic Wackie’s production when in fact it is by the McLeod brothers who impress elsewhere on this album. Mid-tempo lyrical sounds emanate from the take on the Mighty Diamonds roots song ‘Africa’ while a McGregor original ‘Love I believe in’ is an incredibly catchy and soulful tune. Gappy Ranks guests on ‘Standing Strong’ with Etana featuring on vocals on what was originally a French chanson song, ‘Let it be me’. With shared production duties including the aforementioned plus Freddie’s son Stephen, this a varied album and one that provides evidence, if ever any were truly needed, that Freddie McGregor is still one of the premier singers of Jamaican music any period included.

Tim Stenhouse

Barrington Levy ‘Sweet Reggae Music 1979-1984’ 2CD (VP) 5/5

Singer Barrington Levy’s period chronicled here represents a key era in the history of reggae. By the end of the 1970s the dominance of reggae would be overtaken by that of dancehall. The shrewder among Jamaican musicians would adapt to the new musical environment and this was certainly the case of Barrington Levy who positively thrived during the early-mid 1980s. This generously timed 2CD set focuses on productions by a number of producers, but by far the most productive collaboration was with Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes and it is their work which is celebrated to a large extent on the first CD with songs from the seminal Greensleeves albums they cut together from the very beginning of the 1980s such as ‘Englishman’ and Robin Hood’ while the earlier ‘Bounty Hunter’ is not forgotten and has its own charms. Reworking classic riddims, including those from Studio One’s bottomless pit of hits, proved to be a winning formula for the duo and ‘Shine eye girl’, the wonderful ‘Sister Carol’ and ‘Mary longue tongue’ all bear the classic hallmarks with the heavyweight rhythm support of the Root Radics. Elsewhere the early sounds of the rockers beat to the title track of ‘Bounty Hunter’ and ‘Collie weed’ were examples of how popular a singer Barrington Levy was likely to become

The second CD takes the story one step further with a greater variety of producers coming into play from the early 1980s onwards. Joe Gibbs was one such example and the horn-driven riddims and echo-infused vocals of ‘My woman’ stand the test of time well. For small label producer Carlton Patterson, Levy recorded the excellent ‘Warm and Sunny Day’ where social concerns were still present. A heavier dancehall beat dominates the Linval Thompson produced ‘Poor Man Style’ while there is a distinctly sparser feel in the breakdown, use of echo and percussion on ‘Whom shall I be afraid of’. Ace Channel One producer Jo Hookim also gets a look in on ‘The winner’ while Jah Screw produces a brace of numbers on ‘Under mi sensi’ and ‘Here I come’. Among the selection of forty songs, there are contained on the first CD some previously unreleased songs which will appeal to long-time fans and the 12″ mix of the ‘Tribute to Moa Anbessi’ produced by Jah Thomas is itself a hard to find item. All in all a splendid overview of a glittering career in reggae music. Tim Stenhouse

Roy Harper ‘Live in Concert’ CD + DVD (Sound and Vision) 4/5

roy-harperEnglish folk singer Roy Harper cut some of the prime music during the classic era of the early-mid 1970s and his 1971 album ‘Stormcock’ has acquired legendary status. This excellent package that groups together a recent live performance in both CD and DVD formats serves as an introduction to Harper’s major contribution to the folk scene and his very poetic approach to songwriting. This is heard to best effect on melodic masterpieces such as ‘Another day’ with its Tibetan tea reference. It is an endearing tale of lost love. Little wonder Roy Harper was a regular on John Peel’s radio programme and in fact he recorded over a dozen sessions between 1967 and 1978. One song to make it into the Peel festive fifty in 1976 was a song included here, ‘When an old cricketer leaves the crease’ and among his long-time fans this has come to represent the definitive Roy Harper sound. Folk-blues flavours permeate ‘The Green Man’ which is another evocative piece and allows the listener to appreciate just what a fine guitarist he is. Elsewhere there are raunchier hues as on ‘Highway Blues’ with some vocal improvisations and some musing over his career during ‘Don’t you grieve’. If folk with a gritter edge is what you are in search of, then Harper can deliver with aplomb as on ‘One man rock and roll band’. For new listeners to his music, it is important to recognise that during the 1960s Roy Harper shared the same stage with the all-time greats such as Paul Simon and Sandy Denny. The DVD is approximately ten minutes longer than the CD version and thankfully includes some of the witty banter for which Roy Harper is best known and loved. In general, this provides a lovely intimate setting which is the ideal environment in which to hear the singer-songwriter’s craft. A bonus fifteen minute interview on the DVD focuses primarily on his childhood influences.

Tim Stenhouse

Robert Mitchell ‘The Glimpse’ CD (Whirlwind Recordings) 3/5

The intricacies of being a left-handed piano player are, it is probably safe to say, not common knowledge, and pianist Robert Mitchell deserves great credit for attempting this ambitious project which aims to highlight piano compositions that either are specifically tailored for the left-handed individual or at the very least pay homage to the virtues or otherwise of the left-hander. In his instructive line notes, Mitchell makes reference to left-handed jazz pianists such as Phineas Newborn and Kenny Drew, while others have, on occasion, been forced to use their left hand when temporarily incapacitated on their right, Bill Evans 1963 live performances at the Village Vanguard being a case in point. If this is indeed a valid musical exploration, then it does actually lead on to any interesting music? Catalan composer Federico Mompou composed one of his six piano preludes for the left hand and the ‘Prelude no. 6’ performed here has a pared down Satie feel to it. There are elements of Debussy on another piece ‘Zuni lore’ and it is surprising that Mitchell did not include one of Ravel’s most famous piano pieces intended for left-handers. More contemporary flavours arrive in the quicker tempoed ‘A Confession’ while ‘The Sage’ is one of the most melodic numbers on offer. For a slice of contemporary jazz composition, Fred Hersch’s ‘Nocturne for the left hand alone’ makes for an intriguing listen. One criticism that one might make of the project overall is that the compositions focus almost exclusively on classical pieces (Hersch being a notable exception) and it would have made for a more varied listen to have some more jazz-inspired numbers included even if that meant using a piano trio. Robert Mitchell is currently on the final part of a lengthy UK tour that continues until mid-May.

Tim Stenhouse