Category Archives: Album Reviews

Stacey Kent ‘I Know I Dream : The Orchestral Sessions’ (Sony) 4/5

American raised, but now British resident and based, singer Stacey Kent returns with an extremely well-rounded album that builds on her natural penchant for the Brazilian and American songbook, but adds with two covers of the French chanson tradition and some interesting new compositions from her trusted team of Cliff Goldmacher, and Kazuo Ishiguro, while multi-reedist, arranger, producer and husband, Jim Tomlinson, takes care of the musical side. The use of strings is never overly saccharine, and Kent’s voice is ideally suited to this varied repertoire. A double helping of Jobim originals in English opens the album, and ‘Double rainbow’ is a wonderful number, complete with a memorable piano riff, flute and strings intro, with the drum pattern quickly developing into a waltz. One of the album highlights for sure. Following in close and hot pursuit, ‘Photograph’, features some Western classical influenced guitar in the intro, and the strings lend something of a 1960’s feel. Over recent albums, Stacey Kent has increasingly lent her voice to music from across the Channel and, in this case, it is the compositions of Serge Gainsbourg and Léo Ferré that are showcased. For the former, a jazz-inflected ballad, ‘Les amours perdus’, while not quite on a par with the hypnotic original, provides an intimate reading here with bass and drum roll, while the strings remain somewhat subdued. More convincing, is the cover of ‘Avec le temps’, which is aided greatly by the dream-like Romantic piano accompaniment. Of the new material, an uptempo piece, ‘Make it up’, is noticeable for some lovely rim drum percussion and this is a joyous number that Kent delivers with some lovely Brazilian-esque flute to accompany her on the musical journey. The piano bossa riff is prominent on ‘The changing lights’ (one of two songs co-composed by Kazuo Ishiguro and Jim Tomlinson, the other being ‘Bullet Train’), which name checks both New York and Rio in the process and ends the album on an uplifting note. For the classic ballad, ‘That’s all’, the strings contribute some necessary lushness to proceedings, with piano, guitar and saxophone to convey an intimate vocal delivery. All round, a finely crafted release from a singer in the prime of her career.

Tim Stenhouse

Paykuna ‘Raìces’ (QFTF) 3/5

Demian Coca’s band name and presentation can be misleading. While listener’s might expect a straight up world music album, Coca is just sending out mixed signals. But, when diving into the musical universe of the young swiss pianist and composer his choice of cover art starts making sense.

Coca’s compositional approach implies true events – his family background. And yes, as dry as this might seem, he does have enough interesting story to feed from. Coca’s mother is Swiss and his father is from Bolivia. A combination that must inspire.

The young composer recognizes all colours of the emotional palette. Balancing a rather cold analytic Anglo Saxon appearance with an emotional, rhythmical and dance worthy Bolivian side. Coca understands music. He draws attention, tells a story and hits you with melodic curve balls. Much to the enjoyment of the listener!

This album brings some fresh air from the Andes and massive mountain storms from the Alps. Demian Coca’s debut is a “Leontopodium alpinum” in today’s young jazz world with the talent to call the future shots. Adventures, unusual and bold. This is what it means to “know your roots”!

SG

Andrew Bain ‘Embodied Hope’ (Whirlwind Recordings) 5/5

Embodied Hope is the debut album from Scots drummer and educator, Andrew Bain. Now settled in Birmingham, Andrew has done his fair share of globe-trotting. Having worked and studied in the USA has done him no harm whatsoever.

What is unusual about this album is that it is not only an auspicious debut, but also has a parallel life as part of Andrew’s PhD in research practice. Whilst this is important, Andrew would maintain that it is equally important that he has created something that people will want to listen to. Judging by the plaudits received so far, this is certainly the case.

The music on the album has been extensively road-tested before being committed to CD. Whilst Andrew describes the seven pieces on the album as a suite, this is not a suite in the generally accepted sense. It is rather more of a ‘moveable suite’ in that the various movements are often performed in no set order and can depend on factors such as how receptive the performers consider the audience at a particular venue to be.

Andrew was inspired to write the music following reading ‘The Fierce Urgency of Now’ which describes seven necessary aspects leading to ‘hope’ which is where the ‘Embodies Hope’ concept comes from. The melodies that you hear and the harmonic structures are based on those ideas.

Indeed, Andrew didn’t intend to write a suite of pieces. He describes it more as a confluence of research, playing and teaching. In terms of the order of the pieces and the solo order, Andrew says that “everything is up for grabs”. Whilst structured, each piece is open enough for each musician to have their own input and this is something that the group members clearly relish.

It was important to Andrew to memorise the music that he had written and although he did not demand this of his fellow musicians, they were eager to follow suit. Eventually, all band members had memorised the music by the time of the recording session. This led to instant communication between the musicians and freed them up to do so much more in terms of their improvisations.

This is music that was born in the laboratory but also has a life outside. Bain strives for audience engagement and thinks that the musicians take more risks when the audience is engaged.

This crack quartet consists of American virtuoso musicians George Colligan on piano, Jon Irabagon on saxophone and on bass Michael Janisch, who, whilst hailing from the USA, has long been established here in the UK. It is a mark of Bain’s prowess that he is more than able to hold his own in such esteemed company.

Together they make highly accessible, thrilling yet challenging music. As befits the music, all of the musicians are versatile in their approach to the pieces. The saxophonist is both fluid and dexterous and also capable of great sensitivity. There is huge variety in the music and the saxophonist runs the gamut from John Coltrane to Sonny Rollins and beyond. But this is above all high energy, high intensity music with the musicians giving their all to make a more than satisfying whole.

The music itself is sublime and cleverly varied. This must surely be a contender for album of the year in many a jazz critic’s end of year summary.

The album opens in a somewhat pensive vein with ‘Accompaniment’. This sounds almost like a meditation and acts as a curtain raiser for what is to follow. I hear elements of Michael Brecker at his more considered best on this track and the ghost of Coltrane is never far away either.

The next track ‘Hope’ is a joyous affair which gradually builds in intensity until around the track’s mid-point when we are treated to a gorgeous piano interlude which seems to act as a cleansing of the palate before the intensity is increased once more as the piece reaches its conclusion.

‘Practice’ opens with a lovely bass figure which the rest of the group build around and then suddenly and most unexpectedly we are plunged into the most infectious swing section before reverting to the original bass figure and so these two alternating sections continue throughout the piece and everyone gives their all.

‘Responsibility’ opens with drums out front and the rhythm section quickly establish a funky, blues-drenched vibe over which the saxophonist lays a theme. This piece, to me, has echoes of Horace Silver and the pianist only seems to reinforce this in his solo, which is followed by an equally accomplished solo from the bassist.

‘Surprise’ opens with a short feature for the leader and quickly leads into a short theme statement which would not sound out of place on an Ornette Colman album, before swing become king again for a while before more tempo changes serving to keep everyone on their toes. Saxophonist and pianist are both in a more abstract mood on this piece. ‘Listening’ is more high energy music. Great fun was had by all here, I imagine.

The second longest piece on the album ‘Trust’ clocking in at 11 minutes rounds out the album. Again, the saxophonist seems to be taking Brecker as his inspiration to great effect. This piece is well named as it seems to exemplify the ethos of trust that exists between the members of this world class quartet.

Alan Musson

Charles Lloyd New Quartet ‘Passin’ Thru’ LP/CD/DIG (Blue Note) 5/5

Charles Lloyd has always been a prolific artist, but in his more mature years he has continued to perform and release music at quite an astounding rate. Since UK Vibe favourite ‘Wild Man Dance’ was released in 2015, he has produced three other projects including ‘Passin’ Thru’, which is again delivered via Blue Note records. But here, Lloyd returns to his celebrated quartet formation which he first established in 1965, with this his most recent configuration consisting of Reuben Rogers on bass, Eric Harlan playing drums, Jason Moran on piano and Charles Lloyd playing both tenor saxophone and flute. The compositions are all Lloyd originals, with many being previously recorded and/or performed during his extensive career, with this set emanating from two recording dates, with track 1 recorded at Montreux Jazz Festival on 30th June 2016 and tracks 2-7 recorded at The Lensic, Santa Fe, New Mexico on 29th July 2016.

This seven set affair begins with the Lloyd classic ‘Dream Weaver’, which originally appeared on his debut 1965 quartet album of the same name, but this 18-minute version is an extraordinary epic, diverse and dynamic performance and is rubato in form. In one moment, Moran’s piano stylings are very melodic and the next they leap into a fiery rage, matching the various tempo changes. ‘Part 5, Ruminations’ is probably the free-ist track of the set, with its modal harmonic structure, spiritual jazz undercurrent, walking bassline and almost conversational interaction between the quartet. ‘Nu Blues’ is just that, an update of the 12-bar tradition with its jazz blues characteristics, bebop references and intense solos, with Reuben Rogers’ upright bass anchoring the entire 12-minute piece. ‘How Can I Tell You’ is essentially a jazz ballad and is the straightest composition of the album.

‘Tagore On The Delta’ is a somewhat early 60s influenced soul clap celebration with its four-on-the-floor drum pattern, which sees Lloyd exchanging his sax for flute, where he improvises over a one-chord groove but with a quite funky modal attitude, and even features Jason Moran strumming the piano strings like a guitar within the introduction section. ‘Passin’ Thru’ is evidently based around the themes of a journey, and in a 2017 Blue Note interview Lloyd stated that, “It’s a small planet, and we are just passing through on our journey to One. Every now and then there are important intersections”. The final piece, the contemplative ‘Shiva Prayer’, utilises tension, dark and light and other emotive elements to create a kind of musical exploration into a meditative state. Truly spiritual jazz.

A great deal of trust is obviously apparent between the quartet members with previously shared experiences and familiarity supporting this high level of improvisation. Musical ideas are passed around, developed, regurgitated and amended effortlessly throughout the set without any clear weak link – but this is one of the most celebrated ensembles of our time. And although Lloyd would be classed as an elder statesman at 79 as of March 2017, he plays like a 25 year old. He still sounds hungry. When many of his (some much younger) contemporaries have reduced their musical output or focused on performing standards or greatest hits shows, Charles Lloyd continues to be a force to be reckoned with.

This album is far more comparable to ‘Wild Man Dance’ (2015) than ‘I Long To See You’, the piano-less album he crafted with Charles Lloyd & The Marvels in 2016. And it needs to be stated that the album was either originally missed by the UK Vibe team or was not initially fully absorbed into our consciousness when first released, including by this writer. But as the end of 2017 approaches, this is an ideal opportunity to seek out missed or overlooked releases from the year that deserves our attention.

Damian Wilkes

Tony Tixier ‘Life Of Sensitive Creatures’ (Whirlwind Recordings) 5/5

Pianist Tony Tixier has steadily been making measured inroads as a composer and performer over the last few years. This, his most recent release, ‘Life Of Sensitive Creatures’ is Tixier’s fifth as bandleader and here his trio additionally consists of Karl McComas-Reichl on double bass and Tommy Crane on drums, both from the US. Tixier, a classically trained pianists from the age of six who moved to New York City from this home nation of France in 2012, but as of 2017 has settled in Los Angeles, presumably for the variety and availability of opportunities and connections within the region.

With its 11-track count, there are many highlights to ‘Life Of Sensitive Creatures’. ‘Calling Into Question’, a heavenly mixture of soul and funky jazz which on first impression seems to contain an almost pop sensibility, but with further exploration possesses alternating, disjointed and unpredictable accents and time signatures, including 4, 6 and 7s counts. And what’s not to love about that. The trio’s rendition of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ is not a straightforward jazz cover, but rather is a modern reinterpretation which adds new viewpoints to the 70s classic, with at times a slightly bossa nova feel. ‘Tight Like This’, a frantic Louis Armstrong composition, is a busy, melodic, bass driven composition, containing immaculately precise timings by all band members, including an unexpected head nod section a la Robert Glasper for 4-bars in the final last minute.

‘Causeless Cowards’ contains a relatively complicated arrangement with its zigzagging accents and alternating patterns which keeps the composition fresh and interesting. ‘Darn That Dream’ is a piano centric, downtempo piece containing some light percussive work and fluid bass playing, and is a Jimmy Van Heusen song from early as 1939 and has subsequently been covered by Billie Holiday, Chet Baker and in 1950 by Miles Davis. ‘Denial Of Love’, again contains an exceptional drumming performance by Tommy Crane specifically towards the final few minutes of the piece, where his performance provides intricacy and vibrancy in equal measures. ‘Flow’ is an evenly spread ensemble affair and possibly the most melodically charged composition, well initially, before it transforms into a more loose form, and ‘Home At Last’ is an accessible, pleasant and joyful rhythm & blues swinger, that is as infectious as it is rhythmic.

And although Herbie and Jarrett are stated as being natural influences, sonically and stylistically I could hear inspiration from fellow French pianist Michel Petrucciani, who died in 1999. And I would also align Tixier with contemporary US pianist Vijay Iyer in that they both create quite harmonically complex and rhythmically sophisticated compositions. Tony Tixier’s broad musical vocabulary, impeccable technique and creativeness will undoubtedly lead to greater recognition within jazz circles with this release, but his writing as well as his improvisational work should really be applauded here. This is an album that repeats well, as you will hear new things in subsequent plays due to its numerous layers and complexities. Highly recommended.

Damian Wilkes

Ancient Agents ‘Ancient Agents’ (Private Press) 4/5

On their website, cross-cultural, cross-country, cross-genre four-piece Ancient Agents specify their rider in their electronic press-kit. No junk food and local alcohol seem to be the order of the day. These fellows are clean-living, and have well-articulated facial hair to boot. Serious sorts of chaps, two from South Africa, one from Ireland and one from Sweden. The sound of this self-titled debut (to get away from superficial review, finally) is a bit more than the po-facedness of their website and rider demands. An album consisting of bookends of strong, upbeat African-centric sounds, with a sort of lounge-jazz-sleaze centre.

With two of the members on drums and percussion (Frederik Gille and Ronan Skillen), you can predict that this is a very groove driven record. Between them, their bio lists rhythmic inspiration from a Lonely Planet section worth of regions. There is collaborative approach, with Gille taking the harder hitting frame drums and spikey cajon, and with Skillen filling out on tabla and a selection of percussion. The spine of the record comes from this partnership. The percussion is paced in over the first two tracks leisurely, until it takes centre stage on the eponymous third track Ancient Agents, starting naturalistic and ending in a didgeridoo festooned Starsky and Hutch style funk. The self-explanatory fifth track Frame Drum Solo puts a spotlight on the varied and eclectic rhythms on show.

Reza Khota on guitar and Schalk Joubert on bass add the texture to the dense bed of percussion. Again, the bell-curve starts at Afro-groove, the opening track has a wandering Latin-Caribbean slip (and is titled Clouseau’s Dream, and I was waiting for an aggressive Cato moment, but sadly it never came). Littering the opening track are some charming bass harmonics, signs of Joubert’s ability to slip between melody and groove. The odd switch to a darker, tremelo-soaked, bar-room exoticism starts at track four and ends on track seven. Edges of Marc Ribot, goofy wah-wah, B-movie sneak makes this the part that appeals to me. The central four tracks feel more like Mexican piano kook Esquivel, but perhaps a bit less tongue-in-cheek? Bohren Club De Gore? Too urban. It’s hard to pin down.

As a journey, I found Ancient Agents an inconsistent exercise, and in future would probably focus on my personal highlights than take the high and lows as a full whack. There is a sort of trench, slick with grooves, trimmed with pleasant, mysterious, relaxing and tense melodies and solos, with a lot of a character.

Thomas G.J. Sharpe

Veronika Griesslehner’s Nika Project ‘Elusive’ (QFTF) 4/5

Veronika Griesslehner sings. As simple as this might sound – it’s very special. ‘Elusive’ is an all original straight forward traditional jazz and swing album. Band leader, composer and arranger Veronika Griesslehner manages all clichés with ease and lends an old story a fresh vibe.

Her lyrics are catchy, poetic and make sense – which is not always the case when none native singers choose to write in English –
Her compositions are compelling songs, with a vast harmonic spectrum and beautiful melodies. Veronika’s voice is one you recognize – she gets to you.

Very playful, yet with a lot of wisdom, vision and artistry. Griesslehner belongs to the most notable international talents of her generation. The infamous Downbeat magazine, honored her with their student award this year.

Elusive is a sophisticated modern jazz album that puts a lot of jazz divas in their place. (Here you go Jane Monheit, this is what you should be doing now!) Who would have thought that some of the hippest mainstream jazz comes from Austria? Veronika, please let us have more of you, vocal jazz needs you.

SG

The Chairmen of the Board ‘Words Left Unsaid’ (MoPhilly) 4/5

Back in 1967, The Chairmen of the Board became the flagship act of the newly formed Holland/Dozier/Holland inspired Invictus/Hotwax labels with the unmistakable lead vocal of General Johnson. As the 1970’s dawned, they scored a string of hits with “Give Me Just A Little More Time”, “You Got Me Dangling On A String”, and who could ever forget the iconic “I’m on way to a better place” – I still have to drop the stylus on that 45 every now and again. Throughout the early 70’s they became a household name here in the UK and gained international recognition too with that string of hits. When the hits became no more they later went on to become a headline act within the Carolina Beach Music Scene, with their 2002 Surfside records outing, “Bless Your Heart”, becoming a highly collectable classic. General Johnson passed away and Ken Knox came out of the group’s shadows to take over lead duties.

And so this most unexpected seven track album of which the opening track on the album is an up-to-date rework of The Major Harris Boogie Blues Band’s 1974 Atlantic records release, “Each Morning I Wake up”, not straying too far away from the original, a slice of majestic danceable soul for 2017 which sets the tone nicely for what’s to come, and if you’re looking for a modern-day comparisons then try the two albums that surfaced by the Embers in 2004 & 2008 respectively and that magical album by the Vintage Group from 2001 – lovely throwback albums that surfaced on the ‘Beach Music’ scene but with enough soul to break out into our world. Both the Soul Discovery and Soul Sermon radio shows have been hammering the title track, a stunning down-tempo ballad and one that has in fact gained so many plays it might be time to try one of the other tracks now, perhaps the Beach crooner, “No-one else”, which after a few plays really sinks in. Or the toe tapping, “Ready Willing & Able”, could put some feet onto a dance-floor near you. I also love the up-tempo “Get your lovin”, which is also here in an unnecessary ‘DJ mix’.

The main problem with albums like this is that the more experimental/progressive modern soul nights are very few and far between, the soul scene in the UK has never been more fragmented and so many good quality modern-day releases just never get picked up on, the added pressure for albums like this is the retro style of the music, but we can live in hope that if it get’s a physical release on CD/Vinyl format that it shifts enough units to make it worth the considerable efforts put in by all concerned. I’m sure there’s more to come and with Soul Junction supremo, Dave Welding, providing extensive notes it is sure to reach all the right people. For my part, I found it a great sentimental ride.

There are UK dates for a 2018 tour, so expect a real buzz about this album in the New Year.

April 19th – Under The Bridge, London

April 20th – Hamptons Sports and Leisure, Chelmsford

April 21st – The 1865, Southampton

April 26th – Gorilla, Manchester

April 27th – The Plug, Sheffield

April 28th – Dudley Town Hall, Dudley, West Midlands

Brian Goucher

Georgie Fame ‘The Two Faces of Fame: The Complete 1967 Recordings’ 2CD (RPM) 5/5

With the official retirement of singer-songwriter and keyboardist Georgie Fame earlier this year, a retrospective of his work has been in order and this marvellous re-issue not only revisits one of his finest recordings, but adds to it with an extremely generous selection of bonus songs. A fully mature sounding Fame is in peak form here with a terrific cover of ‘Do it the hard way’, taking a definite leaf out of Chet Baker, and ‘El pussy cat’, a nod to the Latin-soul that Mongo Santamaria was championing. Some of the most interesting numbers are actually to be found among the bonus selections, and these include the jazz-tinged, ‘Bluesology’, which was a Milt Jackson original for the Modern Jazz Quartet, or a cover of arguably Fame’s seminal influence, Mose Allison, on ‘Fool’s paradise’. Soulful grooves from the then emerging stable of Stax are to be found on ‘Knock on wood’, or the New Orleans beat to the Neville’s opus, ‘Tell it like it is’. There is even an ode to Motown on ‘Road runner’, which Holland, Dozier and Holland crafted for Junior Walker. An interesting set of Italian vocals by Georgie Fame is highlighted by a take on ‘Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’, now re-named ‘La ballata de Bonnie e Clyde’. One thing is clear. CBS, the UK arm of Columbia records, were determined to market Georgie Fame as an established musician and singer, and this is precisely what comes across here. Fame would go on to host his very own television show for the BBC. Making the re-issue all the more memorable are extensive liner notes courtesy of San Francisco resident Nick Rossi, with a plethora of memorabilia ranging from original club flyers, a CBS promotional campaign poster along with original 45 labels and album covers.

Tim Stenhouse

Nordic Circles ‘Under The Clouds’ (AMP) 3/5

This has all the feel of an ECM recording and little wonder since it was mixed at Rainbow studios in Oslo by Jan-Erik Kongshaug. Unlike their previous release which was all instrumental and included the trumpet playing of Tore Johansen, this new recording departs somewhat in two respects. The pieces are a good deal shorter, with seven out of the nine compositions weighing in at between three and five minutes. Secondly, there is a prominent vocal contribution this time round, with a vocalist, Siril Malmedal Hauge, featuring on no less than six tracks and with former pianist Helge Lien replaced by Lars Jansson. Produced by drummer Anders Thorén, the music has a classic Scandinavian noir feel, but from this writer’s perspective, the pieces could have been a good deal longer with more instrumental numbers as was heard to good effect on the well received previous recording, ‘Winter Rainbow’. This shortcoming is typified by the opener and title track that has a classic sounding ECM ambiance in bass and drums, with even a hint of Jan Garbarek on the saxophone, yet is all too brief. Of the vocal numbers, the English language lyrics and sensitive accompaniment to, ‘A beautiful smile’, make this song stand out from the rest. Wordless vocals combine with lovely bass line and piano riff on the optimistic sounding, ‘Orvieto’, in keeping, perhaps, with its Latin-flavoured title and pseudo-bossa beat. Those songs sung in Norwegian are pleasant, if unassuming. Maybe in future, a separate project for singer Huage would be in order, but this writer for one yearns for the instrumental focus of Nordic Circles to return.

Tim Stenhouse