Category Archives: Album Reviews

Roberto Fonseca ‘Akokan’ (Enja Montuno) 4/5

Cuban pianist and arranger Roberto Fonseca first came to prominence as arranger for the very last Ibrahim Ferrer album, but debuted as a leader internationally (a few previous Cuban only albums)with an outstanding release in 2007, ‘Zamazu’ that promised a great deal. He returns with a second album that confirms his compositional prowess and an offering that will surely end up as one of the year’s best. Following on in the piano lineage from both Chucho Valdes and the vastly underrated Emiliano Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s and from Gonzalo Rubalcaba in the 1990s and beyond, Roberto Fonseca is throughly grounded in equal measure in jazz and Cuban roots, and in some respects is a pianistic equivalent of trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez. This recording, like the previous effort, is light years away from the conventional Latin jazz album and several external influences are evident which range from the South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim to African, European and Latin American folk music.

Surrounded by his trusted trio of Ramses Rodriguez on drums and Omar Gonzalez on double bass, Fonseca has augmented the format with percussionist Joel Hierrezuela while soprano saxophonist/clarinetist Javier Zalba participates once more. That Fonseca has listened widely is beyond doubt and is highlighted by the assimilated folk tunes on ‘Bulgarian’ where Fonseca’s Cuban piano vamps beautifully accompany Hierrezuela’s rootsy clarinet sound. Another tribute, ‘Lento y despacio’ this time to Latin America, is performed as a quartet outing and impresses as does ‘Lo que me hace vivir’(’What makes me live’)which emphasizses the cohesiveness of the quartet. Two trio performances reflect the sophistication of Fonseca’s compositions as on ‘Cuando uno crece’ and in his reflective tribute to French cinema on ‘Como en las peliculas’. 
In a similar vein the gorgeous lullaby ‘Drum Negrita’ that features Fonseca and clarinetist Zalba in duet. Guest vocals come in the form of Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade who sings in Cape Verdean Portugese creole on ‘Siete Potencias’(Bu Kantu) devoted to the Orisha gods while Raul Midon is a revelation on the swing jazz song ‘Everyone deserves a chance’ on which he also manages a guitar solo. This writer would like to hear an entire album of Midon singing in a jazz context. Recorded in just four days in the legendary Egrem studios of Havana, the crystal clear sound and mastering captures every nuance of the instrumentation. This is a recording that reveals great subtlety from a musician who will surely play a major role in the jazz piano for many years to come.

Tim Stenhouse

Senta Lain ‘Michel Ongaro’ (Hippo)

Senta Lain are a great band from Kenya who were formed by blind band leader Michel Ongaru 8 years ago. Michel is a multi-instrumentalist and plays harmonica, guitar, flute, drums, marimba and piano. Musically the band combine a wide range of influences and cultures which include Kenyan benga and soukous styles with gospel and Cuban Son. Very good.

Graham Radley

Jah Wobble & The Chinese Dub Orchestra ‘Chinese Dub’ (30 Hertz)

Developed from the Liverpool 08 Capital Of Culture commission and with strong input from Jah Wobble’s wife Zi Lan Liao (Guzheng) and the Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra plus on ‘Dragon & Phoenix’ an appearance of Wobble’s sons. They were joined by visiting Chinese dancers and vocalists (the wonderful Gu Yinji and Wang Jinqi) plus Wobble’s regular touring band. I had the pleasure of seeing them at Womad and every part of this East/West union came together brilliantly in a way which was both inspiring and magical. Highly recommended.

Graham Radley

Federico Aubele ‘Amatoria’ (ESL) 4/5

Buenos Aires born guitarist and singer-songwriter Federico Aubele has carved out a career path that reflects the downtempo side of the electronica genre and one that, similar to Gotan Project, takes on board a multitude of influences that range from dub reggae and tango to Mexican bolero, flamenco and bossa nova. Aubele moved to Berlin in 2001 remaining there until recently returning to Buenos Aires, and it was while there and undoubtedly influenced by the dance scene in the city that he released three critically acclaimed 10” singles for ESL. This latest album, the third full length one, is a natural successor to 2004’s ‘Gran Hotel Buenos Aires’. More refined and intimate, but less rootsy than Manu Chao, Aubele focuses on an all original song selection, invariably sharing chorus vocals with the excellent Natalia Clavier. The opener ‘Luna y sol’ typifies the subject matter of intimate love of the album as a whole and has a dub feel throughout. For dancefloor action, one need look no further than ‘Siempre nuevo’, but even here it is more likely to be the chillout section of the evening’s entertainment. It is the combination of laid back vocal delivery and refined beats that permeates proceedings on ‘Otra vez’. Caetano Veloso immediately springs to mind as a possible vocal influence and this is particularly the case on the lovely ‘Te quiero a ti’ with its sensitive vocals and on the minimalist love ballad ‘Hermosa’. One highlight is the gorgeous duet on ‘Sueno mi guitarra’ while ‘Tan cerca’ is a pared down ballad with guitar in background. In general the album is full of catchy, personal songs with melodic hooks and on the Eighteenth Strret Lounge label that the Thievery Corporation are associated with, this should prove to be a winner with several different audiences and bring together world roots and dance music fans.

Tim Stenhouse

Vieux Farka Toure ‘Fondo’ (Six Degrees) 4/5

Following up the 2006 debut comes this new recording once again showcasing Vieux Farka Toure’s own compositions and a well rounded and varied album it is at that. Help is on the way from an array of Mali’s top musicians including long time collaborator with and student of of Ali Farka Toure, vocalist Afel Bocoum, and ace kora player Toumani Diabate. Vieux is certainly expanding his musical influences on ‘Fonda’ and one of the album’s highlights and strongest cuts is ‘Diaraby’ where dub meets Malian blues head on with heavy percussion that takes a leaf out of Brazilian samba. This is definitely an avenue that Vieux should explore further in subsequent albums. In a more traditional vein, but no less stunning, is the beautiful duet between guitar and kora with Toumani Diabate on ‘Paradise’. A tribute to the motherland on ‘Mali’features a funky bass and guitar riff with n’goni combining to great effect. By contrast one of the album’s instrumental tracks, ‘Slow jam’ is a lingering blues-inflected piece with the focus firmly on Vieux’s guitar skills. Moroccan gnawa is hinted at on ‘Sarama’ with reggae riffs emerging on ‘Al Haira’. A sense of urgency is conveyed on the uptempo ‘Cherie Le’ with nice guitar solo. In general it is the subtle combination of modern western and Malian influences that differentiates Vieux from his father, though the west African roots are always present even in the background. A beautifully illustrated digipak gatefold sleeve provides striking images of Vieux in his home environment. Ali’s son has definitely come of age on this album and provides evidence of how his future sound may evolve.

Tim Stenhouse

Follow up to his 2006 debut and it’s a solid step forward with the desert blues so much the trademark of his late father now broadened out by the introduction of more modern influences. Check out the dubby ‘Diaraby Magni’ for an idea of the newer influences and ‘Wale’ for the traditional side of things, including guest vocals from Afel Bocoum and ‘Paradise’ with Toumani Diabate guesting. Highly recommended.

Graham Radley

Led Bib ‘Sensible Shoes’ (Cuneiform) 3/5

With a decided left-field attitude comes this latest album from Led Bib, a British based and formed quintet comprising rhythm section and two alto saxophones under the tutelage of expat American Mark Holub. Notorious for their anarchic live sound that combines free jazz, thrash metal drumming and all round cacophony of sound, Led Bib’s fourth album faces the same dilemma as its predecessors. Can the group reproduce in the studio the manic sound they generate in a live setting? The answer is a qualified yes. They are at their best on the improvised fusion of ‘Flat pack fantasy’ that might be described as Weather Report on acid, or on the Miles influenced fusion of ‘Squirrel carnage’ that features nice licks from pianist Tony McLaren. Arguably the more reflective side to their playing is hinted at on tracks such as ‘Water shortage’ with clever use of piano and sax. It has to be said that this will not be everyone’s cup of tea and even within jazz circles 
may attract marginal interest at best. The album comes with a government health warning for the faint hearted if played loud. Those of a sensitive disposition be warned!

Tim Stenhouse

Baka Beyond ‘Beyond the Forest’ (March Hare) 3/5

Husband and wife couple Martin Cradick and Su Hart visited the Baka pygmies of Cameroon during 1982 and this inspired them to participate in recordings of traditional Central African music with additional acoustic instrumentation from Congo, Ghana and Nigeria, and even French and Irish folk influences. This latest project has a rootsy feel throughout and will be showcased during May at various dates in the UK. Of particular interest is the fusion of a traditional Irish language song in ‘Illa Dhuinn’ with the indigenous sounds of the ngombi instrument and Su Hart’s vocals. In general the Baka sing in wordless vocals as on the lilting ‘Nahwia’s dream’ and even engage in yodelling on the hypnotic groove of ‘Beyond the forest’ title track. Pleasant summer listening that will appeal to folk and roots fans alike.

Tim Stenhouse

Grant Green ‘Street of Dreams’ (Blue Note RVG) 5/5

Ostensibly what should have been a run of the mill quartet of American songbook standards was transformed into a magical session on this 1964 date and one in which organist Larry Young and drummer Elvin Jones excel as much as the leader. Perhaps the most surprising inclusion is ‘I wish you love’, formerly a song immortalised by French crooner Charles Trenet, but here transformed into a classic jazz tune with Green in particular in superlative form. The hanuting ballad ‘Lazy afternoon’ is played in 5/4 tempo and vibist Bobby Hutcherson, fresh from avant-garde excursions on Eric Dolphy’s ‘Out to Lunch’ turns in a stellar performance here. In fact the tempo gently builds in intensity and picks up two minutes in when Green takes up a solo with Jones demonstrating what a sensitive accompanyist he could be. The title track begins in conventional fashion before Jones and Young hijack proceedings with the former undertaking an extended solo and the latter 
supplying the polyrhythms that Coltrane loved to play behind in order that Green demonstrate his prowess on those familiar blues-inflected guitar licks. The final piece, ‘Somewhere in the night’, sounds like something that might have been composed for a Jacques Tati film and Hutcherson creates the cinematic ambience over which Green and Young comp beautifully. An awesome session, then, and little surprise that Alfred Lion wanted to record them again a year later in March 1965 on ‘I want to hold your hand’, this time with the additional tenor saxophone of Hank Mobley. The trio performed at a select number of live dates in New York and one can only wonder at what musical treasures these sessions yielded.

Tim Stenhouse

Rail Band ‘Belle Epoque vol. 3. Dioba’ 2CD (Sterns) 5/5

Once more Sterns come up trumps with a sumptuously packaged 2 CD set from the legendary Rail Band that covers three distinct periods of the group’s existence between 1970 and 1983. The rarity of the original vinyl releases on these previously unreleased recordings on CD in Europe makes this an essential item for afficionados of the classic era in modern West African music. The first period is notable for the inclusion of a relatively unknown lead vocalist who proves to be a revelation. It is the impassioned vocals of Magan Ganessy that are the icing on the cake of a superb song, ‘Kibaru’ from 1974 which, with its guitar riffs, incessant percussion and stabbing horns is in some ways a precursor to the epic ‘Mandjou’ sung by Salif Keita while fronting the band. Ganessy impresses also on the wonderful ‘Djamban’ which is a beautiful uplifting tune that again features heavyweight percussion. In contrast, the second period of the mid-late 1970s is 
characterised by a highly melodic accompaniment as illustrated on the lilting mid-tempo ‘Tidiane Kone’ from 1977 featuring the vocals of Djelimady Sissoko, and in a more uptempo vein by the tribute to both Afrobeat and Fela on ‘Sinsimba’ with Mory Kante taking on vocal duties. By the third period of the early 1980s, however, the Rail Band’s sound had become more polished, recording facilites had improved and yet there is still a distinctive feel even when synthesizers make their entrance and the brass is less prominent. This is exemplified by the song ‘Diabate’ from 1982. The songs as a whole constitute a vital part of the Rail Band’s repertoire and are an African equivalent by Sterns to the substantial and seemingly tireless documental work that the Smithsonian Institute has carried out and continues to do so for American folk music. As ever detailed bilingual notes accompany proceedings (with beautiful graphics of album covers and original photos), in this case from the expert pen of French musicologist Helene Lee who has written extensively on West African music.

Tim Stenhouse

Baby Face Willette ‘Stop and Listen’ (Blue Note RVG) 4/5

This long sought after album is finally re-issued on CD and was formerly one of the hardest to find vinyl items among the vast Blue Note catalogue with one of the earliest sessions of guitarist Grant Green from 1961. In fact the trio recorded together on Green’s debut, ‘Grant’s First Stand’ while Willette seldom recorded for the label with only two albums as a leader and sideman duties for Lou Donaldson on ‘Here ‘Tis’. Thereafter Willette recorded two more albums for Chicago label Argo both in 1964 before he died in 1971.

Influenced largely by church organists in Chicago and more restrained in approach than Jimmy Smith, Willette impresses here on the self composed track ‘Jumpin’ Jupiter’ which would have made ideal material for the jukeboxes and dancefloors of the early 1960s and the keyobardist takes the initiative from the beginning. The title track is a catchy r’n’b number not dissimilar in flavour to ‘Fever’ and there are nices Latin touches from Ben Dixon on drums. A swinging version of ‘Willow weep for me’ is a pretext for Green to stretch out with those bluesy guitar licks that were his trademark and Willette plays an extended solo. It is the fullness of the trio sound devoid of any horns and yet still occupying the space with aplomb that stands out on the popular ‘Work Song’ where Green excels. Among the burgeoning roster of hammond organ players, Baby Face Willette was one of the least well known. However, it was certianly not due to any lack of talent as this album amply testifies.

Tim Stenhouse