Category Archives: Album Reviews

Joyce and Joao Donato ‘Aquarius’ (Far Out) 4/5

Formerly a Japanese only album, this excellent release allows is to listen to the pairing of two of Brazil’s finest musicians and in some ways recalls the seminal collaboration between Elis Regina and Tom Jobim, ‘Elis and Tom’, from 1974. This new recording is at once an uplifting and introspective experience with restrained and impassioned vocals from Joyce on the one hand and subtle and always refined acoustic and electric piano (including fender rhodes) playing from Donato. Mid-tempo bliss comes in the shape of ‘Amor das estrelas’ and it is the apparent simplicity in the delivery that impresses and belies the musical geniuses at play. This is a song that in structure at least is not dissimilar to ‘Waters of March’ by Elis and Tom. A classic interpretation of the standard ‘Xango e da Bac’ provides the pretext for an uptempo samba with scat vocals from Joyce while the catchy ‘E muito mas’ serves as a vehicle to highlight Joyce’s glorious voice. Two of Joyce’s old chestnuts and most loved songs among her fans, ‘Feminina’ and ‘Tardes cariocas’, are reprised to good effect with the latter featuring Joao cooking up some tasty vamps on electric piano. Elsewhere there is a reprise of ‘Amazonas 2’ and Joyce is totally at home on this song which is taken at a slightly slower tempo than on the original. Overall a strong album throughout and one longs to hear the pairing in a live context where both their extensive back catalogues can be heard in depth.

Tim Stenhouse

Youssou N’Dour ‘I Bring What I Love’ (Nonesuch) 4/5

Released to tie in with a DVD documentary of Youssou N’Dour’s career which was part of the tour made around the time of the ‘Egypt’ album, this compilation provides a useful overview of his musical voyage thus far and highlights his strengths and on occasions weaknesses too. The former largely outweight the latter here with a timely choice of ‘Immigrés’, a classic African tale and never more relevant than in the present with stabbing brass reminding us of the earlier period in Youssou’s career. A glorious song. The mid-tempo shuffler that is ‘Birima’ is barely less enticing with lovely guitar work while percussion heavy staccato mbalax rhythms abound on ‘Atou réér na’. From more recent times and the acclaimed album devoted to Egyptian music, comes the kora driven piece ‘Yama’ which, similar to another song ‘Yaakaar (’Hope’), displays the more sensitive side to N’Dour’s repertoire. One criticism voiced of his music has been that on occasions it can be a tad over-produced and the layered production of ‘Xel (’Think’)’ is a case in point. However, one could counter this by putting forward ‘Lima weesi (’As in a mirror’)’ as very subtly fusing acoustic and synthesizers in a creative manner and doing so in an intimate setting. For long-time fans two new songs will be of interest and they include the title track and ‘Yonnent’ (’The messenger’). Meanwhile N’Dour’s explorations into new territory promise further opportunities for expanision with an album already available in France devoted to the music of Jamaica.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Songlines Music Awards 2010’ (Proper) 4/5

As the title indicates, this is a selection of some of the world roots artists in contention for the prestigious Sonlgines Awards for 2010 and a well rounded overview of the scene it is too. West Africa is well represented by two of 2009’s best albums, the ngoni magic of Bassekou Kouyate on ‘I speak Fula’ and the wonderful Oumous Sangare on ‘Seya’. Both are indispensable parts of any African music collection. Less well known are the Kinshasa-based street musicians from the Congo, Staff Benda Bilili and their contribution in ‘Moziki’. This is simply terrific dance music and quite a departure from the smoother Congolese rumba we are used to with a rougher edge here, though the classic harmonies associated with the former are still very much in evidence. Touareg influences are manifest in ‘Tahult in’ from Tinariwen who have taken the world roots music scene by storm in the last couple of years. In a different light altogether is Cape Verdean singer Lura, resident in Lisbon like many of her contemporaries, and in ‘Maria’ fusing lusophone African and even Brazilian influences. Increasingly important is the world fusion category and this year a few interesting acts have emerged. They include a Scandinavian-Portugese fusion in Stockholm Lisboa project with Swedish string instrumentation allied to the gorgeous fado singing of Liana and the two elements come together wonderfully on ‘Corpo aceso’. American and African continents combine musically on a decidely Latinesque vamp for ‘Banjul girl’ which is a collaboration between long-time producer and musician Justin Adams and Malian Juldeh Camara. A mixture of Ethiopian and dub is found in ‘I love in Harar’ by Invisible System. One wonders whether either Dub Colossus or the amazing Tommy T. might have made a better choice here. Europe is represented by a number of one-off artists such as the celtic hues of Edinburgh-based group Shooglenifty on ‘The vague rant’ while a non-fado entry from Portgual comes in the form of folk group Deolinda and ‘Movimento perpétuo associativo’ with a hint of irony in the lyrics. Further afield north west China is one of the least known areas of music, yet in the reflective ethnic Kazaka singer Mamer and his song, ‘Mountain wind’, an artist truly deserving of wider recognition has been unearthed and is definitely one of the discoveries on the compilation. The Indian subcontinent is represented by an intriguing combination of the impassioned vocals of Pakistani Qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz and Middle Eastern string master Titi Robin that works extremely well. Overall another fascinating year of new sounds and there will be some difficult decisions in the final choices made. All good news for the world roots listener.

Tim Stenhouse

Anibal Velasquez y su Conjunto ‘Mambo Loco’ (Analog Africa) 3/5

Columbia and its African cultural influences has been the subject of some fascinating books in recent years and slowly but surely there have emerged examples of the rootsier side of the music in the country. This compilation focuses attention on accordionist Anibal Velasquez and the somewhat rustic, yet nonethless endearing sounds that he conjured up with his conjunto, but it does come with a large caveat. Having reputedly released some three hundred albums (some of these would possibly have been our equivalent of a shorter EP), it is disappointing that the music within is so short in time with even a full copy only containing twelve titles. There was indeed a deliberate attempt by the compiler to cut out several styles for fear this would alienate the non-specialist listener, but surely the listener could have made their own mind up with a larger selection of songs on offer. This being said, if authentic accordion-led cumbia and vallenato styles (among others) are your bag, then you are in for a treat. A fast and furious percussive workout is a highlight on the guaracha ‘Que paso’ whereas ‘Mi cumbia’ is a rootsy vallenato tune which is largely instrumental bar a few chants. Other Cuban influences are discernable elsewhere as on for example ‘Los vecinos’ which is a prime example of the Cuban guajira, or country style and almost a carbon copy of Guillermo Portables who was surely in Velasquez’s mind at the time. More obvious cumbia grooves are found on ‘Cumbia Bogotana’ and repetition of riff and accordion are equally a feature of ‘Vestido nuevo (’New outfits’). While not available with the promo copy, the full CD does contain an extensive booklet. A welcome addition to our knowledge of Columbian music, then, but let’s be given a more generous sampling of the artists in future offerings.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Jammy’s from the Roots 1977-1985’ 2CD (Greensleeves) 5/5

Legendary producer, engineer and dub master King Jammy, like King Tubby before him, served a similar apprenticeship first of all in the musical background as an electrical engineer. This undoubtedly served him well, enabling him to build his own equipment and in so doing he was inspired by and rubbed shoulders with the likes of producers Bunny Lee and Yabby You. It was in 1977 that Jammy started to produce the roots 45s for which he become rightly famous and this is the pretext for where this wonderful present compilation begins. Black Uhuru were the first group to go onto major success that he would produce and a fine example of their early sound is heard here in ‘Tonight is the night to unite’. Lesser known at the time, but thanks to the excellent Pressure Sounds compilation brought to our attention once again in recent times are the roots harmony group the Travellers and ‘Jah gave us this world’ is a definitive example of the roots genre. There are some rare gems wisely included in the selection, most notably the 12” extended mix of Earl Zero’s ‘Please officer’ with its accompanying dub which is better known as Augustus Pablo and ‘Pablo in moonlight city’. In fact for many the dub version is better known than its vocal companion! There are some other delicious surprises of late 1970s roots such as Frankie Jones’ ‘Collie George’ with conscious lyrics and beefed up percussion while Johnny Osbourne, primarily known as one of the early pioneers of dancehall, is a wonderful roots singer as illustrated on ‘Jah ovah’ and Barry Brown was similarly impressive on ‘It a go dread’. The second CD takes the story forward a little further with roots in transition before dancehall came to become the dominant style. For the former the Jays, a class roots act at Channel One during the 1970s, embraced the dancehall style in their own way on ‘Jah do love us’ and not dissimilar to the Wailing Souls for Greensleeves on their early 1980s productions. Jammy still allowed his roots artists’ harmonies to take precedence while modernising the production sound and this was part of his genius to repackage classic sounds in a new musical context. This was further exemplified on the socially conscious Natural Vibes’ ‘Life hard a yard’ and on the early dancehall hit ‘Time a moment in space’ for Wayne Smith. That dancehall and roots could combine to good effect was suggested once again on the early 1980s 45 by Black Crucial ‘Conscience speaks’. Classic riddims being reworked is a common feature throughout Jamaixcan music and Lacksley Castell’’s ‘What a great day’ cleverly uses an anthemic Black Uhuru riddim to its advantage. Among a whole host of artists featured elsewhere on the compilation from Dennis Brown, Junior Delgado, Half Pint and Frankie Paul, Jammy made an immeasurable contribution to reggae music during the late 1970s and 1980s and just some of the vocal highlights are chronicled here. As with all Jammy productions, impeccable sound with percussion to the fore and crystal clear instrumentation and excellent sleeve notes place the music in a historical context.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Lovers for Reggae Lovers’ (VP) 4/5

Lovers rock as sub-genre of reggae entered music vocabulary in the early 1980s and some argued that it was a specifically UK-based phenomenon (true to a certain extent and many of the best practitioners of that era were indeed British artists such as Janet Kay and Carol Thompson, though Jamaican singers of the calibre of Sugar Minott immediately embraced it as well), but in reality there have throughout the history of Jamican music been songs about love, particularly during the rock steady era, and the lovers title simply officialised what was in fact a startlingly obvious musical reality. For this excellent new compilation, a host of reggae singers, new and veteran, have been drafted in to sing in the smooth souful style associated with the sub-genre. Several classic soul tuned have been covered and the singers are to be congratulated for not going for the obvious contenders, but instead selecting some real gems. Among these Ian Andrews’ impassioned vocals on the Donny Hathaway soul standard ‘Someday we’ll all be free’ are outstanding while Jamelody impresses on one of the later Stevie Wonder compositions, ‘Ribbon in the sky’, that was originally hidden away on the 1982 Best of compilation ‘Musiquarium’. Jamelody’s raspy voice is ideally suited to this song. The Dells classic ‘Love we had stays on my mind’ is given a faithful rendition by Sanchez while modern roots master Luciano displays another side to his portfolio on ‘Through the years’. Former Studio One star Winston Francis contributes ‘I call it love’ and Britain’s very own Janet Kay shows that she has not lost her touch with ‘Take a bow’, a single that went to number one on the Billboard chart in may 2008. At a time when the similarities between seemingly disparate musical styles are being explored (soul and country, blues and African), it is heartening to know that the commonality of reggae and soul is once again the focus of attention and this well designed compilation goes some way to illuminating and enhancing our knowledge of the connections.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Afro-Rock Vol.1’ (Strut) 2LP/CD 4/5

This is actually a re-issue of an album that originally surfaced on CD on the little known Kora records back in 2001. Now augmented by a bonus cut, it is an excellent reminder of how the rare African funk/soul/rock scene has progressed in the subsequent decade with a plethora of compilations. Up until then European knowledge of funk-based African music was largely restricted to the Afro-Beat sounds of Fela Kuti. The music on offer covers a number of west and central African countries, but it is the American and even European external musical influences (French heartthrob Johnny Hallyday being among them for francophone Africa) which bring them together and provide the common denominator. James Brown was an obvious disciple for many African musicians, notably after his spellbinding concert in Kinshasa in 1974. For Sierra Leonian Geraldo Pino, Brown was a seminal influence with ‘Heavy. heavy, heavy’ betraying a strong American soul influence. Pino had moved to Lagos in Nigeria by 1968 and it was there that he was exposed to the rise of soul bands. The song featured here possesses a relentless rhythm with nice use of keyboards throughout. Brass laden and bass heavy is one way to describe the echoey produced Mercury Dance Band on ‘Envy no good’. In the band’s drum pattern, they are unquestionably influenced by Fela and the atmospheric recording (sounding like it was made in a cave!) gives a real punch to the song. One of the most melodic songs on the compilation is by Kenyan funk band Steele Beauttah and the simply titled ‘Africa’. This mid-tempo number from 1976 has funk rhythm guitar in abundance. Catchy rhythms also dominate on the Ghanaian soul of K. Frimpong and his Cuban Fiestas on ‘Kyenkyen bi adi m’hanu’ with gorgeous horns. This is arguably the compilation’s most impressive track with vocal chanting and trumpet solo. From 1974 ‘Fever’ (not the classic song immortalised by Peggy Lee) by Jingo has had parts one and two segued together over a driving chakacha rhythm complete with fuzzy synths, flute and rhythm guitar. Fully deserving of a second issue, this time round ‘Afro-Rock’ should reach a much wider audience.

Tim Stenhouse

Nicolas Meier ‘Journey’ (MGP) 3/5

Swiss guitarist Nicolas Meier is a former Berklee school of music in Boston alumni like Gary Burton and Pat Metheny, and along with pianist Reinoso whom he met while a student there, has produced his fourth album which sounds very much like a mix of world roots with Turkish music predominant and Pat Metheny influences. Among guest musicians, Gilad Atzmon is featured on clarinet and saxophones and he works extremely well in this context. The jazzy opener ‘Sunrise’ impresses with an acoustic guitar solo and there is sensitive accompaniment too from Atzmon. The more traditional Turkish folk intro to ‘Journey’ with chorus into the bargain leads directly into a contemporary jazz piece where the comparison with Metheny is all too real and the pianist in particular has a definite penchant for Lyle Mays. The suites display both intimacy and introspection without absolutely enthralling the listener with Part IV probably the pick of the bunch highlighting some delicate flamenco-style guitar soloing from Meier. In general this is a pleasant album rather than an outstanding one and a grittier feel to proceedings might be in order for the future. Nonetheless the idea of fusing jazz and Turkish folk is an excellent one and an avenue that Meier should certainly continue to pursue. The evocative cover features a painting from Meier’s Turkish wife Songul.

Tim Stenhouse

Issa Juma and Super Wanyika Stars ‘World Defeats the Grandfather’ (Sterns) 4/5

Similar to Zaika Langa Langa in Zaire, the Super Wanyika Stars from Kenya have gone through myriad names and off-shoots (Wanyika Les Les, Super Wanyikas and Wanyika Stars among others), but this excellent compilation concentrates firmly on the period between 1982 and 1986 when Issa Juma was lead vocalist. Ironically the lead singer, along with other band members, was actually born in Tanzania, but would find fame if not fortune when the musicians settled in the Kenyan city of Mombasa, when they were initally known as Arusha Jazz. The Swahili style of rumba differs from the classic Congolese equivalent firstly in the absence of brass, a generally lighter feel and the greater emphasis placed upon the bass to propel the intoxicating rhythms on guitars. Sweet harmonies and lovely guitar work are a feature of ‘Barua’ while the infectious bass and keyboard riff on ‘Ma Eliza’ is matched by the harmony vocals. Shuffling drum patterns and catchy guitar licks permeate the pared down Sawhili rumba of ‘Si mimi (It’s not me’)’ with a wonderful breakdown part way through. One inidication of possible influences is evident on ‘Maria’ which, in its use of every daily life tales as lyrics, bears a remarkable ressemblance to the epic ‘Mario’ by Franco with again intricate guitar work brewing up a storm. In general these elongated rumba workouts (eight minutes being the shortest) are ideally suited to the CD format and as ever a beautifully illustrated inner sleeve with notes by writer Douglas Paterson on the band’s trajectory enhance our understanding. Sadly post-1986 health problems and the legal status of band members greatly reduced their output and by the early 1990s Issa Juma had passed away. This compilation, which is superb value at just under eighty minutes, catches the Wanyika Stars in their prime.

Tim Stenhouse

Soul Jazz Orchestra ‘Rising Sun’ (Strut) 3/5

Canadian group the Soul Jazz Orchestra were formed in 2002 and have been influenced by a heady mixture of Afro, jazz, soul and Latin sounds with Fela Kuti, Mulatu Astatke and the McCoy Tyner big band obvious namechecks. Two previous albums were recorded for the Toronto label Do Right!, but this is their first for Strut with DJ Gilles Peterson a big devotee. The band work best on the big band numbers which display a Latin sensitivity such as ‘Serenity’. Here we find the more reflective side to the group with flute and clarinet solos featuring heavily. Likewise ‘Lotus flower’ impresses with its big band arrangements, modal bass and funky drumming. This is where the Soul Jazz Orchestra identity truly lies and perhaps a whole album in this particular vein would be a potential future project that might introduce them to a whole new audience, especially one specialising in jazz. Otherwise there is some manic Afro-jazz on ‘Mamaya’ that works quite well and some less successful Ethio-jazz on ‘Negus negast’. They simply sound too polished to carry off the gritty sound of jazz Ethiopian style. A more natural environment is that of spiritual jazz and the excellent Japanese koto intro to ‘Consecration’ leads into a wonderful mid-tempo groove with fine ensemble work by the brass section. The Pharoah Sanders club classic ‘Rejoice’ in two parts is given a decent reworking and after an introspective intro gives way to an Afro-beat treatment that departs from the original before finally settling into a jazzy interpretation with less emphasis on vibes than in the original. An evocative cover picture depicts an ancient sundial in gold and orange.

Tim Stenhouse