Category Archives: Album Reviews

Various ‘Can You Feel The Force? – The John Luongo Disco Mixes’ 2CD (Groove Line) 4/5

Flash back to 1979 and Liverpool’s finest soul/pop band, The Real Thing, released ‘Can you feel the force?’, which was an immediate acquisition in its 12″ version at the time for this writer. This song in fact serves as the title track back drop to a retrospective of Boston born DJ/disco label promoter John Luongo who is rightly paid tribute to here with a sterling selection of extended length versions. Enterprising Glasgow-based label, Groove Line, have brought out this excellent overview of John Luongo’s re-mixes for Epic and other related labels, and this is where listening to disco for the second time around is such a fine experience, with the possibility of obtaining long lost gems alongside well worn bed fellows from the vinyl crates in one single place.

Starting off as an engineering student and one who had a love of turntables, Luongo combined his two loves into one with the advent of the disco phenomenon and had already learnt to produce his very own first remix as early as 1974. It was only a matter of time before the commercial possibilities of the technique would enable him to earn a living. Promoting the very first Chic 12″ ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ in Boston earned him the opportunity to work as a disco label promoter and this provided him with direct access to new singles which he could then elongate and dissect at his will.

One of the lesser known gems that is a real discovery is the nine and a half minute version of gospel-disco from the Mighty Clouds of Joy with ‘In these changing times’, and the title could not be more apt for the current chaotic world in which we live. Luongo was quick to facilitate the careers of soulful divas who adapted to the disco idiom including Melba Moore, whose 1978 smash, ‘You stepped into my life’, was an early success for the remixer and he followed that up with the superb ‘Pick me up. I’ll dance’, which had a strong Philly flavour. Patti LaBelle came to prominence with the hit, ‘Marmelade’, when part of Labelle, but her own solo career progressed during disco and one of the endearing anthems to the genre comes in, ‘Music is my way of life’, which is a definitive slice of the classier side of disco. The career of former soul singer Jackie Moore was resurrected with a late disco winner in, ‘This time baby’, while arguably the most prolific of the disco divas, Loletta Holloway, who then duetted with Dan Hartman on a song that crossed over to the pop charts and has been covered since by boy bands, ‘Vertigo/Relight my fire’. By far the most significant collaborations Luongo had were with The Jacksons and no less than three remixes are to be found on this anthology, and of the trio, ‘Shake your body (down to the ground)’ impresses the most, although in commercial terms it was the later, ‘Walk right now’, that charted higher.

By the early 1980’s, with disco rapidly on the wane, remix singles were less in demand, and in any case, the remix was more focused on pop musicians. A notable exception was Luongo creatively reworking a Sly Stone classic, ‘Dance to the music’, which enjoyed renewed success with a younger audience as a result of a new remixed version. While not available with this promo review copy, the full CD contains a lengthy twenty-four page booklet covering individual singers and providing useful historical context to the life and career of John Luongo.

Tim Stenhouse

Syleena Johnson ‘Rebirth Of Soul’ CD/DIG (Shanachie) 5/5

I’ve protested in ink before about ‘covers’ albums, my general feeling is that it’s lazy and lacks imagination, but every now and again one arrives that actually does the whole project justice and this one is such. Syleena possesses a voice that could melt a soul man’s heart a thousand miles away. Add to that, the production duties of her father – the one and only Syl Johnson, a legend of the RnB, Blues and Soul world from back in the day – and you really do have to pay attention. I have everything Syleena Johnson has ever released, so I am no stranger to her voice and style.

So let’s get started. If like me, you listen to soul radio, then her version of Betty Swan’s “Make Me Yours”, will have filled the airwaves at some time with Syleena already making the sound her own, although none of the songs on this album actually steer too far from the originals, but they do all add a new modern twist that will please most listeners. Her father’s “We Did It”, is more urgent and has Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records sound stamped all over it. Then we have “Is It Because I’m Black?”, which is nothing short of sensational and could really break on black radio stations and is so so relevant to what is happening in these unstable vulnerable times – what a modern-day anthem this is and one that truly deserves an extended 12” release. The often recorded, “I’d Rather Go Blind”, is another stunning tune but I’m afraid of all the modern versions around, the Ruby Turner version still gets my vote! But hey, if you’re listening to this for the first time without any knowledge of the previous covers, then listen and enjoy it for what it is, an honest heart-felt piece of music.

I’m somewhat unsure about how I felt when first hearing her version of “These Arms Of Mine”. It’s an Otis classic and I just can’t help myself comparing, it does work well yes, so nothing negative to say other than there’s been a huge original out there. As for her take on “Lonely Teardrops”, that is one that should have been left alone however, the Major Lance cover of “Monkey Time” works surprisingly well. For me the repeat play favourite is the breathtaking “There’ll Come A Time”, an eye-opening moment for me, with an effortless rare groove rhythm, strong vocals travelling up and down the range, horns that sound like those you’ve heard on a million Chicago soul records, just special. I also love the sugary sweet “The Makings Of You” which meanders along effortlessly. To summarise; if you haven’t got this on your Christmas list, you best be quick, as I reckon Santa will be sending these out to his friends and family.

Brian Goucher

Various ‎’Too Slow To Disco, vol. 3′ 2LP/CD/DIG (How Do You Are?) 4/5

For those unfamiliar with the concept, dance music sub-divides into multiple smaller sub-categories, one of which is a cross-pollinating style that is just a tad too slow on the BPM to warrant dance floor action, but still with a strong melodic beat. Which is where the third volume of the ‘Too slow to disco’ series offers a refreshing overview of disparate and lesser known artists among the more familiar, if in unexpected musical settings and compiled by DJ Supermarkt. Who for example would expect the Grateful Dead to turn up on a compilation that purports to be related to the disco genre? Yet appear they do on, ‘Shakedown street’, that dissects the roots of the disco groove.

Some of the more successful attempts here are those that aim at a laid back west coast sound, and that is certainly the case for David Gates, who is surely inspired by mid-1970’s Boz Scaggs on, ‘Silky’. Cult band the Cornelius Bumpus Quartet offer one of the most sought after numbers in, ‘Inside you’, and the soulful vocals of Archie James Cavanaugh impress on, ‘Take it easy’. Overall influences hint at Steely Dan, but elsewhere the sound of Earth, Wind and Fire permeates, especially on the jazz-fusion guitarist Lee Ritenour’s excellent, ‘It is you’, that sums up that early 1980’s groove to perfection. Another instrumentalist, the rare groove keyboardist par excellence, Weldon Irvine, contributes a hidden gem in, ‘Fallin’ in love’, with vocals by Sheila Lowe and this has a marked indie Philly Soul flavour. French Canadian disco seemed to evaporate with Patrick Hernandez, but re-emerges here with the the unlikely name of Dwight Druick and, ‘Quand tu te laisses aller’.

Not everything is essential, but the informative inner sleeve notes help shed useful light on each individual song and artist and crate diggers will find this an invaluable source in order to dig deeper on the musicians. Roll on volume 4!   

Tim Stenhouse

Maciej Obara Quartet ‘Unloved’ (ECM) 3/5

Newly signed up by label owner and aficionado Manfred Eicher, Polish alto saxophonist has recorded several albums elsewhere, but this is his major debut for ECM. The tone is warm and lyrical and hints in influence at Jan Garbarek. Delicate interplay is an endearing feature of, ‘One for’, which, to these ears, is the classic ECM honed to perfection. An understated intensity permeates the piece, with some beautifully stated lines on double bass from Ole Morten Vågan, and there is a relaxed solo from pianist and fellow Pole, Dominik Wania. To these ears the contender for best track on the album. All but one compositions are original, but interestingly the title track is a Krzysztof Komeda number.

If there is one critique of the album as whole, then it might be the lack of variation beyond the purely contemplative, enjoyable though that is for the listener. The slow and mournful opener, ‘Ula’, sets the scene for what is to follow and, as a whole, there is a calmness about the music which will endear some and deter others. A dream-like piano with left and right hands playing simple notes with alto in the background impresses on the opening number, while the only track which gradually springs into action after a reflective beginning is, ‘Jolibord’, with fine and delicate piano work by Wania and some excellent ensemble performances. Obara is on occasion content to let others do the musical talking, as on ‘Echoes’, and it is a full three minutes before we even hear him, but instead the listener has the opportunity to listen to a lovely piano solo intro. Thereafter, the altoist takes over and the rhythm section are heard in full flow as the temp rapidly accelerates. A storytelling quality to the leader’s playing bodes well for the future and maybe in the future he will wish to extend the music beyond the forty-eight minutes laid down here.

Tim Stenhouse

Laurent Voulzy ‘Belem’ CD/DIG (Columbia/Sony) 4/5

Best known in France as a highly respected and in-demand songwriter, Laurent Voulzy came to prominence at the end of the 1970’s when as a leader he scored a pop hit with ‘Le coeur grenadine’ (1979), then followed it up four years later with ‘Bopper en larmes’ (1983), and then a decade later with ‘Caché derrière’ (1992). In between time, he has been a long-time collaborator with major singer-songwriter, Alain Souchon, and has regularly performed on guitar on Souchon’s own albums.

However, Laurent Voulzy has long been passionate about the music of Brazil and wanted to devote an entire album to the samba tradition. As early as 1977, this love of Brazilian music had been hinted at on ‘Rock Collection’ (1977) and again on ‘Recollection’ (2008). Moreover, Voulzy’s interest in music that evokes the sea and sun has been a constant and best illustrated by hit songs such as ‘belle-île-en-mer’ and ‘Le soleil donne’.

For this new album, the ninth in total as a leader, Voulzy has opted for a more somber-tinged tribute to the samba style and it has to be said that his soft and sweet sounding voice is ideally suited to the gentler pace and rhythms of Brazilian music, though the samba itself can be an uptempo and uplifting genre. Participating in the enterprise and contributing their specialist native knowledge of Brazilian music is pianist Philippe Baden-Powell who, earlier this year cut a well received debut album for London label Far Out, but here is in a largely supportive role. Some have criticised the music for being too laid back, but that is to miss the point and raison d’être of the recording. Garnering airplay has been the song, ‘Spirit of samba’, which is heard here in a fuller length version and differing from the truncated one available separately. An eighteen-minute song, ‘Quand le soleil couche’, ends the album with the sounds of a Rio beach to evoke the tropical atmosphere of the album as a whole. The ultimate mood music to calm the soul, yet just sufficiently joyful to uplift the spirit, this is a grower of an album.

Tim Stenhouse

Gilad Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble ‘The Spirit Of Trane’ CD (Fanfare) 4/5

Now resident in the UK and having undertaken a UK tour during October, Israeli multi-reedist, Gilad Atzman, returns with a tribute recording to the music and spirit of John Coltrane, with his regular band, the Orient House Ensemble, but including the Siganos string quartet. For those younger or beginner jazz fans who may find the work of Coltrane somewhat overpowering and indeed overwhelming, this new offering is far more accessible and provides a useful stepping stone to the canon of work that John Coltrane created and alternating on soprano and tenor saxophones, bass clarinet, clarinet and flute, this provides just a snapshot of how one of the towering figures of modern jazz operated. This diversification is typified by a lovely string-led interpretation of the gentle ‘Naima’, with Atzmon soloing on soprano saxophone, which on occasion is transformed into a high-pitched squeal with strings overlaid on top. Creative licence is afforded on the normally uptempo opus, ‘Giant Steps’. Here the mood is a good deal gentler where the original motif is stated, but then Gilad and band strip this down to bass and soprano, with sensitive use of cymbals by drummer Enzo Zirilli. An original composition by Atzmon, ‘Minor Thing’, fits easily into the greater whole and has a strong modal feel with a Coltrane-esque introduction. Duets were a feature of John Coltrane’s work and a reading of ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ recalls the pairing of Duke Ellington and Coltrane. Piano and soprano combine effectively here, with intimacy created by the deployment of strings.

An attractive all-red gatefold sleeve is opened to reveal personal sleeve notes by the leader who reveals his devotion to Coltrane which began when, as a young musician, Atzmon picked up the saxophone aged just seventeen. With the emphasis firmly on celebrating the legacy of John Coltrane and revealing his gentler side. This new homage can be heartily recommended to a wider public that may be reluctant to approach the intensity and immensity of Coltrane’s work.

Tim Stenhouse

30/70 ‘Elevate’ LP/CD/DIG (Rhythm Section International) 4/5

30/70 are more of a community than a group, taking their name from the postcode of Northcote, a bohemian suburb of Melbourne. Their influences range from jazz, 90s hip hop, soul, funk, electronica and everything else in-between. The five key members are vocalist, MC and poet Allysha Joy, Ziggy Zeitgeist (great name) on drums, Henry ‘Hazy’ Hicks on bass, Thomas Mansfield on guitar and synths, and Jarrod Chase very specifically playing Fender Rhodes. Other players also contribute with an 11-piece ensemble available when needs must, but this 8-track collection, which is more of a mini-LP than a full scale album, is their second studio effort after their 2015 debut, ‘Cold Radish Coma’. ‘Elevate’, released via Peckham’s Rhythm Section International, the multifaceted media indie that has also brought us projects by Henry Wu and Al Dobson Jr., in addition to hosting a radio show on NTS and promoting regular club nights around London, is the prefect vehicle for this collective.

‘Misrepresented’ was the first track released prior to ‘Elevate’, with its alternating boom bap drum patterns, punchy horns and potent vocals. ‘Takin’ Me Back’ is a modern 6/8 bluesy ballad of sorts, and sees Allysha Joy lamenting about a lost love. ‘Get To Me’ is a short mainly instrumental piece that possesses touches of Sa-Ra and ‘Breaking (For This World to Change)’ with its rhythmically loose bass and drum parts, contains vocal moments reminiscent of Bembe Segue – a possible influence on Allysha. ‘Nu Spring’ is the most dense piece of the set, with its frantic mid section before it winds down for the final minute. ‘Lucid’ a 61-second studio jam, could be an effective track if longer in length and ‘Slangin’ displays a nod to Erykah Badu both stylistically and with its energy, with its strong bridge section that incorporates lightly distorted vocals for impact.

Obvious alignments with Melbourne super group Hiatus Kaiyote are apparent and they will share a similar fan base, and this 33-minute project on a very hip London record label will do them no harm. But the possible star of the group is vocalist Allysha Joy. Her energy, virtuosity and relenting infectiousness will undoubtedly lead to other offers. Allysha Joy first appeared on my radar earlier in 2017 with the release of her 7” ‘FNFL’ on Australian Northside Records, which has been one of my clandestine DJ secrets since its release (which also features Henry Hicks and Ziggy Zeitgeist). So whether this collective will continue to release music under this configuration or whether they will create their own creative paths remains to be seen, but Allysha Joy is a definite future star.

Damian Wilkes

Tony Burkill ‘Work Money Death’ LP/CD/DIG (ATA) 4/5

Tony Burkill is a Leeds based saxophonist, composer and educator, who has been ever-present on the local jazz scene for the last few decades and now finally releases his debut album as bandleader together with drummer Sam Hobbs, bassist Neil Innes, pianist George Cooper, percussionist Pete Williams and a guest performance from pianist Matthew Bourne (not the choreographer) on ‘Beginning and End’. The band are all seasoned players, with co-writer Neil Innes also a member of The Sorcerers, who released the excellent self titled Ethiopian jazz inspired long player in 2015 – a firm UK Vibe preference, and George Cooper has worked with Abstract Orchestra, the group that issued ‘Dilla’ in summer 2017, the album of live reinterpretations of the legendary hip hop producer’s sample heavy beats.

‘Work Money Death’ is a somewhat ode to the tenor saxophone players of the 1960s and ‘70s, especially those of a spiritual jazz persuasion, and this backdrop provides the group with a deep musical framework to excavate. And thus, all the appropriate frame of references are presented here. Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Joe Henderson, Yusef Lateef et al., are acknowledged with respect as are the other players from this seminal era. The album begins with the melodically driven and waltz centred ‘Third Of All Numbers’, which starts quite conservatively but then becomes more dynamic and conversational with regards the interplay between the band, offering 3/4 and 6/8 time signature. ‘At Odds With The World’ is a more funky jazz workout with added Farfisa organ (imagine a weaker Hammond B3) and an unyielding rhythm section providing Burkill with a sturdy platform to showcase his fluid but vigorous playing style. ‘Out Of A Shooting Star’ moves into a more spiritual jazz, contemplative residence, even including the customary sleigh bell percussion – almost a tradition in spiritual jazz. The title track, ‘Work Money Death’, continues this more introspective tangent, but is possible too short at 5 minutes to fully explore its themes in-depth.

But it’s the final track, ’Beginning and End’, which is the album’s magnum opus. This 16-minute ethereal musical excursion is the most ‘cosmic’ piece of the set, but it also highlights the direction that the album should have wholly taken. The playing becomes free and loose, mesmerising and absorbing, especially with its uncommon time signature (10/8 maybe?), vocal choir harmonies and soulful hand claps. And it’s here where one can truly perceive Pharaoh and Coltrane, but not in playing style and sonics – but in temperament and ideology. The reason we idolise and love artists such as Pharaoh and Coltrane is not only because they were exceptional musicians and composers, but more importantly because they took risks. They didn’t have to do what they did, and they set the benchmarks by which jazz musicians still refer to today – but this was 50 or so years ago. I just feel that there is now more of an appetite for further explorations in jazz than is possibly being created (and this includes the free jazz movement). And thus, the final track could have set the tone for the entire album rather than being its finale. Nonetheless, this is great work but the earlier tracks were a touch safe for a post-Coltrane idiom. Really looking forward to hearing the vinyl edition in the flesh.

Damian Wilkes

Florent Pagny ‘Le Présent d’abord’ LP/CD/DIG (Capitol/Universal France) 3/5

Who is Florent Pagny? Barely recognised in the United Kingdom, across the Channel Pagny, now in his mid-fifties, has been a stalwart of the singer-songwriter scene since the 1980’s and has scored major commercial hits. The sound is certainly more commercially oriented pop than classic French chanson, but he is in fact part of that older tradition and the instrumentation has simply been given a modern update, with instrumental programming coming from producer Dany Synthé. At just thirty-seven minutes and twelve songs (ten if you discount the all too brief pair of intros to songs that could easily have been dispensed with), this is a relatively concise album, but it covers a variety of moods that range from love and happiness to imagination, and styles that cover Latin, North African and pure pop. It works best on the more intimate settings, as on ‘C’est peut-être’, where guitar and vocals blend well together – this could be likened to a French equivalent of the power ballad. Two singles have already been released from the album, ‘La beauté du doute’, and the title track, neither of which have made major waves on either the French, or Belgian pop charts. The latter features a vocoder-like voice with guitar intro and typifies the simple approach to music making that seems to be Pagny’s hallmark. Nothing that is wildly innovative here and, for these ears at least, a tad on the slick side of production.

Tim Stenhouse

Ray Parker Jr. & Raydio ‘For Those Who Like To Groove: 40th Anniversary Edition’ 2CD (BBR) 4/5

Catapulted to global fame via the title track of the film ‘Ghostbusters’ in 1984/85, Ray Parker Jr. was already a household name among soul fans via his leader’s role in the group Raydio and, more generally, he was a highly respected studio musician whose guitar work has graced some of the most important recordings of the 1970’s, most notably ‘Songs in the key of life’ by Stevie Wonder. This double CD anthology represents the first real attempt to chronicle his work in the United Kingdom that goes beyond his brief flirtation with commercial work in the mid-late 1980’s and covers also his most creative work, both with Raydio in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and his solo work that culminated in the major pop hit of the film soundtrack. In showcasing his pre-Ghostbusters career on the first CD, the anthology serves the very useful purpose of introducing British listeners to quality soul music that was rarely aired on the radio here, or at best only a limited number of singles rather than the albums which were available on import.

Nonetheless, the smooth, understated vocal delivery that Parker possessed proved to be a hit with both soul and pop fans in the United States and this is reflected on the first CD which starts off with two of his most memorable songs, ‘A woman needs love (just like you do)’ and ‘Jack and Jill’. Parker repeated the formula with another US pop hit, ‘Two places at the same time’, from 1980. Quite why these did not register with a British audience at the time can only be down to a lack of adequate promotion of the singer, but viewed from a distance of over thirty years, they stand out as quality soul-pop music that should have been bigger hits on the this side of the pond.

However, there is another grittier side to Ray Parker Jr. that is part and parcel of his leadership of the group Raydio. Similar to other funk and soul groups of the era, Lionel Richie and the Commodores being a prime example, groups diversified and were equally adept in uptempo and ballad idioms. On the funkier edged, ‘Is this a love thing?’, there are definite echoes of the Rod Temperton influenced Heatwave sound. A 12″ version of ‘It’s time to party now’, is in a similar vein and was a minor disco hit at the time. From the same album as ‘A woman needs love’, the synth-funk of ‘It’s your night’ made for an interesting contrast between the harder edged instrumentation and the soft and gentle background vocals.

It was just a matter of time before Ray Parker Jr. hit the big time and ‘Ghostbusters’ proved to be his finest hour, with a goofy comedy starring Bill Murray serving as the pretext to the singer reaching a global audience and here the full length 12″ version is a permanent testament to the mid-1980’s use of synthesized instrumentation. There then followed a series of lesser hits, which form the basis of the second CD, including ‘The other woman’ and ‘I don’t think that man should sleep alone’. Ray Parker Jr., like many singers who had parallel careers in the pop and soul charts, got stuck in a rut and was unable to carve out a new career or sound and his progress had largely petered out by the beginning of the 1990’s and some of the latter songs in his career were of a significantly lesser standard. That said, the second CD makes up for this by incorporating the full length 12″ reading of ‘Jack and Jill’, and other choice album cuts. Well illustrated colour photos of the singer with his band and from his solo period.

Tim Stenhouse