Category Archives: Album Reviews

Modern Jazz Quartet 5 CD box set (Warners) 4/5

The Modern Jazz Quartet are something of an institution apart in the world of jazz and over several decades have constantly crossed boundaries between jazz and other music forms. This welcome addition groups together five albums from 1960 and the early 1960s and is a fine document of the MJQ at the height of their powers. Of all their studio albums, ‘Pyramid’ towers above all the rest and rightly so. It contains some of their most endearing and lasting interpretations that have become staples of their concert performances with the original title track and the wonderful takes on the standards ‘It don’t mean a thing’ and ‘How high the moon’ obvious highlights. In comparison ‘Lonely woman’ is slightly less satisfying, though still an excellent recording overall. The centrepiece of this album was the version of Ornette Coleman’s title track and it just went to show how diverse jazz musicians could be for the MJQ and the Coleman quintet were at completely opposite ends of the musical spectrum, yet could still manage to appreciate one another. Elsewhere the album is noteworthy for small group interpretations of pieces that were previously attempted with larger orchestrations such as ‘Fugato’ and ‘Lamb. Leopard’. New ground was being explored on the album ‘The Sheriff’ with Brazilian flavours entering into the MJQ repertoire, but in keeping with the group’s approach, attempted from a more classical side that took on board J.S. Bach. Of note are the versions of ‘Carnaval’ and ‘Bachianas brasileras’. This would have made an ideal pairing with another album the MJQ cut a few years later, ‘Collaboration with Almeida’, Almeida being a Brazilian guitarist.

For the rest of the box set the other two albums are devoted to the fusion of classical and jazz genres. ‘Third Stream Music’ is the more famous and features on two pieces the trio of Jimmy Giuffre (Jim Hall and Ralph Peña) while on another two compositions the Beaux Arts string quartet are present. If in today’s hotch-potch of musical interwaeaving this comes across as a tad passé, it should not detract one from the laudable attempt to bring together classical and jazz genres. The much rarer ‘Modern Jazz Quartet + Orchestra’ is frankly the least enticing of the five albums and the MJQ sound hindered by the presence of so many strings. The only minor gripe here, then, on an otherwise fine selection of albums and at a bargain price is that for all their prowess in the studio, it is, perhaps, their live recordings that are most revered and in this respect it is a little disappointing that this has not been reflected in the contents of the box set. The double live in Europe album is an essential listen and one hopes that the superb and now extremely hard to find on vinyl album ‘Live at the Lighthouse’ from 1967 will finally see the light of day on CD, possibly with some extras. In the meantime this selection of albums is the ideal place to start for the MJQ neophyte and what a treat they will have in store.

Tim Stenhouse

Lem Winchester ‘Patrolman’ (Fresh Sound) 4/5

The lesser known among jazz vibists of his generation, Lem Winchester was in fact a full-time policeman who also recorded albums with various formations. Here the CD groups together a live recording from the July 1958 Newport jazz festival and a studio album in Chicago on the Argo label (a subsidiary of the legendary blues label Chess) with the Ramsey Lewis trio. The latter is an album devoted to the music of Clifford Brown, though in parts it also serves a showcase of the American songbook repertoire. Of the Brownie originals, the quartet deliver a sedately paced version of ‘Joy spring’ and a similarly serene take on the bop classic ‘Sandu’. Things hot up on Duke Jordan’s ‘Jordu’ where the trio finally have the opportunity to stretch out a little. Lem Winchester excels as a musician on the minor themed compositions such as Cole Porter’s ‘Easy to love’. For the live recording, three standards are interpreted with a truly swinging rendition of Parker’s ‘Now’s the time’ with the quartet in full flow and an impeccable version of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take the ‘A’ train that remains respectful to the original. Ideally, one would have like more generous timing and possibly the inclusion of the first side of the Newport recording that featured Randy Weston. That may form part of a subsequent release, but as an indication of where Lem Winchester was at in 1958, this could scarcely be bettered.

Tim Stenhouse

Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker ‘Diz and Bird’ (Essential Jazz Classics) 5/5

An all-star cast is just one of the highlights of this superlative recording of Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker who were still at the height of their powers in 1951. The original album is grouped together with several alternate takes and two separate sessions from 1950 that makes for over seventy-five minutes of essential bop listening. Joining the band was a then young Thelonius Monk and it is worth the price of the CD alone just to hear him as a sideman, developing his highly individualistic sound which he would at a later stage develop as a leader in his own right. Curley Russel on bass and Buddy Rich on drums complete the all-star formation. Just like John Coltrane almost a decade later, Charlie Parker could play the sweetest of melodies when required to do so and blows some of the most soluful blues you are ever likely to hear on ‘My melancholy baby’. Dizzie is in more laid back mood on this number, but is still capable of conjuring up some of those high-pitched notes that are uniquely his own. Several Parker originals are featured and include Bird’s fabulous solo on ‘Bloomdido’ with a white hot rhythm section, the mid-tempo ‘Relaxin’ with Lee’ where Dizzie Gillespie has the chance to solo at length and the trading of licks between the two leaders on a decidely uptempo take on ‘Leap frog’. More plaintive hues can be heard on ‘Mohawk’ which serves as the backdrop to yet another soulful interpretation from Bird. Rounding off the package as a whole is a fascinating interview reproduced between Charlie Parker and the then emerging altoist in Dave Brubeck’s group, Paul Desmond. New liner notes and a 1958 Gramophone review reproduced in full make for a first class edition. Full marks to EJC for providing so much informative biographical detail. The album was formerly part of a larger ten CD set and as such is now available to a wider audience at a more affordable price. Beautifully re-mastered, the alto saxophone and trumpet of one Bird and Diz never sounded clearer or sharper. Simply indispensable. Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British jazz in the 1960s and 1970s’ (Reel) 4/5

A definite contender for album title of the year if nothing else, this is a lovingly assembled compilation of hitherto unreleased sides, live and in the studio, from the cream of modern British jazz and with some unexpected treats and, to this writer’s knowledge at least, a few unknown names. The Impressed series that Universal put out a few years did a sterling job of uncovering some of the classic Bristish albums that in their vinyl format are extremely rare and, if you liked those, you will love this new anthology for it covers similar territory and then some. Just some of the names covered here reads like the who’s who of British jazz as well as some eminent guests from other countries who settled here: Ian Carr and Don Rendell; Michael Garrick; Joe Harriott; John Surman; Mike Taylor; Kenny Wheeler. The opener sets the tone with a fine hard-bop influenced piece, ‘Phrysic’ by pianist Mike Taylor and betraying a definite nod to one Horace Silver. Some fine trumpet soloing from Frank Powell and the warm tenor sound of Dave Tomlin make for a thrilling audio experience. Indian guitarist Armancio d’Silva was one of the discoveries for this writer from the Impressed series and here he offers a fascinating slice of Indo-jazz fusion here with ‘Joyce country’ from 1969 that includes the full Ian Carr and Don Rendell quintet. A real new discovery comes in the form of Gary Windo’s Symbiosis which sounds as thought it has been inspired by the late 1960s/early 1970s funk-tinged rhythm guitar work of Grant Green and Melvin Sparks with a suitably uptempo composition ‘Standfast’. Quite why this formation has not been showcased before is a mystery, but full marks to Reel for promoting the group’s work. Another unknown set of musicians are Henry Lowther and the Lyn Dobson quintet who, on a beautifully recorded live recording from a café on Ladbroke Grove, offer the lengthy ten minute plus ‘Scarpo’, a definite album highlight and the obvious influence of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with the tenorist a devotee of Hank Mobley. Did this group ever record an album? Freer jazz grooves are present from the Joe Harriott quintet from 1968 that includes the memorable collaboration of Canadian trumpet maestro Kenny Wheeler on ‘Shadow’, which harks back to the ‘Free Form’ and ‘Abstract’ periods. Elsewhere there is the vocal piece ‘Singing for the small chaps’ from Graham Collier’s formation that features a young Norma Winstone on vocals. Sound quality varies from one recording to another, but is generally perfectly acceptable and surprisingly good in places. The gatefold sleeve features an iconic photo from Val Wilmer showing Ronnie Scott outside his Frith St club and the rigorously researched and annotated sleeve notes complete the experience as a whole with aplomb. An accompanying book by this CDs compiler, Duncan Heining, of the exact same title is out and, if this excellent anthology is anything to go by, it will make for essential reading. Tim Stenhouse

Ivo Neame ‘Yatra’ (Edition) 4/5

Pianist Ivo Neame typifies the cosmopolitan nature of the London jazz scene and can call upon the long-term influences of John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler to inspire him, coming up with a fascinating new album on which his compositional skills are brilliantly showcased. For his latest project, an octet formation provides a lovely contrast with a four piece brass section that features bass clarinet, clarinet, alto and tenor saxophones and flute. This is wonderfully illustrated on the piece ‘American Jesus’ with a lovely flute solo and the accompaniment of vibes, performed by none other than Jim Hart, a fine leader in his own right. Post-bop hues predominate, yet this not necessarily mean an absence of a clearly defined structure. Far from it. The hustle bustle of the title track opener betrays an underlying quasi-tango rhythm with the vibes to the fore and some solid reed work from Tori Freestone who doubles up on tenor and flute, and an expanisve solo on piano from Neame. A gentler side to the group repertoire is exmplified on the intimate ballad ‘That syncing feeling’ with a haunting clarinet solo and some fine bass work. On ‘Unseen corade’ there are even shades of mid-1960s Blue Note Bobby Hutcherson and this is a fine vehicle for Jim Hart on which to shine. Neame takes a secondary role in terms of soloing, but can demonstrate a freer approach, taking on board the influence of Craig Tayborn on the altogether looser piece ‘Owl of me’ with hints of Nina Rota underneath which makes for a fine juxtaposition of styles. In short Ivo Neame is a fine bandleader who is willing to subsume his own leader’s role to the greater good of the octet and the definite winner in this endeavour is the listener. Tim Stenhouse

Nat Birchall ‘World Without Form’ CD (Sound Soul and Spirit) 4/5

nat-birchall-worldMancunian modal maestro Nat Birchall returns with his heaviest set of grooves thus far and a distinctive individual sound underpins this album. While some of the key members of his band are retained, most notably pianist Adam Fairhill and second drummer Andy Hay, there is a new atmosphere to this recording which makes it totally refreshing. Vibist Corey Mwaamba was an inspired choice and excels on ‘Speak to us of love’, the title taken from a printed quote by Eastern philosopher Khalil Gibran. The homage to Lee Perry on ‘The Black Ark’ has definite shades of Joe Henderson’s seminal Blue Note album ‘Mode for Joe’, with an especially enthralling drum crescendo from Fairhill. Multi-reedist Birchall has at times been compared to the spiritual sounds of Pharoah Sanders, but on this particular recording it is John Coltrane’s superlative album ‘Crescent’ that appears to have been a major inspiration, subconsciously or otherwise. Indeed Birchall is at his most Coltranesque on the freer flowing ‘Divine harmony’ where, with the presence of vibes, there are echoes of Jackie McLean and ‘Destination Out’. In general the all original compositions this time round are a good deal stronger and more memorable with a real treat in store on ‘Dream of Eden’ with its repeated passages and a lengthy faux intro that never really stops. This writer’s own favourite piece is the incredible reposing beauty of ‘Speak to us all of love’. Unquestionably his finest album to date, this may just be the outing that marks Nat Birchall out as one of Europe’s finest saxophonists.

Tim Stenhouse

John Coltrane ‘The Prestige Recordings’ 16 CD Box Set (Prestige) 5/5

Tenorist John Coltrane first began to make his gargantuan reputation while at the Prestige label and this was in parallel with a career he began carving out as part of the Miles Davis quintet. The Prestige recordings cover a two and a half year period from May 1956 until December 1958 when he was truly prolific, both as a leader and sideman. It is not the entire picture for the albums recorded under Miles Davis are available as a separate box set and indispeansable in their own right. However, it is damn near comprehensive nonetheless and the decision to list the recordings chronologically means that the listener has a real flavour of how Coltrane progressed from one session to another. The majority of album sessions are not interrupted and alternate takes are heard one after another, but do not clutter the the set unduly. Several members of the Miles Davis band in its different guises are featured here including pianist Red Garland who never sounded better, bassist Paul Chambers who would become an integral part of Trane’s tenure in the group, fellow tenorist Hank Mobley and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Little wonder Miles Davis saw the potential of Coltrane in his own band. The early sides witness Coltrane developing primarily as a tenorist, interpreting the American songbook with aplomb as on the ballad ‘Don’t explain’ (CD 4) with Jazz Messengers Bill Hardman and Jackie McLean in close attendance. A fine contrast is heard on ‘Dakar’, a Latin-tinged piece with polyrhythmic drumming and baritone saxophone courtesy of Pepper Adams and Charlie Payne. By CD 6 Coltrane was begin to compose his own pieces of note, including ‘Slow Trane’ while the mid-paced number ‘Black pearls’ featured a fine rhythm section of Art Taylor, Chambers and Garland plus Donald Byrd playing the role that Miles would later fill. From CD 12 onwards the lengthy bop-inflected numbers were starting to reveal hints of modality around the corner and McCoy Tyner’s ‘The believer’ was an indication that Coltrane was also sensitive to new and emerging musicians with the pianist-tenorist duo an integral part of the classic Coltrane quintet down the line. By CD 16, which contains music from three separate vinyl albums, Coltrane was listening to more exotic external influences with’ Bahia’ a precursor to the bossa nova craze that the tenorist tended to avoid on the whole because he had already progressed to soaking up eastern sounds. This said, the tender side to his craft was showcased on ‘Stardust’ with Freddie Hubbard playing a very adequate foil for Miles. What becomes apparent from hearing the recordings on this set as a whole is that Coltrane the saxophonist was fully maturing, yet the development of Coltrane the composer had not yet been fully realised and would only come to full fruition on the Impulse recordings. The compact box pulls out to reveal a tray of CDs in slimline folders, all containing the same photo and is very easy to store which is important given the amount of music within. Given the iconic status of many of the original cover sleeves (a selection of these is contained within the booklet over four pages, it surely would have made better sense to differentiate the various CDs by the sleeve covers). An extended essay by Doug Ramsey is instructive as is the useful alphabetical listing of song titles which makes them easy to identify. Tim Stenhouse

Carolina Chocolate Drops ‘Leaving Eden’ (Nonesuch) 4/5

A new group to many, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are a roots group that hails from the Applachian mountains which is both unusual and fascinating for a set of African-American musicians. However, they are anything but a novelty act and this new album from them finds them in fine form on this well balanced recording. They are in fact essentially a trio with plucked banjo, mandolin and harmony vocals all featuring prominently. This is no better exemplified than on the wonderful folk-blues of ‘Boodle-de-Burbun’ while the faster paced and impassioned vocals on ‘Ruby, are you mad at your man?’ is just as entertaining with castanet-style beatbox effects. The vocals in particular of Rhiannon Giddens make for especially compelling listening and she excels on numbers such as ‘Pretty bird’. Another album highlight is ‘Country girl’ where Giddens once again is on song. That the Carolinas have learnt from the past is self-evident and their interpretation of Alan Lomax’s ‘Real ’em John’ reveals that they have done their research on the origins of the music thoroughly. The group also have an eye and ear on the bigger picture with ‘Mahalla’ being a delightful South African song with just banjo and guitar to accompany. With a lavish digipak sleeve and lovely retro photos of the band, if you are in search of something highly entertaining and just a subtle dislocation from the norm, then you may just have found your musical nirvana. A candidate for one of the year’s most original albums. Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘A tribute to Caetano Veloso’ (Universal) 4/5

Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso occupies a unique position in the Brazilian music scene comparable only perhaps to the great master himself, Joao Gilberto. This tribute compilation, then, is a fitting way to celebrate Veloso’s wordsmith genius and the combination of English, Portugese and even Spanish language interpreters lends a distinctly cosmopolitan edge to proceedings. A major triumph is the interpretation by Chryssie Hynde of ‘The empty boat’ with Moreno Veloso and Kassin on hand to provide sympathetic instrumental accompaniment. Perhaps this collaboration could be extended into an entire album for it works extremely well. Equally impressive is the gentle lilting take on ‘You don’t know me’ by the Magic Numbers. Of the Brazilian acts, there is a folk-infused offering from group Momo on ‘Alguem cantado’, but best of all is the funky version of an early 1980s classic ‘Qualquer coisas’ by Qinho featuring some lovely fender rhodes. For a completely different take on a Veloso classic, look no further than the fado version of ‘Janelas abertas no.2′ by major new Portugese talent Ana Moura. It is important to recognise that initially Brazilian music was influenced by the culture of its motherland, Portugal, even if in the last half decade the tables have been turned. Fado artists would be well served exploiting more of the Brazilian songbook repertoire in future. From across the Iberian border, Spaniard Miguel offers a pared down piano plus vocal take on Força estranha’ and a Spanish voice performing in Portugese adds a lovely touch while Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler (now resident in Madrid) offers his own take on ‘Fora de ordem’. A few interpretations do not quite come off here and surprisingly they are both Brazilian artists. Céu delivered two supremely crafted albums of roots-inflected electronica, but seems stuck in a rock rut at present and an edgy ‘Eclipso oculto’ is not the best vehicle in which to hear her soft-toned voice. She could learn in fact from young Brazilian songer Luisa Maita who offers a twenty-first century take on ‘Trilhos urbanos’ with upfront drumming that sounds amazing and including a choppy rhythm guitar. A contemporary of Veloso’s, the Mutantes, were pioneers of the psychadelic Brazilian sound, but rather than being retro-chic, their take on ‘London, London’ simply sounds dated. Otherwise a fine overview of Veloso’s illustrious career and it will have any self-respecting music lover heading for the original versions for comparison. Tim Stenhouse

Nathalie Duncan ‘Devil in me’ (Verve) 3/5

Here is a very enterprising debut from a Nottingham singer who belongs very much to the singer-songwriter branch of music and has been championed by BBC presenter and fellow musician Jamie Cullum. Duncan’s soulful vocals come shining through on pieces such as ‘Blackthorn’ with a pared down sound on acoustic guitar and bass recalling the flavour of 1970s Bill Withers while Joni Mitchell is evoked on ‘Old rock’ with a classical-inspired piano intro. Elswehere ‘Lonely child’ has a distinctive American roots feel while reggae instrumentation and dub echo on guitar are prominent on ‘Pick me up bar’. The singer works best on the minor key numbers with ‘Keep her smiling’ the leading contender and featuring some fine use of fender rhodes and strings. This could easily have been penned by Roberta Flack in the early 1970s and deserves to be put out as a single to showcase the album as a whole. The soulful credentials of Nathalie Duncan are no better illustrated than on the uplifting ‘Became so sweet’ that ends the album on a high note complete with Chic-esque riffs on guitar. A little work on individualising the piano sound is stil in order, but the voice alone is worth the admission fee. No indication of the other musicians involved. A promising future beckons for Nathalie Douncan. Tim Stenhouse