Category Archives: Album Reviews

Alborosie ‘Escape from Babylon’ (Greensleeves) 4/5

alborosieItalian reggae singer Alborosie was already a well-known singer in his native land having created group Reggae National Ticket fifteen years ago and sold over 200,00 copies of the group’s albums. However, he was not satisfied with this and instead decided to quit the band and instead move permanently to Jamaica. It was there that after intially struggling to continue his career that Alborosie became house engineer in Port Antonio, Portland and, after remixing music for the likes of Manu Chao and UB 40, finally started to refocus on his own singing career. Two 45s surfaced in 2008 and after touring in Europe an additional two singles were released. Fast forward to 2009 and this new album which pays homage to the golden roots era of the 1970s and the individual artists that inspired him such as Bob Marley and Burning Spear, and groups like Black Uhuru and Steel Pulse. In essence Alborosie’s style updates the modern roots and dancehall sound. His gruff vocal delivery is distinctive (and different from say Prince Far I) and occasionally he employs the sing-jay style as on ‘Real story’. Reworking the Horace Andy classic ‘Money’ with Andy sampled in the chorus, Alborosie lays down his own vocals to good effect here and in fact a Horace Andy soundalike voice features in the background to the thoroughly modern roots song ‘No cocaine’. In a more melodic vein, ‘One sound’ is one of the album’s highlights with Gramps of Morgan Heritage guesting on lead vocals while a rockers riddim predominates on ‘America’ which is another diatribe against the perceived vices of that nation, but different from Tikhen Jah Fakoly’s epochal ‘Tonton d’Amerique’. Ska flavours are present on the first single to be lifted, ‘Mama she don’t like you’, featuring female vocalist Ieye, and which with radio play could cross over. The riff-laden riddim of ‘I Rusalem’ and virtuous call on ‘Good woman’ attest to his Rastafarian beliefs. 
While this is unquestionably a roots recording, it is one that has plenty of appeal to a wider audience outside strictly reggae circles and there is not the slightest trace of an Italian accent in his vocals which just indicates how well-integrated Alborosie has become in Jamaica. A very promising debut for Greensleeves that bodes well for the future.

Tim Stenhouse

Queen Ifrica ‘Montego Bay’ (VP) 4/5

queen-ifricaSinger Queen Ifrica is an interesting artist at several levels. Most obviously, she is a woman singer who performs in the roots vernacular and that is a fairly rare commodity and she does so singing in the sing-jay style reminiscent of Eek-A-Mouse. Secondly, the singer appeals to reggae fans across sub-genres and is equally at ease in dancehall and lovers as in roots. Thirdly, Queen Ifrica is the daughter of ska legend Derrick Morgan (though only knew him from her twneties onwards) and as such has an impeccable musical pedigree. The album is a varied and thought-provoking set. Immediately attracting attention is ‘Don’t sign’, a reworking of the Studio One riddim (best known as ‘Movie Star’)produced by Donovan Germain. Ifrica’s vocal delivery reveals a mature voice and one that is capable of adapting to both traditional and modern styles. The first single in the market place, ‘Lioness on the rise’ is included and is a lilting, surefire hit, once again produced by Germain for whom Queen Ifrica recorded in the early 1990s. For roots fans there is much to commend and the percussive opener ‘T.T.P.N.C.’ is in fact a tribute to the Nyabinghi centre in Montego Bay. This is Africa’s way of expressing gratitude to the Rastafari community where she was raised. Pared down production and nyabinghi drumming feature on ‘Calling Africa’ which is a message-laden song with a lovely gospel chorus. Another classic riddim, namely the Satta Massagana, is revisited on ‘Coconut Shell’ with a thoroughly modern accompaniment. In a more romantic vein the lovers rock inspired song ‘In my dreams’ is a catchy take on the sub-genre. All in all a fine debut for VP and one that gives Queen Ifrica plenty of scope to explore the evolution of Jamaican popular music in its myriad forms.

Tim Stenhouse

Caetano Veloso ‘Zii e Zie’ (Wrasse) 4/5

caetano-velosoNow going by first name only, such is his notoriety, Caetano Veloso returns reinvigorated and refreshed with an album that harks back to the 1980s. Gone are the strings and layered production of his 1990s recordings and in comes a pared down, altogether funkier feel courtesy of producers Pedro Sa and Caetano’s son Moreno Veloso. This lighter and brighter indie rock sound is typified by the album’s immediate winner and surefire dancefloor hit (especially if elongated as a re-mix)in ‘A cor amarela’ which could prove to be a key soundtrack to the summer. Almost as good is the mid-tempo ‘Sem cais’ with delicate vocals from Caetano and a simple but devastatingly catchy guitar riff. A major surprise is in store on the radical reworking of the samba classic ‘Incompatibilidade de genios’ which Joao Bosco made a hit out of during the mid-1970s. Here it is transformed into a languid indie folk ballad which only an artist with the imagination of Caetano could have conceived and realised. Pure genius. The social rap on ‘A base de Guanatanamo’ recalls the collaboration with Gilberto Gil on ‘Haiti’ from the early 1990s. Samba-flavoured percussion simmers on ‘Ingenuidade’ while ‘Por quem’ is a beautiful ballad. Arguably Caetano’s best album in over a decade and sure to win over a younger audience as well as the faithful.

Tim Stenhouse

Nite-Liters ‘Analysis’ (Dusty Groove) 4/5

nite_litersThis seminal rare groove funk album from 1973 has long been a collectors dream and with tasty arrangements and production courtesy of one Harvey Fuqua, the tone is set for some classic rhythms on arguably the finest of the five albums the band cut in a prolific five-year period. With hindsight one can view ‘Analysis’ as symbolising a seismic shift in black music from dance-oriented funk to what would come to be termed disco. The album is a very diverse outing that takes in a multitude of influences from jazz and blues, Latin, but also interestingly pop and rock to a lesser extent. Minor pop chart had already been secured by the band with the single ‘K-Jee’ and they were obviously not averse to attracting a wider audience as long as they did not compromise their craft. This was clearly not the case on ‘Analysis’ and it is rather their open-minded approach to music that shines through on the recording. Jazzy guitar riffs a la Wes Montgomery are in evidence on the classy ‘Pee Foul’, this writer’s favourite composition, and also featuring nice Afro-funk drums and percussive accompaniment. Further jazz influences are evident on ‘Happy hooker’ where the keyboard influences of Donald Fagan and Jimmy Smith meet head on with hand claps added for good measure. Funk with a distinct Parliament stamp is found on ‘Anything goes’ with vocals while ‘Cowboy’ takes a leaf out of Johnny Cash’s Mariachi trumpet riffs from ‘Ring of Fire’. Latin percussion riffs add depth to proceedings as on a lovely reworking of the then recently recorded instrumental ‘Valdez in the country’ by Donny Hathaway and the lengthier cut, ‘Drumology’ is a funk equivalent to Tito Puente’s ‘Top Percussion’ project with beefed up drum action. A heavy jam session is the order of the day on ‘Damn’ which precedes the jazz-funk era by a few years while ‘Craaaashing’ could be straight off a blaxploitation movie soundtrack. Nite-Liters were a Kentucky-based band that during the nineteen-sixties underwent numerous changes in personnel, but continued to make the diversity of their line up and output a virtue. Male, female and instrumentalists all made up the constituent parts. Definitely one for the groove-laden listener.

Tim Stenhouse

Khaled ‘Liberte’ (Wrasse) 4/5

khaledFormerly a Cheb or ‘young man’, Khaled has long been a full matured singer and in recent times has been eager to explore different facets to his repertoire above and beyond updating the rai beat which first gained him notoriety. On this latest recording, aptly titled, he has liberated himself from musical shackles to explore the roots of Arabic music. In so doing he has temporarily at least banished the sound of synthesizers and an altogether rootsier feel is omnipresent. In particular Khaled has sought to internalise the Gnawa music prominent in Morocco and parts of Algeria, Diwan music as well as adding the ubiquitous Egyptian strings that are an integral feature of classical and light classical music in the latter nation. As with Egyptian classical, Khaled has opted for instrumental intros to the main part of the song and this merely enhances the feel of authenticity. Key tracks include ‘Raikoum’, which is an obviuos candidate for single, ‘Yamina’ and the title track, but the album in general impresses as a cohesive whole. Produced by ace world fusion man Martin Meissonnier and recorded in Paris with strings added in Cairo, this is one of Khaled’s freshest recordings in a while and one that may prove to provide new impetus to what is already a glittering career.

Tim Stenhouse

David ‘Fathead’ Newman ‘The Blessing’ (High Note) 4/5

david-fathead-newmanThe sadly departed multi-reed player David ‘Fathead’ Newman recently succumbed to a long-term illness. Fathead, as he was affectionately known, was an especially sought after sideman who was best known for his lengthy tenure as part of the Ray Charles orchestra during the late nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties, but equally cut a number of diverse albums for the Atlantic label. However, far from being a mere epitaph to a glittering career, this last recording catches the saxophonist/flautist at his most soulful with an excellent line up of the cream of New York musicians and recorded at the prestigious Rudy Van Gelder studio. It was always a difficult task to place Fathead into a convenient category for he was a highly versatile musician who could play blues, bop, Latin and even freer forms when required. This diversity in approach is reflected in the compositions on offer. A mid-pace version of the bossa classic ‘Manha de Carnaval’ features Yoron Israel providing a Latin-tinged feel on drums and vibist Steve Nelson reinforcing the percussive ambiance. in fact the piece merits comparison with the similar line up from tenorist Dexter Gordon on his seminal 1965 Blue Note album ‘Gettin’ Around’. Echoes of both Lester Young and Stanley Turrentine are conjured up on the Milt Jackson composition, ‘SKJ’ while the standard ‘Smile’ (co-composed by Charlie Chaplin!)is a showcase for the lovely guitar playing of Pete Bernstein. Newman is in fine form on the Gershwin tune, ‘Someone to watch over me’ and on the bluesy ‘Chelsea Bridge’. Perhaps the best, though, is saved for last. Jazz and the flute have sometimes been uneasy bedfellows, but Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk firmly placed the instrumentation in the jazz tradition, and both Newman and Herbie Mann did a great deal to popularise the flute in a jazz setting. On the delicious ‘The Blessing’ Fathead delivers a terrific performance, as good as any from his sixties period. A fine way to bow out, then, and an album that will make for extremely enjoyable listening during the summer months and beyond.

Tim Stenhouse

Paul Motion Trio 2000 + Two ‘On Broadway Vol. 5’ (Winter and Winter) 3/5

paul-motion-trio-2000Paul Motion’s place is etched in jazz history and will be forever inextricably linked to his tenure in the great piano jazz trio of Bill Evans. In the noughties Motion has led a series of acclaimed line-ups and has focused on reworking the standard repertoire with an ongoing Broadway project. This latest fifth volume sees him front a relatively new quintet with only long-time collaborator and pianist Masabumi Kikochi as an ever-present. The music is post-bop in feel hinting in parts at Mingus circa 1959-63. By far the most accessible number is ‘I see your face before me’ which features a piano solo intro from Kikuchi, taking a leaf out of the Evans school of refined playing, with Motion in turn providing sensitive accompaniment. In contrast ‘Just a gigolo’ is a much freer number. Throughout tenorists, Michael Attias and Loren Stillman, alternate between baritone and tenor with the former instrument, surprisingly perhaps, recalling the warmth of Ben Webster. Most accomplished of all is a gorgeous rendition of ‘Something I dreamed last night’ with a soulful baritone solo and Kikuchi and Motion both creating a mellow mood. While not yet up to the standard of the acclaimed ‘Time and Time’ album with Bil Frisell and Joe Lovano, if this band sticks together, even more accomplished recordings will surely follow.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Legends of Benin’ (Analog Africa) CD/2 LP 5/5

legends-of-beninFollowing up on the critically acclaimed compilations ‘Raw and Psychadelic Afro Sounds’ and the sensational Orchestra Poly-Rythmo de Contonou, comes this latest offering of unbelievably rare sides from the little known country of Benin. Aside from Angelique Kidjo, Benin has seldom been mentioned by even the specialist world roots press, and so a compilation of four seminal artists from the period 1969-81 is an especially welcome addition to the African music discography. This one comes from the top drawer and will be essential listening for roots and rare funk fans alike. Evenly divided between four key musicians, ‘Legends of Benin’ features some truly sublime grooves. El Rego et ses commandos are a legendary band who recorded during the early 1970s and in ‘Vimado Wignan’ and ‘The feeling you got’, two of the most sought after sounds on the planet are finally accessible to all. Gnonnas Pedro championed the modernisation of music in Benin and updated the Agbadja rhythm, earning the title of ‘King of Agbadja’. In this vein comes the 1973 song ‘La musica en vente’ as well as the funk-flavoured ‘Okpo videa bassouo’.
Antoine Dougbe created a style known as Afro Cavacha which basically fused Congolese rumba, Latin and traditional Voudoun rhythms. His own records are highly prized owing to their being released in very limited quantity on his own independent label. From this the enticingly entitled, ‘Le premier ministre du diable’ (’the prime minister’s devil’)impresses in particular. Honore Avolonto was some forty years ago a respected percussionist and arguably the most prolific and successful composer in the country. Among the selections on offer from Honore, the Afro-Beat number ‘Dou dagbe we’ takes pride of place and is a dancefloor gem. Superb cover graphics round off this indispensable slice of African groove that will surely prove to be one of the summer’s most listened to albums.

Tim Stenhouse

Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls ‘Seize The Time’ (Naim) 3/5

ted-sirotas-rebel-soulsChicago-born and based leader and drummer Ted Sirota has quietly established a reputation over three albums as a jazz musician with an open-minded approach. Stylistically this fourth album is situated in the post-bop genre with elements of free and a sensitivity to world roots music. Not surprisingly when one’s influences range from Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Monk to Fela Kuti and Bob Marley, the results are likely to be eclectic. So it proves on this entertaining outing that is a tad more restrained than on previous attempts. An immediate winner is the Caetano Veloso composition, ‘13 de Mayo’, the title referring to the date on which slavery ended in Brazil, and one that is regularly celebrated. Here the Latin rim drummming of Sirota perfectly compliments the rhythm guitar, which gives this number a distinctly South African township jazz feel. In contrast Sirota reverts to the wilder side of the band’s repertoire with a cover of the Clash’s ‘Clampdown’, the guitarist here obviously influenced by John Scofield, and Mingus’ seldom covered ‘Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA’. Throughout proceedings the melodic alto saxophone playing of Greg Ward impresses. A lesser known Miriam Makeba song,’Polo Mze parts one and two’ is divided into the percussion heavy first part and the funk laden second, characterised by dissonant guitar and fatback drum beat. In general Ted Sirota produces jazz with a social conscience which is a welcome throwback to the nineteen-sixties and adds an indie sensitivity of the punk era. Pursuing the world roots side may well catapult this band into the big-time, provided the self-composed pieces are leaner.

Tim Stenhouse

Tony Allen ‘Secret Agent’ (World Circuit) (4/5)

tony-allenAfro-Beat legend and former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen has in recent years been a stalwart of the live circuit, but has returned with a stunner of an album and one that is probably his finest piece of work in at least twenty-five years. Allen has enlisted the support of both French-based musicians on the brass section and Nigerian ones for the rhythm section and chorus. What impresses on this recording is that Allen has not simply re-emphasized the Afro-Beat legacy, but has subtly updated the sound to fit twenty-first century requirements. Recorded in Lagos with overdubs in Paris, ‘Secret Agent’ is globalisation in practice in the best sense of the word. Dancefloor action will be guaranteed on the killer ‘Elewon Po’ that closes the album. With a deceptively laid-back highlife feel, the lovely fender rhodes playing weaves into the incessant guitar riffs to great effect. Unquestionably an album highlight. Almost as appealing is ‘Switha’ with female chorus vocals that sound as they have been inspired by Nu soul. The longest song of all, weighing in at almost eight minutes, is the infectious ‘Celebrate’ where the stabbing brass section kicks in hard. In general the album offers a variety of rhythms that always allow plenty of space for improvisation, but are never over long. Modern Afro-Beat is in a very healthy state if this recording is anything to go by. As ever superb graphics transport one immediately to 1970s Nigeria and detailed and incisive inner sleeve notes are provided by musicologist Chris May.

Tim Stenhouse

Legendary drummer Tony Allen oozes Afrobeat. He was a mainstay of Fela Kuti’s Africa ’70 and here he returns to his Afrobeat roots after his more recent involvement with The Good, The Bad & The Queen’. Produced by Tony Allen and using his tight funky band this is driving afrobeat with vocals from Nigerian singers Ayo, King Odudo, Switch, Kefee Obareki, Wura Samba and Allen himself on the title track and ‘Elewon Po’. Brilliant.

Graham Radley