Category Archives: Album Reviews

Eric Bibb ‘Deeper in the Well’ (Dixie Frog/Harmonia Mundi) 4/5

Acoustic blues and all round Americana musician Eric Bibb has impeccable musical credentials, being the son of folk singer Leon Bibb, with an uncle, pianist and composer in the MJQ, John Lewis, and counting among family friends Bob Dylan, the late Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger. Indeed Bibb junior belongs, along with Corey Harris and Keb Mo, to a generation that has grown up during the folk revival of the 1960s and has taken on board multiple influences both within and outside the established blues tradition. A recent apprearance on the latest series of the Transatlantic sessions on BBC4 revealed the singer-songwriter and guitarist to be interested in exploring all aspects of American roots music and this is precisely what he delivers on this supremely craftly new album. Alternative country, blues, folk and gospel come together effortlessly here and the sheer panoramic view that Eric Bibb is able to portray is breathtaking and definitely not something to be taken for granted. The key point here is that all his diverse influences slot naturally into a cohesive whole and that is the true sign of a individually-minded musician. 

A song that Bibb heard performed by Doc Watson and son Earl ‘Dig a little deeper in the well’ provides one of the many album highlights with fine fiddle playing and beautiful melodies. Folk-blues permeate the classic composition ‘Sinner man’ with some outstanding vocals while there are hints of Kelly Joe Phelps on the acoustic flavoured ‘No further’ with guitar and harmonica supplying some rock solid accompaniment, and the storytelling quality to Bibb’s music is emphasized on ‘Boll weevil’. A couple of contemporary standards receive the Bibb makeover with a warm and intimate ‘Time they are a changin’ which continues to be a relevant song while Taj Mahal’s ‘Every wind in the river’ is deeply melodic and further evidence that Bibb can make virtually any song his own. Eric Bibb achieves that most surprising of goals for listeners who view the blues as being obsessed with darkness and despair; he produces music that is fundamentally uplifting of the human spirit. This is an album that is likely to be on the end of year top ten lists, not necessarily for its innovative approach, but purely and simply for being one of the most enjoyable listening experiences of the year and that is recommendation enough.

Tim Stenhouse

Niney Presents ‘Deep roots Observer style’ 4 CD box set (VP) 4/5

Winston Holness aka Niney the Observer is one of reggae’s finest and distinctive prodcuers and has been plying his trade since 1969 when he first began production work with Joe Gibbs and the nprosduced the seminal roots tune ‘Rasta no born yeh’ for Sang Hugh in 1972. In fact even before this he was involved in the music industry as a singer and this probably explains why he was so sensitive to the needs of other musicians. On this new box set four original albums from the 1970s are presented with their original facsimile sleeves and the trademark eye logo that became synonymous with Niney’s 1970s roots productions on the box set cover, here lovingly illustrated by the man behind the superb graphics for those Greensleeves 12” singles and albums, Tony McDermott. Of all his collaborations that Niney enjoyed with singer Dennis Brown was, perhaps, the closest of all and so the re-issue of one of Brown’s hardest to find (on vinyl certainly and in general there are selected songs available on CD compilations) albums in its original form is a real treat. There is no shortage of listening heaven here, but key songs include ‘Tribulation’, ‘So long Rastafari’ and ‘Voice of my father’. Best of all is ‘If you’re rich, help the poor’ which could almost be a rallying call for the present day. Legendary vocal group the Heptones had already established themselves in the premier league of harmony groups by the time they and Niney hooked up for the late-1970s album ‘Better days’, the group having first worked at Studio One and then during the mid-1970s under the creative production talents of Harry J and especially one Lerry Perry with the epic ‘Party time’ album. However, the group did change personnel with lead singer Leroy Sibbles leaving to be replaced by Dolphin ‘Naggo’ Morris. Thankfully the Heptones were still capable of delivering some fine roots songs and in ‘Crystal blue persuasion’ and the steppers favourite ‘Through the fire I come’, many a revival session has subsequently been lit up. Actually the album is pretty strong throughout with one of the group’s most endearing melodies being ‘Temptation, botheration and tribulation’, a seminal roots tune and ‘Holy Mount Zion’ is only marginally less effective. 

DJ I-Roy was one of the roots era’s most compelling and entertaining social commentators and the partnership with Niney resulted in the album ‘The Observer book of I-Roy’. A major highlight here is the inclusion of a bonus 12” cut ‘Jah is my light’/’Wicked eat dirt’ featuring Leroy Smart and I-Roy, but the original album is equally impressive. There is a feel of Lee Perry’s ‘Police and thieves’ production on ‘Jah come here’ and one presumes that Holness was listening closely to the experimentation emanating from the Black Ark studios. One of the best loved tunes on the album is ‘Sister maggie breast’ which borrows the riddim from Dennis Brown’s ‘Woles and leopards’ classic. For lovers of steppers with a healthy dosage of dub echo look no further than ‘Jamaican grill/Observer in fine style’. I-Roy’s inimitable DJ intro is heard on ‘Native land’. Finally there is a follow up dub album to ‘Dubbin’ with the Observer’ which cemented Niney’s reputation as an all-round top roots producer. The second instalment, ‘Observation of life dub’, by Page One and the Observers is not quite on a par with its predecessor, but a strong set nonethless with reworkings of the aforementioned Heptones vocal album. 
Of these new interpretations, ‘Nuff bread on the table’ is notable for its pulsating beat and distinctive keyboard licks, and there is also some pared down drum and bass on ‘Africa’s time now’. This is a first rate anthology of Niney’s work and only marginally short of a five star rating. At least two of the albums are deserving of belonging in that category.

Tim Stenhouse

Noir Désir ‘Soyons désinvoltes. N’ayons l’air de rien (Best of)’ 2CD/DVD (Blue Wrasse) 4/5

With between 400,00 and 500,00 French nationals resident in the UK, this mere statistic alone provides a significant commercial potential and unsurprisingly the music industry has begun to take note of their potential, particularly when so many of this new generation of emigrants are in their twenties, thirties and forties. British interest in the French music scene has been highly selective and tends either to take a sugar-coated nostalgic look at the 1960s and before (Françoise Hardy, early Johnny Halliday), or else psychadelic and other rock influences (Serge Gainsbourg), or instead focuses on a limited number of new artists for their individual style (Camille), or finally instrumental groups that easily transcend linguistic barriers (Daft Punk, Air). An anthology of the new generation of singer-songwriters who surfaced during the 1970s (Souchon, Lavilliers, Le Forestier etc.) aimed specifically at an English-speaking audience with clear explanations is required to rectify matters and this would only be touching the surface for there is a wealth of musical talent hitherto unknown in the UK. 

Where do Noir Désir fit into this musical jigsaw? They are very much rooted in the alternative music scene that emerged in France during the 1980s and especially 1990s as a reaction, partly to the French equivalent of the ‘X factor’, referred to more generally in France as the ‘star system’, and partly as a direct response to the rise of the extreme right party, the Front National. If one had to categorise them at all, then it would probably be in the indie rock field, though their influences are above all French (especially in outlook and use of lyrics) and they can be seen as direct musical descendents of 1970s group Téléphone and even Manu Chao’s first group Manu Negra rather than as a mere pastiche of English-speaking rock music. Lead singer Bertrand Cantet typifies the group’s approach as a whole, with a philosophy degree, a voracious reader of banned poets and a clear left of centre vision of the world. The compilation is well conceived with all their major hits contained including. perhaps, their best known song ‘Le vent nous portera’ and others which cover sensitive social issues. For example ‘Un jour en France’ deals with racism and xenophobia in French society while ‘L’homme pressé’ is an emphatic rejection of the manufactured music being produced via television talent shows. One song missing is the group’s attack on unbridled captialism with an English title, ‘Holy economic war’. In many respects this was a visionary tale of what would come to pass with the current economic recession and possibly the group’s very public own struggle with their label Barclay being taken over by multi-national Universal was a little too close to the bone to be considered for inclusion here. Whatever the case, this package nonetheless offers a comprehensive overview of the group, especially with extensive DVD footage (two and a half hours no less) that includes video and concert music from French television. Sadly, the group’s future came to an abrupt halt when lead singer Cantat’s partner, the actress Marie Trintignant, was tragically killed with Cantat directly implicated in a highly mediatised coverage and the singer went to prison. Upon his release the group attempted two more songs, but the old chemistry was no longer there and they disbanded. Their influence on contemporary French music is immense and, for anyone who is interested in examining what their contemporaries across the Channel listen to, this will prove to be an eye opening experience. A pity there are no lyrics either in French, or English which would have enhanced the listener’s enjoyment.

Tim Stenhouse

Robert Glasper Experiment ‘Black Radio’ (Blue Note) 3/5

Keyboardist Robert Glasper has consistently maintained a foot in both jazz and contemporary black music fields and thus it should come as no surprise that he would wish to combine the two for an album showcasing various vocalists on the current rap and R ‘n’ B scene. While he is to be applauded for this endeavour which works in some places here, the sheer number of guest artists on board for this CD makes the overall objective an impossible one to achieve and, crucially, it relegates Glasper himself to a bit sideman part, leaving the listener with the decidely uncomfortable feeling that this has been a lost opportunity. First of all let us focus on the positive aspects. The inclusion of singers of the calibre of Eryka Badu and Meshell Ndegecello is a mouthwatering prospect and, had they been given more time and songs to develop a musical rapport with Glasper, we could have been talking about a recording of some substance. Badu’s vocal pyrotechnics are ideally suited to improvisation while Ndegecello’s eclectic approach and multi-instrumental skills would make for an ideal partnership with Robert Glasper. Why, then, was this avenue not explored on an entire album? As it is, Badu and Glasper combine on a reworking of Mongo Santmaria’s classic ‘Afro Blue’, but even this does not really afford the chanteuse the opportunity to show off her vocal range over some tasty keyboards improvisations. Glasper becomes largely a sideshow here, but nevertheless he does resurface in jazzier mode on the excellent ‘Gonna be alright (F.T.B.)’ that introduces talented vocalist Bedisi and features some lovely fender licks that we have come to love and admire from Glasper. Possibly best of all is ‘Letter to Hermoine’ where the music finally comes alive and we have an extended piano solo from the leader as well as subtle flute playing. Now for the negative. If Robert Glasper truly wishes to make a rap-dominated album, then he should be allowed to do so, but this should be strictly separate from his jazz-inspired career (unless of course he chooses some rappers who truly know their jazz such as Tribe Called Quest) and much of the jazz-rap terrain has already been explored and exhausted by a variety of musicians during the 1990s. Indeed on the title track Glasper might as well have not been there and in general the rap collaborations are at once unfulfilling and sound a trifle dated. Of the other collaborations, Lalah Hathaway makes a good attempt at Sade’s (why are there not more covers of this contemporary classic chanteuse?) ‘Cherish the day’, taken here at a slower pace than on the original. If it is back to the drawing board for Robert Glasper for the time being, at the very least this blending of genres has given the pianist the opportunity to see and hear what works and what does not, and that in itself may long-term prove to be a valuable lesson. A mixed emotional experience for Robert Glasper’s devoted fans of which this writer is a paid up member. Tim Stenhouse

Pete Bernstein Quartet featuring Jimmy Cobb ‘Live at Smalls’ (Smalls Live) 4/5

Guitarist Pete Bernstein belongs to the Wes Montgomery School of modern jazz guitar and this is reflected in both the choice of format and material on this relaxed and highly enjoyable live set of performances, which date from December 2008. Enlisting veteran master drummer Jimmy Cobb, the quartet breeze on the minor Latin theme that accompanies ‘Delilah’ and on the mid-tempo ‘Vida blue’, which affords pianist Richard Wyands plenty of space in which to excel. Bernstein’s own number ‘Sideburns’ reveals a love of the blues. Meanwhile on Miles’ opus ‘Four’ the quartet revert to straight ahead bop with a brisk treatment of the standard. More Wes-inspired licks emerge on ‘Say, little mama, say’ with Cobb playing more Latin polyrhythms and some free-flowing guitar runs. All in all a well-balanced mixture of standards and self-penned compositions and lengthy pieces at that.

Tim Stenhouse

Dave Kikoski Trio ‘Live at Smalls’ (Smalls Live) 4/5

Underrated, yet well respected among musicians and jazz connoisseurs alike, pianist Dave Kikoski has quietly built up an impressive musical CV which began with a period of study at the prestigious Berklee School of Music and has continued from the mid-1980s when he settled across the Manhattan river in Jersey City. He has featured as a regular pianist with Roy Haynes, but during the 1990s cut a series of excellent albums for Criss Cross and has recorded with the likes of Adam Cruz, Leon Parker and David Sanchez. In fact he has a life long love of Latin rhythms. For his latest trio set, he is surrounded by an impressive rhythm section of Hans Glawischnig on bass and Obed Calvaire on drums. Kikoski has a wide range of pianistic influences that include Bud Powell and Monk, but equally and more evidently Hancock, Jarrett and Tyner. Larger formations such as the orchestras of Basie and Ellington have similarly influenced his writing. One of the most compelling of the original compositions is the modal ‘Dirty dogs’ which reveals the romantic side to Kikoski’s playing (influenced in turn by Debussy and Ravel) and on the epic thirteen and half minute ‘Grey areas’ Kikoski sounds positively Tyneresque in tone. The pianist borrows from Charlie Parker on ‘Billie’s bounce’, which is played in a Powell bop vein while Joe Henderson’s lovely ‘Inner urge’ receives an updated treatment as a brisk waltz. Dave Kikoski deserves to be heard by a wider audience and this latest live recording will do his reputation no harm whatsoever in this endeavor.

Tim Stenhouse

Mamadou Diabate ‘Courage’ (World Village/Harmonia Mundi) 5/5

Malian kora player Mamadou Diabate, who is also known for his participation in the Malian Instrumental Ensemble, won a Grammy with his last solo album ‘Douga’ and this excellent new set repeats the winning formula. A five piece traditional line-up comprises balaphone, ngoni, acoustic bass and djembe/calabash with Diabate himself performing on what is West Africa’s equivalent of the harp, the kora, which has no less than twenty-one strings and offers a meditative and relaxing musical experience. The band ensemble sound is incredibly tight and there is real urgency to proceedings as on the aptly titled ‘Humanity’ which reproduces the hustle bustle of activity in daily human life with due driving beat. For the solo piece ‘Kora journey’ Diabate explores the whole range of the kora’s dynamic sound while ‘La ban djoro’ is a more lilting number. On the immediately captivating ‘Kita Djely’ the quintet are heard in full flow with the balaphone in particular prominent and a wonderful build up of tension during which both balaphone and kora solo. Now in his mid-thirties, Mamdou Diabate is in the prime of his musical life and this album amply illustrates his master craft.

Tim Stenhouse

Celia Cruz ‘Cuba’s Queen of Song (1950-1965)’ 2CD (Nascente) 5/5

Arguably the greatest female singer in Latin music history and certainly one of its most influential and charismatic alongside Carmen Miranda, Celia Cruz’s career spanned several decades which has made any attempt at an anthology thus far a near impossible task. However, the genius of this new compilation is to focus on the early part of her career and within that be as comprehensive as possible, packing in fifty-six songs on two CDs that are barely under the eighty-minute mark. This represents great value for the listener, but there is absolutely no skimping on quality since these recordings were on the Seeco label and include recordings made in Cuba, Mexico and the United States where Cruz resided from the mid-1960s until her death in the noughties. The first side chronicles her early years as lead vocalist with La Sonora Matancera when she won several singing competitions and had graduated as a teacher. Cruz decided, however, to concentrate on a singing career and on improving her technique. When she took over as lead of the then already famous Cuban group, there was some initial resistance, but thankfully from our perspective Cruz proved the doubters wrong and never looked back. Among a host of stunning numbers, the likes of ‘Melao de caña’, ‘Caramelos’ and ‘Yerbero moderna’ stand out, but there are some many classic tunes here which have been covered endlessly by future generations of singers. Cruz perfected a style of Cuban music referred to as guaracha, which was an up-tempo form of the traditional son. This did not mean, though, that she could not adapt to other styles. For a period during the 1950s Celia Cruz devoted a series of albums to Afro-Cuban folkloric music and this style is illustrated on the anthology by ‘Chango’. The second CD concentrates on the post-1960 era and during the mid-1960s Cruz cut two terrific mambo-inspired albums of which the cream cuts are included here such as the wonderful ‘Con mucho cachet’ and a take on the Jewish pop song ‘Hava nageela’. As early as 1962 she had settled in New York after a few years in Mexico, married her long-time trumpeter and compatriot Frederick Knight, left Sonora and embarked upon a solo career that would make her far more famous than she had ever been as one part of a group. By 1965 Celia had left Seeco and a year later started recording for another specialist Latin label Tico and this would be the beginning of a new partnership that would last until her passing with the great bandleader Tito Puente. An ideal place, perhaps, to start a second volume of the anthology. The superb inner liner notes by DJ Pablo Iglesias with graphics are exemplary and, in addition to full discographical details and almost a dozen original album covers, there are photos of Celia in her youth. This compilation may come at an unbeatable bargain price, but in reality the music is both priceless and timeless.

Tim Stenhouse

Avishai Cohen ‘Seven Seas’ (Blue Note) 4/5

Bassist Avishai Cohen has always been something of an enigma. His live performances have been full of vibrant virtuosity and inventive reflection and yet his studio albums at least have never quite matched the former and have largely disappointed. This new album is probably his most accessible thus far and betrays the marked influence of Middle Eastern folk music incorporating oud and sensitive use of brass. The varied format of musicians keeps the listener on the edge of his/her seat throughout and on the title track trio plus percussionist excel. A similar riff to ‘Take five’ permeates ‘Dreamin’ which is notable for its use of wordless vocals (from Cohen himself) and piano riff in the main theme. Overall there is a simplicity to the compositions that impresses such as the groove laden ‘Ani aff’ which is truly hypnotic, or the more austere sounding ‘Staar’. Interestingly the set was actually recorded in, of all places, Sweden where the brass section resides. One looks forward to a new live recording of the present band with added percussion.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York’ 2LP/2CD/DIG (Strut) 5/5

Fania was to Latin music what Blue Note was to jazz and Studio One was to reggae music; the premier label by which all other recordings in the same genre were compared with. It had the most impressive of artist rosters, a distinctive new sound from the mid-1960s onwards (helped by the engineering expertise of Jon Fausty), iconic art covers from Izzy Sanabria and a tireless promoter in co-founder (alongside musician and producer Johnny Pacheco) and owner Jerry Masucci. Over the years numerous record companies have exploited the extensive back catalogue with anthologies of individual artists and classic album re-issues. This latest various artist compilation does a pretty good job of presenting a cross-section of the label’s musical heritage and covers all the essential songs that it is famed for with the occasional discovery.

In the early days of the 1960s Latin music was dominated by Cuban sounds such as the flute and string driven charanga. Fania at first replicated the formula (Pacheco’s first Fania albums were instrumental charanga and very successful commercially at that), but started to forge its own identity as the new salsa and boogaloo sounds emerged. Ray Barretto scored chart success with his take on Latin soul ‘Mercy mercy baby’ while Bobby Valentin had one of the more convincing slices of the sub-genre with ‘Use it before you lose it’. The boogaloo, however, was a short-lived phenomenon and it was the harder hitting salsa groove that really defined Fania with a pared down number of musicians replacing the older and by the mid-1960s somewhat tired traditional big band format that worked beat under the mambo beat of the 1950s. Indeed the very term salsa was almost synonymous with Fania and that in itself is testimony to the label’s success. A number of new artists such as Willie Colon, Cheo Feliciano and Hector Lavoe, predominantly of Puerto Rican origin (though not exclusively Johnny Pacheco is a native of the Domincan Republic, while Rubén Blades is Panamanian), emerged. Collectively the musicians and singers were known as the Fania All Stars, recording a legendary live performance at the Cheetah for Fania and for which audio and visual highlights can be enjoyed on the documentary ‘Our Latin thing’ and the seminal ‘Quitate tu’ is included here. Anthemic titles captivated Latino populations in the States and Latin America more generally at a time of political activism and included herein are Hector Lavoe’s ‘Mi gente’ (’My people’) and the even more personal ‘El cantante’ (’The singer’). Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic migrants in the States could personally identify with the characters portrayed in these songs and this gave them added potency even when the instrumentation was immediately intoxicating and appealing to non-Spanish speaking audiences. By the mid-1970s word had spread that Fania was a label to be reckoned with and salsa started to attract an audience way beyond its natural constituency. The pairing of Willie Colon and Ruben Blades did much to promote salsa and a new form that was not afraid to tackle social issues. Both ‘Pablo Pueblo’ and ‘Pedro Navaja’ were initially chastised for being too long in length and too morbid in social content, but both became massive hits and showed that Latin music need not simply sing of happiness and love. A harder musical edge was one characteristic of salsa recorded in New York and aimed at the downtrodden barrios of Spanish Harlem. Percussionist Roberto Roena typified that sound and ‘Que se sepa’ is definitive salsa as is ‘Indestructible’ by Ray Barretto who in the late 1960s and throughout the early to mid-1970s changed attack and became a disciple of the harder hitting salsa beat. Instrumental examples of salsa dura have wisely been highlighted on the compilation such as the wonderful ‘The hustler’ by Willie Colon and ‘Mambo de Bataan’ by Joe Bataan. Other pairings enjoyed commercial success and in the case of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, became household names in Columbia. Their offering ‘Sonido bestial’ is a much loved song. Older Cuban musicians, who had become exiled in the States after enjoying successful careers in the 1950s, Celia Cruz and Mongo Santamaria, joined the Fania team (albeit on the sister Vaya label – Fania also bought up the rights to some of the older labels like Tico), regularly performed with the Fania All Stars on their tours and albums, as well as pursuing highly successful individual careers in the 1970s. Mongo Santamaria is represented by a traditional orisha tune ‘O mi shango’ (though on Vaya recordings he pioneered Latin-funk sounds).

Celia Cruz paired up with Willie Colon as producer on several albums and enjoyed her greatest success thus far with ‘Quimbara’’ being just one of a bevy of hit songs. If Fania ran out of steam by the late 1970s with the advent of disco (which itself borrowed heavily on Latin beats – one label Salsoul even has the term salsa as part of its name and promoted disco and Latin artists in equal measure), it would by the mid-1980s start to be seen as an ideal re-issue label and gain even greater notoriety internationally. With the full 2CD comes a thirty-page booklet that illuminates the history of the label. Ideal early summer listening and a fine summation of Latin music more generally over two decades.

Tim Stenhouse