Category Archives: Album Reviews

Various ‘The Afrosound of Columbia Vol.1’ 3LP/2CD (Vampi Soul) 4/5

Columbian music has rightly gained a higher profile in recent times with excellent compilations from Soundway to supplement the Cumbia greats past and present on previous World Circuit albums some twenty years ago. However, the funkier side to these Afro-Columbian flavours have seldom been seen or heard outside Columbia or its neighbours and therefore Vampi Soul are to be congratulated for enlisting the expert ears of DJ Pablo Iglesias to unravel some of the lesser known sounds and introduce some new names to a wider public. Afro-Columbian culture is not a single, easily identifiable sound, but is rather based round a somewhat looser concept of Afro-Columbian identity which tends to be situated geographically along the coastline of the country. All tracks derive from the illustrious independent label Discos Fuentes which was founded as far back as 1934 and the music contained within this selection dates between the late 1960s and 1980. Columbian salsa is distinctive with its crisp sounding percussion, but on ‘Salsa con tabaco’ by Afrosound a funkier ellement is added with wah-wah guitar and this gives the number a different feel. The same band excel on ‘Jungle fever’ with sensuous female warblings from vocalist Keri Kenton akin to those of Jane Birkin accompanying Serge Gainsbourg while there is opera-style singing on the funky ditty that is ‘El caterete’ by Wganda Kenya, another group fully deserving of wider recognition. Excellent cumbia is provided by Rodolfo y su Tipica RA7 on the classic tune ‘Tabaco y ron’ from 1970 and there is a fiery descarga from Fruko y sus tesos on ‘Descraga espectacular’ with percussion from Cuban conguero Tata Güines. Latin-soul with vibes and percussion thrown in for good measure are prominent on ‘Salsa boogaloo’ by Sexteto Miramar from 1968, doubtless taking a leaf out of the musical innovations at the time in Nueva York. With no less than forty-three choice cuts and lavish cover and artist photo illustrations in the deluxe inner sleeve, this is a treasure trove of information on a country whose myriad musical genres have been largely overlooked until the last decade to an international public. Perhaps some of the harder to find albums could be coupled together and re-issued for future release. In the meantime this worthwhile selection from Pablo Iglesias fulfills the very useful purpose of filling in some of the gaps.

Tim Stenhouse

Brad Mehldau ‘Highway Rider’ 2CD (Nonesuch) 4/5

In recent years pianist, Brad Mehldau has operated in a variety of formats from solo to trio, but on this latest recording he has gone one step further and included a quartet with saxophone and even a string orchestra as well as adding percussion and omitting bass in the aforementioned, and all this highlighting his own compositions. This represents by far his most diverse and ambitious album thus far and is a testimony to the multiplicity of musical influences Mehldau has been soaking up and these include both the romantic period of classical composers such as Brahms and Tchaikovsky and the orchestrations of singers of the calibre of Jacques Brel and Tom Waits. Intimate duets, hispanicised-influenced numbers and layered orchestrations are just some of the new features on ‘Highway Rider’. Mehldau himself plays not only acoustic piano but equally pump organ, electric piano and even orchestral bells. However, long-time fans should not be afraid, for it is primarily on an acoustic piano that he plays here.

The romanticism is most evident on the piece ‘John boy’ with Joshua Redman on soprano saxophone with orchestra, but minus bass. One of the revelations of this album is the rapport between Mehldau and Redman on the gorgeous composition ‘Old west’, a duet which opens up a whole new territory for the pianist to explore for a possible future project. The usual trio with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums is at times augmented by an additional drummer, Matt Chamberlain, bringing to mind the use of an extra percussionist by both Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane during the 1960s. Here Chamberlain operates to bring more contemporary drum patterns to play, inspired by hip-hop and other newer musical forms. One example of this is the title track where very subtle sampling technique drumming is used to complement the layered textures on electric keyboards and the format works equally well on ‘The falcon will fly again’. Flamenco influences are discernable on ‘Capriccio’ with handclaps while expansive film soundtrack sounds are evident on the epic twelve and a half minute opener, ‘We’ll cross the river’. There is quite a lot of music to take in here and plenty of new avenues for Mehldau to explore in more depth at a later stage. In general this is a supremely varied album that is ideally suited to being stretched over two CDs. A brief UK tour in early June promises to be another pianistic treat.

Tim Stenhouse

Sarah Vaughan ‘Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown and Sarah Vaughan in the Land of Hi-Fi’ (American Jazz Classics) 5/5

The velvety tones of Sarah Vaughan never sounder finer than on this pairing of albums from 1954 and 1955 respectively. The former has the added bonus of featuring trumpeter Clifford Brown who only ever recorded with two other vocalists during his brief career, Helen Merrill and Dinah Washington. Some of the finest work of Vaughan ever laid down on vinyl is contained on this collaboration and they include definitive versions of ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ and ‘April in Paris’, though the set as whole is exceptionally strong throughout. Accompanying the two were musicians of a similarly high calibre such as flautist Herbie Mann and drummer Roy Haynes. Indeed the rhythm section is identical on both albums. For the second album, which featured an all-star larger ensemble (though no less jazzy), Ernie Wilkins was in charge of the orchestrations and enlisted the help of alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Here Vaughan and the band excel on numbers such as ‘Cherokee’, ‘Soon’ and ‘I’ll never smile again’. Part of a much larger series of sides that Sarah Vaughan cut for Mercury/Emarcy (and available elsewhere as a weighty 23 CD box set), this CD condenses the genius of Sarah to its very essence and as such is a first choice recommendation for fans of jazz vocalese unfamiliar with her craft. Alternate version of songs were not included because of time limitations, the two albums together being just under eighty minutes in length.

Tim Stenhouse

Anita O’Day ‘Cool Heat’ / ‘Swings Cole Porter’ (American Jazz Classics) 4/5

Vocalist Anita O’Day came to international prominence with her appearance in the film, ‘Jazz on a summer’s day’, but more generally was an early practitioner of what came to be known as the cool style of jazz singing. She was in fact a major influence on other singers of the period, most notably June Christy and Chris O’Connor, but had a wide vocal range and could scat with the best of them. Perhaps being a native of Kansas City exposed O’Day from an early age to blues and jazz sounds. The two albums contained within were originally released on the Verve label and all but one additional song date from April 1959 sessions when the jazz world was at a crossroads with ‘Kind of Blue’ imminent. Arrangements were made by Jimmy Giuffre who also doubles up on clarinet, tenor and baritone saxophone duties. By far the more intimate of the albums is ‘Cool Heat’ and this features a version of ‘Mack the knife’ that comes a close second to Ella’s classic rendition and excellent interpretations of ‘Come rain or shine’, ‘The way you look tonight’ and notoriously Anita scatting to wonderful effect on ‘Hershey bar’. Classic big band accompaniment is provided on the second arranged by Billy May in the first of a couple of collaborations between May and O’Day, the former of whom would go on to be one of the foremost producers of Frank Sinatra. A top session roster of musicians included guitarists Jim Hall and Barney Kessel, drummers Gene Krupa and Mel Lewis, and reedists Art Pepper and Bud Shank. Among the superb repertoire of songs that Cole Porter conjured up, ‘I get a kick out of you’, impresses’ as does ‘All of you’ and ‘What is this thing called love?’. O’Day would go on to record a series of excellent early 1960s albums collaborating with the Three Sounds and Cal Tjader no less before heroin addiction would keep her out of action for the good part of a decade. She would return triumphantly during the mid-late 1970s. An excellent coupling of albums and as with the majority of American Jazz Classic releases, unbeatable value time-wise.

Tim Stenhouse

Koop ‘Coup de Grace. 1997-2007’ (!K7) 4/5

Swedish pairing of Oscar Simonsson and Magnus Zingmark have over a decade successfully fused jazzy samples with a catchy pop sensibility and enjoyed underground hits in the UK with the jazz-dance and electronic beats crowd with old-school jazz influences recalling 1980s club haunts such as Dingwalls in London and Berlin in Manchester. Of course ‘Waltz for Koop, taken from the 200s album of the same name, was a big favourite with DJ Gilles Peterson at the time and the familiar bass riff and subtle use of synthesizers typifies their sound. The Latin-inflected fresh as a summer breeze vocals of Yukimi Nagano on ‘Summer sun’ impress and unsurprisingly the album won a Grammy for best club/dance album of the year. Elsewhere jazz hues abound as on the uptempo song ‘I see a different you’, again sung by Nagano with the lovely use of vibes and the excellent percussive waltz on ‘Tonight’ with vocals provided by Mikael Sundin. Along with sampling beats, Koop specialise in mixing these with acoustic instrumentation and in this respect they are not dissimilar in outlook from Gotan Project, though the emphasis on jazz is greater with the former. The jazzy waltz that is ‘Baby’ includes a lovely flute solo from Magnus Lindgren and several top Swedish jazz musicians are called upon to contribute including former EST bassist Dan Berglund. An indication of the serious intent of Koop is found on ‘Prince of peace’ which features a bass riff and sample of Swedish contemporary classical music. At only forty minutes, this overview of the three albums recorded thus far could certainly have been a good deal more generous. However, by being lean on the time factor, the choiciest cuts are now available to all and sundry.

Tim Stenhouse

Gilberto Gil ‘Banda Dois’ (Geléia/Warners) 4/5

Singer-songwriter and, up until recent times Brazilian Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil has made a virtue out of live recordings and for this latest effort has largely returned to the pared down surroundings of his earliest recordings from the mid-late 1960s, accompanied by son Bem Gil on guitar, and the percussive instruments of pandeiro and tamborim with very occasional vocalists Maria Rita and José Gil guesting on a couple of numbers. While his most popular period commercially dates from the late 1970s and early 1980s with songs such as ‘Palco’ and ‘Todo Menina Baiana’, this near seventy minute effort from a live performance in Sao Paolo in September last year focuses more on the early to mid-1970s period when he was making his name nationally, but had yet to really break the international market. Consequently, this CD captures the very essence of Gil and the acoustic format suits him well. Old favourites includes ‘Expresso 2222’ and his interpretation of Jackson do Pandeiro’s ‘Chiclete com banana’ while the title tracks of two of his most consistent albums, ‘Refazenda’ and ‘Refavela’, are revisited to good effect and were ones that cemented his reputation at the time. Among the (relatively) newer material, ‘Escotérico’ is a laid back number with a whistled intro and a lovely way to open the evening’s proceedings and ‘Lamento sertanejo’ is a part vocal, part scatted piece with only Gil himself accompanying on guitar to depict in musical terms the rugged landscape and daily life in the semi-arid Sertao region of north-eastern Brazil. English and Portugese lyrics combine on ‘O rouxinol’ (’Nightingale’) and Gil makes a decent stab at the only other standard ‘Saudade da Bahia’, written by the quintessential Bahian songwriter Dorival Caymmi. A separate DVD of the concert is available.

Tim Stenhouse

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

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

Tim Stenhouse

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

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

Tim Stenhouse

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

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

Tim Stenhouse

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

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

Tim Stenhouse