Category Archives: Album Reviews

Joe Lovano US Five ‘Bird Songs’ (Blue Note) 5/5

Tenor giant Joe Lovano has been with the Blue Note label now for some twenty years and during this extended period has cut some of the finest music of his career. Continuing on from his last album, ‘Folk Art’, Lovano has recorded once more with US Five and for this project has devoted the album to the music of Charlie Parker. Though playing mainly on his favoured tenor, Joe Lovano performs on a variety of reed instruments including straight alto, double soprano and G-Mezzo soprano saxophones. The piece ‘Passport’ is taken at a brisk pace and possibly the number most like Parker in its interpretation. Yet on tenor Lovano evokes rather Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and even in parts both Hank Mobley and Dexter Gordon. A truly inspired ‘Donna Lee’ is an album highlight and here it is played as a ballad. This enables the listener to hear the piece in a whole new light. Compelling is the only way to describe the take on ‘Barbados’, complete with latinised percussion.

This number has long been a favourite of Jazz Jamaica and Lovano succeeds in capturing the Caribbean flavour of the composition. Further Latin incursions, though this time of a Brazilian jazz kind, are to be found on ‘Dewey square’ and this is so convincing Joe Lovano really ought to think about devoting an entire album to this genre. Esperanza Spaulding plays a lovely lengthy bass solo while James Weidman impresses with lyrical piano riffs. This is an outstanding ensemble performance with some truly novel takes on a normally all-too familiar repertoire, thus cleverly avoiding the pitfall of playing old school be-bop. A brief late March UK tour takes in the south-east and north-east of England. Hopefully he will return for an extended tour in the near future.

Tim Stenhouse

Richie Spice ‘The Book of Job’ (VP) 3/5

Contemporary reggae singer Richie Spice has been on the scene for some time now and this is his fifth album. It steers between a modern update on the classic roots genre and a more lovers-oriented approach and works best on the songs devoted to the more socially conscious side of the singer’s songwriting. A potential future single and arguably the most convincing track on the entire album is ‘Find Jah’ which, from the very first notes, is an instant winner. More of this style is required from Spice. Almost as good is the opener ‘Better tomorrow’ with lovely female harmonies. The lilting hues of ‘Confirmation’ has Spice’s voice somewhere between a roots vocalist and the saucer delivery of say Sizzla. In fact Richie sounds positively like a latter-day Dennis Brown on ‘Serious woman’ with its subtle use of keyboards. Produced mainly by Donovan Germain and elsewhere by Shane Brown and Stephen ‘Lenky’ Mardsen, this latest album is a mixed bag of goodies and the slightly annoying intro vocalizing by Spice, which is repeated on several songs, could do with being dispensed with immediately. Singles already out included within feature a take on the Crusaders ‘Street life’ retitled ‘My life’ and ‘Jah never let us down’.

Tim Stenhouse

Mariza ‘Fado Tradicional’ (EMI) 4/5

Now in her mid-thirties, Portuguese fado diva Mariza is now very much at the peak of her creative talents and as such is the natural inheritor to Amelia Rodrigues’ mantle as the queen of fado. An impeccable selection of songs is matched only by the flawless delivery. She even pays homage to the former star on Rodrigues’ own composition ‘Ai, esta pena de mim’ (’Oh this pain of mine’) which sounds as though it could be straight out of a traditional taverna setting. Pared down and with the minimum of instrumentation required, Mariza here sings largely a capella with just strings to accompany her. The pace varies somewhat on ‘Na tua do silêncio’ where Mariza delivers a breezy rendition and on the excellent ‘As meninas dos meus olhos’ (’The apples of my eyes’). In terms of quality, this merits a five star rating. However, given the paucity of time (barely thirty-five minutes) one star has been deducted. An additional half a dozen songs could easily have been added on. It is high time an extended live recording was made on CD at least. UK audiences will have the opportunity to hear Mariza live during a relatively brief tour in May and in particular the intimate rapport that she has established with audiences in this country. It should truly be an occasion to savor.

Tim Stenhouse

Kit Downes Trio ‘Quiet Tiger’ CD (Basho) 4/5

This new album is the follow up to the ‘Golden’ debut set that was nominated for a Mercury prize and introduced the pianist to a significantly wider audience than might normally be the case for an emerging jazz talent. It is not, in fact, a trio album in the strictest sense of the term since tenorist/clarinettist James Allsopp and cellist Adrien Dennfield feature on some pieces. Possibly the album’s greatest selling point is the beautiful ballad ‘With A View’ which shimmers with tension and Downes plays a rolling piano style that conjures up both Keith Jarrett and Abdullah Ibrahim. The pianist sets off on an extended excursion on the be-bop influenced ‘Frizzi Pazzi’, so titled because of a sweet that is popular in the South Tyrol. Throughout this album, there is a slightly menacing tone and indeed brooding atmosphere, and this is no better illustrated than on the tribute to the legendary folk-blues singer-songwriter simply titled ‘Skip James’.

Here Downes delivers a truly soulful performance. Equally haunting is ‘Attached’ where the quintet is heard to its full potential with cello and bass clarinet combining beautifully. Freer form sounds emerge on ‘Wooden Birds’ and ‘The Wizards’. A varied set, then, and one that confirms that the initial interest in Kit Downes’ musicianship was not misguided, far from it. An extensive UK tour began in late February and does not end until mid-May.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘The Breaks’ 2CD (Harmless) 4/5

A second compilation of selection from Dean Rudland carries on from the above with a slightly more up-tempo representation of grooves which is even more diverse than the first and covers old school funk, the alternative side of disco, organ-groove jazz, early rap and even some blues. Thus Instant Funk’s epic ‘Got my mind made up’ sits next to the Mohawks skinhead reggae-funk classic ‘The champ’ and Cymande’s ‘Bra’ rubs shoulders with the Last Poets’ ‘Run nigger’. Rare groove discoveries include the surprisingly good 1980 Philly magic of ‘Hurry up this way again’ from the Stylistics and Aaron Neville’s New Orleans soul on the Allen Toussaint penned ‘Hercules’. The left-side of disco gets a look in with Liquid Liquid’s underground hit ‘Cavern’ and the Salsoul heaven from Gaz on ‘Sing sing’. Smoother grooves from Philly International and Hi are showcased as on the previous compilation and they include Al Green’s wonderful ‘Love and happiness’, the O’Jays laid back ‘Cry together’ and Jean Plum’s seminal ‘Here I go again’. Even more esoteric is the pared down funk-blues of Lowell Fulsomn on ‘Tramp’ and some instrumental jazz-dance magic from Funk Incorporated on ‘Kool is back’. The majority of these originals have been sampled by contemporary hip-hop and rap artists and the rhythms will be instantly recognisable to most. Again terrific value for money with informative sleeves notes and all the basic details you require on the individual tunes.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Mellow Mellow’ 2CD (Harmless) 4/5

Dean Rudland has forged a reputation as one of the most trustworthy among compilation specialists and this latest offering does little to dissuade one of his discerning ears. The focus here is one the more laid back of classic soulful sounds, but in the process it straddles eras (early 1970s through to mid-1980s), labels (Hi and Philly International being particularly well represented) with the odd surprise into the bargain. It has to be said that some of the songs have featured on previous compilations and long-term collectors should expect some repetition, but that does not detract in any way from the quality on offer. Rare grooves from Andrew White with ‘I’m so much in love with you’ and Lou Courtney with ‘What do you want me to do’ impress and when Jae Mason’s ‘Cloud of sunshine’ and Maryan Farra add Satin Soul and their superb living in the footsteps of another girl’ are thrown into the mix, you know you have an excellent set of tunes to select from. Rudland is clearly a devotee of the Philadelphia sound and at some point it would be nice to hear an entire compilation devoted to this city. In the meantime here the Jones Girls’ ‘This feeling’s killing me’ and Teddy Pendergrass’ ‘Heaven knows’ are just a couple of the Philly-based grooves on offer while Jean Plum’s Hi 45 ‘Look at the boy’ is certainly worthy of your attention. At seventy-five minutes per side it is also unbeatable value for money.

Tim Stenhouse

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo ‘Cotonou Club’ 2LP/CD/DIG (Strut) 4/5

This is definitely a trip down memory lane with a super 70s retro Afro-funk feel permeating the entire album, though it is in fact a brand new recording. A storming opener in ‘Ne te fâches pas’ (’Don’t get angry’) starts proceedings off on the right footing (albeit one with a large James Brown imprint) and there is delicate rhythm guitar work that reminds one of Ghanaian highlife. West African grooves surface also on the excellent ‘Pardon’, which could just as easily be from a Nigerian band. With its driving bass, repetitive riff and chorus, the mid-tempo number ‘Von vo viono’ is a terrific slice of 70s Afro-funk. However, it would be wrong to portray the Orchestra as merely Fela disciples. In fact there is a good deal more variety and even subtlety in other songs. This is illustrated by the gentle paced intro to ‘Ma vie’ which builds up into something one might have expected to have originated from Zimbabwe, or South Africa. Latin vibes predominate on ‘Koumi dede’ with its incessant piano vamps underneath a basic Afro-funk structure. This has the potential to be a dance floor smash. Guest vocalist Angélique Kidjo alternates on lead vocals on the rapid and ultra funky ‘Gbeti madjro’ while Fatoumata Diawara contributes vocals on the brassy hues of ‘Mariage ou c’est lui’. Even Franz Ferdinand gets a look in on ‘Lion is burning’. All in all a great return to form and one looks forward immensely to the forthcoming tour.

Tim Stenhouse

Neil Cowley Trio ‘Radio Silence’ (Naim Jazz) 3/5

On this third album from Neil Cowley and his regular trio, British influences are very much to the fore with some of Cowley’s pianistic favourites added into the mix. These include the pop/rock inspired ‘Hug the greyhound’ and the blues inflections of ‘Desert to Rabat’ that is evocative of a desert journey. Sometimes the tempo is just a little too rapid for the listener, becoming too immersed in technique rather than allowing the musicality of the trio to shine through and this can sometimes alienate the listener as on ‘Gerald’. Elsewhere the building of tension into crescendos as on the lyrical ballad ‘Radio silence’ is inspirational and hints at greater heights for the trio. There are elements of EST in the lengthy ‘Portal’ and of Brad Mehldau on the nice mid-tempo shuffle of ‘Stereoface’ while the intriguingly titled ‘French lesson’ actually has a Spanish-tinged feel akin to that created by Chick Corea. An extensive UK tour will begin in May and into 
June.

Tim Stenhouse

Dave Stapleton Quintet ‘Between the Lines’ (Edition) 4/5

Pianist Dave Stapleton has on this third album weaved an intoxcating mix of post-bop and avant garde influences into a cohesive project that combines melodic compositions and yet is challenging in equal measure. He excels on ballads such as ‘Dry white’ which illustrates the maturity of the band and has something of a mid-1960s Blue Note feel to it (the album cover itself surely is inspired by the inconic covers of the legendary label). Indeed the classical romanticism of Ravel allied with early 1970s Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett are clearly major inspirations for Stapleton while saxophonist Ben Waghorn seems to a devotee of Wayne Shorter from his Miles quintet and Blue Note tenures. In contrast, ‘Socks first’ is a piece that takes a leaf out of McCoy Tyner’s modal innovations and even hints at a Spanish influences while ‘Doc Lightyear’ takes the quintet into altogether different territory with New Orleans and even freer elements evident. Even a bop tribute on ‘Wig wag’ transforms itself part way through into something stylistically more leftfield. The extensive airing of ballads and all self-penned compositions is a refreshing change and this is certainly in general a cut above the usual session and bodes well for the future. In particular one should applaud the extent to which Dave Stapleton at times plays a supportive role to enhance the overall quintet sound. Definitely a group to watch out for.

Tim Stenhouse

Miles Davis ‘Walkin’ (Jazz Wax Records) LP 4/5

During the mid-1950s before signing for Columbia, Miles Davis cut a series of highly acclaimed recordings for Prestige and ‘Walkin’ was one of the earliest of these. The line up oscillates between two formations on either side of the vinyl. For the first Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke make up the sumptuous rhythm section with Lucky Thompson on tenor and J.J. Johnson on trombone. For the second side the rhythm section is repeated, but the seldom heard alto saxophonist Dave Schalk replaces the two other reedmen. The album became famous for the extended version of the title track which would go on to be a Davis staple tune well into the 1960s and for a nice rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Blues’ n’ boogie’. Equally of interest is Miles’ own composition ‘Solar’ which was an indication of the compositional genius that was to follow. While not quite on a par with ‘Cookin’ and ‘Relaxin’’ when Miles had truly found a solid rhythm section to play repeatedly with in live and recorded settings, ‘Walkin’ is nonetheless an album of consistently high standard and one on which Davis’ distinctive trumpet sound was well on the way to being formed. Original sleeve notes from renowned critic Ira Gitler place the album and artists featured therein in their rightful historical context.

Tim Stenhouse