Category Archives: Album Reviews

Janette Mason ‘Alien Left hand (Fireball) 4/5

Having forged a reputation as a television and film arranger and composer, pianist Janette Mason has recorded a second album that is both a breath of fresh air and a mature and wholly engaging listen. Compositionally this is an overall work of great sophistication and one where sheer musicality wins out. Possibly the influence of pianists such as Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett in knowing how to create space has impacted upon Mason. Certainly this is very American sounding. A varied selection of self-composed pieces includes the beautiful ‘Mae’s Song’, a ballad dedicated to her musician mother and one that EST would have been proud of. The catchy and inventive re-working of ‘Sweet Dreams’ is indicative of Janette Mason’s inventive mind and the shift between chorus and bass/piano vamp makes for fascinating listening. Soulful is the only way to describe ‘The Blues walked out’ and accomplished ensemble playing permeates proceedings with the subtle use of hammond organ in the background providing layered texture. With a shifting tempo on the title track, a larger brass ensemble piece, what a great way to end the album and hint at potentially new areas for the leader to explore in future albums. An exquisite album of depth and new ideas successfully transmitted to the listener.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Iberico Jazz. The productions of Antoliano Toldos 1967-1972’ (Vampi Soul) 4/5

Jazz and Spain have enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration and this has ranged from pianists such as Pedro Iturralde and Chano Dominguez, flamenco-fusion such as Jorge Pardo, through to enterprising labels such as Fresh Sound out of Barcelona and its championing of homegrown talent like Perico Sambeat. The Discos Calandria label, however, is far well less known to the public save for a few connoisseurs and it is therefore a welcome discovery to find the sides contained within this compilation that are the brainchild of Antoliano Toldos. After settling in Madrid at the age of twenty, Toldos had a break into the music industry after Spanish national television placed him in charge of composing and recording duties for the test patterns between programmes. Toldos recruited top musicians such as Iturralde and began producing a series of singles on his Calandria label. The first jazz sides were recorded in 1967 and this is serves as the starting point for ‘Iberico Jazz’. Clearly Spanish jazz musicians at the time were influenced by American jazz and in particular the Blue Note label, and more generally the genre known as Latin-jazz. This is reflected in the superb grooves of the Conjunto Selif on ‘Tom Jazz’, which has a catchy rhythm in the same vein as ‘Watermelon Man’, with an impressive Freddie Hubbard-like trumpet solo to accompany it, and the percussive-heavy ‘Trompeta Loca’ with Wes Montgomery-influenced guitar licks and the feel of ‘Cantaloupe Island’. Equally impressive are Quinteto Monteliro with the compilation’s title track that takes a leaf out of the Les McCann piano book while ‘Opaco’ offers a decidely flamenco feel on trumpet and hints at what Miles Davis might have sounded like if surrounded by the cream of Spanish jazz musicians. Big band bossa permeates the length of ‘Flauta ‘blue’’ from Quinteto Diamont alongside more mainstream jazz from the collective. Conjunto Segali provide a modal flavour to the floating ‘Jazz Progressivo’ and brass a la Roland Kirk on ‘Jazz a las tres’. All in all, this is an excellent jazz compilation that will appeal to fans of jazz-dance, funky jazz and plain old opened-minded jazz alike.

Tim Stenhouse

Brother Jack McDuff ‘Gin and Orange’ (Dusty Groove) 4/5

Eugene McDuffy, better known as Brother Jack McDuff, is an Illinois-born hammond B3 organist who is equally at ease with blues, soul and funk-inflected grooves as he is with jazz. He forged his early reputation as an organist for the Prestige label and in particular for his recordings alongside crack band members comprising guitarist George Benson, saxophonist Red Holloway and drummer Joe Dukes. McDuff, however, also played as sideman with a host of top jazz musicians including Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef and Sonny Stitt among others.

By the late 1960s the traditional organ jazz combo was undergoing new influences, primary amongst them being the new drum beats pioneered by James Brown’s band and the emerging sound of soul. This was reflected in the two albums McDuff recorded at this period for Blue Note with the grittier ‘Down Home Style’, taking a leaf out of the Stax label, and on the superb ‘Moon Rappin’’, where improvisation and funky licks merged effortlessly. Jack McDuff was shifting at this stage between the legendary Blue Note and other labels, but then began what proved to be a long-term collaboration with the jazz subsidiary of Chicago’s Chess label, Cadet. 

It is from this fruitful collaboration that ‘Gin and Orange’, recorded in 1969, derives. Clearly McDuff’s music was in a transitional period with not only the aforementioned soul and funk influences, but equally those of psychadelic rock. A new style characterised by heavy bass lines, with greater emphasis placed upon the rhythm, came to the fore. It was not uncommon at this time to hear jazz 45s on jukeboxes and the boogaloo-inspired title track was an obvious attempt to garner wider public appeal.

Easy listening mid-tempo grooves can be heard on the lilting ‘On the case’ while repetitive groove-laden irffs abound on ‘Get it up’. Long-term fans of the organist will be attracted by arguably the catchiest self-composition, ‘With the wind’, harking back in sound to the classic mid-1960s combo while ‘Channel One’ is uptempo and classic McDuff territory on which nice guitar licks and hammond solos predominate. Among his Cadet recordings, then, ‘Gin and Orange’ surely rates as one of McDuffs most eclectic albums. While it did not quite reach the dizzy heights of ‘Heatin’ System’ (richly deserving of a re-issue again) or ‘Natural Thing’, it nonetheless showcased the new McDuff sound and as a difficult enough album to find is a welcome discovery for the listener. 

Tim Stenhouse

Popcorn Wylie ‘Extrasensory Perception’ (Dusty Groove) 5/5

Detroit rightly earned a reputation for some of the classiest soul music and this wonderful mid-1970s album does little to dissuade one of this view. Richard ‘Popcorn’ Wylie began his career as one of many aspiring musicians and singers at Motown, and indeed cut a couple of late 1960s 45s for the label in addition to performing for a time as in-house pianist. However, by the early 1970s Wylie had decided to focus on his songwriting skills and instead began a fruitful collaboration with the Holland brothers on Motown subsidiary Invictus. Thus by the time it came to record the album contained within in 1974, Wylie had not only acquired substantial experience as a songwriter, but could also count upon the support of some of the cream of session musicians on offer. The all-round strength of the album songs and its timeless feel is testimony to the multiple skills deployed here. Add in the formidable writing skills of one Lamont Dozier, the arrangements of Paul Riser and Gene Page, and a classy album was always on the cards. Soaring strings and gorgeous harmonies abound on ‘Lost Time’ and the opener ‘Singing about you and me’. Wylie’s vocals are not dissimilar to those of Dozier and his rasping voice is used to good effect on the mid-tempo stormer ‘Georgia’s after hours’. A terrific left-field track is the instrumental ‘How did I lose you’ which sounds like something off a Marvin Gaye soundtrack album. Inspired vocals and arrangements are in abundance on ‘ESP’ and one cannot fail to be impressed by the beautifully crafted production. An exceptionally strong album, then, by a musician’s musician and this uplifting and neglected masterpiece is fully deserving of re-issue.

Tim Stenhouse

Bonga ‘Bairro’ (Lusafrica) 4/5

From the same label that introduced us to the sounds of Lura and more recently the earliest recordings of Cesaria Evora comes a new album from a legendary figure in Angolan music, but one who has strangely not caught on with a wider audience until now. Bonga has enjoyed a long and distinguished career and during the 1970s released two classic albums adored by African music cognoscenti: Bonga ‘72 and Bonga ‘74. However, he is equally well known in his native Angola as both a footballer (for the inimitable Benfica of Lisbon)and as a political activist as spokesman for the Angolan Liberation Movement or MPLA. In fact it was in this latter role that Bonga was forced to flee the dictatorship of Salazar and seek refuge first in Portugal and then in Paris. The latest album, fittingly recorded in Lisbon and Paris, is arguably his best in a couple of decades and what makes this music such a treat is the multiplicity of influences on offer. Bonga’s style is known as semba which in practice is a variation on the classic Brazilian samba, particularly with the use of the cavaquinho string instrument, and the lilting rhythms that accompany this genre. One of the albums highlights is the mournful ‘Kipiri’ which takes a leaf out of Cape Verdean morna while the opener and title track is a laid back blues-inflected burner of a song. In stark contrast the uptempo ‘Zukada’ with its gorgeous background harmonies is influenced by Antillean dance music, ‘Mana Minga’ by Congolese soukous and ‘Aguenda’ by traditional Brazilian samba. Perhaps strongest of all the faster tempos on ‘Bairro’ is the joyous accordeon-led ‘Makanisa’ which hints at Columbian vallenato. In sum Bonga’s singer-songwriter talents are admirably showcased here and the album from start to finish is both a listening and dancefloor treat.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Wish You Too the Best Christmas Ever’ (Trikont) 4/5

Christmas. That joyful time of year when everyone rushes around like demented rabbits in search of the perfect present and one has to suffer the annual ravings of the in-laws. For a truly alternative take on the Christmas message and to celebrate the less savoury, and some one say more realistic aspects of the festive period, Trikont have unearthed a second volume of festive rantings and one which is the audio equivalent of cinema’s Billie Bob Thornton’s ‘Bad Santa’ meets Will Ferrell’s ‘Elf’.

The compilation covers the whole gamut of Americana focusing predominantly on classic soul and blues, but not forgetting the rootsy side of country with bluegrass ably represented. From the Stax vaults comes a timely reflection by the Staple Singers in ‘Who took the merry out of Christmas?’ and a superb ‘Gee whiz, it’s Christmas’ from Carla Thomas whereas Big John Greer in full festive mood affirms ‘We wanna see santa do the mambo’. More unusual are the countrified takes on the festive period with a downside ‘Blue Christmas’ from Ernest Tubb’ and a more upbeat ‘Christmas time’s a-coming’ from Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. For the truly esoterical, however, sample the French language questioning of Santa’s very existence on ‘Je et tu ne croient plus au Pere Noel’ by Marianne Dissard and Ampiro Sanchez, the alternative disco of ‘Christmas Wrapping’ from the Waitresses (later massacred by the Spice Girls) and the melodic punk of Japanese duo Coconami on ‘Sleigh Ride’. Add in some gospel courtesy of Sons of Heaven, blues from Jimmy Witherspoon and Sonny Boy Williamson respectively, and you have a genuinely eclectic interpretation of Christmas that will have the relatives running for cover.

Tim Stenhouse

Putumayo presents ‘A Jazz & Blues Christmas’ (Putumayo)

Only real Xmas release we’ve had through this year, a well rounded collection that has Ray Charles doing ‘Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer’ and the intriguingly titled ‘Wrap Yourself in a Christmas Package’ which I’ve not heard of before but was apparently first brought out in 1961 by Charles Brown (who is featured on this CD with ‘Santa’s Blues), here it’s covered by Randy Greer and Ignasi Terraza Trio. Other tracks come courtesy of Mighty Blue Kings, Riff Riffin, The Dukes of Dixieland, Ramsey Lewis, Emilie-Claire Barlow and BB King.

Graham Radley

Cesaria Evora ‘Radio Mindelo. Early Recordings’ (Lusafrica) 4/5

Cap Verdean veteran singer Cesaria Evora has become known to an international audience at a relatively late stage in her career, but in her early twenties at the begining of the 1960s had already become the darling of national radio on the islands. This luxuriously packaged CD with extensive tri-lingual liner notes pulls together various sessions that were previously unissued and were found by chance among master tapes. Now lovingly re-mastered they represent a priceless document of Cesaria’s early career when she was struggling to make end’s meet. In fact at this time she did not even have enough money to pay for a pair of shoes and this led to her being nicknamed ‘the shoeless diva’, and also explains why to this day when performing live she does so in her bare feet.

The CD reveals that even in her youth Evora’s voice was almost fully matured and in a pared down setting that allows us to marvel at the sheer musicality of Cape Verdean morna which in influence is close to Portugese fado (the influence of the great Amalia Rodrigues is evident), but also to Cuban and Congolese rumba, and even classic Brazilian samba. From the mournful lament of ‘Mar Azul’, a song revisited in recent years, to the uplifting exuberance of ‘Terezinha’ and the forbidden fruit uncovered in ‘Frota probido’ and the anthemic cavaquinho inflections of ‘Beirona’, this is a re-issue richly deserving of repeated listening. Probably the rootsiest CD to emerge of 1960s music since Guillermo Portables’ ‘El Carretero’ in the mid-1990s.

Tim Stenhouse

Stan Tracey Octet ‘The Early Works’ 2CD (Resteamed) 4/5

As part of the ongoing series of re-issues comes the latest instalment of classic Stan Tracey sides. This focuses on live recordings from the mid to late 1970s, with the leader’s compositional skills to the fore, and captures Tracey and the larger ensembles in top form. By this period Stan Tracey had completed his long stint as house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s and was beginning to explore freer jazz forms in both duet and larger ensemble formats. Comprising three separate recordings, the one on CD2 features a set from the Salisbury Arts festival. The octet formation was born out of three commissioned pieces for the festival and showcases a mouthwatering line up of British jazz from the era including trumpeter Harry Beckett and reed players Trevor Watts, Alan Skidmore and Don Weller respectively. Of the extended numbers, ‘Peg-leg Bates’ impresses with its heavy emphasis on swing while ‘Ballad for St. Ed’ reveals the influence once more of Ellington in Tracey’s playing. The line up would be modified slightly on other dates with bassist Dave Green and saxophonist Peter King featuring among others.

The first CD from an earlier concert at Bracknell is more blues-inflected while being in the post-bop style and is characterised by a winning combination of stabbing horns and melodic compositions. Excellent saxophone solos and highly improvised piano intros make for highly enjoyable listening with a bonus being the unreleased encore of ‘Chiffik’. 2009 will see Tracey revisit some of the octet suites and if this is a taster of what is to come it should prove be both essential viewing and listening in the new year. A previous BBC Omnibus documentary featured the octet formation during the original period.

Tim Stenhouse

Gotan Project ‘Live’ 2CD (Ya Basta) 4/5

Gotan Project’s live recordings are something of a cause celebre (for essential viewing see their previous live DVD which is an ideal accompaniment)and the combination of acoustic instrumentation and electronic beats have resulted in a cult fan base and a welcome re-invigoration of the classic tango sound that is already enjoying a renaissance in its native Argentina. This new offering captures two separate live performances from distinct tours, one resulting the first album during a concert in London in 2003, and the second from a more recent live gig in Switzerland, 2007, focusing on the ‘Lunatico’ album. In luxurious digipak format with gatefold sleeve, the recordings are every bit at stylish as the ever inventive packaging. With only one noteable change in the line up for the latest tour, this being a new pianist Lalo Zanelli, the sound is remarkably good for a live session and consistently strong throughout. There are no less than three separate versions of their signature tune ‘Santa Maria(Del Buen Ayre) and two versions of the latest dancefloor hit ‘Diferente’ with a faithful rendition of ‘Triptico’. As an introduction to the group’s distinctive sound, this is exemplary music.

Tim Stenhouse