18th Feb2017

Sugar Pie DeSanto ‘A Little Bit of Soul: 1957-1962’ (Jasmine) 4/5

by ukvibe

When ACE records released, ‘Go Go Power: the complete Chess singles 1961-1966’, a few years back, you could have been forgiven for thinking that would be all the Sugar Pie DeSanto sides you would ever require. Thankfully, this excellent new compilation proves all sceptics wrong and adds to the panoramic picture with the inclusion in full of a 1962 album that the singer recorded for Chess on their soul offshoot, Checker. In addition, it offers the substantial bonus of a series of 45s on independent labels that preceded her tenure with Chess. Moreover, there is precious little duplication either since there are only four songs that overlap and thus the new set represents a fine accompaniment to the existing and already excellent ACE overview.
Of great interest to fans of gritty R & B is cult bay Area producer Bob Geddins for the self-titled album from 1962. Where this differs crucially from the singles is that Sugar Pie’s wonderfully vibrant vocal delivery was, on the album format, given full reign to cover a diversity of styles and these included gospel, blues and jazz, as well as R & B idioms. There is a definite hint of the influence of Dinah Washington on some songs here and the former was at the zenith of her commercial popularity at the time, something that a young Sugar Pie DeSanto could not fail to have observed, and possibly hoped to replicate in turn. Certainly, the intimate jazz-tinged guitar and saxophone work wonders on, ‘Maybe you’ll be there’, and on the standard, ‘It’s not for me to stay’. Fans of Donny Osmond will recall his hit single from the 1970s, ‘The twelfth of never’, but how many are aware that Johnny Mathis had the first hit with that song in 1957 and DeSanto transforms the piece into a slow moving gospel number. One of this writer’s favourite numbers from the album is the gentle mid-tempo groove of, ‘I still care’, which actually has a strong Chicago blues feel even though it was not actually recorded in the Windy City. In fact, another song, ‘I don’t feel sorry’, comes across as a proto-Motown sound, albeit with a country-soul bent. Of course, the driving uptempo R & B songs are what DeSanto is best known for and she could certainly belt them out as and when required. An album track that should have been released as a 45 is the low down grit of, ‘Tell me what’s the matter’, which is a contender for the strongest song on the CD as a whole along with the beautiful female harmonies to ‘Ask me’ and ‘Open your heart’. Arranger and conductor Riley Hampton is to be congratulated for his work here and on several numbers including the excellent, ‘Can’t let you go’, the lovely bass line and hi-hat drums are a prominent feature and only enhance the listening experience.

As for the early singles, they are notable in that they feature duets with her husband, Pee Wee Kingsley, aka Alvin Parker. DeSanto would make duets a trademark of her repertoire and, while the early singles lack the same quality of instrumental support or studio sound of the later Chess period, they nonetheless are an indication of what was to come and for fans of the singer, it is extremely useful to have them all in one place to compare and contrast. A very worthy re-issue, then, from one of R & B’s most tenacious and individual singers. The photos by the way are most likely taken from a live date at the Jigsaw Club in Manchester circa 1966 and are testimony to the athletic and expressive prowess of the singer.

Tim Stenhouse

16th Feb2017

Aaron Parks ‘Groovements’ (Stunt) 4/5

by ukvibe

Seattle born pianist Aaron Parks first came to prominence in 2008 with his acoustic fusion debut for Blue Note, ‘Invisible Cinema’, and then five years later followed this up with an excellent ECM solo recording, ‘Abrorescence’, which was arguably his strongest album to date. Parallel to this, Parks has been a regular contributor to the James Farm collective that among others includes saxophonist Joshua Redman.
His new trio outing is on the independent Danish Stunt label that is carving out a reputation for quality jazz musicians and he is accompanied in the endeavour by bassist Thomas Fonnesbaek and drummer Karsten Bagge. While, perhaps, not as adventurous as the ECM album, this is nonetheless a highly enjoyable and melodic recording that takes on board various classical and contemporary influences from Debussy and Satie to Arvo Pärt, and from a jazz perspective from Paul Bley to Keith Jarrett and through to Brad Mehldau. In parts, there is a lightness of touch that recalls the Bill Evans trio, especially on a piece such as, ‘Elutheria’, and the interplay between trio members suggests that collectively they have soaked up the innovatory aspects of the classic Evans era.

Musicality is at the very core of, ‘Alcubierre’s law’, which has wonderful floating quality, and where one really hears the trio in unison. Whereas there is a reposing quality to, ‘Forever this moment’, the emphasis is more on the blues on, ‘A rabbit’s tale’, with a delightful bass line in the main theme that lingers long on the mind. In general, Aaron Parks specialises in quiet contemplative music and this is illustrated further on, ‘Winter’s waltz’, a piece that was composed by Fonnesboek. The choice of what has become something of a modern jazz standard in Cedar Walton’s, ‘Bolivia’, is treated less as a Latin-infused number as on the original and more as a piece with shifting polyrhythms that are expertly crafted by Bagge. One pop cover is intriguingly a Bruce Springsteen composition, ‘I’m on fire’, that here takes on a distinctive gentle New Orleans mid-tempo groove with inventive percussion work from Bagge. Classical music is not forgotten with a gorgeous pared down ballad taken from Carlo Neilsen’s, ‘Tit er jeg glad’, and featuring just piano and double bass, with Fonnesboek entering into an extended solo. In sum, a well balanced offering of modern and classic straight ahead flavours that impresses the listener from start to finish.

Tim Stenhouse

15th Feb2017

Club d’Elf ‘Live at Club Helsinki’ (Face Pelt) 4/5

by ukvibe

Crossing musical boundaries is something that some artists do better than others. Club d’Elf must be near the top of the tree in this respect, with their genre-leaping, eclectic fusion of dub-jazz, prog-rock, drum ‘n’ bass, psychedelic Moroccan dosed improvisational music. As much defined by sci-fi writer Philip K Dick, as by the parallel universes of Miles Davis and Fela Kuti, the band draws its inspiration from many diverse sources. Featuring keyboard wizard John Medeski, along with Brahim Fribgane, Duke Levine, Mister Rourke, Mike Rivard and Dean Johnston, this Boston based collective excel in the combined use of analogue keys and synths, guitars, turntables, laptops, horns, tablas and all manner of exotic instruments. Other guest contributors include DJ Logic, Mark Sandman, Hassan Hakmoun and Billy Martin, as the band take to the stage to embrace their non-convention with their musical menagerie of sound and spirit.Live at Club Helsinki is a double album of improvisational acumen, performed and recorded at one of the band’s favourite venues. The combination of excellent sound, intimate environment and an audience tuned into the band’s every nuance, makes for a heady mix as the album captures the feel of two complete continuous sets of improv and classic Club d’Elf tunes.

Disc one starts with the free jazz opening of “Mogador”, featuring Medeski on grand piano, and segues seamlessly into one of the finest tracks on the album, “Africa”, driven by the brilliant, rootsy Telecaster of Duke Levine. The whole performance throughout this album constantly shifts from one style of music to another, almost tormenting the audience in a quirky kind of way, as if to say, ‘I bet you didn’t see this coming’. And yet Club d’Elf are masters at this, succeeding where many try and fail, with the incredible achievement of making it sound so natural that so many different styles can be mounded together to create something new, exciting and ultimately skillful and very enjoyable. “The Booloolu” employs an almost long forgotten groove, whilst “Hegaz” is based on a traditional Arabic scale. There is at times a wonderful flow to the music, as the solos sparkle and the deep grooves flirt with vivacious exuberance. The bass driven hip-hop of “Secret Atom” showcases the wizardry of Mister Rourke, whose rock-steady beat-matching and ability to pitch samples into the key of the song set him apart from many DJ’s. The first set closes with “Berber Song”, featuring some blistering solos from Medeski and Levine.

The Moroccan influence comes to the fore on the second set, beginning with a tribute to the late Maalem Mahmoud Guinia. “Zeed Al Maal” is another album highlight, featuring the vocals of Fribgane and Rivard’s intense and commanding playing of the Moroccan sintir, a camel skin covered bass lute. “Power Plant” follows, with Levine adding a James Bond-esque melody over a sintir propelled rhythm. The band then flows effortlessly into “Salvia” and “Green Screen”, with dance-floor filling electro-jams fuelled by Medeski’s funky clavinet. The last tune “Sidi Rabi” features Fribgane’s oud and vocals, closing the set on a spiritual note.

Club d’Elf have been drawing on a wide spectrum of styles since their formation in 1998. Each performance can feature a different line-up, drawn from a constellation of some of the most creative musicians from the jazz, DJ, rock and world music scenes of Boston and New York City, and “Live at Club Helsinki” captures well exactly what this band are all about.

Mike Gates

14th Feb2017

Various ‘Jazz in Italian Cinema’ LP only (Jazz on Film) 4/5

by ukvibe

For a brief period in the late 1950s until the early 1960s and the rapid emergence of rock and roll, cinema regularly drew up on jazz music as its evocative soundtrack and, in the case of Italian cinema, this coincided with a particularly fertile period in Italian cinema. All of the ‘big three’ of post WWII cinema composers in Italy (Piero Umiliani, Armando Trovajoli and Piero Piccioni) used jazz music as the background to their film soundtrack work and this provides a good deal of the material on this single vinyl set. Unlike in France, where swing jazz was closely associated with resistance to German occupation, in Italy jazz did not fare as well since under Mussolini and the fascists the music was banned altogether. It was only really from the mid-late 1950s onwards that jazz began to be heard in the country. Arguably, the first example of jazz and cinema combining harmoniously is to be found in the young Rome born composer, Piero Umiliani who, in 1957, released the influential album, ‘Da Roma a New York’. A further EP yielded, ‘Blues for Gassman Pt.1’, that is included here. While the single vinyl offering only provides the briefest of glimpses into the musical universe of Italian cinema, and a more comprehensive overview of jazz in Italian cinema is urgently required, similar to CD box set projects on French and Polish national cinemas (and that is indeed a feasible endeavour), this very first incursion into the musical world of Italian cinema is not without its significant merits, not least because it introduces us to some obscure and extremely hard to find music that has remained largely unknown to jazz aficionados. Who for example has previously sampled the delights of Chet Baker as invited guest with Italian octet performing in 1959? Even the most seasoned of Chet fans would probably only be familiar with his later 1962 studio release, ‘Chet in Milan’. Elsewhere, Argentine tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, then a resident in Italy, is the only international jazz musician of note to be showcased here. Of course, he would be the composer and performer of the 1972 Bernardo Bertolucci film, ‘Last tango in Paris’, that won plaudits for its musical content as well as the controversial nature of the film. How many non-Italian jazz musicians sought refuge in Italy over the decades? France is well chronicled, but that would be an aspect that a future edition could potentially address. Baker re-emerges as a guest on, ‘Oscar is the back’, part of the soundtrack by Dino Risi to the 1959 film, ‘The Widower’.

Interestingly, the majority of the music was composed by Italian pianists who were attracted to jazz, with Giorgio Gaslini a prime example who performs on the Michelangelo Antonioni classic, ‘La Notte’, with Jeanne Moreau (who features on the vinyl sleeve front cover) and Italian heartthrob Marcello Mastroianni. The moody, ‘Blues All’alba’ is a definite highlight here. The music was in fact recorded live on set and in this respect the improvised nature of the music is comparable to jazz. Some five years later, Antonini would call upon pianist Herbie Hancock to compose music for the title to his London-based cult film, ‘Blow up’. The theme from this was recorded on a 1967 Blue Note album under Bobby Hutcherson’s leadership, ‘Oblique’, that featured Hancock on piano and came out on vinyl only in Japan and, more generally, on CD in 1990. A question does need to be raised of how committed were the composers to jazz beyond this narrow period of interest. In other words, did they ever use the idiom of jazz again, or was it more of a case that jazz was no longer perceived as in-vogue and rock and roll flavours held sway with younger directors as well as the evergreen attraction of using western classical music to accompany films?

The album is likely to appeal to broad-minded jazz fans who are curious about the relationship between jazz and cinema on the one hand, and cinema fans on the other, who are interested in soundtracks and how the two art forms interact. What helps to bring them together here is the quality of the digitally enhanced black and white photos and the loving care of the presentation with great credit due to the in-depth sleeve notes of Jazzwise writer Selwyn Harris and Sienna-based jazz archivist and author, Francesco Martinelli. This is an Anglo-Italian collaboration we would very much wish to encourage and hope for further fruits. This helps greatly to compensate for the brevity of the musical time. What we now require is a meatier follow up that takes the story further and begins to fill in some of the key questions that this releases raised: at what point do more contemporary Italian jazz musicians of the calibre of trumpeter Enrico Rava, pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and even drummer Romano Mussolini enter the equation? Was the period 1957-1962 a mere one-off, or did jazz musicians at a later stage equally engage in soundtrack work? For the time being, this worthy release opens up a pandora’s box of fascinating questions, and Italian jazz is still very much outside of the country and its close neighbour in France where Italian jazz musicians, like actors, have always been welcomed with open arms.

Tim Stenhouse

13th Feb2017

Myele Manzanza ‘OnePointOne [Live at the Blue Whale]’ LP/DIG (First Word) 5/5

by ukvibe

November and December tend to be fairly quiet for new releases as our collective attention turns towards the festive season. Indeed, I doubt whether I would have known of Myele Manzanza’s latest album if it wasn’t for, of all things, an ad that popped up in my Facebook feed. Qualms about the evils of data sharing to one side, on this occasion I was thankful for the heads up. As you can tell from our 2016 end-of-year charts so were the rest of the team.
Manzanza’s debut, “One”, was originally released in New Zealand in 2012 before being picked up and given a wider distribution by BBE Music in 2013. “One Point One”, as the name suggests, is not an entirely new project, but an iteration stemming from the creativity ideas and musical vision expressed in the original. It’s a live recording of Manzanza’s first show in the US, featuring tracks from “One”, several covers and the odd original thrown in for good measure. The intention had only been to capture a live video of the song “City of Atlantis”, but on listening back to the whole set Manzanza felt it was strong enough to release as a long player.

Manzanza was formally schooled in Jazz, but has an outlook that extends well beyond this into hip-hop, beats, dance and electronica. “One” summed this all up nicely, but it’s definitely a studio production and one that needed adjustments to work live.

To help translate this into a live experience, Manzanza brought together fellow Kiwis, Mark de Clive-Lowe (keys), who’d played on the album, and Ben Shepherd (bass) to form the core trio. The addition of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s Quartetto Fantastico (Chris Woods and Paul Cartwright (violin), Peter Jacobson (cello) and the man himself (viola)) is a masterstroke as their sound adds further depth and texture.

The album begins with “A Love Eclectic”, the bait that Facebook used to lure me in in the first place. It’s a take on “Acknowledgement” from “A Love Supreme”, with viola leading the way instead of saxophone, surrounded by shimmering waves of sound from piano and drums. The drama and energy it gives off creates a great opening statement.

Later on, Atwood-Ferguson’s lead works even better on another jazz classic, the Bobby Hutcherson number “Montara”. This tune, a favourite of Manzanza’s, perfectly highlights the symbiosis of the old and the new; it’s classic Blue Note, but it’s also been reworked by Madlib. Drums replace the metronomic percussion of the original, the soothing sound of the strings stretching out and taking wing. It’s a wonderfully sensitive, warm moment.

“Absent Fade”, another of the string pieces, features an energetic solo from Mark De Clive-Lowe on piano that builds and builds. I’ve tended to think of Mark outside the Jazz genre, but it’s clear from his playing on this album that he’s got what it takes.

“7 Bar Thing” is the first of the tracks from “One”. In it’s original form it’s an out-and-out dance floor tune; this version retains all the vitality, with forceful drums and heavy bass, but pushes it a bit more into jazz funk territory, with some nice piano fills.

“Circumstances” gives Manzanza a chance to show us what he can do before the interval. Throughout this track and the album as a whole his playing is on point; punchy and driven where it needs to be, open and more communicative at other times.

The second half opens with a Theo Parrish cover, “Love is War for Miles”. Like “7 Bar Thing”, Manzanza’s arrangement maintains that sense of direction and purpose of the dance floor, whilst adding colour and variety to the melody.

The album ends with “City of Atlantis” featuring the whole group, plus Nia Andrews and Charlie K on vocals. Both strings and keys echo like recorded loops, only with more emphasis and tension. It’s a fitting climax to an enjoyable and varied album.

Myele Manzanza is playing at the Archspace in East London on 13 April.

Andy Hazell

12th Feb2017

Michel Polnareff ‘A L’Olympia 2016’ 2CD + Limited edition 3CD/4LP (Blue Wrasse) 5/5

by ukvibe

Among the genuine French pop musicians who came to prominence in the mid-1960s, Jacques Dutronc, Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy are generally considered to be the most successful and ones genuinely capable of rivaling their British counterparts. However, one name is missing from that list and that is Michel Polnareff, nicknamed ‘L’Amiral’ (‘Admiral’) with his trademark white sunglasses and outlandish dress sense. His eponymous 1967 debut recording became a cult classic, with ‘Love me, please love me’ capturing the flavour of late 1960s Paris, and indeed Polnareff continued into the early 1970s. At which point, he decided to move ship to the west coast of the United States and stopped recording altogether. Thirty-five years later in the mid-noughties, he made a well publicised come back tour with a series of ten concerts at Bercy in March 2007 and culminating late that year on 14 July with a concert in front of the Eiffel Tower. This more recent concert captures him live at the prestigious Olympia venue once again on Bastille Day 2016, the very same day as tragic events unfolded in Nice.
Available in multiple formats (a slimmed down single CD also exists, but the more generally available 2CD contains the entire two and a half hour concert), some have noted that the concert unfolds more in the manner of a documentary on Polnareff than the standard ‘Best of’ repertoire and for those who can understand beyond basic level French, there is an amazing and close rapport between singer and audience. To be precise, Michel Polnareff is a gifted singer-songwriter who has an ear for sensitive melodies as well as more uptempo material. However, he became seriously ill during 2016 and at one stage it was feared he would not make a recovery. Thankfully he did, and another overriding impression of this concert is of someone who is simply happy to still be alive and making quality music. What a non-French audience will have to understand is that while the lyrics and content are French, Polnareff has soaked up diverse American musical influences while resident there and thus elements of gospel, soul, blues and rock all enter into his musical universe. That he is well respected among British musicians is indicated by the presence on his debut album in 1967 of a young Jimmy Page (then with the Yardbirds) and of future fellow Led Zepplin bassist John Paul Jones. For the concert, several current American musicians make up his band including bassist Reggie McBride.

From the early period of his singing, the soulful groove of, ‘Sous quelle étoile suis-je né?’ (‘Under what star was I born?’) reveals an angelic voice and a sensitive keyboardist who, at various stages, solos at length and improvises on his most memorable themes. Polnareff has clearly spent a good deal of time listening to harmonies and the female background vocalists provide wonderful support throughout, but no more beautifully than on, ‘Qui a tué grand’Maman?’ (‘Who killed grandma?’).

Sometimes the rock element can become a little too prominent for this writer as on ‘Tam-Tam’, or ‘Dans la rue’, which felt like gatecrashing a party to which one was never invited. However, there is so much to admire elsewhere that the odd rock guitar can be accommodated. The sheer musicality of the songs comes shining through on several songs and is illustrated on, ‘Goodbye Marylou’ and the lovely piano riff to, ‘Ame Câline’, which is ideal singer-songwriter terrain. Jerry Lee Lewis and early rock ‘n’ roll must have been a seminal influence on the young Polnareff and the mixture of early rock and even boogie-woogie surfaces on, ‘Impro piano’, while the singer is in playful mood on the wordless, ‘Tbili’. A medley of his own composition, ‘Je t’aime’ with the late Prince’s, ‘Purple Rain’, is an unexpected surprise that actually works and the laid back groove of, ‘Holidays’, has a Californian flavour with falsetto vocals that again conjur up the sound of angels.

The concert proper ends with an encore of three songs of which ‘Hey you woman’ is sung by those stunning female vocal harmonies plus a funk-tinged Marcus Miller bass solo from McBride before Polnareff finally enters. A picture postcard French tradition singer he is not. However, if you can accept the authentic American influences in his music, then listening to Michel Polnareff in a live context will prove to be a truly thrilling experience.

Tim Stenhouse

11th Feb2017

Dorado and Amati Schmitt ‘Sinti du Monde’ (Stunt) 4/5

by ukvibe

Jazz manouche (‘gypsy jazz’), as it is called in French, is in the direct lineage of the great Django Reinhardt and is a key element in understanding why the French have developed such a passion for jazz music, and equally why jazz in France is equated with the battle for freedom and against totalitarian regimes. The Nazis in particular were scathing of music that they dismissed as ‘decadent’ and ‘perverse’ and from a minority group that they sought to systematically eliminate. In the 1930s the bal (dance) musette tradition of working class French life combined with the swing jazz prevalent at the time in the United States met head on and the major practitioner of this vibrant new from was of course guitarist Django Reinhardt. Father and son Dorado and Amato Schmitt are the modern day inheritors of this tradition, but have sought to give the tradition a uniquely modern twist while not losing anything of the essence of its source. Both in eastern France in Lorraine in 1957, guitarist, violinist and vocalist Dorado was influenced as a teenager by the guitar sounds of Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix, but in 1978 formed his own trio that included Gino Reinhardt on acoustic bass. A decade later, a serious car accident left Dorado in a coma for eleven days, but he was determined to come back from this adversity and in 1990 reformed the band. They have gone from strength to strength ever since.This new recording with a five piece band (four of whom are guitarists including Danish musician Esben Mylle Strandvig and minus any use of drums) was actually recorded live without any editing after having performed at a live concert. It is the second album for the Stunt label and is the follow up to the well received, ‘Amati and Dorado Schmitt live’ that came out in 2014. What is interesting about the sound created is that the virtuosity of the guitar work is such that the solos at times replicate the great saxophonist of the be-bop revolution, with Charlie Parker coming to mind. A groovy interpretation of, ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ is equalled by the highly melodic ‘For Francko’, where the guitar seemingly sings to the listener.

The music is easily accessible and a wider audience will be interested in hearing it provided that the music is sufficiently exposed. Dorado Schmitt is an undervalued artist with a direct link to the very roots of jazz manouche. In the current world order riddled by uncertainty and anxiety, it is reassuring to hear genuinely uplifting music that has stood the test of time remarkably well and expanded its roots to incorporate new elements.

Tim Stenhouse

10th Feb2017

Joan Baez ‘Three Classic Albums plus’ 2CD (Avid) 5/5

by ukvibe

The folk revival of the late 1950s and early-mid 1960s has been much heralded in recent years with biopics on the seminal figures such as Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan viewed as the figurehead, however reluctant he might have been to take on that daunting mantle. One singer who is sometimes overlooked, yet was an active participant alongside Dylan in the folk movement is Joan Baez and this fine retrospective groups together the early, and arguably the very best recordings that Baez cut both as a leader and with others. The recordings she made for Vanguard capture her voice at its zenith and this includes the eponymously titled debut from 1960. A famous interpretation of, ‘House of the rising sun’, probably influenced the Animals to record their now famous version of the folk standard. One of the loveliest songs here is the near six minute reading of, ‘Mary Hamilton’, and other favourites include, ‘Fare thee well’ and ‘John Riley’. Baez’s own Mexican and Scottish roots (a certain US President should take note here of the harmonious rapport between Mexicans and Scots. Singer Lila Downes is another fine example) made her receptive to a wider Spanish language folk tradition that Linda Ronstadt would at a much later stage use as an inspiration, and Baez delivers a beautiful folk tune in, ‘El preso numero nuevo’. Added to the first CD is an earlier 1959 recording of Baez from a various artists release in May 1959. Again the repertoire draws on the folk tradition and includes, ‘Black is the color’, a favourite of Nina Simone no less.

Her second album is divided between the two CDs, but is in keeping with the rest of the music. Baez is joined on two songs by the vocals of the Greenbriar Boys who are worth checking out on their own recordings. Here they provide gorgeous harmonies to, ‘Banks of the Ohio’ and ‘Pal of mine’. The lesser know material works well and includes a French language, ‘Plaisir d’amour’. Clearly, the young Joan Baez was soaking up all manner of musical influences. The remainder of the second CD is devoted to a live solo concert that Joan Baez recorded at various locations in 1962 with ‘Matty groves’ (which Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention would make a seminal reading of in 1969 after bluegrass folkster Doc Watson had recorded it in 1966) and ‘Kumbaya’ highlights and very little overlap with the studio recordings, apart from a new rendition of, ‘Black is the color of my true love’s hair’. Baez makes a further forage into world folk roots with the Portugese language, ‘Ate Amanha’.

As ever with Avid two-CD sets, the timing is incredibly generous with the first CD just lasting just over seventy-eight and a half minutes and the second only barely under the seventy-seven minutes mark. When the music is this good, there are absolutely no excuses for exploring the art of Joan Baez. If Shirley Collins is rightly fêted as the doyenne of English female folk singers (with the likes of Sandy Denny and Anne Briggs only marginally below), then Joan Baez is surely a prime candidate for the foremost American female singer of the postwar generation.

Tim Stenhouse

09th Feb2017

Deodato ‘Night Cruiser’ / ‘Happy Hour’ (Robinsongs) 3/5

by ukvibe

Better known for his production talents, notably with Kool and the Gang, Eumir Deodato hails from Brazil and first made his name in his native country as a gifted arranger for the likes of Marcos Valle, Milton Nascimento and not forgetting Astrud Gilberto and the late great Tom Jobim. As a performer in his own right, he cut some moderately successful albums, but first caught the eye ans ears of an international audience when he signed for Creed Taylor’s CTI label. A series of critically acclaimed and commercially popular albums ensued, with an unexpected pop hit that went to number two in the charts, ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’. A less successful period with MCA in the mid-1970s was followed by a new contract with Warner, which is where this re-issue fits in. While a more comprehensive Warner Brothers retrospective that included his late 1970s disco hits ‘Whistle bump’ and ‘Shazam’, would have made for a stronger and indeed more cohesive overview, this pairing of Deodato’s two early 1980s albums for the label captures him at the height of his commercial success as a producer and this is reflected in the shift of emphasis from a streetwise end of era disco and lighter from of jazz-funk in the first album to a more avowedly poppier sound in the second.

The keyboardist was still only in his late thirties when ‘Night Cruiser’ was released in 1980 and by this stage he had scored a major disco/pop hit producing ‘Ladies night’ for Kool and the Gang. Their early-mid 1970s funk tinged jazz had been smoothed out with a new lead vocalist. As far as ‘Night Cruiser’ was concerned, this was Deodato’s third album for the label and the one that resonated most with a dance oriented audience. ‘East Side Strut’ contains elements of the Earth, Wind and Fire horns, with strings added by Kermit Moore and a funk-inflected bass, and as a whole comes across as a kind of catchy neo-Bob James composition. Long-time fans of the Brazilian musician will recognise the title pattern since in 1973 he cut ‘Super Strut’ and in 1974 ‘Havana Strut’, and even a ‘Watusi Strut’ from 1975. The title track was a minor hit in the UK and was a classy disco instrumental. of more interest is, ‘Uncle Funk’, which sounds very much like an updated son of, ‘Pick up the pieces’, by the Average White Band, and that includes a rasping saxophone solo from Kool and the Gang horn player Ronald Bell. A much sampled, ‘Skatin’, features a percussive intro and then funky bassline, but both the handclaps and synths sound a tad dated to these ears.

Two years later in 1982, Deodato released, ‘Happy hour’, and this time round female vocals became more prominent in his sound, with the daughter of Latin percussionist Ray Barretto, Kelly taking on the main vocal duties. The first single, ‘Keep on movin’, remains true to the sound of the previous album, but it was the second single and title track, ‘Happy hour’, that fared better commercially and was aimed squarely at the pop as well as the dance charts. Hints of the classic Chic sound and Nile Rogers rhythm guitar emerge on, Keep it in the family’, which is possibly the strongest cut on the album.

In general, Dedoato the keyboardist was less interested in the virtuosity of say George Duke or Lonnie Liston Smith, both of whom became legends in the jazz-funk idiom. Rather, he was more interested in the commercial side and the two albums are testimony to his creative talents of creating a catchy tune and turning it into a dancefloor hit with wider pop potential. He merely repeated the winning formula in his productions of others.

Tim Stenhouse

08th Feb2017

Deniece Williams ‘Black Butterfly. The Essential Niecy’ 2CD (BBR) 4/5

by ukvibe

Blessed with an instantly recognisable and pure voice, Deniece Williams effortlessly oscillated between soul, pop and gospel music and this excellent anthology that begins in the mid-1970s and goes up to the late 1980s captures her at her finest. Reading through the authoritative sleeve notes from Christian John Wikane, it becomes evident that she was especially popular in the UK and at a time in the mid-late 1970s was disco was all the rage, Deniece Williams, with one notable exception, went counter to this trend.
Her debut solo album shares a prestigious place alongside those of Luther Vandross and Bill Withers in that they immediately made an international impact and were regarded as instant classics. Williams, like Vandross, gained useful experience as a background singer and this on a trio of Stevie Wonder albums that culimnated in, ‘Songs in the key of life’, and thus when ‘Niecy’ was released in 1976, she was far from being overawed by the recording studios. She scored a major number UK hit with ‘Free’ and if the several octave voice was sublime, then the co-production work by the sadly departed Charles Stepney and Maurice White was no less stunning. In this writer’s view the song, ‘That’s what friends are for’, from the same album is equally as strong with sublime harmonies and instrumentation supplied by Earth, Wind and Fire no less. A slow burner of a tune from the same album that is included on this anthology is, ‘If you don’t believe’. Arguably, ‘This is Niecy’, was the singer’s crowning achievement and a definitive slice of quality 1970s soul.

A year later, Williams would pair up with crooner Johnny Mathis for a classy touch of Philly-influenced soul balladry for what would become a smash UK and US pop hit, ‘Too much, too little, too late’, and the duo would continue to record together in the following decades. Interestingly, in reaching the top with this single, Mathis and Williams managed to knock off the number one spot, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack with,’The closer I get to you’. The duos are very much comparable. At this stage in Deniece Williams’ career, producer Thom Bell played a key role. Out of kilter with the rest of her repertoire, Williams cut one out and out disco number in, ‘I’ve got the next dance’, and while formulaic in nature, it was still good enough to hit the number one spot in the disco charts and the extended 12″ version is contained here.

By the early 1980s, quality soul was back in vogue (not that it had ever really gone out, just that dance oriented music had been in fashion since the mid-1970s and soul singers such as Bobby Womack suffered commercially as a result). In 1981 Williams released the underrated lovely mid-tempo song, ‘Silly’, that became a local radio hit in both Detroit and Philadelphia, but did not go on to major national success. She diversified with a return to her gospel roots on, ‘God is amazing’, taking a leaf out of Aretha’s twin gospel-soul heritage, while covering the classic Motown, ‘It’s gonna take a miracle’ and the top ten US R & B hit, once again reunited with Mathis for an early 1980s reprise of the Ashford and Simpson penned, ‘You’re all I need to get by’.

A change of producer in 1982 with George Duke breathed new life into Williams’ career and the classy, ‘Do what you feel’ that proved to be one of those rare critical and commercial hits with the wonderfully sensitive keyboard accompaniment of Duke and this was certainly one of her finest moments. The title track of the resulting album and in fact of this compilation, ‘Black Butterfly’, is an epic pop-soul ballad penned by another ace songwriter pairing, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, but it was in 1984 again under producer Duke that she scored a major pop hit in, ‘Let’s hear it for the boys’, that was mixed by Jellybean Benitez. This became a number once dance hit and crossed over to the upper échelons of the pop charts, capturing the flavour of the hedonistic 1980s. Thereafter Williams was re-branded as a dance diva which was too much of a straightjacket for a singer with such a wide range. A good deal of the mid-1980s material from that time onward falls into somewhat bland pop with a proto-Motown feel, typified by the underwhelming, ‘I can’t wait’. That said, such a naturally beautiful voice was always going to be capable of producing quality music under the right leadership and the string arrangements of Tom Tom 84 resulted in the lovely mid-tempo groove of, ‘The boy I left behind’. Excellent sleeve notes include numerous photos and label covers as well as page long tribute from Johnny Mathis.

Tim Stenhouse