Ustad Vilayat Khan ‘The genius of Vilayat Khan’ (ÉL) 4/5

For many devotees of Indian classical music on the Indian continent, and wider afield, Vilayat Khan is regarded very much as the equal of, and in some respects superior to, the late great Ravi Shankar and that says a great deal about the standing of the former. Alongside Ali Akbar Khan and Shankar, Vilayat Khan is regarded as one of the ‘three Musketeers’ of Indian classical music who were pioneering in their exposing the delights of the music to a western audience. While comparisons for a more general audience are more difficult to gauge, we can instead marvel at both exceptionally gifted musicians and revel in their deeply contrasting approaches and outlooks. Like Shankar, Vilayat Khan was a master sitar player (he passed away in 2004, aged eighty-two) and continued to perform well into his seventies and beyond. Two original vinyl albums from 1961 and 1962 have been combined here and represent excellent value for money at around seventy-five minutes. Even so, there are only four ragas in total and these are lengthy pieces that took up whole sides on the original LPs. Vilayat Khan developed his own distinctive style of playing known as gayahi ang, or vocal style by which we mean that he practised the sitar to emulate the sound of the human voice. Technically he was innovative also in that he developed a way of playing where he was able to bend a note after it was struck. This has become a widely used technique in India ever since. However, it has to be stated that it was a style not to everyone’s liking and there was a healthy rivalry between Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar, the former taking issue with the latter’s courting of publicity on an international stage. The elongated ragas on this double helping of albums illustrate what Indian classical music is all about and it was shortly after they were recorded that Khan first came to prominence in the UK when he appeared at the 1964 Edinburgh festival.

Tim Stenhouse

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan ‘Emperor of Melody’ (ÉL) 4/5

Born in 1922 in the Hindustan region of what is now Bangladesh, Ali Akbar Khan (the ‘Ustad’ denotes master musician) is a major exponent of the sarod instrument. Part of a long family musical dynasty, Khan studied the sarod with his father Allaudin Khan and later the tabla with his uncle Aftabuddin. By 1951 Ali Akbar Khan had founded his own college of music on Calcutta and many of his students, including his own son, Ashish, have attained international stature. Khan is also interestingly the brother-in-law of Ravi Shankar. This collection of eight ragas that date from the early 1960s includes two that are taken from the soundtrack to renowned Indian director Satyajit Ray’s film ‘The Goddess'(‘Davi’). The intimate and exquisite performances on this recording have been lovingly remastered and the sound is both clear and vibrant. Among the highlights, ‘Raga Bhairavi’ features a haunting theme while ‘Raga Chandranandon’ (‘Joy of the moon’) is a reflective piece in the first pace that gathers pace thereafter. Khan would go on to record duet albums with Vilayat Khan, who was a great admirer of Khan, in two periods during the 1950s and 1970s. Ali Akbar Khan became more widely known to an international audience as a result of his Indo-Jazz fusion collaboration with former Charles Mingus alumni and tenor saxophonist John Handy on the 1975 double album set on MPS records. Unfortunately due to the paucity of information on the original vinyl, there are no details of other musicians participating on the album. A film is shortly to be released on the life of the musician.

Tim Stenhouse

THP Orchestra ‘Disco Recharge: ‘Tender is the night’/’Good to me’ 2CD (Harmless) 3/5

The THP Orchestra delivered one of the anthemic disco 12″ in ‘Too hot for love’ and this was the centerpiece of the first double CD of the collective earlier in the year. This latest double header contains the follow up two albums, ‘Tender is the night’ and ‘Good to me’ from 1979 and 1980 respectively alongside a whole host of 7″ and 12″ versions. The first album is significantly stronger than the second, which does sound as though the winning formula had run its natural course. Once again the Canadian-based group were in fact headed by Scotsman Willi Morrison and Ian Guenther and the obvious influence of Philadelphia International in the classy use of strings and brass is augmented by some Euro disco up-tempo beats. At best this works extremely well as on ‘Weekend two stop’ which features lush orchestrations and brass with vocoder vocals. While there is no obvious successor to ‘Too hot for love’ (and replacing the gutsy vocals of Barbara Fry with the smoother sounding sister pairing of Helen and Phyllis Nelson made any attempt at a follow up virtually impossible), it has to be stated that ‘Tender is the night’ is nonetheless in general a fine example of the more refined side of disco and the largely instrumental pieces often come across as an alternative to the MFSB sound. In fact ‘Weekend two step’ could conceivably be viewed as an equivalent to ‘Love is the message’. The album was originally released on milk-white vinyl, which was typical of the era. Its successor, ‘Good to me’, arrived at a time when commercially disco was in free fall from the ‘Disco sucks’ movement and, perhaps, commercial pressures played their part in the drum/handclap unison sound which to these ears now sounds a trifle dated, especially on songs such as ‘Who do you love’ with cheesy keyboards to match and clichéd. In another respect, however, the album was a precursor to the hi-NRG sound that would emerge during the 1980s. Arguably the strongest cut is ‘Two hearts. One love’ which combines a higher tempo with soulful gospel flavours in both the female lead vocals and the collective harmonies. As is the case with virtually all the Disco Recharge series, a plethora of 7″ and 12″ versions accompany the original albums and make the collection a DJs delight. Excellent sleeve notes too. Tim Stenhouse

Phyllis Hyman ‘The Buddah Years’ (SoulMusic) 4/5

Singer Phyllis Hyman belongs to a unique category of musicians including Jean Carn and Norman Connors who were successfully able to combine jazz and soul during the 1970s and beyond and yet during her lifetime she did not receive the amount of commercial success that her vast talent richly deserved. This compilation of her Buddah label work overlaps with another CD that is now some twenty-three years old and while there is overlap in the complete original album, fans of Phyllis Hyman will want to have superior quality sound and some additional bonus cuts not on the Sequel selection from 1990 (the latter does, however, contain the long-time favourite ‘Living inside your love’ which is notable by its absence on the new anthology of the singer’s early years along with three additional tracks and one point has been deducted from the valuation of the new compilation not being as fully comprehensive as it could have been, though copyright issues are probably the main cause). After initially singing at an uptown Manhattan restaurant where she was discovered, Phyllis Hyman first came to prominence as part of Norman Connors group, with ‘You are my starship’ becoming a cult favourite of the era. By the time she recorded this debut album as a leader, she was twenty-six years of age and approaching musical maturity. This is reflected in the sophisticated choice of material and by the masterly songwriters chosen to provide her with new material. With the benefit of hindsight these were the cream of session songwriters and included Linda and Thom Bell (on’ Loving you, losing you’), Gary Glenn (‘Be careful how you treat my love’) and Skip Scarborough (‘No one can love you more’). Of the bonus songs, ‘The answer is you’ is this writer’s favourite and typifies Hyman’s velvety vocals to perfection. The only pity is that she was never encouraged to cut a live album where she could have truly stretched out with some jazzy interpretations. Sadly, a long-term struggle with bipolar disorder resulted in an early death at the age of forty-five in 1995. What now seems all too obvious a musical gift was largely shunned by a music industry solely focused on commercial gain.

This is one of three CDs that the Soul Music label has devoted to Phyllis Hyman’s craft and rightly so.

Tim Stenhouse

Steve Swallow ‘Into the woodwork’ (Xtra Watt) 4/5

Bassist Steve Swallow began as a leader on an ECM 1974 album ‘Hotel hello’ and a follow up five years later with ‘Home’. However, so cordial and personal was the musical relationship with ECM head Manfred Eicher that by 1986 the musician had concluded a unique deal whereby Swallow could henceforth release albums on his own Xtra Watt label using all the promotional tools that ECM had at its disposal. This agreement has lasted through to the present and is once again on evidence on this latest offering that is notable for the presence of musical and life partner Carla Bley on organ which makes for an interesting departure. As with other recordings under Swallow’s name, they are distinctive in that the leader rarely undertakes long solos himself, but instead prefers to remain in the background, though of course he plays a major role in both the compositions and arrangements and he has a further tendency to be a slow-writing composer. This is a quite a deliberate choice on Swallow’s part and reflects his own quiet, unassuming approach to music. Secondly, the contribution of the leader is unusual in that he prefers to favour electric bass over double bass which is different from musician’s of his own generation. On this new recording, Swallow has surrounded himself with some of the cream of session musicians including drummer Jorge Rossy (formerly with the Brad Mehldau trio), guitarist Steve Cardenas and tenorist Chris Cheek. The music was actually recorded in a Provençal village which goes someway to explaining why there is such a relaxed and joyous feel to proceedings and this has certainly impacted upon the musicians themselves. The laid back opener ‘Sad old candle’ has a somewhat eerie feel to it with Bley conjuring up at atmospheric sound on organ while the gentle unsion playing of guitar and tenor works extremely well, with Cardenas offering a solo into the bargain. More uplifitng is the title track which is initially performed as an organ trio piece before the tenor enters. In fact in terms of small organ combos, this is the nearest the group gets to anything remotely resembling a conventional soul-jazz infused ensemble. The warm tone of Cheek hints at Getz here. Possibly the strongest composition is the laid back groove of ‘The butler did it’ with some soulful tenor that recalls Stanley Turrentine in his prime and the lyrical guitar of Cardenas and subtle polyrhythms of Rossy make this number, the shortest on the album, equally one of the most enjoyable. Swallow’s CV reads like a who’s who of post-bop jazz and he has performed on some memorable albums including ‘Jimmy Giuffre Three’ with Giuffre (ECM re-issues, 1961), ‘Basra’ with Pete La Roca (Blue Note, 1965), ‘Sing me softly of the blues’ with Art Farmer (Atlantic, 1965) and ‘Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett’ (Atlantic, 1971) among many others. Just some of this impressive legacy can still be heard on pieces such as ‘Suitable for framing’ which features a quasi-classical bass sound that goes back to Swallow’s tenure with Jimmy Giuffre and is a bass and guitar duet of distinction. Steve Swallow’s career as a sideman has followed several paths and informed his later period as a leader. From the early 1960s performances as part of a trio with Paul Bley, he then became an integral member of Stan Getz’s quartet before later joining Carla Bley’s big band. He has also collaborated with non-jazz musicians such as Rabih Abou-Khalil on ‘Blue Camel’ (1992) and tenorist Joe Lovano’s ‘Universal language’ (Blue Note, 1993). A European tour will take place between 11-25 July, though sadly there are no dates planned in the UK this time round. Catch the group on the continent if you can. Tim Stenhouse

Keith Jarrett Trio ‘Somewhere’ (ECM) 5/5

Coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of this historic piano trio comes a sumptuous live recording in Lucerne that dates from 2009 and features the long-time trio of bassist Gary Peacock, drummer Jack de Johnette and the leader Jarrett in top form throughout. Collectively they revisit some old favourites and add some new additions to the standard repertoire and this provides an ideal entrance point for new fans of the trio as well as long established ones. A minor Miles Davis theme includes a faithful re-interpretation of ‘I thought about you’ which Miles famously recorded on the ‘Someday my prince will come’ album from 1961 while Miles’ own ‘Solar’ receives a brisk, business-like rendition in keeping with the original. Where the trio excel is on the songbook classics and a glorious uptempo version of ‘Tonight’ is both intense and instantly recognisable with fine ensemble interplay and Jarrett himself at his most lyrical. The leader on ‘Between the devil and the deep blue sea’ begins with a short piano intro that then leads into some lovely drum rolls from de Johnette and heavy basslines from Peacock. After thirty years together, the trio no longer need to make any kind of musical statement and simply concentrate on delivering some of the most melodic music on the planet. Ideal for a summer’s (or any other) day listening.

Tim Stenhouse

Linval Thompson and the Revolutionaries ‘Boss Man’s Dub’ (Hot Milk/Cherry Red) 4/5

Born in 1954, singer-producer Linval Thompson first came to prominence in 1974 when he cut his first 45 and enjoyed major success in 1975 with the Bunny Lee produced hit ‘Don’t cut off your dreadlocks’ which also spawned an album of the same name. By the end of the 1970s, Thompson had recorded two albums of dub material, ‘Negrea love dub’ and ‘Outlaw dub’ from 1978 and 1979 respectively. This previously unissued album from the master tapes in 1979 completes the trio and reworks both soul and reggae vocal interpretations to good effect backed by the heavyweight rhythm section that are the Revolutionaries. Of immediate interest to dub devotees is ‘Babylonian dub’ which is a version of Thompson’s ‘Six Babylon’ and is characterised by the use of keyboards over organ with a brief vocal intro that leads into a prominent bassline and the odd sound effect, doubtless taking a leaf out of the Mighty Two’s chapters 1-5 recordings. It is certainly one of the strongest melodies on the set. A more surprising inclusion, perhaps, is that of a dub version to the US soul group the Delfonics ‘La La means I love you’ ballad (the original of which was heard on the film soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Jackie Brown’). This receives a complete make over with the subtle use of horns and dub echo, but essentially the lyricism of the soul tune is retained and it is not the only soulful re-interpretation on the album for Alton Ellis’ evergreen ‘Willow tree’ classic is also successfully transposed into the dub idiom. Freddie McKay scored a hit with ‘Lonely man’ and a pared down version here focuses on a strong bass and drum riddim. More percussive effects are heard on ‘Boss man’s dub’ with some echo effects on guitar bubbling away in the background. Extensive sleeve notes by reggae aficionado David Katz provide some useful historical overview to the development of the dub phenomenon and this includes some beautiful graphic illustrations of label covers and photos from the roots era.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Saoco! Volume 2. Bomba, Plena and the roots of salsa in Puerto Rico 1955-1967’ 2LP/CD (Vampi Soul) 5/5

Here is one of the strongest roots releases of the year so far and a fascinating exploration of the roots of Puerto Rican music which would eventually morph into what we now know as salsa. Madrid-based label Vampi Soul have quite simply assembled the principal sources of archival material for this high quality re-issue anthology with major labels such as Ansonia, Gema and Seeco all showcased within, lavishly packaged it all in a gatefold sleeve with a superlative booklet in English and Spanish that provides historical notes on the evolution of bomba and plena, and virtually all the major artists are covered to some degree (following on from the excellent volume 1). One of the key singers is the legend that is Ismael Rivera, affectionately known as ‘Maelo’ to his fans and he in particular plays a pivotal role in the development of bomba and plena into modern day salsa during the late 1950 and throughout the 1960s. In a very real sense he is the equivalent in terms of influence and stature of Celia Cruz and in fact both belong to the ‘sonero’ school of singers who can ad lib and embellish any song with their own individual voice. As for the twenty-eight numbers on this fantastic value for money compilation that is just a tad under eighty minutes, a few key songs nonetheless stand out among the generally high caliber of numbers. They include the collaboration of Maelo with master percussionist Cortijo (who later turns up on the mid-1970s Latin-fusion classic ‘Time Machine’, an album long overdue for a deluxe re-issue) on ‘El negro bombón’ that has become a Latin standard, another duet on ‘Moliendo café’ and a third on ‘Oriza’ – all of which stand out. Trombonist Mon Rivera is another key musician who re-surfaces at a later date during the salsa revolution, but here he kicks off a new format of trombone playing that would be called ‘trombonga’ with two numbers on offer and subsequently Eddie Palmieri would draw on this influence for his early La Perfecta formation of the 1960s. Elsewhere bandleaders Joe Cotto and Moncho Leña impress as does lead singer Chivirico Davila (who also later became a seasoned salsa singer in the 1970s). What is important to recognise is that the majority of the folk music contained on this compilation, and more generally, was actually recorded in New York and the Puerto Rican diaspora in the Big Apple is crucial to understanding how the roots of Puerto Rican music along with the Cuban son and jazz all fused into a cohesive whole that would commercially be titled ‘salsa’. To find out how the music started off, you need to investigate this anthology urgently. Tim Stenhouse

Morgan Heritage ‘Here Comes The Kings’ (VP) 3/5

US-based group Morgan Heritage have constantly bridged the gap between old school roots reggae and soulful grooves with an updated version that combines the two styles. Their latest offering finds them stretching out even more into non-roots reggae territory with music recorded in both Florida and Kingston and this with mixed results. On the plus side, a take on Michael Jackson’s ‘The girl is mine’ works surprisingly well with soulful lead vocals and this could be a potential single to showcase the album more generally. Furthermore Morgan’s long-term roots fans will not be disappointed by a song such as the title track which has an endearing lilting groove with both tight harmony vocals and a rocking rhythm section with dub effects. There is even a reprise of Junior Byles’ ‘Chant down Babylon’ for Lee Perry re-titled ‘Stand up’ and one only wishes more numbers in this vein had been attempted. Where the album falls down slightly is in the group’s deliberate attempt to meddle needlessly with their long-established sound. Introducing ragga-style vocals simply sounds strange in this context and is typified by songs such as ‘Looking for the roots’ and it does come across as though Morgan Heritage are searching for new pastures, but not really finding new terrain they actually feel that comfortable with. Having too many co-producers on the album has simply resulted in a confused state of mind on their part. The group sounds far more confident on roots riddims and social lyrics like ‘Dem all run come’, which was recorded at Tuff Gong. Quite possibly, Morgan Heritage are attempting to attract a younger generation that has grown up on dancehall and ragga, but the group’s forte has always been a modern update on the roots tradition and that is surely where their long-term future success lies.
Tim Stenhouse

Tantra ‘Disco Recharge: Tantra/The collection’ 2CD (Harmless) 4/5

Euro disco sometimes receives a bad press in the UK and that would be unfair because it groups together disparate elements some of which have produced enduring dance floor grooves and were massively popular in France and much of the rest of continental Europe at the time. A case in point is Italian songwriter, arranger and producer Celso Valli who was closely linked to another New York-based producer Jacques Fred Petrus who in turn would be instrumental in promoting the early careers of Change, BB and Q Band and of course his own Peter Jacques band. It is important to stress from the outset that Valli was not in any sense attempting to create a carbon copy of the New York dance beats. Rather the producer was primarily focused on including his own highly eclectic influences that took in world roots beats from the Mediterranean and Africa interspersed with Latin flavours. These all combined beautifully on the hit dance floor tune ‘Hills of Katmandu’ which is included here not only in its original album format, but equally in a much sought after unreleased full-length Patrick Crowley mix. The piece has a Middle Eastern feel with the keyboards replicating a horn instrument quite convincingly. Elsewhere there is a harder, funkier edge in the bassline and drum beat to ‘Wishbone’. For more of an Afro-Latin sound, the berimbau intro to ‘Su-ku-leu’ leads into some African-style chants whereas ‘Mother Africa’ has a more contemporary soulful groove in the male lead and harmony vocals. The second CD has one of the strongest disco cuts in a near seven minute take on ‘Get happy’ and this is the one occasion on which Valli sounds as though he was directly influenced by music from the Big Apple, most notably here with the pared down rhythm guitar and heavy bass of the Chic organisation. Even the use of collective female harmony vocals and strings is a homage of sorts to the masterful Edwards/Rodgers production line. Not everything comes off as well and the rock guitar on ‘Top shot’ should have been dispensed with first time round while ‘Get ready to go’ has all the feel of Abba. Otherwise this is a sonic delight for fans of Euro disco and that should cement the reputation of Ceso Valli internationally.

Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993