Mancunian Irish fiddler Emma Sweeney arrives on the folk scene with a fine debut album that hints at a variety of new approaches while being firmly rooted in the Irish tradition. Indeed Sweeney already has a wealth of experience, performing with the likes of Dick Gaughan, Donal Lunny and that contemporary maestro of the Mancunian roots scene, Mike McGoldrick. It is in fact in the very capable hands of the latter that this debut recording has been produced and the quality of sound is truly commendable. A fascinating combination of reels and jigs combined with some pioneering world roots fusions makes Emma Sweeney a new artist to watch out for in the next few years. She shines on the composition ‘The rose in the heather’ that builds in intensity and is part of a medley with Sweeney’s own ‘Something in a Sunday’, and on the catchiest of melodic riffs on ‘The reed that bends with the storm’. On the melancholic lament ‘The flying statue’ there is a fine fiddle and guitar duet while the uptempo ‘The mountain top’ is a medley of a Sweeney original, ‘Mucky fingers’ with two traditional pieces. There is a tribute to singer Nick Drake on an interpretation of his ‘A place to be’ on which Sweeney contributes her own vocals while on ‘Golden fiddle waltz’ due homage is paid to the late bluegrass fiddler Randy Howard and this is undoubtedly an avenue that Emma Sweeney should explore future on subsequent releases. An interest in the music of India is first indicated by a medley of Sweeney originals, ”Endless thoughts’ and ‘The last straw’, both inspired by meeting a young boy while travelling in India. However, arguably the biggest suprise is reserved for the final piece, the title track, which has a distinctive Indian classical flavour, and sounds all the better for it. An Indo-Irish folk fusion might well provide an ideal opportunity to explore the commonality of roots over an entire album at some stage and in the opposite direction this has been successfully attempted by jazz pianist Zoe Rahman (with Bengali roots and Irish roots). Anoushka Shankar thrilled listeners with her Indo-Iberian connections album of a couple of years ago. Why not a similar exploration from an Irish folk perspective? If there would be one slight change to make on future albums, then it would probably be the inclusion of a guest singer to help showcase her craft to a wider audience. Otherwise, this is an accomplished debut recording from a musician who has clearly indicated an interest in combining music from her own tradition with that of other genres. Emma Sweeney will be performing at Band on the Wall in Manchester on 9 January as part of her UK tour and at Celtic Connections in a double bill with the Tine Book Trio in Glasgow on 19 January. Watch out for an online interview with Emma to follow shortly. Tim Stenhouse
Recorded during a turbulent period during the singers personal life, this fourth album offering from Scottish singer-songwriter Sandi Thom combines acoustic folk and blues-rock hues and for that reason alone makes for a fascinating listen. In fact Thom excels on the gentle acoustic blues guitar of ‘I owe you zero’ which neatly cuts across the boundaries of blues and folk and sounds all the better for it. Another winning tune is ‘I see the devil in you’ which is also the subject of a real life break up in a personal relationship that Thom endured. There is a brave attempt at reworking some classic blues standards, most notably on ‘Stormy weather’ with a 1970s Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet solo which imbues the song with Thom’s own individual vision and the number transforms into an uptempo blues-rock piece. A moody version of Ledbelly’s evergreen ‘In the pines’ features soulful vocals from Thom and some hammond organ. Being the other half of blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa definitely helps, but Thom is already a fine musician in her own right. Sandi Thom is, then, a musician of no little talent and on this latest recording demonstrates precisely why she is one of the major new names on the block and one who is fully capable of widening access of the folk-blues and blues-rock sub-genres to an infinitely wider audience.
Blues guitarist and singer Walter Trout received his musical education via tenure with the 1980s manifestation of the John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (notably the 1988 Island LP ‘Chicago Vine’) and then participation in Canned Heat with John Lee Hooker. He debuted as a leader with the 1989 release ‘Life in the jungle’. Trout is in fact supremely well grounded in the history of the blues since he arrived as a young musician in L.A. in 1973 and, among many other sessions, has performed as a sideman for musicians of the calibre of Lowell Fulsom, Percy Mayfield and Joe Tex, not forgetting John Lee Hooker. Now a veteran of the modern blues scene, this is Trout’s sixth album for the Provogue label and is an extremely well rounded effort. On ‘Blues for my baby’ the piece serves as a vehicle for Trout to lay down one of his signature old-style (and old-style is definitely the best here) guitar solos with acoustic piano making for a lovely juxtraposition and a winining combination. This is the longest cut at just under eight minutes. There are echoes of ‘The thrill is gone’ on ‘Lonely’ with a hook bassline and the impassioned, soulful vocals make this one of the album’s strongest songs. Nice, subtle use of keyboards also greatly aid the ambience. The new album’s inspiration is Blind Willie Johnson who recorded ‘Soul of a man’ and there is some fine bootleneck acoustic blues guitar on ‘All I want is you’. Of the rockers on offer, the best of the lot is ‘Turn off yout t.v.’. On this his latest album, which is his twenty-first overall, Walter Trout delivers the goods and at around the seventy-five minute mark the set represents wonderful value. Not everything is essential, but there is more than enough quality material to offer a blues nirvana for long-time fans and for neophytes this is an ideal way to investigate Trout’s respectful and indeed stylish take on the blues. Tim Stenhouse
North-west based DJ and radio presenter Craig Charles has developed an in-depth knowledge of the funkier side of the musical tracks and this is reflected in a well thought and and presented compilation of relatively new and contemporary classic funk and soul 45s. Of the latter the Al Wilson anthem ‘The snake’ will be a welcome addition to any collection and for fans new to the scene will prove to be revelatory. Likewise the Incredible Bongo Band have earned a well served cult reputation and their take on the Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ reveals exactly why with pared down piano, bass and percussion over a steady mid-tempo groove. Of the newer material, an update on John Handy’s fusion classic ‘Hard work’ by Smoove and Turrell adds some Ramsey Lewis-esque handclaps to good effectwhile ‘Shaft in Africa’ which Johnny Pate originally scored receives some Afro-Beat horns and beefed up percussion from The Mighty Showstoppers. A major discovery for this writer was the soulful hues of the Fantastics featuring the vocals of one Sulene Fleming on ‘Cold case’. A terrific vocalist in the making. Reggae roots always deserves a place on the dancefloor and Prince Fatty is arguably the UK’s major new exponent. Here he offers ‘Insane in the membrane’ with Horseman to accompany him on the dancehall-flavoured vocals. Reggae rhythms continue on the harmony driven (recalling the great Jamaican groups such as the Uniques and Heptones) ‘Rocket man’ by the Stiff Naked Fools who are anything but! Factor in some dance routine grooves in ‘The bump’ from the exotically titled Haggis Horns and the melodic ‘More than dancing’ from The Federation and you know you have a quality selection of tunes. The presence of the excellent Nostalgia 77 with the equally edlightful Alice Russell on vocals on ‘Seven nation army’ and you simply have a a terrific overview of the left-side of the current dance scene with over seventy minutes of music to wallow in. Tim Stenhouse
Spanish keyboard wizard Juan Belda returns with an album that is, if anything, even more eclectic than its predecessor. The title refers first of all to the conceptual notion of the inside of a wheel being infinite, but one that once you are outside of this it then becomes a more fragile object. Hans is concevied of as an imaginary middle age architect who wishes to build an ecological sustainable futuristic city in the Mauritanian desert. Full marks for creative thinking on Juan’s part. It is with this visionary approach to music that one should appreciate the music within and with Belda doubling up on various keyboards and guitar. On ‘A Spanish revolution’ prog-rock style keyboards that Rick Wakeman would be at home with serve as the backdrop to a layer of synthesizer effects and tasteful keyboard-driven strings. Contrast this with the vibes-led ‘Verano (algo torrido)’ where long-term collaborator and Spanish jazz icon Jorge Pardo joins up on flute and vocals courtesy of Leo Minax. Arguably the most interesting new avenue that Juan Belda explores on the album is ‘En casa de Aziz’ which immediately evokes the sounds and flavours of Marrakesh in Morocco. This is a departure for Belda and one that has been achieved in collaboration with Moroccan musician and close friend Aziz, recorded directly after spending several evenings of live music with friends. It is a definite album highlight and, perhaps, a future album project might be to devote an entire CD to the exploration of North African and Iberian music, but still from Belda’s own unique perspective. The album ends on a high with an inventive take on Gershwin’s standard ‘Summertime’ and this was recorded on a plethora of keyboard sounds that includes electric piano, Fender Rhodes (plus pedal for distorsion) and the impressive sounding ‘Eventide harmonizer’. In general the musician explores once more how the latest musical techonology can be fused with human inventiveness and this is perfectly illustrated on ‘My new bathroom’ which includes the voice of a seller at IKEA! The drum and bass pattern here becomes more intense. Ideally one would like a little more of Belda’s soloing and the all too rapid soloing on ‘Las campas del fondo’ provides the briefest of insights into Belda’s undoubted keyboard prowess. That being said, the musical concept is king here and this comes to fruition on ‘Deja tu veneno en casa’ on which Jorge Pardo joins in on alto saxophone and special guest Newyorikan trumpeter/percussionist Jerry Gonzalez contributes on muted Harmon on a hustle bustle of a number. Spanish jazz is anything but formulaic and this always entertaining album proves the point. Tim Stenhouse
Reggae roots master Yabby You presided over some of Jamaica’s finest music in the 1970s and several of his seminal albums were issued on the now defunct Blood and Fire label from the 1990s onwards. His dub output is a little more difficult to find, though, in addition to the aforementioned label, ‘Beware dub’ was re-issued and should still be available via the usual internet channels. Pressure Sounds have unearthed a rare gem of recordings that sound like rare 45s in their vocal and dub formats. An alternative take on the anthemic ‘Deliver me from my enemies’ stands out as a key example of the roots era and the DJ style rap and dub echo at the very end breath fresh life into the old chestnut. The opening number takes a leaf out of 1970s Stevie Wonder with the keyboard riff from ‘You are the sunshine of my life’ immediately leading into a deep roots vocal. As one might expect with a Yabby You production, nyabinghi flavours in the drumming, hat hat cymbals and the choiciest of dub effects permeate this fine offering. Essential listening for anyone who likes the seriously rootsy side of the reggae spectrum.
The year 1985 heralded a new era in the momentous life of one Miles Dewey Davis. It was a change of label that resulted in a new lease of musical life. A first instalment came in the shape of ‘Tutu’ with a superb black and white photo of Miles on the cover and a top notch band that included the return of bassist Marcus Miller, now a genuine collaborator as arranger, alongside the considerable talents of keyboardist George Duke and saxophonist Kenny Garrett. Production duties were taken care of by Tommy Li Puma who did such a marvellous job previously with George Benson among many others. Funk-tinged rhythms were right in tune with the musical trends of the time and this was no better illustrated than on the title track, with bubbling basslines from Miller and that unique muted Harmon from Miles himself. Nonetheless sophistication was still possible within these generic confines and an atmospheric ballad in ‘Portia’ was all the evidence one needed. Arguably one of the strongest pieces were horns, rhythm guitar and keyboards all combined to glorious effect was ‘Tomaas’. Only the bright and brassy gloss of ‘Perfect way’ now sounds a trifle dated. Those in search of more of the same should investigate the deluxe edition of ‘Tutu’ containing a live performance from Juan-Les-Pins.
If anything, the next album ‘Amandla’ was even stonger and is often cited, and with some justification, as the most compelling piece of work Miles recorded post-1975. It is certainly one of the highest jazz content-laden albums and old collaborators returned to the fold such as drummer Al Foster, George Duke and hammond organist Joey DeFrancesco. Miller and Garrett were once again on board and far more confident in their own abilities and this makes for a far more cohesive set than anything previously. It is difficult to pick just a few highlights from such a strong set, but the gorgeously slow ‘Hannibal’ is an outstanding cut as is the heartfelt trtibute to the recently deceased genius of the bass, Jaco Pastorius on ‘Mr. Pastorius’. There are even some African-flavoured grooves on ‘Catembe’ which once again demonstrated how hip Miles was to the emerging world music scene and its impact on popular music, notably Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’.
Thereafter Miles set about work on a film soundtrack, ‘Music from Siesta’, that in some respects harked back to the seminal ‘Life to the Scaffold’ album from 1957, though in style it was more of a modern update on the equally epic ‘Sketches of Spain’. The music was set on the Iberian peninsular and is akin to a series of sketches. or music frescoes if you will, that are a far more improvisatory in feel than either of the aforementioned studio recordings. Collaborators here included former band member John Scofield, here performing on acoustic guitar and Earl Klugh on guitar with a flamenco flavour. Highlights included ‘Lost in Madrid Pt. 1’ and the third movement of the film music that comprises several pieces ‘Theme for Augustin’/’Wind’/’Seduction’/’Kiss’ with Miles instantly recognisable on muted Harmon. An Australian film, ‘Dingo’ was the opportunity for Miles to renew his acquaintance with legendary French pianist and arranger Michel Legrand and, while not as constistently strong as ‘Siesta’, there is enough jazz content to interest long-term fans. The final recording Miles made was a radical departure from any of the above and totally in keeping with the musician’s desire to always be in search of new sounds to explore. The result was a collaboration with rapper Easy Moe Dee who als oserved as producer on the album ‘Doo bop’. While not a major innovation, Miles was obviously listening to other fusions of jazz and what would later be termed trip-hop (Branford Marsalis and A Tribe Called Quest being noteworthy exponents). The stand out composition is ‘Doo-bop song’ that is instantly catchy. If the jazz content was a little on the light side, the album still had its memorable moments and Miles bowed out on a high, hinting at new musical directions he wished to investigate. A much publicised collaboration with Prince, then at the zenith of his powers, sadly never materialised in spite of a brief private performance together. Remaining open to new musical grooves is the sign of a truly great musician and Miles Davis was certainly no less than that. As ever with the box set formula, unbeatable value for money and slimline folders ensure that it is easy to store.
The Modern Jazz Quartet are something of an institution apart in the world of jazz and over several decades have constantly crossed boundaries between jazz and other music forms. This welcome addition groups together five albums from 1960 and the early 1960s and is a fine document of the MJQ at the height of their powers. Of all their studio albums, ‘Pyramid’ towers above all the rest and rightly so. It contains some of their most endearing and lasting interpretations that have become staples of their concert performances with the original title track and the wonderful takes on the standards ‘It don’t mean a thing’ and ‘How high the moon’ obvious highlights. In comparison ‘Lonely woman’ is slightly less satisfying, though still an excellent recording overall. The centrepiece of this album was the version of Ornette Coleman’s title track and it just went to show how diverse jazz musicians could be for the MJQ and the Coleman quintet were at completely opposite ends of the musical spectrum, yet could still manage to appreciate one another. Elsewhere the album is noteworthy for small group interpretations of pieces that were previously attempted with larger orchestrations such as ‘Fugato’ and ‘Lamb. Leopard’. New ground was being explored on the album ‘The Sheriff’ with Brazilian flavours entering into the MJQ repertoire, but in keeping with the group’s approach, attempted from a more classical side that took on board J.S. Bach. Of note are the versions of ‘Carnaval’ and ‘Bachianas brasileras’. This would have made an ideal pairing with another album the MJQ cut a few years later, ‘Collaboration with Almeida’, Almeida being a Brazilian guitarist.
For the rest of the box set the other two albums are devoted to the fusion of classical and jazz genres. ‘Third Stream Music’ is the more famous and features on two pieces the trio of Jimmy Giuffre (Jim Hall and Ralph Peña) while on another two compositions the Beaux Arts string quartet are present. If in today’s hotch-potch of musical interwaeaving this comes across as a tad passé, it should not detract one from the laudable attempt to bring together classical and jazz genres. The much rarer ‘Modern Jazz Quartet + Orchestra’ is frankly the least enticing of the five albums and the MJQ sound hindered by the presence of so many strings. The only minor gripe here, then, on an otherwise fine selection of albums and at a bargain price is that for all their prowess in the studio, it is, perhaps, their live recordings that are most revered and in this respect it is a little disappointing that this has not been reflected in the contents of the box set. The double live in Europe album is an essential listen and one hopes that the superb and now extremely hard to find on vinyl album ‘Live at the Lighthouse’ from 1967 will finally see the light of day on CD, possibly with some extras. In the meantime this selection of albums is the ideal place to start for the MJQ neophyte and what a treat they will have in store.
The lesser known among jazz vibists of his generation, Lem Winchester was in fact a full-time policeman who also recorded albums with various formations. Here the CD groups together a live recording from the July 1958 Newport jazz festival and a studio album in Chicago on the Argo label (a subsidiary of the legendary blues label Chess) with the Ramsey Lewis trio. The latter is an album devoted to the music of Clifford Brown, though in parts it also serves a showcase of the American songbook repertoire. Of the Brownie originals, the quartet deliver a sedately paced version of ‘Joy spring’ and a similarly serene take on the bop classic ‘Sandu’. Things hot up on Duke Jordan’s ‘Jordu’ where the trio finally have the opportunity to stretch out a little. Lem Winchester excels as a musician on the minor themed compositions such as Cole Porter’s ‘Easy to love’. For the live recording, three standards are interpreted with a truly swinging rendition of Parker’s ‘Now’s the time’ with the quartet in full flow and an impeccable version of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take the ‘A’ train that remains respectful to the original. Ideally, one would have like more generous timing and possibly the inclusion of the first side of the Newport recording that featured Randy Weston. That may form part of a subsequent release, but as an indication of where Lem Winchester was at in 1958, this could scarcely be bettered.
An all-star cast is just one of the highlights of this superlative recording of Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker who were still at the height of their powers in 1951. The original album is grouped together with several alternate takes and two separate sessions from 1950 that makes for over seventy-five minutes of essential bop listening. Joining the band was a then young Thelonius Monk and it is worth the price of the CD alone just to hear him as a sideman, developing his highly individualistic sound which he would at a later stage develop as a leader in his own right. Curley Russel on bass and Buddy Rich on drums complete the all-star formation. Just like John Coltrane almost a decade later, Charlie Parker could play the sweetest of melodies when required to do so and blows some of the most soluful blues you are ever likely to hear on ‘My melancholy baby’. Dizzie is in more laid back mood on this number, but is still capable of conjuring up some of those high-pitched notes that are uniquely his own. Several Parker originals are featured and include Bird’s fabulous solo on ‘Bloomdido’ with a white hot rhythm section, the mid-tempo ‘Relaxin’ with Lee’ where Dizzie Gillespie has the chance to solo at length and the trading of licks between the two leaders on a decidely uptempo take on ‘Leap frog’. More plaintive hues can be heard on ‘Mohawk’ which serves as the backdrop to yet another soulful interpretation from Bird. Rounding off the package as a whole is a fascinating interview reproduced between Charlie Parker and the then emerging altoist in Dave Brubeck’s group, Paul Desmond. New liner notes and a 1958 Gramophone review reproduced in full make for a first class edition. Full marks to EJC for providing so much informative biographical detail. The album was formerly part of a larger ten CD set and as such is now available to a wider audience at a more affordable price. Beautifully re-mastered, the alto saxophone and trumpet of one Bird and Diz never sounded clearer or sharper. Simply indispensable. Tim Stenhouse