Rokia Traoré ‘Beautiful Africa’ (Nonesuch) 4/5

Malian singer-songwriter and guitarist Rokia Traoré is a subtle dislocation from the norm of Malian singers in several respects. Her gentle, soft vocal delivery departs from the strong, powerful tradition of her nation’s chanteuses. As the daughter of a diplomat, Traoré has experienced a significantly different lifestyle from her compatriots and this has exposed her to a vaster range of musical influences, especially from the western world. Currently residing in Paris, her approach to music is thoroughly cosmopolitan and this is illustrated by her most recent collaborative work which takes in a theatre production with novelist Toni Morrison and director Peter Sellers, and a UK tour last year with Damon Albarn as part of the Africa Express project that also included singers of the calibre of Paul McCartney and Baba Maal. For this latest album, which follows on from the critically acclaimed ‘Tchamantché’ from 2009 that won awards in France via Victoires de la Musique and in the UK from roots magazine’s Songlines artist of the year, Rokia Traoré has placed the former Malian blues component to her music on the backburner and has instead enlisted the support of rock producer John Parish who, among others, has worked closely with P.J. Harvey. A new, evolving sound, then, but not a radical departure from the past and thankfully one that retains her earthy Malian essence, but adds a rawer and, in some ways, edgier sound and was recorded in Bristol. Parish avoids the pitfall of overproducing and the stripped down sound with occasional guitar added works extremely well and is very complimentary to the overall feel. The fast-paced ‘Sikey’ with its call and response vocals and neat, intricate guitar work stands out as does the initmate ‘Sarama’ that closes the albums and recalls the acoustic side of Baba Maal. The gentle voice allied to lyrics that oscillate between Bambara and English is immediately accessible and likely to appeal to music fans beyond roots devotees. For some variation the mid-tempo ‘Mélancolie’ which is a guitar-led piece in French impresses while the floating opener ‘Lalla’ features an interesting change in tempo and the use of n’goni with backing vocals. With a new UK tour imminent in May and the right amount of publicity, this album could just be the breakthrough that Rokia Traoré has bene waiting for and an appearance at the 2013 Glastonbury during the summer will do her cause no harm whatsoever. An early contender for modern African music album of the year.

Tim Stenhouse

Giovanni Guidi Trio ‘City of Broken Dreams’ (ECM) 4/5

Young Italian pianist Giovanni Guidi makes his major label debut here and it is an accomplished recording that neatly balances shorter and longer pieces, melodic and occasional freer form numbers, and underpining it all a simplicty of execution that is a precursor of a very promising future career ahead of him. He is surrounded in the classic piano trio format by another young musician, bassist Thomas Morgan, who is currently part of the Thomas Stanko quartet while the delicate percussion is expertly taken care of by Portugese drummer João Lobo. There are hints of the young Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett in the leader’s playing with a strong classical presence in evidence. The understated title track is heard in no less than two versions that open and close the album and both possess a floating-like quality that reveals a deep passion for both impressionistic music as well as that of Erik Satie. One of the most memorable numbers, and haunting at that, is ‘The Forbidden Zone’ and what really strikes the listener first time round is how long on the ear pieces from this all original set linger. Quiet reflection imbues ‘Leonice’ whereas more intricate keyboard work is an integral feature of the bustling, energetic ‘Just one more time’. Not only is the playing mature, but so is the choice of titles with the intimate and warm sounding ‘The Impossible Divorce’ typifying the trio’s approach that belies their years. Satie is once more evoked on the gentle interplay between bass and piano on ‘The way some people live’. That Guidi can perform in other styles than lyrical and melodic is illustrated by at least two pieces which are more improvisational and looser in structure and on both ‘No other possibility’ and ‘Late Blue’ there is a gentle nod to more avant-garde hues without departing radically from the overall album sound. Monk is even recalled on ‘Ocean View’. Manfred Eicher has a proven track record for spotting new pianistic talent and in Giovanni Guidi it looks as though he has unveiled another prodigious musician and one who follows in the line of Tord Gustavsen for the label and more generally bears comparison with the likes of Vijay Iyer and Gwilym Simcock.

Tim Stenhouse

Freddie McGregor ‘Di Captain’ (VP) 4/5

Freddie McGregor returns with one of his strongest new releases in years and he has found just the right balance between interpreting classic songs, several of which reside outside the reggae tradition, and some excellent renditions of his own compositions both old and new. Early reggae flavours predominate on the uplifting call to action on ‘Move up Jamaica’ while a cover of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘You won’t see me’ has all the feel and sound of an early 1970s recording complete with vocal harmonies. Social concerns have never been far from McGregor’s work and his own anthem ‘More love in the ghetto’ has never been more relevant and is a heartfelt plea for greater social harmony. The horn-led Leroy Sibbles tune ‘Equal rights’ logically follows on in the same vein and is a strong interpretation throughout. Freddie’s love of American soul music is all too evident in his career and here he reworks the Dionne Warwick Bacharach and David penned classic ‘A house is not a home’ as an uptempo rockers with production duties by Stevie and Cleevie. More surprising is the decision to cover the Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller written ‘Rainbow country’ and the lovely echo on McGregor’s voice makes one think of a classic Wackie’s production when in fact it is by the McLeod brothers who impress elsewhere on this album. Mid-tempo lyrical sounds emanate from the take on the Mighty Diamonds roots song ‘Africa’ while a McGregor original ‘Love I believe in’ is an incredibly catchy and soulful tune. Gappy Ranks guests on ‘Standing Strong’ with Etana featuring on vocals on what was originally a French chanson song, ‘Let it be me’. With shared production duties including the aforementioned plus Freddie’s son Stephen, this a varied album and one that provides evidence, if ever any were truly needed, that Freddie McGregor is still one of the premier singers of Jamaican music any period included.

Tim Stenhouse

Barrington Levy ‘Sweet Reggae Music 1979-1984’ 2CD (VP) 5/5

Singer Barrington Levy’s period chronicled here represents a key era in the history of reggae. By the end of the 1970s the dominance of reggae would be overtaken by that of dancehall. The shrewder among Jamaican musicians would adapt to the new musical environment and this was certainly the case of Barrington Levy who positively thrived during the early-mid 1980s. This generously timed 2CD set focuses on productions by a number of producers, but by far the most productive collaboration was with Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes and it is their work which is celebrated to a large extent on the first CD with songs from the seminal Greensleeves albums they cut together from the very beginning of the 1980s such as ‘Englishman’ and Robin Hood’ while the earlier ‘Bounty Hunter’ is not forgotten and has its own charms. Reworking classic riddims, including those from Studio One’s bottomless pit of hits, proved to be a winning formula for the duo and ‘Shine eye girl’, the wonderful ‘Sister Carol’ and ‘Mary longue tongue’ all bear the classic hallmarks with the heavyweight rhythm support of the Root Radics. Elsewhere the early sounds of the rockers beat to the title track of ‘Bounty Hunter’ and ‘Collie weed’ were examples of how popular a singer Barrington Levy was likely to become

The second CD takes the story one step further with a greater variety of producers coming into play from the early 1980s onwards. Joe Gibbs was one such example and the horn-driven riddims and echo-infused vocals of ‘My woman’ stand the test of time well. For small label producer Carlton Patterson, Levy recorded the excellent ‘Warm and Sunny Day’ where social concerns were still present. A heavier dancehall beat dominates the Linval Thompson produced ‘Poor Man Style’ while there is a distinctly sparser feel in the breakdown, use of echo and percussion on ‘Whom shall I be afraid of’. Ace Channel One producer Jo Hookim also gets a look in on ‘The winner’ while Jah Screw produces a brace of numbers on ‘Under mi sensi’ and ‘Here I come’. Among the selection of forty songs, there are contained on the first CD some previously unreleased songs which will appeal to long-time fans and the 12″ mix of the ‘Tribute to Moa Anbessi’ produced by Jah Thomas is itself a hard to find item. All in all a splendid overview of a glittering career in reggae music. Tim Stenhouse

Roy Harper ‘Live in Concert’ CD + DVD (Sound and Vision) 4/5

roy-harperEnglish folk singer Roy Harper cut some of the prime music during the classic era of the early-mid 1970s and his 1971 album ‘Stormcock’ has acquired legendary status. This excellent package that groups together a recent live performance in both CD and DVD formats serves as an introduction to Harper’s major contribution to the folk scene and his very poetic approach to songwriting. This is heard to best effect on melodic masterpieces such as ‘Another day’ with its Tibetan tea reference. It is an endearing tale of lost love. Little wonder Roy Harper was a regular on John Peel’s radio programme and in fact he recorded over a dozen sessions between 1967 and 1978. One song to make it into the Peel festive fifty in 1976 was a song included here, ‘When an old cricketer leaves the crease’ and among his long-time fans this has come to represent the definitive Roy Harper sound. Folk-blues flavours permeate ‘The Green Man’ which is another evocative piece and allows the listener to appreciate just what a fine guitarist he is. Elsewhere there are raunchier hues as on ‘Highway Blues’ with some vocal improvisations and some musing over his career during ‘Don’t you grieve’. If folk with a gritter edge is what you are in search of, then Harper can deliver with aplomb as on ‘One man rock and roll band’. For new listeners to his music, it is important to recognise that during the 1960s Roy Harper shared the same stage with the all-time greats such as Paul Simon and Sandy Denny. The DVD is approximately ten minutes longer than the CD version and thankfully includes some of the witty banter for which Roy Harper is best known and loved. In general, this provides a lovely intimate setting which is the ideal environment in which to hear the singer-songwriter’s craft. A bonus fifteen minute interview on the DVD focuses primarily on his childhood influences.

Tim Stenhouse

Robert Mitchell ‘The Glimpse’ (Whirlwind) 3/5

The intricacies of being a left-handed piano player are, it is probably safe to say, not common knowledge, and pianist Robert Mitchell deserves great credit for attempting this ambitious project which aims to highlight piano compositions that either are specifically tailored for the left-handed individual, or at the very least pay homage to the virtues or otherwise of the left-hander. In his instructive line notes, Mitchell makes reference to left-handed jazz pianists such as Phineas Newborn and Kenny Drew, while others have, on occasion, been forced to use their left hand when temporarily incapacitated on their right, Bill Evans 1963 live performances at the Village Vanguard being a case in point. If this is indeed a valid musical exploration, then it does actually lead on to any interesting music? Catalan composer Federico Mompou composed one of his six piano preludes for the left hand and the ‘Prelude no. 6’ performed here has a pared down Satie feel to it. There are elements of Debussy on another piece ‘Zuni lore’ and it is surprising that Mitchell did not include one of Ravel’s most famous piano pieces intended for left-handers. More contemporary flavours arrive in the quicker tempoed ‘A Confession’ while ‘The Sage’ is one of the most melodic numbers on offer. For a slice of contemporary jazz composition, Fred Hersch’s ‘Nocturne for the left hand alone’ makes for an intriguing listen. One criticism that one might make of the project overall is that the compositions focus almost exclusively on classical pieces (Hersch being a notable exception) and it would have made for a more varied listen to have some more jazz-inspired numbers included even if that meant using a piano trio. Robert Mitchell is currently on the final part of a lengthy UK tour that continues until mid-May. Tim Stenhouse

Eric Truffaz ‘El tiempo de la revolucion’ (Blue Note) 3/5

Swiss trumpeter Eric Truffaz has for some fifteen years or more experimented with fusing hip-hop beats and electro jazz with a trumpet sound that begins somewhere from Miles’ ‘Bitches Brew’ period onwards. This forward thinking approach has sometimes taken in seemingly ill-fitting collaborations with rappers, though thankfully this has been discarded for the present album, and on this latest releases vocalist Anna Aaron is on hand to add a new folk-inspired dimmension to some numbers, most notably on the pop-tinged ‘Blue movie’. The groove-laden bassline to ‘Istanbul tango’ is where the band are heard to best effect individually and it is a distinctly mellow number with the organ accompaniment to the fore. Another, more decpetive piece is ‘African mist’ which again uses an incessant bassline while Truffaz’s trumpet floats along in Davisesque fashion. In fact the Miles parallel surfaces intriguingly on a nu-soul number ‘La luna mentirosa’ with a fine muted harmon solo from the leader. Wah wah trumpet greets the listener on the altogether funkier territory of ‘Mr K’ and this is the ideal terrain in which Truffaz can operate and it is a pity that there are not more examples of this. Truffaz is capable of great subtlety and he creates an atmospheric feel when dueting with keyboard on ‘Un souffle qui passe’. Likewise the trumpeter delivers another delicate solo on the piano-led ‘Revolution of time’ which has something of a film soundtrack ambiance to it. If there is one criticism that one could make of his music, it is that Truffaz sometimes gives the impression of not shifting out of second gear and he is certainly talented enough to move up another couple of notches at least. He should definitely be one to watch in a live context and will be performing in late March at Ronnie Scott’s. Tim Stenhouse

Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite ‘Get up!’ (Stax) 4/5

Multi-faceted singer-songwriter and guitarist Ben Harper has incorporated acoustic folk, soul, reggae and rock elements into his music and for this latest project has decided to explore the blues which is a logical step on from his much lauded collaborative project with gospel legends, the Blind Boys of Alabama. To add some seasoned credibility to proceedings, Harper has enlisted the support of southern blues harmonica player and leader in his own right, Charlie Musselwhite. Within the blues terrain there is some variety with the folk-blues and soulful electric blues songs working best whereas the blues-rock numbers are somewhat less successful. Bassline grooves are to the fore on the rhythm section propelled title track and on the excellent ‘I ride at dawn’ which features a signature bass that is reminiscent of the Philadelphia All Stars ‘Let’s clean up the ghetto’. Of the rootsier tracks, the pared down instrmuentation of ‘You found another lover (I lost another friend)’ is a real winner and Harper’s vocals sound akin to the early 1970s work of Al Green. Even more soulful with gospel hues, lovely female vocal harmonies and some neat slide guitar from the lead vocalist is ‘We can’t end this way’ whose lyrics have relevant and contemporary social meaning. Where Ben Harper does get a little bogged down is on the blues-rock territory’ such as ‘I’m in I’m out and I’m gone’. This simply sounds mundane in comparison to the rest and there is such an abundance of this kind of material out there on the live blues circuit that Harper would be better served focusing on what distingushes him from the rest. That caveat aside, mark this down as one of the duet albums of the year and a totally authentic slice of contemporary blues. Tim Stenhouse

Patricia Barber ‘Smash’ (Concord) 4/5

Chicago has been truly blessed with two of the most singular and innovative jazz vocalists. One, Kurt Elling, has been rightly fêted as the most accomplished male vocalist of his generation. The other, Patricia Barber, has carved out a formidable reputation among jazz cognoscenti, but has yet to reach that bigger audience in the same way that say Diana Krall has. On this latest set, her ability to deliver supremely well crafted, incredibly witty, poetic and often complex lyrics into deeply melodic songs is undiminished and this is indeed her trademark. Retaining the quartet format including guitar which has accompanied most of her career (though with a relatively new set of musicians featuring the excellent John Kregor on guitar), Barber’s subtle approach and understated vocal delivery is as strong as ever and is typfied by the opener ‘Code cool’. For new listeners, if the style takes a little time to digest, then it does enter the subconscious on a longer-term basis and once hooked, you will be forever smitten. Patricia Barber marked herself out as a left-field singer in the 1990s with her chilling take on Sonny Bono’s ‘The beat goes on’ and on the dreamy downtempo number ‘The Swim’ she excels on a song that floats along effortlessly and represents a superior late evening listening experience. The singer’s love of Brazilian music and of Elis Regina in particular invariably creeps into at least one number and here it surfaces in the bossa-infused guitar piece ‘Red Shift’ which is one of the album’s highlights. However, the true beauty of Barber’s voice is probably heard to best effect on ballads and on ‘Spring Song’ it is precisely this aspect of her craft that takes centre stage with fine piano and bass interplay between the vocalist and bassist Larry Kohut. Elsewhere, guitarist Kregor engages in some Methenyesque licks on the forward thinking title track. A welcome addition is the inclusion of a piano trio instrumental ‘Bashful’ that has a rapid flow to it and there is just the faintest hint of Les McCann at one point.

Patricia Barber deserves to be heard on wider scale and with this exciting new formation, a long awaited UK tour would be an enticing prospect. Failing that an extended live set with the new quartet at the Green Mill in her native Chicago would be a most tempting alternative.

Tim Stenhouse

Joe Lovano Us Five ‘Cross Culture’ (Blue Note) 4/5

Blue Note’s current longest serving artist delivers another heavyweight package of an album that demonstrates once more that Joe Lovano is certainly not resting on his laurels with all bar one piece being originals. His current group with whom he both records and tours, a rarity these days, includes bassist and leader in her own right Esperanza Spalding and fellow Blue Note musician and guitarist Lionel Lueke. A novel idea this time round has been to have two drummers performing together, a concept that was pioneered during the 1960s, and this adds a certain intensity to proceedings. The fast-paced ‘In a spin’ is a quite dysfunctional sounding composition that sounds like two horns (possibly overdubbed) playing with guitar while the freer number ‘Drum chant’ is devoid of any piano and Lovano alternates on soprano. Throughout the album there is a fine rapport between Lovano and Lueke with piano often featuring as a minimalist accompaniment. However, Joe Lovano is certainly not all hustle and bustle and his gentler side is demonstrate on the classic Ellington-Strayhorn ballad ‘Star-crossed lovers’ where the leader excels on tenor and this harks back to the terrific album he recorded back in the early 1990s with Michel Petrucciani. The album concludes with a heartfelt tribute to another collaborator, Paul Motion, on ‘P.M.’ A live recording of this group would make for an excellent follow up. Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993