Roberto Fonseca ‘Yo’ (Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi) 4/5

Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca is known primarily for his participation in the more recent efforts by the Buena Vista Social Club collective, most notably the final album by Ibrahim Ferrer which he arranged to great acclaim. However, Fonseca is both an accomplished and rapidly maturing artist in his own right and his latest album finds him in relatively new territory, fusing Afro-Cuban jazz with a variety of African sounds from both west and north of this great continent. The result is a real slow burner of an album that takes a few listens to fully digest the intricate combination of genres, but becomes ever more accessible with each listen. Recorded in Paris, a number of African musicians have been enlisted to give this new project an authentic pan-African meets Cuban feel and they include some of the new stars as well as more established ones. An added bonus is the production on a few pieces of DJ Gilles Peterson along with remixes of the more danceable cuts and this is a definite attempt to appeal to a younger audience. A prime example of the successful fusion of styles is on the key number ‘Siete rayos’ which features lovely used of Cuban-style piano vamps, Afro-Cuban percussion and the inclusion of the stringed ngoni instrument. Factor in some Gotan Project-esque sound effects and this number may just be the ideal vehicle to propel the album to a wider public beyond world roots fans. Equally impressive is the acoustic piano led piece ‘El sonañdor está cansado’ with heavy bassline prominent. There are shades of Brad Mehldau in the playing of Fonseca on ‘JMF’ which then morphs into an Afro-Cuban montuno with Fonseca transferring to eery sounding organ that is akin to one of Charlie Palmieri’s classic 1970s sides on Coco. Senegal’s seminal Orchestra Baobab are evoked on ‘Quien soy yo’ with vocals from Assane Mboup and echo and voice effects that make this song a twenty-first century take on the great Afro-Latin bands of yesteryear such as the aforementioned collective and No. 1. North African rhythms are introduced on two songs, ‘Gnawa stop’ and ‘Chabani’. For the former, a mid-tempo piano dominated piece, Moroccan gnawa influences are weaved in with repeated riffs and handclaps while on the latter vocalist Faudel Amil delivers lovely wordless vocals. For some real diversity, the driving fender rhodes on ‘Rachel’ enters jazz-funk territory with hip-hop drum beat patterns into the mix. Those in search of dancefloor action should look no further than ‘Bibise’ with lead vocals from the new darling of the Malian music scene, Fatoumata Diawara, who recorded an excellent debut album for World Circuit last autumn. on this piece Senegalese kora player Baba Sissoko displays his virtuoso instrumental talents to full effect. A UK tour is imminent and begins on 23 March through to 1 April. It should be one of the most anticipated gigs of the year thus far.

Tim Stenhouse

Brad Mehldau Trio ‘Ode’ (Nonesuch) 4/5

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that this is the first studio outing by the trio since the ‘Day is done’ back in 2005 and long-time fans will not this time be able to engage in the usual banter of which recent pop tune has been covered since this is an all original selection of compositions. That being said, the trio are in fine form, sounding as fresh as they did some seven years ago and the new pieces are of a consistently high standard. No more so than the deeply lyrical ‘26’ which is a deeply melodic piece on which Mehldau enters into an extended crescendo of notes with drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier in close pursuit. On the opener, ‘M.B’ the influence of Keith Jarrett can be heard and this number is a tribute to the late saxophonist Michael Brecker while the title track possesses an organic earthiness with Mehldau offering a delicate solo and there is moreover fine interplay between pianist and bassist. Blues inflections surface on the excellent ‘Kurt vibe’ while there is an unusual off-beat quirkiness to the ballad, ‘G.H’, another tribute, but this time to former Beatle George Harrison. Above all what really impresses with this trio is the apparent simplicty of the themes performed, both individually and collectively, and on ‘Twiggy’ one cannot but marvel at the constantly inventive percussion playing of Ballard in particular. Quite simply a piano trio performance of Champions League quality.

Tim Stenhouse

Caetano Veloso and David Byrne ‘Live at Carnegie Hall’ (Nonesuch) 4/5

Originally a spring concert from 2004 that was broadcast on National Public Radio, the American equivalent of the BBC, this live recording is a welcome collaboration between two veteran musicians who constantly keep their music fresh by entering into new musical dialogues. Here the concert is divided up roughly into three parts, the first two with the two musicians performing alone and the final section with joint vocals in English and Portugese. Caetano Veloso takes care of the first part of the performance and this is predominantly from his classic mid-late 1970s repertoire with a few classics before and after thrown in for good measure. Old chestnuts such as ‘Sampa’, ‘Terra’ and ‘O Leåzinho’ still sound as fresh as the first time they were aired while ‘Coraçåo vagabundo’ is quite simply one of Veloso’s most delightful and sensitive compositions of all. David Byrne performing acoustic is, perhaps, the welcome surprise here and classic Talking Heads material suc has ‘Road to nowhere’ is viewed in a new light when devoid of any instrumentation other than Byrne’s own guitar. In a recent interview David Byrne was quoted as being somewhat nervous at the prospect of sharing the stage with Brazilian giant Caetano Veloso, but, judging by the resulting music contained herein, he need not have been so anxious for this is very much a meeting of equals and kindred spirits. The two singers are on top form on a gorgeous rendition of ‘Um canto de Afoxé para o Bloco do Ilé’ which is sheer delight with Byrne very competently singing the original lyrics in Portugese. Veloso returns the compliment with aplomb on ‘(Nothing but) flowers’, where both singers enter into a humorous update on the lyrics in English and Caetano in particular delivers his trademark idiosyncractic vocals that are received with rapturous applause from an audience that is lapping the momentous event up for all it’s worth. The only downside of this recording is that thus far there has been no follow up studio album. David Byrne may have felt that he was going a little outside his own comfort zone, but his empathy for Brazilian music is all too apparent and a joint project would surely yield some precious offerings from two of the most open-minded musical minds on the planet.

Tim Stenhouse

Sizzla ‘In Gambia’ (VP) 3/5

Reggae musicians have at regular intervals toured Africa, most notably Culture and Pete Tosh, while no less than Bob Marley himself famously performed at the independence celebrations for Zimbabwe in 1980. Dancehall singers have been a good deal fewer on the ground, though in recent years Sizzla has shifted markedly to a more cultural stance. This new album is not in fact a live recording, but rather one recorded in a studio in Gambia, then mixed in Jamaica. One does wonder what served as the inspiration for the stay and why there was no collaboration with local musicians which is something of a lost opportunity. Several of the songs allude to being in Gambia, but somewhere along the line Sizzla decides that he is more interested in a performing a hybrid of contemporary r‘n’b and reggae rather than in fusing reggae and African styles. The singer is at his strongest on the uplifting lyrics and roots feel of ‘Blackman rise’ and on the falsetto-led vocals of ‘Feed the children’. Thereafter, Sizzla seems to lose the plot on ‘Woman of creation’ and ‘Where is the love?’ Does he want to record a whole album of this nu-soul material? If so, fine, but it does sit oddly here. A mixed bag of an album and not all in the reggae idiom.

Tim Stenhouse

I-Octane ‘Crying to the nation’ (VP) 3/5

Jamaican singer I-Octane, real name Byiome Muir, hails from Sandy Bay in Clarendon and was passionate about singing from an early age. He first recorded at Penthouse studios of Donovan Germaine and there came into contact with singer Bunju Banton. Three years after his work with Penthouse, I-Octane was apporached by Arrow records and this resulted in a shift in style from dancehall to cultural roots and a first single ‘Stab vampire’. The singer is now an independent musician who has severed links with Arrow, yet has only been in the music profession for five years. This brings us bang up to date with the debut album on VP contained within. It is in fact his first full length album and features a mixture of styles. It works best on the lyrical and socially conscious material such as the excellent ‘Vanity will come’ and the instant hook of’ Rules of life’, both of which features session musicians. The second half of the album is not quite as strong and in parts the production is a little too slick for this writer with I-Octane’s voice subdued among a plethora of electronic instrumentation. Nonetheless the catchy single ‘L.O.V.E. you’ will appeal to a new audience while the duets with Alborosie and Tarrus Riley will atttract a more mainstream reggae public. I-Octane needs to decide which pathway he wishes to follow and then stick to that for a whole album. Greater success will surely beckon. Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Sounds from the soul underground’ (Freestyle) 4/5

For some time now Freestyle records have been championing the new sounds of the dancefloor in myriad styles that range from Afro-beat to Latin, from jazz to soul, and from dub to funk so a compilation of these underground beats is very much the order of the day. Expertly compiled by Greg Boraman with detailed inner sleeve notes on the musicians concerned, this is a well balanced anthology of the label that showcases the recent and includes forthcoming sounds too. An immediate winner is the jazz dance piano vamps of Jessica Lauren on ‘Mr. G’, a keyboardist who first came to prominence during the 1990s on a well received Soul Jazz album, and then went off to do various sidewoman duties which included a stint with singer Barb Jungr among others. The new piece is merely a foretaste of her new album which will be released on Freestyle later in the year and there is a definite hint of Horace Silver in the use of Latin keyboard vamps. On another great tune, the neo-jazz dance number ‘Colours’ by Frootful, the enduring music of Johnny Lytle is conjured up with plentiful vibes over a heavy jazz beat. For an interesting contrast, northern soul flavours permeate the excellent vocal song ‘Hey girl’ by Jo Stance and one looks forward to hearing more of her. When disco went pear-shaped at the end of the 1970s, ‘boogie’ took over on the dancefloor during the early 1980s and ‘Something gotta give’ by Nick Van Gelder harks back to that era with vocals from Mazen. Going back further in time, jazz-funk ruled the roost during much of the mid-late 1970s and the Delicious All Stars bring this era back to life on the fine instrumental ‘Poker night theme’ while in reggae circles dub reached its zenith. However, even the likes of King Tubby had not thought of fusing roots dub with Ethiopian jazz and under the aegis of Dubulah, aka Nick Page, Dub Colossus have paved the way with a pioneering musical métissage that works and ‘Diaspora square’ is a fine illustration of this. Elsewhere the retro Afro-beat of the Riya Astrobeat Arkestra and the Afro-funk take on blaxploitation movie soundtracks from the Mighty Showstoppers impress and there is Latin funk from Ray Camacho and the Tear Drops on the pulsating ‘Movin’ on’. For connoisseurs of the harder Latin groove, look no further than some storming 1970s style descarga from Ray Lugo and the Boogaloo Destroyers on ‘Sol el ray’. All in all a terrific overview of a music scene that does not receive its full due from the mainstream music media. Tim Stenhouse

Eric Bibb ‘Deeper in the Well’ (Dixie Frog/Harmonia Mundi) 4/5

Acoustic blues and all round Americana musician Eric Bibb has impeccable musical credentials, being the son of folk singer Leon Bibb, with an uncle, pianist and composer in the MJQ, John Lewis, and counting among family friends Bob Dylan, the late Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger. Indeed Bibb junior belongs, along with Corey Harris and Keb Mo, to a generation that has grown up during the folk revival of the 1960s and has taken on board multiple influences both within and outside the established blues tradition. A recent apprearance on the latest series of the Transatlantic sessions on BBC4 revealed the singer-songwriter and guitarist to be interested in exploring all aspects of American roots music and this is precisely what he delivers on this supremely craftly new album. Alternative country, blues, folk and gospel come together effortlessly here and the sheer panoramic view that Eric Bibb is able to portray is breathtaking and definitely not something to be taken for granted. The key point here is that all his diverse influences slot naturally into a cohesive whole and that is the true sign of a individually-minded musician. 

A song that Bibb heard performed by Doc Watson and son Earl ‘Dig a little deeper in the well’ provides one of the many album highlights with fine fiddle playing and beautiful melodies. Folk-blues permeate the classic composition ‘Sinner man’ with some outstanding vocals while there are hints of Kelly Joe Phelps on the acoustic flavoured ‘No further’ with guitar and harmonica supplying some rock solid accompaniment, and the storytelling quality to Bibb’s music is emphasized on ‘Boll weevil’. A couple of contemporary standards receive the Bibb makeover with a warm and intimate ‘Time they are a changin’ which continues to be a relevant song while Taj Mahal’s ‘Every wind in the river’ is deeply melodic and further evidence that Bibb can make virtually any song his own. Eric Bibb achieves that most surprising of goals for listeners who view the blues as being obsessed with darkness and despair; he produces music that is fundamentally uplifting of the human spirit. This is an album that is likely to be on the end of year top ten lists, not necessarily for its innovative approach, but purely and simply for being one of the most enjoyable listening experiences of the year and that is recommendation enough.

Tim Stenhouse

Niney Presents ‘Deep roots Observer style’ 4 CD box set (VP) 4/5

Winston Holness aka Niney the Observer is one of reggae’s finest and distinctive prodcuers and has been plying his trade since 1969 when he first began production work with Joe Gibbs and the nprosduced the seminal roots tune ‘Rasta no born yeh’ for Sang Hugh in 1972. In fact even before this he was involved in the music industry as a singer and this probably explains why he was so sensitive to the needs of other musicians. On this new box set four original albums from the 1970s are presented with their original facsimile sleeves and the trademark eye logo that became synonymous with Niney’s 1970s roots productions on the box set cover, here lovingly illustrated by the man behind the superb graphics for those Greensleeves 12” singles and albums, Tony McDermott. Of all his collaborations that Niney enjoyed with singer Dennis Brown was, perhaps, the closest of all and so the re-issue of one of Brown’s hardest to find (on vinyl certainly and in general there are selected songs available on CD compilations) albums in its original form is a real treat. There is no shortage of listening heaven here, but key songs include ‘Tribulation’, ‘So long Rastafari’ and ‘Voice of my father’. Best of all is ‘If you’re rich, help the poor’ which could almost be a rallying call for the present day. Legendary vocal group the Heptones had already established themselves in the premier league of harmony groups by the time they and Niney hooked up for the late-1970s album ‘Better days’, the group having first worked at Studio One and then during the mid-1970s under the creative production talents of Harry J and especially one Lerry Perry with the epic ‘Party time’ album. However, the group did change personnel with lead singer Leroy Sibbles leaving to be replaced by Dolphin ‘Naggo’ Morris. Thankfully the Heptones were still capable of delivering some fine roots songs and in ‘Crystal blue persuasion’ and the steppers favourite ‘Through the fire I come’, many a revival session has subsequently been lit up. Actually the album is pretty strong throughout with one of the group’s most endearing melodies being ‘Temptation, botheration and tribulation’, a seminal roots tune and ‘Holy Mount Zion’ is only marginally less effective. 

DJ I-Roy was one of the roots era’s most compelling and entertaining social commentators and the partnership with Niney resulted in the album ‘The Observer book of I-Roy’. A major highlight here is the inclusion of a bonus 12” cut ‘Jah is my light’/’Wicked eat dirt’ featuring Leroy Smart and I-Roy, but the original album is equally impressive. There is a feel of Lee Perry’s ‘Police and thieves’ production on ‘Jah come here’ and one presumes that Holness was listening closely to the experimentation emanating from the Black Ark studios. One of the best loved tunes on the album is ‘Sister maggie breast’ which borrows the riddim from Dennis Brown’s ‘Woles and leopards’ classic. For lovers of steppers with a healthy dosage of dub echo look no further than ‘Jamaican grill/Observer in fine style’. I-Roy’s inimitable DJ intro is heard on ‘Native land’. Finally there is a follow up dub album to ‘Dubbin’ with the Observer’ which cemented Niney’s reputation as an all-round top roots producer. The second instalment, ‘Observation of life dub’, by Page One and the Observers is not quite on a par with its predecessor, but a strong set nonethless with reworkings of the aforementioned Heptones vocal album. 
Of these new interpretations, ‘Nuff bread on the table’ is notable for its pulsating beat and distinctive keyboard licks, and there is also some pared down drum and bass on ‘Africa’s time now’. This is a first rate anthology of Niney’s work and only marginally short of a five star rating. At least two of the albums are deserving of belonging in that category.

Tim Stenhouse

Noir Désir ‘Soyons désinvoltes. N’ayons l’air de rien (Best of)’ 2CD/DVD (Blue Wrasse) 4/5

With between 400,00 and 500,00 French nationals resident in the UK, this mere statistic alone provides a significant commercial potential and unsurprisingly the music industry has begun to take note of their potential, particularly when so many of this new generation of emigrants are in their twenties, thirties and forties. British interest in the French music scene has been highly selective and tends either to take a sugar-coated nostalgic look at the 1960s and before (Françoise Hardy, early Johnny Halliday), or else psychadelic and other rock influences (Serge Gainsbourg), or instead focuses on a limited number of new artists for their individual style (Camille), or finally instrumental groups that easily transcend linguistic barriers (Daft Punk, Air). An anthology of the new generation of singer-songwriters who surfaced during the 1970s (Souchon, Lavilliers, Le Forestier etc.) aimed specifically at an English-speaking audience with clear explanations is required to rectify matters and this would only be touching the surface for there is a wealth of musical talent hitherto unknown in the UK. 

Where do Noir Désir fit into this musical jigsaw? They are very much rooted in the alternative music scene that emerged in France during the 1980s and especially 1990s as a reaction, partly to the French equivalent of the ‘X factor’, referred to more generally in France as the ‘star system’, and partly as a direct response to the rise of the extreme right party, the Front National. If one had to categorise them at all, then it would probably be in the indie rock field, though their influences are above all French (especially in outlook and use of lyrics) and they can be seen as direct musical descendents of 1970s group Téléphone and even Manu Chao’s first group Manu Negra rather than as a mere pastiche of English-speaking rock music. Lead singer Bertrand Cantet typifies the group’s approach as a whole, with a philosophy degree, a voracious reader of banned poets and a clear left of centre vision of the world. The compilation is well conceived with all their major hits contained including. perhaps, their best known song ‘Le vent nous portera’ and others which cover sensitive social issues. For example ‘Un jour en France’ deals with racism and xenophobia in French society while ‘L’homme pressé’ is an emphatic rejection of the manufactured music being produced via television talent shows. One song missing is the group’s attack on unbridled captialism with an English title, ‘Holy economic war’. In many respects this was a visionary tale of what would come to pass with the current economic recession and possibly the group’s very public own struggle with their label Barclay being taken over by multi-national Universal was a little too close to the bone to be considered for inclusion here. Whatever the case, this package nonetheless offers a comprehensive overview of the group, especially with extensive DVD footage (two and a half hours no less) that includes video and concert music from French television. Sadly, the group’s future came to an abrupt halt when lead singer Cantat’s partner, the actress Marie Trintignant, was tragically killed with Cantat directly implicated in a highly mediatised coverage and the singer went to prison. Upon his release the group attempted two more songs, but the old chemistry was no longer there and they disbanded. Their influence on contemporary French music is immense and, for anyone who is interested in examining what their contemporaries across the Channel listen to, this will prove to be an eye opening experience. A pity there are no lyrics either in French, or English which would have enhanced the listener’s enjoyment.

Tim Stenhouse

Robert Glasper Experiment ‘Black Radio’ (Blue Note) 3/5

Keyboardist Robert Glasper has consistently maintained a foot in both jazz and contemporary black music fields and thus it should come as no surprise that he would wish to combine the two for an album showcasing various vocalists on the current rap and R ‘n’ B scene. While he is to be applauded for this endeavour which works in some places here, the sheer number of guest artists on board for this CD makes the overall objective an impossible one to achieve and, crucially, it relegates Glasper himself to a bit sideman part, leaving the listener with the decidely uncomfortable feeling that this has been a lost opportunity. First of all let us focus on the positive aspects. The inclusion of singers of the calibre of Eryka Badu and Meshell Ndegecello is a mouthwatering prospect and, had they been given more time and songs to develop a musical rapport with Glasper, we could have been talking about a recording of some substance. Badu’s vocal pyrotechnics are ideally suited to improvisation while Ndegecello’s eclectic approach and multi-instrumental skills would make for an ideal partnership with Robert Glasper. Why, then, was this avenue not explored on an entire album? As it is, Badu and Glasper combine on a reworking of Mongo Santmaria’s classic ‘Afro Blue’, but even this does not really afford the chanteuse the opportunity to show off her vocal range over some tasty keyboards improvisations. Glasper becomes largely a sideshow here, but nevertheless he does resurface in jazzier mode on the excellent ‘Gonna be alright (F.T.B.)’ that introduces talented vocalist Bedisi and features some lovely fender licks that we have come to love and admire from Glasper. Possibly best of all is ‘Letter to Hermoine’ where the music finally comes alive and we have an extended piano solo from the leader as well as subtle flute playing. Now for the negative. If Robert Glasper truly wishes to make a rap-dominated album, then he should be allowed to do so, but this should be strictly separate from his jazz-inspired career (unless of course he chooses some rappers who truly know their jazz such as Tribe Called Quest) and much of the jazz-rap terrain has already been explored and exhausted by a variety of musicians during the 1990s. Indeed on the title track Glasper might as well have not been there and in general the rap collaborations are at once unfulfilling and sound a trifle dated. Of the other collaborations, Lalah Hathaway makes a good attempt at Sade’s (why are there not more covers of this contemporary classic chanteuse?) ‘Cherish the day’, taken here at a slower pace than on the original. If it is back to the drawing board for Robert Glasper for the time being, at the very least this blending of genres has given the pianist the opportunity to see and hear what works and what does not, and that in itself may long-term prove to be a valuable lesson. A mixed emotional experience for Robert Glasper’s devoted fans of which this writer is a paid up member. Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993