Johnny Alf ‘Johnny Alf’ (Mr Bongo) 4/5

Singer-pianist Johnny Alf is one of the unrecognised greats of Brazilian music and he was a seminal influence on the music of Tania Maria. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1929, Alf grew up in an era when the Great American songbook was all the rage in Brazil and his own influences spanned the music of George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and vocally Frank Sinatra. Alf developed a unique voice that could take on board the jazziest of swing as well as ballads, and for the former incorporated his own brand of scatting. He scored early successses in 1961 with the samba-cançao ‘Ilu-sao à toa’ and in 1964 with ‘Seu Chopin’. Johnny Alf performed regularly at Bottle’s Bar in Rio, a key venue during the 1960s, where the likes of the Tamba Trio, Sergio Mendes and Luis Carlos Vinhas all played.

The album re-issued here, the first ever in the UK to this writer’s knowledge, dates from 1965 and is a well balanced set of uptempo jazz-infused samba, mid-tempo bossa and some laid back songs with classy orchestrations. Alf perfected the art of marrying piano and jazzy inflections into his repertoire and they are heard on the all too brief ‘Samba sem balançao (‘Unbalanced samba’)’ and on the hard boss accompaniment to ‘Bossa so’. This said, Alf probably sounded best of all in the mid-tempo range as on the jazzy swinger that is ‘Eu so sei’, or on ‘Ceu alegre’ with fine brass and the orchestrated ‘Gismi’. Of the ballads, the gentle guitar-led ‘Tudo que é preciso’, with lovely use of reeds, impresses as does ‘Imenso de amor’ with those oh so distinctive Brazilian drum licks. As a bonus, one of Johnny Alf’s best loved songs, ‘Rapaz de bem’ from 1967 is included. At some point an anthology of his work is in order. For the time being this makes a lovely discovery as part of the bigger jigsaw that is Brazilian popular music. Tim Stenhouse

Salvador Trio ‘ Salvador Trio’ (Mr Bongo) 4/5 Salvador Trio ‘Tristeza’ (Mr Bongo) 3/5

Pianist Dom Salvador was born in 1938 in Rio Claro, Sao Paulo and started his professional career at the tender age of twelve, playing piano in a local orchestra. From 1961 onwards he became known as a pianist, especially at a club in his native city called Lancaster which turned out to be a meeting place for jazz musicians. Bossa nova was starting to happen in Rio, however, and Salvador moved on to that city and in particular to the merging club scene in the area of Copacabana such as the club Beco das Garrafas. Simultaneously, he accompanied some of the emerging stars of Brazilian music on television such as Jorge Ben, Quarteto em Cy and Elis Regina. By 1965 Dom Salvador had formed the Rio 65 Trio with Edison Machado on drums and Sergio Barroso on bass. The two re-issues from Mr Bongo cover this mid-1960s period when Dom Salvador had just formed his own trio, though each album has different personnel. The first of these, ‘Salvador Trio’ from 1965, is the stronger and features Edson Lobo (distinct from singer-songwriter and guitarist Edu Lobo) on bass and Victor Manga on drums. A whole host of uptempo numbers make this a treat from start to finish. Highly melodic and a fine example of the hard bossa style is ‘Santarem’ while the influence of Horace Silver is felt on ‘Tematrio’ and this should not be too much of a surprise since Silver himself was in turn influenced by listening to samba music, had Portugese language and Cape Verdean roots via his father (to whom the classic ‘Song for my father’ was devoted) and enjoyed a close relationship with none other than Sergio Mendes who invited Silver to stay in Rio. Brazilian musicians have long revered Silver’s music and covered his compositions. For ultra-rapid bossa, look no further than the breakneck speed of ‘Miscelânia’ and the drumming vehicle that is appropriately title ‘Pro bateria’. For some welcome variation, there is a slow-paced cover of Edu Lob’s ‘Arrastao’ and the waltz-like ‘Das rosas’ whereas the understated bossa ‘Promessa’ has a nursery rhyme feel in its theme.

Dom Salvador changed attack on the following album. ‘Tristeza’ and this is a slightly milder affair, though still not without its own merits. There is some jazzy improvising on ‘Fred’s ahead’ with again a Horace Silver influence discernable under the surface while a percussive interpretation of the title track, which has become a jazz standard for vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan, is taken at a quicker tempo than per usual. A Joao Donato piece ‘Indio perdido’ is transfomed into a fine bossa and Dom Salvador expands his instrumental range, performing on the organ-led smoocher ‘Eu compro essa mulher’. For some more introverted piano trio playing, ‘Um sonho azul’ (‘Blue sound’) fits the bill while the famous bossa vocal song ‘Sonho de carnaval’ here oscillates between slow and fast pace. During 1966 Dom Salvador toured Europe with Edu Lobo, Silvia Teles and Rosinha Da Valença, recording with the latter the unforgettable hard bossa ‘Meu fraco é café’ which found its way onto the MPS compilation of Brazilian music re-issued on CD as ‘Jazz meets Brazil’. By 1970 Salvador had changed labels to CBS for a single album plus reeds that has become a collectors item and has yet to be re-issued in the UK on CD, though was briefly available on limited edition vinyl.

Tim Stenhouse

Eric Schaefer ‘Who is afraid of Richard W?’ (ACT) 2/5

Using the pretext of Richards Wagner’s two-hundreth birthday, this project celebrates the classical composer’s music in the most unusual fashion.
Eric Schaefer is both a drummer and electronica musician who leads the quartet that includes British trumpeter Tim Arthurs. One of the main criticisms about this project that one can level at the collective is why hide behind the music of Wagner when the band seems fully capable of fronting their own compositions? The music is somewhere between prog rock and 1970s psychadelia with Arthurs supplying the majority of the jazz input and quite why they saw the need to use the music of Wagner is a mystery. It certainly is not an obvious, or even harmonious fusion of sounds. The interpretations themselves are relatively concise in nature, averaging between three to three and half minutes in length with the Miles-inspired harmon mute trumpet of Arthur raising ‘Lohengrin’ above average while in a departure from the rest, the Liszt piece ‘Dante sonata’ features some interesting organ playing from Volker Meitz. Dub flavours emerge on ‘Nietzsche in disguise’, an original composition from Schaefer and this is a perfect illustration of the band’s own repertoire being superior to reworkings of a classical composer who had strictly nothing to do with jazz music. A reggae-fied take on the epic ‘Walklüre’ is recognisable only halfway through when the main theme is introduced. Jazz musicians have, with varying degrees of success, interpreted the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (Jacques Loussier making an entire caeeer out of the endeavour) and there are very real parallels that can be made in this particular comparison. However, in the case of Richard Wagner, the attempt to link his music with jazz is both an artificially created and indeed ill-conceived one.

Tim Stenhouse

Konrad Wiszniewski and Euan Stevenson ‘New Focus’ (Whirlwind) 4/5

Here is one of the freshest sounding jazz releases to come out of the UK in the past few years. It is the brainchild of Glasgow-based saxophonist Konrad Wiszniewski and Scottish pianist Euan Stevenson who were major discoveries at the 2011 Edinburgh Jazz Festival and also the 2012 edition of the London Jazz Festival. Both the title and music are inspired by the 1961 Stan Getz album ‘Focus’ which successfully fused jazz and classical genres with its creative use of strings, though the all-original compositions on the new recording are divided evenly between Stevenson (five) and Wiszniewski (four). Many other musicians have subsequently attempted to interweave the two distinct genres and with varying degrees of success. The more successful ones have up until now included among others Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman and Michel Petrucciani. With this new CD, Stevenson and Wiszniewski can justifiably belong to that exalted list in terms of finding a happy medium between classical and jazz and one that respects both traditions. What makes this new recording such a joy is that the classical elements do not get in the way of the jazz swinging. This is perfectly illustrated on the full-on power of the tenorist plus Glasgow String Quartet on the uptempo piece ‘Illuminate’ and on the wailin g number ‘El Paraiso’. A much gentler side to Wiszniewski can be heard on the delightful ‘For Ray’ with the former on soprano saxophone and Stevenson stretching out on piano with subtle use of strings. Another winner of a tune is ‘Music for a northern town’ with Wiszniewski once more on soprano. Euan Stevenson’s influences seem to range from Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson through to Debussy and Satie while Konrad Wiszniewski, who has performed with Gary Burton, Joe Lovano and John Scofield no less, comes across as a devotee of both Jan Garbarek and Stan Getz. An outstanding set of arrangements and execution of music from an extremely talented duo.

Tim Stenhouse

Roosevelt Sykes ‘The Honeydripper’/’Face to Face with the blues’ (Vocalion) 4/5

UK jazz and classical re-issue specialists Vocalion have come up with a winner here in the blues idiom. This pairing of albums groups together two early 1960s albums that pianist-singer Roosevelt Sykes recorded at the Lansdowne studios under producer Dennis Preston who, elsewhere, produced some of the classic UK Columbia series of jazz albums. At the time of these recordings, Sykes was already a veteran of some thirty-five years in the music business, having recorded during the 1920s and 1930s which was a particularly fertile period for blues music. Indeed he recorded prolifically during the period 1934-1939. However, by the 1950s with the large-scale migration of African-Americans to the north and the resulting evolution in style from acoustic to electric blues, Sykes, along with others of his generation, had grown out of favour. As the 1960s emerged, however, a new generation was discovering the roots of the blues and Sykes once again found himself in demand. The songs on these two albums are largely originals and are always witty, with sometimes a sense of self-parody and still sound as fresh as the day that they were recorded. The first album features Phil Seamen on drums and Alexis Corner on selected tracks on guitar whereas on the second Sykes is accompanied solely by Don Lawson on drums. If anything, the second pairing works best and Lawson has a natural feeling for Sykes’ playing which makes their collective efforts all the more pleasurable. Numerous highlights includes the opener ‘Sweet old Chicago’. ‘Mistakes in life’ and the gospel-tinged standard’ So tired’. By the 1960s Roosevelt Sykes had settled in Chicago and recorded for a variety of prestigious labels including Decca, Delmark, Folkways and Prestige via its Bluesville off-shoot. The two albums contained within stand up well to these other recordings and the recording quality is excellent throughout. Sykes would return to the UK in 1965 and 1966, performing not only with Chris Barber’s jazz band, but also at the Folk Blues Festival package which grouped together legendary blues figures. Excellent original sleeve notes from Charles Fox and Alexis Korner are reproduced in the inner sleeve. At just under eighty minutes, this represents an outstanding value re-issue from Vocalion.

Tim Stenhouse

Wayne Shorter ‘Without a Net’ (Blue Note) 4/5

After a forty-three year gap and now a venerable octogenerian, Wayne Shorter returns to the label where he cut some of his finest music as a leader and this heading a quartet that has performed together for over a decade. It is surprising given the above, then, that they should have recorded only three albums. Similar to the previous two, the latest offering is a live performance from the quartet’s 2011 tour (no indication of where precisely) and they have produced a cohesive and challenging set of numbers. As with the mid-1960s classics such as ‘Speak No Evil’ and Schizophrenia’, there is a real sense of adventure and a degree of abstraction to the playing here and it is astonishing that Wayne Shorter should still have the vitality and freedom to explore. There is a nod to previous musical escapades as on the opener ‘Orbit’ which is a re-working of the ‘Miles Smiles’ album piece with repetitive piano vamp and just a hint of menace about it with Shorter on soprano and fine improvisation from pianist Danilo Perez. A composition from the Weather Report era, ‘Plaza Real’ is a more intricate number. Of the original pieces, ‘Zero gravity’ impresses with its slight Middle Eastern theme, lengthy bass intro and delicate use of percussion. Here Shorter plays a largely supportive role to Perez. It is the latter’s natural empathy for Latin roots (Perez being born in Puerto Rico) that surface on ‘S.S. Golden Mean’ with a quote from Dizzy’s ‘Manteca’ thrown in and some lovely Brazilian samba vamps on piano which conjurs up the seminal ‘Native Dancer’ album that Shorter recorded in the 1970s. Finishing off proceedings is an ambitious twenty-three minute larger ensemble piece ‘Pegasus’ that includes the Imani Winds woodwind section. No details of any UK tour as yet, but this is a most welcome trip home to the the Blue Note stable for Wayne Shorter.

Tim Stenhouse

Creole Choir of Cuba ‘Santiman’ (Real World) CD/Digital 4/5

A triumphant 2010 UK tour helped introduce this most intriguing of Cuban music forms, the choir having Haitian roots which is quite typical of the eastern part of Cuba, and they are well versed in their ancestors music having studied the subject up to university level. The group follow up their first international album ‘Tande-la’ and this time it is more varied than the first with various instrumental accompaniment yet, as before, arresting storylines that immediately capture one’s attention. Sung mainly in Haitian Creole (with elements of French, English and West African languages creeping in), there is a healing quality to the music within such as on the reposing vocals to ‘Fey oh di nou’ (‘Oh leaves tell us’) and especially on the passionate lead voice on ‘Soufle van (mangaje) (‘Blow wind’)’. That said, in a more uptempo vein, there is the catchy rumba ‘Camina como chencha’ (‘Walk like Chencha’) with stunning call and response vocals and collectively the Creole Choir of Cuba are heard to their best effect here. On a more serious note, their songs can have a strong political message as on ‘Pale, pale’ (‘Talk, talk’) which tells of the atrocities committed by former dictators against the Haitian people. This protest song is itself based on a folk song. Creole Choir of Cuba, known also by their Cuban name Desandann, present a different side to Cuban music and performed to great acclaim as part of the London 2012 cultural Olympiad celebrations. Production duties come courtesy of John Metcalfe who has worked with Peter Gabriel, Blur and John Cale among others.

Tim Stenhouse

Stonephace Stabbins ‘Transcendental’ (Noetic) 4/5

Multi-reedist Larry Stabbins was one of the pivotal figures in the 1980s jazz dance scene as a founding member of Working Week who recorded the anthemic ‘Venceremos’. He returns here with a band that is in its nucleus part of Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra with, among others, the excellent Zoe Rahman on piano. Stabbins was influenced in his youth by the playing of John Coltrane and in particular an album he bought of the saxophonist, ‘Africa Brass’. This serves as the inspiration for much of the music contained within which has a modal feel as on the lovely ‘Noetic’ with bass riff, piano comps and some fine tenor from the leader. Larry Stabbins alternates between saxophone and flute and on the latter he excels on the brief ‘Immanence’ and the inventive Latin jazz interpretation of the famous film score of The yellow brick road’ which is taken here in 7/4 time as an Afro-Cuban piece with a creative rapport between piano and flute. Stabbins has a distinctive sound on tenor, especially at a higher pitch and this is illustrated in the intro to the opener ‘Africa’ which quickly settles into a percussive groove with fine modal-influenced piano from Rahman. If the music is not always immediate here, it certainly grows with repeated listens and there is a good deal bubbling just under the surface which is always a good sign. Hopefully a live manifestation of this band will surface at some point. Tim Stenhouse

Greg Foat Group ‘Girl and Robot with flowers’ CD/LP + separate 10″ EP/Digital (Jazzman) 3/5

London’s Jazzman label is best known for its unearthing of hitherto obscure deep jazz recordings, but on this occasion a new band has been recorded and the album is indeed a follow up to the 2011 release ‘Dark is the sun’. Recorded in Gothenburg, Sweden, leader Greg Foat is a composer and arranger who also performs as a multi-keyboardist and even plays vibraphone and harmonium. The compositions have been inspired by the sci-fi writing of Brian Aldiss and this is definitely mood music with some tasty grooves laid down in the process, and therefore likely to appeal to an audience beyond the confines of jazz. The title track is divided up into no less than six parts and as such has something of a film soundtrack feel to it. Part two impresses with its use of hammond organ licks and brass while parts four and five are more psychadelic in approach with spaced out saxophone and a larger jazz component with Foat leading on vibes. Mancunian trumpeter Matthew Halsall guests on one track, the co-composed ‘For a breath I tarry’ which is a pared down piece with just piano and trumpet while minimalist keyboards are also a feature of the two part ‘Have spacesuit will travel’ which has the contrasting layers of synths with acoustic bass and drums and electric piano. Extra tracks contained on the CD, not available on the vinyl LP, are featured on the EP. Tim Stenhouse

Son Yambu ‘La Maravilla’ (Apollo Sound) 4/5

Very long-term fans of Latin music in the UK may just be able to remember the first releases of Latin Jazz on the Apollo Sound label which goes all the way back to 1964! For the rest of us, a forty plus year wait is long overdue, but this new album, firmly rooted in the Cuban conjunto style tradition, is a most welcome addition. Precious few authentic Latin music recordings reach these shores beyond the standard modern day salsa and the various off-shoots of the Buena Vistas, but this London-based band, fronted by lead voclaist Yuri Moreno, is the real deal. The opener ‘Baila con mi tumbao’ sets the scene to dramatic effect and the evergreen tunes, three of which are truly classic Arsenio Rodriguez compositions, makes for an enthralling listen. Of the trio, ‘No me llores’ and ‘Dundunbanza’ are stand outs while the call and response vocals on ‘Co Co Mai Mai’ with soaring trumpet and a fine mountuno-style percussion section is probably the pick of the album. Forty years is a long time in the music business, but in the capable hands of new band Son Yambu it has been worth the wait. Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993