Sonny Rollins ‘The Bridge’ (Poll Winners) 4/5

Tenor titan Sonny Rollins was prolific during the early to mid-1950s and cut some definitive music on the saxophone. However, by 1959 he was in dire need of a break and took a three year self imposed sabbatical from the recording industry. By 1962 he was ready once again to record and enlisted the considerable support of producer George Avakian who had done such a sterling job with the upcoming trumpeter Miles Davis during the mid-late 1950s on his first Columbia album ‘Round Midnight’. The pairing of Rollins with guitarist Jim Hall was a truly inspired one and the rapport between the two makes this album one to remember among those in the Rollins pantheon. The rhythm section was solid with bassist Bob Cranshaw who would be a staple on the Blue Note label while drumming duties are shared between Monk quartet member Ben Riley and Harry T. Saunders. The album combines two originals including the fiery title track alongside four standard numbers with ‘God bless the child’ a genuine standing out piece. A real bonus is the inclusion of some additional recordings, most notably two numbers from the ‘Jazz Casual’ series that was hosted by jazz critic and presenter Ralph J. Gleason (the whole session is available separately on DVD). Two alternative version of the original album complete a fine all round package. The extended sleeve notes of the original, written by George Avakian, are faithfully reproduced, while a Downbeat review of the time by Ira Gitler no less is included also.

Tim Stenhouse

Dexter Gordon ‘Go’/’A swingin’ Affair’ (Poll Winners) 5/5

If you have ever viewed the Bertrand Tavernier film ‘Round Midnight’, you are sure to have been impressed by the main protagonist Dale Gordon, played in real life by the late Dexter Gordon who was a totally convincing actor in the role. This introduced many new devotees of jazz during the mid-1980s jazz renaissance to the tenor saxophonist’s work and if you have ever wanted to know where to start off with his discography, this is now the first place of reference. Two classic albums are handily placed onto one CD that features Gordon in his mature prime period after struggling with drug addiction throughout the 1950s. By 1961 he had signed with the legendary Blue Note label and the two albums that are contained herein feature identical quartet sessions that stretch over three days in August (?) 1962 with the notable inclusion of Sonny Clark on piano. Of the two, ‘Go’ is regarded by many as Gordon’s ultimate musical statement and justifiably so. The ensemble playing is quite simply stupendous and the selection of material ideally suited to the deeply melodic approach that Dexter Gordon personified. It would be difficult to pick out individual numbers from such an outstanding release, but the title track, and a swinging ‘Love for sale’ are immediate standouts. The follow up, ‘A Swingin’ Affair’ is, in its title at least, a gentle nod to the music and style of Frank Sinatra. However, this is a resolutely modern 1960s recording with a Latin undercurrent to the magnficent ‘Soy Califa’ while there is a lovely original composition in ‘McSplivens’. Once again the ballads are of the highest order with ‘Don’t explain’ being a heartwarming tribute to Billie Holiday. No extras, but no none are needed when music is this sublime. Tim Stenhouse

KPM Music Library ‘Music for dancefloors’ 2CD/2LP/Download (Strut) 4/5

Searching for library music beats has become a whole new area of music collecting over the last ten to fifteen years and, although not initially aimed at dancefloor action, have become essential tools for DJs and vinyl connoisseurs alike. However, precious little is known about many of the musicians behind the grooves even if the sounds created are often all to familiar television and cinematic accompaniments. This is where Strut are to be congratulated for their devotion in seeking to uncover the rarer items and this compilation, which initially surfaced in 2001, groups together some of the top sessions musicians from the 1970s in a now extended deluxe edition. The name Keith Marshall for example would mean little to most listeners, yet if you mentioned that he was the creator of the Granstand, or BBC Wimbledon themes, then all of a sudden his name would assume greater significance. There are some absolute gems contained within and the funk-tinged soul groover ‘That’s what friends are for’ (1975) by Alan Parker which is a winner from the start with vocals supplied by Madeline Bell. Big band jazz of the Oliver Nelson variety meeting blaxploitation film soundtrack is one way to describe the Johnny Pearson number ‘Assault course’ which dates from 1970 and features some lovely funk beats. One US produced piece with a distinctive Latin undercurrent is the piano-propelled ‘Freeway to Rio’ (1970) by Les Baxter while for further variety there is an early dub excursion on ‘Reggae train’ composed jointly by William Farley and Denis Bovell. For straight ahead jazz grooves, look no further than the jazz combo plus vibes sound of ‘Piano in transit’ from Francis Coppieters whereas ‘Swamp fever’ is a mid-paced groover that is dominated by catchy keyboards and a gorgeous flute solo. Alan Hawkshaw backed Serge Gainsbourg during the latter’s psychadelic period as well as leading the original skinhead reggae group the Mohawks and ‘Senior thump’ is a long-time fave as is ‘The champ’. In general the numbers are relatively concise in keeping with the requirements of the genre. A second CD brings matters virtually up to date with live performances of several of the key numbers on the first CD and this was recorded by a big band at the Jazz Café in London and features among others Alan Hawkshaw, Keith Mansfield and the KPM All Stars. Tim Stenhouse

The Relatives ‘The Electric Word’ (Yep Roc) 4/5

If the concept of gospel-funk is a hard one to grasp, then the BGP compilation of inspirational music with funky flavours of a couple of years ago ‘The Gospel Truth’ introduced the sounds to a wider audience and singers such as Shirley Caesar and Rance Allen have regularly fused their devotional message with secular instrumantation. Which is where North Texan group the Relatives come into the equation. A little known group outside their native state, the group was founded in 1970s and began releasing a series of collectable 45s which eventually saw the light of day on CD in 2009 with the anthology ‘Don’t let me fall’. The group had in fact disbanded by 1980, but the interest generated by the compilation encouraged the leader Reverend Gean West to reunite the group, first of all touring together, and now releasing this brand new album. There are hints of the Isley Brothers circa 1975 in the use of guitar and the Staples Singers and deep soulster O.V. Wright in the mellifluous harmonies that emanate both collectively and individually. Stylistically the album is quite varied, ranging from uptempo songs with falsetto and baritone vocals that Earth,Wind and Fire made such good use of in their soul and funk numbers to blues-inspired ballads and acapellas that are immediately pleasing on the ear. A standout track is the beautiful love ballad ‘Your love is real’ where the tight unison harmonies and raspy lead vocals blend effortlessly while ‘Revelations’ finds the group heading back into Temptations psychadelic era. Funk permeates a tribute of sorts to James Brown on ‘Say it loud (it is coming up again’) which is directly inspired from Brown’s legendary black pride anthem and includes the Relatives own take on the famous guitar riff. However, given their Texan roots the blues are never too far away and this arrives with biting social comment on another album highlight, ‘What’s wrong with America’. An all-too brief acapella ‘Trouble in my way’ demonstrates their more traditional gospel credentials. All in all a new take on the gospel format that is anything but preachy and welcomes allcomers to the musical pulpit. Tim Stenhouse

Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, London Vocal Project ‘Mirrors’ (Edition) 4/5

One of the UK’s greatest ever trumpet player’s, Canadian-born, but resident here for some six decades, Kenny Wheeler is also an extremely gifted composer and on this latest recording, his debut for the Edition label, he teams up with vocalist Norma Winstone (the two regular performed together during the late 1960s and as part of Azimuth in the mid-late 1970s onwards) and a larger vocal ensemble, the London Vocal Project, for a fusion of instrumental and skilfully voiced music based around and inspired by Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mirrors’. Indeed parallels could also be made with the 1980s ECM double album Wheeler recorded for large and small ensembles and here it has been extended to voicing and varying degrees of instrumental formations. Horace Silver successfully attempted to fuse instrumental and vocal contributions on a series of early to mid-1970s Blue Note albums.

Wheeler succeeds in making this an extremely calm and reposing listen, but crucially one in which the London Vocal Project, under the direction of Pete Churchill, do not get in the way at all of the instrumentalists. Quite the contrary. The latter are made up of some of London’s finest young jazz musicians including excellent saxophonist Mark Lockheart and pianist Nikki Iles. The music is neatly divided between mainly instrumental pieces and primarily vocal-led ones. Of the former, ‘Humpty Dumpty’ stands out for its gorgeous vocal harmonies which lead on to some fine soloing from Lockheart and Wheeler and this is a fine way to start off the album. In fact the rhythm section is solid throughout and the instrmuental collective positively shine on pieces such as ‘The broken heart’ and ‘Through the looking glass’ which are standout compositions. This is an unsual project and one that requires no little compositional and arranging skills to bring it off, and it is heartening to know Kenny Wheeler is still searching for new avenues, which, for an octogenerian, is a remarkable feat in itself.

Tim Stenhouse

Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators ‘Tortured Soul’ (Timmion) 4/5

nicole-willis-soul-investigatorsThis is a trip back into the classic gritty soul era with just a modern twist. Lead vocalist Nicole Willis possesses a voice that sounds as though it has been honed on listening to the classic 1970s period of Chaka Khan while the Soul Investigators have listened to the likes of the Norman Whitfield era of Motown and the Hi sound of Memphis. The result is one of the strongest soul album of the year so far and a fine follow up to the critically acclaimed debut back in 2005, ‘Keep reachin’ up’. There is a terrific earthy production with collective horns and tight arrangements. Motown drum beats greet the incredibly soulful lead and harmony vocals on ‘Tell me when’ with an extended guitar solo for good measure.
Prodicer Didier Selin, who also doubles up on percussion, deserves a good deal of credit for achieving this. One of the key numbers is a Stax-influenced ballad ‘On the East side’ which provides Willis with the opportunity to deliver one of her most impassioned vocals over a rock solid rhythm attack. Moody and downtempo is ‘Best day of our lives’ may be, but an uplifting listen it most certainly is. The Norman Whitfield connection is most evident on the opener, ‘Light years ahead’ which a psychadelic late 1960s Temptations feel to it whereas ‘You got me moonwalking’ has more of a mid-1970s production sound with the use of strings. In any case it is a dancefloor winner. An unusual introduction leads into another uplifting song in ‘Now I can fly’. The surprising discovery in all of this is that the Soul Investigators are actually Finnish with a French producer. The instrumentation sounds straight out of Detroit or Chicago and that says everything about how well the band and producer have performed.

Tim Stenhouse

Robben Ford Bringing it back home’ (Provogue) 4/5

Blues guitar maestro Robben Ford is one of the hottest in-demand musicians and his CV reads like a who’s who of musical greats. In his early twenties he found himself a niche as a session musician on Joni Mitchell’s ‘The hissing of summer lawns’ while by the mid-1980s even the great Miles was calling upon his services to accompany him on a worldwide tour. However, Ford’s talents are not limited to sideman duties and he has quietly forged a career as a leader, both singing and playing some of the trademark dynamite blues licks. For this latest project, which covers a variety of blues styles, he is unsurprisingly surrounded by some cream of the crop musicians including jazzer Larry Goldings on hammond organ. A New Orleans flavour permeates the classic Lee Dorsey song ‘Everything I do gonna be funky’ and it is a great way to open proceedings on such a positive vibe. Lou Donaldson memorably covered the tune as an instrumental for Blue Note back in the 1960s. In a more laid back vein, vocals and guitar meet in unison on ‘Birds nest bound’ with an extended guitar solo over some tasty hammond comping. There is even a passing nod to Robben Ford’s jazz idols on the instrumental ‘On that morning’ which takes a definite leaf out of the Wes Montgomery guitar book and Ford is ideally placed to straddle blues and jazz genres without ever sounding out of place. A soul-blues ballad ‘Oh, Virginia’ rounds off the album with panache and Ford impresses here with his versatility to both sing and play tenderly. Finally, the moody old-school blues ‘Slick Capers’ affords guest trombonist Steve Baxter the opportunity to shine. A fine sounding album that showcases the leader’s eclecticism and virtuosity in equal measure. Live UK dates will follow in late April at selected venues.

Tim Stenhouse

Charles Lloyd ‘Hagar’s Song’ (ECM) 4/5

Long-time ECM musician Charles Lloyd has regularly changed formats while maintaining a consistently high standard of performance and here enters into a duet recording with frequent group member and pianist Jason Moran which takes the listener on a highly entertaining journey of sounds past. Saxophone and piano duts are sadly all too infrequent, but when the right combination comes together, the effect can be spectacular as was the case between Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron, or between Joe Lovano and Hank Jones which were both meetings of equals, although with obvious generational differences in the case of the latter. This new collaboration is very much a teacher-student relationship, though with the most gifted of students in Moran who excels on the standards in particular. The repertoire is neatly divided between a choice selection of the American songbook, some new original compositions from Lloyd and a few surprise inclusions from the 1960s singer-songwriter tradition. On Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’ Moran convincingly plays in the stride tradition of the piano masters such as James P. Johnson and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith whereas Lloyd counterbalances this with Coltranesque sheets of sound from the ‘Blue Trane’ era. By contrast, there is a Monkesque flavour to Moran’s playing on the opening piece, Strayhorn’s ‘Pretty Girl’. Gershwin’s ‘Bess you is my woman now’ receives a stark deconstruction of the melody. As for Lloyd himself, he is at his most plaintive on the Joe Greene composition ‘All about Ronnie’ with the kind of tune that pianist Bill Evans could have weaved magic out of while a gorgeous rendition of ‘You’ve changed’ impresses. A lengthy, just under thirty minute suite, composed by Lloyd, features some evocative flute playing on part one of ‘Journey up the river’ whereas another shorter self-penned number ‘Pitcogram’ is much freer in form and sounds slightly out of place on the album, though does make for a varied approach. Both Dylan’s ‘I shall be released’, one of the most lyrical of the musical poet’s signatures and Brian Wilson’s ‘God only knows’ are instantly recognisable and work well in a jazz idiom. This is an album of solid confirmation rather than one of major innovation, but one that is an extremely enjoyable listening experience for all that. Jason Moran really ought to record a solo album in this vein. As an interesting aside, the cover features one of ECM’s most intruiging cover photos which is an artefact from an Afro-Brazilian musuem. A Brazilian music project from Charles Lloyd would be a mouthwatering prospect. Tim Stenhouse

Poncho Sanchez ‘Live in Hollywood’ (Concord) 4/5

Latin Jazz percussionist Poncho Sanchez is one of the stalwarts of the Concord label and its Concord Picante Latin offshoot and has been a long-time recording artist since the early 1980s. Some of his most memorable albums have been in a live context where tradtional Afro-Cuban rhythms such as cha cha and mambo have fused with R & B, bop-inflected jazz to produce an intoxicating melting pot of sounds. A highpoint was reached in the early 1990s with ‘Live at Kimball’s’ and those that witnessed him live during a brief mid-1990s UK tour could not fail to have been impressed. This latest live offering is in fact a series of performances in California with a re-invigorated band and again covers a wide spectrum of influences. A lovely fluid moving opener ‘Promenade’, composed by trombonist and musical director Francisco Torres, set the scene ideally. Poncho Sanchez has long loved to combine his favourite soul and funk tunes of the past with some tasty Latin flavours and this musical salsa here is a intruiging reworking of the blass standard ‘Crosscut saw’ that Albert King made a hit out of and guest guitarist George Dea does a fine job of receating the blues in a Latin idiom. This is a much neglected musical fusion that was very much in vogue during the 1950s with mambo and in the 1960s with Latin soul, but apart from ther sterling efforts of Carlos Santana has been largely ignored ever since. Two jazz standards that are often given the Latin jazz treatment, ‘Mambo Inn’ and ‘On Green Dolphin Street’, are effortlessly segued into one here and some steaming ‘palante’ (driving) music is created in the process. A medley of early Sanchez compositions are revisited in twelve minutes of mambo-infused heaven and include ‘Mi negra’, ‘Baila, Baila’ and ‘Bien Sabroso’, the latter being the title track of arguably Poncho Sanchez’s best studio recording. Factor in some more refined playing on the sensuous Clare Fischer composed ‘Morning’, performed here as a cha cha and a faithful reworking of the Mongo Santamaria evergreen ‘Afro Blue’ and you have a fine example of modern day Latin-infused jazz. It is of note that Poncho Sanchez recently received a lifetime achievement award from the Latin Recording Academy and certainly he served an ideal apprenticeship with the very best in the 1970s as lead percussionist in Cal Tjader’s band, and performing equally as part of Clare Fischer’s Latin ensemble before branching out as a leader in his own right. Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Change the Beat. The Celluloid Record Story 1980-1987’ 2CD (Celluloid/Strut) 4/5

Celluloid records was the brainchild of Parisian-based Jean Karakos who spent most of the 1970s co-running specialist French record shops
and the jazz label BYG and this creative individual had a truly catholic approach to music in general which is rare in an industry largely driven by financial gain. However, an early 1980s trip to New York where he met eclectic musician Bill Laswell and it was this encounter and the resulting musical discoveries of the emerging New York underground scene that led to the creation of the Celluloid label and some of the early productions released which tended towards the last vestiges of new wave. By the mid-1980s these included a myriad of styles from the disco not disco/mutant disco sounds of Modern Guy and ‘Electriques Sylvie’ with Material’s classic dance number ‘I’m the one’ and the emerging rap beats of Fab Five Freddy and ‘Change the Beat’ and Grandmaster D. St and ‘Home of hip-hop’.

Possibly one criticism that one could make of the label is that there was never a truly distinctive sound that characterised the label in the way that other dance-related labels such as Salsoul or Prelude had. That was simply not the point in the case of Celluloid. Eclecticism was a virtue and should be cherished at all costs. Thus on this lengthy anthology the dub-soaked reggae of Winston Edwards and Blackbeard on ‘Downing Street Rock’, a rare British participation sits cheek by jowel with French wannabee new romantic Nini Raviolette and ‘Suis-je normale?’ Celluloid was ahead of the game in its coverage of African music, especially the fusion of electronic dancefloor beats with more traditional African instrumentation and has not yet received its full due for promoting the new centre of African music that Paris had become by the mid-late 1980s. Here Manu Dibangu’s seminal dancefloor burner ‘Abele dance’ and Touré Kinda’s Senegalese pop effort ‘Amadou Tilo’ are included and Mandingo’s ‘Harima’ typified the cross-fertilisation of musical styles that Celluloid positively encouraged. It is a pity there are not more examples of the African-oriented output are in evidence, but digital fans will have the davantage of hearing Fela drummer Tony Allen performing as part of B Side on ‘So hot’. Occasional revamping of previously cult musicians surfaced on the label and the Last Poets, who were arguably the pioneering group behind a more politically-driven form of rap, are represented in their 1980s manifestation with ‘Mean machine chant/mean machine’ and even Cream’s Ginger Baker managed to get a look in with ‘Dust to dust’. As to be expected with a label that prided itself on its 12″ single output, the versions here come in their full elongated form and represent terrific value for money if you are a musical devotee who has an open-minded approach to the dance-driven side of the music industry. The downloaded version features additional numbers from Grandmaster D.St, Shango and even a single of Jimi Hendrix. Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993