Jakob Bro ‘Bay Of Rainbows’ LP/CD (ECM) 4/5

Guitarist Jakob Bro is in prolific form and has previously recorded as a leader for ECM, notably the critically acclaimed quartet album, ‘Returnings’, from earlier this year. This intimate trio outing pursues not dissimilar territory and, in trio format, follows on from the excellent 2016 studio recording, ‘Streams’. Interestingly, this new album was recorded live over two evenings at the Jazz Standard in New York, yet only weighs in at under fifty minutes which is a little surprising. The all-original selection of compositions includes a personal favourite that was previously recorded on ‘Gefion‘, namely ‘Copenhagen’, and is in essence a simple melodic guitar riff over which the acoustic bass of Thomas Morgan performs a largely supportive role. The number is indeed evocative of the city, possibly at either sunset or in the twilight hours, and reflects the quieter dimension that permeates any major city. A repetitive riff on bass greets the listener on, ‘Dug’, which, in addition, features a drum roll and electric guitar musings, while Morgan solos with increasing intensity. That developing pace is reflected by the deft use of the cymbals by Joey Baron, while guitarist Bro enters with echo to useful effect. Influenced by Bill Frisell among others, this live performance is noteworthy for its mid-tempo and deeply melodic phrasing and this is amply illustrated by a repeated motif on guitar on ‘Evening Song’ and the delightful empathy between Morgan and Bro makes this a thrilling rendition. An elongated riff lasting just over eleven minutes develops into a hypnotic piece on the second version of ‘Mild’, with the former opening up the album with a relaxing paced groove. In places, there is something of a dream-like quality to the music, with ‘Red Hook’ seemingly not having a starting point and, in general, a semi-rehearsed atmosphere, though within a general and coherent structure. Not quite on a par with ‘Returnings‘ but impressive musicianship nonetheless.

Tim Stenhouse

Shai Maestro ‘The Dream Thief’ LP/CD (ECM) 3/5

Israeli pianist Shai Maestro has gained useful experience from work with his fellow native and bassist, Avishai Cohen, and this promising debut on ECM, recorded in Lugano, is an early glimpse of what lies ahead for his career as a leader. The warm introspection of ‘The Forgotten Village’ hints at the more reflective side of Esbjörn Svensson and features subtle percussive work on rim drum from Ofri Nehemya and fine all round ensemble performances. Of interest also is the melodic shuffling drum patterns on the title track which begins at a slow tempo, but gradually develops into a medium-quick tempo, and it is in fact the graceful nature of that gradual transition which impresses here. On future solo projects, Shai Maestro would be well served in varying the pace of his own compositions in this manner. On the opener, ‘My Second Childhood’, a composition by Matti Caspi, the pianist solos throughout, and in fact the album as a whole is book ended by two solo piano performances, lending something of a Romantic classical feel to proceedings. Of the latter piece, ‘What Else Needs to Happen’, the title is a specific reference to the Sandy Hook school shooting and contains excerpts of a Barack Obama speech while still president in both 2015 and 2016. Given recent events in California, that debate is sadly very much an ongoing one. In the midst of the album, ‘Choral’ is another solo vehicle, while bassist Jorge Roeder has the opportunity to shine on the reposing, ‘A Moon’s Tale’, with a crescendo of cymbals by Nehemya being a fine way to end the piece. All but two pieces are originals penned by the leader, but the standard, ‘Those Foolish Things (remind me of you)’, includes an extended piano solo from Maestro and betrays the influence of Keith Jarrett. Accompanying the inner sleeve details are black and white photos of the musicians in the studio.

Tim Stenhouse

Vitor Pereira Quintet ‘Somewhere In The Middle’ CD (Private Press) 3/5

“Somewhere in the middle” is the third release from this London based contemporary jazz five-piece. Led by composer and guitarist Vitor Pereira, the band also features Chris Williams on alto sax, Alam Nathoo on tenor sax, Mick Coady on bass and Adam Teixeira on drums.

The original compositions are largely sax driven, with the two saxophonists combining admirably at the forefront of most of the tunes. Perhaps best described as a contemporary jazz meets prog-rock album, the music is at times on the fringe of an avant-garde self-indulgence, but always on the listenable side with edgy melodies and crisp improvisation.

There is a definite rock sensibility to Pereira’s writing and performing, but for me it’s the more rounded, subtle and lyrical pieces on this recording that stand out. “Tag Along” has a freshness to it that is joyously inventive, with the two saxophones intertwining skilfully and creatively. As on a lot of the album, solos come mostly from the sax players, with guitar acting as melodious support for the main part. I like the way some of the tunes gradually unfold; the title track being a prime example. The confidence of the musicians shine on this piece, akin to a Pat Metheny-esque adventurous journey taking in all of life’s twists and turns, learning and developing as it goes. Pereira is at his best on the sumptuous “Twilight Trails”, a beautifully meandering guitar-led tune that brings out the best from everyone involved. The writing is strong yet subtle, allowing for sweeter harmonies than on most of the session. To my mind the album as a whole might have benefitted from a few more tunes like this one, with less focus given to the slightly aggressive musical style employed on some of the tunes.

This release warrants a few listens to get the best from it. There’s a creativity and purpose to it that has to be admired. Some tunes undoubtedly work better than others, but the intriguing nature of the compositions give it an edge that suggests more is to come from this band in the future.

UK tour:
09/11/2018 – Bristol – Bebop club
10/11/2018 – Shrewsbury – The Hive
12/11/2018 – Manchester – The Whiskey Jar
13/11/2018 – Birmingham – The Spotted Dog
16/11/2018 – Birmingham – Jazzlines
17/11/2018 – Brighton – The Verdict
18/11/2018 – Southampton – Southampton Modern Jazz Club
05/12/2018 – London – The Vortex (Official release date)

Mike Gates

Alder Ego ‘II’ LP/CD/DIG (WE JAZZ) 4/5

Finnish record label and festival organisation We Jazz continue with their enlightened approach to contemporary jazz with this release by Alder Ego, a new group of (mainly) quartet formation here comprised of bandleader and producer Joonas Leppänen on drums, Jarno Tikka on saxophone, Tomi Nikku on trumpet and Teemu Åkerblom playing double bass. Additionally, Ilkka Uksila plays vibes on two tracks. And although the album is titled ‘II’ there is no ‘I’!

‘Les Chant De Sirènes’ begins with a detuned snare drum pattern, before the complementing trumpet and saxophone elements provide the musical interior for the piece including a subtle but effective solo by Tomi Nikku. ‘Cubism’, an apparent influence on the project, continues with a similar sensibility with its loose trumpet and sax parts and solos, while Joonas Leppänen’s drumming is subdued and discreet, as per his playing throughout the rest of the album. With ‘Vultures’, bassist Teemu Åkerblom becomes more prominent as he plays upright bass with a bow, which affords a somewhat atmospheric quality to the composition, allowing the trumpet and saxophone to become more disconcerting. ‘Vultures’ is possibly my favourite piece of the set.

Both ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Flight’ include the excellent work of vibraphonist Ilkka Uksila. His work here thoroughly respects the other textures supplied by the main group. At times, these two compositions remind one of some of Gary Burton’s 1970 ECM releases, wherein, they were also without piano or keyboard parts, and so, devoid of the chordal framework offered by a pianist.
‘Blood Moon’ and ‘Solitude’ complete the album with certain aspects of the saxophone reminiscent of UK musician Dick Heckstall-Smith’s (1934-2004) jazzier moments.

Being negative, it could be argued that Ilkka Uksila could have played a more prominent role as the added vibraphone on ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Flight’ provided some valued supplementary textures – but possibly less is more in this instance. With a drummer as bandleader, Joonas Leppänen is happy to sanction his team to lead the way, especially letting Jarno Tikka and Tomi Nikku become the main focus of the project, and so, the album does not contain the standard flash of drum solos like many drummer lead ventures. But I feel that bassist Teemu Åkerblom was possibly underused as he was mostly employed to maintain the rhythm section that underpins the horn elements, and plus, his bass level was quite low within the overall mix.

The lack of piano and thus typical chord work could be seen as an advantage as this allows the arrangements to deviate, meander and evolve over their duration in a way that is difficult with straight piano chord progressions. And it’s this juxtaposition which is liberating especially considering the album still maintains a strong melodic centre, while the quartet orientation never feels sparse or light.

It’s no secret that we love We Jazz here at UK Vibe. They continue to ever so slightly push jazz forward with their relatively nuanced catalogue of releases, but not in a clinical or too radical direction to alienate listeners. The growing We Jazz discography is edgy and progressive, always allowing its artists to be creative within their own terms, but they continually generate releases that are interesting, ambitious and warrant many additional plays.

Damian Wilkes

Mr. Confuse ‘Only A Man’ LP/CD/DIG (Confunktion) 3/5

Confunktion Records label founder and German funk/breaks producer, Mr. Confuse, returns with his 4th solo album “Only A Man”. Starting out as a DJ in 1999 he turned to composition/production in 2004, gaining some success in 2005 as a member of the Breakout crew with a funk reworking “Planet Rock” and eventually releasing his first solo album “Feel The Fire” in 2008.

Since then he hasn’t been afraid to shine light on his influences with
with a cover version of Debbie Deb’s freestyle-electro classic “Lookout Weekend”, that still continues to be a download seller to this day, and his 2012 release “Do You Realize” which pays tribute to the man, Man Parrish.

So, I guess we should know what to expect. And Mr. C delivers that in spades with a right royal bouncing funk up of Shannon’s freestyle electro hit “Let The Music Play”. That aside the rest of the album sonically nods at this influence but is less overt.

Opening title track “Only A Man” sees long-time Mr. Confuse velvety-rasper Dan Salem belt out an anthem to all the fellas who work hard (16hrs and bills to pay) and play even harder. It’s a guitar-led uptempo 3 mins 46 worth of, fun-for-all, funk workout

Next up is the tight, Northern Soul-ish “Same Old Game” with the beautifully throaty Leo Will fronting some fruity organ, smashing snares, funky beats and stabbing horns. Leo absolutely nails it, probably the album highlight.

“Against All Odds” is a 70’s TV instrumental electro funk piece. Light, bright and heavy on the dance. “Only Rainbows” intros with some lush, horny blaxploitation-ness before Dan’s bouncing us through a soulful step or two. “Can’t Be No Crime” is a busy, latin-touched, organ-stabbing, Freak Power-esque, groove-laden growl that leads us into the real meat of today’s action…Busy, busy…the 3 instrumental electro Acid Jazz cop chases that are “Fast Lane”, “Gain Station” and “Rush Zone”. They’re all about the busy percussion, chopping organs and barking horns.

“Modern Way” is quick, tight beats and more of Dan the Man with a fast throbbing jazz soul down-trodden anthem about the dull, knackering day-to-day. Sleep Eat Work. Work Work Work.

All that work has me plum-tuckered out and “Cranberry Dream” is the sweet soulful dream ending to the day/album with Mayfield guitar trills, Strawberry (all about the berries) Letter tings and Elaine Thomas’ lovely lullabying.

Mr. Confuse has created a right cheery funky little thing here. Its indomitable, inherent chirpyness defies the energy-sapping theme of some of the lyrics. Mr. C sure ain’t gonna let The Man get HIM down.

Ian Ward

José James ‘Lean On Me’ 2LP/CD (Blue Note) 3/5

Devoting a whole album to the songs of Bill Withers is no easy task since this songbook has become an integral part of the musical landscape and there is the key question of how do you deal with them differently without losing something of the original brilliance in the process? In the case of José James, he has rightly taken the decision to not tamper too much with the original arrangements and this has resulted in a competent series of covers which, while not bettering the superlative originals, for the lesser known songs at least, has breathed new life into them. Of the absolute classics such as ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and ‘Lovely Day’, how is it possible for anybody to improve upon those beautifully crafted originals? James, for the former, has stripped away the strings and created a more intimate sound with electric piano and given the song a slightly more contemporary vibe, while for the latter, the hi-hat cymbals accompaniment remains. It is on the funkier material where James succeeds best in imparting his own personality on proceedings, as on the understated, ‘The Same Love That Made Me Laugh’, with the subtle use of keyboards and percussion. Likewise, ‘Hello Like Before’ adopts a soulful approach, with an acoustic guitar-led intro and a slight Brazilian undercurrent. Aiding José James in the project are some notable guests including Lalatha Hathaway on vocals, Marcus Strickland on saxophone and Takuya Kuroda on trumpet, while the overall production comes courtesy of artistic label director, Don Was. José James has previously devoted projects to the music of both John Coltrane and Billie Holiday and, while worthwhile endeavours in their own right, one does yearn for the real José James to emerge and one whose jazz and soul credentials combine, for that is surely where his career lies at the intersection between the two.

Tim Stenhouse

Charlie Haden and Brad Mehldau ‘Long Ago and Far Away’ CD (Impulse!) 4/5

This collaboration was born of a chance encounter in Germany some eleven years ago when, at the Enjoy Jazz Festival in Mannheim, the festival director invited the two musicians to perform together in a local church. That performance in front of a live audience was duly recorded and the results are now before us. Bass and piano duet albums are few and far between, but there is a clear empathy between Charlie Haden and Brad Mehldau here and they both excel on the evergreen material such as the standard, ‘My Old Flame’, with the now familiar Mehldau device of deconstructing the melody and paring it down to its very essence, taking the tempo all the way down in the process. Inherent in the interaction between the two musicians are some lovely blues infusions, with an extended bass solo from Haden there to delight while Mehldau comps in the background. As a whole, what impresses here is the ability of both musicians to reverse roles, one taking the lead while the other slips back into a supportive background. Another highlight is a gorgeous romantic take on that old chestnut, ‘What I’ll Do’, with supportive bass work from Haden while Mehldau takes off onto an altogether different trajectory before returning to the main motif. In fact, a first meeting between the two dates from 1993 and they recorded along with Lee Konitz at the Jazz Bakery in 1996. From that, a studio trio album for Blue Note, ‘Alone Together’ surfaced in 1997. A separate live trio album featuring Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau and Paul Motion came out on ECM in 2011, entitled, ‘Live at Birdland’. This is an album that has been a long time coming, but is finally here and a real treat given that Charlie Haden is sadly no longer with us.

Tim Stenhouse

Cécile McLorin Salvant ‘The Window’ 2LP/CD (Mack Avenue) 4/5

Following up on a Down Beat winning live album at the Village Vanguard was never going to be an easy task, but singer Cécile McLorin Salvant is not one to rest on her laurels and has opted for a pared down piano plus vocals duo with Sullivan Fortner that once again demonstrates her virtuosity and versatility. The vast potential that was spotted back in 2010 when McLorin Salvant won the Thelonius Monk International jazz competition is now being fully realised. As ever, any album of hers features a judicious selection of quirky standards from the distant and recent past, originals, and on this occasion, more left field offerings that include the songwriting traditions of both Brazil and France.

First off, and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Visions’ is treated as a contemporary ballad with a lovely piano intro which is undoubtedly one of the most successful transposition into a vocal and piano duet. The songwriting duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein serve as continual musical sources from which Cécile has regularly derived inspiration and one of this writer’s favourites is the perennially humourous excursion on ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’, that enumerates the various shortcomings of the male species and in a near identical vein comes, ‘Trouble is a Man’. Supportive piano and soaring vocals are a feature of another of the songwriter duos repertoire, ‘Sweetest Sounds’. Meanwhile, the Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim pairing offers the wonderful ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story, and the subtle interpretation here has the piano playing the main motif in the intro and then veering into a medley of the musical that includes ‘I Love to Live in America’, which Cécile treats as a conventional ballad. Elsewhere, Cécile tackles Jimmy Rowles’ evergreen ‘The Peacocks’, and another Rodgers and Hammerstein original, ‘Everything I’ve Got Belongs To You’.

Extending out into less familiar songbook territory, McLorin Salvant excels on a mid-tempo reading of Dorival Caymmi’s ‘Obsession’ with English lyrics added, but comes into her very own on a couple of French languages songs that have all the feel of a native speaker. Accompanied by Fortner who alternates on organ for ‘J’ai L’Cafard’ (‘I have the blues’) evokes the French cabaret tradition of songwriting, while ‘À Clef’ merely reinforces belief that the singer should tackle an entire French language album at some point. Otherwise, a fine continuation of the singer-songwriter’s craft.

Tim Stenhouse

Willis ‘Gator Tail’ Jackson ‘Doin’ The Gator Tail: Tenor Sax Blasting 1949-1959′ CD (Jasmine) 4/5

Back track to the 1980s and Willis Jackson was the darling of the jazz dance scene with a bevvy of strong melodic grooves on the Prestige and Muse labels respectively that caught the imagination and vibrancy of that emerging scene. However, that was only part of the story and for those in need of the bigger picture, this excellent and extremely generous compilation provides the earlier side of the tenor saxophonist’s career when he recorded for labels such as Apollo and Fire, largely on the 45 format that was ideal for jukebox play. Willis Jackson’s career started as an R & B tenorist in the 1940s and this CD captures an entire decade of his music between 1949 and 1959 when he was developing as a musician. The first three numbers find him as main soloist with the Cootie Williams Orchestra in a straight ahead bop format, including the two part 45 ‘Gator Tail’, and the collective vocals plus tenor on ‘Blow Jackson Blow’. It was in fact that combination of tenor saxophone and vocals that resurfaced with the 1950 offerings alongside vocalist Eddie Mack and the Bobby Smith Orchestra and collectively they impress on such numbers as, ‘Hoot and Holler Saturday Night’, with vocal monologue intro and the laid back blues ballad, ‘Cool Mama’. Jackson’s own individual style came to the fore later that year with, ‘Call of the Gators’, but in truth his range was surprisingly wide and that is wonderfully illustrated on the Ellingtonesque hues of ‘Harlem Nocturne’ from 1951 on Atlantic, which on the flip side was paired with the similarly evocative ballad, ‘Street Scene’. By the late 1950s, however, Jackson was by now pioneering what would come to be termed soul-jazz, with a moody, percussive piece in, ‘Later Gator’ from 1957, notable for the use of Hammond organ and repetitive riff. That latter trait would become a signature of his R&B influenced brand of jazz. This evolution in style is typified by ‘Makin’ It’ from 1959 with Bill Jennings in attendance. Willis Jackson’s influences included Illinois Jacquet, whom he most resembles, and Gene Ammons. It is to be hoped that this earlier overview of his career will, in turn, lead to a retrospective of the later career which a younger generation that did not take in, ‘Nuther’n Like Thuther’n’, first time round in the mid-1980s can experience once again. One of the best jazz meets R&B single artist compilations that Jasmine have re-issued to date and a sure winner for listeners and dancers alike.

Tim Stenhouse

Makaya McCraven ‘Universal Beings’ 2LP/2CD/DIG (International Anthem) 5/5

With only three years since his ground breaking album, ‘In The Moment’ (2015), placing Makaya as a vanguard for contemporary East Coast jazz, ‘Universal Beings’ utilises a slightly different concept here for the drummer, composer and improviser. This release is essentially a compilation of four different recording sessions, with four different ensembles, in four different cities: New York, Chicago, London and Los Angeles. As per previous releases, the source material is then edited in what McCraven describes as a ‘recontextualization’, but the editing is less pronounced and obvious than with earlier projects, with ‘Universal Beings’ feeling more a kin to a live jam than a produced recording.

On vinyl, the album is pressed as a double vinyl release with each of the four sides representing the different city where the recordings took place, and thus, New York, Chicago, London and LA are the creative catalyst for the project. This methodical approach to the track listing does allow one to compare and contrast the various sessions, but also it showcases how the different contributors impacted upon the final product.

New York Side:
The album begins with six tracks recorded at H0L0, a venue in Queens in August 2017 and featuring Brandee Younger (harp), Joel Ross (vibraphone), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Dezron Douglas (double bass). Compositions ‘Holy Lands’ and ‘Mantra’ are somewhat led by Brandee Younger, with Dorothy Ashby’s Cadet catalogue being an obvious reference point here. The disjointed (in a good way) ‘Young Genius’ evokes the quirky production values of Madlib and ‘Black Lion’ offers a vibes-centric formulation with loop type circulating patterns propping up this short 3-minute piece.

Chicago Side:
Makaya’s adopted hometown session was recorded in September 2017 at the brilliantly named Co-Prosperity Sphere. This date featured Tomeka Reid (cello), Junius Paul (double bass) and UK guest Shabaka Hutchings (tenor saxophone). ‘Atlantic Black’ is a boisterous piece set over 9 minutes with Shabaka’s headstrong voicings a kin to his work with Sons of Kemet. ‘Inner Flight’ is more groove focused and ‘Prosperity’s Fear’ holds a textured quality offering cellist Junius Paul space to manoeuvre before the ensemble moves into a more freeform aesthetic for the final three minutes.

London Side:
Recorded in October 2017 at the now defunct (as of November 2018) Total Refreshment Centre, Stoke Newington, which became somewhat of a spiritual hub for the UK’s new young jazz players sees Makaya joined by Nubya Garcia (tenor saxophone), Ashley Henry (Fender Rhodes) and Daniel Casimir (double bass), and interestingly this was the only formation that included a keyboard player. Of the five pieces, two are short rehearsal jams that are still enjoyable, but the other three include the lively and brisk ‘Suite Haus’, which highlights Nubya’s strong sense of melody with its uptempo rhythm track and almost ska-like sensibility. ‘The Newbies Lift Off’ pushes Ashley Henry front and centre as his Rhodes playing leads the way, including an effective downbeat tempo change near the mid-point. ‘Voila’ possess a strong hip-hop quality and heavily features bassist Daniel Casimir.

Los Angeles Side:
The final six tracks were recorded at Jeff Parker’s house, Altadena, LA on 30th January 2018. The group here featured Josh Johnson (alto saxophone), Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (violin), Jeff Parker (guitar), Carlos Niño (percussion) and Anna Butterss (double bass). The brief ‘Count Off’ begins proceedings while the 6/8 ‘Turtle Tricks’ showcases some tight but steady rim shot playing while its slightly ‘proggy’ overtone allows Parker, a regular collaborator to Makaya, freedom and space to augment the backing with distorted guitar riffs and lines.

With initial plays, it was difficult to fully absorb, digest and deconstruct ‘Universal Beings’ due to its large track count of 22 and the differences in timbre, form and temperament offered by its large rotating cast members. One later listened to the album in sections as presented by the different ensembles and thus the album made more sense. This varying personnel, instrumentation and configuration allowed for different ideas, themes and conservations to be made, sanctioning and informing the global jazz community narrative that has been so embraced by Makaya and his peers.

‘Universal Beings’ may be seen by some as being less edgy than his previous material, but it still feels very fresh and captures a forward thinking attitude with its mesh of spontaneous spiritual jazz, bebop and hip-hop. With the featured super musicians (in their own right) given room and freedom by Makaya to explore and investigate without restriction, albums like ‘Universal Beings’ are now not rare and exceptional and are becoming the norm, with music that was once thought of as ‘challenging’ becoming quite mainstream. Maybe times have changed.

Live dates this month take Makaya to Band On The Wall, Manchester 14th and the EFG London Jazz Festival 24th.

Damian Wilkes

Astral Travelling Since 1993