Alice Babs and Duke Ellington ‘Serenade to Sweden’ (Reprise) 3/5

This relaxing date on Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label from 1966 in Paris is a very welcome re-issue and one of the rarer of Duke Ellington’s many recordings, and as such will be a mandatory purchase for anyone with a love of the Duke. The pairing with Swedish singer Alice Babs is an intriguing one because Babs possessed a three octave voice and was at home in opera as she was in jazz. It should be stated from the outset that this is not the Ellington orchestra, but rather four horn players from the Paris Symphony Orchestra and noteworthy French jazz musicians including bassist Gilbert Rovère and drummer Christian Garros. Overall, the mid-tempo numbers predominate and ideally one would have preferred a greater variety of tempi. That said, the wordless scatting of ‘Babsie’, with horns prominent is a delight and the singers excels on, ‘I’m beginning to see the light’. Her operatic voice comes into it’s own on, ‘Come Sunday’, one of Duke’s most beloved pieces and she infuses this with an appropriate dose of gospel hues. Duke plays a largely secondary role here, but of note are the two numbers on which Billy Strayhorn takes over piano duties, on ‘Something to live for’ and ‘Strange visitor’. For a few minutes of unadulterated fun, ‘La de doody do’ reflects the joyful collaboration between Duke and Babs.

Duke Ellington and Alice Babs clearly had a good deal in common and it should come as little surprise, therefore, that they would repeat the recording experience subsequently on both the second and third sacred concerts that Ellington composed. Those who have viewed and heard the DVD of Babs in those will immediately realise what a talented singer she was. Alice Babs passed away, aged ninety, in 2014.

UK Vibe profile on Alice Babs can be read here

Tim Stenhouse

Melvin Sparks ‘Live At Nectar’s’ LP/DIG (One Note) 4/5

Melvin Sparks (real name) was a Texan born jazz guitarist who worked as sideman and session musician for many jazz luminaries from the 1960s onwards, including Lou Donaldson, Lonnie Smith and Reuben Wilson, but it was his solo albums as bandleader from 1970 to 1975 that caught the attention of the jazz public, including during the later ‘rare groove’ frenzy in the UK. But during his most productive era, Melvin released three albums on Prestige: ‘Sparks’ (1970), ‘Spark Plug’ (1971) and Akilah! (1972), before moving to Detroit’s Westbound label for two further successful albums, the very in demand ‘Texas Twister’ (1973) and ‘Melvin Sparks 75’ in 1975.
This release on One Note Records features an unreleased live recording from December 2010 at Nectar, a small venue in Burlington, Vermont, not far from the eastern Canadian border, for what would be one of his final performances before his untimely death in March 2011. This six piece set stays firmly within the soul/jazz sound that he was known with all tracks being quite uptempo. His band at the time consisted of a relatively young group that included Beau Sasser on organ and Bill Carbone on drums, which was his usual trio lineup, but for this performance, Melvin was joined by Dave Grippo on alto sax and Brian McCarthy on tenor sax.

The performances themselves are all strong, with Bill Carbone style very much in the mould of Idris Muhammad, and Beau Sasser has obviously examined the funky Hammond players of the 60s and 70s and perfectly compliments Melvin – who was definitely the star of the show here, with both improvising throughout the performance. The additional sax parts didn’t over complicate things as they were effectively used to reinforce the guitar and Hammond elements, except for their extensive use on ‘Ain’t No Woman Like The One I Got’, the Four Tops classic which Melvin covered on ‘Texas Twister’ and on the frantic ‘Whip! Whop!’ also featured on the same LP.

‘Cranberry Sunshine’ an original Melvin composition, provided Beau Sasser with a nice organ workout, and ‘Miss Riverside’, the first track on the album, kept the groove funky for a piece that was originally written by organist Leon Spencer, another Texan, and was initially included on Sonny Stitt’s 1971 album, ‘Turn It On!’ and featured the then 25-year old Melvin on guitar. The soulful ‘Breezin’ is the only laidback number of the set, but it’s still relatively funky, and takes its cue from the Gábor Szabó’s 1971 version rather than the later George Benson version, and helps showcase Melvin’s fluid and rhythmical playing style. My only gripe with the album was with ‘Fire Eater’, the famous Rusty Bryant composition, as it lacked the funky breakbeat drumming of the original, which is surely one of the funkiest Prestige records of all time. Nonetheless, the trio were otherwise excellent in their execution of this funk classic and the other songs.

Melvin was essentially a ‘groove’ player known more for his rhythmic playing style, but what he may have lacked in technique comparatively to some of his contemporaries such as Green, Szabó, Montgomery and Benson, he made up for with tons of funk, groove and feel. Melvin also made extensive use of the Hammond B3 on his albums, with the organ becoming intrinsically linked to his sound right up to the mid 70s. But After 1975, Melvin’s musical output reduced dramatically – as was the case with many jazz musicians of the time. The fusion era of Weather Report, Return To Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra was taking over and the burgeoning disco scene promoted night clubs over live performance venues. But in Europe and especially the UK, funky jazz sounds were became popular after around 1987, with collectors scurrying to find original Blue Note and Prestige pressings by artists such as Melvin Sparks, and it’s musicians like this that the UK has a massive fondness for, including their influence on the Acid Jazz label and scene.

So this is not a recording of a musician towards the end of their career who is struggling to play. Melvin is keeping up with the young guys and you can hear his passion and energy throughout the set and thankfully this his final recording is worthy of his legacy.

Damian Wilkes

Ephemerals ‎’Egg Tooth’ (Jalapeno) 3/5

Ephemerals are a UK-based soul group, comprising of seven members, with ‘Egg Tooth’ being their third album, which again uses traditional musical instruments of piano and keyboards, guitar, bass and drums, which are then further augmented with an additional horn section and harp on specific tracks, but this is essentially a vocal-led album, sung by vocalist Wolfgang Valbrun – or Wolf to his friends. The rest of the group consist of guitarist and songwriter Hillman Mondegreen, James Graham on keys, Adam Holgate on bass and Jimi Needles on drums. Ephemerals are additionally supported by horn players Damian McLean-Brown on trumpet, Thierry Lemaitre on saxophone and again, the Cordicella Strings are utilised on ‘Egg Tooth’ as they have been on previous Ephemerals albums.
The CD contains 12 tracks although two are short interludes (the vinyl edition removes these), but the others are all vocal driven pieces that range from funky soul cuts, jazzy ballads and radio friendly catchy pop numbers, and so, this is not an outright soul album or group. But highlights include ‘The Omnilogue’, with its imaginative harp elements and downtempo production, the infectious ‘In & Out’, which could be a strong single release, plus, ‘And If We Could, We’d Say’ sees Wolf delivering a rap/poetry vocal performance over a funky rhythm track with the final minute or so incorporating reverse instrumentation, which was an original touch. Others worthy of attention include ‘If Love Is Holding Me Back’, a very Beatle-esque string heavy song and the funky organ driven ‘Get Reborn’, which supports the album’s main lyrical focus of rebirth and reawakening.

‘Egg Tooth’ contains many diverse sounds and themes but all amalgamated together within a pop/soul format with strong production components, with this diversity probably due to the broad background of the group, including the vocalist Wolf being a New Yorker living in Paris, songwriter Hillman coming from Nottingham, Thierry is from France, while the keys, trumpet and rhythm section are from Bristol, London and Sussex. Band meet ups must be a nightmare. And I suppose this can be a positive and a negative when forging a ‘sound’ that an audience can relate to. But this is an album that could breakthrough to the ‘mainstream’ – whatever that is, especially as they are not an outright soul group and the album not aimed at hardcore soul fans but more general music listeners.

Being very generalistic, I would argue that Ephemerals closely fall into similar territory as UK artist Michael Kiwanuka and US singer songwriter Leon Bridges, soulful but not exclusively a soul outfit, and thus, there is a demand for artists of this type that can crossover, but it lacks some of the depth that more natural soul artists possess, and the album could be seen as a little old fashioned in parts, but it’s pleasant and enjoyable enough if not groundbreaking.

Damian Wilkes

Josephine Davies ‘Satori’ (Whirlwind) 4/5

Tenor and soprano saxophonist Josephine Davies’ “Satori” is an improvisatory trio project reflecting the definition of its Buddhist title, a moment of enlightening presence and inner spaciousness away from the clutter of thought. The British musician and composer collaborates on this session with sidemen Dave Whitford on double bass, and Paul Clarvis on drums, in an immersive live recording of chordless originals.
Davies’ varied artistic journey includes classical saxophone quartets, as well as key involvement in more expansive ensembles such as the Pete Hurt Orchestra and as resident tenorist and composer with the London Jazz Orchestra. Here though, everything is stripped right back for this sax/bass/drums trio outing, where in-the-moment music making becomes fascinating to explore, as explained by Davies: “Dave and Paul make things their own very quickly- their creativity and spontaneity always bring something new, and the trio is able to move forward with great ease. So there’s a real draw to this sense of space; having the freedom to explore ideas, without a harmony instrument, not knowing where they will lead”. To this end, Whitford and Clarvis are the perfect partners for Davies, their intuition and willingness to go with the flow, making for some wonderful moments to savour.

Eight tracks feature on the album, from two live recordings made in Iklectik in June and September 2016. As a recording to experience again and again, “Satori” also emphasises the inherent dynamics and energy present in live music – the vital lifeblood of any improvising musician. The recording does justice to the performance, capturing well the atmosphere and energy of the gig itself.

The album kicks off with “Insomnia”, featuring the spiritual, spiralling soprano saxophone of Davies. Although there is a slow-burning exuberance to this piece, it also feels contemplative, as if the trio are finding their path, separate roads becoming unified as the tune develops and becomes freer in such an imaginative way. Originally conceived as a segued three-piece medley, “Something Small”, “The Tempest Prognosticator” and “Snakes” remind me a little of listening to “Trio Libero”, the acoustic trio of Andy Sheppard, Seb Rochford and Michel Benita. There’s that same kind of natural inquisitiveness between the musicians, with each player enjoying a furtively inventive palette. The joyfully rhythmic swagger of “Paradoxy”, with echoes of Sonny Rollins, appears in two different takes- a nod to classic jazz albums of the 50’s and 60’s- both turning lively individual spotlights on each musician. The snappy feel to “Crisp Otter” (say it and you’ll get the reference to the US saxman, and his Underground Band), grooves with a delicious Potter-like effervescence, whilst “The Yips” pervades the air with a distinct South African flavour.

“Satori” is so full of ideas, vision, and joyful improvisation that one can only take pleasure in the listening. Some trios that choose to perform without a harmony instrument can feel somewhat dour, making the listener think that there’s something missing. When it’s done well, as it undoubtedly is here, it makes for a delightful journey of adventure and discovery.

Mike Gates

Tim Armacost ‘Time Being’ (Whirlwind) 5/5

Acclaimed Los Angeles born tenor saxophonist Tim Armacost describes this session as being ‘playful, wild and serious’; concise words that actually sum up perfectly what this album is all about. With double bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, “Time Being” is a largely jazz trio outing, with the occasional morphing into quartet with the addition of pianist David Kikoski dipping in and out of selected tunes.
The first notable thing about this recording is the sound. By that I mean this; when I first listened to the album it was immediately apparent to me that Armacost had used his vast experience well, recording the album in such a way that the ‘live’ feel of a trio really comes through as it should do. It’s as if the listener can put themselves right at the heart of the music, as if sitting in the middle of the performance and watching the intelligent interplay between the musicians develop and unfold. Armacost elaborates; “I pictured myself playing Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” in the studio with a trio. Tain was, in terms of time signature, out on his own, and Bob and I were communicating with each other independently of what he was playing. But what Tain was doing was so incredibly attractive- so fiery and so beautiful- that we both really wanted to go over and be part of that. The whole idea of people relating to each other in time, but in a non traditional way, and creating tension which would eventually be resolved by them going over to play together, was something I’d never tried before, and the concept was really exciting. To achieve this, technology might have been the answer. But in the end we decided to record in Tain’s studio, in an intimate live environment with no separation. I needed to imagine the ideas happening in real time, and fortunately with Tain and Bob on board- some of the most swinging musicians on the planet- there was a great, combined willingness for exploration, to make it happen.” And make it happen they most certainly did.

The music here is incredibly organic, purposeful and sumptuously evocative and swinging. The recording features ten tracks, with every one of them bringing reward. There are three tunes entitled “Sculptures” on the album, each one with its own feel and originality, but all focussed on an engaging expression of structured experimentation. Pianist David Kikoski adds elegant, enchanting colour and texture to the core trio. His playing is sublime, and on the tracks “The Next 20” and “One and Four” in particular, his graceful, intelligent playing sparkles, breathing out golden hues that envelop the trio without ever seeming in any way to intrude or take over. The threesome become a foursome with a collective ease that is beautiful to hear. “Lonely Woman”- the seed of this album which germinated so many possibilities- features a call-and-response between tenor and bass (with each saying ‘Check out the way I’m playing the melody’), initiating their own improvisations until the drums home in on the bassist. The differing musical tensions are intentionally part of the unplanned dialogue present throughout this album. In the title track “Time Being”, the trio divides when the tenor moves to a different tempo, with Hurst following, and Watts reaching them later. The pay-off on moments like this is delicious. The performances throughout the entire album are irresistible; so many moments of quiet brilliance and fiery expressiveness.

Relaxed and thoughtful, yet spellbindingly exciting at given times, this is one of the most richly rewarding albums I’ve heard this year. Repeated listening just adds to the enjoyment. Individually and collectively the four musicians involved have created a wonderful feel of genuine warmth, love and passion for the music they are making together.

Mike Gates

Rodina ‘You Got Soul’ (P-Vine) 5/5

“You got soul” is the second album from this Leeds based band, which was released on April 19th.
Rodina comprises of Irish singer-songwriter Aoife Hearty, producer and pianist Joe Tatton, and the album features the infamous Haggis Horns, Pete Shand (from New Mastersounds) on bass and drums from Luke Flowers (Cinematic Orchestra).
Eleven tracks are presented on the album, covering genres such as Americana, jazz, pop, soul and even a little bit of ska. Each one has a perceptibly different sound. Believe you me, there are no boring old dud tracks to be found here. Indeed, I really like every song (unusual for me), and am wowed by Aoife’s excellent singing with delicious phrasing and delivery. Recording, production and arrangements are all of a very high standard – on my system, every track sounds crystal clear and balanced, with voice and instruments shining through wonderfully. Musicianship is also brilliant throughout; the drums are tight, with funky horns and great bass. I am particularly impressed with Joe Tatton’s keyboard playing, especially on the organ solos.

The opening track, “Only Girl” has a rhythmic big-band sound. The horns are occasionally dramatic and delightfully blaring, with acoustic bass and organ cutting nicely through the mix. “You Got Soul” is a little more laid back; Aoife hits repeated high notes perfectly and with no apparent effort. Piano and horn solos are well performed and the whole track has a happy feel. A slightly darker sound is delivered in “Black Crow”; this jazzy track has an atmospheric sound with a hint of folk music. In contrast, “Outside Your Door” is a lighter, dreamier song that trips happily along raising many a smile. “Flame” is another feel good song with a noticeable ska sound, complete with reggae beat and trumpet backing. If I have a favourite track, it’s “On To Me”; this song has a tension that is emphasised by crisp drum and organ playing. I’m always a sucker for a Hammond organ solo, and “On To Me” has a lovely one towards the end. I possibly detected just a sliver of Kate Bush in the vocals and arrangement on the final track “Later”; I’m sadly prone to this kind of thing, so feel free to ignore the comparison. Better still, however, get the album and see what you think.

The album is available in Digi-Pack Album CD format, with downloads and streaming included. Download formats include MP3, FLAC and others. My copy came in a plastic folder, which was a little disappointing – jewel cases make it easier to find CDs when they are stored on a shelf. I shall nevertheless be rectifying this situation shortly, possibly by stealing a case from one of my son’s Slipknot albums with the safe assumption that he won’t notice.

I’m still enjoying this album after many listens, and it will stay near to my CD player for some time to come! “You got soul” gets a definite 5/5 from me.

Full track listing: Only Girl / You Got Soul / What If… / Black Crow / Outside Your Door / Flame / Something That You Said / Rise Like The Sun / On To Me / This Place / Later

Tony Stewart

Soulnaturals ‘Love Says Yes!’ (British Soul Standard Ltd) 5/5

One of the most eagerly awaited albums in my world since I found out 3 months ago that the album was on its way, the only trouble was it was a Record Store Day release only and I was afraid it wouldn’t actually surface, my anticipation was upped by the fact it was on Vinyl. The last time I had anything by this lot was way back in 2004 when the “Sweet Communication” album landed, and just how good was that? Well, to this latest offering and what an album it is, the sound is a kitchen sink drama with just about everything chucked in for good measure, bathed in immense strings, subtle horns, the sweetest backing singers I’ve heard in a long time and with nine guest vocalists, we really are spoilt over the ten tracks.
The influences run wild with Funk, Soul, Jazz and a really hypnotic subtle reggae tinted “Oh Lord when will you set me free”, vocals by Nadia Pimentel and it’s a cracker. The stand out track on the album for me though is Davinia Vincent on the stunning shuffling dancer “Gotta get my hands on some good loving”, going to be a very big tune this once it breaks out, it sounds like she’s fronting a full blown orchestra, the sound is stunning.

I do like to pay tribute to the musicians but there are so many listed I don’t have the space. I will make mention of the backing singers though because I would suggest there are some future lead vocalists here, Jo Kelsey, Gloria Pryce, Sasha Patterson and Evie Asio- Okwalinga, apologies ladies if you do have anything out there, please feel free to make contact and let me know, we know Joe has fronted “I got Sunshine (Enough for the world)” on here, a skin slapping funkster with attitude.

“Moody Judy” with Emrys Baird is a real mid-paced grower, the album ends in a jazz influenced soul ballad “My love for you is not of this earth”, we have Bre-Antonia out front. I don’t know what the availability of this at the time of writing but what I do know is that this will easily be in my top ten of the year. The last time I heard a sound like this was back in 1994 when that wonderous Groove Nation “Do You” album surfaced on ‘Nuff Tuff Records’.

Brian Goucher

Leela James ‘Did It For Love” (BMG) 4/5

>It’s been 3 years since we last heard from this excellent voice. Now on her 6th album to date and by far her finest. Over the period of these albums her voice has grown in strength and confidence and really is a joy at times.
Let’s get the gripes out of the way first; there isn’t a straight no hold barred ballad on here and there should be as her voice is tailor made for deep soul. Okay then let’s go straight to the two seriously big noises on the album. First up the duet with Dave Holister and the R Kelly inspired dancer “Good to love you”, this really is the one hell of a dancer that is ripe for all manner of remixes – it really is something special. Well it is until we hear “This day is for you” – WOW, think perhaps of the mighty Al Wilson and his anthemic “Show & Tell” and you are on the right path. Vocally she really does show us what she’s got, sweet crossover magic, this could really go big in a thinking man’s soul arena and deserves to be on every soul radio station out there. So all you radio jocks who claim to be soul-full, why don’t you get behind quality like this?

The first track to get my full attention was “Don’t want you back” a meandering toe tapping head nodder. I suppose the closest we get to a ballad is “I remember”, which starts off in slow style but morphs into another quality head nodder. “There 4 U” is an uptempo dancer that could quite easily become a sought after 7” if it found its way onto that medium, and perhaps be another “Happy” as it has that dance-ability and appeal.

Rex Rideout and Leela appear to dominate the proceedings in terms of writing, production etc. There appears to be an array of musicians, the sound created is very modern contemporary, a most enjoyable listen.

Earlier on we mentioned Dave Hollister, it’s about time we had a straight soul album from him, he’s wasted on the RnB.

Oh and finally, let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for the next one.

Brian Goucher

Gene Jackson ‘1963’ (Blue Lotus Recordings) 5/5

The finest album so far this year by miles. Southern soul with a toe in the contempory side of things and most definitely a nod to all things great and black from back in the day. Take the opener, “That’s why I love you”, a stunning dancer with everything but the kitchen sink chucked in there, think Tyrone Davis “Can I change your mind” and you’re there way back in the day, what a way to start. And if you thought that was good, we go straight into another killer dancer, “1963”, a history lesson of what was happening that year set against a slightly less-paced tune than track 1 – my good friend Steve Scotney dropped this at Soul Essence 35 and got huge response. This is one of those simply timeless, effortless classics in the making, wonderful, simply wonderful. Upping the pace to an almost on the four’s beat we have “Love at first sight”, this really has grown on me, I was in the car recently and turned this up loud with windows open and sun shining.  For me, southern soul perfection complete with Mark Huth solo on Tenor/Alto sax.
Onto the best track for me, the mid-tempo burner, “You’re gonna get hurt” bathed in violin, cello, viola, Wurlitzer, chink chink bass, pleading vocals, easily my track of the year and I doubt it can be bettered, Gene Jackson OMG. Set a similar pace is the modern day Doo-Wop inspired “Aint no way”, again vocally he carries this to another level.

Every year collecting soul music throws up a number of surprises. Blue Lotus have done it to me twice recently with Roland Johnson and Gene Jackson. A ten-tracker of immense quality and stature, a southern soul masterpiece… now then sod off while I play it again.

I stumbled over this as a download, made some enquiries with Blue Lotus who’s customer service is brilliant, there was a hitch with the website in that it wouldn’t allow delivery outside the USA, I was assured they were going to look at that, get this album anyway you can.

Blue Lotus Update May 2017: You may remember Renee Smith dueted with Roland Johnson, well she has an EP near to completion so look out for that, In June Everett Dean has an EP hitting the streets too, and the 4th Annual Saint Louis Blues Society compilation will arrive too, the previous two comp’s had tracks on from Renee and Roland, like many of you I was oblivious to these releases so I’m on the case trying to acquire them, if I’m successful I’ll preview the album’s here and possibly the EP’s on UKVibe’s Facebook pages. Watch this space.

Brian Goucher

Quinsin Nachoff ‘Ethereal Trio’ (Whirlwind) 4/5

Tenor saxophonist Nachoff is in heavy company here with Mark Helias on double bass and Dan Weiss at the drums. Although piano-less trios are not new; one only needs to think of Sonny Rollins for example, who was mining this field in the late 1950’s, I must confess that I generally feel uncomfortable listening to such trios and I miss the grounding effect that a chordal instrument brings to an ensemble. So I approached this release with some trepidation. However, the trio has no difficulty creating new ways to communicate without the need of a harmonic buttress offered by a chordal instrument. Here, finding new ways for jazz expression.

Perhaps this format arose for reasons of economy leading musicians to adopt a “go lean” approach, but more than likely is was a conscious artistic decision.

Other practitioners who have been successful in this genre include bassist Dave Holland, and saxophonists Joe Henderson and Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano and Albert Ayler. This list alone covers quite a wide spectrum of music. It seems to be a working environment favoured by saxophonists as Mark Turner has also been active in this arena. Indeed, currently saxophonist John O’Gallagher also has a new piano-less trio album just released on Whirlwind and it might be constructive to compare and contrast these two albums.

Helias has wide-ranging musical tastes having worked most notably in the more experimental end of the music with Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor but also with Abbey Lincoln and Mose Allison.

Weiss has a similar wide-ranging pedigree having worked with Lee Konitz, David Binney and Tim Berne. So it’s clear that Nachoff couldn’t have picked any better sparring partners.

Quinsin is Canadian born but currently New York-based.

The recording consists of original material.

The chord-less trio allows the saxophonist to compose material either harmonically or contrapuntally. With Helias we have the impression that harmony is never actually absent. This format allows the instrumentalists much more freedom for expression. The opening track ‘Clairvoyant Jest’ immediately introduces us to the saxophonists ravishing sound. The theme takes swing as its starting point and so we are on familiar territory. All three performers swing and that’s what matters for me. The next track ‘Imagination Reconstruction’ sees the saxophonist almost percussive sound and again the trio work together delightfully.

‘Gravitas’ follows and it’s more introspective and, yes, ethereal. There is lovely subtle playing all round and a particular delight is the drummer’s brush-work.

‘Subliminal Circularity’ is a raw piece of music with less common reference points than the preceding pieces. Something of a challenging listen, but worth the effort.

‘Push-Pull Topology’ plays with time in wonderful ways and demands the listener’s full attention.

The final track ‘Portrait in Sepia Tones’ is an exciting up-tempo piece. A real tour de force for all concerned. A “percussive maelstrom”, indeed.

It’s clear throughout the album that all three musicians revel in each other’s company. The saxophonist, in particular, is a fearless explorer of contemporary jazz expression. This is an album well worth investigating.

Alan Musson

travelling the spaceways since 1993