Tom Browne ‘Brother, Brother. The GRP / Arista Anthology’ 2CD (SoulMusic) 3/5

Probably better know in the UK for his major pop chart hit in ‘Funkin’ for Jamaica’ than in his native country, Tom Browne is a frustrating musician in some respects. He started off in jazz-fusion at the very end of the 1970s, modified his style and scored individual single successes with a style some would describe as jazz-funk, and then got somewhat sidelined by the hip-hop revolution and changed his style again. Compare this with the two major trumpeter players of the 1980s, the resurgence of Miles Davis who came out of semi-retirement to record again with a new generation of musicians, and the young pretender to the throne in Wynton Marsalis, who after a promising early series of albums that included performing with the classic 1960s Miles Davis rhythm section, then turned his back on moving forward and instead pursued a revivalist career, harking back to the jazz tradition.

By the 1990s, Tom Browne’s sound had become somewhat dated and one wonders whether had he not scored the major hit in ‘Funkin’ for Jamaica’ (of which there are no less than three separate versions on this anthology, the original album version, a 1991 extended version and a more recent mixed version) as early on in his career, his music might have travelled a different path, with more satisfying results. Be that as it may, for devotees of the Tom Browne sound, there will be a good deal to delve into and the anthology is comprehensive in including harder to find 12″ versions.

The debut album, ‘Browne Sugar’, was a modest top fifty R & B album entry and, frankly, there is little among the five pieces selected that distinguishes him from any number of musicians from the era when jazz was well and truly in the doldrums with the onslaught of disco and rock. Chuck Mangione seems to have been a guiding influence here and the latter had some major commercial successes in the 1970s before disappearing altogether when acoustic jazz came back into vogue during the 1980s jazz revival. A reasonable mid-tempo stab at Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s goin’ on’ features collective vocals in the chorus, but not on par with the Harvey Mason cover.

A second album from 1980, ‘Love Approach’, would prove to be the major breakthrough for Tom Browne, with a number one R & B single in ‘Funkin’ For Jamaica’, which crossed over into the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic. As a whole, the album contained nothing else quite as ‘sellable’ to a wider audience and only three tracks including the big hit are included here. The far stronger ‘Magic’ album was released in 1981 and this is by far the most balanced of all Browne’s recordings and also included a reasonable chart hit in ‘Thighs High (grip your hips and move)’, and betrayed a bass line that paid direct homage to the Funkadelic and Parliament P-funk school with ‘Not Just Knee Deep’, immediately springing to mind. Jazz-funk was very much flavour of the day in the UK at the beginning of the 1980s, with home-grown talent such as Incognito and Level 42, and veterans such as Roy Ayers and Lonnie Liston Smith enjoying a new surge of popularity. Another single, the title track, was a good deal poppier and the 12″ version is added with vocals by Cliff Branch Jr.

The next album, ‘Yours Truly’, was another well-balanced set, but frustratingly here, the three interpretations of John Coltrane standards, ‘Naima’, ‘Lazy Bird’, and, ‘Come For The Ride’ are all left off this compilation which is a mistake. Clearly Browne was rediscovering the roots of jazz and the listener should have been made aware of this, but you would never know based on the more commercial side of Tom Browne that is showcased here. All the more frustrating because this could easily have replaced throwaway disco-tinged numbers such as ‘Let’s Dance’, which is not the Nile Rodgers and David Bowie collaboration number.

A new single, the lengthy titled ‘Fungi Mama/Bebopafunkadiscolypso’ was a minor hit in the UK, but nothing on the scale of ‘Funkin’ for Jamaica’. That said, it was an indication that Browne was open to different influences and here the combination of calypso, gospel vocal harmonies and P-funk with jazz was one that he could and, perhaps, should have explored in greater depth because no one else was fusing these genres so effectively. In a not dissimilar vein, ‘Bye Gones’ combined assorted stylistic elements and the extended remix is included here.

Thereafter, Tom Browne fell victim to major changes in the music industry and allowed himself to be led rather than pursuing his own distinctive trajectory and this was typified by ‘Rockin’ Radio’ and his carer petered out somewhat. Liner notes by writer Kevin Goines places Browne’s career in a wider historical framework and there are useful quotes from bassist Marcus Miller, keyboardist Lesette Wilson as well as by the trumpeter himself.

Do search out the BBR re-issued an expanded edition of ‘Magic’ when investigating further.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Swamp Pop – Sea of Love – The Ultimate Collection 1955-1962’ (Jasmine) 4/5

Back in the 1950s one of the most effective ways for record labels to promote their products in the United States was via the jukebox. It immediately brought new sounds into the inner cities and countryside bars alike, and this well researched compilation casts new light on a style of music that was popular in the southern states of Louisiana and Texas. It was music that cut across both the racial divide and musical boundaries, with R & B and country genres featured in equal measure. These include 45s from some of the premier labels such as Argo, Ace, Chess and Columbia. What is particularly interesting is how these seemingly disparate styles in practice merged and cross-fertilised. Thankfully, musicians never did respect artificially imposed divides by the rest of society.

The excellent liner notes allude to the historical legacy and importance of New Orleans in nurturing new talent and a common denominator here is the collective influence of Fats Domino upon the musicians and equally that of his producer, Dave Bartholomew. To a greater or lesser extent, all the music contained within pays homage to that particular sound. Highlights include the rock and roll influenced, ‘This should go on forever’ by Rod Bernard and, ‘Just a dream’, by Jimmy Clanton. Blues fans will feel at home with Earl King’s, ‘Those lonely, lonely nights’. Arguably the biggest swamp hit of all belonged to the evocatively named Cookie and his Cup Cakes with, ‘Mathilda has finally come back’.

While none of the singles made any impact in the UK, the title track of the compilation was covered by Marty Wilde and he enjoyed a sizeable hit, occupying the number three position in the UK charts. Ray Charles would effortlessly fuse R & B and country genres with his 1962 seminal album recording, ‘Modern sounds in country and western music’. A previous Jasmine 2 CD, ’50 classic sounds of Louisiana’, covers similar ground in even greater depth.

Tim Stenhouse

H.B. Barnum ‘Everybody Loves The Voice of…’ (Jasmine) 4/5

Better known to soul fans as a gifted arranger, most notably the long-time collaborator of Aretha Franklin, but equally working with Gladys Knight, Frank Sinatra and a roster of Motown artists including The Supremes, The Temptations and the Jackson Five that were released in 1960 and 1962 respectively. The material was varied and straddles blues, R & B, jazz and even the Great American Songbook repertoire.

Barnum was just twenty-five years of age when recording his first ever album, ‘The Big Voice of Barnum’, and at the time was totally focused on his own career. To these ears, the music works best with the more blues oriented material such as ‘I Know (Don’t Have To Tell Me)’ and ‘How Many More Times’. A second album,’Everybody loves H.B. – Barnum that is!’, was released two years later and, interestingly, it is a cover of Thelonius Monk’s jazz standard, ‘Round Midnight’, that stands out here. Ballads were a speciality of Barnum and, ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face’, impresses. Of course, there were covers of pop songs with ‘The Last Dance’ and an R & B favourite, ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, both fine examples of Barnum’s ability to adapt to his own versatile style.

Now eighty years of age, H.B. Barnum has enjoyed a distinguished career as an arranger of other singers and doubtless his own singing enabled him to empathise and better understand the needs of other singers. He recorded half a dozen vocal albums in the 1960s before settling into a longer career of producing others. A worthy re-issue.

Tim Stenhouse

Arthur Blythe ‘Elaborations / Light Blue: Plays Thelonious Monk / Put Sunshine In It’ 2CD (BGO) 4/5

This is the second of the pairing of various Columbia album recordings by the sadly departed alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe in the early-Mid-1980s and once again the unusual instrumental line-ups makes for some highly original and, at times, unorthodox music. The only caveat is that the most commercial of all Blythe’s recordings for a mainstream label, ‘Put sunshine in it’ has been preferred to other far superior albums, and certainly the ever popular, ‘Basic Blythe’, from 1987, would have made a far better choice, especially since it is one of Blythe’s more accessible works and includes the perennial favourite number, ‘Autumn in New York’, with no less than two versions on the same album.

That aside, this latest re-issue has the major bonus of Blythe re-interpreting the music of Monk on the strongest of any of the albums showcased here, the excellent 1985 recording ‘Light Blue: Arthur Blythe plays Thelonius Monk’. This compares favourably with two other original takes on the Monk repertoire, Steve Lacy’s wonderful ‘Reflections’ on Prestige and the late 1980s Afro-Cuban jazz masterpiece, ‘Rumba para Monk’ by Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band. Sumptuous versions of ‘Epistrophy’, ‘Nutty’ and ‘Off minor’ round off a memorable take on Monk’s innovative compositions.

A 1982 album, ‘Elaboration’, with virtually an identical roster of musicians, carries on with the original line-up of cello, tuba and guitar and the music veers between post-bop and the avant-garde. This writer was especially taken by the modal feel to ‘Lower Nile’. Guitarist Kelvyn Bell impresses and comes very much of the James ‘Blood’ Ulmer school of playing, while tuba player Bob Stewart oscillates between emphasising the bass line and playing the harmony. Cellist Abdul Wadud introduces an additional layered texture and this is music devoid of any clichés.

Which leaves the unfortunate second 1985 ‘Put sunshine in it’. This was a blatant attempt at commercial success with drum machines and synths, and one can only wonder at what the Columbia music executives thought they were doing when they encouraged Blythe to turn away from his natural inclinations and go for broke. The less said about the music the better and only a funky take on ‘One Mint Julep’ is worth mentioning. It was a ghastly mistake and a sole blemish on an otherwise exemplary Blythe catalogue for Columbia.

As a whole, then, well worth investigating and, hopefully, ‘Basic Blythe’, will finally see the light of day on CD in the UK and, with John Hicks on piano, it would be an ideal way to hear the music of one of the underrated saxophonists of the last four decades.

Tim Stenhouse

Lee Morgan ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid) 4/5

Trumpeter Lee Morgan led an adventurous life, to say the least, and was tragically killed by his then girlfriend in a jazz club in 1972. His meteoric rise to fame began as part of the Dizzy Gillespie big band before he gained notoriety in one of the very best ever incarnations of the Jazz Messengers under leader Art Blakey. This collection of four albums covers the period 1957 to 1960, with no less than three of the recordings dating from the latter when Morgan’s sound was much in demand.

The 1957 Hollywood recording of part of the Gillespie big band under Morgan’s leadership, ‘Dizzy Atmosphere’, is very much the odd one out here because the sound is more akin to that of Count Basie than Morgan, and Morgan was at the time an exciting hard-bop trumpet. As a whole, the album is something of a disappointment and Avid would have been better served including another album from 1960/1 that more accurately reflects Morgan as a leader. An early Blue Note album such as ‘Candy’ would have provided a useful comparison with what followed.

Moving on to the 1960 albums, two of these were recorded for the Chicago-based Vee-Jay label and this was an interesting record company on at least two accounts. First of all, it was a family firm owned by two brothers Vivian and James Brackeen, who were African-American, and this was unusual for the recording industry at the time. Secondly, the albums were promoted via edited 45s being released and played on the local format favored in inner cities at the time, of the jukebox. This being the case, the first album, ‘Here’s Lee Morgan’, from February of that year featured two single releases in ‘Terrible T’ and ‘I’m a fool to want you’, both original compositions by Morgan. A stellar line-up comprised Clifford Jordan on tenor, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Art Blakey on drums recorded the six pieces in New York. Morgan was by now part of the Jazz Messengers and his fellow band member Wayne Shorter was as prolific composer and offered up ‘Running brook’ here.

A second album for Vee-Jay was recorded in October 1960 and once again featured Blakey and Jordan, but with Eddie Higgins on piano and Art Davis on bass. Morgan was gaining in confidence and his own ‘Triple track’ is an album highlight along with pianist Higgins’ original and title track ‘Expoobident’. In between these two albums, Lee Morgan found time to record for the Blue Note label and the superior quality of the sound and the performances is evident. Blue Note paid musicians to rehearse and this resulted in the pieces performed on record being that tighter than on other labels. A strong rhythm section line-up of Chambers and Blakey plus Bobby Timmons (misspelt as ‘Paul’ in the liner notes) is added to with Morgan and altoist Jackie McLean. This pairing of fiery brass musicians would meet up on numerous Blue Note albums in the future, but here the chemistry is already evident and on four lengthy numbers, they work out on, ‘These are soulful days’ and McLean’s own ‘Midtown blues’. Not yet definitive Morgan, but good enough by any other standards nonetheless.

Tim Stenhouse

Kondi Band ‘Salone’ CD/LP/DIG (Strut) 4/5

Congolese band Konono Nº1 scored a crossover world roots/techno hit with their albums for Crammed Disc records and this solo artist from Sierra Leone covers similar territory, though with more of an acoustic roots emphasis. As with many musicians in war-torn lands, the story both of how the recording was made and the personal testimony are tragic and heartwarming in equal measure.

Sorie Kondi is a blind thumb piano, or kondi as it is known, who hails from Sierra Leone. He was most certainly a victim of the civil war and, when rebel troops staged an assault on the capital of Freetown (a most unlikely name for a city that was anything but in reality), had recorded an album the masters of which became lost and he probably believed his one and only chance to make a name for himself had been lost.

Fortunately, for Kondi and the rest of the music world oblivious to his talents and history, an American sound engineer, Luke Wassermann, spotted Kondi performing on the thumb piano and was sufficiently impressed by the musician to set up a recording date. This duly came out on cassette (the preferred format in Africa at the time) in July 2007, and later on CD in the United States. Fast forward a few years and in the Mid-West DJ and producer Chief Boima came across an online video of a track by Sorie Kondi, ‘Without money, may family’, and decided to remix the track. The fusion between thumb piano and techno dance was thus born.

If that is the genesis behind the recording, then what of the music and the lyrics? The hypnotic opener, ‘Yeanoh (powe handa blingabe)’ has been attracting a lot of attention and the repetitive riff of the kondi allied with his voice makes for a potent combination. Connections with techno are of course tenuous, but when you hear a piece such as, ‘Bella wahalla’, where keyboards and thumb piano plus vocals come together, the sound created is far from contrived and definitely works.

Throughout this album, a dance friendly pulse is present and this adds to a most enjoyable listen and when you factor in the socially conscious lyrics. The custom-made fifteen pin thumb piano sound is worth the exploration alone.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Cool Heat: The Best of CTI Records’ 2CD (Robinsongs/Cherry Red) 4/5

CTI records was the brainchild of producer Creed Taylor who in the mid-late 1960s had produced some of the greats while working at A & M records and these included the orchestrated and commercially most albums of guitarist Wes Montgomery, the solo albums of Antonio Carlos Jobim and the larger ensemble recordings of Quincy Jones, not to mention the genial alto saxophonist Paul Desmond.

Distinctive and glossy photo cover art graced the new CTI label which began in 1970 (and not without recalling the paintings of David Hockney in some respects), but the quality of the gatefold sleeves was equalled by that of the recordings themselves, which were at Rudy Van Gelder’s studios where so many classic Blue Note, but also Impulse! albums, had been made. This new anthology really only has one serious rival and that is the 2015 Sony 4CD box set, ‘CTI Records: the cool revolution’, but where that has the greater number of tracks (thirty-nine versus twenty-four this time round) and the wider range of musicians, the new compilation focuses firmly on the funkier side of the tracks, including examples of the Kudu affiliate label, and thankfully there are only five tracks that clash between the two releases. For straight ahead jazz lovers, the Sony set will be a first choice, but for more casual listeners who prefer the soundtrack and Blaxploitation film influences, then the new 2CD set will prove irresistible, especially if you are a fan of sampling. Moreover, it covers a wider period taking in 1970 to 1980.

Keyboardists predominate on CTI and Brazilian Eumir Deodato a full decade before becoming a hit producer with a revamped incarnation of Kool and the Gang, enjoyed a hit in his own right with a funkified take on the classical piece, ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, and this heralded a new era of fusion-inflected jazz. Fellow Latin American, and keyboardist, Argentine Lalo Schifrin was already a successful Hollywood composer (‘Bullit’ among many other pieces), but laid down two CTI albums of which ‘Jaws’ was typically gritty. Bassist Ron Carter unexpectedly turns up on ‘Barreta’s theme’ from ‘Keep your eye on the sparrow’, while Hubert Laws’ ‘The Chicago theme (Love loop)’ has become a favourite of hip-hop fans and samplers alike.

More traditional Hammond grooves could still combine with funk and Lonnie Smith’s ‘Mama Wailer’ leads on logically from his late 1960s Blue Note recordings, while Johnny Hammond broke new ground on multiple keyboards and here offers up ‘Breakout’.

Vocalists were not neglected at CTI and Kudu and Taylor himself had enjoyed producing Astrud Gilberto while working at Verve. Esther Phillips was by some distance the most successful of the singers and little wonder then, that there should be two examples of her craft, with the hit reworking of ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’, formerly a hit for Dinah Washington in the early 1960s, and closing the anthology, the classic cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Home Is Where The Hatred Is’. A separate anthology of the work of Esther Phillips will shortly be reviewed in these columns. Nina Simone recorded a one-off album for CTI and the title track, ‘Baltimore’ has stood the test of time remarkably well and with the reggae-tinged undercurrent one hears Simone in an altogether different light. It is a pity further albums were not recorded with her because this easily rivals anything that Ms. Simone recorded in the rest of the decade. A couple of further vocal tracks indicate that CTI/Kudu was not averse to new trends in black music with ‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’, by Idris Muhammad, a classy take on the disco idiom, while George ‘Bad’ Benson never sounded funkier than on ‘Supership’, which is fully deserving of a musical reboot. He turns up as an instrumentalist of some repute in a guitar-flute duet on the lovely ‘Flute Song’.

Some of the major instrumental pieces that CTI became rightly famous for are included such as Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red clay’ and Stanley Turrentine’s ‘Sugar’, while keyboardist Bob James enjoyed several hit albums of which the instrumental ‘Westchester Lady’ is but one example and one of the most sampled and loved among younger listeners. The decade ended with the super collective Fuse One featuring Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin, Tony Williams and a host of others. Keyboardist Ronnie Foster penned ‘Grand Prix’, featured here.

There are a few absences which would have enhanced the selection as a whole. However, these are but minor quibbles to the wider panoramic view which is provided. Randy Weston recorded just one album for the label in ‘Blue Moses’ and an example of that would have added to the wider picture, with Grover Washington Jr. on saxophone. Furthermore, maybe the contributions of Airto Moreira from this era is deserving of a compilation as a leader in his own right to offer more of a Latin jazz perspective, or at the very least a pairing of two of his classic CTI albums. Likewise, Milt Jackson cut two excellent albums for the label of which the tracks ‘Sunflower’ and ‘Olinga’ have rightly become club favourites. Otherwise, a fine overview of the label’s more dance-oriented output and a useful starting block to explore the label more generally.

Tim Stenhouse

Daniel Toledo Trio & Pianohooligan ‘Atrium’ CD/DIG (For Tune) 5/5

Let’s be honest. It would be fair to say that there are many piano/bass/drums jazz trios out there. I don’t have a clue what the numbers are, but in recent years a week doesn’t seem to go by without a batch of new releases seeing the light of day. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining because there are a lot of these that I love. But there are also a few too many that just don’t quite cut it for one reason or another. So what makes a great trio? Well, to my mind, the answer can be narrowed down to this; either the music needs to be highly original, with a fresh slant giving new life to this well-loved genre, or the trio of musicians need to be so intuitively and collectively in tune with one another that the music they create together becomes something special. And I’m pleased to say that the latter definitely applies to this release.

On “Atrium” Ecuadorian bassist Daniel Toledo has teamed up with Swedish drummer Paul Svanberg and Polish pianist Piotr Orzechowski (Pianohooligan). The three musicians are a perfect match for one another, creating some highly engaging music on a level that would suggest the threesome have been working together for years. In fact, this is their first recording together, one which shifts effortlessly from light to dark, from moody to playful, from atmospheric to expressive.

The jazz performed on this session is melodic, lyrical, thoughtful and skillful. All three musicians have to take equal credit for the music they are making. And surely that is the essence of a great trio. There are a few influences that spring to mind whilst listening to this album. “Abridged Perspective” reminds me of the Bobo Stenson Trio, deceptively light, gradually revealing hidden depths of breathless beauty. There are touches of Marcin Wasilewski Trio as I listen to the gorgeously cool and sumptuous romanticism of “Horyzont”. And “Margins” enjoys a definite Keith Jarrett Trio in playful mood feel to it.

“Atrium” is a classic example of three excellent musicians coming together to make music that could be said to be better than the sum of its parts. A lovely album well worth discovering.

Mike Gates

Lou Donaldson ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid) 4/5

If anyone personified the mid-late 1950s Blue Note sound, then alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson would surely be a prime candidate. His laid back style that effortlessly took on board blues, bop and Latin flavours proved irresistible and endeared him to a wider public, especially those that might have heard his 45s on the jukeboxes of the day.

This value for money four LPs on two CDs does not break any new ground, and most are available elsewhere, but collectively they add up to a representative portrait of Donaldson between 1957 and 1961, and in a variety of guises. As ever with Avid re-issues, the original vinyl notes plus full discographical details make for unbeatable offerings and the music is certainly up to scratch.

If any album was definitive Lou Donaldson then ‘Blues Walk’ would probably beat the rest and the relaxed blues feel allied with a Latin undercurrent courtesy of percussionist Ray Barretto permeates the entire album. The title track makes for essential listening and testimony to Donaldson’s own compositional talents. Three of the five pieces are originals with ‘Play Ray’ and ‘Callin’ All Cats’ the perfect jazz to achieve hipsterdom. Three years later, ‘Gravy Train’ would take the Latin and blues influences a step further, with Alec Dorsey on congas this time round and a stunning take on ‘South Of The Border’, which became a hit on the dance floors again in the mid-1980s when it was re-issued on the first of the ‘Blue Bossa’ compilations. Nothing quite tops that number but ‘Avalon’ and ‘Candy’ are fine melodic numbers.

The second CD goes back to the bop era with the 1957 album, ‘Takes’ Off’ featuring an extended brass section of Curtis Fuller and Donald Byrd, with Donaldson rediscovering his love of Charlie Parker on a cover of ‘Dewey Square’. Trumpeter Byrd is in inspired form and blows hard on Gillespie’s ‘Groovin’ High’, while pianist Sonny Clark plays a largely supportive role. For the beginnings of the funkier side of Donaldson the 1961 album ‘Here ‘Tis’ impresses with ‘Baby Face’ Willette on Hammond organ and Grant Green on guitar. A relaxed take on ‘A Foggy Day’ contrasts with the mid-tempo groove of ‘Watusi’. The original title track has that timeless quality that one always associates with Lou Donaldson’s early period output. Nothing revolutionary, but tasty sounding music all the same,

For a later and altogether funkier pairing of Blue Note albums, why not consider the following for a future re-issue together: ‘Alligator Boogaloo’/’Everything I Play Is Funky’/ ‘Hot Dog’/ ‘Say It Loud!’.

Tim Stenhouse

Stephen McCraven ‘Killing Us Hardly’ (Private Press) 4/5

If you look at Stephen McCraven’s CV, he has pulled almost every single thread on the ball of twine of jazz that it’s more of a tumbleweed. From gospel to fusion, to funk to blues, he has applied himself and his kit to most with a progressive vigour, but with the rare ability to still be largely accessible and inclusive. This more mosaic, rather than genre-railroaded, approach is the best way to look at Killing Us Hardly. Press release cynicism and mockery is one of my favourite hobbies, aside from watercolour, but I was left a little unsatisfied with the rather helpful adjectives used in the one for this record. The phrase “psychedelic fresco” seems to capture this record rather well, but perhaps I wouldn’t look for too much weirdness in the psychedelia, more a sincere enthusiasm and maniacal grin.

The core of Killing is McCraven’s versatile handling of the drumming and steady leadership of the grooves. Pleasantly, and confidently, placed as the governing but unobtrusive band leader, slightly behind in the mix, McCraven could be said to be back-seat-driving all the way. This I mean as a benefit to the record rather than an insult. The ambitiously large range of musicians on show throughout the twelve tracks would at first seem to be a gargantuan task in creating cohesion, resisting show-boating or sacrificing elements to mere vignettes, but McCraven and the producers have managed it. Each track has a definite sense of itself and each works as a part of an identifiable whole.

Before a more detailed glance over the tracks on show, I would like to state that the vocals and lyrics on Killing are not all to my taste. I personally found almost all vocals to distract me from the music. If one is looking for something more esoteric, conceptual and thought-provoking, I would offer the suggestion to not listen too hard to the lyrics. For an example, however, of how uninitiated (and rather foolish) I wondered if “B M F” stood for “Bromsgrove Motor Factors” (a splendid second-hand dealership in the midlands), before I realised the entire track was a sort of homage to Isaac Haye’s “Theme from Shaft”. This is merely a taste thing. There are clear messages of freedom, community and sense of belonging. Indeed, the international feel of the vocal performances is a fine part of the record, giving a noble sense of a global effort, but I often felt that I wanted to get to the breaks and back to the grooves. The exception for me is the fusion-croonin’ on the tracks “Chloe” and “Berlin”, which are odd, simple and smooth.

Musically, however, it is hard to give an effective summary due to the wealth of content on offer, but I will give it a go. A stand-out thread is the Hammond by Jean Wende and the late Tom McClung. I have a slight fondness for the sound of Hammond when done well, and certainly both players smear and stab their way through any track they are on (see “Same Ol’ Deal”). Often it is hard to pick the percussion apart from McCraven’s kit, but this is an effective and successful thing. The rhythmic bond is at times joyously busy (see “We Can’t Stand It”). The bass guitar stays fairly steady, but is let loose wonderfully on “Elisa”, which is unto itself a sort of space-luau lounge affair. The whole track reminded me of the 1904 classic “Come Take A Trip In My Airship” sung by Welsh baritone JW Myers (but that might just be me), but with far more sass.

There are a lot of great moments on Killing, diving between funk, blues, fusion, jazz and then more expansive and freer parts (the stand-out final track “Bad Rabbit”). But there is constantly the looming presence of McCraven’s sometimes intense, sometimes laid-back, sometimes sparse and sometimes bustling drumming. Always there, but never dominating or over-shadowing other players. This is the record’s success; a great example of collaborative playing, a wide-ensemble working well, and considering the scope (and my own picky cynicism) there’s so much to find you’re bound to love some and love some less. One, however, cannot help but enjoy and celebrate the cheerful, enthusiastic and chock-full-of-musicianship that Killing Us Hardly is.

Thomas G.J. Sharpe

travelling the spaceways since 1993