The Heliosonic Tone-Tette, Scott Robinson & Marshall Allen ‘Heliosonic Toneways, Vol. 1’ CD/DIG (ScienSonic Laboratories) 4/5

History has it that on 20th April 1965, Sun Ra and His Solar Arkestra assembled in New York at RLA Studios on the Upper West Side with engineer Richard L. Alderson to record ‘The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra’ – one of Sun-Ra’s most acclaimed projects. The recordings were later presented in two volumes and released in 1965 and 1966 respectively on ESP Disk. The album added another layer to the evolution of jazz with its use of unusual instrumentation, combined with the juxtaposition of how improvisation and composition can be used aesthetically in jazz, underpinned by the forward thinking Arkestra which included Marshall Allen and Danny Ray Thompson, who helped Sun Ra to expound on the burgeoning free jazz movement of the time. Fast forward 50 years to the day of those RLA sessions, and on 20th April 2015, ScienSonic Laboratories gathered a high calibre group of musicians that aimed to utilise the spirit of those original recordings to create an ambitious project that would capture the essence of ‘The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra’, and thankfully not to remake it.

The project was the brainchild of label owner and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, who assembled an all-star cast of players, including the aforementioned Marshall Allen, who as of May 2017 is 93 years young, longtime Arkestra member Danny Ray Thompson (sax, bassoon), trombonist Frank Lacy, trumpeter Philip Harper, bassist Pat O’Leary, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, bass trombonist Tim Newman, drummer Matt Wilson, bass clarinetist JD Parran, with Scott Robinson being the conduit for the record. The original engineer of the 1965 ‘Heliocentric’ sessions, Richard Alderson, was also recruiting to handle the technical aspects of this historic recording, which took place at ScienSonic Laboratories (Robinson’s converted garage), which is also home to an extensive collection of obscure musical instruments and unconventional sound creation devices, including the original bass marimba used by Sun Ra himself on ‘Heliocentric Worlds’.

The album itself comprises of 11 compositions with a total running time edging just over 60 minutes, with individual running times varying from 1 minute to 9 minutes and Allen, Thompson and Robinson being major contributors to the feel of the project. This included Marshall Allen playing alto saxophone and EVI (electronic valve instrument, but technically speaking a synthesiser), but also for the first time on a recording, piano and bass marimba – the one previously owned by Sun Ra. The 11 parts are all titled ‘Heliotone…’ and then numbered ‘1a’ to ‘7’, but they are definitely separate pieces that contain individual themes rather than segueing into each other. And analysing ‘tracks’ as one does with more conventional releases does not suit projects of this nature. This is a more visceral experience as opposed to the sonic cherry picking that we all now do when listening to music – myself included, therefore, exploring singular elements is futile here. A longer listening investment is required and with repeated plays one does begin to familiarise and better understand the layers of sonic embellishments provided.

The free jazz idiom is easy to dismiss – even within jazz circles. But nonetheless, I would argue that this is quite an accessible album. It could be described as having a soundtrack quality due to how dynamic and textured it is and ‘Heliosonic Toneways’ could easily be a soundtrack to a contemporary indie movie. There’s some frantic free playing next to atmospherics and soundscapes, some interesting ensemble conversations next to individual personal statements. The album is sonically very rich, the playing is exceptional and the recording and mixing quality is of high standard, plus, there was apparently enough material recorded during the session for another future volume.

Since the passing of Sun Ra in 1993 and John Gilmore (d. 1995), Marshall Allen, a World War II vet who joined Sun Ra in 1958, has led the Arkestra during their constant recording and touring schedules. This extraordinary individual has had a remarkable career stretching over 60 years, and it’s here we have the opportunity again to celebrate his work alongside Danny Ray Thompson and the other musicians involved. The spirit of Sun Ra and the Arkestra is definitely here.

Damian Wilkes

Vijay Iyer Sextet ‘Far From Over’ LP/CD (ECM) 4/5

Indian-American jazz pianist, Vijay Iyer, returns with an album, his fifth in total for ECM, that at once looks forward to acoustic-electronica fusions and goes all the way back to the acoustic improvisational work of the mid-1960’s Miles Davis quintet. For the former, shorter pieces such as, ‘End of the Tunnel’, indicate a clear desire to explore beyond the traditional confines of even modern jazz with the use of electronica, and having an academic background in mathematics doubtless helps stimulate the mind in diverging ways. Complex structures seem to be a defining quality of the Vijay Iyer sound, and the leader performs on Fender, in part at least, to communicate his thoughts more effectively.

However, as a whole, the feel of this all original set is the more risqué side of acoustic with a nod to the future. The slow burner, ‘Nope’, for example, has a funkier edge to it and Iyer is ably assisted by the crisp drumming of Tyshawn Sorey and the sure double bass work of Stephan Crump. Some have likened this band to a latter day take on the Jazz Messengers, and as complimentary as that may sound, even the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter did not take the music of that formation in such radical directions.

Where this recording has the edge over others previously is in the challenging brass section comprising Graham Haynes on cornet, flugelhorn and electronics, and especially Steve Lehman on alto saxophone. The presence and contribution of the latter alone is akin to having Jackie McLean from his mid-1960’s Blue Note excursions on board and that makes for some thrilling music in places. Witness the slow piano intro to ‘Poles’, where there is a staccato alto attack from Lehman, or on the driving rhythm to the title track. That said, this quintet is capable of great reflection and this is illustrated on the reposing ‘Wake’, or on the eight and half minute meditation of ‘Threnody’, where Iyer the pianist takes an expansive solo.

Vijay Iyer is ideally suited to smaller ensemble work and this writer prefers this format to his previous flirts with electronica. He has become one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary jazz.

Tim Stenhouse

Tom Hewson ‘Essence’ (Cam Jazz) 4/5

A new name and a promising future ahead if this solo outing recorded in Vienna is anything to go by. Already the recipient of the 2014 Nottingham Jazz Piano competition award, Hewson has been signed to piano and otherwise esoteric Italian jazz label Cam Jazz on which the likes of Enrico Pieranunzi. Kenny Wheeler and the sadly departed John Taylor have frequently recorded and that is a non-négligeable feat in itself.

In fact, Tom Hewson and his regular band were scheduled to perform a concert with the Mancunian pianist, but his passing deprived them of that opportunity. As a homage, Hewson interprets, ‘Summer phases’, and it is the flowing romanticism of this reading that is so effectively conveyed. All but three pieces are originals and of these, the lovely riff that he creates with himself on ‘Major Malfunction’ hints at Bill Evans among his coterie of preferred pianists. At times the approach is distinctly bleak as on ‘Koyasan’, and the avant-garde is touched upon, albeit within structured limits, on ‘Constellations’. Of the other two standards on offer, it is the stripped down version of Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ that really comes to life and the pure essence of the composition is retained.

This writer would like to hear Tom Hewson in his more natural setting of a trio, but even there nothing is quite conventional, with a drummer less trio comprising bass and vibraphone. Sleeve notes in English and Italian are by BBC radio 3 reviewer and jazz journalist Brian Morton.

Tim Stenhouse

Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop ‘Rev’ (Anzic) 5/5

Cervini is a Toronto based drummer and his second album leading his group ‘Turboprop’. This is modern jazz par excellence with the material a well-balanced mix of originals, a couple of pop songs together with a ‘standard’ from the Great American Song Book added to the mix for good measure. The group is a six-piece ensemble consisting of alto and tenor saxes, trombone and the familiar piano, bass, drums rhythm section. With the exception of tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, all the participants are unknown to me, but all certainly acquit themselves in excellent fashion. Along with playing drums, Cervini contributes memorable tunes and accessible arrangements.

The leader sets out his stall early on with a percussive introduction to the opening track ‘The Libertine’. This piece really comes alive during the middle section of the tune. After the theme statement there is an unexpected change of tension when pianist Adrean Faruggia builds a complex solo from a very simple initial statement, the excitement continues to build as Frahm constructs his own passionate solo statement.
‘Granada Bus’ opens with a compelling bass figure from Dan Loomis before Tara Davidson enters with the attractive theme statement on soprano saxophone and is soon joined by her fellow saxophonist and trombonist William Carn. It’s then back to Davidson for a superb solo statement on what has by now become a high energy piece of music.

‘No Rain’ from the band Blind Melon, ushered in by the drummer who is soon joined by bass and piano before Davidson is back weaving more magic on soprano saxophone. ‘The Daily Mail’ from the repertoire of Radio Head no less, is in marked contrast to what has come before, a contemplative but no less intense ballad with the bassist taking centre stage. The heat builds once again when the rest of the ensemble join the fray.
Next up is something of a surprise – the old standard ‘Pennies from Heaven’ from 1936 with exquisite soloing from Frahm – and what a wonderful and fun arrangement. The frontline soli is a standout of the album for me. Here, the sextet comes on almost like a conventional big band. This is a far cry from how Bing Crosby introduced the song in the film of the same name.

Another outstanding piece is the lengthy ‘Arc of Instability’ The tempo here is pitched somewhere between the ballad performances and the more up tempo pieces and yet still manages to build up a head of steam.
Of the eight compositions on the album, all but three originate from the various band members. This is an accomplished and powerful statement from a group of musicians playing with the confidence gained by performing the material for a couple of years beforehand. This album is sure to cement the reputation already built by the band’s debut. Let us hope that we get to hear a third instalment in the not too distant future.

Alan Musson

Björn Meyer ‘Provenance’ LP/CD (ECM) 4/5

What wonderful surprises the ECM label can offer up with hitherto unrecognised musicians who offer atmospheric recordings of great depth and beauty. This is one such example from Swedish bassist Björn Meyer on this intoxicating all original set. Meyer has collaborated with Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem and Persian harpist/singer Asita Hamidi and is a long-time member of the Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin band, but this solo debut is all about generating sounds on the bass.

It is the hypnotic beauty of the sounds generated that impressed this writer most and the evident virtuosity is backed up by a musical mind that communicates his love of roots music across the globe. A real favourite is the flamenco-fusion fingering on the guitar intro to ‘Squizzle’, and along with jazz references, there is a supplementary country-folk flavour on some of the pieces that takes the parameters of the playing to its outer most limits. On a number such as ‘Three Thirteen’, the bass is performed as a lead rhythm guitar and the gorgeous sound lingers long on the mind. Equally melodic is the title track. Space is a key element that informs Meyer’s music and he explains himself thus:

“… the music is deeply influenced by the properties of the space where it is played. The many different ways in which acoustics affect my compositions and improvisations have always been sources of surprise and inspiration. There is definitely a second member in this solo project – the room!”.

Recorded at the RSI in Lugano, and Meyer now resides in neighbouring Switzerland, this recording really typifies what the ECM label is all about. Constantly experimenting with sounds and allowing the musician all the time and space they require to produce something of lasting value.

Tim Stenhouse

Ahmed Abdul-Malik ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid) 5/5

One of the very strongest re-issues ever delivered by Avid and an unexpected collection at that. Bassist, Ahmed Abdul-Malik, is best known for his sideman work with Thelonius Monk. However, he did record a small number of albums and the very best are contained here. The music is divided up between the first CD which concentrates on hard bop with an Eastern flavour, and the two rarer gems, on ‘New Jazz’, where Malik further explores East meets West and it is the latter that are being rediscovered by a new generation of jazz listeners and DJs in search of the exotic. Middle eastern instrumentation greets the listener on ‘Jazz Sahara’, with tenorist Johnny Griffin featuring on the first three numbers. This was merely a first experiment of fusing jazz and Eastern world beats. This is developed more extensively on the second and stronger of the albums, ‘East Meets West’, with an impressive larger brass ensemble including the fiery trumpet of Lee Morgan, the subtle flute of Jerome Richardson, and tenorists Benny Golson and Johnny Griffin, with Curtis Fuller on trombone. An authentic sounding, ‘Isma’a (Listen)’ stands out with a repeated motif on kanoon, and bop-inflected saxophone combining effectively. More experimental again is the first of two Rudy Van Gelder produced albums on New Jazz, with, ‘The music of Ahmed Abdul-Malik’, dating from 1961. Andrew Cyrille and Eric Dixon take the drums and saxophone in a freer direction, with trumpeter Tommy Turrentine unexpectedly pulling out some killer solos on the infectious ‘La Ibky (Don’t Cry)’. A modal bassline on, ‘Nights On Saturn’, with clarinet is another fine métissage of the Orient and world of jazz, with the cello of Calo Scott working in tandem with Malik on oud. Expanded percussion is a guiding feature of the second album on the New Jazz label, ‘Sounds of Africa’, which has a similar line-up with DJs picking up on, ‘Nadsusilma’, which has a strong North African feel with trumpet and oud, while ‘Communication’, is a meandering nine and a half minute number, with the beefed up percussion of Montego Joe, Rudy Collons and Chief Bey, for more of a pan-African atmosphere. Value for money has always been the Avid mantra, but this re-issue stands out as one of the finest jazz-fusion re-issues of the year.

Tim Stenhouse

Keyon Harrold ‘The Mugician’ (Sony) 2/5

Part of the Charles Tolliver big band that performed live on the 2008 recording at the Blue Note in New York, fellow trumpeter Keyon Harrold has branched out with a solo album for Sony, and this has echoes of other trumpeter influences without placing a distinctive marker of what Keyon Harrold is really about. Given the wonderful post-bop sound that Tolliver is renowned for, this mish-mash of urban black music is all the more disappointing.

The offering veers between hip-hop and rap-influenced beats with an easy listening approach to the instrumentation that this writer found off deeply putting. There are elements of the less than successful Miles Davis ‘Doo Bop’ last studio recording here (but even that is a notch or two above what the listener finds here) coupled with a film soundtrack quality that Terence Blanchard has already carved out. Enlisting numerous guest including members of his own family, the opener, ‘Voicemail’, features a lengthy monologue from Shirley Harrold and is one of the more melodic pieces, though the trumpet does get lost as elsewhere.

Whereas the likes of Erykah Badu successfully straddled neo-soul with elements of jazz, this album goes about matters in the opposite direction. It effectively fails to deliver with any meaty improvised passages, and the slick production may alienate even fans of hip-hop and rap who prefer a rawer sound and they are surely the only audience likely to be receptive to the music. Robert Glasper guest on piano here, with bass clarinet hinting further at Miles references via Marcus Miller, but this recording as a whole does not possess the depth of either musician.

Lengthy one page notes from actor-director Don Cheadle who has an affinity for jazz and directed the Miles biopic, cannot really save this project which is structurally unsound and lacks the true individual voice of the leader.

Tim Stenhouse

Lizz Wright ‘Grace’ (Concord) 4/5

Singer Lizz Wright has regularly straddled the roots of Americana, cross-cutting from blues to folk to contemporary soul. For this latest recording, she seems to have struck just the right balance between them, ably produced by Americana specialist Joe Henry, with the outcome arguably her strongest album thus far. If there are hints of both Anita Baker and Aretha Franklin in her voice, the whole is unmistakably hers and the emphasis is upon where gospel, blues and folk all come together harmoniously.

A real favourite is the 1950’s style blues piano and guitar on ‘Singing In My Soul’, while the percussive opener, ‘Barley’, showcases the evocative delivery of Wright’s voice with a sparse accompaniment magnifying her vocal talents. The repertoire is eclectic and judiciously chosen with numbers from Dylan, Ray Charles and Allen Toussaint all featuring. Country-folk blues permeate Dylan’s ‘Every Grain of Sand’, while a roots take on ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’, with guest guitar from Marc Ribot is a treat.

For some uplifting and sanctified hues, look no further than, ‘What would I do?’ and this is followed up with the righteous sounding Hammond and vocals in an intimate setting of, ‘Seems I’m never tired lovin’ you’. New Orleans is a musical heritage all of its own and Wright takes on board a Toussaint staple, ‘Southern nights’, with aplomb. Nothing over-elaborate, Lizz Wright has successfully bridged the gap between blues, folk and gospel, and in this endeavour, there are few, if any rivals. Her most complete album to date.

Tim Stenhouse

Gary Peacock Trio ‘Tangents’ (ECM) 3/5

One of the most distinguished bassists alive, and a long-time accompanist of several pianists on the ECM label, from Paul Bley to the lengthy tenure as part of the Keith Jarrett trio, and not forgetting his work with Paul Motion, John Surman and Ralph Towner, with 1960’s recordings with Bill Evans early in his career, Gary Peacock’s first trio album as a leader came surprisingly late in his career in 2015, ‘And Now This’ (ECM), and tied in with the celebration of his eightieth birthday. On this new trio outing the line-up is repeated with Marc Copland on piano and Joey Baron offering fine drum accompaniment.

Peacock as a leader differs markedly from the more conventional trio insofar as individuality is positively encouraged among the three musicians rather than elongated collective performances as with Evans, or more latterly with say Brad Mehldau. This results in a less fluid sound as a whole, though on occasion the trio gel wonderfully and this is where the music works best. An old-school 1960’s feel permeates the blues-inflected ‘Rumblin’, that could almost be a trio variation reading of Ornette Coleman’s opus, ‘Ramblin’, and is equally as compelling, with some lovely percussive work from Baron. Equally, the trio excel in providing a complete reworking of the classic evergreen (no pun intended), ‘Blues in Green’, which here altogether eschews the main theme and instead lengthens out the notes, with an immediate bass solo. The piece is virtually unrecognisable and morphs into an entirely different, but nonetheless interesting creature.

By contrast, the trio operate individually on a number of pieces, as on the lengthy bass intro to the opening number, ‘Contact’, or other compositions such as ‘December Greenwings’ and ‘Empty Forest’, and frankly this writer struggled to identify and empathise with this type of approach. As ever, a warmth of sound for which ECM is rightly famed. The ten page booklet contains a plethora of colour photos and discographical information, but no liner notes.

Tim Stenhouse

Gary Husband ‘A Meeting of Spirits’ CD/DIG (Edition) 3/5

Pianist Gary Husband devotes an entire album to interpreting the music of John McLaughlin, though in reality six of the numbers are Husband originals and presumably meant to convey the spirit of the guitarist. The pianist has a close connection with McLaughlin insofar as he has performed with him as part of the Fourth Dimension band for some thirteen years, and, in addition, has recorded and toured with the NDR Big Band, ECM musician Enrico Rava, and Lenny White.

One question that needs to be asked is whether the compositions lend themselves to this kind of minimalist treatment? Against this, one could argue that it brings out different aspect of the numbers and that McLaughlin himself has not been averse to re-interpreting other musicians’ compositions in the opposite direction, most notably in the case of his album of Bill Evans pieces.

With that in mind, the listener should adopt an open-minded approach to this present project. Interestingly, the compositions that most stood out to these ears with those of Husband’s own and, maybe, that should not come as too great a surprise since he has the clearest mind of all on what he seeking to communicate. Some of the interpretations are quite bleak in tone, as with ‘Spirits Opening’, and one qualification to the endeavour is that it is a reflective reading of McLaughlin, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all, but some fans of the guitarist may have other expectations. Of the Husband originals, this writer enjoyed the two part ‘Lotus Feet Reflections’, and reprise, and in a similar mood, ‘Song For My Mother’. The Indo-jazz fusion side to John McLaughlin’s work is only represented by ‘Alap’, though interestingly the fusion era is most effectively conveyed by a Husband original, ‘Joyful’, that features a strong Latin-vamp and comes across as being influenced by the 1970’s sounds of Chick Corea.

The recording originally came out on a limited edition US only CD back in 2005, but this new version has been properly re-mastered with an entirely new packaging. A worthy project and maybe another on the music of pianists/keyboardists from the 1970’s era would make for a fitting follow up.

Album Launch 20th October Kings Place, Hall Two, London

Tim Stenhouse

travelling the spaceways since 1993