Helsinki based sextet Soft Power, release their second long-player, Brink Of Extinction. Since their self-released debut, “In a Brown Study”, drummer Mikael Jurmu has augmented the line up of Antti Vauhkonen (alto saxophonist/flautist), Staffan Södergård (Rhodes piano), Otto Kyrklund (guitar), Iiri Tulkki (bass) and Lauri Vertanen (tenor sax). This coincides with an evolution to a jazzier and groovier sound hinted at on the more guitar-based psych of their first.
“Brink Of Extinction” is a concept album based on the human threat to the biodiversity of our planet. Indeed, the group pic on the sleeve sees the band in silhouette, teetering on a precipice. It’s heavy stuff! But there’s a positivity in the message and music mirroring much of the recent activism of the climate movement.
The sparse, tentative piano chords of “Awakening” segues into “Brink Of Extinction”, a track built on a groovy rhythm punctuated by twangy guitar and Fender Rhodes trills with swoops of melody from the twin saxes. It succumbs to a dreamy backdrop for the recital of a poem, in Finnish, by Juhana Henrik Harju before a slight return with flute and electric piano solos. This is reminiscent of David Axelrod with its lush but quirky arrangement and cinematic feel. The laid-back mellowness of “Orange Red Yellow” is buoyant on a smooth and consistent bass line followed by the flute and saxophone wash and drips with late 1960s melancholy. All this groove-laden goodness is interrupted by the jerky jazz dance of “The Water Rooms” which breaks into joyous scat-guitar.
The movie soundtrack feel continues on the moody “New Beginning” where piano and horns weave around the walking bassline until solo electric piano sings to the ambient sea waves. With a cheeky nod towards “Naima”, the swagger of the sax, flute, distorted guitar and Fender Rhodes in the epic, “Window Of Opportunity” switches a bustling jazz dance rhythm with improvisations from flute and guitar. The track breaks down to pensive electric piano melody lines which are slowly built on by synthesiser, saxophone and flute. This is a killer track that, for me, hits that often elusive sweet spot between jazz, rock and folk like late-era Traffic could. After its abrupt ending, there’s the brief brass fog of “Final Blow”.
Is this rock or jazz? Mikael Jurmu describes their music as rock with strong ingredients of jazz and free expression which I think this is fair enough. They have clearly identified the free form elements that both psychedelic rock and jazz share and delivered them with a performance that is subtle and organic. The movable sonic textures of the twin saxophones and flutes are beautiful and ethereal. The effect is emotional and exhilarating. I just can’t stop listening to it!
For his fourth ECM album as leader, Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel returns to the trio format, with Scott Colley on bass and Brian Blade on drums. The interplay between the three musicians is especially organic on this recording, helping imbue the trio with its own personal dynamic.
Whilst each of the groups Muthspiel has put together for his previous ECM outings has enjoyed a special rapport, most notably perhaps his previous session featuring pianist Brad Mehldau on “Where The River Goes”, there appears to be more of an intuitive musical conversation going on here which is, after all, what the best trios hope to achieve.
Scott Colley brings a fresh, earthy edge to Muthspiel’s compositions. His connectedness to both the guitar and the drums kind of holds everything together in a subtle, effortless way. But it is Brian Blade’s contribution that is possibly most striking. In a quiet, skillful way, he uses his experience wisely, knowing intuitively what to bring to the tunes themselves. Blade’s own innovative music with his Fellowship Band, alongside his own songwriting skills on the exquisite “Mama Rosa”, make him the perfect drummer to sit alongside Colley and Muthspiel.
Along with the guitarist’s characteristically melodic originals, the trio play a couple of Standards, as well as Muthspiel’s first ever bebop rhythm tune, and a single guitar only piece. The whole album sits together wonderfully well, with the first three tunes featuring Muthspiel on acoustic guitar, with the rest on electric. A hypnotic glow resonates throughout the entire recording, with a crystalline joy emanating from the music being made. Muthspiel’s guitar playing is both creative and subtle, yet punchy and adventurous when required.
From the gorgeously opulent opener “Wondering”, to the gentle and contemplative “Hüttengriffe”, from the engrossing “Kanon in 6/8” to the superlative “I’ll Remember April”, the trio effortlessly speak their own melodically warm and welcoming jazz language. Fluent and inventive, this is a wonderful trio recording that I’ll be returning to time and time again.
Deborah Jordan unveils her new album ‘See in the Dark’ continuing her long-running association with leading future soul label, Futuristica Music.
It can be seen as almost futile to attempt to surmise a career as expansive as Deborah Jordan’s but I’m still feeling compelled to scream about her incredible accomplishments – an artist with a near unparalleled ability to walk within disparate musical realms and genres like her timeless contribution as vocalist for Robert Mitchell’s Panacea or the innumerable collaborations she’s chalked up with artists including Atjazz (‘Let Go’), Unforscene (‘Unbroken’) and Soulpersona (‘Weightless’); her work as part of groups including Sun Circle, pairing Jordan with producer Simon S, Silhouette Brown with Kaidi Tatham and then there are her solo albums ‘The Light’ (2009) and ‘What You See’ (2011) all under the umbrella of Futuristica.
And Futuristica is very much a part of the story here as well – through a team of dedicated, immeasurably talented and unified producers, musicians and vocalists, Futuristica has released genre-defining projects – Simon S’ ‘Music 4 Alternative Souls’ (2018) warrants essential listening as do releases by the Jazz Chronicles and Georgie Sweet.
Deborah Jordan has always been a remarkable talent – her voice is able to capture a genuine, aching sincerity that completely validates her music over the staggering fifteen plus years she has been making music. ‘See in the Dark’ is a further testament to that fact – a great album that, in many ways, runs the gamut of sonic compositions that people have become accustomed to equating with her talents. With production from a dream team assembly of names including K15, Simon S, Tris Browne and Mecca 83, the album boasts varied musical soundscapes like the sweet R&B of ‘You Should Know’, the broken beat inspiration of ‘Stay With You’ and ‘Horizon’, and the harder-edged beats of ‘Machine’.
But there’s little chance of anything on this album resonating with listeners more than the project’s exquisite lead single, ‘I’ll See You Again’. Produced by Mark Rapson, ‘I’ll See You Again’ was written following the passing of Jordan’s mother but is destined to be a song that will be adopted by countless people the world over as a vessel for their own losses and heartbreak. It’s a song exemplary of every one of Jordan’s talents already discussed – a match-made-in-heaven of an awe-inspiring vocal paired with flawless production.
In many ways, ‘See in the Dark’ is the culmination of everything that came before it: an incredibly versatile release that sees Jordan, not only continue to straddle the various styles she’s developed her formidable reputation on but an album that has managed to fuse so many of these elements together into a stunning and cohesive project. As a result, Deborah Jordan has delivered, quite possibly, her magnum opus.
The oud, a sophisticated short-necked lute-like stringed instrument, doesn’t really feature as much as it should in Western music. My first memorable introduction to it was Vishnu Wood’s performance on ‘Isis and Osiris’ from Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda and I also recall Mohammed Ahmed playing in Pharoah Sanders’ group for ‘A Concert For Alice and John’ at the Barbican a few years ago. With some exceptions, the oud player has been a guest musician for more established artists or there to add a little exotic colour.
However, Gordon Grdina’s oud playing on “Safar-e-Daroon” takes centre stage. This is the second release for Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow. It’s primarily a jazz project that utilises Arabic and Persian melodies and rhythms. The five-piece also consists of Joshua Zubot on violin, Hank Roberts on cello, Mark Helias on bass, and Hamin Honari on tombak, daf and frame drum. An all-acoustic set up that suits the oud’s smooth and subtle tone.
And it’s this smooth and subtle tone that introduces this set on the title track, which has three sections. The first is a hypnotically slow solo. Then the pace quickens as oud and percussion lock into an Arabic groove with quality violin and bass solos. Finally, a folky dash with a top oud solo. All instruments burst into the winding and intricate signature of “El Baz” which includes a complex violin and oud duet. A plucked bass pattern kicks off the slower “Mini-Con”, the highlight of which is an intense and exciting violin solo.
On “Calling on You”, a stand out track, the Middle Eastern influences lean pleasingly into free jazz territory. “Shamshir” is a measured return to Arabic roots. “Convergence” is graceful and moving as it builds on the simple melody. On the percussive “Illumination”, the string instruments orbit the muscular rhythmic core. With the strident and joyful “Outsize”, I feel the group comes closest to achieving the ideal of merging East and West. Bowed strings wash over the simple repetitive strummed oud on “Gabriel James”, producing something balladic and beautiful.
The musicianship on “Safar-e-Daroon” is consistently excellent and it’s apparent that there’s clearly a rapport between the players. The album does serve well as a showcase for the oud and also presents some Middle Eastern musical traditions but is not a museum artefact. It is vibrant and avoids feeling academic. Maybe sometimes a little too polished and polite for me, but the strength of this release is on tracks like “Calling on You” and “Outsize”, where the traditional melodies and rhythms act as a springboard towards exciting new ideas and improvisations.
At last, Vibration Black Finger vibrates its dark digit once more. After too long away from the LP format, Lascelle Gordon is back. If you don’t know, Gordon, and VBF, is the epitome of ‘deep’. Look up ‘heavy’ in a muso-indulgent dictionary and you’ll see something like “of great musical and emotional density; thick, deep or substantial e.g. ‘VBF’s music is heavy'”. The very definition. And, now, after 3 years of work, and using recordings from as far back as the 1995 and 2000 vintages(!), he’s back to deliver more of that trademark heavy by the way of “Can You See What I’m Trying To Say?”.
New Life Trio’s ‘Empty Streets’ (how apposite) is the album’s bewitching theme song; an immediate introduction to the overarching mood of this unified soundtrack. It aches with tender yearning and dry desolation. Vocalist Ebony Rose is glorious; godforsaken but defiantly calm in the face of an otherworldly sonic wash of dereliction.
The soundtrack continues through the eastern found-music, waterside buzz of ‘Adrianna’ and the relentless, 10 minute plus, beats-infused, urgent space-bleepery, hip sax breaks/multi-voiced swells and final digital breakdown that is “Acting For Liberation Pt 1”.
The brief but liberating, revitalising piano breaks of (Diana) “Gutkind’s Dream” and “Law of the Universe” (featuring Gordon’s niece’s) lead into the arresting, Marion Brown-introduced “Can You See What I’m Trying To Say?”. It’s a rolling mix of exploratory percussion and digital burps that’s caressed into an introspective, not-quite-comfortable space by a vocal/flute massage and empathic sax meanderings.
“Acting For Liberation Pt 2” picks up where Pt 1 left off. This time an engrossing, statement-making, Maggie Nicholls vocal dynamic offers stimulating relief from the Pt 1 relentlessness: “Centred and strong in a journey in song. Trusting my own sense of right and wrong.”
The piano intro to “Persia and Cornelius” makes the heart swell. It continues and flows, the focus of a touching intimacy where, with windows open and soothing summer breeze wafting, fellow musical mates nonchalantly contribute supportive punctuation.
“The Glory” sonically and ideologically nods to a utopian neo-soul Britain of decades previous. Gloriously sensual and optimistic. “Soul Fire” starts with a piano and violin-enabled spiritual awakening, a compassionate meeting of me and something greater than me. It shifts into a flute and strings-voile-muffled academic discussion about some, probably, questionable behavioural ‘conversion’ treatments consisting of electroshock aversion and hormonal rebalancing. It creates an abrupt, audio vérité pause where peaceful, spiritual indulgence is met with real-world human-led brut; maybe scientific, maybe not, maybe political.
Album closer, “Only In A Dream”, is initially a reflective, portentous Gordon soundscape spiritedly traversed by an impeccable jazz vocal. Then, unexpectedly, riffing piano chords, a tidy, busy beat and a Ken Kambayashi bassline kick in; focusing message and intent, seemingly accelerating to a playful, uplifting, communal, future-facing declaration.
This album is special. Lascelle Gordon’s (first) masterpiece. It talks to me in the way Shepp’s “Attica Blues” does. Less in-your-face and more meandering, of course, but its seamless soundtrack-ness, heightened socio-political awareness and deep spirituality is palpable throughout, as is its undeniable beauty. I feel connected to it and have, as I do with all great and meaningful music, appropriated its meaning and assimilated it in me. We are now one.
‘As always I’ve made a conscious move towards making deep, heavy music’ Gordon says, ‘Music without meaning seems pointless.’ I, for one, can definitely see what he’s trying to say.
The evolution of the Los Angeles-based Stones Throw Records has really been brought into stark contrast with their recent releases, particularly over the last year. Once renowned as being forerunners of the era of leftfield hip-hop that spawned revered projects still celebrated years later including an extensive Madlib catalogue notwithstanding the collaboration with MF Doom in what’s become a cult classic ‘Madvillainy’ (2004, under the joint name Madvillain) or J Dilla’s cherished ‘Donuts’ (2006) which would be released on his 32nd birthday and three days before his untimely passing.
But while other hip-hop labels of this era have now become defunct, Stones Throw was able to adapt and overcome, expanding their catalogue beyond the signature sound it had become noted for and welcoming leftfield and future soul artists into the fold. Aloe Blacc’s ‘Good Things’ serves as a strong highlight, featuring the global success of its lead single ‘I Need a Dollar’, and even looking more specifically at their last few releases: violinist and vocalist Sudan Archives released an excellent project in ‘Athena’, the 80s-styled funk of Prophet’s ‘Don’t Forget It’ certainly warrants mention as does the eclectic jazz of Jamael Dean’s ‘Oblivion’. Which brings us to John Carroll Kirby’s ‘My Garden’.
Serving as his debut album for Stones Throw, the pianist, composer and producer, John Carroll Kirby, has actually found himself in an incredibly prolific period with his debut album, ‘Travel’, having only been released in 2017 through LA label Outside Insight; subsequent releases including ‘Meditations in Music’ (2018, Leaving Records) along with the release ‘Tuscany’ (Patience, 2019) and the free-to-download project ‘Conflict’. Kirby’s talents haven’t just been relegated to his own releases, however, as his skills as a producer, instrumentalist and writer have made their way to projects from an incredibly diverse line-up of acts including Solange Knowles, whose album of last year ‘When I Get Home’ saw a strong contribution from Kirby’s production and writing throughout, as well as further session work for Mark Ronson’s ‘Late Night Feelings’ and last year’s album by alt-pop outfit, Bat For Lashes.
While placing the piano at the forefront, Kirby has channelled his own solo work into exploring numerous themes including peace, hope and even nature. ‘My Garden’ seems to touch on elements of spirituality and a connection to the earth around us while set to sparse, atmospheric production which would almost make match-made-in-heaven accompaniments to the visuals of a Michael Mann film – the filmmaker was famous for tailoring his films into mini love letters to Los Angeles which, at times, it can feel like ‘My Garden’ is inclined to do.
Kirby’s compositions expertly capture this enticing cocktail of influences and experiences which you can slowly underpin through repeated listens resulting in a rich and diverse aesthetic throughout. While certainly different to the music Stones Throw were noted for in the early-00s, the label always waved the flag for innovative LA-based artistry and, with ‘My Garden’, they’re continuing that tradition all these years later.
Prior to the RCA album of 1975, which gathered to the studio the finest of home-grown talents in Henry Lowther, Kenny Wheeler and Chris Laurence, this live concert from Folkets Hus (community centre) Södertälje, Sweden in March of 1974 had already been witnessed in the flesh by, quite possibly, the creme of the Swedish progressive music fraternity. A programme commissioned by Sweden’s Sveriges Radio under the watchful protection of producer, jazz trumpeter and composer, Bosse Broberg, who was head of Sveriges Radio’s jazz programming between 1966 and 1990. With only Mike Westbrook and John Surman travelling to Sweden, it was then possible to tap in to the huge wealth of talent available, while keeping at least travel cost from the UK down considerably no doubt.
Composed and arranged by Mike Westbrook, this live, never before released, ‘Citadel/Room 315’ we have before us, was to indeed pool bright musicians under the umbrella ‘The Swedish Radio Jazz Group’, with an incredible history; Arne ‘Dompan’ Domnérus (alto saxophone, clarinet) had played beside Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones, with a staggering 25 albums under his wing, including Jazz at the Pawnshop, which has graced my own CD collection for a considerable time; Egil Johansen (drums), Bengt Hallberg (piano), Rune Gustafsson (guitar), Georg Riedel (bass), Lennart Åberg (tenor and soprano saxophone, flute) and Claes Rosendahl (tenor saxophone, flute) all of Radiojazzgruppen fame from as far back as 1967, had shared stages with jazz greats Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry, Gil Evans, Thad Jones and George Russell; Erik “Tönna” Nilsson (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, flute) featured on ‘Cubano Be, Cubano Bop’ as part of George Russell’s New York Band back in 1977, the same band that in 1978 featured Americo Bellotto (trumpet), Bertil Lövgren (trumpet, flugel horn), Jan Allan (trumpet, alto horn), Håkan Nyquist (trumpet, flugel horn, French horn), Lars Olofsson (trombone) and Sven Larsson (bass trombone, tuba), with none other than Sabu Martinez, Stanton Davis and Terumasa Hino present while Stockholm resident, Stefan Brolund (bass guitar) had had a stint with Lee Schipper in 1973 beside Ted Curson no less, and Jan Bandel (drums, vibraphone, percussion) was gaining much ground in 1970 as part of several Swedish progressive music groups. It was Stefan Brolund who just two years previous had recorded a live album in Sweden with Gabor Szabo.
It wouldn’t be the first live recording our ears had been granted access; The Mike Westbrook Concert Band had firmly held that door ajar for several years, even before the 1972 ‘Live’ album for Cadillac records, there had been a seven and a half hours long piece at the Guildford Festival back in 1971. He was very much at home in this setting surrounded by, and writing for, large groups of musicians, and indeed some of the top British exponents in Mike Osborne, Alan Skidmore, John Warren and Mike Page too.
Compositions and sequence during the concert were to be replicated on the Phonogram Studios/RCA album with a dramatically scored ‘Overture’ and swinging ‘Finale’ sandwiching nine longer pieces. The studio album, adorned with the brutalist concrete architecture of Leeds College of Music, has an uncanny resemblance to Södertälje’s own Tingsrätt building and where the similarities to the two releases end. ‘Construction’ hurdle steps prog/experimental jazz against the springboard of Bitches Brew where we are reminded that this was at a time when Herbie Hancock was working on ‘Thrust’ and ‘Survival Of The Fittest’ was just around the Headhunters corner – it was at a time of exciting new sounds, it was a creative time under construction, and Westbrook is on the cusp delivering, sometimes funky, always boundary-breaking, sounds that is lead during this truly impressive segment by Surman and Rune Gustafsson – both flourishing throughout the 8min number. Oh to have been at this concert…
Allowing a little respite, ‘Pistache’, from Buckinghamshire born Westbrook is the next movement, where we hear Bengt Hallberg on piano supported by the diversity of the orchestra amidst trombone emphasis, as we move in to ‘View from the Drawbridge’ with the mighty bass clarinet lighting the path ahead. A melancholy soundscape from the orchestra draws us in to each and every beautiful note as it gathers pace and flourishes into one of the stand-out numbers and indeed, the Westbrook writing that we have all grown to admire. The title track, ‘Love and Understanding’, then joins the larger than life party with our friend the bass clarinet. This piece drops back into the funky pace giving some of the classics of the time a real run for their money – a distant cousin at best to the studio version – with horn-led chase scene soundtrack written all over it and where drummer Egil Johansen is more than noteworthy.
‘Tender Love’ bridges the halfway mark where Surman’s Soprano takes centre stage. There’s further beauty here as the song rivets the listener’s attention. I’m reminded at how listening to Stan Tracey’s ‘Under Milk Wood’ first made me feel. A deep musical moment that will see repeated plays. Coincidentally, back in 1968 when Tracey was touring said album, Westbrook was performing live for the first time ‘Marching Song’ at the Camden Festival. It was at that very festival in the autumn of 1974 that Westbrook’s 18-piece band first showcased Citadel / Room 315 on our own shores and where Surman’s solo performance was so good the audience’s applause almost ground the concert to a halt.
‘Bebop de Rigueur’ is a far freer part to this suite with Surman on bass clarinet alongside electric bassist Georg Riedel elevating the jazzier elements prior to ‘Pastorale’ taking shape. The longest of the eleven songs. ‘Pastorale’ allows trumpeter Bertil Lövgren and tenorist Lennart Åberg to express themselves. This is very much the go-to part of the recording with all the elements that make this special combined. ‘Sleepwalker Awaking in Sunlight’ is the perfect compliment with what sounds like the entire orchestra vying for attention only to be impressed further by the ‘Outgoing Song’ as Surman takes up the baritone saxophone and reminds us all of how darn good his playing is.
Westbrook had been part of at least eleven album releases prior to this concert and countless live performances, while Surman (baritone and soprano saxes, bass clarinet) had maybe notched up a few more than that – some weight indeed to carry into this project. One might be forgiven for thinking this concert would have allowed Westbrook to iron out any creases he thought necessary in preparing and executing the studio album on his return to England – not so. The interaction between leader and musicians is miles apart on the two recordings, finding, as I have, the studio album to be better balanced as studio control would clearly allow, and whilst many musicians are indeed involved in both, the studio recording a little crisper, but the flair and energy that flows from this, never before released, live in Sweden concert has spontaneity and freshness in bucketloads, and therefore, in my opinion, a far richer and enjoyable listening experience.
It would be 1977 before Swedish jazz, in the aftermath of the glory days of say the Nalen dance hall, would reap a little money via organisations like STIM (Phono Suecia) and Rikskonserter (Caprice records) and open the famed Fasching club at a buoyant period when venues like Engelen, Stampen, Kurbits, Bullerbyn, Mosebacke and Atlantic featured regular jazz. One might be forgiven for thinking Mike Westbrook had jump-started that in 1973. Gratitude therefore to London label, My Only Desire Records under the baton of Jon Griffiths, for releasing this recording. High praise on their third release and compliments to the wonderful sleeve notes by The Wire writer Daniel Spicer and for Caspar Sutton-Jones’ remastering work at Gearbox Records, which from the original analogue tapes have given us a treasured thing indeed and a must for any record collection.
In these postmodern days, band image is often a pointer to artistic intention. The flyer for Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra might have come from the early 1970s – maybe for the Brotherhood of Breath, or the AACM, or perhaps the 1966/67 Essence of George Russell group that incorporated those pioneers of modern Norwegian jazz: Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen. From that early interest in creating something uniquely Norwegian to today’s crop of creative and talented young players, Norwegian jazz has stood out for its ability to mine the tradition while sounding fresh and contemporary.
So to drummer, composer and super-busy Gard Nilssen’s latest project, his “ultimate dream band came true”, a huge troll of a band featuring no less than three drummers, three double bassists and ten horn players, commissioned for his residency at the Moldejazz festival, premiered on July 19th 2019, recorded and released by the Norwegian label Odin. There is much here that looks backwards to the great free orchestras of the past. The way that the themes are developed from passages of completely free playing is reminiscent of Chris McGregor’s ensembles. The very bigness of the band and the massive sound brings to mind Charles Mingus’ 1972 Philharmonic Hall concert. The comparison is not meant to suggest that this is in any way a retro concept – Gard appears to be paying heartfelt and very noisy tribute to these great groups while staying very much in the here and now.
To do this he has brought together some of the finest young Norwegian players including members of the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra as well as representatives of indie band Broen, new generation outfit Friends & Neighbors and such established players on the scene as Petter Eldh and Per ”Texas” Johansson. Many of these players have worked closely together and there’s clearly an intimate understanding, both within the band and also between the musicians and the composer, that compensates for the potentially unwieldy size and the unusual configuration of the orchestra.
The themes are strong and surprisingly lyrical, and the balance between composition and improvisation is carefully maintained. There is some great soloing – the trumpet on the percussion-heavy drum-fest ‘Bytta Bort Kua Fikk Fela Igjen’ (is that Thomas Johansson or the Swede Goran Kajfeš?), and the powerful tenor sax centrepiece to ‘Bøtteknott / Elastic Circle’ are as good as you’ll hear anywhere in the world at the moment.
What’s exciting is that this powerhouse free-blowing sounds fresh and revitalised at present. What’s not to like when a big band is blasting away for all its worth? The excitement is tangible in the band’s playing and the crowd’s response. The sound recording is beautifully balanced for such a live, large group. It’s a blast! And man do we have some need of a good, head-cleansing racket these days! Pin your ears back and turn up the volume…
Most days I would say my favourite paleta is Chicle, with its bright blue colour and gumballs at the bottom. But sometimes, if I find myself in a sour mood, I’m gonna reach for the Lime. Or, if I’m extra happy, if I have a little extra pep in my step, I’ll probably grab the Pepino con Chile. Luckily the corner store has a freezer full of paletas just in case I’m not sure what mood I’m in. What I do know is, Orkesta Mendoza’s newest release Curandero, is what I’ll be listening to as I decide. With just as many options for just as many moods Curandero, released April 10th, has just what you need for every feeling you’re feeling.
Orkesta Mendoza, led by Sergio Mendoza, straddles more than emotions, they straddle borders. Mendoza grew up on both sides of the US/Mexico border and naturally the music reflects the dual inspiration. Curandero is cumbia and ranchera, it’s boogaloo and rock and roll. Curandero is our paletería where we can open the doors and pick out the perfect accompaniment to whatever it is we are feeling. Do you need to cry? “Little Space” is gonna get you there. Want something to make you happy? Get into “Early in the Morning” or “Paleta”. Feeling especially in love? Get your boo a little “Eres Oficial”. Got an itch to dance? “Hoodoo Voodoo Queen” or “Boogaloo Arizona” are just the thing for you.
Curandero has a little something for everyone and every moment. Sometimes that can be overwhelming like the album can’t decide what it wants to be. Orkesta Mendoza, however, has figured out how to create an album full of distinct moments without sacrificing cohesion. It could be because this isn’t their first ride. Curandero is the group’s third album and the third time is definitely the charm. The previous two albums are also great but with Curandero it feels like Orkesta Mendoza hit their stride, and they just kept going. The multifaceted-ness gives the album authenticity, it sounds like Mendoza is just rocking out to music he loves, which makes listening all the more enjoyable, and who couldn’t use a little more joy.
Curandero is full of guest appearances that really add to the flavour of the album. “Head Above Water” features Nick Urata from DeVotchKa who takes us straight to The Police. Amparo Sanchez hits us with a borderland boogaloo on “Boogaloo Arizona”. Joey Burns, Mendoza’s longtime Calexico bandmate, breaks your heart with his bass in “No Te Esperaba” a Rock n Roll song that feels both distinctly Mexican (probably because it also features Chetes from Zurdok) and distinctly American. “Hoodoo Voodoo Queen” closes the album by transporting you to a rockabilly bar with pompadours, victory rolls and wiggle dresses everywhere you look, just follow the voices of Gaby Moreno, Moira Smilie and Carrie Rodriguez. Several songs, including “Paleta”, “Are We Better Now”, and “Little Space” feature women singing the background vocals. This was such a smart choice; it adds so much texture and depth to the album. It is the attention to details like that and the invitation to emotional exploration that make Curandero an instant favourite.
What better way to kick off a spiritual jazz album than with an ode to the patroness of musicians, Saint Cecilia. First heard on the CD reissue of her 1975 album, Free Spirits, the Mary Lou Williams Trio, consisting of on bass Buster Williams, who celebrates his 78th birthday this month, and Mickey Roker on drums, was her only release for the Danish SteepleChase label, operating out of Copenhagen under the watchful eye of founder, producer, photographer Nils Winther, who began recording performances at Jazzhus Montmartre as far back as 1972 (the club had been recording artists like Dexter Gordon from 1962, a physical release on the SteepleChase label in 1978), with his first release that of Jackie McLean, who subsequently recorded a little over ten albums for the label. Here on ‘Ode To Saint Cecilia’, the bass line from Buster Williams – at a time when Buster was with the New York label, Muse – draws the listener into the funkiest of riffs, and one capitalised by FARS on their track ‘Flying Minds’. A delightful piece of music clearing the way for ten more worthy selections.
There are two distinct points to be made as we savour this eleventh release in this series from London’s Jazzman label; firstly the relative ease at which the original albums could be obtained. This is a wonderfully curated collection that has focused on the quality of the music, and apart from perhaps the Johnny Dyani and Billy Gault releases hovering around the £40 mark these days, everything here could be picked up cheaply. That says far more about the passion behind this, the latest in the series, than some of its predecessors. The second note of importance here is the focus on drummer Michael Carvin, who features on four of the tracks. In 1975 Carvin had already been working with Black Jazz records and went on to work for MPS, Flying Dutchman (notably Expansions with Lonnie Liston Smith), RCA Victor, Impulse! and Strata-East through the mid-late ‘70s, and of course his work with SteepleChase. There was also a stint as a session drummer for (Berry) Gordy/Motown. Michael, quoted as having a “crisp, pressing cymbal, which animates the beat” more recently has worked alongside Marcus Strickland and Dezron Douglas.
Billy Gault’s ‘The Time Of This World Is At Hand’, René McLean Sextet’s ‘Aida’, Jackie McLean and Michael Carvin’s ‘De I Comahlee Ah’, Michael Carvin’s ‘Naima’ and Jackie McLean and The Cosmic Brotherhood’s ‘Camel Driver’ all hit the shelves in 1975, a time when Elaine Brown chaired the Black Panther Party. Gault’s charming vocal provides a platform for singer Ellen DeLeston, who had been working with Norman Connors, to shine. A firm favourite by this writer that will surely now reach new ears. René McLean (son of Jackie McLean and member of Woody Shaw, Doug Carn, Yusef Lateef and Walter Bishop Jr. groups) had but three releases under his own name, with Watch Out being his first. Here he delivers ‘Aida’, with assistance from Buster Williams on bass that overwhelms with the latter use of the bow. Jackie McLean is perhaps the star name on this gatefold double vinyl release. His various groups over time led to a huge volume of releases, but one has to ask if his 1956 version or Charlie Parker’s original ‘Steeplechase’ had any influence on Nils Winther? His pairing with Michael Carvin on the Antiquity album where ‘De I Comahlee Ah’ has been drawn from joins the party with chanting and dynamic drumming – something more akin to Strata-East than SteepleChase. Incredible.
Ron Mathews’ modal composition, ‘Jean Marie’, from the 1978 Visitation album by the Sam Jones Quintet, features Terumasa Hino on cornet, Ronnie Matthews on piano and Al Foster on drums – names alone would bring on a state of elation for most before the needle even touches the vinyl. Of the selections here, this is one of very few that have lived with me for some years, and one that just about ticks every box. Chicagoan, Jim McNeely and his Quintet’s ‘Tipe Tizwe’ from the Rain’s Dance album had a familiarity about it, but not a song that was instantly recognised. Previously working alongside Billy Hart and John Scofiled, McNeely brings in percussionist Sam Jacobs on African Mbira, giving the audience a taste of Zimbabwe, before it opens further with piano and conga – this piece of music is all about Jacobs. The 1978 version of Witchdoctor’s Son, by Johnny Dyani, John Tchicai and Dudu Pukwana delivers ‘Magwaza’ here, which must shine as a huge selling point on the compilation, supplies us with a traditional piece reinterpreted by Johnny Dyani in all its 13min glory. But it’s not the openness of Tchicai’s blowing that lights up this number for me, it is Dyani’s effective use of bass, Afredo Do Nascimento guitar and the various uses of percussion and African overtones that raise this composition to quite possibly his magnum opus. This was at a time when E.W. Wainwright had put together the African Roots of jazz, a Horace Tapscott/UGMAA talent pool celebrating the bringing together of jazz and African influences.
Terumasa Hino returns with the Ken McIntyre Sextet on ‘Miss Priss’, from Introducing the Vibrations album, with percussionist/drummer Andrei Strobert, Andy Vega on congas, and pianist Richard Harper. Multi-instrumentalist, McIntyre, for his fourth outing on SteepleChase, had emerged from The New York Loft Jazz Sessions, a series of performing spaces as an alternative to the commercially driven venues, with his Sextet and brought in Alonzo Gardner for this recording. Bassist newcomer Gardner would go on to work with Dollar Brand alongside Vibrations man Andrei Strobert but who here holds his own behind the more established group members. Another face on the Loft scene was vibraphonist Khan Jamal, whose ‘Dark Warrior’ from the 1984 album of the same name is a far more modern affair with a bass reminiscent of Tony Dumas’ style. In fact, it is the unison between Rickey Kelly on Vibraphone and Dumas on bass on ‘Danakil Warrior (1979)’ that first sprung to mind when initiating the first spin ‘ever’ of ‘Dark Warrior’ – I will be pursuing that theory further during the lockdown. Hearing this SteepleChase piece for the first time is an incredible feeling indeed.
And so to the final two selections. Michael Carvin’s ‘Naima’ with Sonny Fortune and Cecil Bridgewater rounds off the CD release, while Jazzman’s double vinyl option inserts the Billy Gault composition ‘Camel Driver’ by Jackie McLean and The Cosmic Brotherhood from the New York Calling album, an illuminating set which features Billy Skinner on trumpet over the just short of 9min composition. One would need not to own a turntable to bypass this attractive choice, which truly embellishes the whole project. One which has been curated with adventure, knowledge, passion and understanding.
What is most remarkable here is, after revisiting the previous Spiritual Jazz catalogue, I have enjoyed this new release far more as a whole. It has flowed through each song with respect for the music therein and for the SteepleChase label, a label I must admit before now has been more about the last twenty years for me than anything during the ‘70s – although I am staring at a Frank Strozier Quintet album as I type! – and in respecting the label would encourage more to delve into their huge catalogue and investigate names like Ronnie Cuber, Billy Harper Quintet and Coronarias Dans, to name but three.