Kit Downes Trio ‘Quiet Tiger’ (Basho) 4/5

This new album is the follow up to the ‘Golden’ debut set that was nominated for a Mercury prize and introduced the pianist to a significantly wider audience than might normally be the case for an emerging jazz talent. It is not in fact a trio album in the strictest sense of the term since tenorist/clarinetist James Allsopp and cellist Adrien Dennfield feature on some pieces. Possibly the album’s greatest selling point is the beautiful ballad ‘With a view’ which shimmers with tension and Downes plays a rolling piano style that conjures up both Keith Jarrett and Abdullah Ibrahim. The pianist sets off on an extended excursion on the be-bop influenced ‘Frizzi pazzi’, so titled because of a sweet that is popular in the South Tyrol. Throughout this album there is a slightly menacing tone and indeed brooding atmosphere, and this is no better illustrated than on the tribute to the legendary folk-blues singer-songwriter simply titled ‘Skip James’.
Here Downes delivers a truly soulful performance. Equally haunting is ‘Attached’ where the quintet is heard to its full potential with cello and bass clarinet combining beautifully. Freer form sounds emerge on ‘Wooden birds’ and ‘The wizards’. A varied set, then, and one that confirms that the initial interest in Kit Downes’ musicianship was not misguided, far from it. An extensive UK tour began in late February and does not end until mid-May.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘The Breaks’ 2CD (Harmless) 4/5

A second compilation of selection from Dean Rudland carries on from the above with a slightly more up-tempo representation of grooves which is even more diverse than the first and covers old school funk, the alternative side of disco, organ-groove jazz, early rap and even some blues. Thus Instant Funk’s epic ‘Got my mind made up’ sits next to the Mohawks skinhead reggae-funk classic ‘The champ’ and Cymande’s ‘Bra’ rubs shoulders with the Last Poets’ ‘Run nigger’. Rare groove discoveries include the surprisingly good 1980 Philly magic of ‘Hurry up this way again’ from the Stylistics and Aaron Neville’s New Orleans soul on the Allen Toussaint penned ‘Hercules’. The left-side of disco gets a look in with Liquid Liquid’s underground hit ‘Cavern’ and the Salsoul heaven from Gaz on ‘Sing sing’. Smoother grooves from Philly International and Hi are showcased as on the previous compilation and they include Al Green’s wonderful ‘Love and happiness’, the O’Jays laid back ‘Cry together’ and Jean Plum’s seminal ‘Here I go again’. Even more esoteric is the pared down funk-blues of Lowell Fulsomn on ‘Tramp’ and some instrumental jazz-dance magic from Funk Incorporated on ‘Kool is back’. The majority of these originals have been sampled by contemporary hip-hop and rap artists and the rhythms will be instantly recognisable to most. Again terrific value for money with informative sleeves notes and all the basic details you require on the individual tunes.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Mellow Mellow’ 2CD (Harmless) 4/5

Dean Rudland has forged a reputation as one of the most trustworthy among compilation specialists and this latest offering does little to dissuade one of his discerning ears. The focus here is one the more laid back of classic soulful sounds, but in the process it straddles eras (early 1970s through to mid-1980s), labels (Hi and Philly International being particularly well represented) with the odd surprise into the bargain. It has to be said that some of the songs have featured on previous compilations and long-term collectors should expect some repetition, but that does not detract in any way from the quality on offer. Rare grooves from Andrew White with ‘I’m so much in love with you’ and Lou Courtney with ‘What do you want me to do’ impress and when Jae Mason’s ‘Cloud of sunshine’ and Maryan Farra add Satin Soul and their superb living in the footsteps of another girl’ are thrown into the mix, you know you have an excellent set of tunes to select from. Rudland is clearly a devotee of the Philadelphia sound and at some point it would be nice to hear an entire compilation devoted to this city. In the meantime here the Jones Girls’ ‘This feeling’s killing me’ and Teddy Pendergrass’ ‘Heaven knows’ are just a couple of the Philly-based grooves on offer while Jean Plum’s Hi 45 ‘Look at the boy’ is certainly worthy of your attention. At seventy-five minutes per side it is also unbeatable value for money.

Tim Stenhouse

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo ‘Cotonou Club’ 2LP/CD/DIG (Strut) 4/5

This is definitely a trip down memory lane with a super 70s retro Afro-funk feel permeating the entire album, though it is in fact a brand new recording. A storming opener in ‘Ne te fâches pas’ (’Don’t get angry’) starts proceedings off on the right footing (albeit one with a large James Brown imprint) and there is delicate rhythm guitar work that reminds one of Ghanaian highlife. West African grooves surface also on the excellent ‘Pardon’, which could just as easily be from a Nigerian band. With its driving bass, repetitive riff and chorus, the mid-tempo number ‘Von vo viono’ is a terrific slice of 70s Afro-funk. However, it would be wrong to portray the Orchestra as merely Fela disciples. In fact there is a good deal more variety and even subtlety in other songs. This is illustrated by the gentle paced intro to ‘Ma vie’ which builds up into something one might have expected to have originated from Zimbabwe, or South Africa. Latin vibes predominate on ‘Koumi dede’ with its incessant piano vamps underneath a basic Afro-funk structure. This has the potential to be a dance floor smash. Guest vocalist Angélique Kidjo alternates on lead vocals on the rapid and ultra funky ‘Gbeti madjro’ while Fatoumata Diawara contributes vocals on the brassy hues of ‘Mariage ou c’est lui’. Even Franz Ferdinand gets a look in on ‘Lion is burning’. All in all a great return to form and one looks forward immensely to the forthcoming tour.

Tim Stenhouse

Neil Cowley Trio ‘Radio Silence’ (Naim Jazz) 3/5

On this third album from Neil Cowley and his regular trio, British influences are very much to the fore with some of Cowley’s pianistic favourites added into the mix. These include the pop/rock inspired ‘Hug the greyhound’ and the blues inflections of ‘Desert to Rabat’ that is evocative of a desert journey. Sometimes the tempo is just a little too rapid for the listener, becoming too immersed in technique rather than allowing the musicality of the trio to shine through and this can sometimes alienate the listener as on ‘Gerald’. Elsewhere the building of tension into crescendos as on the lyrical ballad ‘Radio silence’ is inspirational and hints at greater heights for the trio. There are elements of EST in the lengthy ‘Portal’ and of Brad Mehldau on the nice mid-tempo shuffle of ‘Stereoface’ while the intriguingly titled ‘French lesson’ actually has a Spanish-tinged feel akin to that created by Chick Corea. An extensive UK tour will begin in May and into 
June.

Tim Stenhouse

Dave Stapleton Quintet ‘Between the Lines’ (Edition) 4/5

Pianist Dave Stapleton has on this third album weaved an intoxcating mix of post-bop and avant garde influences into a cohesive project that combines melodic compositions and yet is challenging in equal measure. He excels on ballads such as ‘Dry white’ which illustrates the maturity of the band and has something of a mid-1960s Blue Note feel to it (the album cover itself surely is inspired by the inconic covers of the legendary label). Indeed the classical romanticism of Ravel allied with early 1970s Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett are clearly major inspirations for Stapleton while saxophonist Ben Waghorn seems to a devotee of Wayne Shorter from his Miles quintet and Blue Note tenures. In contrast, ‘Socks first’ is a piece that takes a leaf out of McCoy Tyner’s modal innovations and even hints at a Spanish influences while ‘Doc Lightyear’ takes the quintet into altogether different territory with New Orleans and even freer elements evident. Even a bop tribute on ‘Wig wag’ transforms itself part way through into something stylistically more leftfield. The extensive airing of ballads and all self-penned compositions is a refreshing change and this is certainly in general a cut above the usual session and bodes well for the future. In particular one should applaud the extent to which Dave Stapleton at times plays a supportive role to enhance the overall quintet sound. Definitely a group to watch out for.

Tim Stenhouse

Miles Davis ‘Walkin’ (Jazz Wax Records) LP 4/5

During the mid-1950s before signing for Columbia, Miles Davis cut a series of highly acclaimed recordings for Prestige and ‘Walkin’ was one of the earliest of these. The line up oscillates between two formations on either side of the vinyl. For the first Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke make up the sumptuous rhythm section with Lucky Thompson on tenor and J.J. Johnson on trombone. For the second side the rhythm section is repeated, but the seldom heard alto saxophonist Dave Schalk replaces the two other reedmen. The album became famous for the extended version of the title track which would go on to be a Davis staple tune well into the 1960s and for a nice rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Blues’ n’ boogie’. Equally of interest is Miles’ own composition ‘Solar’ which was an indication of the compositional genius that was to follow. While not quite on a par with ‘Cookin’ and ‘Relaxin’’ when Miles had truly found a solid rhythm section to play repeatedly with in live and recorded settings, ‘Walkin’ is nonetheless an album of consistently high standard and one on which Davis’ distinctive trumpet sound was well on the way to being formed. Original sleeve notes from renowned critic Ira Gitler place the album and artists featured therein in their rightful historical context.

Tim Stenhouse

Charles Mingus ‘Mingus Ah Um’ (Jazz Wax Records) 5/5

From the iconic cover through to the music itself, everything about this album exudes sheer class. One of Mingus’ best ever line-ups featured Texan tenorist Booker Ervin, altoist John Handy and Shafi Hadi, trombonist Jimmy Knepper and a stellar cast of other musicians to boot. Perhaps in the pantheon of Mingus recordings, it is important to note that this was one of the first albums when a variety of self-penned compositions by the leader were aired in one concise project. These include the wonderful ‘Better ‘git it in your soul’, the original blues-inflected version of ‘Goodbye pork pie hat’ that would be covered by countless musicians (most notably a folk guitar interpretation from Bert Jansch and John Renbourn) and the immaculate ‘Fables of Fabius’ which has been covered almost as much as the previous aforementioned numbers. Mingus was clearly in reflective mood at the time and devoted a composition apiece to Jelly Roll Morton, ‘Jell Roll’, and Charlie Parker on ‘Bird calls’. There may well have been a third homage on ‘Open letter to Duke’, but critics have subsequently cast doubt as to whether the duke in question was indeed Ellington, though in terms of big band influences the former was a seminal guide and inspiration for Mingus. The extensive original liner notes are befitting of the first album that Mingus would record for Columbia. This would form part of a duo during his short-lived residency for the label comprising also ‘Mingus Dynasty’ and came after the Atlantic recording, ‘Blues and Roots’. ‘Mingus Ah Um’ is quite simply a great place to start a Mingus collection.

Tim Stenhouse

Duke Ellington ‘Original Album Series’ 5CD Box set (Atlantic/Rhino) 3/5

The gargantuan output of Duke Ellington spanning several decades was bound to include some missing items and this box set brings together some of the sides that the Duke recorded for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label during the 1960s when the orchestra was consolidating its reputation as well as recording some fine suite material elsewhere, notably ‘Far East Suite’ and ‘His mother called him Bill’. One surprise omission given the above, is that the now hard to find ‘Sinatra and Ellington’ collaboration album is not included here and that is a great pity since it is largely Ellington material which Sinatra did not attempt to replicate in a live setting. However, there is plenty to keep Ellingtonia fans content and one of the welcome inclusions is the ‘Jazz violin session’; between Duke and Stéphane Grapelli from 1963, that only surfaced in 1976. This is very much Grapelli as a soloist and not with string accompaniment and as such the tunes sound totally fresh as on ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ and ‘In a sentimental mood’. Another treat in store is actually the Ellington take on the ‘Mary Poppins’ film soundtrack, which has the Ellington band in prime form, especially on ‘A spoonful of sugar’ and this really works in a jazz context just as John Coltrane reworked ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ which also features here in a big band treatment. Two albums which go hand in hand are ‘Ellington ‘65’ and ‘Ellington ‘66’. Taken together they are a bit of a mixed bunch with an eclectic selection of songs that at worst enter easy listening territory on numbers such as ‘Blowin’ in the wind’, but on the other hand more reflective treatment of pieces like ‘Danke schön’. Ideally they should have been coupled onto one CD with extra space left for other recordings. One re-issue that could certainly have been dispensed with in this collection is ‘Will big bands ever come back’, an ill-advised attempt by the Duke to recreate the swing era of other bands. Quite why anyone would have wanted to hear this is beyond this writer, but it does not fit well with the work he recorded as a whole and is an instantly forgettable part of an otherwise highly distinguished discography. it would have been far better to include ‘Afro-Bossa’ which hinted at some of the other longer suite works that Duke was involved in during the same period. Clearly some of the projects here were commercially driven, hence the short timing on many of the numbers. No extra tracks or additional notes to place the albums in a historical context.

Tim Stenhouse

Ray Charles ‘Original Album Series’ 5CD box set (Atlantic/Rhino) 5/5

Grouped together in slimline fascimile sleeves, Rhino have handily assembled five of the classic Ray Charles albums into one set. Chronologically this covers the period roughly from 1956 through 1962 when Charles was re-writing the music history books and crossing boundaries with ease. The first of these, ‘The Great Ray Charles’, captures the leader in jazzy mood (and an excellent pianist he was too) over a series of standards of which Horace Silver’s ‘Doodlin’ impresses and new original compositions such as ‘Sweet sixteen bars’ with David ‘Fathead’ Newman wailing on tenor saxophone are just as good. This captures merely one aspect of Charles’ repertoire to perfection. A year later the live recording, ‘Ray Charles at Newport’ surfaced and this introduced us to the call and repsonse vocals of Charles with the Raelettes. Both are outstanding on ‘The right time’ with New Orleans style piano and impassioned vocals from Marjorie Hendricks and on the seminal 
‘I got a woman’. The classic cover photo from Lee Friedlander says it all really and the music would provide the blueprint for singers from Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland to Stevie Wonder. Going further in time by one year, ‘The Genius of Ray Charles’ from 1959 is a big band outing with Charles in his prime on, ‘Let the good times roll’ and ‘Deed I do’, accompanied by an all-star cast of jazz musicians and it was this fuller orchestration that Ray Charles would use throughout the 1960s and into the next decade. Charles entered the new decade in 1961 with another winner of an album, ‘The Genius sings the Blues’, with electric piano, Raelettes and orchestra all on board on a judicious selection of orginals and blues standards with ‘Early in the morning’, ‘Hard times’ and ‘The right time’ just some of the highlights. One of his very best albums without question. Finally ‘The Genius after hours’ which, although indicating a 1961 date, is actually from the same earlier session as ‘The great Ray Charles’, but is no less enthralling for all that. Classics from the great American songbook abound with ‘Ain’t misbehavin’ and ‘The man I love’ stand out here. A pity that the album, ‘Hallelujah, I love you so’ was not included to complete the set of Atlantic recordings. For jazzistas, possibly the only sides missing that would have been worthy of inclusion are ‘Soul Brothers’ and ‘Soul Metting’, both collaborations with vibist Milt Jackson and available elsewhere as a 2CD set and the country-soul sides are also generally available collectively and separately. While there is still a major gap in the Ray Charles discography with the recordings on his own Tangerine label missing on CD, this box set neatly groups together some of the essential sides and at a significantly fairer price than some of the previous weightier tomes. For anyone wishing to start off a Ray Charles collection that covers soul, blues and jazz, this is the first port of call. No extras, or additional sleeve notes.

Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993