Chicagoan Kurt Elling has devoted his latest album project to an exploration of the music that was composed in one of America’s most prolific and instantly recognisable song factories, the Brill building in New York. Accompanied by his trusted arranger and pianist Laurence Hobgood with John McLean on guitar, Kendrick Scott on drums and percussion, there are some interesting additions to the personnel, not least bassist Christian McBride turning up not in his usual capacity, but as a distinctive hipster voice while reedist Ernie Watts adds some fiery solo and ensemble work .’Ol Blue Eyes himself Frank Sinatra immortalised the song ‘Come fly with me’, but Elling’s interepretation is taken at a slower tempo with lovely use of horns and this must surely rate as one of the finest alternative versions out there. A nice departure from the rest of the album is the mid-tempo groove of ‘I’m satisfied’ with a hammond organ solo and the soulful tenor of Ernie Watts. This writer would like to hear a whole album in this vein. Street dialogue features on a pared down take on ‘On Broadway’ which makes a nice contrast with the George Benson version. Only the take on Carole King’s ‘So far away’ is not wholly convincing. A faithful rendition of ‘A house is not a home’ is probably the album’s strongest ballad while the Sam Cooke evergreen ‘You send me’ receives an unusual time signature and guitar riff that is impressive. While one looks forward to hearing Elling perform some of his own songs again for just a little of his eclecticism has been lost here, within the confines of the song format herein the singer fully achieves his aim of stamping his own authority on the repertoire, breathing new life into the classics and that is some accomplishment. Tim Stenhouse
Jamaican chanteuse extraordinaire, Marcia Griffiths has become something of an elder statesperson (though still youthful looking) in the world of reggae since she has been performing at the top level since the 1960s, beginning at Studio One under Coxsone Dodd, then as a dynamite pairing with Bob Andy earning much deserved pop chart success in the UK, enjoying a critically acclaimed solo career and, if that was not enough, an integral member of the I-Three’s in Bob Marley’s band. Suffice it to say, Marcia Griffiths has a huge back catalogue on which to dip into for this series of duets with singers old and new. The early part of her career is covered by a quartet of numbers that emanated from that most prestigious of Jamaican labels and hit factories, Studio One. The classic riddims have been updated, but the essence has been retained and rightly so. Thus ‘Love is a treasure’ is performed with ‘Exco Levi with a remix version of offer and the horn phrasings are instantly recognisable on this superlative interpretation. A reprise of ‘Really together’, this time with Bunny Rugs. works a treat and is another album highlight while ‘I see love’ where Marcia is paired with Buju Banton features dub effects. Griffiths has always had an ear for a catchy melody and the opener to CD1 is just that with ‘Automatic (Keeping it real)’ being an obvious candidate for a single, possibly flipped by one of the aforementioned Studio One tributes. The singer also has a good ear for other performer’s songs and duets with the late Gregory Isaacs on an update of his epic ‘Number one’ with a lovely contrast in the pair’s vocal range. Of a trio of duets with soulful reggae superstar Beres Hammond, ‘Live on’ is the cream of the crop while country flavours are alluded to on a version of ‘Stand by your man’. Candi Staton recorded a memorable soulful take on this and Marcia Griffiths is clearly a devotee of soul singers. In a roots vein, the duet with Richie Stephens (sounding very Dennis Brownesque) on ‘A true’ is extremely strong and they should seriously consider working together on a larger project, so well do their voices blend together. Of course no musical set of duets would be complete without some reference to Marcia’s tenure with Bob and the I-Three’s and there is a fine roots take on ‘Loving Jah aka Forever loving you’ where the chanteuse hooks up with Tony Rebel.
Other collaborations, too numerous to mention, include singers of the calibre of John Holt, Freddie McGregor and there are some fine all-female pairings, most notably that with Queen Ifrica on ‘Round and round’. Expect this to stay on the hi-fi system for many a month. Tim Stenhouse
For readers relatively new to the ECM back catalogue, some of the building blocks of modern European jazz were built by the label during the 1970s with the ‘European quartet’ headed by Keith Jarrett being among the pantheon of all formations. Albums such as ‘Belonging’, ‘My song’ and ‘Nude Ants’ make for essential listening, but what a treat to have unearthed a live recording of the quartet from 1979 in Tokyo. The extended pieces are on average over ten minutes in length with two compositions weighing in at over twenty minutes apiece. The rhythm section comprises Palle Danielsson on bass and Jon Christensen on drums with Jan Garbarek doubling up on tenor and soprano saxes and occasionally on flute. Fans of the musicians will be in their element here for several of the pieces are beautifully contructed melodic numbers such as ‘So tender’ with a delightful duet between Jarrett and Garbarek. It is a pity that thus far the pairing have never recorded an entire album of duets, so ideally suited are they to one another. Garbarek’s voice in particular is at it’s most plaintive here. A gently swinging ‘Prism’ is helped along by the floating accompaniment of the rhythm section while ‘Chant of the soil’ features some latinesque piano vamps from Jarrett and a groove-laden bass and drum ensemble marking this out as another stunning performance. In general the shorter (still over seven minutes long for the shortest) pieces are the most effective with ‘New dance’ a polyrhythmic vehicle for drums and Jarrett engaging in some of his characteristic humming, though this does not detract in any way from the lyricism on display. As one might expect of an informed Japanese audience, very attentive throughout, and even deferential to the quartet with polite applause between pieces, but complete silence during the performance itself. A fine addition to our knowledge of one of the classic jazz quartets of all time. Tim Stenhouse
Former Bill Evans trio bassist Marc Johnson had a meteoric start ot his career performing in such esteemed company and has since performed with the who’s who of contemporary jazz greats that takes in Stan Getz, Charles Lloyd, Gary Burton, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano among many others. Eliane Elias is a Brazilian pianist who hails from the megatropolis of Sao Paulo and first came to attention internationally as part of the acoustic formation of Steps Ahead before becoming a leader in her own right, recording on virtually all the most prestigious jazz labels and currently on Blue Note. The musical and personal partnership between the co-leaders was cemented with the 2005 recording on ECM, ‘Shades of Jade’, but this new recording, partly in trio format, partly as a quartet with tenor titan Joe Lovano, surpasses anything previously and is a prime contender for the year’s finest jazz recording. The empathy between the musicians is self-evident, but it is the sheer all-round musicanship that is outstandingly good here. An immediate album highlight is the floating ‘Sirens of Titan’ which begins gently enough as a piano-saxohpoine duet, but suddenly shifts up a gear or two and Lovano in particular is at his most lyrical here. Middle Eastern hues are inventively conjured up on Elias’ composition ‘One thousand and one nights’ with blues-inflected tinges on piano while Elias even sounds a little like Tord Gustavsen on the quartet rendition of ‘When the sun comes up’. It is left to the glorious ballad ‘It’s time’ performed by the quartet to demonstrate how effortlessly this formation interacts and the pure simplicity of approach is at times breathtaking. Compositions are divided between five from Elias, three from Johnson and two jointly written and there is a total absence of egotism on this album which simply enhances the general feel good factor of the listener. Exquisite sound recording which is as good as anything this writer has heard on ECM. Tim Stenhouse
Here is an explorative journey that seeks to examine the musical connections on either side of the Mediterranean and is, at the same time, a showcase for some of the artists on the German label. Musicologist Dr. Bertram Nickolay has put together a well thought out and eclectic selection of songs that really works with the varied musical styles blending together. Some are old friends such as Marseilles based pianist Maurice El Médioni whose Algerian pied-noir origins offer some delicious Mediterranean-style jazz with a Latin tinge on the trumpet and vocal accompanied piece ‘Ya maalem/Kelbi razahi’. This contrasts wonderfully with the twenty-first century world fusion of Watcha Clan whose ‘Im min’alu’ marches to drum beats and Balkanesque brass. This is an unusual mix with vocals in Arabic, yet it still sounds totally convincing. Eleswhere there are some interesting discoveries. Samy El Bably is a trumpeter who plays in an atmospheric fashion with minimalist accompaniment and heavy percussion on the piece ‘Ana bamasi al haba doll’, which also features clarinet and accordion, a lovely combination. For rootsy grooves, arguably the most diverse and satisfying track of all is by the legendary Klezmatics who, on ‘I ain’t afraid’, perform in a very different vein from per usual with a folksy intro and gospel-inspired lyrics complete with drum roll. At some point Piranha would do well to put together a separate anthology of the band. For emotive female lead vocals, look no further than the opener by Salwa Abou Greisha with a mournful intro on ‘We daret el ayam’ which is augmented by a string-led orchestral ensemble. In fact the only gripe with this compliation is that contains no proper inner sleeve notes and this is one occasion when informative details on the relatively unknown musicians would have proven useful. The digipak format is neatly presented with an evocative silhouette of the Pharoahs. A fine illustration of how East and West can be perfectly compatible from a musical perspective. Tim Stenhouse
Cellist Matthieu Saglio is a French native who has moved ship to Valencia in Spain where he has been an integral part of nuevo flamenco group Jerez Texas who are an acclaimed unit (feted no less by the Left of centre newspaper El Pais) in the country. However, this new solo project marks a departure stylistically and bears comparison with the wonderful African-fusion album by Vincent Ségal and Ballake Sissoko ‘Chamber music’ of a few summers ago and if that whetted your appetite, this new album surely will too. The cello is ideally suited to small group collaborations and this is where the album scores triumphantly with West African kora player Abdoulaye N’Diaye performing throughout with Carlos Sanchiz ably assisting on an array of Spanish accordion, harmonica and keyboards. There is pan-Mediterranean feel to the opener ‘Lima’ wth a lovely combination of accordion, horns and vocals that gives the piece something of a Brazilian feel. Arguably the catchiest track of all is the uplifting collective vocal led ‘Fallou Gallas’ which could well become a hit on world roots radio programmes if given sufficient airplay. Underlying it all is some fine accordion and cello soloing. Saglio has, on previous albums, devoted his attention to Arabo-Andalusian and Mediterranean music and a potential future project is, perhaps, hinted at on ‘Miba’ with fine fender keyboards. Blues inflections predominate on a delightful mid-tempo number ‘Malengue’, a distinctive African-inspired piece with N’Diaye once again taking lead vocals. If one had to look to other cellist for seminal influences, then the late great Pierre Fournier and even the mighty Rostropovich might be obvious choices. In terms of fusing musical styles, though, Yo Yo Ma is probably a more influential figure. A real slow burner of an album that deserves your attention on the musician’s own label (http://www.matsag.com/). One of the year’s most intriguing discoveries. Tim Stenhouse
Formerly a singer in James Brown’s crack 1970’s formation and a lead singer in her own right, recording a Brown produced album for Salsoul, Martha High has all the right credentials to record a classic soul album with funk-tinged grooves and this is exactly what she conjurs up here, with an authentic 1960s feel provided instrumentally by the excellent extended band Speedometer. The selection of songs veers towards classic covers with a few originals composed by guitarist Leigh Gracie. One of the best numbers is the delightful take on ‘Sunny’ which commences as a laid back jazzy trio version with double bass, but then suddenly veers off in an altogether different direction and in fact morphs into a Latin jazz version with a Jimmy Smith inspired hammond organ solo. Almost as good is the James Brown penned ‘No more heartaches’ which is an uplifting slice of 1960s soul which is heavy on brass and rhythm guitar. Gritty soul is the order of the day on the reprise of the Don Covay classic ‘You got it’ while soul-blues territory is entered on ‘I’d rather go blind’ which Etta James famously made her own. While High does not possess the same vocal range as James, this is nonetheless a fine alternative with understated vocals that impress. Martha High possesses a warm, gentle voice that immediately endears the heart and soul, and crucially she does not over adlib which makes for a refreshing change. The seldom covered ‘Trouble Man’ from the epic Marvin Gaye film soundtrack receives a faithful rendition complete with subtle electirc piano and vibes. Of the new songs, ‘No more worries’ with its heavy bassline and rhythmic guitar riffs fits in well with the rest. Overall a fine album that showcases one of soul’s unrecognised artists. This album will go a long way to putting that lack of exposure to right.
Norwegian Christian psychadelic folk jazz may sound a long-winded recipe for a musical mismatch, but when the eclecticism of approach is handelled by group That’s Why, the result is instead a magnificent slice of left-field music that is cohesive in nature. The brainchild of two musicians with a love of jazz, pianist Jan Simonsen and flutist Per Arne Lovold, the group differed from their peers in Norway in that the sound they created was a good deal more refined while at the same time they experimented in fusing folk and gospel hues, albeit of a uniquely Scandinavian variety. The one English language song is taken from a William Blake poem, ‘Children of the future age’, and floating guitar and flute combine to typify That’s Why’s essentially folk-jazz feel throughout this compilation. The influences upon That’s Why were wide ranging, from the psychadelic rock of Blood, Sweat and Tears to the pop-folk of Peter, Paul and Mary, with harmonies accompanied by a jazz setting that remind one of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross minus the scatting. These harmonies are showcased to the fore on the exquisite vocal and flute duet on ‘Vem kan sägla’, arguably the strongest number on the anthology. More avant-garde avenues are explored on ‘Den oppstadne’ with an extended keyboard solo. As per usual with Jazzman releases, extremely informative inner sleeve notes explaining the rationale and trajectory of the group are supplied and tell you just about everything you could possibly wish to know about them.The black and white cover and label conjurs up the 1960s perfectly, just like an Ingmar Bergman film from the same era. At forty-four minutes one could wish for a few more examples from the two albums that the group recorded. Nonetheless this is music that has been seldom heard outside Scandinavia and even then to a restricted number of aficionados. That Jazzman have brought the group’s repertoire to our attention is something we should be eternally grateful for.
To some alto saxophonist David Sanborn represents a form of smooth easy listening radio jazz that is anathema to the spirit of jazz innovation. However, that would be to seriously misread a musician whose personal listening tastes take in Bill Evans and Jim Hall, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Me’Shell N’dege Ocello to name but a few. In fact Sanborn has anothjer side to his repertoire that would flumux many a jazz purist, performing regluarly at the avant garde Kintting Factory in New York with the likes of Pheeroan Aklaff, Tim Berne and John Zorn while to take just one album, the debut for Elektra, ‘Another hand’ featured musicians of the calibre of Bill Frisell, Jack de Johnette and Marc Ribot. On this new anthology of David Sanborn’s work, there is something to appeal to all kinds of jazz fans, though it is fair to say that the 1980s period was one of consolidation rather than major exploration. For those new to the saxophonist’s music, arguably the strongest album of all on this offering are the cuts from the 1992 album ‘Upfront’ where Sanborn fused his natural love of the blues with some gritty, funky grooves that stand the test of time. His long-term arranger, bassist and producer Marcus Miller (Luther Vandross and Miles Davis among his other production duties) is on fire here and ‘Snakes’ is a fine’ illustration of the album’s burning hues while a reworking of the Latin soul classic from Joe Cuba, ‘Bang Bang’ will surely thrill. Elsewhere the early 1980s were a time of Sanborn combining his fiery alto with acoustic instrumentation and this works particularly well on ‘It’s you’ and is a deeply lyrical piece with a Stevie Wonder style synth bass. Likewise the 1978 track ‘Lotus blossom’, a Don Grolnick composition, shows another aspect to Sanborn’s craft with guitar and acoustic piano to accompany the leader. That David Sanborn can play beautiful melodies is beyond question with the 1983 Marcus Miller collaboration on ‘A tear for Crystal’ a fine example. Slow burning funk ditties are never too distant, though, and ‘So far away’ illustrates this to perfection. Where the anthology does very into muzak territory is on the collaborations with Bob James who pioneered his own form of fusion jazz (and has been heavily sampled by rappers in the process) and thankfully these cuts are best avoided with Al Jarreau lending some much needed variation on ‘Since I fell for you’. In general one might question whether this anothology fully reflects the more eclectic approach and diversity of styles adopted by Sanborn in recent years and the answr, perhaps, lies in record companies happy for him to retain his loyalty base. A live recording of his more adventurous material is thus in order. In the meantime this anthology provides a pretty accurate overview of his career to date. Tim Stenhouse
Pianist-singer Diana Krall has attempted various stylistic changes over the years and this rootsier retro feel is an inspired choice that actually sounds authentic and convincing. Bringing on board roots producer T-Bone Bennett was a step in the right direction and a crack band that includes among others guitarist Marc Ribot lends a cohesive air to the album more generally. Krall has gone back into the jazz tradition, but has added folksier elements that make this recording sound both contemporary and classic at the same time. The opener ‘We just couldn’t say goodbye’ features some delicious barrelhouse blues piano playing that suits Krall to perfection and provides plenty of scope for her to improvise. The singer excels on the slower material such as the delicate ballad with guitar intro that is ‘Just like a butterfly that’s caught in the rain’, or on the vocal and acoustic guitar duet on the title track that is a
lovely departure from the rest. Arguably one of the album’s most compelling songs is the haunting tune ‘Prairie lullaby’ while ‘I used to love but it’s all over now’ is deeply melodic. That is not to say, however, that the band cannot produce music in an uptempo groove and the foot-stomping ‘I’m a little mixed up’ is testimony to their talents in this respect. Fine all round performances allied to the old time feel make for a strong album overall that has been performed with conviction. This is a welcome addition to an ever expanding repertoire for Diana Krall. Tim Stenhouse