Independent German label ACT is celebrating twenty years of existence and in order to showcase its talented acts has decided first of all to release this single CD anthology of some of the most memorable musical moments. Pride of place probably goes to the band which has done more than any other during the last decade to promote the label, EST. The title track from ‘Gagarin’s point of view’ is at once a sumptuous and refined illustration of the trio at their best and the brand new unreleased album ‘301’ (see review) a reminder of their talents. Another trio worthy of inclusion are that of Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu, French accordionist Richard Galliano and Scandinavian pianist Jan Lundgren. ACT have made a virtue out of bringing together out of the ordinary musicians in seemingly unusual musical contexts and the ‘Mare rostrum’ album that this trio recorded became something of a cult hit in France with ‘The seagull’ being the number highlighted here. A more coontemporary trio has been that of French guitarist Nguyên Lê, bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons and percussionist Minu Cinelu. Collectively they offer the enthralling piece ‘Idoma’. Fusing jazz with other musical genres has been a trend that ACT has pioneered over the past two decades and arguably one of the most convincing has been the meeting of jazz with flamenco and more generally Spanish rhythms. Two volumes subsequently have been released, ‘Jazzpaña’ and ‘Jazzpaña II’. From the former ‘Tangos’ harks back to the 1970s with a big band accompanied by Al Di Meola on electric guitar while Gerardo Nuñez and ace pianist Chano Dominguez combine on ‘Calima’ for the latter. Vocalists have not been forgotten on the label and two fellow Swedish singers in particular have regularly been recorded. Rigmur Gustaffson offers ‘Close to you’ with Jacky Terrasson and trio while Viktoria Tolstoy contributes ‘Love is real’. If one had to single out one musical instrument on which ACT has excelled with new artists, then it would have to be the piano. Here young American pianist Yaron Herman performs ‘Heart shaped box’ and elsewhere German Bugge Wesseltoft and Pole Leszek Mozdzer exemplify their mastery of the ivories. It is a pity the likes of Vijay Iyer and Gwilym Simcock do not get a look in here, nor the superb Jan Johannson re-issue, one of Europe’s all-time great pianists. Perhaps a separate anthology devoted to new and recognised pianists is in order. Otherwise an excellent overview of one of the up and coming labels. Watch out for the double live CD of ACT performers which is imminent. Tim Stenhouse
The annual overview of modern ragga sounds continues with this mini chronicle of the contemporary reggae scene. Some of its premier practitioners are present including I Octane who delivers a staccato rhythm and vocoder vocals on ‘Informer a work’ and Gappy Ranks who offers two songs with ‘Money out deh’ being a possible reference to the current social and financial woes affecting the entire planet. A second contribution by Gappy is something of a departure from previous projects and is deep into dancehall territory with minimalist accompaniment. More social concerns are expressed by Stylo G on ‘Call me a yardie’. In general, however, catchy rhythms and punchy lyrics are the characteristic of modern ragga and this is no better exemplified than with the lo-fi instrumentation and repetitive riff of ‘Settle down’ by Mavado. Subtle this is not, but if you requirements are strictly dancefloor action, then this ticks all the required boxes. This contrasts with the 1980s style use of synthesizers, vocoder vocals by Khago who offers call and response vocals in the intro to ‘Turn up di ting’. An accompanying DVD is part video promotion of the singers featured on the CD and part interviews with musicians and for the latter, the thoughts of Gappy Ranks are most interesting. Tim Stenhouse
Here is an unexpected treat for fans of the superlative trio formation from Sweden that transformed the way we view the classic piano trio sound and attracted an audience way beyond the confines of jazz untile the untimely death of its leader, Esbjorn Svensson. This release is in fact only part of music that was recorded in studio 301 in Sydney, hence the title, during an Australian tour by EST. It is certainly no left over session and compares favourably with the very best of the trio’s output. Some of the raw energy that was present on other albums is still there, but the overriding ambience here is one of reflection with an immediate intimacy created as on the opener ‘Behind the stars’. Three lengthy compositions weight in at over ten minutes and include the most conventional sounding piece ‘The left lane’ where each member of the trio has the opportunity to stretch out over the repetitive, yet seductive rhythm. One of the key album numbers is ‘Inner city, city lights’, a brooding piece with beautiful playing from bassist Dan Berglund, and which incorporates some truly atmospheric electronic programming from Svensson. Most experimental, but all too brief, is ‘Houston, the fifth’ while for minimalist vision the second part of ‘Three falling free’ features what amounts to a virtual bass-piano duet on ‘The childhood dream’ with delicate drum rolls nonetheless emerging from the background. A strong release, then, and we look forward to possibly more of this material being issued.
Here is the much anticiapted album from keyboardist Jessica Lauren who has featured on so many other musicians albums and live performances ranging from jazz-funkster Tom Browne and jazzy soulstress Jean Carne to the blues-gospel hues of Barb Jungr. A foretaste emerged in early spring with the excellent latin-influenced instrumental ‘Mr. G’ from the latest Frerestyle compilation, but what is refreshing about this latest project is that one can hear Lauren perform almost exclusively on acoustic piano. The opener ‘White mountain’ which is something of medium-paced Latin shuffle with a simple but catchy piano riff sets the tone with the two percussionists David Gallagher and Paul Gunter embarking on some fine experimentation in a classic ‘montuno’ percussion workout. If anything the Latin Jazz flavours are quite understated on ‘Vaya con dios’ with the subtle use of strings supplied by the Wrecking Crew while the initial 12” single ‘Happiness train’ to promote the album featuring the vocals of dancefloor diva Jocelyn Brown is more blues-inflected than soulful disco, but works all the same. For much of the albums pieces, Jessica is content to blend in to the overall sound rather than dictating and when she really does start to solo, it is in a gentle manner and with a simple (but never simplistic) approach. The Latin feel is reflected in the creative late 1950s art cover on the CD which harks back to Cal Tjader and Mongo Santamaria albums on the Californian Fantasy records label. Tim Stenhouse
On their latest album ace Malian duo are not necessarily breaking any new ground, but have wisely decided to stick with the previously the winning formula of mainly French lyrics (with the noticeable inclusion of English gradually slipping in to appeal directly to a young rock audience), driving musical accompaniment of Malian inspired blues and simple lyrics that are easy to relate to and instantly catchy. Possibly best of all is the blues feel that is constant throughout ‘Oh Amadou’ with lead vocals from the male lead as well as harmonica while the other obvious contender for most compelling number is the politically charged lyrics of ‘Africa mon Afrique’ with an undercurrent of Afro-Beat horns. Guest appearances include contemporary French new wave rock singer Bernard Cantet, formerly lead with influential 1980/1990s group Noir Désir who have now disbanded, and he seems to revel in the new musical universe, and contributes vocals on four songs and performs on guitar elsewhere. Scissor Sisters band member Jake Shears appears on the uptempo ‘Metemya’ offering vocals in English while Amp Fiddler contribute on the blues guitar driven ‘Wari’. A misguided attempt at pop-rock on ‘Dougou badia’ falls short of expectations and such blatant attempts at entering the charts are best avoided by a duo such as Amadou and Mariam who are fully capable of reaching a wider market on their own terms. A confirmation of their existing talents rather than a major departure. Nonetheless possible new ground for future releases can be found on the pared down closing song ‘Chérie’ which is a much needed illustration of the more reflective side to the duo’s repertoire. More of this side on album, please.
Cape Verdean singer Nancy Vieira is one talented young singer with a very promising future and this stunning album could prove to be one of the surprise hits of the summer. Vieira’s delivery is that of understated passion and she has been surrounded by some of the cream of Cape Verdean instrumentalists, who compliment the singer’s approach to perfection, and critically among the best songwriting talents also with three songs from Mário Lúcio and two from Teofilio Chantre apiece. The opener ‘Maylen’, with its relaxed vocals and sensitive guitar and percussive accompaniment, is a strong contender for the most compelling album number, but is only one of a host of outstanding compositions on offer. Arguably the Afro-Cuban influenced and guitar led ‘Trubuco’ is the pick of the bunch while the light Brazilian-style samba ‘Nhara Santiago’ with delightful flute intro and cavaquinho background is another strong contender. What comes across from this recording is that Nancy Vieira has listened to a wide range of musicians and singers and there are even echoes of Brazilian songstress Elis Regina on the quasi-bossa (in terms of the sue of guitar and vocals) of ‘Ninguém é di ninguém’ on which Vieira displays some lovely ad-libbing as the song develops into a gentle samba in the second half. Only on ‘Brasil (nos sonho azul)’ can a parallel be made with other Cape Verdean singers, here the obvious comparison being that of Cesaria Evora. The album is already picking up plaudits in the French media and they were first to spot the mercurial talents of Cesaria Evora. A fine new talent to be reckoned with. Tim Stenhouse
If blues is not really your bag, think again for what we have here is predominantly acoustic folk-blues with a difference. The Heritage Blues Orchestra are a ten piece band that are overwhelmingly American in terms of line up, but with a Franco-American production team, and this gives the album a more historical feel on the rich blues tradition and a nice balance between acoustic and electric approaches to the genre. A killer acoustic tune is the terrific trombone-led version of ‘C-Line woman’, which Nina Simone once performed so wonderfully, but here with the gorgeous vocals of Chaney Sims on lead and some fine call and response background vocals into the bargain. Slide guitar and harmonica combine well on the gentle paced ‘Going uptown’, another acoustic number with some nice brass work. Standards include compositions by Son House, Muddy Waters and Leadbelly no less and for the former a storming version of ‘Clarksdale moan’ features some impassioned male lead vocals while Muddy’s ‘Catfish blues’ is given the Chicago electric treatment with the orchestra in full flow. Early blues from the field holler are present on a mournful interpretation of ‘Go down Hannah’ that is captured beautifully by Chaney Sims. More acoustic folk-blues emerge on ‘Big legged woman’ and on ‘Chilly Jordan’ while electric blues surface again on a co-written Eric Bibb song ‘Don’t ever let nobody drag your spirit down’. This may be too late for this year’s Blues Awards that have recently taken place, but will surely be a prime contender for folk-blues album for 2013. Tim Stenhouse
Certain parts of Africa tend to predominate in European hearts and minds when it comes to the musical output of the continent and so it is pleasing to know that one label, Lusafrica, has strived to promote some of the lesser known countries and artists, particularly (though not exclusively) from the lusophone-speaking part of Africa such as Angola and the Cape Verdean Islands. Operating out of Paris, Lusafrica has had its pulse on some of the key historical musicians as well as some of the potential stars of the future. They are showcased here on this generously timed compilation which is an ideal way to discover some of the less publicised sounds. Among the major names Angolan singer Bonga is probably the longest serving musician on the label here (though not the oldest overall) and he offers a typically breezy number with ‘Kaxexe’. Congolese (formerly Zaire) crooner Wendo Kolosoy has been plying his trade since the 1950s and if it is classic soukous you are after with stunningly beautiful harmonies, then Yesiba banganaga’ will tick all the required boxes. Cesaria Evora needs no introduction and some of her early back catalogue has recently been re-issued via Lusafrica. However, here she pairs up with upcoming singer Lura, also from the Cape Verdean islands, and together they combine on the excellent ‘Moda bô’. One of the joys of anthologies is to make new discoveries, and on this CD there are some fine new names to unearth. Gabon is virtually unknown to all but a few, yet Pierre Akadengue is truly a seminal figure in the development of modern African music, having studied at the Sorbonne, and using his knowledge of poetry to become one of the foremost singer-songwriters in his native Gabon. His contribution with ‘Afrika Obota’ is a compilation highlight and surely his classic 1974 album ‘Nandipo’ should be due for a re-issue at some stage. Strictly speaking Reunion is not on mainland Africa, but Nathalie Nabiembé can be immediately forgiven because she offers a real change of atmosphere with the accordeon and vocal only ‘Ttangza pa tro for’ sung in Creole and ideally one would like a whole CD devoted to this fascinating island. Singers from Chad are seldom heard because a combination of continuous internal conflict and strife have rednered any semblance of a commercial music industry impossible. However, Mounira Mitchala is a very talented young singer who delivers the beautiful intimate sound of ‘Al sahara’ and there must surely be other musicians of standing who deserve to be recognised outside this nation. One quibble with the packaging and notes. While the overall visual and sound quality is excellent with clear presentation of which albums individual songs emanate from and even pictures of CD covers, there is only the most basic of information on the artists themselves and that is a pity. One would like to know more about music from Chad, Gabon, and the island of Reunion to name but threee countries showcased here. Elsewhere it is unclear among other artists precisely which nations they originate from, especially from the Maghreb and neighbouring countries, and there should be greater attention spent on imparting this essential knowledge to the listener and reader. Otherwise some gorgeous music and new styles to discover.
A new name to this writer, South African singer-songwriter and guitarist Vusi Mahlasela has a definite folk-blues sound to his approach, though thoroughly grounded in South African music, and has paired up here with ace blues singer-songwriter-guitarist and all round world music aficionado Taj Mahal who undertakes overall production duties as well as guesting on a couple of numbers. The result is a wonderfully cohesive and relaxed sound, and an album that just may emerge as one of those burner releases that slowly but surely becomes indispensable summer listening. An obvious single is the opener ‘Say Africa’ which has a catchy mid-tempo beat and gospel-inspired background vocals. More intimate is the folk-blues song ‘Woza’ where Mahlasela begins singing in one of the traditional South African languages before shifting into English in the second part. This song has on old-style township feel and is another winner. For a change in ambience, look no further than the shuffling ‘Ro yo tshela kae’ which is an uplifting song complete with gospel vocals. Indeed a gospel atmosphere reigns over the duet number with guest singer Angélique Kidjo on ‘Nakupenda Africa’ which is a breezy, percussion-led piece. It has to be said that Taj Mahal, acting as producer, gives an extra dimension to this album and with results like this, he ought to produce more. His sensitivity to marrying traditional African rhythms with a touch of African-American folk and blues is exemplary. With Paul Simon touring the UK this summer to revisit the seminal ‘Graceland ‘album, Vusi Mahlasela would make the perfect accompanying artist to start off an evening’s proceedings. Expect bigger things from this gentle voiced singer. Tim Stenhouse
Benin born, but now long time Paris based, Angélique Kidjo has become both an established and well respected singer and one who is versatile enough to handle both a pan-African repertoire as well as some old and contemporary standards. On her latest release, which is a live studio recording before a select audience in Boston, she demonstrates just what a well rounded musician she has developed into. On board for proceedings are a crack regular band that on this occasion includes jazz bassist Christian McBride with Richard Bona and Branford Marsalis guesting on individual numbers, and the substantial vocal talents of Dianne Reeves who duets with Kidjo on three songs. Of her regular songs, which the singer tends to write or co-write, the mid-paced rhythm guitar and brass on a southern African flavoured ‘Kelele’ works extremely well as does the gospel-laden ‘Afrika’. Kidjo even hints at the great Miriam Makeba on ‘Batonga’ which is the most convincing of the uptempo pieces. However, where Angélique Kidjo really comes into her own is on the thoughtful and extremely creative interpretations of some classics that are imbued with new African flavours. This is the case of the Gershwin brothers ‘Summertime’, which here is utterly transformed into a call and response number in the first part with an African female choir and starts off with minimal accompaniment before evolving in the second half into a gentle mid-paced song. This makes a pleasant change from the usual interpetations. Equally impressive is a take on the Western classical ‘Bolero’ by Ravel here renamed ‘London Ravel’s bolero’. It is sung partly in one of the African languages that Kidjo is conversant with before Marsalis adds some gorgeous soprano saxophone. If anyone believed that world roots and jazz beats cannot combine, they ought to give this album a serious listen. Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption song’ receives a southern African gospel take which builds from acapella vocals from Kidjo into a fully orchestrated piece while Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move on up’ is sung in African vernacular in the chorus and in English for the rest. Dianne Reeves and Kidjo come together for an uptempo Afro-groove version of the Stones’ ‘Gimme shelter’, which is an unusual setting for Reeves, but she is more than up to the task. Elsewhere Kidjo duets with pop singers Josh Gruban and Ezra Koenig to good effect. There is an imminent single UK tour concert in mid-May at the RNCM in Manchester with two July dates in London as part of the River of Music festival. If this album is anything to go by, the live performances promise to be something special. An artist at the top of her craft. Tim Stenhouse