Kit Downes and Tom Challenger ‘Vyamanikal’ CD (Slip) 4/5

kit-downes-tom-challenger“Vyamanikal” is the Slip debut of organist Kit Downes and tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger. Recorded in five Suffolk churches during 2015, the duo explore the native nuances of the instruments, combining an ethereal contemplative approach with the unique atmosphere of their surroundings. Named after the ancient Sanskrit term for flying machines: Vaimanika Shastra- this album is the pair’s follow up to 2012’s “Wedding Music”. Whereas their first release appeared to be focussed on melody, this recording is most definitely more left-field, celebrating music-making at its most meditative and transient. It’s impossible to listen to this music without visualising the surroundings in which it was performed and recorded. The natural ambience and acoustics created within the churches enable Downes and Challenger to use the spaces they work in to sketch intimate improvisations around a theme or musical thought, thereby capturing a perfect balance between the three main ingredients; the room, the instrument, and the performer. The results are often spellbinding, with Downes teasing seemingly ancient or scarcely heard sounds from the organs, and Challenger zoning in on the feel and mood of the sound, creating pastoral and subtly innovative soundscapes that embellish and further open up the textural heart of the music being created.

The music on “Vyamanikal” takes on an almost spiritual reverence. On the opening two numbers, “Apicha” and Bdhak”, it’s as if the musicians are feeling their way in, taking on board the depth, history and possible meaning of where they are and what they are doing there. The sounds are minimal, with low organ drones, swirling pumps and dissonant noises being coaxed from every sinew of the instrument. Reflective in nature, the listener can hear bird-song in the distance and at times it is difficult to identify which sound is coming from which instrument. Yet all of this adds to the coherent and rewarding experience one gets from simply listening with an open mind, allowing the colours and textures of the music to flow effortlessly through the body, shimmering, glowing and constantly changing. There is little pattern or form here, it just is what it is. A somewhat darker mood ensues with “Sa”, with deeper, more powerful sounds being coerced out of the organ by Downes. Challenger responds accordingly with the gift of intuitive thought emanating a spacial awareness as his sax melds time and space with sound. These themes of thoughtful interaction continue on “Vistri” and “Jyotir”, the latter benefitting from some wonderful sustain from the organ as Challenger’s sax deftly skips a quiet, mesmeric dance of its own. “Maar-ikar” heralds the return of bird-song, thoughtfully mixed into the living, breathing universe of the internal mechanisms and workings of the organ itself. The duo signs off with “Nya-aya”, which once again focusses the mind on the subtleties of sound, thought-provoking and mesmeric in its own splendid acoustic setting, almost ambivalently solemn, yet with an undercurrent of sincerity and an elusive, profound meaning.

Downes and Challenger take their innovative approach to making music to Manchester on Thursday 28th July 2016. As part of the Manchester Jazz Festival, they will be performing live at St. Ann’s Church. I truly wish I could be there, as I would imagine hearing their music performed in such a setting will be a beautiful thing to behold.

Mike Gates

Matt Lavelle’s 12 Houses ‘Solidarity’ (Unseen Rain) 5/5

matt-lavelles-12-housesOn first glance of the press release of this album, I groaned at some irritating art-ese (“harmolodious” being particularly virulent) and didn’t look forward to the listen. As is often the case, however, press releases can be as elegantly written as a Mills and Boon.
Matt Lavelle’s group on 12 Houses is a disparate bunch. Lavelle on cornet accompanied by baritone and alto sax, bassoon, piano, banjo, ute, mandola, vibraphone, bass clarinet, violin, bells, drums, cello and voice. Not a standard line-up, by any means, and it pays off. The six tracks are a mixture of landscapes and character pieces, to me at least. The simplest I could signpost it to is somewhere between Górecki and Polar Bear, at moments classical and at others frenetic improvisation. Chamber jazz-core? No, that feels restricted. I think it best that I describe each track in turn, to emphasise the vignette feel of this record.
The opener, Solidarity, feels like an anthem for a secret Dadaist society gone to ruin. A strong lamenting march for a head leads to an elongated sax led meltdown to a grinding cello finish and a return to the main motif. A lone member of the society sifting through minutes of meetings, broken bottles and dust hanging in the air.

Second, Brooklyn Mountain, is a frenzied rush about New York with all the cars and concretia, bars and bustle. This one barely lets up; flashes of nights in venues, traffic and human movement. Very vivid, and just about the right length.

Third is Knee Braces. An odd violin heavy track that could pass as a bluesy nocturne, moving from arpeggios to sinister screeching. The vibraphone and voice give this a chilling melancholy, like a drunk skeleton or a neglected child in a dreary house.

Fourth is Cheery Swing, offering some drum bending and searching cornet improvisation, moving into a more structured and standard free-jazz second half. It doesn’t really feel that cheery, more like a tunnel of love ride operated by Miles Davis (drunk) and Earl Scruggs (the banjo solo is an album high-point for me).

Fifth is a charming bassoon piece called Moonflower Interlude. This is a track that swerves between the wistful, woody tone to the upper ranges of the instrument. Many characters could be painted to this solo.

Finally, Faith is a largely piano-centric piece with a fantastic central motif. At first, the chord sequence is almost as sickly as any Ivor Novello, but at the halfway mark a spine of hand claps drag it into an ecstatic, celebratory swing. A wonderful ending.

This is what I saw when I listened; landscapes and scenes and characters. This record will inevitably infuriate those who are not fond of “twiddle” (for want of a better word), but I feel this is a varied and very interesting blend of styles, themes and tonal scenarios. It doesn’t outstay its welcome either. 12 Houses is definitely worth a punt if you enjoy freer jazz, unusual pairings and evocative playing.

Thomas Pooley-Tolkien-Sharpe

Renaud ‘Renaud’ (Parlophone/Warner France) 4/5

renaudFrench music has been blessed with at least two major exponents of folk-derived music who have been inspired in part by the songbook and outlook of Bob Dylan, even if subsequently they have proceeded to chart their own distinctive and highly individualistic career paths rather than being a mere clone of the 1960s icon.
One of these is Maxime Le Forestier, who travelled to the United States in the post-Woodstock era, and recorded the early 1970s anthem, ‘San Francisco’, that launched his career. The other, younger and emerging figure some five or so years later, is Renaud [Séchan] and it is the latter who is the primary focus of this album review. Renaud has never been shy of addressing deeper social issues and first came to prominence in the late 1970s with a song devoted to life on the French equivalent of a council estate, but in the suburbs, entitled, ‘Dans mon H.L.M’ and incorporated inverted slang on ‘Laisse-béton’ well before any French rappers came onto the scene. He achieved more mainstream success in the mid-1980s with ‘Morgane de toi’ before a lengthy absence while he struggled with a long-term alcohol addiction

This new album marks his first in six years, but here is back in form, fully lucid, and in both reflective and melodic mood throughout and the listener is very much the beneficiary. In his 2002 album ‘Boucan D’enfer’ Renaud covered similar social ground with the hit single, ‘Manhattan-Kaboul’. that made a direct parallel between the daily lives of inhabitants on the streets of these two cities, and one would do well to reflect on what humanity has in common rather than what appears on the surface at first sight to divide us. With most recent events in Nice still fresh in the memory, a key song on the new project is ‘Hype Cacher’ that without any great fanfare or grandiose statement, quite simply, but expertly in verse, recounts the events at a Paris supermarket in November 2015 and ends with,

I want to dedicate this poem to them
To tell them that they are dear to us
And that we will never forget them

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, a second song, ‘J’ai embrassé un flic’ (‘I embraced a cop’) recounts the mobilisation of ordinary French citizens to protest peacefully against the violence committed in the name of a religion that rejects such action. Renaud is known for his left of centre stance and that makes his act of hugging a member of the police force all the more poignant.

For those wishing to explore in greater depth the historical tradition of the French chanson, Renaud is a direct descendent of that tradition, particularly influenced by Brassens, but even, perhaps, by Charles Trenet, who was capable of composing a masterpiece such as ‘Douce France’ during wartime conditions and is strongly recommended to neophytes. His song,’ Boom’ was used as the introductory music to the Euro football tournament by ITV. The song ‘Les mots’ finds renaud in more philosophical mood and emphasizes the sheer joy of writing and making words come to life that is his trademark. His style has changed little and on ‘Petit bonhomme’, the accompaniment of accordion and acoustic guitar (Renaud invariably performs on stage with a guitar) has given his music a timeless quality that his fans admire.

To non-French speakers, the chanson tradition may seem impenetrable, but it can be at once melodic and message-laden and worth making that extra special effort to investigate further. Renaud is an integral part of that tradition and it comes as little surprise that at a time of great anguish and uncertainty, Renaud, while never promising any easy solutions, continues on his own path as a wordsmith of distinction. Even the gravel-inflected voice cannot take that quality away from him. A splendid return to form. Those wishing to intensify their interest in Renaud would be well served investigating the 2002 album, ‘Boucan d’Enfer’ and for an overview of the first decade, ‘Le meilleur de 75-85’ (Polydor France, 2009).

Tim Stenhouse

John Coltrane ‘The Atlantic Years in Mono’ 7LP/6CD Box sets (separate) (Atlantic/Rhino) 5/5

john-coltrane-monoTo tie in with what was last weekend the forty-ninth anniversary of the death of John Coltrane on 17 July 1967, this new box set, available in either vinyl of CD format, sheds further light on the Atlantic period from a monaural perspective. In a digital driven world, some might question the wisdom of a format that precedes even stereo, but it was the case in the 1950s that the original jazz recordings (and this extends to pop/rock artists – witness the Bob Dylan box set of his mono recordings for Columbia) came out in separate mono and stereo formats, and Blue Note devotees for one invariably argue the merits of the mono over the stereo sound. Whatever your sound preferences, and having a specialist vinyl turntable will certainly aid the listener in debating the relative merits, this retrospective allows us to re-examine a critical period in John Coltrane’s career. It marks a decisive break with the previous Miles Davis quintet recordings on Prestige, or the former’s sideman duties elsewhere. What emerges from the Atlantic albums as a whole is Coltrane the leader and composer with a distinctive vision that would mark an imprint on the history and evolution of modern jazz.

The CD set divides up the original albums and adds a sixth CD with all the bonus tracks that came out on the original CD re-issues. Informative inner booklet notes by renowned jazz writer Ashley Kahn amount to a de facto historiography of the Atlantic record label and situate Coltrane’s contribution in a wider context. By 1955, Atlantic had established itself as a label that specialised in blues and rhythm and blues music and secured major success with Ray Charles, Bug Joe Turner and La Vern Baker. It had already entered into the jazz field via traditional New Orleans and jazz-related musicians in cabaret such as Bobby Short. However, the Ertegun brothers, Ahmet and Nesuhi, were looking for an inroad into modern jazz and found comfort in the recordings of Lennie Tristano and Jimmy Giuffre, plus the west coast style. Coltrane represented a serious statement of intent, and as it proved, the move from Prestige to Atlantic was propitious for everyone. As Kahn states, ‘It [Atlantic] was the right label with the right artist at the right time’.

The first album remains the opus here for ‘Giant Steps’ was and is an album of distinction and it is noteworthy that the modal flavours of ‘Kind of blue’ are not in evidence. Instead the cascading ‘sheets of sound’ of the title track unfold and never cease to be a thrilling experience. Performed at breakneck speed, ‘Mr PC’ is another all-time great number that Lambert, Hendricks and Ross attempted a successful vocalese version of, while the deeply romantic ‘Naima’ reflects the balladry prowess of the tenorist. Recorded in the same year of 1959, ‘Bags and Trane’ is a favourite of this writer and strikes just the right balance between modern bop and blues-soaked grooves, and has something of an extended and relaxed jam session feel. It would influence countless tenor and vibes collaborations, from Dexter Gordon to Joe Henderson with young kid on the block Bobby Hutcherson, and ‘Bags and Trane’ sounds nothing like the west coast combination of Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.

Coltrane was in a rich vein of form and recorded three further albums in 1960, one of which, ‘The Avant Garde’, only surfaced in 1966. Of the other two, ‘Coltrane plays the blues’ is a wonderful example of how ‘Trane could easily adapt to different contexts with soprano saxophone making a welcome appearance, and in this instance to a more blues-inflected environment. The languid blues, ‘Mr. Syms’ continues to impress with repeated listens and is reflective in tone. Arguably strongest of all is ‘Mr Day’, with a memorable bass line intro and stunning tenor and piano work in tandem. It is the gradual build up of tension in ‘Mr Knight’ that stands out with restrained tenor and piano to be gin with before reaching a smouldering intensity of heat, and with polyrhythmic accompaniment from master drummer Elvin Jones. Hinting at external influences, ‘Olé Coltrane’, features just three pieces, but what sumptuous music for all that! African hues are conjured up on the relaxing mid-tempo number, ‘Dahomey’, and would follow on from other pieces such as ‘Black Pearls’ and ‘Bahia’ that revealed a passionate interest in acquiring a deeper knowledge of the African diaspora in its widest sense. The pièce de résistance is the epic ‘Olé’ that takes up the whole of side one on the original vinyl and this is a brooding impressionistic reading of the Iberian peninsula, like a bull shaping up in anticipation of a fight to the death against a torrero (toreador) in an arena. McCoy Tyner contributes a lovely original in ‘Aisha’, marking him out as a young pianist to watch out for.

A sixth bonus CD assembles the out-takes that did not make it onto the original vinyl, though there is nothing new for those who purchased the individual CD re-issues. Of these, ‘Untitled original’ is most compelling a fully deserving of a title of some description. Only the 1960 recording of ‘The Avant Garde’, now seems slightly out of kilter with the rest and three out of the compositions were written by Ornette Coleman with Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell members of the piano-less quartet with Percy Heath taking care of bass duties, giving this something of a guest appearance feel for the leader.

The question, then, remains of whether long-time fans will wish to pick up the same recordings, if in mono this time round? It will depend ultimately on how complete a picture you wish to carve out of the Atlantic tenure. For those new to Coltrane, this represents an ideal and relatively inexpensive means of acquiring some of his key early period recordings, and even if you have some of the original, or re-issue vinyl, this is a handy way to hear the Atlantic recordings in one digestible whole.

Tim Stenhouse

Rama Dyushambee ‘Orbit in Space’ LP/DIG (Gravitational Encounter) 4/5

rama-dyushambeePeople like me spend a lot of our time searching for that elusive (and near exclusive) record from an artist that no one else has heard of. For some reason, those same people who may have only released one album in limited numbers seem to have one or two dynamic jazz pieces of music on that record which makes the search and ultimately the need for a second mortgage totally justified.
Rama Dyushambee partly falls into that category. His new album ‘Orbit in Space’ seems like a long lost album of years gone by but is in fact a current first time release for the San Diego based vocalist/trumpeter who proudly describes himself as: Visionary, Author, Musician, Identity – Awareness – Sexuality – Spirituality – Relationships Consultant, Story Teller.
The album (which so far has only seen a vinyl release without download voucher) is being marketed as a deep spiritual jazz record with its front space-like cover and sticker saying ‘Space Jazz’. It is in fact a great jazzy, funky & bluesy record.
Mr. Dyushambee’s voice is light but nimble (reminiscent of Bob Dorough, and Doug Hammond) and very musical. The first track is a rollicking jazzy funk number called ‘What’s your Game?’ which will get all but the ardent non foot stomper up and moving to it. This track was side A of a 7” release earlier this year and the clear stand-out cut on this 7 track record.

‘Hey you People’ is a good ol’ fashioned uplifting tune pushing you, me and everyone to not sit around but to get up and do something with our lives. Another big bold jazzy sound accompanies this song with some great horns thrown in for good measure. It’s definitely another song you would want to dance to with a cool piano solo to further tell you of its serious intention.

The last track on side one is an instrumental, showcasing the band (whose names we don’t know). It is a grooving bluesy number featuring piano, double bass, drums and guitar.

Side 2 brings ‘Heal It’ which may have taken part of its name from an album he released in 2003 called ‘Let’s Heal It’. The tempo is brought back up to a nicely progressive pace now. Rama seems to work well with his band as he gives them plenty of space to do their thing and on this track he gives the drummer some, and the drummer duly responds in a creative but subtly nuanced manner. What a lovely balanced jazz track this is – a definite favourite of mine.

‘Git Off’ is a modern-day bop instrumental featuring the full band including the man himself on trumpet.

The final two vocal tracks just further confirm that this is a very capable collection from musicians that know what they are doing, and know how to make jazz danceable and enjoyable without sacrificing its message or the quality of the music.

Sammy Goulbourne