Devoting a whole album to the songs of Bill Withers is no easy task since this songbook has become an integral part of the musical landscape and there is the key question of how do you deal with them differently without losing something of the original brilliance in the process? In the case of José James, he has rightly taken the decision to not tamper too much with the original arrangements and this has resulted in a competent series of covers which, while not bettering the superlative originals, for the lesser known songs at least, has breathed new life into them. Of the absolute classics such as ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and ‘Lovely Day’, how is it possible for anybody to improve upon those beautifully crafted originals? James, for the former, has stripped away the strings and created a more intimate sound with electric piano and given the song a slightly more contemporary vibe, while for the latter, the hi-hat cymbals accompaniment remains. It is on the funkier material where James succeeds best in imparting his own personality on proceedings, as on the understated, ‘The Same Love That Made Me Laugh’, with the subtle use of keyboards and percussion. Likewise, ‘Hello Like Before’ adopts a soulful approach, with an acoustic guitar-led intro and a slight Brazilian undercurrent. Aiding José James in the project are some notable guests including Lalatha Hathaway on vocals, Marcus Strickland on saxophone and Takuya Kuroda on trumpet, while the overall production comes courtesy of artistic label director, Don Was. José James has previously devoted projects to the music of both John Coltrane and Billie Holiday and, while worthwhile endeavours in their own right, one does yearn for the real José James to emerge and one whose jazz and soul credentials combine, for that is surely where his career lies at the intersection between the two.
This collaboration was born of a chance encounter in Germany some eleven years ago when, at the Enjoy Jazz Festival in Mannheim, the festival director invited the two musicians to perform together in a local church. That performance in front of a live audience was duly recorded and the results are now before us. Bass and piano duet albums are few and far between, but there is a clear empathy between Charlie Haden and Brad Mehldau here and they both excel on the evergreen material such as the standard, ‘My Old Flame’, with the now familiar Mehldau device of deconstructing the melody and paring it down to its very essence, taking the tempo all the way down in the process. Inherent in the interaction between the two musicians are some lovely blues infusions, with an extended bass solo from Haden there to delight while Mehldau comps in the background. As a whole, what impresses here is the ability of both musicians to reverse roles, one taking the lead while the other slips back into a supportive background. Another highlight is a gorgeous romantic take on that old chestnut, ‘What I’ll Do’, with supportive bass work from Haden while Mehldau takes off onto an altogether different trajectory before returning to the main motif. In fact, a first meeting between the two dates from 1993 and they recorded along with Lee Konitz at the Jazz Bakery in 1996. From that, a studio trio album for Blue Note, ‘Alone Together’ surfaced in 1997. A separate live trio album featuring Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau and Paul Motion came out on ECM in 2011, entitled, ‘Live at Birdland’. This is an album that has been a long time coming, but is finally here and a real treat given that Charlie Haden is sadly no longer with us.
Following up on a Down Beat winning live album at the Village Vanguard was never going to be an easy task, but singer Cécile McLorin Salvant is not one to rest on her laurels and has opted for a pared down piano plus vocals duo with Sullivan Fortner that once again demonstrates her virtuosity and versatility. The vast potential that was spotted back in 2010 when McLorin Salvant won the Thelonius Monk International jazz competition is now being fully realised. As ever, any album of hers features a judicious selection of quirky standards from the distant and recent past, originals, and on this occasion, more left field offerings that include the songwriting traditions of both Brazil and France.
First off, and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Visions’ is treated as a contemporary ballad with a lovely piano intro which is undoubtedly one of the most successful transposition into a vocal and piano duet. The songwriting duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein serve as continual musical sources from which Cécile has regularly derived inspiration and one of this writer’s favourites is the perennially humourous excursion on ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’, that enumerates the various shortcomings of the male species and in a near identical vein comes, ‘Trouble is a Man’. Supportive piano and soaring vocals are a feature of another of the songwriter duos repertoire, ‘Sweetest Sounds’. Meanwhile, the Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim pairing offers the wonderful ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story, and the subtle interpretation here has the piano playing the main motif in the intro and then veering into a medley of the musical that includes ‘I Love to Live in America’, which Cécile treats as a conventional ballad. Elsewhere, Cécile tackles Jimmy Rowles’ evergreen ‘The Peacocks’, and another Rodgers and Hammerstein original, ‘Everything I’ve Got Belongs To You’.
Extending out into less familiar songbook territory, McLorin Salvant excels on a mid-tempo reading of Dorival Caymmi’s ‘Obsession’ with English lyrics added, but comes into her very own on a couple of French languages songs that have all the feel of a native speaker. Accompanied by Fortner who alternates on organ for ‘J’ai L’Cafard’ (‘I have the blues’) evokes the French cabaret tradition of songwriting, while ‘À Clef’ merely reinforces belief that the singer should tackle an entire French language album at some point. Otherwise, a fine continuation of the singer-songwriter’s craft.
Back track to the 1980s and Willis Jackson was the darling of the jazz dance scene with a bevvy of strong melodic grooves on the Prestige and Muse labels respectively that caught the imagination and vibrancy of that emerging scene. However, that was only part of the story and for those in need of the bigger picture, this excellent and extremely generous compilation provides the earlier side of the tenor saxophonist’s career when he recorded for labels such as Apollo and Fire, largely on the 45 format that was ideal for jukebox play. Willis Jackson’s career started as an R & B tenorist in the 1940s and this CD captures an entire decade of his music between 1949 and 1959 when he was developing as a musician. The first three numbers find him as main soloist with the Cootie Williams Orchestra in a straight ahead bop format, including the two part 45 ‘Gator Tail’, and the collective vocals plus tenor on ‘Blow Jackson Blow’. It was in fact that combination of tenor saxophone and vocals that resurfaced with the 1950 offerings alongside vocalist Eddie Mack and the Bobby Smith Orchestra and collectively they impress on such numbers as, ‘Hoot and Holler Saturday Night’, with vocal monologue intro and the laid back blues ballad, ‘Cool Mama’. Jackson’s own individual style came to the fore later that year with, ‘Call of the Gators’, but in truth his range was surprisingly wide and that is wonderfully illustrated on the Ellingtonesque hues of ‘Harlem Nocturne’ from 1951 on Atlantic, which on the flip side was paired with the similarly evocative ballad, ‘Street Scene’. By the late 1950s, however, Jackson was by now pioneering what would come to be termed soul-jazz, with a moody, percussive piece in, ‘Later Gator’ from 1957, notable for the use of Hammond organ and repetitive riff. That latter trait would become a signature of his R&B influenced brand of jazz. This evolution in style is typified by ‘Makin’ It’ from 1959 with Bill Jennings in attendance. Willis Jackson’s influences included Illinois Jacquet, whom he most resembles, and Gene Ammons. It is to be hoped that this earlier overview of his career will, in turn, lead to a retrospective of the later career which a younger generation that did not take in, ‘Nuther’n Like Thuther’n’, first time round in the mid-1980s can experience once again. One of the best jazz meets R&B single artist compilations that Jasmine have re-issued to date and a sure winner for listeners and dancers alike.
With only three years since his ground breaking album, ‘In The Moment’ (2015), placing Makaya as a vanguard for contemporary East Coast jazz, ‘Universal Beings’ utilises a slightly different concept here for the drummer, composer and improviser. This release is essentially a compilation of four different recording sessions, with four different ensembles, in four different cities: New York, Chicago, London and Los Angeles. As per previous releases, the source material is then edited in what McCraven describes as a ‘recontextualization’, but the editing is less pronounced and obvious than with earlier projects, with ‘Universal Beings’ feeling more a kin to a live jam than a produced recording.
On vinyl, the album is pressed as a double vinyl release with each of the four sides representing the different city where the recordings took place, and thus, New York, Chicago, London and LA are the creative catalyst for the project. This methodical approach to the track listing does allow one to compare and contrast the various sessions, but also it showcases how the different contributors impacted upon the final product.
New York Side:
The album begins with six tracks recorded at H0L0, a venue in Queens in August 2017 and featuring Brandee Younger (harp), Joel Ross (vibraphone), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Dezron Douglas (double bass). Compositions ‘Holy Lands’ and ‘Mantra’ are somewhat led by Brandee Younger, with Dorothy Ashby’s Cadet catalogue being an obvious reference point here. The disjointed (in a good way) ‘Young Genius’ evokes the quirky production values of Madlib and ‘Black Lion’ offers a vibes-centric formulation with loop type circulating patterns propping up this short 3-minute piece.
Makaya’s adopted hometown session was recorded in September 2017 at the brilliantly named Co-Prosperity Sphere. This date featured Tomeka Reid (cello), Junius Paul (double bass) and UK guest Shabaka Hutchings (tenor saxophone). ‘Atlantic Black’ is a boisterous piece set over 9 minutes with Shabaka’s headstrong voicings a kin to his work with Sons of Kemet. ‘Inner Flight’ is more groove focused and ‘Prosperity’s Fear’ holds a textured quality offering cellist Junius Paul space to manoeuvre before the ensemble moves into a more freeform aesthetic for the final three minutes.
Recorded in October 2017 at the now defunct (as of November 2018) Total Refreshment Centre, Stoke Newington, which became somewhat of a spiritual hub for the UK’s new young jazz players sees Makaya joined by Nubya Garcia (tenor saxophone), Ashley Henry (Fender Rhodes) and Daniel Casimir (double bass), and interestingly this was the only formation that included a keyboard player. Of the five pieces, two are short rehearsal jams that are still enjoyable, but the other three include the lively and brisk ‘Suite Haus’, which highlights Nubya’s strong sense of melody with its uptempo rhythm track and almost ska-like sensibility. ‘The Newbies Lift Off’ pushes Ashley Henry front and centre as his Rhodes playing leads the way, including an effective downbeat tempo change near the mid-point. ‘Voila’ possess a strong hip-hop quality and heavily features bassist Daniel Casimir.
Los Angeles Side:
The final six tracks were recorded at Jeff Parker’s house, Altadena, LA on 30th January 2018. The group here featured Josh Johnson (alto saxophone), Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (violin), Jeff Parker (guitar), Carlos Niño (percussion) and Anna Butterss (double bass). The brief ‘Count Off’ begins proceedings while the 6/8 ‘Turtle Tricks’ showcases some tight but steady rim shot playing while its slightly ‘proggy’ overtone allows Parker, a regular collaborator to Makaya, freedom and space to augment the backing with distorted guitar riffs and lines.
With initial plays, it was difficult to fully absorb, digest and deconstruct ‘Universal Beings’ due to its large track count of 22 and the differences in timbre, form and temperament offered by its large rotating cast members. One later listened to the album in sections as presented by the different ensembles and thus the album made more sense. This varying personnel, instrumentation and configuration allowed for different ideas, themes and conservations to be made, sanctioning and informing the global jazz community narrative that has been so embraced by Makaya and his peers.
‘Universal Beings’ may be seen by some as being less edgy than his previous material, but it still feels very fresh and captures a forward thinking attitude with its mesh of spontaneous spiritual jazz, bebop and hip-hop. With the featured super musicians (in their own right) given room and freedom by Makaya to explore and investigate without restriction, albums like ‘Universal Beings’ are now not rare and exceptional and are becoming the norm, with music that was once thought of as ‘challenging’ becoming quite mainstream. Maybe times have changed.
Live dates this month take Makaya to Band On The Wall, Manchester 14th and the EFG London Jazz Festival 24th.
Now on her fifth album with the ACT label, blue-eye soulstress Ida Sand has effortlessly combined neo-soul, classic R&B and funk, and this latest offering is well up to her usual high standard. What immediately comes across is how well grounded in the soul tradition Sand is and that is reflected in both her knowledge of the evolution of the genre and in her judicious selection of covers and originals. The singer is steeped in the blues tradition and on, ‘It’s Your Voodoo Working’, she delivers a catchy mid-tempo funky-blues while the soul blues are in evidence on, ‘Take Me To The River’, with some tasty guitar and Hammond organ. Some of the greats are paid homage to with an old-style R&B cover of Ray Charles’ ‘I Believe In My Soul’, an absolutely stunning rendition and nothing quite reaches that height elsewhere. However, the funky drum beat accompaniment to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Please Don’t Hurt My Baby’ works, as does the understated vocal delivery on the Meters’ ‘Just Kissed My Baby’. In fact, New Orleans soul permeates parts of the album as with, ‘Born On The Bayou’. In places, the singer-songwriter in Sand comes to the fore as on ‘I Have Nothing Left For You’, which is reminiscent of Norah Jones. Of the four Sand originals, ‘Where The Hell Are You’, has an alt-country feel, though with a percussive funk undercurrent and the soul-blues of, ‘Crash and Burn’, is possibly the pick of the quartet of numbers with some deft touches on electric piano and fine reeds arrangements. Co-produced by Nils Landgren and Siggi Loch, the instrumentation is ideally empathetic to the singer’s needs and that means the listener is very much the winner on this occasion.
More of an R&B saxophone player who dipped into the blues and very occasionally into jazz, Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor was very much a tenor saxophone player who grew up in the swing era, which most influenced his style of playing and in this respect is on a par with Willis ‘Gaitor Tail’ Jackson. He was a disciple of the honking R&B hooters ‘n’ tooters and these two albums, both dating from 1955, capture his music within the New York R&B scene with bonus cuts featuring the tenorist alongside leader Claude Cloud and the Thunderclaps. Taylor singed to MGM in 1954 and was propelled to solo success by the then head of the R&B division, Leroy Kirkland. The first LP, ‘The big beat’, was recorded when 10″ albums still ruled the roots, but it rapidly re-surfaced in the new 12″ format. An obvious number that typified the sound is, ‘Cloudburst’, which Lambert, Hendricks and Ross turned into a hit vocalese version. The easy-paced sound did not initially result in hit recordings, but by 1961 the public mood for instrumentals had markedly shifted and, ‘Blue mist’, in particular was re-issued to become a healthy seller over time. While never the most radical of tenor saxophonists. Stan ‘the man’ Taylor deserves his place in music history as one of the early and most influential of instrumentalists of rock ‘n’ roll, and as such he is of interest primarily to fans of the blues rather than strictly jazz saxophone devotees. This value for money pairing of early albums can be unhesitatingly recommended to fans of genuine R&B music.
Better known for his later solo work and now enjoying a well-earned retrospective, Lee Hazlewood was just twenty-six years of age when the story on this album began and his own idiosyncratic brand of what, according to Thurston Moore, came to be termed country exotica. He had served as a DJ for the military in South Korea until 1953 when he returned to the United States and started a career as a DJ in Phoenix, Arizona as well as setting up his own label and publishing company. It is from those early productions that this compilation is sourced and covers an eight year period from the mid-1950s through to 1962. The template for his later distinctive style is already illustrated here with the darker lyrics and deep vocal delivery in evidence on the country-blues of ‘The Fool’. Guitarist Duane Eddy features on select numbers including the excellent instrumental, ‘Rebel Rouser’, and Hazelwood began to create his own highly individualistic production sound which was achieved by using a grain tank for an echo chamber effect. In fact, Hazlewood was influenced by other musicians and producers, most notably John Barry and Phil Spector. Among other singers, Sanford Clark and Al Casey are showcased, but in truth this is really all about Lee Hazlewood and how he pioneered his own musical vision. Post-1962, Hazlewood came into his own, creating the LHI label, producing the ‘Safe At Home’ album by the International Submarine Band that featured one Gram Parsons. Of course, major international success beckoned when he penned the 1966 pop hit, ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’, for Nancy Sinatra.
Informative sleeve notes come courtesy of Roger Dopson. Well worth searching out if you already have the key solo albums, but are looking to complete the picture on Lee Hazlewood’s musical activity with other artists.
If swinging progressive big band jazz is your bag, then this pairing of late 1960s albums, one live at the prestigious Village Vanguard, and the other in the studio, could hardly be bettered. Factor in some of the finest jazz musicians of the era, from trumpeter Richard Williams to saxophonists Jerry Dodgion and Jerome Richardson among a cast of others, and not forgetting a stellar rhythm section of Roland Hanna on piano and Richard Davis on bass, then you simply have one of the greatest big band formations of the era, reflecting changes in music at the time with those funkier drum licks. The first and harder to find of the two albums, was recorded at the Village Vanguard in October 1968 and the sound quality is excellent, The opener is the uptempo, ‘Mornin’ Reverend’, which is notable for its fine brass ensemble orchestrations and tenor saxophone solo. Similarly, fine ensemble work is a hallmark of the more cinematic sounding, ‘Kids Are Pretty People’, which features a trumpet solo. Best of all is the lovely medium tempo, ‘The Waltz You ‘Swang’ For Me’, with clarinets prominent here including that of Eddie Daniels, while Richardson alternates on soprano saxophone this time round. More intimate in nature is the distinctly Evanseque ‘Say It Softly’, with what sounds like Thad Jones soloing on flugelhorn. Completing a fine live recording is, ‘The second race’, which is more akin to a small group setting and one that allows pianist Hanna to shine, with fine bass accompaniment from Davis and a muted Harmon solo.
The second, and more famous of the two recordings, has regularly been reissued on vinyl and CD, but makes a fine combination here. A virtually identical line-up on this June 1969 New York studio recording has two added guitarists including Barry Galbraith, on saxophones Scotland’s very own Joe Temperley and then in-demand Joe Farrell, while Snooky Young takes over from Richard Williams on trumpet duties. A strong dose of the blues is in evidence on the title track, with Roland Hanna at the helm on a relaxed mid-tempo number. One of the most compelling pieces is the orchestra’s take on Cannonball Adderley’s ‘Jive Samba’, and here the drum beat intro leads into a slow build up with a piano vamp and that oh so familiar catchy brass ensemble riff working effectively in tandem. Soul-jazz hues are evident also in the Thad Jones original, ‘Big Dipper’, and a memorable brass motif. One reason why this album is perennially popular is that it closely resembles how the Jones-Lewis sound was at their peak and in, ‘Groove Merchant’, the classy big band orchestrations coupled with the piano musings of Hanna are definitive examples of the joint leaders craft. Melodic and mid-tempo in equal measure.
Further illustrating how and why the music was made, the extensive twenty-four page accompanying booklet leave no stone unturned, with original vinyl back cover notes on both recordings, and with an up-to-date overview of proceedings from Mojo/Record Collector reviewer, Charles Waring. Accessible, yet challenging music in the same breath, this is Thad Jones and Mel Lewis at their finest.
Neatly dividing up into four separate albums, this 2CD set includes some of Ben Sidran’s most accessible and compelling albums and is an ideal starter for anyone not already familiar with his work. Strongly influenced by Mose Allison, singer-songwriter and pianist Ben Sidran assembled a thrilling musical cast for his second major label debut in 1976 with, ‘Free in America’ (previously a 1971 debut on Capitol, ‘Feel your groove’, had sunk without trace). Musicians included in-house Chess label Chicagoan bassist/guitarist Phil Upchurch, Master Henry Gibson on percussion, Richard Tee on organ, while the horn section included Woody Shaw on trumpet and David ‘Fathead’ Newman on tenor saxophone. The easy shuffling pop-soul of, ‘I feel your groove’, featured a female chorus and was an attempt at wider success (which sadly flopped in the pop charts), while, the J.J. Cale penned, ‘After midnight’, comes across here as an attempt at replicating the pop-jazz formula of Steely Dan. The sheer accessibility of Sidran’s approach is further exemplified on, ‘New York state of mind’, which is a cover of a Billy Joel song here given a distinct makeover, complete with spoken dialogue and the combination of piano and organ.
In a more traditional acoustic piano jazz format, ‘Sunday kind of love’, reprises a song famous for Etta James’ interpretation, and this is an altogether cooler rendition. In a jazz-fusion groove prevalent at the time, ‘Let’s make a deal’, combines the vocalese tradition with some keyboard licks out of the Herbie Hancock school of jazz-fusion. Both this first Arista album and its immediate successor, ‘The doctor is in’ (1977), were produced by Blue Note aficionado, Michael Cuscuna, and the jazz element is similarly strong in the line-up on this second album, with Phil Upchurch once again featuring, this time on bass alone, with acoustic bassist Richard Davis replacing him on some pieces, while Larry Carlton on guitar and Blue Mitchell on trumpet ensure that the jazz content is high velocity. It is the whimsical side to Sidran’s repertoire that is emphasized on, ‘See you on the other side’, while, ‘Be nice’, is nothing less than a subtle piano blues with typical erudite lyrics that Sidran has become famed for, taking a leaf out of the Mose Allison songbook. A reprise of Horace Silver’s opus, ‘Silver’s serenade’, is here treated to a gently light ensemble overhaul with added strings and a subtle Latin jazz lilt. The blues are further represented on the lyrical and uptempo, ‘Charlie’s blues’, while a reprise of the Mingus opus, ‘Goodbye pork pie hat’, receives an instrumental ballad interpretation.
Just a year later (1978), a third Arista album in succession (and fourth in total) with, ‘A little kiss in the night’, which featured both Jay Graydon as keyboardist (later a key producer of some of Al Jarreau’s commercially successful works for Warner) and Phil Woods on alto saxophone. Of interest here is the piece, ‘You got the power’, which has a more contemporary jazz feel with Arthur Adams on guitar, David Woodford (of Earth, Wind and Fire fame) on saxophone, and Blue Mitchell on trumpet. Varied in content, the album veers from a traditional Dave Van Ronk folk song in, ‘Tell old Bill’, to the understated (apart from the fast-paced jazz-samba intro) Latin-Jazz undercurrent to, ‘Mr Bill goes to Brazil’, while the sound of jazz vocalese arrives this time with added lyrics to the Charlie Parker standard. ‘Moose the mooch’, complete with the last chorus of lyrics composed by none other Jon Hendricks.
Finishing off the quartet of albums is a live and final recording for Arista, this from Montreux in 1978, with a de-facto line-up of the Steps Ahead band comprising, among others, the Brecker Brothers, band leader and vibraphonist Mike Manieiri, and Steve Khan on guitar. A mixture of standards and originals comprises this live July outing from the 1978 edition of the Montreux Jazz Festival, with interpretations of, ‘Someday my prince will come’, and, ‘I remember Clifford’, the pick of the jazz standards, while the opener, ‘Eat it’, it typically quirky Sidran fare. Of interest equally, is a five minute plus rendition of a Lennon and McCartney opus, ‘Come together, which has always been ripe for a blues makeover. Handily assembled in one place, this 2 CD is a representative slice of the Ben Sidran songbook, but should be consumed in tandem with his excellent jazz writing with a strong socio-political bent and in-depth interviews with jazz musicians, both of which are highly recommended.