Alex Goodman ‘Second Act’ (Lyte) 3/5

After five years in New York City, Canadian guitarist Alex Goodman has established himself as a rising star and significant voice in the jazz mecca, recording and performing with artists such as John Patitucci, Dick Oatts, Ari Hoenig and Charles Lloyd. For “Second Act”, Goodman’s fifth album, the guitarist has gathered together a gifted group of peers; Matt Marantz on saxophone, Eden Ladin on piano, Rick Rosato on bass, and Jimmy Macbride on drums. There are also guest appearances from vocalists Felicity Williams and Alex Samaras.

Right from the off, it’s obvious we are listening to some very high quality jazz musicians here. There’s an ease to their playing that suggests a skillful intelligence and musical poise that will serve them all well for many years to come. Guitarist Goodman and saxophonist Marantz appear to work particularly well together, the pair sharing solos throughout the eleven tunes on this recording.

I have mixed feelings about this album as a whole. The first three tracks; “Questions”, “The First Break”, and “Departure”, are all good, solid jazz numbers, performed with a consummate ease. And yet to my ears these tunes lack any real inspiration. To say they are ‘Jazz-by-numbers’ is way too harsh, but there’s nothing here that grabs the listener with an inventive edge. The solo guitar of track four acts as an enticing intro to the fifth track “Losing Cool”, but the excitement dissipates somewhat as the tune develops. But then, wow, the writing goes super-cool, the performances step up several gears, and the resulting music well and truly has lift-off! “Empty” is one humdinger of a jazz tune. Catchy licks, awesome melody and hi-octane playing from all involved. And it gets even better. Listen beyond the first few minutes and the tune spins on its head into a wonderful guitar/sax dual of sorts. This is so inventive and creative, it makes my jazz heart pound with pleasure. The joy continues with “Heightened”, a tune that pulsates with its own cosmic atmosphere. And then we have the awesomeness of “Sharon”, a spellbinding tune that could make the listener think they’re enjoying hearing Pat Metheny and Chris Potter belt out the latest “Unity Band” number. And then we’re kind of back to where the album began, good, solid jazz, but nothing more, with “Welcome To New York”, “Apprehension”, and the above average album closer “Acrobat”.

And so, to sum up, “Second Act” has moments of brilliance, but unfortunately these moments have to fit in between some well performed yet fairly uninspiring music. But it’s worth it for the brilliant bits, most definitely. Alex Goodman has once again proved he is a very talented musician indeed. And if he can focus on his more outside-the-box writing skills, as heard on the three aforementioned tunes, the world could be his oyster.

Mike Gates

Marco Boettger Quartet ‘En Avril’ (QFTF) 2/5

Non of the jazz genres and traditions, is as traditional as “Gipsy Jazz” or “Manouche”. The genre follows non negotiable guidelines for sound, repertoire and instrumentation. Countless records worship the dominant father figure, Django Reinhardt – his songs, skills and style. Gipsy Jazz always nurtures its origins and history. Making the scene appear sealed off and unapproachable for outsiders.

Marco Boettger’s strongest creative asset thus, seems to be his origin. His life and career leave zero assumption for entering said genre. Drawing his skill set from heavy metal and rock music, Boettger developed an interest for european guitar giants, like Reinhardt or Lagrene and felt himself drawn to the genre.

“En Avril” is Boettger’s second album as a leader. Featuring eight originals and a version of Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring”.

Original compositions on a Gypsi Jazz guitar album? A very bold and disorderly move. Boettger’s compositions follow a strong head-solo-head regime, with occasional intros and interludes. His melodies are catchy and delightful and show a strong feel for songful expression. Very consonant and harmonically dull, they fail to entertain over the course of an entire long-play album. Boettger and Oeler, the main soloist, both miss the opportunity to develop the melodic ideas. Making the solo spots appear formulated and monotone. Oeler on accordion becomes unbearable to listen to. Lacking harmonic foresight and rhythmic depth both in his solos and comping. He appears as an unnecessary asset of a well attuned trio.

Over all “En Avril” sounds clumsy and stiff. Bearing no interesting rhythmic or harmonic intentions and ignoring all possibilities of dynamic expression. At least the artwork can stand the competition as to the rest of QFTF’s catalog.

SG

Edmond Bilal Band ‘Starouarz’ (Jazz Family) 3/5

“Starouarz” is the debut album from an exciting quartet of musicians; Paul Robert on saxophones, Simon Chivallon on keyboards, Mathias Monseigne on bass, and Curtis Efoua on drums. Collectively they are Edmond Bilal Band.

Listening to their heady mix of contemporary jazz infused with electronica, dance, funk, roots and chill-out, it’s easy to see why they are in vogue on the European jazz circuit, their audacious energy spilling out from the instruments they play. On “Starouarz” they have created their very own atmosphere, with a unified voice most notably for a young quartet very comfortable with the musical direction they have chosen to take.

The general themes and styles presented on this session remind me of the kind of feel one gets when listening to the eclectic-electric music of Gaël Horellou or Ibrahim Maalouf. Edmond Bilal Band share that kind of energy, not afraid to move between hi-octane jazz and chilled atmospheric indulgence. The tunes shift pace effortlessly, with a grace and freedom that is incredibly refreshing.

This album is filled with delicious grooves and inventive ideas, the four musicians all integral to the overall sound of the band. Reverb fuelled sax mixes with uber-cool Rhodes, undulating drum-beats spin and weave against soft, percussive and interchangeable bass riffs. Hazy and dream-like soundscapes meet fiendishly intricate soloing. The music pumps, beats, dances and cajoles the listener into its very own life-force.

Lots going for it then. To my mind, however, putting on my critical hat for a moment, I do think the album is too long and maybe two or three of what could be deemed “filler” tracks could have been trimmed from the final album. Whilst at first the music seems to sparkle with originality and freshness, after a while it does become a little too familiar on some of the tunes. That said, this is a praiseworthy debut, and Edmond Bilal Band are definitely worth keeping an eye on. I look forward to hearing more from them in the future.

Mike Gates

Benjamin Biolay ‘Volver’ (Barclay/Universal France) 4/5

A rapid return to recording duties after the well received, ‘Hollywood Palermo’ album of last year, this is very much a part two of the Paris-Buenos Aires divided music and it stands up remarkably well with a timeless feel just like the black and white photo cover of the 1970s gatefold sleeve. A potential summer hit beckons in the dance floor oriented, ‘Roma (amor)’ that is an infectious slice of retro disco complete with instrumental breakdown, rap in Spanish and percussion plus strings dramatic accompaniment. Two attempts at reggae come off reasonably unscathed with, ‘C a vole bas’, the stronger of the two and featuring Sofia Wilhelmi on vocals. Biolay as he is now known as performs on various instruments and displays a subtle use of fender on the ballad, ‘Arrivederci’.

This is French music with a strong dose of Latin Americana aimed at a mature listening audience and there is a good deal of substance to the music beyond the strong melodic hooks. A cover of Léo Ferré’s, ‘Avec le temps’, indicates Biolay’s espousal of the chanson tradition, but even here he gives the music a refreshing modern update. There is even a nod towards chilldown electronica on, ‘Hyper tranquille’, though nothing that would repel devotees of acoustic instrumentation.

Of interest, is that the title track of the previous album, ‘Hollywood Palermo’, is actually found on this new album. In keeping with its predecessor, this number has a strong film soundtrack quality to it with just the right touch of strings and yet another female guest vocalist in the unlikely sounding Ambrosia Parsley.

A real grower of an album that could just become one of the summer’s most compelling albums.

Tim Stenhouse

Andrew McCormack ‘Graviton’ (Jazz Village) 3/5

British pianist Andrew McCormack returns with a much heralded new album and with a fine ensemble of UK musicians on board including vocalist Eska Mtungwazi and tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings who alternates between tenor, clarinet and bass clarinet. In parts, the new album has been compared to a homage to the early period of Chick Corea in Light as a Feather, and it is true to say that there are elements of that sound, especially in the wordless vocals of Eska who impresses throughout, as illustrated on the opener, ‘Breathe’. However, in general, this recording is far more geared towards contemporary beats and influences, and dub-step surfaces on the urgent sounding, ‘Escape velocity’, which is an uptempo number that deploys a repetitive piano riff to good effect. Collective choir voicings greet the listener on, ‘Andromeda’, which is a groove laden piece with Eska once again offering up wordless vocals. The singer in fact is a major contributor to the album and adds lyrics to three of the compositions, all of which are originals penned by McCormack.

A brief sojourn in New York seems to have enthused McCormack and encouraged the pianist to search more deeply. On, ‘Aurora’, McCormack performs on both piano and glockenspiel on this brief number, while on the sparse sounding, ‘Kalamata’, he commences on solo piano before exploring other keyboards. If one were to cite pianistic influences, then Brad Mehldau would immediately spring to mind, but also Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and even shades of Monk.

The combination of influences he has soaked up is not quite his own yet, but he is most certainly heading in the right direction and the inclusion of collaborative work with Eska is one that he should return to. Eska for her part, revels in this jazzy setting.

Tim Stenhouse

Tom Haines & The Birmingham Jazz Orchestra ‘Live’ (Private Press) 5/5

This album has been a true labour of love. It was funded, as is becoming increasingly common, with the aid of a Crowdfunder Project, whereby supporters of the band and its music were able to pledge money in return for various rewards ranging from a free download of the resultant album to having one’s name listed on the CD inlay as a contributor or even a 3-hour music lesson with Tom. Ultimately, the Crowdfunder target was exceeded and so now we are all able to enjoy the wonderful music that was recorded at Stratford Jazz on 7th December 2016. This date too is important as it marked the 30th Anniversary of Stratford Jazz, a venerable institution which now under the leadership of saxophonist Jay Riley and colleagues is going from strength to strength.

The Orchestra is the brainchild of trumpeter Sean Gibbs. All five compositions on the album come from the pen of Mr Haines who also conducts the assembled aggregation. Two of the compositions are award-winning pieces, and one of these, along with two others, received their UK Premiere in Stratford.

The Orchestra includes a mix of some of the more established musicians on the local scene, including Eliot Drew, Chris Young and John Fleming in the saxophone section, Sean Gibbs and Mike Adlington on the trumpets, Richard Foote, trombone and David Ferris on piano and the ubiquitous Jonathan Silk at the drums. Young whippersnappers making up the remainder of the Orchestra include Vittoria Mura on tenor sax and flute, trumpeter Tom Syson, who’s own excellent album is reviewed here and the guitarist who’s name is on everyone’s lips at the moment, Ben Lee.

So we have great compositions and an equally great Orchestra to interpret Tom’s work.

The opening piece ‘Yitzoid’ features unusual voicings for the instrumentalists and fine solo work from Young on alto saxophone and Gibbs on trumpet. The rhythm section, including Stuart Barker on double bass build up quite a head of steam as the tension mounts. In places I’m reminded of the work of Colin Towns, at others the memory of Loose Tubes is evoked.

‘Mystery Dog (Mr E. Dog)’ follows and clocking in at more than thirteen minutes is the longest piece on the album, but allows more than ample time for the musical delights to unfold, including a beautiful contribution from Drew on soprano sax. Later, as the tempo changes, we have muscular solos from Alicia Gardener-Trejo on baritone sax and Kieran McLeod on trombone.

‘Remembrance’ is next and is, perhaps, a conventional big band piece. We have considered solos from Ben Lee and Mike Adlington. This is a truly sumptuous piece of work.

Next is ‘Strange Utopia’ and my immediate thoughts were of Gil Evans’ earlier work. The tone and feel changes however as vocalist Rosie Harris is introduced and Lee and the rest of the rhythm team create an almost rock foundation for the quite delicate vocals to soar over. There follows an impassioned solo from John Fleming on tenor sax before the vocalist re-enters cushioned by piano and bass.

The final piece ‘Whistleblower’ sounds like it was great fun to play. Mura, Ferris and Silk are given a chance to shine on this to great effect.

The recorded sound is exemplary and it is very easy to forget that this is a live recording. The audience’s applause is often hard to discern.

This is an auspicious debut from a composer that I for one am keen to hear more from.

Alan Musson

Denys Baptiste ‘ The Late Trane’ (Edition) 3/5

Comparisons, comparisons… I know, we shouldn’t make them. But when listening to the music of John Coltrane how can we not? No matter how we choose to describe it; Coltrane’s music ‘reinterpreted’, ‘reworked’, reenvisioned’, etc etc, it is still the music of John Coltrane. For an artist, the challenge has to be to find an original voice and character from the music that is already so familiar to the listener. To this end, “The Late Trane”, the new album from British saxophonist Denys Baptiste does succeed in the main. Baptiste is a commanding, enigmatic musician, and here he attempts to balance his unique artistic vision with the visceral emotions and cosmic references that encompass Coltrane’s late music.

Baptiste enjoys the company of a stellar band; Nikki Yeoh on piano and keyboards, Neil Charles on bass, Rod Youngs on drums, and with special guests Gary Crosby on bass and Steve Williamson on tenor sax. And at times, they really do fire on all cylinders, blowing up a spiritual storm. Yet at other times, I’m left a little nonplussed, wondering how all this talent appears to have got a little lost on their journey. Too many wrong turns or questionable direction? The cosmic sat-nav has a glitch; it should know where it’s going but it just doesn’t quite get there.

Eight of the ten numbers presented here are Coltrane tunes, with the remaining two, “Astral Trane” and “Neptune”, being fitting Baptiste originals. There’s a nice flow to proceedings, with Baptiste and Yeoh, two formidable musicians who I greatly admire, on occasions striking planetary gold together. But for me, these moments are a little too rare on this occasion. The exploratory style that Yeoh employs here is a little out-of-place at times, and somewhat surprisingly, Baptiste’s energy, whilst fluently rhythmic on occasion, also appears slightly disjointed. A mixed bag that leaves me wanting to like what I’m hearing more than I actually do. And whilst some tunes do work particularly well, with a fresh edge and sincerity making for a very enjoyable, almost visionary feel, there are other tunes that simply just don’t work.

If I was to take this album in its own right, without knowing anything about it, or without having heard any of the tunes before, would I have liked it more? Yes, I probably would, because the originality and wonder of the tunes themselves would sing loud to me. But as it is, I can’t ignore the fact that on this recording I’m left with a keen sense of what might have been. There is nonetheless still much to enjoy and admire. For me personally, it’ll be a big ask to find anyone who plays Coltrane quite as well as Joe Lovano does. The big man fits comfortably into the great man’s shoes.

Mike Gates

Quercus ‘Nightfall’ (ECM) 4/5

Trio Quercus typify the eclectic approach of the ECM label. Pairing an established and revered folk singer in June Tabor with pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Iain Ballamy (ex Loose Tubes) was always going to be an intriguing coming together of sounds and this builds upon the excellent and critically acclaimed eponymous debut on ECM from 2013. The new recording is a demonstration in musical restraint and understatement. Although some might question whether that simply means a lack of imagination and be put off by the pastoral hues of the album that are certainly present within, this is happily not the case here. An eclectic selection of songs takes in English and Scottish folk traditions, revisits the great American songbook and adds a couple of interesting originals by the two instrumentalists. Moreover, at just over sixty-five minutes, the trio clearly still have plenty to say and express themselves collectively in an understated manner. Ballamy and Warren offer an empathetic and ever supportive role as exemplified on, ‘The Manchester angel’. A stripped down take on Dylan’s, ‘Don’t think twice’, works a treat and focuses attention on Tabor’s vocal prowess. Timeless material in, ‘Somewhere’ by Bernstein and Sondheim and the standard, ‘You don’t know what love is’, are the nearest this album gets to a more conventional jazz treatment. An interesting Ballamy original in, ‘Emmeline’, allows piano and saxophone to combine in collective harmony. Folk and jazz complement one another on the playful rendition of, ‘The Cuckoo’, while fittingly, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ends the album on a pared down and less optimistic tone than one might normally expect.

Folk fans who might balk at the prospect of jazz intervening, are most likely to be enthralled by this recording. The jazz component is never intrusive, but rather a downplayed and more supportive part of the mix.

Tim Stenhouse

Oumou Sangaré ‘Mogoya’ LP/CD/DIG (Nø Førmat!) 5/5

Here is one of the finest new offerings of the summer to date and an album that in some ways is an updated version of Salif Keita’ landmark, ‘Soro’, for the twenty-first century. First, take an experienced Malian singer in Oumou Sangaré and pair her with a younger generation of producers from France and Sweden. Second, retain some of the rootsier elements to her sound, but embellish them with influences outside her native land and give them a subtle modern touch. This is precisely what has happened on this new recording, the first album that Sangaré has recorded in fact for some eight years and it proves to be a revelatory listening experience.

This all original set of compositions is relatively short, weighing in at just over forty minutes, but there is absolutely no filler whatsoever and this writer immediately appreciated the subtle blend of traditional instrumentation (ngoni, marimba) with funk-tinged bass lines and dance floor rhythm guitar. Nigerian Afro-Beat drum patterns are a key feature on ‘Yere faga’ (‘Suicide’), where Tony Allen guests and the shuffling drum pattern allied to Sangaré’s distinctive vocals are a winning combination. Another dance floor oriented groove, and arguably the strongest song of all, is the infectious, ‘Kamelemba’ (‘Womaniser’), and this listener warmed to the use of layered percussion that enters gradually into the overall sound. This could be a potential crossover hit if released as a 12″. Competing with song is another gorgeous groove in, ‘Kounkoun’ (‘Bad millet grains’), and the interweaving of bass line and rhythm guitar, alongside collective overdubbed vocals and handclaps make this a stunning number where tradition and modernity meet in perfect harmony.

Oumou Sangaré first came to prominence internationally (in her native Mali she scored a hit with her cassette only debut in 1990) via the World Circuit label and the title, ‘Moussolou’ or ‘women’ set the tone for much of her work, exploring social issues from the perspective of an African woman and one who felt sufficiently liberated to criticise where she felt it necessary to do so. Her deeply her views have been expressed across a whole range of issues and she has never been one to sit on the fence and see which way the wind blows.

This is both an extremely well thought and supremely well executed album. It pulls no punches lyrically and yet it is immediately accessible. Expect this to be on all the right playlists over the summer months and beyond. Already a strong contender for new African album of the year and a triumphant return for Oumou Sangaré.

Tim Stenhouse

Dwight Trible ‘Inspirations’ LP/CD/DIG (Gondwana) 4/5

One of my musical highlights from last year was Dwight Trible’s gig with Matthew Halsall & the Gondwana Orchestra at London’s Jazz Cafe. It was a night that will live long in my memory, a complete immersion in spiritual jazz, from the eastern-tinged, instrumental soundscapes of the “When The World Was One” album in the first half, to classics and crowd pleasers like “Wise One”, “John Coltrane”, “The Creator Has a Masterplan” and “I’ve Known Rivers” featuring Dwight on vocals, in the second.

Between both men there seems to be a genuine admiration and respect as well as a lot of shared ground musically. Trible has been criminally under-recorded over the years and it’s clear that in Halsall he has found a kindred spirit.

“Inspirations” brings together 8 songs that have inspired them both, and which are in turn inspiring, sharing in their lyrics uplifting messages of hope, of healing, of spirituality and love, as well as an active awareness of political and social conditions.

Trible makes these songs ring out with emotion, a passion borne out of an unwavering commitment to their lyrics and the message(s) he needs to convey. His energy isn’t driven by anger, but is fuelled by love and given credibility by knowledge and experience. If this makes him sound like a preacher, then I guess that’s because there is a real sense of that running through his performance. His deep, authoritative tones are rooted in gospel, blues, soul and jazz and draw comparison to the likes of Leon Thomas, Andy Bey and Bernard Ighner, but it’s distinctly Dwight Trible in style.

The album opens with the Bacharach and David classic “What The World Needs Now Is Love”, a bright, uptempo number. This track has the Gondwana Orchestra sound, which is not surprising as the band features many of the regular Gondwana cohort. Taz Modi’s distinctive piano, accenting Trible’s vocals, Rachael Gladwin’s sweeping harp and Halsall’s melancholic trumpet solo are all familiar features to those conversant with Halsall’s back catalogue. In fairness, apart from this track the rest of the album feels like it’s Trible’s, for which Halsall, as producer, should take credit.

The core musicians – Modi, Gavin Barras on Bass and Jon Scott on drums – work well in the more traditional jazz trio setting. Halsall pops up from time to time; never the brashest of players, his solos are sympathetic, just enough to remind us he is involved. In this setting Modi’s piano playing comes to the fore, showing his adaptability and confidence. If Halsall’s music is “rain-streaked spiritual Jazz”, then Taz Modi’s rippling piano melodies are the droplets falling from the sky.

The choice of Donny Hathaway/Leroy Hutson’s “Tryin’ Times” goes to show that some messages can resonate through the ages. The same can be said of the powerful spiritual “Deep River”, an expression of sorrow, of the past and of the hope for the future. In the early 20th Century this song was closely associated with the singer Marian Anderson and her own struggles against prejudice. Trible makes these songs personal, none more so than this, the most touching song on the album.

The only song that doesn’t quite work for me is the Cole Porter song “I Love Paris”. This may just be about context – elsewhere Trible sings about issues affecting humanity; broad, important subjects, to the extent that the fluffy subject matter of this song leave me underwhelmed. Perhaps a palate cleanser is what is needed.

Whilst I might have wished for some original music, maybe even a 21st century “Trying’ Times”, “Inspirations” more than delivers as a collaborative endeavour and whets the appetite for more.

Andy Hazell

travelling the spaceways since 1993