Sacha Distel ‘Madam’ Madam’ + From Paris with Love’ CD (Jackpot) 4/5

Think Sacha Distel and sleazy 1970s images of Miss World competition judge and the somewhat corny Sacha Distel show on the BBC might immediately spring to mind to those of a certain age. Or perhaps, the hit single, ‘Raindrops keep falling on my head’, where Sacha mania reached its zenith among English-speaking women. All these stereotypes exist and are undoubtedly true, but there is another, more serious side to the Distel persona. He was brought up in a musical family, his mother a professional pianist of french-Jewish heritage and his father a Russian emigré, while his uncle, Ray Ventura, was in fact a jazz trumpeter who introduced the young Sacha to the sounds of Dizzie Gillespie. The young Parisian developed a passion for jazz guitar, cutting a series of acclaimed French jazz albums which have started to be re-issued, where Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery were his major influences, and he started his professional life in this vein, before gradually making the transition to singer, or to be more precise ‘crooner’. This pairing of albums captures Distel in early crooner career from the beginning of the 1960s when his jazz credentials were still very much to the fore and he was backed by Alain Goraguer (the very same conductor and arranger for early jazz period Serge Gainsbourg) and Claude Bolling (pianist, conductor and disciple of Duke Ellington), while the second saw Sacha recording in New York with the very same orchestra under Ray Ellis that backed Billie Holiday on ‘Lady in Satin’ and Ella Fitzgerald.

The first is almost entirely French language material with playful words on, ‘Calin Calinette’ (Hugs), but the best is reserved for an early excursion into Brazilian music, pre-dating the bossa nova craze with some tasty samba-jazz on ‘Les Variocas (elles sont si belles les cariocas)’ (The women of Rio: they are so beautiful the women of Rio). Nothing too taxing here, but Distel possessed a melodic voice and had clearly listened to the key American singers of the era from Tony Bennett to Frank Sinatra.

A second album was aimed at a wider international market, sung in English, and it is worth noting that one of Distel’s greatest achievements was to have composed ‘The Good Life’, which has become something of a jazz standard, which Betty Carter among others regularly performed. Rounding off matters is a bonus 7″ EP from 1959 that includes his signature song, ‘Scoubadou’. Well worth checking out and surprisingly swinging versions backed by two crack jazz-inflected big bands. In his native France, he is revered both as a singer and actor. Beautifully recreated facsimile of original album covers back and front grace the lavish gatefold sleeve and needless to say inside are various photos of the highly photogenic Sacha, along with just some of his legion of lady friends. Sacha Distel received the Légion D’Honneur for services to the French nation in 1997.

Tim Stenhouse

Gregory Porter ‘Nat King Cole And Me’ LP/CD/DIG (Decca/Blue Note) 3/5

Singer Gregory Porter has made his reputation in the United Kingdom as both a fine interpreter of classic soul and soul-jazz, as well as stretching out into singer-songwriter territory and his wonderful concert at the Lowry a few years back was testimony to his calm presence in a live context. For this new project, however, the focus is entirely on one of his seminal influences, the late and great Nat King Cole. This has in fact been a project in germination for a decade or so since before Porter came to the attention of the wider musical community, he worked on a theatre and music show in New York devoted to Cole’s work and this in turn inspired Gregory to develop his own songwriting skills and that proved to be the catalyst for his career to take off. Here, he enlists the fine arranging and conducting talents of Vince Mendoza who is arguably the most gifted jazz conductor of his generation and whom this writer has witnessed at work in live performance on more than one occasion.

If anything, some of the readings of these classic songs are a tad too safe for these ears, but that is not to say the music itself is devoid of merit. Far from it. Where the feel is looser and the rhythm section takes hold, Gregory and the band really begin to cook, and they excel on the uplifting mid-tempo numbers such as, ‘Pick yourself up’, with some stunning woodwind arrangements, with the glitz and tinsel town of Hollywood evoked, and this is a truly swinging rendition with fine piano work. An epic orchestral sound with soaring strings embellishes the listener’s pleasure on, ‘Miss Otis regrets’, with the undercurrent of the rhythm section hinting at action, and some restrained horn arrangements. There is a light, whimsical feel that permeates, ‘L-O-V-E’, with the trio in the ascendancy and a trumpet solo of distinction.

Where this writer would like a little more deviation from the norm is on the more famous pieces such as the immortal ‘Mona Lisa’, or the sole representation of Cole’s two Latin albums, the sumptuous ‘Quizas, Quizas, Quizas’, where in both cases the treatment verges on the safe side of the tracks. No questioning of the stylish arranging on the latter, though ,with just the right dose of percussion, and an atmospheric string-led intro. Could these songs have been infused with a slightly left-field tempo, or at least something to mark an individual imprint of Porter’s own making? Part of the problem may simply be the reverence with which the singer holds Nat King Cole and that is perfectly understandable given the monumental contribution that Cole made to the world of music. One omission of material that does stand out is Cole the pianist and, while Gregory Porter is primarily on hand to pay a vocal tribute, it is a pity that he did not take a leaf out of the theatre show and creatively weave a monologue into the homage, allowing the trio to stretch out on a couple of numbers. This may well be the strategy in a live setting and, perhaps, a live accompanying album is arguably the most appropriate way in which to hear this music. An extra three songs are included on the vinyl edition and were not available to review on the CD press copy. Otherwise, a praiseworthy attempt and there will be eager anticipation for the UK tour that commences in April 2018.

Tim Stenhouse

Yves Montand ‘à Paris + Chanson De Paris’ CD (Jackpot) 5/5

Singer-actor Yves Montand is less well known for his musical talents in the United Kingdom, but across the Channel his name is legendary for his magical interpretations of the classic French chanson tradition and these two albums from 1958 and 1962 respectively find him with the independent Odéon label just before he hit the big time with Columbia. They are stunning recordings that are part musical hall with long-time pianist and arranger Bob Castella already in place.

Montand would become renowned for his live ‘One man show’, and several of the songs that made up his regular repertoire are included here. They include the enchanting, ‘Faubourg Saint-Martin’, and, in general, the songs selected reflect everyday life and concerns in Paris, with several parts of the city name checked, with ‘Rue Lepic’ being another example. It is the detailing of the seemingly banal that makes this selection such a treat with ‘Cornet de frites’ (‘A cone of chips) considered fertile terrain.

This evocation of daily life of course could not exclude the romantic inclinations of Parisians and Montand was famed for his balladry work, not to mention his own romantic liaisons which ranged from Piaf to Simone Signoret. From an impassioned ‘Car je t’aime’ (Because I love you), to a fabulous rendition of ‘Barbara’, a song from the joint pens of Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert, and in the 1960s Montand would record an entire album of the duo’s work, ‘Montand chante Prévert’, which is arguably his finest ever studio recording. Montand occasionally tried his hand at songwriting and the co-written, ‘Mais qu’est-ce que j’ai?’ (What’s the matter with me?), is one illustration.

Yves Montand would later turn his attention to serious acting with a political bent such as Costa-Gavros’ ‘Z’, but is best remembered in the United Kingdom for the adaptations of two Marcel Pagnol novels, ‘Jean de Florette’ and ‘Manon des Sources’.

Tim Stenhouse

Cowboys and Frenchmen ‘Bluer Than You Think’ CD/DIG (Outside In Music) 4/5

Cowboys and Frenchmen are a US based quintet led by saxophonists/composers Owen Broder and Ethan Helm. For this, their second release, they team up with Chris Ziemba on piano, Ethan O’Reilly on bass and Matt Honor on drums. Together, the band make a glorious sound – more like a larger ensemble at times – providing intriguing, innovative and sublime music. They deftly weave ideas from a broad spectrum of influences into their sound. “There is no one tune that encapsulates our sound, and that’s what we like about the band. When looking for inspiration, we are not reaching beyond ourselves to create some sort of post-modern stylistic collage, but reaching within ourselves to access the multitudes we contain as artists and human beings.” says Helm about their genre-bending aesthetic. And ‘human’ is an apt word to use when listening to this band. There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on here, the music sounding very personal and quietly, broodingly intense at times. It’s as if what comes from within them to create the music also shines an all-seeing light on humanity itself, revealing all that is bold and beautiful, along with all that is dark and destructive.

Each composition on “Bluer Than You Think” has been thoughtfully conceived and draws out the individual personalities within the whole of the ensemble. There is an openness and almost laborious feel to the beginning of the first tune, “Wayfarer”. A feature of the album is how well the saxes work together, their harmonies rich and beautiful, warm and comforting. The two leaders both enjoy such an effortless grace of sound on their playing, capable of the quaintest subtlety as well as dazzling strength and power. As “Wayfarer” develops as a tune, the saxes criss-cross and interweave before breaking out on their own. This is so stylishly innovative in the way it’s performed that it really does take the listener on a journey of intrigue and adventure. “Beasts” is made up of repeating patterns and rhythms. Daring and somewhat otherworldly its strength lies in its element of surprise. The late-night chilled yet in-the-pocket groove of “Companion Plan” is one of those tunes where its foot-tapping ease of listening belies its complexities. The quintet gel perfectly, making the most of the skillful writing. “Lillies under the bridge” is a serene ballad with a twist. What seems like a calm, gorgeous ballad from the piano, bass and drums point of view, changes mood when the saxes come in. It’s a daring piece from the reedmen, as they perform a harmony and melody that swirls, twists and turns, very expressive and impressionistic. I’ve listened to this tune several times now, and I’m still not sure whether I would say I like it or not, but it is clever and different and has to be listened to. “Clear Head” has a folky element to it that pushes and prods with playful delight. The band seem to revel in the pleasure of it all, quirky melodies meeting sublime soloing head-on. The title track, “Bluer than you think”, begins as a bass-led blues piece, with piano and drums driving it forward, before the paired-up saxes once more take it on to another place. This is jazz of the highest calibre, both in the nature of the composition and the performances from the musicians in bringing it to life. The brooding “C&F Jam” could be a conversation between two people at odds with one another – each trying to put their own point of view across in a duelling fashion. The album is rounded off with “Uncommon Sense”, a jaunty yet smiley piece of music that ends the session in an uplifting manner.

“Bluer than you think” is a musical exploration that works so well on many levels. From melancholy to melodrama and back again, it makes for a richly rewarding listen. It’s a pleasure to hear a band that have the courage of their convictions and the music is all the better for it. Brave and quirky, sublime and expressive, this is an album that could surprise and delight many jazz listeners – well worth discovering.

Mike Gates

Buddy Terry ‘Awareness’ LP/CD/DIG (Wewantsounds) 4/5

Multi-reedist Buddy Terry is one of the unrecognised jazz musicians of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s whose music is being re-discovered and this fine re-issue illustrates just why. One piece, ‘Kamali’, has already figured on one of the two critically acclaimed compilations on enterprising London indie Wewantsounds and this original album re-issue helps fill in the gaps. A strong and extended line-up of musicians includes some heavyweights from the era including spiritual jazz pianist par excellence Stanley Cowell, trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, Roland Prince on guitar and a beefed up rhythm section that comprises Victor Gaskin on bass, both Buddy Williams and Mickey Roker alternating on drums and James Mtume (son of Jimmy Heath) on percussion.

The music is both accessible and challenging in equal measure, with the melodic flavour of the Latin percussion aiding and enticing the listener on the mid-tempo groove of ‘Stealin’ Gold’, which here is available in two separate versions, one of which is the shorter 45. Fine ensemble brass is a hallmark of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’, even if the start might hint at a freer approach. The main motif owes a clear debt to the Eddie Harris composition, ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’, only on this occasion the interpretation takes a direct leaf out of the work of the Miles Davis quintet circa 1966 and the ‘Miles Smiles’ recording which featured a stunning reading of the soul-jazz anthem. This later derivation compares most favourably.

Where this album wins in opposition to others is in the ideal balance that is struck between, on the one hand, a funkier disposition in line with earlier albums that Terry cut for the Prestige label, and, on the other, the more exploratory territory that early 1970’s indie jazz labels in Chicago, Detroit and New York were pioneering. There are definite echoes of the Black Jazz label on a near thirteen minute suite that opens up the album, ‘Awareness (suite)’ and this unfolds into various moods of which the first, ‘Omnipotence’, impresses with some expansive piano soloing by Cowell. Definitely of interest to spiritual jazz devotees, but anyone with an interest in non-formulaic jazz will find much to entertain them here and a fine example of how Bob Shad’s Mainstream label was equally adept at producing quality jazz as well as soulful music.

Tim Stenhouse

Harold Land ‘A New Shade Of Blue’ (Wewantsounds) 4/5

From the late-1960’s onwards, Harold Land embarked upon one of the most productive periods in his musical career and a key elements in the equation was the close participation of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. The latter, then both a leader and frequent sideman on the illustrious Blue Note label, had been exposed to the more left-field side of jazz, whether that be with pianist Herbie Hancock, the more avant-garde recordings of altoist Jackie McLean, or the fine albums that Hutcherson himself laid down with musicians of the calibre of Joe Henderson and McCoy Tyner, to name but just two. Consequently, and as a direct result of Hutcherson’s involvement, the musical universe of tenorist Land expanded significantly from perfectly respectable, if somewhat pedestrian 1950’s mainstream, to far more advanced and indeed exploratory works. Which is where this superb re-issue fits into the mix. No less than the Herbie Hancock Mwandishi rhythm section are featured and these include Buster Williams on bass, Billy Hart on drums and James Mtume on percussion. Bill Henderson provides some fine keyboard vibes, alternating between Fender Rhodes and acoustic modes, and the titles reveal a growing concern for socio-political issues at the time. The gentle tempo and lead tenor on ‘Ode to Angela’, is a useful device to encourage the listener to reflect on the contribution of civil rights leaders, but the tempo shifts up several gears into more active mode on the uptempo ‘De-Liberation’. Much of the album has a wonderful brooding atmosphere and no more so than on the modal-themed, ‘Mtume’, which is notable for the deployment of various world beats percussion instruments, and is by far the album’s longest piece. While some of the music is not immediate to the ears, with repeated listens one is more than repaid with an intensity of performance and a subtle lyricism that is admirable.

Full marks for the collection of black and white photos of the band individually in studio session work and collectively for a promotional photo take. Extremely informative new notes from Houston Texas jazz DJ, Sam Barbatano, help contextualise the recording and career of Harold Land. As a bonus, the number ‘Dark mood’ is added and this has only ever previously surfaced on a now long deleted 1974 compilation.

Tim Stenhouse

Courtney Pine ‘Black Notes From The Deep’ CD/LP/DIG (Freestyle) 4/5

In recent years, multi-reedist Courtney Pine has expanded his repertoire to include re-investigating the jazz tradition as well as more experimental work with a new generation of musicians. This latest album finds him in reflective mode, and is arguably his most lyrical outing and certainly one of the most balanced albums in terms of the sheer diversity of material. Singer, Omar Lyefook, performs on four vocal numbers and of these an immediate track to garner extensive radio play is a faithful reading of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Butterfly’, which has always belonged among the soulful side of the pianist’s repertoire, but here is given an added layer of soulfulness with the deeply gospel-inflected background vocals of Charleen Hamilton. An obvious choice for the first single and likely to propel the album to a wider audience. A real favourite for this writer is the Hammond organ with bossa drum beat accompaniment to ‘In another time’, with Pine this time alternating on flute, and what a fine exponent he is of that reed instrument, and Omar once again providing some emotive lead vocals. The waltz-like groove of ‘A change is sure to come’, is notable for an improvised saxophone intro before flute takes over. The titles overall reflect a thoughtful musician who is increasingly conscious of the world around him and the need to incorporate social commentary (without ever falling into the trap of being too preachy), albeit in a largely instrumental idiom, into his work from the perspective of a sage with an overview of contemporary society.

Part of the reason for this album sounding so fresh is the excellence of the rhythm section with Robert Mitchell on piano, Alec Dankworth on acoustic bass, and Rod Youngs on drums. It is the balladry work that truly impresses on the album, with ‘Rivers of blood’ featuring a delightful piano and bass intro, before Pine’s tenor enters softly. Mitchell takes a welcome solo on the quality ballad that is, ‘You know who you are’, and in general, this is some fo Courtney Pine’s finest compositional writing to date, and that places him in the wider tradition of saxophone greats. Stark sounding piano greets the listener on the mournful sounding, ‘A word to the wise’, and quite a bleak piece to end the album as a whole on.

This is an album that is likely to stand the test of time and even detractors will have to concede that Courtney Pine is fully on song and with a cohesive band to match.

Tim Stenhouse

Les Amazones d’Afrique ‘République Amazone’ LP/CD/DIG (Real World) 3/5

2017 is gearing up to be another weird year of hopeful and needed progression for Women’s Right’s in the Western World, but what of female’s position in West African society? Violence, abuse, and unequal access to education are amongst the oppressive forces facing African women.

Cue Les Amazones d’Afrique, a collective of twelve female musicians singing for gender equality. World renowned names, from Mali, Benin, Nigeria, and Gabon, combine to combat the issues. Kandia Kouyaté holds the Mande title of ngara, Mariam Doumbia, of Amadou and Mariam, has challenged the perception of blind musicians, and Angélique Kidjo is a multi-Grammy Award winning artist. It’s a fantastic line-up which works well together, not dominated by any one person.

Collaborative projects such as this are often completed by individuals recording their own vocals and sending them back and forth. Amazones is no Live Aid, however; all members record and perform together. It’s a demonstration of unity when unity is most needed, a notion at the forefront of the first single, ‘I Play The Kora’, an instrument which was denied to women for years.

Having Irish producer Liam Farrell, a.k.a Doctor L, behind the mixing desk allows the record to be played anywhere, from clubs in Berlin, to down your local pub. Doctor L has built a reputation for respectfully preserving the culture of the many African musicians he has worked with throughout his varied career, most notably producing Tony Allen’s 1999 album ‘Black Voices’. However, Doctor L’s involvement is also the record’s downfall, at times injecting too many cause-drowning dance beats.

Saying that, the members of Les Amazones d’Afrique can rank themselves amongst Margaret Ekpo, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Gambo Sawaba, who were key members of Nigeria’s 20th-century independence and emancipation movement. Their funk, dub, and blues influenced République Amazone has a world-resonating message, and gives more insight to the challenges we face so universal equality is achieved.

Les Amazones d’Afrique full line-up:
Angélique Kidjo, Kandia Kouyaté, Mamani Keita, Mariam Doumbia, Mariam Koné, Massan Coulibaly, Mouneissa Tandina, Nneka, Pamela Badjogo and Rokia Koné.

Sam Turnell

Gwyneth Glyn ‘Tro’ (bendigedig) 4/5

Welsh folk singer Gwyneth Glyn is a talented and creative artist who has been involved in theatre, song and even theology as part of her undergraduate study and if one had to make any kind of parallel, then it might be Julie Fowlis, the Scots-Gaelic singer. However, Glyn is now firmly focused on singing duties and the relationship that exists between poetry and song and this is where she created her own niche. This is the debut album for Glyn, on the bendigedig label, and it proves to be an enterprising collaboration between, on the one hand, the Theatr Mwldan in Cardigan, and indie world roots label, ARC, on the other. Gwyneth Glyn possesses a gentle voice with a softly spoken delivery on a song such as ‘Y gnawas’, with the subtle use of percussion and the simple guitar riff created by the leader.

The singer is rightly proud of her Welsh language roots, but offers some variety via three songs with English language lyrics. The lovely ‘Far ago’, is the pick of the trio with a repeated guitar motif and the use of banjo from Rowan Rheingans. Instrumentation has a strong US folk influence, yet the combination of US roots meets Welsh word actually combines seamlessly, and one wonders why other singers have not sought to achieve the same blend and attract a wider audience beyond a strictly Welsh speaking one.

Her musical influences are wide-ranging and include western classical music, the jazz arrangements of Keith Tippett and folk singers who have a strong storytelling quality from Bob Dylan to Joni Mitchell. Glyn is in fact indebted to the oral tradition of storytelling via both her mother and grandfather, while US folk music has clearly guided her in what have become regular performances at the Smithsonian Folk Festival in Washington DC, and has spoken there in 2013 on the status of the Welsh language within the context of endangered languages. Gwyneth Glyn will be touring in spring 2018 as part of a support act for Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita. The promotional copy did not contain any lyrics translated from Welsh into English and thus this non-Welsh speaking journalist was unable to comment on the lyrical content other than in English. However, fluent Welsh speaker and fellow compatriot Cerys Matthews has mentioned the impressive use of the language on her Radio 6 show, and Glyn has been the recipient of the prestigious Welsh poet laureate award in 2006, and Matthews is but one of the numerous DJ’s championing the cause of Gwyneth Glyn. To which this fellow Celtic journalist can now be added.

Tim Stenhouse

Ross McHenry Trio ‘The Outsiders’ (First Word) 4/5

Australian composer, producer and bass player Ross McHenry has had a productive history including as bandleader of afro beat-influenced The Shaolin Afronauts, as well as having played alongside the likes of Robert Glasper, Roy Ayers, Mark de Clive-Lowe and others. This, McHenry’s debut trio album, follows on from his other previous releases for First Word Records, ‘Distant Oceans’ (2013) and ‘Child of Somebody’ (2016). This project features drummer Myele Manzanza from New Zealand (who also appears on McHenry’s two other albums) and Australian pianist Matthew Sheens who currently resides in New York.

This 8-track set (with 6 on the vinyl pressing – more later) centres around the theme of being an outsider, that is, referring to the fact that the band members do not belong to the standard US or UK jazz scene or cultures. This is an interesting point of view and something I had not previously considered, that is, exploring how Antipodean jazz musicians feel regarding their inclusion within the wider jazz communities and their uniqueness in this regard. Remarkably for a bandleader who is also a bass player, the bass parts were set relatively quiet within the mix for most the duration of album, possibly by 2-3 decibels. This was also evident within the arrangements, with pianist Matthew Sheens probably having the main focus here. Maybe this was intentional and displays an unselfish attitude by McHenry and having a more ensemble constitution was the objective.

‘It’s Not How I Remembered It’ starts quite languid and then the playing becomes more dynamic and the arrangement begins to loosen. ‘Us And Them’ is more melodically driven but with some excellent fluid playing by all three band members. ‘Those Lost Days’ begins with a two-minute piano intro prior to the emergence of a slightly funky rhythm track. ‘The Outsiders Part 1’ is the longest piece of the set clocking in at over 12 minutes. Its dense arrangement provides a solid background for the Trio to embellish upon without having the obvious ‘here’s the solo’ sections inserted. ‘The Outsiders Part 2’ has a more dramatic but steady introduction before the tempo increases and the playing becomes more vibrant and forceful. ‘The Outsiders Part 3’ – which is a continuation of ‘Part 2’, unlike ‘Part 1’, which seems to be a separate entity, again, builds to a climatic resolution where the peaceful final 30 seconds winds down at the end. ‘I Can Be Better (for Myuran Sukumaran)’ is a bold and intense piece, probably due to its ode to Sukumaran, an Australian who received the death penalty in 2015 for drug trafficking offenses in Indonesia. His case has been quite controversial, including the use of a firing squad for his execution. And finally ‘Fear Not’ rounds up the project, with again, an intensity and vitality that permeates throughout the LP.

Fans of contemporary trio works with hard bop leanings will enjoy ‘The Outsiders’. The playing is sublime as are the arrangements and compositional themes with Ross McHenry being an exceptional bass player, Matthew Sheens virtuosity helps to push the group forward and UK Vibe favourite Myele Manzanza brilliantly underpins the whole project. And even though you can hear influences from the past, such as Jaco Pastorius being an obvious reference point for McHenry, he is both a technical and a ‘feel’ player – so this is not just an album for the muso.

There is purity within trios that I’ve always appreciated. There’s nowhere to hide and trios can offer a unique sense of creativity of which this is an obvious example. The album has one foot in the past with regards the standard jazz piano, drums and bass frameworks, but it is also looks ahead and contains a progressiveness that is needed with contemporary jazz circles.

One point of concern is the planned vinyl edition as it will be a single vinyl pressing, so the final two tracks are being omitted. This is done to reduce the total running length, because when the running time on one side of a standard 12” vinyl exceeds around 20 minutes the audio quality is reduced. But double vinyl pressing are now commonplace, and with the project spread over 4 sides rather than 2 sides this would solve this issue. New vinyl albums are never cheap and record collectors would rather pay more and receive the entire project than have parts of it missing. It’s like going to the cinema to watch a film and then walking out with 20 minutes of the film left.

Damian Wilkes

travelling the spaceways since 1993