Kekko Fornarelli ‘Abaton’ LP/CD/DIG (Eskape) 4/5

It is fitting that in the same year that EST’s “Live in London” is released, commemorating ten years since the untimely passing of Esbjörn Svensson, an album comes to the fore from an up-and-coming artist that conjures up fond memories of the late pianist.

Kekko Fornarelli is an Italian pianist and composer. He began learning classical piano the age of three, first through private tuition and later at the Conservatorio Piccinni in Bari. With a love for jazz burning brightly since he turned 18, it’s easy to hear clear influences from both these worlds in his melodic and stylistic approach to making music. Fornarelli already has 4 albums under his belt, his luscious fusion of Romantic classical music, modern jazz and 21st century rhythms all combining to create a quite gorgeous swirl of emotive sound.

“Abaton” is a trio recording, featuring Federico Pecoraro on bass and Dario Congedo on drums. The threesome work their way with effortless grace through the 8 tunes on this album. In the main it’s Fornarelli’s beautiful acoustic piano playing at the fore, though he does employ synth sounds and a few subtle electronics along the way. The trio work very well together, with some skilful interplay and close-knit interaction. In addition to the trio, there are also strings featured on 2 of the tracks, featuring conductor Leo Gadaleta. And I have to say these 2 tracks feature very highly in my estimation, the combination of Fornarelli’s lyrical piano playing alongside the strings is a magical experience, way beyond the normal ‘trio with strings’ combinations one might expect.

There are some stunning pieces of music on this album. The 2 aforementioned strings tracks “Apnea” and the title track “Abaton” are both highly emotive pieces of music, wonderfully written and performed, leaving me longing to hear more. I feel a rush of emotion each time I listen to these wonderful tunes. “The Drop and The Rock”, the opening tune, is very ‘EST’ and can’t but help remind the listener of what once came before. There is also an incredible version of Beck’s “Lonesome Tears”, with Fornarelli managing to match the original’s strength and power with a magnificent lyrical quality that rises and falls between delicate and vibrant, bringing every fibre in my body into a kinetic and animated appreciation.

Occasionally one might argue that the pianist allows his trio to slip a little into the ‘slightly too familiar’ piano trio expected territory, but overall this is one of the finest trio albums to my mind this year.

The spirit of Esbjörn Svensson lives on, in his music and in the undoubted influence he made on the jazz world, blazing a trail that others now follow and reinvent.

Mike Gates

Kitty Wells ‘I Heard The Jukebox Playing’ 2CD (Jasmine) 4/5

If you ever wondered what else there was in soulful country singers such as Patsy Cline, who thankfully avoid the Nashville stereotype of whirling strings and mundane background vocals, then Kitty Wells should be your next port of call. Soul Jazz records in their excellent two-part ‘Country Sisters’ of a few years back included examples of Kitty Wells’ work and this two CD set, while not the definitive statement from her (no version of her anthem ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’, for example), is nonetheless a fine microcosm of her career, covering a period of roughly eight years in the 1950s. Jasmine have already issued a previous double CD of Wells, ‘The Queen Of Honky Tonk Angels’ (where the aforementioned single is available), and for those starting off that might be the first port of call. This new release takes the story a step further and is still an excellent entry point. Kitty scored no less than thirty-two top twenty hits on the various titled country music charts (‘country and western’, ‘hillbilly’ among them) and this release focuses attention on two Decca albums from the mid-late 1950s, ‘The Winner Of Your Heart’ (1956) and ‘Lonely Street’ (1958) plus some earlier EP and LP material on the second CD. Concept albums had not yet seen the light of day and country albums tended to be a string of disparate 45s strung together with filler sides. In this case, however, Kitty Wells could always be counted on to provide quality as well as quantity and the melancholic nature of the material coupled with the superlative and distinctive delivery make for great music. For the two Decca albums, a trio of winners includes, ‘Lonely Side Of Town’, ‘Lonely Street’ and ‘You Can’t Conceal A Broken Heart’.

If anything, it is the second side that impresses most of all with ‘One By One’, an outstanding single from 1954 that went all the way to number one in the country charts. A real bonus on this second CD is almost a half hour’s worth of duets with the likes of Red Foley, Webb Pierce and of course not forgetting the great Ray Acuff. In fact, the only duets missing are with Johnny and Jack with whom she recorded elsewhere. Country music has historically prided itself on its male-female duets and this is certainly no exception. Elected to the Country music hall of fame in 1975, Kitty Wells fully deserves her place as one of the all-time great country singers. While we are on the subject, how about some enterprising label putting a two CD anthology of Lefty Frizell’s work on Columbia. One of this writer’s favourite country albums is Lefty’s ‘The Sad Songs Of Love’, and that deserves to be re-issued along with other work from his fine period on Columbia.

Tim Stenhouse

Marlena Shaw ‘Go Away Little Boy: The Columbia Anthology’ 2CD (SoulMusic) 3/5

Jazz, soul and even disco have featured in Marlena Shaw’s lengthy career, and she enjoyed at least two career highs, one at Chess with the original take on ‘Woman Of The Ghetto’, and a second, in the late 1970’s with the anthemic late night laid back rapped monologue sound of ‘Yuma/Go Away Little Boy’. The latter, and the album from which it stems, forms the backdrop to this compilation that narrowly focuses on three albums that Shaw recorded for Columbia which covers less than five years of her career, and cannot even be considered a fair representation of her 1970’s output. All of the ‘Sweet Beginnings’ album (reviewed previously) is contained here, is a lovely album that any music lover should have in their possession, and if you do not already own that album (which BBR has already re-issued separately), then that might possibly justify purchasing this release. However, SoulMusic sadly seem to have missed a golden opportunity here to pair up the best of the Columbia with the best of Shaw’s albums for Blue Note, and some of these are already available on Soul Music, so presumably gaining rights to the material was not an issue. As such, the listener coming to Marlena Shaw’s work from a fresh perspective will not be in a position, if they only listen to her Columbia albums, to grasp what a wide-ranging musical vocabulary she had. The two CD format should be ideal for dividing up her jazzier cuts from the soulful and dance oriented side, and it is a great pity that an anthology that cuts across the two labels is not currently available. An early 1980’s modern soul album Marlena Shaw enjoyed success with in the UK would have added to a more representative overview of her career.

That said, for fans of the soul and dance material only, the compilation offers up a couple of bonus tracks in a 12″ re-mix of ‘Touch Me In The Morning’, and a special disco version of ‘Love Dancin’. Neither were major disco hits and, in truth, her classy vocals were better served on the more restrained songs of ‘Sweet Beginnings’, which is a fine album in its own right. For soul fans, there is interest in the version of, ‘I’m Back For More’. though it is a clear second to the Al Johnson and Jean Carn classic. Devotees of her jazz repertoire are best advised to stick with the one CD, ‘Sweet Beginnings’ and search out the individual Blue Notes, of which ‘Live at Montreux’ is outstanding. Even the Blue Note soul oriented albums make for better listening experiences, and they surely would have significantly enhanced the anthology as a whole. Detailed liner notes by David Nathan, with the usual attention to detail in respect of label and cover illustration. One cannot help but think that another compilation that is over-arching in label coverage is needed in order to present a more balanced picture of the wonderful and versatile singer that Marlena Shaw still was in the 1970’s.

Tim Stenhouse

Crown Heights Affair ‘Dreaming A Dream’ / ‘Do It Your Way’ / ‘Dream World’ 2CD (Robinsongs) 4/5

Disco at its rootsiest best is one way to describe the musical institution that started off the somewhat non-descript Nue Day Express appellation, but upon signing to De-Lite and changing their name to the Crown Heights Affair, fame was just around the corner and with it a place in the disco hall of fame. Matters in hand commence with an early example of disco in ‘Dreaming A Dream’ (1975), that contained the best and worst of the genre. On the plus side, the hi-hat cymbals, brass and synths hint at what was to come and here we have instrumental tracks of distinction. On the minus side, finding the right balance of soulful input, in this case, the need for a strong male vocalist. Two vastly different versions of the title track, the first and an instrumental, by far the superior, and a prototype of the classic CHA sound. The latter, a mid-tempo soulful groove that the group would need further albums to perfect. Another promising disco instrumental comes in ‘Foxy’ complete with monologue and clavinet.

A year later, the group tried again with ‘Do It Your Way’, and in truth, the Crown Heights Affair were still very much at an embryonic stage in their development. That the band were still searching for their own sound is illustrated by the ‘son of Shaft’ soundalike, ‘Dancin’, with an all too familiar guitar riff, updated for a younger disco audience. A soul-stepper of a tune in, ‘Love Me’, is one bright spot in an otherwise average bunch of songs, with the corny, ‘French Way’, way too predictable and jumping on the disco bandwagon rather than making its own waves. Thankfully, creative help was on hand, and a potential rare groove contender to resurrect in the early jazz-funk outing, ‘Far Out’, which could easily be a lost Incognito track from the early 1980’s and with strong hint of Brass Construction. In urgent need of a revival, this writer thinks.

However, out of this period of musical exploration and hit and miss affairs, came the first of their classic recordings, ‘Dream World’ (1978). Suddenly, the vocal department got soulful, the band was tight and the songs became immortal. One major caveat is that the extended 12″ of ‘Say A Prayer For Two’, with the stunning repeated refrain is bizarrely not included here as a bonus. Why leave that out? No attempt either at including re-edits of the all-time great disco monster. A major omission. That said, the shorter album version is still a wonderful example of the clubland classic, with stunning bass line and synths plus that killer drum pattern. Opening proceedings ‘Galaxy Of Love’, was a similar dancefloor winner. Sleeve notes come courtesy of Christian John Wikane with band photos and label graphics. If this was volume one of the CHA story, the next part would yield major commercial success. Volume two to follow shortly.

Tim Stenhouse

Larry Goldings / Peter Bernstein / Bill Stewart ‘Toy Tunes’ CD (Pirouet) 4/5

There is something about the production and the composition of most modern American jazz that immediately Geotags its position in the world and asserts its authority on the jazz scene. For me there seems to be a post production sheen. It manages to deliver an assured reflection of modern life and whilst delving into some darker corners, ultimately portrays a positive outlook. It’s one thing I love about American culture. It’s a winning formula and an approach taken on by huge conglomerates like Hollywood and the big 3 media labels.

The trio’s latest album, Toy Tunes (Pirouet Records, May 2018), manages to recreate not only this production sheen but the certainty that America still exports some of the best jazz music in the world. There are certain albums that conjure mental images right from track one and whilst I desperately attempt to accurately depict this classy piece of work, I couldn’t help but think about Americana and the culture that has transferred across the pond to us Brits. From the acknowledgement of Steely Dans influence with ‘Fagen’ to the laid back swing of ‘Maybe’ this album makes me think of the sleeper cars of blue-collar America. Take a modest framework and turn it into a formidable force; whilst often showcasing historically accurate touches. There is pride in showing the aged and blemished exterior and yet a clear wax is often used to give protection and a ‘sheen’ which not only shows off the history but ironically creates an appealing finish. Under the hood is a vastly superior engine (often hugely secret to all but the highly educated) and every effort has been made to tune it to its full potential. The craftsmanship and time consumption shows the true love the owner has for these amazing vehicles and it’s usually proudly displayed at rallies and events.

You may dismiss this tortured analogy but isn’t it incredible that music can transport you to places that you would not normally explore? For me, I was bowled over by the sheer class and expertise of this trio. It was clearly an American sound and although some of the harmonies were challenging, sophisticated and the sort of chord extensions that get music college students excited, it ultimately had optimism and a timeless quality; a ‘sheen’, if you will. You are never quite sure if it’s exploring post millennial modernism, late 1970’s Fusion or Jimmy Smith-esque Soul Jazz. The album is steeped in history and pays homage to the past whilst creating something new. As I say, you never know what’s ‘under the hood’. It’s funky, it swings and every note seems to land with cool precision. It’s all cleverly put together and shows true instrumental mastery. It doesn’t follow the usual organ trio clichés but focuses on the song form and interaction between musicians. I guess if you take three phenomenal musicians and have them working together since the early nineties then you’re going to get some fine output!

This is a well presented album which has everything tuned to perfection. It misses out on five stars purely for the fact that it’s almost too cool and calculated. I would love to hear the group really ‘gun it’ – I’m sure they do in a live setting. A fine album.

Jay Riley

Chip Wickham ‘Shamal Wind’ LP/CD/DIG (Lovemonk) 5/5

Chip Wickham seemed to appear from nowhere in 2017 with the release of his now critically acclaimed album, ‘La Sombra’, on the Madrid based Lovemonk label, but his musical CV is deep and extensive. As performer and composer over the last 30 years, Wickham has worked with a diverse list including The New Mastersounds, Dwight Trible and Jimpster, covering funk, jazz, deep house and everything else in between, especially working in the north of England and prominently in the Manchester and Leeds areas. For ‘Shamal Wind’, the saxophonist and flautist mines the various corners of the jazz world, from modal and spiritual, to Latin and fusion, utilising a mainly sextet line-up as his previous release was mostly focussed around a quartet configuration. Other players here include pianist Phil Wilkinson, drummer Antonio Alvarez Pax, percussionist David ‘El Indio’ Garcia, Vibraphone by Ton Risco and on upright bass David Salvador, with further contributions from keyboard player Gabri Casanova and renowned UK trumpeter Matthew Halsall, both appearing on one track each.

Wickham’s absorption of the Middle East, his now home, and spiritual jazz amalgamate for the title track ‘Shamal Wind’, the longest piece of the set at 8’40”. References to Yusef Lateef are obvious, but this contemplative and absorbing number sets the tone for the rest of the album’s sensibility. The slightly funk influenced ‘Snake Eyes’ centres around an infectious 1-bar groove which leaves room for the expressive piano stylings of Wilkinson and Wickham’s flute performance, which is very reminiscent of Jeremy Steig. ‘Soho Strut’ is an obvious nod to the influential London jazz scene with its prominent percussion, melodic piano, flute and vibraphone parts envisioning smoky jazz venues and vibrant vinyl record stores – or maybe that’s just me, but this would have easily been played in Digwalls by messrs Peterson and Forge – if it was still a regular Sunday affair.

‘The Mirage’ adds Matthew Halsall on trumpet for this dense and textured composition with Halsall being the perfect companion for the journey, with the flawless balance of flute, trumpet and vibes creating an ideal symmetry. ‘Barrio 71’ is an uptempo afro-Cuban influenced dancer with its 6/8 time signature, baritone saxophone and vibes unison and strong piano additions from Phil Wilkinson. An obvious DJ friendly cut. The final track, ‘Rebel No. 23’, a previously released 7” in 2017 with non-album track ‘The Beatnik’ on the flip is another uptempo number that adds the Wurlitzer electric piano via Gabri Casanova, who has worked with Wickham on previous projects including on the soul jazz/Hammond based ‎’Space Race’ by Blue Mode in 2016.

Strong melodies and counterpoints permeate throughout ‘Shamal Wind’, with all compositions written exclusively by Chip. The group performances are of a high standard but each piece works as a co-operative, allowing for all band members’ own voices to be heard but without being forced. Although Wickham’s previous release, ‘La Sombra’ (2017), placed his work right next to his contemporaries, ‘Shamal Wind’ will hopefully increase his presence as a major player in jazz especially as a recording artist. Many jazz artists struggle to translate a live experience into a recorded medium, but again, Wickham manages to create a body of work that indulges both practices. This is an album that ticks many boxes, including in its writing, performances and arrangements, as well as the audio quality of the mixing and mastering, with the recording to analogue tape a bonus. And as mentioned, the solos are very lyrical and expressive rather than being contrived, adding to a very cohesive piece of work. Possibly one of the best jazz albums of the year.

Live: London 13th June | Camden Assembly

Damian Wilkes

Mark IV ‘Signs Of A Dying Love’ LP/CD/DIG (Cordial Recordings) 4/5

It’s a great time to be collecting soul music, reissue CDs appearing weekly of dusties from back in the day, more vinyl surfacing than for some considerable years regardless of the genre you collect, loads of outlets searching for long lost or unissued product, new releases galore finding their way onto vinyl 45’s and albums, and if you’re into the rare soul scene and collect original releases there appears to be more becoming available than at any time I’ve known in the last ten years, I have a ‘wants list’ of eight 45s that I have never encountered in the flesh, five I’ve never seen for sale until this year that is. This album falls into the unissued category, a four piece group who are well-known in rare soul circles with a couple of their early pieces commanding three figures. My first real introduction to this group was the self titled 1973 Mercury set which was produced by Roy C with further 45s seeing a release from the album too.

Some time later I was exposed to the two rare 45s, “If You Can’t Tell Me Something Good”, which surfaced in 1982 and with Soul Sam behind it, it soon became a grail piece and even today rarely turns up as a 45, the 12” mix appears occasionally, it’s become even more collectable due to the stunning ballad “Take This Love” on the flip. Then we have the 1977 OTB 45, “Signs Of A Dying Love”, again not an easy 45 to find, at the time of recording two versions were cut and the slower more impassioned cut is one of the eleven tracks on the album, all of which were recorded between 1975 and 1977 at three separate recording sessions. The album is a very solid mixture of styles and tempo, which is right up my street, kicking off with the scintillating ballad, “I Got Everything”, with lead vocals by Jimmy Ponder, who gives possibly his best performance on the album. There are two enormous dancers on here too, by way of “I Knew It Wouldn’t Last” and “How I Feel About You”, with the latter destined for plays in modern rooms everywhere, with driving urgent percussion and thumping bass, it will have you moving your feet. The track, however, which has taken over my head, is “Give Me Just A Little”, which is a lovely harmony head-nodder reminiscent of the Main Ingredient in places, certainly a great pick for soul radio.

The group for these recordings consists of Jimmy Ponder, Walter Moreland, Lawrence ‘Buck’ Jones and Preston. I wonder what happened to Lucky Antomattei who appeared as part of the group in the Mercury days? There are two very dated sounding dancers here which could get favour amongst Northern Soul devotees and a couple of worthy instrumentals too, a thoroughly enjoyable album topped off with the man himself, Soul Sam, providing sleeve notes, and quite rightly so, as he tells us the Brite Lite 45 is his favourite soul record of all time, and coming from a man who has consistently broken new ground with his music choices and is still today considered by many to be the top DJ in the country and Europe. Available in all formats including 25 demo copies which were made available prior to its official release.

An essential purchase on every front. Thank you Cordial Recordings.

Brian Goucher

Astral Travelling Since 1993