Stefano Bollani Trio ‘Mediterraneo’ (ACT) 3/5

ACT has made it a virtual trademark to showcase the very best in up and coming pianistic talent and has invariably done so in challenging settings that stimulates creativity and label boss Siggi Loch is to be commended for such an open-minded approach. This live recording is a coming together of a fourteen piece string and brass ensemble that are part of the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the so-called, ‘Mitglieder’, or orchestral members, and the repertoire is re-interpretations of classical opera pieces in a piano jazz trio milieu with classical elements added and arrangements by Norwegian Geir Lysne. Danish jazz accompanists Jesper Bodilsen (double bass) and Morten Lund (drums) make up the closely knit trio and there are a few more contemporary Italian pop and film soundtrack numbers added in for good measure and a little variety. If the idea behind the project is an excellent one and fully deserving of support, then the execution needs to be clear about where classical and jazz elements coincide and can be complimentary, and where they are better separated to avoid sounding too stilted.

Where this works best is when the trio get down to business and create an intimate environment in which to take off in new directions on well known themes, as with Nino Rota’s ‘Amarcord’, from a famous Federico Fellini film of the same title. If anything, the project as whole would have been better served sticking to more contemporary fare and they perform well again on ‘The good, the bad and the ugly’. A medley of Leoncavallo and Puccini numbers, ‘O mio babbino caro’ for the latter and ‘Mattinata’ for the former, showcases the trio at their best recalling the Brad Mehldau sound. However, the strings and brass, however well performed by member of arguably the premier western classical orchestra in the world, simply sound too rigid in a jazz context, and there is no improvised feel which sounds strange when one is accustomed to a swinging big band jazz orchestra. That is no fault of the musicians themselves who are fine individuals in their own right and, moreover, need to be in order to regularly perform with the Berlin Phil. Rather, they are being asked to perform in an idiom which is not their own and ultimately that structural weakness has to be addressed.

Maybe a project devoted to the music of Paolo Conte, or another composer of the same calibre might prove to be fertile terrain for a future follow up. The now distinctive artwork comes courtesy of Federico Herrero, with a gatefold sleeve that reveals inner notes in English and German.

Tim Stenhouse

Jon Hassell ‘Dream Theory In Malaya: Fourth World Volume Two’ LP+CD/CD (Glitterbeat) 4/5

This remastered re-issue from 1981 follows on from the first volume, still available on Glitterbeat, and collectively these albums that have inspired other trumpeters such as Scandinavians Arve Henriksen and Niels-Petter Molvaer to explore improvised music with sound effects. Trumpeter, Hassell, grew up in Memphis and went on to study composition and incorporating electronics into music with no less than Stockhausen in Cologne. If that were not enough, he then moved to New York and while there studied under Terry Riley, Lamonte Young and Phillip Glass as well as being mentored by Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath. Among collaborations, Hassell can count David Byrne and Talking Heads, Ry Cooder and Peter Gabriel as co-musicians, an impressive list to say the least. The album is part of a wider series that explore the relationship between non-Western modalities and sound processing, and are as experimental sounding now as they were when they first surfaced. Indeed, Jon Hassell is credited as the musician who coined the term, ‘Fourth world’, to define trans-cultural music.

This album finds him collaborating with Brian Eno who was living in New York at the time. Typical of the music as a whole is the eerie textured sound of the title track where the trumpet repeats a riff ad infinitum while in the background the listener hears multiple other sounds. Javanese world beat flavours meet Pygmy music in places, with a strong Polynesian feel to ‘Dato Ointung at Jelong’, which is notable for showcasing a cacophony of South Asian sound effects, and this hints in part at a ship’s horn lost in fog with muted harmon trumpet playing this role. Elsewhere frogs, children singing and laughter are all incorporated. Ambient and exotic in equal measure.

Jon Hassell liked to refer to his concept as ‘Coffee-coloured music of the future’, and this is most certainly other worldly and futuristic even by today’s standards. Inner sleeve notes by the leader shed light on the creative process.

Tim Stenhouse

Qotob Trio ‘Entity’ CD/DIG (Choux de Bruxelles) 5/5

Brussels-based independent label Choux de Bruxelles comes up with one of the most interesting new releases in recent years and a bona fide ECM sound recording in all but name. The genesis of the album is the encounter between three musicians from disparate and seemingly polars apart traditions and a previous quartet album recorded in Damascus between four young Syrians looking to mentally escape the confines of war. One of these, Syrian cellist Bassel Abou Fakher, left his native land to settle in the Belgian capital and has a strong Middle Eastern classical background. Belgian pianist Jean-Baptiste Delneuville is resolutely francophone in outlook and oscillates between classical and jazz. Accordionist Piet Maris comes from the Flemish-speaking community in Belgian, yet stylistically belongs more to the French chanson tradition. Collectively, this is less East meets West than East to West, and the musical balance constantly shifts, including within a given composition, and it is that ingredient that makes the music so enthralling from start to finish. Part improvised, part simple structures, the music has elements of J.S. Bach, early music, Arabic classical, and jazz all ingeniously fused into one.

Beautifully recorded, and of a quality that ECM devotees will doubtlessly appreciate, the music is at once meditative, challenging, and deeply spiritual in character. Hauntingly stark in tone, the mournful, ‘Cone’, begins with a single and lengthy note held by accordion before the cello enters and it is as if the spontaneity between musicians is akin to that of a practice session, albeit one where the music is carefully thought out. Pianist Delneuville fills in the gaps.

A genuine contender for the most melodic piece is ‘Yara’, which has a gorgeous Middle Eastern feel and a sensation of great intimacy with piano and accordion working in tandem. The music unfolds like a fairy tale, with cello resisting the temptation to join in the festivities until late on in the number. Strongest of all, however, is the stunning ‘Deconstruction’, that ends the album with eleven and a half minutes of sheer brilliance. A floating layered texture emerges from the piece with the strings acting like a synthesizer and minimalist piano serving as a counterfoil to bowed cello. Accordion takes centre stage on ‘Al Ruba’, and for some additional sounds, voices, while piano and cello plays a merely supportive role. Instrumental breakdowns are a feature of ‘Resistors’, where the piano repeats a motif and the bowed cello engages in some improvised passages. Musicians double up on trumpet (Delneuville), guitar (Maris) and voices (Maris again).

Albums like this only come along once in a while and should be savored. Breathtaking in outlook and delivery.

Tim Stenhouse

Mike Downes ‘Root Structure’ CD/DIG (Addo) 5/5

Here’s another helping of great jazz from Canada. Mike Downes is a bassist of some repute having been prominent on the Canadian jazz scene since the early 1980’s. Not only does he play wonderful bass but he is also a talented composer, arranger and educator. He’s played with the cream of the Canadian musicians and some of the biggest names in jazz including Pat Metheny, Chris Potter, Michael Brecker, Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor, to name just a few. On top of all this he is a Juno award winner for his 2014 album, ‘Ripple Effect’.

The emphasis for this album is melody. The album presents 10 compositions, the majority of which are written by Downes. There is even an interpretation of a Chopin ‘Prelude’. This is clearly a quartet of very talented musicians. As stated on Mike’s website, the album “has everything a jazz lover looks for in a record – outstanding compositions, tight ensemble play and dynamic soloing” and “demands repeated listens”. Is there anything more for me to say? Well, yes, plenty.

The quartet features the talents of Robie Botos (keyboards) Ted Quinlan (guitars) and Larnell Lewis (drums). The album opens with ‘Momentum’ and the first thing that one notices is the leader’s warm bass sound, deep and low-down. This seems to me to be a quite complex piece of writing which succeeds in displaying the evident skills of all involved. ‘Heart of the Matter’ is a spine-tingling ballad. The guitarist is well featured on this track. From mellow acoustic guitar we move to electric guitar reminiscent of John Scofield on ‘Miles’. Indeed, this could almost have been a Scofield composition in terms of the spirit of the piece. ‘Moving Mountains’ is different again, more intense than what has preceded it. Insistent pulsating rhythms are a characteristic of this tune. ‘The Raven’ is a delightful medium swing composition and amongst other delights, includes another feature for Downes. The title track is pure funkiness and drummer and bassist are clearly having fun on this one. More please. Then it’s back to more reflective material with ‘Flow’ with seductive guitar from Quinlan. A contemplative ‘Pre-Prelude’ follows and is a lovely feature for Botos. ‘Prelude and Variations’ is next. Aside from inspiring a certain Barry Manilow, this tune proves to be a perfect vehicle for these four master improvisers. This, for me, is the highlight of the album. The acoustic guitar fitting the mood of the piece perfectly.

The recording is completed by ‘Matter of the Heart’. A fine relaxed piece which brings to mind the best of Pat Metheny.

This album is as close to perfect as it is possible to get and fully warrants its rating here. Buy it!

Alan Musson

Zara McFarlane ‘Arise’ CD/LP/DIG (Brownswood) 3/5

The follow up to the excellent jazz-tinged debut, ‘Arise’. This is more of a pan-Caribbean affair and incorporates lovers rock-style harmonies, folkloric kumina rhythms, nyabinghi drumming and dub-soaked echo. Some of the finest of young British jazz talent is onboard here, with Moses Boyd on drums and the overall producer, Peter Edwards on piano, Binker Golding on tenor saxophone, and Shabaka Hutchings guesting on one track. If the ‘variety is the spice of life’ approach is the overarching raison d’être of this new album, it does succeed in producing one gem of a song in the cover of a Nora Dean song, ‘Peace Begins Within’, and this is a glorious piece with inventive use of horns that constantly soothes the mind, while Zara McFarlane is on the top of her game with a stunning performance. Nothing quite matches this, which is a pity, but, if released as a single, it stands a good chance of helping promoting the album as a whole to a wider public. Another cover, this time of the Congos’ 1977 opus, ‘Fisherman Row’, impresses with a gentler reggae beat than on the classic roots reggae original, some neat nyabinghi drumming to accompany and those subtle horns once again in evidence. Crossover potential is evident in the Caribbean drum pattern to, ‘Fussin’ and Fightin’, and McFarlane delivers some quality soulful vocals. In between songs, short instrumental vignettes such as, ‘Riddim’ Interlude’ and the keyboard-dominated dub of ‘Freedom Chain’, hint at an artist who is looking beyond purely commercial considerations to create something of artistic longevity. Another instrumental, ‘Silhouette’, features Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet and is, perhaps, the closest that this album gets to jazz.

Perhaps the one frustrating aspect of this new album for this writer is the overall jazz-lite content, though clearly that was never going to be the objective on an album that proudly showcases the Caribbean roots of the singer. Zara McFarlane should definitely pursue this fusion approach to music and it will surely pay off big-time. The balance is not quite there yet, but it is definitely heading in the right direction and there is still a good deal to commend. Looking forward to hearing Zara McFarlane in live performance at some stage.

Tim Stenhouse

Mista Savona Presents ‘Havana Meets Kingston’ (Baco) 4/5

When ska ruled the waves in Jamaica, the Cuban-Jamaican musical connection was at its height and several Jamaican instrumentalists and singers could point to Cuban family roots there. These included Roland Alphonso and Lionel Aitken among others. Stylistically, Cuban piano vamps were sometimes a feature of ska in the early-mid 1960s (taking the Latin-soul music of Mongo Santamaria as a model), but with this brand new project, recorded at Egrem studios in Havana, by DJ/producer Mista Savona, aka Australian producer Jake Savona, that music connection has been given a major update, while still being faithful to the roots of Cuban and Jamaican music traditions respectively.

An ‘A’ grade listing of musicians includes Sly and Robbie, the Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of reggae music, percussionist Bongo Herman and guitarist Ernest Ranglin, while for the Cuban component, Rolando Luna from the Buena Vista Social Club conglomerate and Barbarito Torres from Los Van Van are just some of the musicians that make this cross-fertilisation of styles so appealing. While some of the tinkering is minimal, elsewhere there is a genuine fusion of musical traditions and, as a whole, this works extremely well.

For the former, the cuatro intro to the anthemic, ‘Chan Chan’, then takes on a subtle Jamaican flavour with nyabinghi bongo, and reggae riddims courtesy of ace drummer Sly Dunbar. Another classic Cuban tune in, ‘El cuarto de Tula’, is a full steam ahead percussive outing complete with piano vamp and Spanish rap that definitely works and gives the song a more contemporary feel

For the latter, there is greater experimentation as on the instrumental version of ‘Carnival Horns’, which starts off as pure roots reggae, but then dramatically veers off back to the Cuban tradition, yet throughout the complementary styles play off one another organically. The vocal version, ‘Carnival’, has been released as a single and, with lyrics in Spanish and Jamaican patois, it sounds like the ideal song to showcase the album as a whole, and with the right amount of publicity, should ensure the music reaches a wide audience. A 50/50 split between Cuban and Jamaican music is achieved on ‘Vibración Positive’, where instrumentation and vocals effortless rub against one another and give off an intoxicating musical perfume.

While this record can never claim to even begin to solve the multiple social and more recently meteorological problems facing the Caribbean, it does at the every least bring a small ray of sunshine into our lives and that is no bad thing.

Tim Stenhouse

Lo’Jo ‘Fonetiq Flowers’ CD (World Village) 3/5

French roots group Lo’Jo hail from north-west France, but their pioneering brand of world music takes on board multiple influences from North Africa (the two lead female vocalists have Algerian roots) to instrumentation that incorporates the musical traditions of Iran and even Korea. Despite this, the sound is still immediately identifiable as French, and therein lies part of the problem with this latest album, which is overwhelmingly bleak in tone.

The music has a tendency to be wildly eclectic in places, with the emphasis on French lyrics as befitting the French chanson tradition. For non-francophone speakers, this combination of traditional French language lyrics and experimental world beats is likely to confuse and, sadly, there are no obvious songs to these ears that can elevate the band sound to a wider and non-specialist audience. Thus, the dissonant guitar and use of piano on ‘Chabalai’, is pure French chanson, but without a commercial hook. Further on, the slightly futuristic sounding ‘Figurine’ has electronica accompaniment alongside violin and female vocals. It is true to say that the band have sought to diversify by including English lyrics, as on ‘Noisy Flowers’, but this is delivered in a quasi US rap fashion, and with a female chorus that is straight out of a South African township. All wildly eclectic, but will a general audience be enthralled, or bemused by it all?

Lo’Jo are a group who are uncompromising in their ethos and that is to be applauded. This is probably their most reflective album thus far. However, it remains to be seen whether an audience beyond those already committed, will understand and be able to follow the music itself.

Tim Stenhouse

Orchestre Les Mangelepa ‘Last Band Standing’ CD/LP/DIG (Strut) 4/5

East African soukous, influenced by the Congolese rumba, was a regular feature of the 1970s African music scene and those of a certain age will fondly remember Orchestra Super Mazembe. By the mid-1980s, however, a combination of the demise of vinyl, the influx of cheap electronic instrumentation, and the sheer cost of recording as well as keeping a big band going for live performance, all resulted in larger ensembles disappearing.

In recent years, with the rediscovery of cult African bands by DJs and independent labels from Europe and North America, the classic sound of soukous has come back into vogue, and one happy by-product of this has been the re-emergence of Orchestre Les Mangelepa. In their specific case, it was Tom Kazungu who took the helm of the band’s management and a reformed group consequently took up residency in central Nairobi, at the Tents club and Simmers. These live performances in turn stimulated the band to go back into the studios and the scintillating sounds are before you.

With a ten piece band that has no less than three vocalists, a rhythm section comprising two guitarists and bass, plus two additional percussionists, and two horn players plus an extra keyboardist, this is music on a grand scale. Thankfully, in keeping with the original band sound, the production is not overly slick and keeping things simple and allowing the music itself to take care of business was the right policy. At seventy-five minutes for just eight numbers, the individual songs are lengthy with plenty of opportunity for the instrumentalists to take off on an extended rhythm guitar of horn solo and that makes for superb dance-oriented grooves that are seemingly never ending. The opening number, ‘Kanemo’, starts matters off on a busy and dramatic footing with beautiful vocal harmonies that continue throughout, and with a trumpet solo that enters proceedings six minutes in. Intimate guitar work and a gentle intro leads into some shuffling percussion work on ‘Suzanna’, with fine support from the horns. A delicious mid-tempo groove is created on, ‘Maindusa’, and this formation, which is in fact a group that split from the original band (a frequent occurrence in all forms of Congolese music), are now undertaking a world tour, having first travelled around Uganda and Malawi. Watch out for the UK leg of this tour which is due in spring 2018. Hopefully, some of the original albums will be re-issued at some later stage.

Tim Stenhouse

Blind Boys Of Alabama ‘Almost Home’ CD-R/DIG (BBOA) 5/5

In the seven decades since the Blind Boys of Alabama first began singing together, America has witnessed a World War, the civil rights movement, and the Summer of Love; the moon landing, Vietnam, and the fall of the Berlin Wall; JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X; the invention of the jukebox, the atomic bomb, and the internet. Through it all, the Blind Boys’ music has not only endured, but thrived, helping both to define the sound of the American south and to push it forward through the 20th century and well on into the 21st. Praised by NPR as “pioneers”, the group has transcended barriers of race and genre to become one of the most acclaimed and celebrated groups in modern music. From the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, where the original members met as children, all the way to The White House – where they’ve performed for three different presidents – the band’s story is, in many ways, America’s story, and that story is at the heart of their emotional new album, ‘Almost Home’.

Recorded over four different sessions helmed by four different GRAMMY-winning producers in four different cities, ‘Almost Home’ recounts the band’s remarkable journey, primarily through original songs written for them by an outstanding collection of artists including Valerie June, the North Mississippi Allstars, Phil Cook, John Leventhal, Marc Cohn, and Ruthie Foster among others. The record is the band’s first in three years, following on the heels of 2014’s ‘Talkin’ Christmas!’ with Taj Mahal and their 2013 collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, ‘I’ll Find A Way’, and it sees them picking up right where they left off, blending the sacred and secular, the traditional and innovative, the past and present.

‘Almost Home’ grew out of the recognition that the band’s original lineup is down to just two remaining survivors: long-time group leader, Clarence Fountain, and current leader Jimmy Carter. Both men were born in Alabama during the Great Depression, and while Carter is still active and regularly touring with the group, Fountain’s health precludes him from traveling much these days, though he does appear on the album.

“These men were both raised as blind, African American males in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, and they were sent to a school where the expectation for them was to one day make brooms or mops for a living”, says Blind Boys’ manager Charles Driebe. “But they’ve transcended all that. The arc of their lives and of the band reflects the arc of a lot of changes in American society, and we wanted to find a way to capture their experiences in songs.”

The above is taken from the group’s website and I would ask you to revisit and read on, it’s an exhilarating ride. And so to the music… traditional southern gospel influenced soul, including a total masterpiece in ‘Singing Brings Us Closer’, black, slow and full of emotion and passion, you just know these guys mean every word and with a wonderful big production job, I’ve got a handful of 45’s and long players and it seems like groups like this have been with me all my adult life, this is history in the making, the times we are living in are not producing groups like this anymore and we must lift up our heads and open our ears and embrace this music before it disappears for ever, I’m listening to the title track and it’s as poignant as ever, they’re on their way back home to Alabama, they’re “Almost Home”. Wonderful. Simply wonderful.

Brian Goucher

Calvin Richardson ‘All Or Nothing’ CD/DIG (Shanachie) 5/5

Listen, this is produced by the legendary Willie Clayton so you gotta pay attention, too right you have, because for the most part this is the finest sounding Calvin Richardson we have ever heard. He’s been in this game for some 20 years but he ain’t sounded like this before, if you need proof go straight to the album ender ‘Holding On/Can’t Let Go’, a stunning head-nodding floater in which Richardson really does let go vocally.

The album kicks off with what might be some folks dancer of the year, the album title track sounds very R Kelly influenced but with enough subtle touches and quality vocals to make hold its own – love the stabbing strings, and the rhythm just takes your body over. Then we have Willie Clayton at his best in the shape of ‘The Only One’, a lovely down-tempo stepper that could have graced any Willie Clayton album over the past 10 years. The very classy southern inspired ‘Treat Her Right’ will have you thinking Bobby Womack from the opening monologue as it drifts into the sheer beauty that is modern day balladry. Easily the finest track on the album and one that’s on repeat play here at home.

Next up we move into ‘I Love The Way’, which continues the soul-full feel of what’s gone before, moving effortlessly into the sheer string laden beauty that is ‘Breaking Down Inside’ with more pain and suffering going on than you can shake a big stick at, and you can hear it vocally. Is this the best Calvin Richardson we’ve heard to date? Well the quality is maintained in the meandering ballad, ‘Make Up Love’, which is growing in stature here by the hour. I could bang the drum about this classy soul album for ages but just go out and buy it, likely indeed to be in my top 10 albums of the year (if I bother to do a list). Simply stunning.

Brian Goucher

travelling the spaceways since 1993