The Reunion Project ‘Varanda’ (Tapestry) 5/5

Lifelong friends Felipe Salles (saxophone), Chico Pinheiro (guitar), Tiago Costa (piano), and Edu Ribeiro (drums) have bridged the years to form The Reunion Project. The four Brazilian musicians came of age in São Paulo listening to a unique blend of jazz and Brazilian music that shaped each of them as they embarked on notable but diverging careers in music. Two decades on, and with the addition of young bassist Bruno Migotto, “Varanda”, the quintet’s debut, reflects well the eclectic roots and youthful camerarderie of its members, deepened and honed by the maturity gleaned from twenty-something years of study and experience. On this wonderful recording the five Brazilian virtuosos explore the far-reaching crossroads of modern jazz and Brazilian music through nine original compositions and the aptly chosen standard ‘Yesterdays’.

There is a lovely, warm, nostalgic feel to this album. One can sense the friendship and love of music coming out of the speakers as the light and breezy music fills the room with joy and early morning sunshine. Like a Spring sunrise lighting up the day, it puts a smile on my face and contentment in my heart. “We all share a common background” says Felipe Salles, “We have the same early influences and figured out who we wanted to be as musicians around the same time. From sitting in a room in college listening to music together to so many years later having established ourselves in the field, it’s quite a nice thing to come back and reunite on the other side of the spectrum from where you started.”

Salles and Pinheiro share the longest relationship according to the saxophonist. The two spent countless hours listening to fusion-era jazz giants like Weather Report, the Yellowjackets and Pat Metheny, alongside Brazilian icons like Elis Regina, Milton Nascimento and Hermeto Pascoal. And although much water has passed under the bridge since those formative years of discovery, it is very much apparent on listening to this album that the seeds were sown early on. With time and experience comes maturity, and there is a clear sense of this throughout all of the tunes on this session, with a relaxed feel allowing the musicians to produce some richly rewarding music.

There is a natural chemistry that comes from the musicians knowing each other so well, and this shines brightly throughout the album. Each member of the band brought in new compositions, all written with each other in mind. And it shows. The opening tune ‘Sinuosa’ sets the tone, with its formidable writing and stylish performances. A Brecker-esque saxophone melody cuts through the South American rhythms as the band gel immediately. Pinheiro’s guitar playing is particularly stunning, with a gorgeous solo lifting the tune even further. There’s a beautiful warmth to ‘Cobalt Blue’ as Costa’s gorgeous piano chords take us into this piece, the tune bringing the best out of all of the musicians. ‘Maracatim’ is a light and breezy tune that enjoys a care-free feel to it. There’s a sincerity to ‘Sunset’ that breathes out a touch of class and elegance. As with many of the tunes here, the soloing is of the highest order, but it’s never at the expense of the tune itself. Everything is integrated so well, so naturally. The musicians combine their talents with an effortless grace. The tunes are masterfully written and performed, and on ‘Jack and The Goblin Brother’, the quintet stretch out and flex their musical muscles with some incredible soloing. I love the way the Brazilian and contemporary jazz styles are fused so effortlessly. The listenable richness of sound belies its complexities, and with great solos from Salles and Ribeiro, this is one of those tunes that excites and startles in equal measure. The title track ‘Varanda’ has a gentleness to it that is soft and touching. It might sound a little odd to say this, but it’s like a cross between a 1940’s ballroom classic and an esoteric tune appearing on an ECM release… but it works very well. ‘Reunion’ typifies what this band do so well by integrating memorable melodies and catchy hooks, with intelligent playing. The skillful art of composition continues with ‘Mathias’, sounding almost like something from the Mehldau/Metheny songbook. ‘BR’ is a jazzier piece that manages to be thoughtful, lively and foot-tapping all at the same time. The writing really is impeccable, but the way this quartet breathe life and energy into the tunes is a joy to experience. The album closes with ‘Yesterdays’, a somewhat poignant title to the end of an album that actually heralds new beginnings for this excellent quintet.

An uplifting album in so many ways, The Reunion Project’s ‘Varanda’ will be an album I come back to whenever I need a bit of a lift. Or just because I need a reminder of how great musicians come together as friends and make great music together.

Mike Gates

Shez Raja ‘Gurutopia’ (Dot Time) 4/5

Gurutopia is the fifth album to be released from the Shez Raja Collective.
Shez’s website describes his music as “a sonic kaleidoscope of Indo-jazz, thundering funk, tuneful ragas and euphoric groove”. Electric bassist Shez has also been described as a genre-buster, and this album makes it easy to understand why. Indeed, the blend of musical styles on show here includes most of the above, with a smattering of rock also thrown in for good measure.
Within the tracks, there are clear nods to Eastern music and Miles Davis. Perhaps it was my imagination running riot, but while listening, my mind, racing with the heady mix of styles, instruments and melodies also detected numerous serene slivers of sound, bringing back memories of delicious morsels from artists such as Van Morrison, Alison Krauss and possibly even Judie Tzuke.
Musicianship is always of a very high standard. There are excellent solos from fine artists such as Randy Brecker on Trumpet, Vasilis Xenopoulos on saxophone and the delicate voice of Polish born singer Monika Lidke. Chris Nickolls’s drumming is always tight and engaging. Steve Pringle and Alex Stanford on keyboards, violinist Pascal Roggen and Mike Stern on guitar complete the brilliant line up.

The album features eight tracks comprising: Rabbits, Maharaja, Song For John, My Imaginary Friend, Sketches Of Space, RocknRolla, Prime time and Shiva Mantra.
The band was evidently having a good time while recording this album. No, more like an absolute blast. There is a pretty good chance that it will put a smile on your face as well.

Tony Stewart

Pete Oxley and Nicolas Meier ‘The Colours of Time’ 2CD (MG) 4/5

Following up on their well received 2015 duet album, ‘Chasing Tales’, comes a double album that once again pairs the duo together, but this time with an extended quartet formation on the second CD including acoustic and electric bassist Raph Mizrahi and drummer Paul Cavaciuti. In fact, the latter CD has more of an expansive Pat Metheny group feel to it, with the layered sound of the opener, ‘The Followers’, illustrating the empathy that flows organically between the two guitarists. On the intimate ballad, ‘Looking West’, the jazz tradition is recalled with both Jim Hall and Pat Metheny evoked. A personal favourite of this writer is the samba shuffling drum pattern by drummer Paul Cavaciuti on, ‘Chasing Kites’, with intricate guitar work from Oxley.
Medieval music sounds greet the listener at the very beginning of, ‘Tales’, but this soon gives way to inventive polyrhythms as bass and drums enter collectively. The first CD demonstrates beyond all doubt that the two guitarists are capable of complimenting one another and are best showcased on delicate numbers such as, ‘A Piece For Peace’, presumably in tribute to Bill Evans. Gypsy jazz and even a Brazilian undercurrent collide and then fuse on, ‘Waltz for Dilek’, and make for a fascinating contrast.

The duo have been performing extensively at UK dates throughout March and continue through April including Norwich, Nottingham and Oxford. Well worth the effort of checking them out live since they are both virtuoso performers, though always with musicality at the forefront of their minds.

Tim Stenhouse

Uvee Hayes ‘Nobody But You’ (Mission Park) 5/5

There are voices that stand out from the moment you hear them, make you stop what your doing, they reset the world around you, give the moment some clarity, Uvee Hayes is one of them. Her vocals have a wonderful fragility but she can also hold her own when she has to hang tough. When Shirley Brown and Barbara Mason appeared to be ruling the roost in the late 70’s early 80’s I often wondered why Uvee wasn’t up there, her voice would have added a lovely contrast to the sound that was dominating playlists and the air-waves over here. She’s been around for more years than we can mention, and has worked with just about every major player around, releasing 9 albums, blimey some of us can remember her on ‘Cassette’ and in recent times CDs. Let’s not forget the 45’s I have nestling on the shelves too. Her last album was simply superb and I have to tell you this album is more of the same. Well crafted songs and a music score that is just so right, the musicians are the premier league of St Louis, Dennis Brewer, Eric McSpadden, Vestye Jackson and Gerald Warre. We also have the hugely respected and notable bass player and producer James McKay who is currently the band leader for Dennis Edwards and his Temptations review. (I wonder if Mr Jackson is the same man that gave us the stunning “I’m still in love with you” a couple of years ago, now that is a tune).

She has a following in St Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, Columbia, Missouri throughout the South, her fame has also reached the Far East, not to forget Europe and in particular the UK. It’s not surprising really the music is timeless, base heavy with intricate touches, a bluesy earthy ‘real’ undercurrent but with enough soul to satisfy people like me. Vocally she’s unique at the moment, no-one else sings the way she does and long may it continue.

Some highlights then from the album, “Your love’s got a hold on me” is a future modern soul anthem, its been on repeat play, very very loud too, a chugging dancer, kicking off with short guitar licks and off we go, an athemic chorus line, this has 4am Soul Essence written all over it, its playing now love the sweet back up singers and that sax sounding solo too. Perfect for UK modern soul dance floors. On the last album she was telling us about the “Handy Man” well he’s here again only she’s renamed him “Maintenance man”, it’s a lovely mid-tempo stepper and for more of the same get a load of “Mr Fixit man” with its thunderous base subtle key changes, and a subtle ‘Chacking’ guitar that underpins the sound perfectly – it’s the type of sound Willie Mitchell would be putting out of the Hi studios. Another serious highlight is the title track, “Nobody but you”, a mellow subtle meandering opus and when she sigs like this I can hear hints of Diana Ross in there. I could rattle on relentlessly but space and all that, buy the album wack it on loud and like me you will love it. I believe the release is due for release any day now.

Brian Goucher

Daniel Herskedal ‘The Roc’ (Edition) 4/5

Who would have thought it? A quintet led by a tuba player with viola, cello, piano and percussion? This might on face value appear to be a tad too eclectic for their own good, but Edition Records have once again proved what a forward thinking and innovative label they are, with Norwegian Daniel Herskedal’s latest release, ‘The Roc’. Wonderful, inspired music can come in any form if it is led by a quality musician with a sense of compositional subtlety and a group of musicians with collective prowess and understanding. And so it is that this quintet successfully weave a web of intriguing, innovative sound, seamlessly fusing a unique mix of influences, from folk, jazz, classical and Arabic music. The resulting album is a delight to the ears, food for the soul and inspiration for the mind. Over the last couple of years, the trio of Daniel Herskedal, Helge Andreas Norbakken and Eyolf Dale, along with string players Bergmund Waal Skaslien and Svente Henryson, have defined themselves as one of the most innovative small ensembles in Europe today. The beauty of their music comes to life on ‘The Roc’, an album which has its roots in inspiring trips Herskedal made to Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. And indeed, the Middle Eastern influences throughout this album are strong, with the themes of place and travelling ever-present.

There is so much character, intensity and beauty to be heard here, that it is easy to grasp that Herskedal is a musician with a clear and bold vision. The richness of the music being performed and the sublime nature of it all, reflects a true understanding of how music and musicians should work together in a collaborative sense. And from the listener’s point of view, it just works, it just sounds right, as if it was always meant to be so.

The recording features ten original compositions, the titles of some originating from the names of scales (Kurd, Bayat, Nahawund To Kurd) and rhythms (Thuruuya) and others from Arabic sayings, one of which surely making for the best track title of the year so far; ‘There are three things you cannot hide, love, smoke and a man riding on a camel’.

From the dancing frivolity of the opener ‘Seeds of Language’, to the hauntingly beautiful ‘Eternal Sunshine Creates A Desert’, to the thought-provoking closing track ‘All That Has Happened As Fate Willed’, the playing from all five musicians, but especially the sublime, creative and intelligent playing from Herskedal himself, makes this session at times a joy to be behold. The arrangements are key to many of the tunes, with the band’s collective creativity shining like a beacon on a distant shore, spreading light across the misty waters.

I found this album to be a breath of fresh air. Maybe it’s a bit of a sweeping statement, but Scandinavian jazz certainly seems to continue to produce wonderful musicians with an incredible capacity to embrace their roots whilst pushing boundaries and musical genres to create some quite simply stunning music. Daniel Herskedal is most definitely one of those musicians leading the way.

Mike Gates

Valerie Carr ‘Song Stylist Extraordinaire’ / ‘Ev’ry Hour, Ev’ry Day of My Life’ (Jasmine) 3/5

A new name to many, and even to those alive at the time of her popularity, singer Valerie Carr remains something of an enigma. She fits into the one-hit wonder category when she scored a late 1950s pop hit on the Billboard top twenty chart with, ‘When the boys talk about the girls’, a song which the Shirelles revisited in 1966. This song intriguingly is not included here, but the two albums, originally on the Roulette label (a label that included both Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington) both date from 1959 and were co-produced by Hugo Creatore and Hugo Peretti. They come across as an attempt to attract a wider audience, much like Julie London, but minus the jazzy accompaniment that London often had to support her.
Carr’s easy listening sound, which is not dissimilar to a young Dionne Warwick, tackles an essentially standard repertoire that includes bizarrely, ‘Try a little tenderness’. That interpretation makes for a comparison with the altogether grittier Stax soul of Otis Redding. Her voice is best sampled on the ballad repertoire such as, ‘Over the rainbow’. What is lacking here is any genuine element of swing and that is best exemplified on her reading of Duke Ellington’s, ‘I got it bad and that ain’t good’, with syrupy strings dominating proceedings.

While there is no doubting the vocal credentials of Valerie Carr, the Hollywood-esque orchestrations are a little hard to take in long doses, and one only wishes Carr had chosen different producers and ones who could have set her in a more pared down environment with jazz musicians. Historical overview notes are written by Soul Basement writer David Cole.

Tim Stenhouse

Keith Oxman ‘East of the Village’ (Capri) 5/5

The history of the Hammond organ trio in jazz is a long and illustrious one.  Here the Hammond B3 is given pride of place. This is fitting as it was the most popular model being in production between 1954 and 1974. This neatly coincided with its popularity with jazz musicians as exemplified by Jimmy Smith on his recording ‘The Champ’ from 1956. Since falling out of favour in the 1970’s it has gradually regained popularity to the point where some now consider it to be the second most popular keyboard instrument after the piano.
From gaining a foothold in jazz, the instrument became popular in rhythm and blues, and later rock and progressive rock music, not to mention ska and reggae. Jazz organists of the calibre of Barbara Dennerlein and Joey DeFrancesco have continued to fly the flag for the instrument well into the 21st century.
Although under the leadership of tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman, there is inevitably an equal focus upon organist Jeff Jenkins. The duo are ably supported by Todd Reid at the drums.
Oxman is a native of Denver and first picked up a tenor saxophone at the age of 12. His C.V includes work with Art Blakey, Max Roach, Sonny Stitt and the Buddy Rich Big Band.

For his ninth release on Capri records, Oxman brings us a mix of original compositions and some lesser-known ‘standards’. The material is complemented by the undoubted ability of the musicians. Oxman possesses a well-rounded sound, agile technique and a thorough knowledge of the hard-bop jazz tradition. Plus he can swing. Oxman prefers to think of the trio as a co-operative endeavour and they have shared histories which stretch back for more than fifteen years.

There are ten tracks on the album and the opener is the comparatively rarely played composition of Jule Styne, ‘Bye Bye Baby’ which is a brisk swinger and some readers may remember that it was sung by Marilyn Monroe in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blonds’.

The album’s title track, a composition from Hank Mobley is next. The following track ‘Deep in a Dream’ is another lesser-known standard and shows the tender side of Oxman’s musical persona and we get great brush-work from Todd Reid too.

Next is a real obscurity, ‘Breeze (Blow my Baby Back to Me)’. A Vaudeville-era song which was recorded by Jim Reeves.

The original compositions fit into the programme well. ‘A Vaunt Guard’ allows drummer Reid to shine and there is a tribute to fellow saxophonist Wayne Shorter in the form of ‘The Shorter Route’.

A favourite track for me is Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Lucky to be Me’. Very tender playing all round.

The set concludes with George Gershwin’s ‘(I’ve Got) Beginners Luck’. For those of you who enjoy musical trivia, this song was introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1937 film ‘Shall We Dance?’ but sadly overshadowed by some of the film’s better-known songs.

This is a completely enjoyable album throughout, made even better by the clever choice of unhackneyed standard tunes. Make a date to spend an hour in the presence of the Keith Oxman Trio and you won’t be disappointed.

Alan Musson

Alan Barnes & Gilad Atzmon ‘The Lowest Common Denominator’ (Woodville) 4/5

How does the pairing of two saxophonists in Alan Barnes and Gilad Atzmon from different generations and traditions suit you? A seemingly unusual coming together of minds actually results in one of the year’s early and most pleasant surprises with inventive modal, post-bop and warm and tender balladry that results in an extremely cohesive and well rounded album. Several members of Atzmon’s band are on hand, including the excellent piano chords of Frank Harrison, and contribute greatly to the sound which has something of a mid-1960s feel. Compositions are shared roughly equally with Atzmon contributing three and Barnes the remaining five. One number that immediately stands out is the brooding intensity of the title track which is no less than six minutes of spiritually inspired jazz with a strong modal bassline. This is performed by bassist Yaron Stavi at an achingly slow pace operating a minimalist piano routine and a wonderful horn solo that could either be Barnes on clarinet, or Atzmon on soprano. Shades of Jackie McLean circa 1965 on Blue Note surface on the stunning, ‘Phonus Bolonus’, which has a lovely Latin vamp on piano and in general a waltz-like groove with creative use of drums underneath by Chris Higginbottom. Qualities ballads are another feature of this album with, Sweet pea’, the pick of a strong selection and with an alto solo of distinction from Barnes. Meanwhile post-bop meets blues hues on, ‘Blip blop’ and there is an expansive workout between drums and soprano saxophone on the uptempo, ‘Giladiator’. In fact the only down side is the silly cover photo which, perhaps, takes a leaf out of a Tribe Called Quest album from the 1990s, but could have been dispensed with. No indication yet of any UK tour dates. but this surely a band that needs to be recorded in live performance. One of the year’s surprise formations and an early candidate for best British (plus other nationalities) album of the year.

Tim Stenhouse

Collocutor ‘The Search’ LP/DIG (On The Corner) 5/5

“The Search” is the second album from Collocutor, the London based ensemble led by Tamar Osborn. There is a vintage, authentic feel to the seven original tunes, with themes of spirituality, searching, belonging, and a sense of emotional grounding running through and connecting the pieces together. Modal jazz blends beautifully, beatifically, with an innate soulful expression to give the listener an intimate and engaging experience.
Collocutor are: Tamar Osborn, baritone and soprano sax and alto flute, Simon Finch, trumpet and flugelhorn, Mike Lesirge, tenor and soprano sax, Suman Joshi, bass, Marco Piccioni, guitar, Magnus Mehta, percussion, and Maurizio Ravalico, percussion. The first thing to mention is that collectively, the band work incredibly well together, So much so that one can feel the expressive nature of their music. It is perhaps as it should be; the instruments being purely a vessel from which the artists breathe life through the music they make.
Collocutor is the brainchild of saxophonist Tamar Osborn and the project grew from her wish to simply write the music that wanted to be written, rather than focus on a particular audience or context. As such, the compositions draw inspiration from the many genres encountered over a course of a varied career, ranging from jazz, afrobeat, Indian classical and Ethiopian roots to polyphonic choral music and minimalism – the link being primarily modal music with a transportive effect. There is an authentic ethnic feel that flows throughout this recording, and indeed, one that seems to underpin everything else. The music is at times minimalistic, at times coursing with unadulterated adventure, and at times burning brightly as Osborn’s vision sparks into life, transporting the listener to either a previously unexperienced dimension, or to deep within his/her own soul; tempting and teasing out emotive responses to what is being heard.
‘The Search’ is such a bold album in so many ways, not least given the fact that Osborn appears to have an inner strength and confidence to go with her heart and make music in the way that she feels is right for her. The expressive nature of the music is thoughtful, intriguing and engrossing. It beguiles and it soothes and it transforms and it awakens. It opens up the mind, body and soul in an almost meditatively healing way, if you let it in. Embrace the source, let it live with you for a while, contemplate, swim with it, travel with it, and your journey will be one of rewarding fulfilment. Pick at it, throw it on and turn it off, half-listen, or try too hard to analyse it, and it might leave you for cold, wondering what it’s all about.

Wonderful brass arrangements combine with etherial soloing, making everything sound so real, so grounded, yet at the same time, of another time and place. Graceful interludes, incisive passages, and experimental sounds work harmoniously to enrich and elevate the music being performed. Juxtaposed, fractured and tempestuous outcrops grow fleetingly alongside peaceful, sublime, judicious landscapes. The music breathes. It rises, it subsides, and like life itself, it rests, it races, it questions and it answers. And most of all, it doesn’t dictate, it simply allows the listener to see a doorway. Whether the listener chooses to go through that doorway and encounter whatever experience unfolds, is entirely up to them.

Mike Gates

Vince Mendoza WDR Big Band Cologne ‘Homecoming’ (Jazzline/Delta Music) 4/5

Arranger, composer and conductor, Vince Mendoza is clearly a very driven man and consequently his big band works have impressed with their varied musical tapestries that are anything but clichéd, dripping in sophisticated melodicism and yet still allowing plenty of space for instrumentalists. This live concert recorded at the Philharmonie in Cologne dates from 2014 and is a fine illustration of what the WDR Big Band are capable of when under the very able hands of Mendoza.
On the funk-tinged big band opener, ‘Keep it up’, there are faintest hints of mid-1980s Miles in terms of the muted harmon solo and even the jazz-rock influenced guitar soloing of Paul Shigihara. A minor tempo number, ‘Little voice’, is a fine showcase for the talents of pianist Frank Chastenier with the horns offering subtle support in the background on this smaller ensemble piece.
Vince Mendoza made his reputation on a wonderful 1992 ACT CD, ‘Jazzpaña’ with ace producer Arif Mardin, and this was awarded a German Jazz prize and was indeed nominated for two Grammies. Latin flavours emerge on two pieces. The first has a rootsy Brazilian flavour, ‘Choros #3’, and evokes the roots of Brazilian samba with Marcio Doctor on percussion clarinettist Johan Hörlen. This writer especially likes the solo use of fender rhodes from Chastenier and the shuffling drum pattern on this particularly attractive theme. A second Latin-themed tune, ‘Amazonas’, is, in some ways, even more impressive with gorgeous horn unison arrangements and the fine solo trombone work of Ludwig Nuss.

Vince Mendoza is the kind of arranger and composer who always writes with the musicians and orchestra in mind, and the end result is not simply excellent ensemble performances, but also highly innovative and, in some places, unusual use of instrumentation, and collectively this constantly keeps the listener challenged and wondering what is going to happen next. A fine offering from a leader at the height of his creative powers.

Tim Stenhouse

travelling the spaceways since 1993