Moses Taiwa Molelekwa ‘Genes and Spirits’ 2LP (Matsuli Music) 5/5

Originally released on CD in 1999 on the MELT2000 label, “Genes and Spirits” was the second, and final, solo album from South African pianist/composer Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, before his untimely death in 2001. He was to many a shining beacon of musical light in his homeland, with his infectious style of writing and performing crossing international boundaries with its multi-cultural influences.

Molelekwa was born in Tembia township outside Johannesburg, growing up among what he described as “the lost generation”. Both his father and grandfather were musicians, and the pianist was introduced to jazz through his father’s collection of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis records. Yet it was of course musicians closer to home that also influenced and encouraged the young musician, with the likes of Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Kippie Moketsi and Dudu Pukwana offering inspiration.

The rising star of a new generation of South African musicians, Molelekwa sought to further integrate the traditions of his forebears into a more contemporary Western jazz idiom, with exploration and diversity. And he certainly succeeded in this, integrating African harmonies, melodies and rhythms into modern jazz in a contemporary and harmonious way.

“Genes and Spirits”, whilst predominantly a jazz recording, incorporates many musical genres. Molelekwa seamlessly combines Cuba (with celebrated Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes as mentor), Brazil (Flora Plurim’s distinctive vocalisations), along with Brice Wassey’s funk from the Cameroon and even a touch of UK-style drum’n’bass, with his own inherent township rhythms. The resultant mix is a mesmerising stroll into the heart of joyful expression.

There are ten original compositions on the album, with this vinyl only release adding “Wa Mpona” as a bonus cut. From the glorious opener “Tsala”, with its beautiful vocals floating graciously over Molelekwa’s jazzy keys and a smooth bass and drums backdrop, into the funkier “Spirits of Thembisa”, with its Weather Report-like grooves and rhythms. “Down Rockey Street” is a reggae tune gone AWOL, African beats mixing with jazz horns and soprano saxophone. The gentle feel of “Itumeleng” takes a more classical path, allowing the composer’s grace and subtlety to softly shine. Whilst “Sogra” moves in more mainstream jazz circles, I defy anyone not to be completely wowed by the title track “Genes and Spirits”. Melody, harmony and lyricism all combine perfectly on this little piece of South African wonderment. “Kwaze Kwangcono” sets the African influences free, with intrigue and surprise dancing happily together. As with much of this recording, “Repela” rewards the listener with its intelligent mix of different styles, and “Dance to Africa” journeys successfully through the composer’s vision of interconnected musical genres. The closing track “Ntatemoholo” is a meditative piece and yet still sparkles with expressive joy. Characterful and celebratory, a wonderful tune to end a wonderful album.

For me, discovering this music for the first time, there is an earnestness and heart-warming naivety to Molelekwa’s music. A voice that sounds almost fragile, perhaps even vulnerable, that was still in the process of discovery when his journey was cut short. There is an undoubted ambition of trying to get somewhere else, somewhere new, and a willingness to take risks that put the feel of the music above any occasional shortcomings in technique. The pianist named his three biggest influences as Abdullah Ibrahim, Herbie Hancock and Bheki Mseleku. Ibrahim for his hard-won simplicity; Herbie for the way he treats the keyboard as a site of restless experimentation; Mseleku for his merging of jazz techniques and southern African melodic lines. To my mind, Molelekwa should be remembered for attaining a certain beauty in the music he made, and for taking South African jazz on to a new frontier.

Mike Gates

Miles Davis and John Coltrane ‘The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6’ 4CD (Sony Legacy) 5/5

Among the numerous dissected explorations of the glittering career of Miles Davis, the final European tour in 1960 of the group that recorded on ‘Kind of Blue’ has thus far received relatively little journalistic coverage, doubtless because writers on the other side of the Atlantic knew precious little about the tour itself and the various dates, and even author Ian Carr was largely restricted to what he knew of concerts within the British Isles. Until now that is. Sony has seen fit to provide, if not the complete picture (tour dates in the UK are not included, but are available separately, notably the Manchester concert from 1960), then at the very least a significantly wider canvass for jazz enthusiasts and one moreover that is official rather than a mere bootleg copy, with consequent due attention to detail befitting a leader of Miles Davis’ magnitude and with re-mastering that immeasurably improves the sound quality.

In his own autobiography, Miles makes fleeting reference to the European tour dates with the main focus on his first ever visit to London and his love of staying in Paris. It is all the more fitting, then, that the first two CD should commence with both concerts that took place at the prestigious Olympia Theatre in Paris, both on March 21 1960. Extended interpretations of, ‘So what’ sit side by side with more familiar pieces from the Great American songbook such as a near sixteen minute rendition of ‘Walkin’, that dovetails nicely from the final Prestige recordings that Miles was contractually forced to make, and then a new recording contract with major Columbia. A major difference now was the speed at which, ‘So what’, was performed, departing from the studio original and merely the launching pad for something entirely new and fresh. This is how one should view the music showcased here, with emphasis firmly placed on experimentation and the free-flowing minds of Coltrane and Davis playing off one another and generating yet further new and creative ideas.

The second concert features a lovely reading of, ‘Round midnight’, with the gentle side to both Coltrane and Davis in full display, while Miles’ profound respect for the compositional talent of Sonny Rollins is reflected in the choice of ‘Oleo’, while muted Harmon trumpet operates on a lengthy, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. According to author John Szwed, it was Coltrane who was the unknown quantity/factor for the Parisian audience, but in the writer’s words, (…) He [Coltrane] played as if they had been listening to him for years and held nothing back unafraid to work the same startling phrase or figure over and over, and eager to splinter and shred notes, oblivious to the slowly growing hiss rising from the agitated continental crowd’.

Of interest equally was the individuals making up the audiences and their connection to the musicians. It was no coincidence for example that the tour manager for the London part of the European tour, Harold Davidson, was also the agent of Paul Robeson who happened to come back stage to meet Miles at a London concert. After Paris, the tour moved on to Scandinavia and the second part of the second CD and CD’s three and four are devoted to concert dates in Copenhagen and Stockholm, the latter of which witnessed two performances on 22 March. Copenhagen was already becoming a regular stop off haunt for American jazz musicians, with an annual Copenhagen jazz festival just around the corner (with famously recorded concerts by both Roland Kirk and Sarah Vaughan chronicled). In addition to, ‘So What’, a second piece from ‘Kind of Blue’ was performed, the modal, ‘All blues’, a vehicle for Coltrane to demonstrate his astounding virtuosity and for the rhythm section its tight grip over proceedings, enabling Miles and Coltrane to improvise at will. Stockholm was notable for at least two reasons. Firstly, the inclusion of a relatively new piece devoted to his about to become wife (In December of that year), Frances Davis, in, ‘Fran Dance’, presumably in homage to her professional balletic prowess. Secondly, the concert was advertised as a sextet, with Miles trying out a vibraphone player, Buddy Montgomery (he would later use Victor Feldman on ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ in this capacity), but as it turned out Montgomery did not appear on stage. Rounding off matters, is a six minutes interview with John Coltrane by Swedish journalist Carl-Erik Lindgren that is one of the few occasions on which we have the privilege of hearing the saxophonist expound on his musical ideas. Full marks for the lavish packaging. Tastefully designed as a de-luxe fold-out gatefold sleeve in black, red and white print. Extended sleeve notes come courtesy of renowned Miles Davis scholar Ashley Kahn.

It would be little exaggeration to state that this pairing of jazz colossus musicians raised the very standard of jazz music to hitherto unprecedented levels and certainly changed the shape of jazz forever. For John Coltrane, there was deep frustration at not being able to express everything that he wanted to ideas-wise, and this ultimately led to the split from the Miles Davis formation and the creation of what would be known as the classic John Coltrane quartet. For Miles’ part, the departure of Coltrane would create a gaping chasm in his group and one that no single saxophonist could replace. Coltrane’s ‘sheets of sound’ technique facilitated the freedom which Miles Davis had thrived upon and now he had to start afresh, rebuilding the band and forced to plug the gap on his own, Little wonder, that Miles went through a difficult period in his career, until by 1964, a new and highly dynamic formation was in place. That, however, is another story and the previous volumes of the Miles Davis legacy series fill in some of those musical gaps. A re-issuing of the ‘Live at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago’ sessions would make for an ideal volume 7, especially at a price that a wider public could afford.

Tim Stenhouse

Wilson Pickett ‘Let Me Be Your Boy: The Early Years 1957-1962’ (Soul Jam) 4/5

A soul legend to many, Wilson Pickett started off his career as both part of a group, The Falcons, and in the gospel field with both The Violinaires and The Spiritual Five. This excellent compilation draws upon these three strands and brings them together into one single and handy to locate place from where the listener is better equipped to understand and appreciate the transition that the singer made first from religious to secular, and then from doo-wop into the rootsiest form of soul music. Of the early singles, a tinny produced ‘Let me be your boy’ hinted at what was to come, but it was the co-written early hit, ‘If you need me’, that revealed a glorious voice in full control and the blues guitar driven, ‘It’s too late’, carried on, laying down some distinctly tasty flavoured soul. One of the joys of this collection is discovering via the fully comprehensive discographical notes that Pickett was backed in his early Detroit sessions by a proto-Motown array of musicians including James Jamerson on the bass, Joe Hunter on the piano, even though Berry Gordy had not yet created the music empire that was to follow. Background vocals included The Supremes, Eddie Floyd and Sir Mack Rice, the latter of whom would become a key songwriter in the city. Of the gospel bonus tracks, ‘Someone is waiting for me’, impresses as do the joyously uplifting hues of ‘Call him up’. On the former, Pickett takes lead vocals while on the latter he is part of the gorgeous collective harmony vocals.

Soul devotees will warm to the glossy pictorial accompaniment of the picture sleeve covers and labels of the 45’s, many of which now fetch considerable sums when you can find them, and encompass myriad key labels such as London, Lu Pine, Peacock, Relic, Rifi and not forgetting the major that made him, Atlantic. A fourteen page booklet with extended notes by James Chestnut takes the career story into the more familiar territory of the Atlantic recording period when Pickett made his name internationally. Essential listening for the fan of gritty soul with gospel touches.

Tim Stenhouse

Archie Lee Hooker and The Coast to Coast Blues Band ‘Chilling’ (DixieFrog) 4/5

If the name sounds familiar, then there is close connection with blues singer extraordinaire, John Lee Hooker. Archie Lee is in fact his nephew and equally the cousin of Earl Hooker so a family musical dynasty for sure. However, this is not a tribute to the music of his uncle John and the all original compositions come directly from Archie Lee and other band members. Rather, it is a well-balanced and varied walk through blues history from folk-blues to electric, and including some melodic soul-blues on the way. It is, however, an album dedicated to the memory of John Lee Hooker who would have been one hundred years of age on 22 August 2017.

As for Archie Lee, he is very much a late starter as a professional musician and this involved making a major transition in his life aged thirteen, first of all from the rural delta to the urban city and this meant leaving behind the extreme poverty of the Mississippi Delta which was the norm for him where even basic necessities were lacking. As Hooker himself comments on the change: “I couldn’t believe my eyes looking out of the greyhound [coach] as we approached the city. I had never seen paved streets and street lights before. It felt like a different world”. This first part of the journey meant in practice stopping off in Memphis, Tennessee which is of course a key location in the evolution of the blues. An acoustic guitar intro greets the listener on ‘Moaning the blues’, which morphs into a rocking beat complete with harmonica solo from Matt Santos. The great storytelling quality to the music is showcased with slide guitar and spoken monologue by Archie Lee on ‘Don’t Tell Mama’, which is a recital of sorts on what happened to Hooker as a child in Mississippi.

Last, but by no means last, a good deal of thought and commitment, musical and financial, has gone into this project and one requiring multiple funding channels. Blues fans will want to support such a well researched and executed project that aims to showcase the very best in blues music, historical and contemporary. As ever with DixieFrog productions, a lovely packaged digipak opens up to include full lyrics and bilingual English and French notes side by side. That said, ‘Big Ass Fun’ is seemingly untranslatable!

Tim Stenhouse

Juliette ‘Je n’aime pas la chanson’ (Universal France) 4/5

If the first name does not immediately ring a bell, then the face might because Juliette Noureddine to give her her full name was interviewed for an all too short BBC 4 documentary on the history of the French chanson tradition. This multi-talented individual not only sings in the classic old bar style of interpreting, taking a leaf out of the Brassens, Brel and Piaf tradition, but equally writes books, acts and has produced her own theatre productions. Needless to say, the music has to fit into all these activities, but she had celebrated twenty years of singing at the Grand Rex back in 2005, so another thirteen years can be added on. Born in Paris, but of Algerian Kabyle origin, Juliette settled in Toulouse in south-west France and was born also into a musical family, her father being a saxophonist in the local city orchestra. Her musical upbringing included jazz, Arabic classical as well as popular French chanson, and if there was a woman singer who influenced Juliette most of all, it might just be Barbara. The self-penned songs tell of everyday events such as the weather, ‘Météo marin’, or sport, ‘C’est ça l’rugby!’, or more tellingly of the plight of migrants in exile with ‘Aller sans retour’.

A 14 CD box set of Juliette’s work was released in France. Don’t let the Nana Mouskouri style glasses fool you. She even self-mockingly refers to herself as ‘Juliette Binocle’ (‘Bespectacled Juliette) as opposed to the rhyming name of actress Juliette Binoche. Even here, musicality is at the forefront of her mind. Juliette is a quality French singer who is wonderfully adept at interpreting the classic French tradition. With the recent passing of the great Jacques Higelin (father of Arthur H), there are precious few of these singers still alive to carry on that tradition. One for the discovery section of your record collection.

Tim Stenhouse

Compay Segundo ‘Nueva Antologia: 20 Aniversario’ 2CD (Warner Spain) 4/5

It is in fact twenty years exactly since the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon first branched out and conquered the world and in Spain in it was singer-songwriter  Compay Segundo who scored first with his recordings of classic Cuban country music that he made in Madrid. This double CD brings together those recordings, adding a few extra bonus cuts for good measure. Naturally, ‘Chan Chan’, was the song that set the whole enterprise catapulting into orbit and it remains a fabulously lyrical song that is instantly infectious and immediately captured the attention of a wider public that was in search of authenticity and found it in the form of septuagenarians who had long been forgotten in their native land. The rest is equally compelling and includes the tasty, ‘Sabroso’, the evocative, ‘La bella cubana’ (‘The beautiful Cuban woman’) and a nod to the songwriting tradition with, ‘La trova’. Four previously unreleased songs include a lovely take on a song that is not Segundo’s, but is a worthy contender in, ‘Lágrimas negras’.

Bilingual notes in English and Spanish explain how the whole phenomenon started and for this writer it was a concert at the Jazz Café in Camden, crammed with the who’s who of London Latin music personalities. So many were the musicians that the extended brass section had to park on the downward stairs adjoining the main stage. Compay Segundo would follow in due course and at one point around 2000, it seemed as though there was never-ending stream of musical personalities linked to the collective. Many of these have now passed away and a moment in time has been lost. The music remains omnipresent.

Tim Stenhouse

Bill Evans ‘New Jazz Conception’ (Poll Winners) 4/5

A much feted pianist and rightly so, this debut album affords us the opportunity to hear the young Bill Evans making his way in the recording studio with a steady rhythm section made up of Teddy Kotick on bass and Paul Motion on the drums. The 1956 date was a strong indication of what would become a glittering music career, culminating in the participation on ‘Kind of blue’, and the seminal live recordings at the Village Vanguard. Not surprisingly here, the young pianist was still developing as a composer and his focus was mainly on the American songbook which he would so delicately and expertly exploit throughout his subsequent career. The selection is revealing in displaying his reverence for the compositions of fellow pianists. These include the bop hues of Tadd Dameron on, ‘Our delight’, the stylish piece, ‘Conceptions’ by George Shearing, and even a jaunty take on Duke Ellington’s, ‘I got it bad and that ain’t good’. This writer’s personal favourites include Evans’ interpretation of Rodgers and Hart’s, ‘My romance’, a piece he would regularly revisit and Cole Porter’s, ‘I love you’. However, already, the pianist’s talent for writing a tune could be heard on the first ever, albeit tantalisingly brief rendition of, ‘Waltz for Debby’, a de facto signature tune for Evans. As a bonus, there are half a dozen extra tracks from a separate 1957 date with added musicians on guitar and vibraphone. Rounding out the excellent re-issue are original Downbeat review notes from Nat Hentoff.

Tim Stenhouse

Red Garland ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 4/5

Best known for his work as sideman in the mid-late 1950’s Miles Davis quintet, Dallas born pianist Red Garland has never received his full due as an interpreter of no little talent and this four album 2 CD provides an excellent overview of his early sides, by far the best he ever cut, for the Prestige label. By the mid-1950’s Garland was already a fully matured pianist and one who had been influenced by the likes of Art Tatum (his main inspiration), Nat King Cole (whose piano skills are sometimes neglected) and Bud Powell. The first CD focuses on the debut as a leader, ‘A Garland of Red’, that celebrates the great American songbook in all its variety. A virtually identical rhythm section operates throughout comprising Paul Chambers on bass and Art Taylor on drums. It is the Gershwin brothers who are showcased on, ‘A foggy day’, while Rodgers and Hart’s, ‘Little girl blue’, receives a subtle treatment. A real favourite of another jazz pianist, namely Bill Evans, is the focus of attention on, ‘My romance’. The rest of the first CD is taken up with the one exception to the albums as a whole, a quintet recording and one that features no less than John Coltrane on tenor. The lengthy title track, ‘All morning long’, took up all of one side on the original vinyl and typifies the sound that Prestige owner Bob Weinstock revered, long, loose numbers that have something of an informal jam session feel.

Continuing in a similar vein, the second CD features the trio format once more and is dedicated to what were Red Garland’s primary three strengths: ballads, standards and blues. This regular routine consequently allowed the musicians to stretch out and relax. As ever with Avid re-issues, the bargain price is matched by the unparalleled time value (nearly eighty minutes per CD) and the facsimile original back album cover notes. An ideal place to start and discover one of the underrated virtuoso’s of the jazz piano.

Tim Stenhouse

The Natural Dub Cluster ‘Biosfear’ (4Weed / Elastica) 4/5

Three Italian brothers creating electro dub and ambiental industrialised leftfield masterworks since 2009 are back after 2016’s long-player ‘B Deeper’ with a very strong and in places very thought-provoking Dystopial new album, it’s their fourth entitled ‘Biosfear’.

The Natural Dub Cluster have toured their albums since 2010, the tours amassing over two hundred live shows in Italy and France and are about to embark on a new 8 date tour (at time of press, more dates could be added) to showcase this new long player.

This new offering has all the Natural Dub Cluster soundmix hallmarks as their other long players, yet there is something different about this release, it is stronger in vibe, in delivery and subject matter -arguably perhaps to that of some of their past works- they push forward effortlessly the leftfield ‘off piste’ envelope whilst keeping the heavy density of their dubby soundmix on path.

One could say that the track called ‘Bi’ is gothic styled 80s synth new wave or that the track ‘Mi Know Like Them’ is a full on dystopian sparse 80s dancehall piece with its Ini Kamoze era style bass run (check out the lyrical delivery on this piece, it’s ultra cool). One could say that ‘No Redemption’ is digital gloom steppers and even to say that the piece ‘On Natural Selection’ is very ‘orby’ and very enticing. ‘Radical Breath’ is a foreboding electro instrumental with a digi steppers style riddim track  whilst ‘Fractal Error’ has a robot voice layover backed with electro gothic heaviness including nice lazer lights in a field moments from the synths, ‘Core Matter’ is a very interesting piece complete with outerworld female narration, like a scene from a film where on a starship far far away there is a room where different species students are learning about humans, it’s that kind of vibe over a minimalist -and again foreboding- soundtrack. ‘Fight Or Flight’ is a calmer play out track for the album, an instrumental piece in heavy ambient mode ideal for film background music, it’s a very cohesive album, nice for all synthheads and perhaps robotic goths, I don’t know how I came to the goth references I just get a digital goth vibe with two or three of the pieces from this set.

Overall it’s a bit of a dark album and I would go far as to say that it is very cool synthesized art, the sequencing of the album is spot on. Oh, and on the whole the bass is real, one of the three brothers plays the electric bass guitar.

Gibsy Rhodes

Astral Travelling Since 1993