Alexi Tuomarila ‘Kingdom’ (Edition) 5/5

Alexi Tuomarila is, perhaps, better known more further afield in Europe than he is in Britain. However, his profile has been steadily rising in the UK since signing to the British label Edition Records. Tuomarila is a Finnish-born pianist and composer. He studied jazz and classical piano at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. He has toured extensively both as band leader and as a member of Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko group. He has recorded seven albums as leader.
This album, as its predecessor, features the pianist’s now regular trio with Mats Eilertsen on bass and Olavi Louhivuori at the drums. Together they have the makings of a world-class trio. Indeed, the pianist and drummer have worked together with Stanko and feature on the trumpeter’s album ‘Dark Eyes’ (ECM, 2010).
As I have said previously, the European jazz scene seems almost over-populated with outstanding piano trios. It is therefore very difficult to standout in the crowd. The recording includes eight compositions by band-members together with Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-changin’.
Throughout their time working together this musical triad have formed an almost telepathic relationship such that they almost breathe as one. Emotionally charged at times, at others a pensive sadness pervades proceedings, but balanced with a cadenced drive. The pianist’s music can be intensely lyrical and occasionally has an almost folk-song like quality to it in a manner that we have come to expect from the current crop of Scandinavian jazz trios. The trio can play softly and with a delicate touch, and are masterful when they mix the solemn with the exuberant in more up-tempo pieces.

If you are looking for musical reference points, the closest that I can come is the music of pianists Joona Toivanen, also from Finland and the Italian, Claudio Filippini.

The opening track, ‘The Sun Hillock’ starts with a rock-inspired back-beat from the drums and piano and bass quickly come to the fore in unison. It’s only a short time before the pianist enters into his mesmerising flight of fancy, creating a musical kaleidoscope of sound, only to subside and return to the catchy and simply piano and bass melody. ‘Rytter’ which follows is in marked contrast with the drummer drawing this stick across the cymbals giving a sonic effect almost like a flute playing. A simple piano motif gradually builds and arco bass is added together with more insistent cymbal-work the trio reaching a peak and then gradually subsiding into delicate filigrees of sound. The ‘Girl in a Stetson Hat’ is a song which it seems to me should have lyrics added. It’s a melody which is sure to linger in the listener’s mind. Here I’m reminded of the music of another piano giant; Tord Gustavsen. ‘Vagabond’ opens with an insistent bass figure, before the piano and later the drums enter, gradually picking up the pace of the piece. This is an episodic piece with changes of mood and texture along the way. A rippling piano introduction to ‘The Times’ is a master-stroke and for me this is the best track on the album. It includes a wonderful bass feature too! Delicate intensity. An extended wonderful bass solo opens ‘Shadows’ before piano and drums join in a free-form but controlled dialogue. Again the piece changes character later becoming an almost intensely swinging affair. We get a couple more gear changes before the conclusion. Exciting stuff.

The concluding track ‘White Waters’ is eight minutes of controlled intensity and creativity. A languid folk-like melody emerges at one point and again I’m thinking that lyrics are required. This piece has the feel of something that may have been produced by EST at the height of their powers.

This is an album that demands your attention and will repay repeated listening. It almost goes without saying that the recorded sound is second to none. The album is sure to raise the profile of this master pianist still further. Highly recommended.

The trio have four dates in the UK in June, visiting London, Cardiff, Southampton and Manchester.

Alan Musson

Nicolas Meier ‘Infinity’ (Meier Group) 3/5

Guitarist Nicolas Meier is nothing if not a hard worker and this leader project comes after the excellent duet recordings with Pete Oxley that have been chronicled recently in these columns. For this new project, Meier focuses on revisiting the jazz-fusion era of the 1970s, and this may have been inspired partly by his work outside of his regular formations, and hints at other influences such as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and of course the underlying influence of Pat Metheny which is pervasive in his work.
The inclusion of violinist Richard Jones adds some authentic jazz-rock à la Jean-Luc Ponty, with fine work by bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Of the various tempi performed in this album, it is the more reposing side of numbers such as, ‘Tales’, that best suits Meier, and this piece develops into an attractive Jaco Pastorius flavoured number, complete with a strong collective bass and guitar vamp.
Eastern influences are omnipresent in Nicolas Meier’s work in general and on this occasion the listener is transported away to warmer climbs on the evocative, ‘Yemin’. It is this world roots side to Meier’s repertoire that is surely the leader’s forte and the one where he should most concentrate his efforts, though that certainly does not preclude other projects such as this one. The influence of the East is further recognisable in a track such as the opener, ‘The eye of horus’, which, though rock-tinged in part, features a wonderful instrumental breakdown with what sounds like an oud-like percussion instrument. In sum, ‘Infinity’ is an attractive slice of retro jazz-fusion and one that long-term fans of the sub genre will immediately warm to.

Tim Stenhouse

Sue Barker ‘Sue Barker: Expanded’ (Playback) 4/5

This Sue Barker refers to an Australian vocalist that recorded only one album in 1976, comprising of ten covers of soul, jazz and blues vocal classics. This re-release on Playback Records via Sydney’s DJ Kinetic includes a further three additional pieces recorded at different sessions to the original ’76 issue. The album has become very in demand over recent years and as the original master tapes are said to have been destroyed by mould some years ago, this repress will be welcomed by many collectors.
Sue wasn’t a trained jazz singer as such, but fell into the soul/jazz worlds with the increased popularity of black music in 1970s Australia, with Sue being a common fixture around Adelaide and Sydney for a decade before recording the album. Sue was further exposed to US soul and jazz via The Onions, her backing band for this album, who were a loose outfit of Australian musicians that were regular performers on the scene, including session and live work with touring US soul acts. And it was after a performance in Adelaide that Sue was approached by Crest International records with the idea of recording a full album of soul, jazz and blues covers.
The Onions in this instance consisted of Geoff Kluke on electric bass, Dean Birbeck on drums, piano and organ parts by Phil Cunneen, Sax by Bob Jeffries and Sylvan Elhay, trumpet by Fred Payne and guitar and arrangements by Grahame Conlon, with the musicians all being very competent with US and UK players being obvious influences, but it’s a shame there wasn’t any electric piano/Fender Rhodes touches to support the piano and Hammond elements.

On the jazz side of things, ‘You Stepped Out Of A Dream’, a common Nat King Cole piece, bustles along nicely with its rhythmic swing momentum, ‘Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me’, a song co-written by Duke Ellington and performed by Billy, Ella and Nina, is a standard that here has a big band quality, which is no mean feat considering the group only has three horn players. And ‘Lover Man’, another standard previously recorded by Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, has perhaps the purest jazz vocal performance on the album.

But it’s the rare groove of ‘Love To The People’, a remake of one of Curtis Mayfield’s lesser known gems that has attracted the most attention from vinyl collectors. Taken from his ‘There’s No Place Like America Today’ (1975) album, it would have been labeled 2-step if you found it at a record fair in the 1990s. If you know ‘Madelaine’s 1978 cover version of ‘Who Is She And What Is She To You?’ – then this has the same temperament. Other notable tracks include Marvin’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, with its horn heavy arrangement and ‘What’s Going On?’ which is quite a funky version with fluid sax workouts by Bob Jeffrey and Sylvan Elhay.

Vocally, Sue Barker fits somewhere between the pop/folk of Judy Collins and jazziness of Judy Roberts; not as jazzy as Judy R and not as folky or pop as Judy C, but very capable, with ‘Lover Man’ being the best vehicle to showcase Sue’s rich vocal ability. But bad luck was to impose itself upon Sue. At the time of the album’s release, Crest International was just about to fold and so with no funding available for the project, the album was rehearsed, recorded, mixed and mastered in only 3 days. This was the final release for the label, which was not an outright jazz based label, which also had classical and comedy releases. Sue was also at loggerheads with Crest with regards the musical direction of the album and was also pregnant when the album was due to be promoted. Disillusioned, Sue left the music industry in the 1980s.

But you can’t keep a good record down. And with eBay and Discogs being vibrant spaces for the discovery and trading of exotic and esoteric records, this rare slice of Australian soul/jazz is worthy of a reissue. And how many artists with only one release can say that their record fetches between £200-£400? So hopefully, this release will help remedy the obscurity of the record with many record collectors looking outside of the US and UK for their musical fixes. The demand for the record is obviously due to its release in a country not known for its jazz heritage, but it does slide nicely into the 1970s framework provided by female vocalists of the time, also having cultural significance with respect to Antipodean soul and jazz music, of which there aren’t many. Additionally, check the work of Australian singers Kerrie Biddell, who died in 2014 and Renée Geyer, especially Renée’s storming ‘Be There in The Morning’.

Damian Wilkes

Cameron Graves ‘Planetary Prince’ (Mack Avenue) 3/5

From the same band that Kamasi Washington fronted (and the saxophonist returns the compliment as sideman here), comes an interesting, if in parts problematic, debut from pianist Cameron Graves. While there is no doubting the energetic effort and potential here, what is finally delivered sadly comes up short. The majority of the pieces are overly long and ramble on in a loose impromptu jam session style (but sadly missing the magic of that genre), while the piano playing veers between pop and classical, and somewhat lacking in sophistication. Moreover, the hi-energy drumming does grate after a while. Four tracks are above ten minutes in length and even the shortest piece weighs in at seven and a half minutes.
That said, the pared down sextet that includes Thundercat on bass on two numbers, impresses on the, ‘Isle of love’, a gentle ballad, a hint perhaps that more is to come from this band, with a lovely piano roll and a bassline to match. On ‘The end of corporatism’ horns operate in unison with an elongated piano solo. Washington is content to play a secondary role. Another ballad, ‘Adam and Eve’, begins with a piano solo that indicates that Debussy-esque rêveries have influenced graves and the repetitive horn riff works well here. Something that could be developed further on future releases. Bop meets Middle Eastern flavours are married on ‘El diablo’, with a bass breakdown and piano vamping.

Cascading notes succeed one another throughout, but are they actually the right notes? As both Miles Davis and Ahmad Jamal have very ably demonstrated, it is not necessarily how many notes you play, but rather the manner in which you play them that differentiates between musicians, and listening to long sequences of this album can prove to be a difficult experience. Not on a par with ‘The epic’, then, and not nearly as densely layered. A case of going back to the drawing board and re-thinking strategy.

Tim Stenhouse

Woodlander ‘Calvins Toboggan’ (QFTF) 4/5

Woodlander is the brainchild of Bern based swiss pianist Luzius Schuler. A unique trio existing of piano, trumpet and drums.
In the past unusual band setting are often related to newly discovered technical possibilities. Often there is a clear relationship between the decreasing number of instrumentalists and the increasing amount of loopstations, laptops and electrical outlets being used on stage.
Luzius Schuler strips down his Woodlander to the bare musical necessities. Acoustic and pure. Making this debut appear sincere and vulnerable. Calvins Toboggan is an album full of strong ideas, musicality and fantasy.
Toboggan the title track is an elegiac soundtrack through a landscape reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg. Romantic and resonant. Woodlander talks in a soft and confident voice. Schuler is managing the harmonic settings and restoring basslines with great virtuosity and zero cliche. Not fearing space. Mats Spillmann on trumpet carries the melodies with a slick tone and exemplary technique. Throughout the recording with a mature taste and comment. Developing the stories Schuler suggests in the opening heads.

Hieronymus is a dancing, oriental flavored blues. Steadily grooving and exploring all attributes of Schuler’s compositions. Drummer Jonas Ruther knows when to fall back and when to push. He is reluctant to get in the way of either Schuler or Spilmann. His transparent sound and uncomplicated playing emphasizes the intimate band setting.

The three move in a natural way and seem wired and fascinated by what they throw at each other. At times a little too much in control for lack of soul and risk taking.

Woodlander is a I have the room above her from Switzerland. Young, confident, straightforward and interesting. In the right mix between avant garde and access.

shg

Itamar Borochov ‘Boomerang’ (Laborie Jazz) 5/5

Israeli-born trumpet player Itamar Borochov is no stranger to the international jazz scene, having toured in Europe and Asia, and his second album, Boomerang, is a little stunner. Borochov has simply that kind of hold on the listeners’ sensibility that makes them want to hear more and more.
The album is filled with incredible top-notch musicianship and the quartet’s synergy is undeniable. Its members have an uncanny ability to communicate with each other, an apparently innate understanding of each other’s playing and a sense when to step in, lead a solo or let Itamar Borochov run with the melody. Teaming up with his brother Avri Borochov on bass, Michael King on piano and Jay Sawyer on drums, the album is replete with good tunes. Itamar Borochov oozes coolness throughout and through a range of tempos, offers us a mix of both soothing (Tangerines, Wanderer Song) and more funky jazz pieces (Jones Street, Jaffa Tune or Ca va bien).
Right from the opening notes of the first track, Tangerines, the listener knows he is in for an almost solid hour of excellent music. Borochov immediately hooks us with this poetic, albeit short, piece. His warm notes meshed with the shimmering piano give the piece a celestial feel about it. Borochov keeps the listeners on edge as he glides effortlessly into Shimshon, a seemingly simple melody at first, but which Borochov quickly morphs into a more contemporary offering. Backed up by the drums’ snappy rhythm, Michael King unfurls an impressive solo before Borochov returns with his teasing trumpet and expressive phrasing.

With the more nonchalant Eastern Lullaby or his rendition of the traditional hymn-inspired Adon Olam, which he transformed completely and made it totally his own, Itamar Borochov shows us how he is not limited by musical genres but incorporates his musical influences with ease, taking the listeners on a musical journey which goes beyond pure jazz.

Eastern Lullaby is a quiet, almost trance-like piece which is a delightful contrast to the vibrant, up-tempo Jones Street, in which he spews forth energy and shows us how much of a persona of his own he has. The tune charges forth with a good dose of intensity, which is reminiscent of any Bebop giant. His playing is edgy and expansive, all the while remaining eloquent throughout. Once again, the piano solo is outstanding, liberating.

Whether it is in the more introspect Avri’s Tune, or the swinging Ca va bien with its hint of Oriental music, Itamar Borochov alternates tempos with an unfussy virtuosity.

Itamar Borochov serves it in abundance in the titillating Jaffa Tune, in which he delivers the mysterious, exciting, almost seedy, vibe of the old city. On this track, Itamar Borochov leads the melody like a walk in his hometown, almost glorifying it. His performance is intoxicating and he weaves a pattern of textures and moods which truly show his musical ingenuity. The piano demands notice too; it is infectious, growing up in a surge of excitement before being joined in again by Itamar Borochov’s formidable trumpet.

Wanderer Song is a seductive, story-telling track of translucent beauty which captures all the senses. This particular rendition of his is even more grandiose than his previous, more mellow ones. The drums pull the tune forward into a fiery crescendo, allowing Borochov to return gloriously with pure flowing lines and scorching notes.

The album wraps with Prayer, a contemplative tune enhanced by Michael King’s soulful piano, which adds a romantic layer to the track. Borochov’s sensuous playing only offers the listeners another facet to his undeniable charisma and magnetic pull.

Boomerang is a multi-layered album dominated by vibrancy. It is full of sensuality and bounce, and Itamar Borochov’s playing is full of warmth and lyricism. His music is reflective, assertive and exploratory all at the same time. With Boomerang, he is sure to shake the jazz world and validate his rightful place in the spotlight.

Nathalie Freson

Lee Konitz ‘Frescalalto’ (Impulse!) 3/5

Now entering his last year as an octogenarian at eighty-nine, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz returns with a recording backed by the ever excellent Kenny Barron trio comprising double bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington. While not a definitive example of the Konitz craft (his mid-1950s Atlantic albums with the likes of Warne Marsh and the verve recordings including the wonderful trio outing with Elvin Jones from 1961 are the basic starters for any jazz saxophone collection), this is still worth a listen, especially when just Konitz and Barron are left to duet. In fact the pairing goes all the way back to 1992 with the album, ‘Jazz Nocturne’, that also featured Kenny Washington.

Konitz personified the cool school approach of the 1950s, though was never a musician to be pigeon holed and capable of truly innovative playing. On this new recording, he revisits some favourite chestnuts and includes three original compositions. Of these, the uptempo swing of ‘Kary’s trance’ impresses most of all and Konitz’s trademark plaintive alto voice is wonderfully showcased here.

The only faux pas is a wordless vocal intro by the leader on the ballad, ‘Darn that dream’, that the listener could have done without, but even then the pared down piano plus saxophone outing is a treat and Barron is that most sensitive of accompanists. Otherwise, there is fine interplay between the leader and pianist in the intro to, ‘Stella by starlight’, before Peter Washington enters immediately with an emphatic bass solo. This writer warmed to the mid-tempo rendition of, ‘Invitation’, which the leader infuses with a new approach and some lovely vamping from Barron.

Tim Stenhouse

Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita ‘Transparent Water’ (World Village/Harmonia Mundi) 4/5

World roots fusion albums can sometimes be something of a hit and miss affair, with disparate musical traditions not blending in total harmony. However, when there is a profound respect for these musical traditions and, in addition, a genuine attempt to marry them without losing the very essence of the roots, then the results can be at once outstanding and surprising with the recordings, ‘Talking Timbuktu’ or ‘Making music’, being famous and illustrative examples of successful fusion music. Happily, this new recording fits into the latter category and the pairing of a Senegalese kora player with a Cuban pianist proves to be an especially entertaining and insightful experience, and one, moreover, that enlightens us on the musical connections between West Africa and the Caribbean.

This is quite simply music that allows you, temporarily at least, to take your foot off the fast breaks and simply soak up the slower and infinitely more creative pace of life in an increasingly interconnected world. At the heart of it is the relationship between two musicians, although the substantial contribution of multi-instrumentalist Gustavo Ovalles who performs on multiple Afro-Cuban percussive instruments such as the bata drum, clavé and guataca, is most certainly worth mentioning. Thus gentle tones emanate from, ‘In the forest’, with piano and kora blending beautifully. Likewise, the lovely riff laden number, ‘Mining-nah’, impresses. For some extra helping of world roots flavours, the Japanese koto is incorporated onto the dream-like repetition of the piece, ‘Black dream’, with vocals provided by Keita himself, and another unnamed instrument that sounds akin to an accordion.

Interestingly, the kora instrumentation was recorded back in 2013 and further layers added on. Co-produced by jazz musician Steve Argüelles and Omar Sosa, this album may just end up on the ‘best of the year’ list for world roots aficionados.

Tim Stenhouse

MEM3 ‘Circles’ CD/DIG (Private Press) 4/5

Another week and another piano trio, but does this one have what it takes to make a lasting impression?
This trio is MEM3 comprising Michael Cabe (Seattle) on piano, Mark Lau (Sydney) on bass and Ernesto Cervini (Toronto) at the drums. This is their second release, but the first to reach my ears. On offer are nine original compositions from individual group members together with a traditional hymn. It is significant that the penultimate track is titled ‘4ES’ for it is a dedication to the Swedish pianist Esbjorn Svensson and EST are a clear influence of this trio’s thinking. There are influences from contemporary masters, the Bad Plus and I’m reminded of the sometimes delicate music of the wonderful Peter Esrkine Trio which featured the piano magic of the late John Taylor.

The opening track ‘Centrical’ starts with some electronic wizardry before quickly settling into a gently loping theme so reminiscent of EST. What is so beguiling about this piece is the ‘mood changing’ nature. Just when you think you know what is happening, a change of dynamics hits you square between the ears, a quick change of musical direction wrong-foots the listener and this happens time and time again and then the subtle electronics re-appear.

‘Native Dancer’ follows and is somewhat reminiscent of many a Scandinavian piano-led trio, at first that is, then suddenly there is another change of tempo and mood, as slowly but surely, the intensity of the performance is increased.

There follows the album title track, the aptly titled ‘Circles’. The electronics are back and we are plunged into a musical pool frequented by the likes of “The Necks”. Minimalistic jazz, perhaps?‘Quiescent’ is yet another change of pace. This is a wonderfully delicate ballad with subtle brush-work from the drummer and a fabulous bass solo, almost a folk-tune in its simplicity. This is the outstanding track of the album for me.

Then along comes ‘Shire Song’ so very song-like in its construction, just waiting for someone to add lyrics. Again, the Scandinavian jazz trios come to mind. More great bass soloing. Two-thirds of the way through, the song almost comes to a premature conclusion, but then, seems to draw new breath with an insistent rhythmic figure developing on piano and it’s not long before bass and drums add to the mix stressing the urgency of the piece.

‘Anthem’ develops into a catchy bluesy then and more bass playing par excellence.

‘Faith of our Fathers’ is, I imagine, the traditional hymn and is the shortest piece at just under three minutes and is quite touching.

In a complete contrast ‘Olympic’ is next with the bassist picking out the melody line initially, but with the pianist quickly taking over. This is another example of the co-operative nature of the trio with no apparent leader and with the musical ‘baton’ being passed back and forth between trio members. There are elements of folk, rock, blues and more pastoral impressionism in this piece, at times is most delicate in a Bill Evans kind of way.

‘4ES’ features initial pulsating bass figure with pianist filigree piano figures above, gradually becoming more complex, only to lay out and for the bass to introduce a rock pulse and then take the heat right up, much as EST would have done.

After the intensity of ‘4ES’ the set concludes with ‘AFJ’, quietly bluesy and funky. At times during this album the music of Keith Jarrett comes to mind, as in the final track here, but at times we are edging towards a more freely improvised area.

In a field so full of piano trios, does this one have what it takes to break the mould of what has gone before? If EST were still performing today, would they sound like this? It’s rather too early to answer these questions and impossible on the basis of one album. Let’s see what they do next. In the meantime, this is a completely absorbing set of contemporary mainstream jazz. Available through Bandcamp and cdBaby

Alan Musson

Philippe Baden Powell ‘Notes Over Poetry’ LP/CD/Dig (Far Out) 3/5

Brazilian pianist Philippe Baden Powell is none other than the son of samba-jazz great guitarist Baden and this is his debut offering for London’s Far Out label. There is a variety of settings, ranging from intimate piano trio to an expanded horn section, and five vocal offerings that include rap and take in wordless vocalese. Adding his inimitable drum licks is French musician André Ceccarelli who jazz fans will know from his work with vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater when she resided in France.

The music works best when it remains instrumental and combines funk-tinged bass with acoustic piano and Afro-Brazilian percussion. A fine example is on the busy, bubbling mid-tempo groove of, ‘Vamos donatear’, with horns entering. Another take on the funkier side of town is provided with, ‘Chica’, with electric bass and horns combining, and with Powell performing on piano and singing gently in the style of Caetano Veloso. Two other vocalists participate on the album and they include Paula Tesser who contributes Brazilian Portugese vocals on, ‘Recado pra você’ which is an attractive uptempo samba-jazz number. Belgian vocalist David Linx reverts to rap on the title track and this sounds somewhat out of place compared to the rest of the album.

However, he redeems himself with some tasty vocalese on the duet with the pianist on, ‘Hues’. Stylistically, Powell comes across as something of a Brad Mehldau devotee with Keith Jarrett another possible influence and the leader is gifted in communicating simple, yet effective melodies as on, ‘For you know’. Future albums would be better served focusing on just one or more stylistic variations, and ideally a separate vocal and piano recording would best suit the collaboration with David Linx. Otherwise, this is a promising debut and one that establishes Philippe Baden Powell as a musician to be reckoned with in his own right.

Tim Stenhouse

travelling the spaceways since 1993