Various ‘Nicola Conte presents Viagem 5’ (Far Out) 4/5

There has been a paucity of quality Brazilian releases this summer and so a compilation that sheds new light on the classic era of the 1960s and 1970s is a welcome addition. Italian DJ Nicola Conte has made it his mission to search out the most obscure releases of Latin and jazz-related music and make them available to a wider public through his fine compilations and though we are now on the fifth volume of the Brazilian series with Brazilian specialist label Far Out, the overall quality is consistently high. In general the names here will be less familiar, but that only makes the discoveries all the more interesting. Conte prides himself on unearthing the odd piano trio gem and here he has come up with a winner in ‘Neurotico’ by the Pedrinho Mattar trio. Jorge Ben’s classic ‘Take it easy my brother Charles’ has seldom been covered by anyone else so its inclusion by the Bruno Sauer Quarteto is a very pleasant surprise. Of the more recognised names, Luis Carlos Vinhas is name to be reckoned with and ‘Tanganica’ is a superior slice of Brazilian jazz. Probably the most famous composition on the compilation is ‘Berimbau’ which is interpreted here by the Samba 5. A reprise of ‘Vim de Santana’,which was featured on the Quarteto Novo classic album of the late 1960s, is reworked here by Theo. For a more relaxed groove, Jobim’s ‘Vou te contar’ is given an altogether refined treatment by Quarteto 004. Tim Stenhouse

Alborosie ‘Sound the system’ (Greensleeves) 4/5

Italian roots singer Alborosie is that most unusual of reggae singers in that he has changed both culture and language in order to fully integrate himself into Jamaican popular music and he deserves a good deal of credit for achieving that. His success is testament to his abilities. The singer sees himself very much in the revolutionary tradition of reggae music and this informs his outlook on life and the kind of issues he writes about. For his latest offering he is surrounded by his regular band plus guest musicians of the calibre of horn players Dean Fraser and Nambo Robinson, though Alborosie is in fact a multi-instrumentalist in his own right. The all bar one original compositions include a cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Zion train’ with Ky-Mani Marley guesting on vocals and this features some fine roots instrumentation. Arguably the best of the new material is the collaboration with the Abyssinians on ‘Give thanks’ which is co-written with and performed by the two parties and here the superb harmonies of the group combine well with the dancehall delivery of Alborosie. There is some neo-roots on ‘Play fool (to catch wise)’ which has a bona fide 1980s feel to the instrumentation and in the riddim evokes the Black Uhuru song ‘Sponji reggae’. Overall Alborosie adopts a flexible approach to the music and is equally at ease as a singer, sing-jay or MC. Adding some authentic roots graphics is the contribution of Tony McDermott whose classic album covers graced the Greensleeves vinyl of the late 1970s and 1980s. Alborosie is currently finishing a major European tour that has been underway throughout July and August. Sadly, there are no UK dates where he has still to make an impact on the traditionally conservative reggae audience.

Tim Stenhouse

Camille ‘Il Olympia’ CD + DVD (EMI France) 4/5

This live concert captures Camille during two evenings in October 2012 and brings together a number of songs from her recent 2011 album ‘Ilo Veyou’ (incidentally the original studio album title is a play on words between French and English ‘I love you’) plus a small selection of her most revered songs in the UK, ‘Le fil’, alongside other original compositions. What is not indicated inside the lavish gatefold sleeve is that prior to these live performances, Camille warmed up with a one hour performance during that summer at the intimate festival des Franco-Gourmandes and by the time she arrived at the prestigious Olympia venue in Paris she was already on top form. For non-French speakers Camille can best be likened to Björk, though in terms of her improvisatory technique alone she certainly borrows from jazz singers such as Bobby McFerrin among others. In contrast to the fuller orchestrated ‘Music Hole album of 2008 which is largely ignored here, Camille reproduces the minimalist feel of the studio version of ‘Ilo Veyou’, but with the significant bonus of her avant-garde theatrical stage presence which simply has to be viewed on the accompanying DVD and has rightly resulted in comparisons with Laurie Anderson who must surely have been an influence upon her.The singer excels on her own highly original repertoire and that includes a large slice of anglophone material, not least because she was brought up in a household with a French mother who teaches English and feels very much at ease in the language and culture. From her early appearances as lead singer with Nouvelle Vague, Camille has developed into a precocious talent who has a sound like no other on the current French music scene. There are thinly disguised allusions to female passion in ‘Wet boy’ which has a floating folk-inspired melody whereas the all too brief ‘Message’ has an inventive nursery rhyme setting. One of the prettiest tunes is ‘Mars is no fun’ and it is worth noting that the song ‘Ta douleur’ ,which is featured here actually won Camille the best artist prize at the prestigious ‘Victoire de la Musique’ French music awards in 2006. Meanwhile for traditionalists the old-time sounding ‘La France has something of a waltz flavour to it. Interestingly the DVD differs from the CD only on one additional piece with twenty-three as opposed to twenty-two songs on the CD, but the pared down visual imagery to the concert has divided opinion since it is not to everyone’s taste. However, this has a good deal more to do with the nature of the stage presentation which is deliberate rather than the actual quality of the DVD itself which is in all other respects exemplary and moreover the sound is excellent also.

Tim Stenhouse

Skatalites and Laurel Aitken ‘The clash of the Ska titans’/’Guns of Navarone’ 2CD (Bad Fish/Cherry Red) 3/5 and 4/5 for respective CDs

This handy two CD set groups together two separate, yet nonetheless connected recordings, by legendary ska original musicians the Skatalites and Laurel Aitken. The dates both emanate from 1996 when there was something of a ska revival underway on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK the two-tone movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s was being revived by the re-emergence of some of those bands in live performance such as the Specials and Selecter while in the US the whole ska phenomenon was placed in an altogether different context. The original musicians of the 1960s were referred to as the first wave, the two-tone musicians as the second wave and a new generation of US-born musicians who performed to a new, younger and infinitely more diverse audience were collectively known as the third wave. With this historical information in mind, one can view these recordings as a celebration of the genre, especially since a large part of the CD space is taken up by live renditions. The first CD focuses attention on singer Laurel Aitken and was mainly recorded in the studio in London. Some of Aitken’s most enduring songs are re-interpreted and these include a minor theme version of ‘It’s too late’ and a slower tempo than per usual take on ‘Sugar Sugar’ complete with female vocals. Surprisingly these classics are a little underwhelming with some vital spark seemingly missing and it is left to Aitken covering other people’s songs for the singer to truly come to life. A storming version of Delroy Wilson’s ‘Come down’ is accompanied in its intensity by a lovely interpretation of a Motown standard ‘Same old song’ which is just about the best thing among the studio recorded material.

CD 2 takes over with an all live set of the Skatalites which follows on from the last numbers on the first CD. Although there are no precise details of the line-up, it is safe to assume from other Skatalites recordings of the period that several members of the original group were still around and notably include Lloyd Brevette on double bass, Lloyd Knibb(s) on drums alongside the stellar horn trio of Roland Alphonso, Lester Sterling and Tommy McCook and for this reason alone the CD is worth purchasing and at over seventy-three minutes it is excellent value for money. For first time listeners this will be a revelatory experience and the lengthy re-workings of ‘Freedom sounds’, ‘Eastern standard time’ and a decidedly uptempo take on ‘El Pussycat’ will not disappoint. A tale of two halves, then, for this re-issue.

Tim Stenhouse

Concha Buika ‘La noche más larga’ (Warner Spain) 4/5

Concha Buika
For those not already familiar with the warm, husky tones of Afro-Mallorcan singer Concha Buika, it is simply worth remembering that she is one of the most original singers to come out of Spain in the last twenty years or more and is a long-time favourite of no less than director extraordinaire Pedro Almodóvar, who has an exquisite taste in singers and always finds a place for them in his films. No surprise, then, that Buika should turn up in one of the latest, ‘The skin I live in’, performing live with her band. The new album is in fact her sixth in total and at the tender age of forty-one she is already something of a veteran. Carefully crafted originals and supremely well reworked classics are the hallmark of the distinctive Buika musical brand and this recording oscillates between uptempo renditions that fuse flamenco, jazz and even shades of funk (in the use of bass at least) effortlessly with gorgeous heart warming ballads that rarely fall short of excellent. The uptempo approach works best on the delightful ‘Siboney’, which is in fact the somewhat sedate Ernesto Lecuona original composition, but here has been utterly transformed into a funk-tinged dervish of a tune that has real bite to it. In stark contrast the refined sophistication of Billie Holiday favourite ‘Don’t explain’ is a delicious jazz-tinged piece on which keyboardist and arranger Ivan Melón’ Lewis excels. It would be wrong, however, to pigeon hole Buika as simply another flamenco singer for that she most certainly is not. While it is true to say that she has taken on board the innovations of flamenco-fusion legend Camerón de la Isla, she is by no stretch of the imagination a carbon copy and flamenco comprises but one (albeit an important one) of her musical influences. Only the somewhat clumsy delivery and excessive rapidity on ‘Ne me quitte pas’ is marginally less than thrilling and perhaps a few French lessons will put things right for future attempts at Molière’s favoured language. On the English language material, though, there is increasing confidence and this is illustrated further on the inventive reworking of Abbey Lincoln’s ‘Throw it away’ which here becomes a mid-tempo percussive ditty complete with Jaco Pastorius-infused bass intro. Absolute bliss. Pat Metheny joins the jam party on acoustic guitar on Buika’s own ‘No lo sé’ and when musicians of his calibre are willing to play a secondary role, you know you are a singer of some talent and doing something right. The multi-talented Buika has a book of poetry due out soon and has, in addition, written and produced a film. One mighty talented lady for sure and in the zenith of her thus far glittering career. Tim Stenhouse

Mac Davis ‘Song Painter’ / ‘I Believe in Music’ (T-Bird) 4/5

Singer-songwriter Mac Davis just happened to be born in Texas at a time when country music ruled the roost, but he was equally in awe of the emerging rock and roll scene and his music also reveals a profound love of blues and soul. Moving to Atlanta, Georgia, early on in life, Davis first learnt how to play the guitar and then began composing his own songs and it is indeed in this capacity that he first gained attention as a songwriter for other singers. By the late 1960s he had become much in demand and had coined, perhaps, his best known composition to a wider, non-specialist audience, and that was ‘In the ghetto’ which became a hit for Elvis. Equally, however, Lou Rawls covered ‘You’re good for me’ in 1968 and this was a clear indication that Davis’ song craft was reaching a whole wider public especially among black American musicians. This excellent double pairing of albums captures the earliest part of Davis’ career as a singer and, while his own vocal range is somewhat limited in comparison with the aforementioned, he is sufficiently competent to be able to deliver quality recordings. What is of particular interest on the debut album, ‘Song Painter’ (thus named after Glen Campbell referred to Davis in these terms) is that in between the main songs are thirty second vignettes which add a new dimension to proceedings and make this a far more varied album than the standard early 1970s country fare of the era. Included on the album are Mac’s own renditions of ‘In the ghetto’ and ‘You’re good for me’, both of which stand up well to the covers. Sadly, the album was not a hit and Davis suffered a further setback in adverse feedback from Rolling Stone which in retrospect seems unmerited. The follow up only fared slightly better, but did include a song devoted to his son, ‘Watching Scotty grow’. The title track has become arguably Mac’s most loved song among musicians receiving over fifty cover versions in the ensuing years. Davis’ first hit single from 1971 (not included on this CD) ‘Baby, don’t get hooked on me’ was shrouded in controversy at the time with feminists wrongly believing it was an anti-woman song. In fact Mac intended it as berating men who did not deserve a woman’s attention. Mac Davis would during the mid-late 1970s enjoy national success on the country charts and then map out a whole new career as a film actor in the 1980s. This double helping can be strongly recommended to both general fans of Americana who are looking for something a little different and devotees of the rootsier side of country music.

Tim Stenhouse

Johnny Griffin ‘Grab this’/’The Kerry Dancers’ (Solar) 4/5

A double header of vintage Johnny Griffin is what is in store on this pairing of original Riverside albums, both released in 1962. The first is unusual in that it features the tenorist in an organ combo formation with his first and only collaboration with guitarist Joe Pass,and is a well thought out selection of pieces taken at a mainly sedate pace. Around the same period, Griffin recorded as sideman with vibist Johnny Lytle and this re-issue merely illustrates how extremely versatile the tenorist was and che could certainly play in a soul-jazz bag just as easily as in the harsher hard bop mode. The more substantial second album is on more conventional terrain for Griffin with a stellar line up of Barry Harris on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Ben Riley on drums. Where this album departs from the norm is in its choice of folk tunes, both Irish and Scottish, which for 1962 was well ahead of its time and presages the ECM label’s flirtation with folk music by a good decade. A gentler side to the tenor titan is heard on this writer’s favourite interpretation, ‘Black is the colo[u]r of my true love’s hair’ which Nina Simone famously covered and Griffin caresses the melody beautifully. The rest of the band have the opportunity to shine throughout and Barry Harris takes a lovely solo on the mid-tempo ‘The Kerry dancers’ and part of the inspiration for the project may actually come from Charlie Parker who often quoted the theme in the midst of other compositions. A classic Scottish ballad, ‘Green goes the rushes’, which Euan McColl adapted, is taken at a slightly quicker tempo than normally and here Johnny Griffin comes into his own with some inspired soloing that is among his very best on the whole CD. Lovingly reproduced original album covers and additional photos plus updates sleeve notes simply add to the novel experience. Both albums are long overdue on CD and will be heard with great relish by a jazz loving public for probably the first time since the original vinyl is incredibly hard to find these days.

Tim Stenhouse

Elan Mehler Trio ‘Being There, Here’ (Challenge Records International) 4/5

One of the year’s most interesting pianist discoveries, Boston born Elan Mehler has come a long way from travelling around the world and playing for a time in Paris, then settling in New York. It was that move that catapulted him to cult status at the Knitting Factory where he has been a stalwart of the Big Apple jazz scene since 2006. A chance encounter with DJ and jazz enthusiast Gilles Peterson, who witnessed Mehler in performance at a spa hotel in Switzerland, has led to the present album which was in fact recorded at the very same venue in a live trio setting and the reposing atmosphere and reverential respect for the music among the audience has clearly rubbed off on the musicians ,and the general sound is unlike any standard jazz club. The selection features some of the classic American songbook and beyond, plus some a contemporary Americana cover and one original piece. Overall there is a wonderful feeling of simplicity and economy of style about the trio with nothing ever rushed, and the empathy between leader Mehler, bassist Tod Hedrick and drummer Max Goldman is all too evident. Highlights include a lovely take on Gillian Welch’s and David Rawling’s ‘I dream a highway’ which is taken at a gentle pace, a blues-inflected interpretation of Sy Oliver’s ‘Yes indeed’, and a non-bossa version of Jobim’s ‘Insensatez’ with the theme emphasized discreetly and where the piece builds slowly and ever so subtly. For indications of Elan Mehler’s improving compositional talents, the lightness of touch and fine interplay on his own ‘Waltz Ferwenz’ is a very promising indicator indeed of much more to follow in the future.

Tim Stenhouse

Ustad Vilayat Khan ‘The genius of Vilayat Khan’ (ÉL) 4/5

For many devotees of Indian classical music on the Indian continent, and wider afield, Vilayat Khan is regarded very much as the equal of, and in some respects superior to, the late great Ravi Shankar and that says a great deal about the standing of the former. Alongside Ali Akbar Khan and Shankar, Vilayat Khan is regarded as one of the ‘three Musketeers’ of Indian classical music who were pioneering in their exposing the delights of the music to a western audience. While comparisons for a more general audience are more difficult to gauge, we can instead marvel at both exceptionally gifted musicians and revel in their deeply contrasting approaches and outlooks. Like Shankar, Vilayat Khan was a master sitar player (he passed away in 2004, aged eighty-two) and continued to perform well into his seventies and beyond. Two original vinyl albums from 1961 and 1962 have been combined here and represent excellent value for money at around seventy-five minutes. Even so, there are only four ragas in total and these are lengthy pieces that took up whole sides on the original LPs. Vilayat Khan developed his own distinctive style of playing known as gayahi ang, or vocal style by which we mean that he practised the sitar to emulate the sound of the human voice. Technically he was innovative also in that he developed a way of playing where he was able to bend a note after it was struck. This has become a widely used technique in India ever since. However, it has to be stated that it was a style not to everyone’s liking and there was a healthy rivalry between Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar, the former taking issue with the latter’s courting of publicity on an international stage. The elongated ragas on this double helping of albums illustrate what Indian classical music is all about and it was shortly after they were recorded that Khan first came to prominence in the UK when he appeared at the 1964 Edinburgh festival.

Tim Stenhouse

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan ‘Emperor of Melody’ (ÉL) 4/5

Born in 1922 in the Hindustan region of what is now Bangladesh, Ali Akbar Khan (the ‘Ustad’ denotes master musician) is a major exponent of the sarod instrument. Part of a long family musical dynasty, Khan studied the sarod with his father Allaudin Khan and later the tabla with his uncle Aftabuddin. By 1951 Ali Akbar Khan had founded his own college of music on Calcutta and many of his students, including his own son, Ashish, have attained international stature. Khan is also interestingly the brother-in-law of Ravi Shankar. This collection of eight ragas that date from the early 1960s includes two that are taken from the soundtrack to renowned Indian director Satyajit Ray’s film ‘The Goddess'(‘Davi’). The intimate and exquisite performances on this recording have been lovingly remastered and the sound is both clear and vibrant. Among the highlights, ‘Raga Bhairavi’ features a haunting theme while ‘Raga Chandranandon’ (‘Joy of the moon’) is a reflective piece in the first pace that gathers pace thereafter. Khan would go on to record duet albums with Vilayat Khan, who was a great admirer of Khan, in two periods during the 1950s and 1970s. Ali Akbar Khan became more widely known to an international audience as a result of his Indo-Jazz fusion collaboration with former Charles Mingus alumni and tenor saxophonist John Handy on the 1975 double album set on MPS records. Unfortunately due to the paucity of information on the original vinyl, there are no details of other musicians participating on the album. A film is shortly to be released on the life of the musician.

Tim Stenhouse