Phronesis ‘Life to everything’ (Edition) 4/5

PhronesisCaught in live performance as part of the Jazz in the Round series, and more generally one of the participants in the annual London Jazz Festival, this excellent recording from November 2013 captures the very essence of this relatively new trio and it is the immediacy of sound that greets the listener upon hearing the music. Phronesis pride themselves on their ability to shift up or down a gear at will and thus it proves on the gentle, reposing intro to ‘Song for lost nomads’ that gradually unfolds into a stunning staccato-paced piece with lovely Latin vamp from pianist Ivo Neame. The trio interplay hints at classic Bill Evans on the emotionally charged number ‘Wings 2 the mind’ while on ‘Phraternal’ betrays the pianist’s love of mid-1960s acoustic Herbie Hancock. Some of the compositions have a quasi-classical feel as on ‘Deep Space Dance’ which starts off gently and then takes off onto an altogether higher tempo before reaching fever pitch. A definite highlight is ‘Herne Hill’ which after a slow intro, suddenly develops an engaging Latin vamp while it is the lightness of touch by Neame that is above all else transmitted on ‘Urban Control’. Melodic interplay between leader and bassist Jesper Holby and pianist Neame is a feature of the relaxing mid-tempo ‘Dr. Black’. Composing duties are equally divided between trio members. The high quality sound reproduction lends both an intimacy and vibrancy to the music that only enhances the listening experience. Produced by label head and fellow musician Dave Stapleton, this latest recording by Phronesis confirms their standing as one of the premier piano jazz trios on the block in Europe.

Tim Stenhouse

Isley Brothers ‘Between the Sheets’ (BBR) 4/5

BetweenSheetsAlbumCoverBy the early 1980s the Isley Brothers had firmly established themselves as one of the greatest of soul-funk groups of all time and their albums from throughout the 1970s were of a consistently high quality. During the same period, however, production sound, had changed significantly with the introduction of a more layered synthesizer and electronic drum beats texture, and a new challenge was thus posed to the musical establishment. Marvin Gaye responded magnificently with a career resurrecting hit single in ‘Sexual Healing’ and ‘Between the Sheets’ should be viewed in a similar light as a modern update on their immediately distinctive sound, though on this particular outing the funk quota is placed on the back burner. The Isleys have always been famed for their stunning ballads and for this 1983 recording, decided that the whole of side one on the original vinyl should be devoted to balladry. What might have been a risky selection for some proved instead to be an inspired choice for the Isley Brothers and as a result they enjoyed a number one R & B album and a top ten R & B single hit with the superlative ‘Choosey Lover’. It features a classic Isley Brothers guitar intro with only pared down machine drums to accompany and then the trademark falsetto vocals of Ernie Isley enter to glorious background vocal harmony accompaniment. This rates among their very finest ballad songs. The title track was part inspired by Ernie Isley watching a Chanel number five advert on television minus the sound and then concocting his own musical vision of what the musical soundtrack might be in his head, and it is another winner. In a slightly more uptempo vein, ‘I need your body’ echoes the instrumentation of Mtume’s ‘Juicy Fruit’ that was an early 1980s hit while ‘Let’s make love tonight’ is a quality mid-tempo love ballad. Social commentary on the family was the subject of the rock-tinged ‘Ballad for the fallen soldier’ that was the one departure from the rest of the album. For another classy ballad, ‘Touch me’ is in a similar vein to their 1970s opus ‘Hello, it’s me’ and features atmospheric inducing sparse instrumentation. This was arguably among the last of the consistently strong Isley Brothers albums, though some might justifiably dispute that with the Isley Jasper Isley offering from a year or so later that remains a real favourite among the fans. Five bonus cuts on the current re-issue include four instrumental versions of the singles plus a 45 version of the title track.

Tim Stenhouse

Jimmy Castor Bunch ‘It’s just begun’/’Phase Two’ (Cherry Red) 4/5

jimmy castor bunchSome songs acquire a cult reputation even when they originally enjoyed major commercial success first time round and thus proves the case for multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Castor who scored a hit in 1972 with the 45 ‘Troglodyte’ and an enticingly funky ditty it is too. Interestingly, it was not the first single from the album, yet as radio play in the major US cities demanded that ‘Troglodyte’ receive a single release, it did come out and subsequently became a million seller. The album from which that 45 is taken, ‘It’s just begun’, and its follow up ‘Phase Two’ form a terrific twofer on one CD set here that showcases the talents of Jimmy Castor who has become a rare groove reference par excellence. Indeed, even jazz fans love his earlier Latin semi-instrumental classic, ‘Hey Leroy. your mama’s callin’ you’ which found its way onto one of the Jazz Juice compilations in the mid-late 1980s.

The first album, which features a pared down quintet line up, is the stronger of the two and is quite varied in approach. There are subtle shades of Norman Whitfield’s psychedelic soul production aka his period with the Temptations on ‘Psyche’ which is notable both for the Isley Brothers-style guitar in the background and for the Latin vamp that suddenly kicks in part way through and leads on to a son montuno inspired percussive interlude. This writer’s favourite track on the whole album is actually the first single release, ‘You’d better be good (or the devil’s gon’ getcha’)’ which is a steaming Latin funk number and there is old-school funk of the Ohio Players and Brass Construction variety on ‘Bad’. The second album has another Latin soul groover in ‘Party Life’ with cultural life in East Harlem seeming to influence the sound here. For another side altogether to Castor’s repertoire, the instrumental reworking of an anthemic folk ballad, ‘Euan Mac Coll’s ‘The first time I ever saw your face’ (Roberta Flack recorded a stunning version), is played by Jimmy soloing on saxophone and there is a heartfelt tribute to Jimi Hendrix on the funky medley of ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Foxey Lady’. An attempt at recreating the ‘Troglodyte’ groove with a very obvious successor in ‘Luther the Anthropoid (Ape Man)’ was only marginally successful and Jimmy Castor’s sound was out of kilter with the prevailing music scene by the mid-1970s. It took the rare groove scene of the 1980s and beyond to rightly resurrect his back catalogue and this is an ideal place to start the investigation.

Tim Stenhouse

Gene Chandler ‘Get Down’ (BBR) 4/5

gene-chandlerChicago Soul singer Gene Chandler has enjoyed a lengthy career that dates all the way back to 1962 when he enjoyed a hit R & B song with ‘Duke of Earl and by the early 1970s he had already recorded on a variety of Chicago’s finest labels including Checker/Chess, Brunswick and Curtom as well as producing ‘Groovier Situation’ for soul duo Mel and Tim. Fast forward to the late 1970s when disco was king. Chandler was actually a somewhat surprising candidate for the dancefloors, though it should be said that gritty soulster Edwin Starr did enjoy major disco hits with ‘Eye to Contact’ and ‘Happy Radio’ thus disprovin g any argument soulful vocals and dancefloor grooves could not be happily married. This well balanced album dates from 1978 and is really a classy modern soul album with one stunning dance-oriented song, namely the title track. The understated vocals of Chandler provide the ideal counterfoil to the distinctively catchy keyboard riffs that could only be from the 1970s with a heavy bass line underpinning it all, and it is included here in its full-length version. However, Gene Chandler was always a well rounded singer and this is exemplified by the dramatic brass and strings intro to a mid-tempo modern soul gem, ‘Tomorrow I may not feel the same’, which oozes class and features some lovely female background harmonies. An uplifting swinger of a soul tune emerges in ‘Greatest love ever known’ with Tom Tom 84 taking care of the arrangement duties and his masterly arranging is in evidence throughout this album with Carl Davis producing. A brace of quality ballads includes the Earth, Wind and Fire influenced harmonies on ‘Please Sunrise’. Only the final upbeat song, ‘Lovequake’, disappoints and pales in comparison with the title track.

Tim Stenhouse

Rodrigo Amarante ‘Cavalo’ (Mais Um Discos) CD/LP/Dig 4/5

Rodrigo-AmaranteBrazilian born singer Rodrigo Amarante will be best known to readers as a member of Devendra Banhart’s group, but he has in fact been resident in Los Angeles for the last six years and that is where this debut solo album was recorded. Formerly a member of Brazilian 1990s indie rock band Los Hermanos, Amarante’s approach is part inspired by the work of Brazilian great Caetano Veloso and Vinicius Cantaria and part influenced by singer-songwriting from both the English and French-speaking traditions. There is enough variety on offer here to keep listeners from disparate musical genres happy and the generally pared down accompaniment works a treat. A summery dream-like quality pervades the sparse opener ‘Nada em vão’ with samba percussion straight out of the Jorge Ben samba rock school and it is the latter who is again the inspiration for the funky excursion of ‘Maná’. For melancholic lament, look no further than the delightful ‘Irene’ while a left-field French language surprise comes in the lyrical shape of ‘Mon nom’. English language attempts are not quite as successful, though indie rock fans will certainly appreciate ‘Hourglass’, and the austere sounding ‘Fall Asleep’ is in keeping with rest and features simply piano and vocals. The album ends on a jazzy bass line high with ‘O Cometa’ which is a lovely laid back song to round off proceedings and the kind of song that an older Manu Chao might record. A one-off concert in mid-May in London was a mere foretaste of what the future might hold for Rodrigo Amarante. Inner sleeve notes contain lyrics in Portugese, English and French where appropriate.

Tim Stenhouse

Enrico Pieranunzi Trio ‘Stories’ (Cam Jazz) 4/5

enrico-pieranunziItalian pianist and leader Enrico Pieranunzi is that most sensitive of musicians and has a long-term affection for the music of Bill Evans. However, he is no mere imitator and, over a lengthy career, has built a reputation for quality craftsmanship in the art of the piano trio. Indeed, he has performed with musicians of the calibre of bassists Charlie Haden and Marc Johnson and drummers Paul Motion and Joey Barron. For this latest project, an all original composition set with one piece written by the bassist, Pieranunzi has surrounded himself with two of New York’s finest in bassist Scott Colley and current Pat Metheny Unity group member Antonio Sanchez. Collectively, they conjur up some deeply evocative and highly imaginative piano trio music. An immediate highlight is the pretty and melodic main theme that pervades ‘Detrás más allá’ with Latinesque hues in the stating of the theme. By contrast, there is something of a more classical approach which is emphasized in ‘Blue Waltz’ with a lightness of touch that has become Pieranunzi’s trademark and a delightful vamp on piano that makes the piece so memorable. For a more reflective mood, the ballad ‘The slow gene’ has a wonderful floating feel throughout and the sedately paced ‘Where stories are’ which is at once delicate and where the influence of Bill Evans is most obvious. It should be stressed that he creative mind of the leader is in full flow on this album with fine interplay between Pieranunzi and the other two members of the rhythm section. The current trio has great potential and it is to be hoped that this latest album forms part of a long-term collaboration between the constituent members. As ever with Cam Jazz releases, the excellent quality of sound is matched by the evocative imagery on the inner sleeve photos and photographer Andrea Buccalini is to be commended for his work here. Extended and informative inner sleeve notes comer courtesy of jazz journalist, presenter and writer Brian Morton.

Tim Stenhouse

Eric Reed ‘The adventurous Monk’ (Savant) 3/5

eric-reedFormerly part of the 1990s Wynton Marsalis band, pianist Eric Reed has, for two decades, been a solo artist and in recent years has devoted several projects to showcasing the music of Thelonius Monk, arguably that most individual of all jazz pianists. Each of the individual Monk projects has featured different line-ups. For the latest of these, the leader has recreated the classic Monk quartet sound, enlisting some of the young turcs on the New York scene and including the excellent Seamus Blake on tenor saxophone who veers between the clinical approach of Charlie Rouse and the sensitive warmth of Hank Mobley, Ben Williams on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. An all-Monk composition set covers familiar territory with a notable departure being the vocal interpretation of the classic re-titled ‘Dear Ruby (Ruby, my dear)’ with guest vocals courtesy of Clarence Wade. The quartet sound most alike 1960s Monk on ‘Work’ and this features an extended solo from Reed whose piano rolls are far more fluid than the staccato signature of Monk himself. An all too brief reworking of ‘Thelonius’ is undertaken by the rhythm section with Blake entering only in the latter stages while the trio perform throughout on ‘Reflections’ where Reed is at his most Monkesque in conveying the idiosyncratic hues of the great composer. While it is, perhaps, questionable whether Eric Reed would not be better served devoting more time to his own compositions, in its own right, this ongoing study of the Monk repertoire is sufficiently enticing to keep the listener guessing and he is a fine pianist in his own right notwithstanding Monk homages.

Tim Stenhouse

Jonathan Richman ‘No me quejo de mi estrella’ (Vampi Soul) 3/5 CD/LP

Jonathan-RichmanBoston born singer and guitarist Jonathan Richman first came to attention in the United States as leader of rock group Modern Lovers, but as the 1970s progressed increasingly distanced himself from electric music to instead focus on acoustic-led instrumentation, and from 1978 embarked upon a solo career. Which is where the present compilation begins and covers recordings by Richman over the last fourteen years. There is a simplicity to the songs that is in keeping with the singer’s philosophy towards music and he is precisely the kind of artist that either John Peel or Andy Kershaw would have championed/champion. In other words, the music is deliberately idiosyncratic, veering to the left of the mainstream with a folk/pop sensibility in the English language which is the idiom the majority of the songs are performed in, plus a world roots flavour with three songs in Spanish that reveals both a passion for flamenco guitar and an interest in Cuban singer-songwriters. A pared down instrumentation of guitar/bass plus percussion and the occasional collective background vocals works quite well as illustrated on the melodic self-penned composition ‘No one was like Vermeer’ with some lovely guitar work. The vocal delivery here is almost spoken, akin to Leonard Cohen. The latter is clearly a major influence since he receives a homage on a cover of ‘Here it is’. Of the Spanish language repertoire, Cuban songwriter Nico Saquito’s ‘La fiesta es para todos’ receives a faithful interpretation and Saquito himself rightly gained an international reputation during the 1990s with indie label releases of his work while Richman’s interest in flamenco is demonstrated by the appropriately titled, ‘La guitarra flamenco negra’. Previously only limited 7″ vinyl singles were available on Vampi Soul and they have wisely decided to devote an entire album to his work. Definitely quirky and worth investigating.

Tim Stenhouse

Son Palenque ‘Afro-Colombian Sound Modernizers’ (Vampi Soul) 4/5

Son-PalenqueContinuing the exploration of Columbian music in its myriad forms, creative and independent Madrid-based label Vampi Soul have come upon a very special re-issue which focuses on the Afro-Columbian heritage of that country’s rich musical tradition. Son Palenque will be completely unknown to most in Europe and even Latin music enthusiasts will struggle to find their releases on vinyl unless they have close connections with Columbia. All the more reason, then, to investigate this fine anthology of the group’s work which spans the period from the early 1980s through to 2012 when the group reformed and began recording once again.

This is music that is closely linked to the history of slavery in Latin America with the word Palenque referring specifically to a village or community where escaped slaves lived and there are parallels here with other countries such as Brazil, or Jamaica. Slavery was officially abolished in Columbia in 1852. However, the story of drum rhythms of Africa transported over to Latin America and how they fused with indigenous music styles is just one of the rewarding aspects of this release. There are definite musical connections with Afro-Cuban rumba groups such Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and the lead call and response vocals are not dissimilar to the roots of blues and gospel music in the United States. Melodic collective vocals and catchy bass line are a feature of ‘Palengue Palengue’, the first sing of modern instrumentation emerges on ‘Chofao Apele’ and the links to Cuba are all too apparent on both the chant-led vocal piece ‘Dame un trago’ and on ‘Azuca y Limón’.

In order to enhance the listener’s and reader’s experience and enjoyment, Vampi Soul have once again come up trumps with a tasteful gatefold sleeve that inside contains two original vinyl cover sleeves with extremely well documented bi-lingual English and Spanish inner notes from musicologist Lucas Silva who was also instrumental in helping to put the compilation together in the first place. A first rate attempt to chronicle a much under-valued aspect of how music developed in Columbia and one looks forward to other similar-minded projects that shed greater light on the diversity of music on offer in that country beyond the commercial mainstream.

Tim Stenhouse