Sonido Gallo Negro ‘Sendero Mistico’ (Glitterbeat) 4/5

Sonido-Gallo-NegroIf David Byrne were to select a quirky Mexican group to showcase on his Luaka Bop label, then Sonido Gallo Negro (or Black Rooster Sound to give them their English equivalent name) would surely be prime candidates and Berlin-based label Glitterbeat have beaten them to it. This is a joyous trip into Latin psychadelia with a deliberate nod to the 1970s and anyone who might criticise the group for being overly cheesy in the use of instrumentation is missing the point entirely: that is an essential ingredient of the band’s sound and a raw rootsy retro groove is precisely what the band are striving to achieve and doing it extremely well it has to be said. A predominantly instrumental line-up of tracks complete with sound effects and samples that take a leaf out of Gotan Project, guitar and organ solos that hark back to classic Santana and a relentless pumping percussive beat that takes on board traditional Columbian cumbia, but gives it a modern and urban Mexico City twist and you have the Sonido Gallo Negro sound formula condensed into a single sentence. Hailing from the exuberant music scene of Mexico City, the band, comprising nine members,minus any brass, are strongest on the heavyweight ‘Serenata Güajira’ with a lovely flute solo, the clever play on words ‘Coup de poudre’ where the Santana influence is most evident in the guitar solo and the shuffling uptempo cumbia groove of Alfonso Grana (Selvatica)’ which tells the story of a Galician immigrant who strikes up a rapport with the Incas of eastern Mexico and ends up being named ‘King of the Jibaros’ is as creative as the storyline itself.

Simply put, Sonido Gallo Negro make the kind of music that is ideal for the backdrop to an independent minded film-maker such as Jim Jarmusch, or even Pedro Almodóvar, and at some point in their career, they will surely take a career left turn and make a seriously good film score. In the meantime, this album should be enjoyed with a spicy enchilada muy saboroso and a cool beer for the ideal way to wind down an evening in June. Music to enjoy the summer months away to.

Tim Stenhouse

Gwilym Simcock ‘Instrumation’ (ACT) 4/5

Layout 1One of the UK’s finest jazz musicians and a prime contender for the most gifted of the pianists among his generation, Gwilym Simcock has rapidly established an international reputation and his association with the ACT label has been a major factor in reaching out to a wider audience. A rapid series of releases has seen him heard in contrasting contexts, and an earlier ACT album this year featured a terrific duet recording with the equally talented Russian musician, bassist Yuri Goloubev. This new album divides equally up into two parts with Goloubev and drummer Martin France comprising the second part in a quartet format that includes cello, while the first part is an ambitious orchestral project that has Simcock accompanied by the City of London Sinfonia and will appeal to those who appreciate larger ensemble compositions. The five part suite was written in the spring of 2011 with the Sinfonia in mind and two of these were previewed in London in January. One of these, ‘Simple Tales’, was originally commissioned for a classical piano trio that Simcock wanted to augment with bass and drums. However, the piece has now been reworked to fit the new quartet and jazz fans in particular will find more of interest in this section of the album which combines both jazz and classical elements with fine interplay between Goloubev and Simcock on the outwardly reflective ‘Ouverture’ and in general some delightful piano work that recalls Chick Corea from his Latin-influenced period of the early-mid 1970s. Some of the pieces in fact reflect various aspects of his family’s life with ‘Dance! (for Ann)’ devoted to his mother while the evocative sounding ‘M. Bricolage (French for handyman) was inspired by French builders’ merchants. This album, in which all the music has been composed by Simcock, is typically inventive from a truly original musical mind and one who is fully capable of operating in a variety of settings as this set most admirably demonstrates.

Tim Stenhouse

Curtis Stigers ‘Hooray for love’ (Concord) 4/5

Curt-StigersSinger and tenor saxophonist Curtis Stigers belongs to a small, yet thankfully growing elite of male jazz vocalists and is well schooled in the Great American Songbook which is where he situates a good deal of his work and rightly so since it compliments his sound. Produced by John ‘Scrapper’ Sneider, who also doubles up as trumpeter, this is a classy affair from start to finish with some beautifully crafted music and the influence of Sinatra on Stigers’ voice is all too obvious. The relaxed opener, an interpretation of the Gershwin Brothers’ ‘Love is here to stay’ sets the tone, though variety is on offer with an uptempo take plus guitar on ‘Hooray for love’. A duet with Cyrille Aimee, who comes across as a latter day Billie Holiday on ‘You make me feel so young’, impresses while Snieder the trumpeter takes centre stage performing on muted harmon à la Miles on the stretched out and gentle rendition of ‘The way you look tonight’. An interesting choice of song is that of Steve Earle’s ‘Valentine’s day’ which takes on a new lease of life here complete with vibes accompaniment and Steigers can successfully incorporate more contemporary material into his repertoire. If Diana Kraal has a near male equivalent, then it is surely Steigers who excels in this environment and his recent performance broadcast on BBC radio 2 with the Danish Big Band from a March 2014 concert in Copenhagen is testimony to his vocal skills in a live context.

Tim Stenhouse

Emilie Simon ‘Mue’ (Blue Wrasse/Universal France) 3/5

Emilie-SimonHow would Kate Bush sound like had she been born in France? Singer-songwriter Emilie Simon provides part of the answer since she possesses a high-pitched girl-like voice not dissimilar to Bush, though on this sixth album overall the ambiance is less folk-inspired and far more aimed squarely at the French pop market. This works best on the pared down numbers such as the folk-tinged song ‘The eye of the moon’, the sole English language composition, and here the influence of Carla Bruni is present and on the excellent melancholic ‘Les amoureux de minuit’ which features a jazz trio style accompaniment on which the album ends on a high note. Strongest of all is the album’s left-field track, ‘Le diamant’, which reveals an interest in Brel in the use of arrangement and the tune itself, and where Simon sounds most reminiscent of Kate Bush with the inclusion of vibes as a lovely touch. There are even shades of Chinese music in both the voice and instrumentation on ‘Perdue dans tes bras’ and this is the song that most successfully combines both layered instrumentation and voice. In places Simon’s sweet melodic voice seems to hint at Joni Mitchell and her ‘Blue’ period. All the more reason, then, to dispense with the bubble gum pop orchestrations elsewhere. It has to be stated that at times the instrumentation is over-produced with songs such as the funky beat ‘Menteur’ and ‘Quand vient le jour’ both suffering from overly slick production. More of the individual in Simon’s voice emerges on ‘Encre’ (Ink) and with minimalist accompaniment the voice is able to breath more easily, though the increasing use of whirling strings does become a distraction here. However, the abiding question one asks of Simon after listening to the album is: does Emilie Simon want to be an out and out pop singer, or an individual singer-songwriter of integrity? If it is indeed the latter, then a more folk and world-roots based approach would certainly help to compliment her vocals.

Tim Stenhouse

Hollie Cook ‘Twice’ (Mr Bongo) 4/5

Hollie-CookBeing the daughter of the Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Culture Club backing singer Jenni Cook and having Boy George as your godfather inevitably, perhaps, encourages you towards a career in the music industry and Hollie Cook has certainly paid her dues singing backing with post-punk/reggae band the Slits.

Although naturally a shy individual, she has gained in confidence from regular live performances and most notably supported the Stone Roses at their comeback concert. For her latest album and second as a leader for enterprising London label Mr Bongo following on from the excellent collaboration with Prince Fatty, the twenty-eight year old has enlisted heavyweight UK roots reggae and dub multi-instrumentalist Dennis Bovell to produce along with Jamaican veteran singer Winston Francis and George Dekker. Fans of Bovells’ classic 1970s albums will certainly find much to admire in the instrumentation which is in a strictly roots style, though with a definite nod towards pop in the vocals. The instantly catchy ’99’ is the album’s most compelling number and possesses a heavy roots feel with layered synths and syndrums that conjur up the late 1970s to perfection and even a Brazilian cuica drum for added exoticism. It should be stressed that the album is in large part a tribute to Ari Up, lead singer with the Slits, who tragically died in 2010 and was a close family friend. That personal loss is conveyed on the opener simply titled, ‘Ari Up, which is a mid-tempo roots number with percussive accompaniment. Overall the music oscillates between reggae in a roots vein and that aimed at a more commercial market and Hollie Cook probably will make her reputation in that in-between niche. This latest offering is a deliberate attempt at creating more of a roots sound and works pretty well within those parameters. In fact with Caribbean roots on her grandmother’s St. Lucian side, a pan-Caribbean flavour might make for an intriguing future project.

Tim Stenhouse

Miles Davis ‘Porgy and Bess’ (Poll Winners) 5/5

Miles-DavisSome albums are destined to become instant classics and this superlative collaborative effort between trumpeter Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans is truly a musical marriage made in heaven. It has to be said that the album as a whole is utterly irresistible with highlights galore throughout and this is simply one of the finest ever examples of classical and jazz styles coming together. The fact that composer George Gershwin intended the compositions to chronicle the African-American experience lends itself to a jazz interpretation and Davis and Evans combine on an album that for many rivals and even tops ‘Sketches of Spain’. Either way, it is an enthralling musical voyage one is taken on. It is the intensity of the sound that still never fails to greet the listener on each new occasion one listens to the album and something new is gained, a sure sign of an all-time classic recording. Of course the all-star big band line-up contributed greatly to creating a unique and at times tense atmosphere and then recent Miles band members Cannonball Adderley, Philly Joe Jones and bassist Paul Chambers were all on hand as were trumpeter Johnny Coles and Gunter Schuller to provide some stunning accompaniment to the leader. However, seldom has the sensitive balladry of Davis been exemplified as beautifully as here on the stunning ‘Summertime’, and the tempo shifts upwards on an equally compelling ‘It ain’t necessarily so’. Just tow of a host of exquisite performances from Davis who was about to hit one his numerous career peaks.

The excellent re-issue packaging includes evocative early-mid 1950s photos of Miles who was always that most photogenic of jazz musicians, the original Downbeat review by Gene Lees from 1958 as well as the extensive original vinyl back cover notes written by critic Charles Edward Smith which are faithfully reproduced. Four bonus cuts include two takes on ‘But not for me’ and ‘The man I love’, both Gershwin compositions, but taken from separate 1954 sessions that include a stellar cast of Monk, Milt Jackson and Kenny Clarke among others. Any self-respecting devotee of music irrespective of the genre needs to have a copy of this album in at least one format and preferably in several, so essential is it to twentieth century music.

Tim Stenhouse

Vijay Iyer ‘Mutations’ (ECM) 4/5

Vijay-IyerPianist Vijay Iyer’s debut recording for ECM is very much on the cutting edge of contemporary classical and improvisational music and as such it comes with a caveat for piano jazz devotees who may be expecting an entire album of jazz oriented music as on the excellent earlier albums he recorded for ACT. Instead, the album focuses primarily on a series of suites, ten in all, that take up the majority of the listening space and collectively they make for an esoteric and, in places, chilling intellectual listening experience. This should come as no surprise since, in addition to being a fine pianist, Vijay Iyer is also the holder of a PhD in the cognitive science of music and has obviously spent a good deal of time reflecting on his art and music more generally. Matching minimalist piano, electronica and a string quartet, Iyer seems to be intent on exploring new textures as illustrated on ‘Vuln Pt. 2’ which features a gentle and gradual piano intro and the use of sound effects. This is by no means easy listening and the combination of structured passages and improvisations works in some part and not in others where the two appear to be wholly disparate elements. Indeed at times one longs for a lengthy piano solo with ‘Spellbound and Sacrosanct’ the nearest thing to a conventional jazz ballad. However, when classical and piano do come together, there are equally moments of great beauty and above all else this is a recording that requires repeated listens in order to fully digest what is going on, and even then there is still a hint of mystery in the creative process. Some might question whether classical and improvised piano can co-exist harmoniously. The pianist is determined to prove the case for and make new musical discoveries along the way. Vijay Iyer is a musician who seldom does the obvious and watching his next steps in the years to come will be one of the scene’s more enjoyable pleasures. Of note and highly unusual at that for ECM is the inclusion both of inner sleeve notes by the leader himself and a plethora of photos of the studio sessions in stark contrast with the austere and minimalist sleeves of the label. Manfred Eicher seems to have poured his heart and soul into this particular project and Iyer is another gem of a musician who should enjoy a long and fruitful career with the ever inventive label.

Tim Stenhouse

Jean-Louis Matinier and Marco Ambrosini ‘Inventio’ (ECM) 4/5

Jean-Louis-Matinier-Marco-AmbrosiniFranco-Italian musical collaborations, like cinematic ones, are grounded on an endearing love of and respect for each others separate yet nonetheless deeply sympathetic cultures. So it proves on this excellent duet recording between French accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier, who, at the end of the 1980s, became a member of the influential Orchestre National de Jazz as well as more recently accompanying Juliette Greco. Classically trained Italian musician Marco Ambrosini studied violin and viola before taking up the nyckelharpa in 1983 and has performed, among others, with bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons. The two musicians on the current album have been collaborating together since 2008. Ten out of the concise fifteen pieces are composed, or co-composed by the duo and of these Ambrosini’s delightful ‘Basse dance’, the longest piece on the album at just over six minutes, conjurs up the early music sound of composer Marin Marais. Marais was in fact a musician wonderfully evoked and paid homage to in the French film ‘Tous les matins de monde’ in the early 1990s, which broke French record sales at the time for a CD soundtrack in the early music category and expertly performed by Jordi Savall. Ideally, this writer would like to hear more of this interactive side to the duo and an entire project devoted to early music would make a compelling future project. Two pieces by J.S. Bach are performed with ‘Inventio 4’ transposing the intimacy of Bach into an accordion context and a most fascinating listen it is too. One wonders what bandoneon maestro Astor Piazzolla would have made of this. An emotionally charged solo from Ambrosini on ‘Presto from Sonata G-minor’ conveys beautifully the improvisational quality of Bach’s chamber work that is sometimes overlooked and, in general, Bach’s influence on jazz musicians should never be underestimated for it is indeed substantial. Throughout there is a deftness and lightness of touch that is utterly commendable and with plenty of scope for future albums.

Tim Stenhouse

Billy Hart Quartet ‘One is the other’ (ECM) 4/5

billy-hart-one-is-the-otherWashington D.C. born drummer Billy Hart belongs to that elite group of elder statesman jazz musicians who honed their craft during the mid-late 1960s as a sideman first with Hammond organ supremo Jimmy Smith and then guitarist Wes Montgomery. However, it was his tenure with the experimental Herbie Hancock sextet between 1969 and 1973 that first marked out Hart as a musician who was capable of going beyond both soul-jazz and bop genres and entering into freer territory, though always within a carefully controlled framework. Thus came notable sideman duties with both McCoy Tyner and Stan Getz before he debuted as a leader with the magnificent ‘Enhance’ on A & M’s offshoot jazz label Horizon in 1977, a mid-period career high point as a leader and on a par with the loft-inspired recordings of the same era.

Fast forward some thirty-five years or more, and Billy Hart now finds him leader on a second album in relatively short succession on the ECM label, with a follow up to the well received 2011 outing, ‘All our reasons’. Hart has skilfully surrounded himself with a crack quartet that blends youth and seasoned experience with tenorist Mark Tenor, who spent part of the 1990s as a leader on the Blue Note label, the Bad Plus’ pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street. Indeed one could argue that Hart has come upon the ideal quartet sound here and there is an impressive collection of contrasting moods on the album with a highly inventive and frequent use of differing duets, ranging from conventional piano-saxophone through to more experimental drum-piano and drum-saxophone. Compositions are roughly evenly divided between saxophonist, pianist and leader. However, it is the latter’s ‘Teule’s redemption’ that is the stand out track and a truly haunting melody at that with a fine plaintive solo from Turner who sounds here like a marginally less aggressive mid-1960s Wayne Shorter and with delicate accompaniment from Iverson. The rapport between both Iverson and Turner and Hart and Turner is a recurring feature of the album with the former duo playing in unison on the lyrical ballad ‘Sonnet for Steve’ and the more experimental sounding ‘Maraschino’ and the latter duo operate on the initial gentle tranquillity of ‘Amethyst’ that remains pared down until Iverson re-enters to take a solo. Turner wails sweetly on the sole standard, the Rodgers and Hammerstein number, ‘Some enchanted evening’, evoking Stanley Turrentine in his prime with fairy tale-esque musings from Iverson while on his own ‘Lennie Groove’, the tenorist’s outwardly melodic tone has the faintest hint of harshness underneath that recalls Hank Mobley from his mid-late 1950s Jazz Messengers sojourn. If ‘Enhance’ represents a landmark recording overall for Billy Hart as a leader, this latest album is a prime contender for second place and that is testimony to the current quartet’s well oiled machine.

Tim Stenhouse