Louis Sclavis Quartet ‘Silk and Salt Melodies’ (ECM) 3/5

louis-sclavis-quartetFrench multi-reedist Louis Sclavis has a portfolio like no other and this is partly because of his range of influences that borders on the wildly eclectic. Thus a touch of French baroque in Lully and Rameau is likely to be juxtaposed with free jazz and contemporary minimalism and this has alienated some listeners in the past. His formations vary considerably, but on this latest recording he has taken on board one of the young Turks of the French jazz scene in Alsatian keyboardist Benjamin Moussay whose influences are quite different to the leader and include Headhunters era Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Lenny Tristano among others. A mightily impressive concert performance at the Manchester Jazz Festival a couple of summers ago revealed what a fine leader Moussay is and he has a very promising future ahead of him if his participation here is anything to go by. As ever, Sclavis aims to surprise the listener and for those who might be wary of his wilder side, they would do well to listen to the introspective piece ‘L’autre rive’ with a minimalist piano intro and then the leader enters for what proves to be a memorable duet. In fact, this writer would welcome a whole album of duets between the two, so natural is the empathy between them here. In stark contrast, the dub-like percussion of ‘L’homme sud’ features an extended clarinet solo from Sclavis and cascading piano rolls from Moussay on this most uplifting of numbers. Ambient guitar from Gilles Coronado greets the listener on another introspective composition, ‘Le parfum de l’exil’ which hints at ‘In a Silent way’ in certain respects while the guitarist engages in some interaction with percussion on ‘Dances for horses’. In general there is a dark, brooding atmosphere to the music on offer that may not appeal to all and not necessarily the lightness of touch that one might expect from a French musical formation. It should be said in fairness that this album is slightly more accessible than Sclavis’ previous recordings, but will still require repeated listens for all that.

Tim Stenhouse

Stefano Bollani ‘Joy in spite of everything’ (ECM) 4/5

stefano-bollaniAutumn beckons and with it a slice of retro jazz that harks back to the era of Monk, Bud Powell and the films Federico Fellini. For this all original composition new recording, Italian pianist Bollani has called up his Transatlantic quintet, by which he means a US component comprising guitarist Bill Frisell and tenor saxophonist (whose album as a leader will be reviewed here shortly), while the Scandinavian rhythm section is made up of fellow Danes bassist Jesper Bodksen and drummer Morten Lund. The joyous opener ‘Easy healing’ with its infectious piano riff features some sweet sounding tenor who is very much in the Hank Mobley and Stanley Turrentine school of saxophonists and there is a delicate folk-blues solo from Frisell. Some might quibble about the inclusion of Frisell in this formation. In fact his presence is only felt in part on the album as a whole with him taking a largely secondary role and when he does finally come out of his shell and take centre stage, his solo is very much up to par as on his somewhat obtuse contribution to the nearly twelve and a half minute ‘Vale’. Bollani uses various formations within the quintet to tailor his message and on the free flowing ‘Alobar and Kudu’ it is the trio that begins proceedings with some choice Latin vamps from the leader. On the gentle ballad ‘Las Hortensias’ pianist and tenorist duet effectively while the tribute to swing jazz pianist Teddy Wilson ‘Teddy’ is a vehicle for some interplay between pianist and guitarist. Only an Italian could conjur up a title as playful as ‘No Pope no Party’ and this proves to be a neo-bop number in which Bollani displays his obvious affection for piano players of the past. Overall, this is a most cohesive unit and one in which the musicians clearly revel in each other’s company. Stefano Bollani will feature in a brief UK appearance in duet with Hamilton de Holanda (together they recorded ‘O Que Sera’ on ECM last year) as part of the London Jazz festival on 20 November.

Tim Stenhouse

Clinton Fearon ‘Goodness’ (Chapter Two) 4/5

clinton-fearonFormerly a founding member of Jamaican roots legends the Gladiators, singer-songwriter Clinton Fearon settled in Seattle in the US in 1987 and is now permanently based there. He has continued championing the classic roots reggae tradition and this consistently strong release will immediately please those who have long worn out their out their original Gladiators vinyl. There is a nostalgic nod to the Wailers sound on the impassioned plea of ‘Long run short catch’ and to Bob Marley more specifically on ‘Poor Nana’. Indeed, the conscious lyrics flow throughout the album with especially strong melodies as illustrated on ‘The Hunter’, or the catchiest of choruses as on ‘Come by yah’. Heavy bassline grooves compete with stabbing horns on the uplifting number ‘Jamdown boogie’ while the lilting mid-temp groove of ‘Talk with a friend’ is highly effective in its simplicity. In the title track, the collective vocal harmonies recall not only the Gladiators themselves, but the roots harmony groups of the 1970s more generally. French roots label Chapter two has come up with another winner of an album.

Tim Stenhouse

Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory ‘Forward in all directions’ (Whirlwind) 3/5

andy-milnes-dapp-theoryFusion jazz is the order of the day on this release from leader and piano, fender and all round keyboardist Andy Milnes, produced by the Yellowjackets Jimmy Haslip. The influences are wide-ranging and extend beyond jazz to include classical, Appalachian folk hip hop as well as Steve Coleman with whom Milne was a band member during the 1990s. One might question whether all these disparate elements come together ideally here. This writer liked some aspects, but less so others. Where the album works best is on the piano plus soprano saxophone duet on ‘Nice to meet you’ and more of this side of the band is needed. In places the classical element is dominant as on ‘The Trust’, or on ‘Search Party’ where contemporary classical and a freer approach collide. A slightly off-centre reading of ‘Photographs’ is a step in the right direction and once again Milne sounds far more authentic and at ease on acoustic piano. In contrast, the busy opener ‘Hopscotch’ with a soprano solo from Aaron Kroziki is out and out fusion, but does not sound any different form dozens of other groups who perform in that particular idiom. Singer Gretchen Parlato guests on ‘Katharsis’ contributing wordless vocals.

Tim Stenhouse

New York Standards Quartet ‘The New Straight Ahead’ (Whirlwind) 4/5

new-york-standards-quartetRecorded in Japan at the Music Inn studio, this stellar quartet line up features a some of New York’s finest musicians and is a terrifically fresh revisiting of the standards repertoire. This recording has definite hints of the classic 1960s Blue Note albums where musicians were constantly in demand and playing on each other’s albums soloing and playing sideman duties in equal measure and that is certainly one of the strengths of this new album. In this case Gene Jackson features on the drums, David Berkman on piano, the tenorist and soprano saxophonist Tim Armacost alternates, and last but by no means least, Japanese Daiki Yasukagowa performs on bass. The inventive reworking of standards, and by no stretch of the imagination the most obvious pieces either, works extremely well and is illustrated by the relaxed take on Duke Ellington’s ‘It don’t mean a thing’ with Armacost on soprano saxophone. A sudden change of tempo transforms the number and the reedist sets off on an extended solo. In fact it seems to be a trademark of the NYSQ that tempos within a given composition can oscillate and this is further exemplified on the quick-mid-tempo of ‘Autumn Leaves’ which is heavy on the bass and features some lyrical tenor playing. For a ballad of distinction, look no further than ‘When you wish upon a star’ with a piano solo intro and some plaintive tenor. What really comes across here is the amount of creative thought that has gone into the recording and as a whole the brief intro and ending of ‘Polka dots (and Moon beams)’ bookends the album to perfection. The New York Standards Quartet was formed in 2006 and this album is their fourth in total.

Tim Stenhouse

Cloudmakers Trio ‘Abstract Forces’ (Whirlwind) 4/5

cloudmakers-trioVibist Jim Hart is a musician who likes to explore the more experimental side of the vibraphone without ever losing sight of its melodic qualities. This aspect is showcased the fore on this new recording which is a trio outing featuring double bassist and Whirlwind records founder Michael Janisch and drummer Dave Smith. Where the vibes win hands down over all other percussive instruments is in the atmospheric and subtle use of building up tension and then release and this is exemplified on arguably the strongest number in ‘Early Hours’, a composition that Astor Piazzolla could conceivably have created. Elsewhere the groove-laden bass line of ‘Social Assassin’ recalls mid-1960s Bobby Hutcherson, who seems to be a formative influence on Hart, and on the very Hutcherson sounding opener ‘Snaggletooth’. On the ballad ‘Ramprasad’ the empathetic rapport between drummer Dave Smith and the leader is emphasized while the percussive ‘Angular Momentum’ has something of an African undercurrent to it. What Jim Hart demonstrates above all else on this latest album is just how much space the vibraphone can fill, both as a lead and comping instrument, creating an other world feel that even an acoustic piano may struggle to replicate.

Tim Stenhouse

Bloodstone ‘Fly Away’ (Exposed Entertainment) 5/5

bloodstoneFor most of us, our introduction to this group would have been the million seller ‘Natural High’ which boasted a wonderful array of leads and exquisite harmonies over a lush orchestrated backing. Well the music has changed and suits the vocals and the production perfectly for 2014, the album kicks off with ‘Possible’ which will be well up there at the end of the year as a highlight – a head nodding, stepping opus with a great lead vocal and stunning harmonies adding to a subtle use of the dreaded synths together with a real drummer makes this a beautiful way to kick off. Next up the more urgent ‘Fly Away’ which has weekender anthem written all over it, sounding like you’ve danced to it hundreds of times already; so instant and infectious and another set of great vocals too. This would sit perfectly in one of Bigger’s sets (anyone who’s witnessed him mashing up a dance-floor will know what I mean). ‘No one’ is a love song a typical Bloodstone ballad, and yet another weekender type anthem in ‘Comfortable’. Next up then is ‘Spread Love’ which starts off with a pointless irritating rap and then into an easy-on-the-ear plea about making change in our lives – all very positive and then bang… it’s ruined by another rap that says absolutely nothing! Without the raps this could have been the track of the album… oh well.
‘Theatre of love’ is another trademark down-tempo tune with top lead and those customary harmonies, sheer joy and then some. ‘I’m getting even witch baby’ is another glorious head-nodder and very listenable and we aren’t even half way through it! A fabulous album, and one you should buy before it disappears, as it isn’t very well promoted and its availability isn’t widespread either.

Brian Goucher