Jan Prax Quartett ‘Keepin’ A Style Alive’ (ACT) 4/5

jan-prax-quartettThe Jan Prax Quartett is seen as one of the promising newcomers of Young German Jazz. Having listened to “Keepin’ A Style Alive” for a few weeks now, I would go further than this and say “One of the most promising newcomers in jazz full stop exclamation mark”. This recording is fresh, inspiring and at times jaw-droppingly enjoyable. The quartet is Jan Prax, alto and soprano saxophones, Martin Soros, piano and Fender Rhodes, Tilman Oberbech, bass, and Michael Mischi, drums. Together they successfully draw on some of the timeless, traditional elements of jazz and connect this to the present day with a modern infusion of guile and infectious energy. It’s slick, it’s silky, and it’s sexy. Speaking generally, the tracks performed on this debut release are in one way (and in a very good way), a throwback to the likes of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Prax’s playing is incredibly stylish and self-assured for such a young musician. In another way Prax’s sound reminds me of some of the modern-day exponents of the saxophone, akin to the fluent, effortless playing of Joshua Redman.
The ten tracks showcased here are all original compositions, skilfully written and consummately performed. All the tunes are top-notch, but special mention has to be given to “Trane’s Ride”. I actually laughed with nervous disbelief when I heard this track, it is just so incredibly good. The title track itself, “The Journey”, “Shades of Autumn” and “Is That Right” are also all top drawer jazz compositions that allow the quartet to shine, the musicians obviously feeling the music in a wonderful way. The tunes pulsate with a life affirming rhythm and groove laid down by the drums of Mischi and the bass of Oberbeck. Pianist Martin Soros is outstanding throughout. He seems to have an unnerving natural knowledge of when to sit with quiet appreciation of what’s going on around him, and when to run with fast-flowing ideas that spark into life and take the tune into new, exciting territory. And then there is Prax himself, his alto and especially his soprano playing being both thoughtful and inventive consistently across the whole album.

If you only take the time to listen to one new band you haven’t heard before this year, may I suggest you make it this one. Take a chance and buy this album, as a jazz lover I doubt you’ll be disappointed. The Jan Prax Quartett really are “Keepin’ a style alive”.

Mike Gates

Sarah Weller Band ‘Stormy’ (Daisy Dog) 3/5

sarah-weller-bandJazz vocalese tends to be situated in the classic standard repertoire and therefore it is welcome to hear someone who focuses on the lesser known material, but giving them a contemporary Latin flavour with a definite nod towards the dancefloor. Sarah Weller has clearly listened to a good deal of soul jazz and Brazilian-influenced songs and the result is a well-balanced album of classic and contemporary covers. Flora Purim immortalised ‘Stormy’ on Duke Pearson’s 1970s Blue Note album and here the wordless scatting is retained and a similar breezy atmosphere is conjured up. Arguably stronger still is the rendition of Bobby Hutcherson’s ‘Little B’s poem’ with a bubbling bass line and electric guitar accompaniment out of the Pat Metheny school. Brazilian composer Ivan Lins is often and here ‘Love dance’ is a cover of a song that George Benson made famous on his ‘Give me the night’ album. A pared down take on Stanley Turrentine’s ‘Sugar’ in the guitar only intro suddenly gives way to an altogether funkier interpretation that recalls the lovely version from New York vocalese group Rare Silk back in 1983. Clubland is represented by an extended remix of ‘Stormy’ from DJ Nicola Conte that includes a repeated bass intro and a Mr Mundy mix of ‘Black Spirits’. Only the gentle sounding ‘Meditation’ hints at bossa nova territory and English lyrics courtesy of Normal Gimbel have been added to the Jobim and Mendonca original. For a left-field number, the rustic folk guitar (à la John Fahey) on ‘A slow hot wind’ works extremely well and there is a lovely Hammond organ solo from Ross Stanley who features on three songs and sounds reminiscent of mid-1960s Larry Young in approach. Sarah Weller has recorded a commendable debut and, in the already saturated female jazz vocalist category, made her initial mark.

Tim Stenhouse

Change ‘Turn on Your Radio’ (BBR) 3/5

changeFollowing on from their greatest commercial success with the crack 1980s production pairing of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis that resulted in the hit album ‘Change of Heart’, Change parted company with the duo and, in hindsight, this was to be the beginning of the end for the group. Soul and funk music in the mid-1980s was going through its own digital era of sorts with mechanised instruments replacing the human sound of studio musicians and ‘Turn on your radio’ is very much a reflection of that influence. Produced by French West Indian Jacques Fred Petrus who had pioneered the post-Chic sound of Change (with intriguingly instrumentation laid down in Italy and vocals at a later point in New York), BB&Q Band and his very own Peter Jacques Band, the music was in a state of flux and somewhere along the line Change’s identity got lost in the mix. A first single, the title track, fared poorly and barely struggled to reach the top one hundred of the R & B charts and was even outside the Billboard main top two hundred. A second single, ‘Let’s go together’, only fared slightly better, but was at least a return of form and is in fact a prime candidate for the strongest song on the whole album. It was a sound that recalled Change in their heyday and the bonus 12″ version here is well worth the admission price. Of course the Jam-Lewis connection could not be entirely forgotten and ‘Oh what a feeling’ is a burning mid-tempo number that is a carbon copy of the ‘Change of Heart’ formula that worked so well, with Deborah Cooper outstanding on lead vocals. Returning to the dance floor groove, ‘Mutual Attraction’ after a somewhat corny synth intro, settles into a strong dance groove and is fairly typical of its time. Change were in existence for a relatively short space of time, five years to be precise, and yet they achieved a good deal within this limited time frame. Moreover, the group served as a stopping off point for some truly memorable careers, not least the one and only Luther Vandross. Petrus himself became bogged down with unresolved tax issues and consequently left the US in 1986 never to return. Indeed he quit the music industry altogether to settle permanently in his native Guadeloupe. Change never formally finished, but this last album effectively put an end to the formation and the individual members parted company to focus on individual projects. At least with this final recording, the circle has finally been completed. Fans of the group in the UK will retain many happy memories of the mid-1980s tour including a memorable concert in Manchester at the then in its infancy Hacienda.

Tim Stenhouse

Jack DeJohnette ‘Made in Chicago’ (ECM) 3/5

jack-deJohnetteThis new live release represents something of a return to his family roots for drummer and leader Jack DeJohnette. He in fact studied piano and music at college in Chicago as far back as 1962 and among his then classmates Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. The recording ties in with the fiftieth anniversary of one of Chicago’s modern jazz institutions, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and was recorded in late August 2013 at the Windy City’s Millennium Park, officially ‘Jack DeJohnette day’. AACM were in their heyday during the 1970s and the lengthy pieces here hark back to the loft era of intense musical creativity. One major feature here is the minimalist use of piano throughout from Muhal Richard Abrams. After a rambling intro on piano, there is reed ensemble work with bass flute in the lead on ‘Museum of Time’. One of the strongest pieces is the evocative ‘This’ where the flute playing of Threadgill is showcased over a quasi-funereal tone and this an extremely downbeat number that requires several listens in order for the ear to adapt to the achingly slow pace. By contrast, the free thinking seventeen minute opener, ‘Chant’, can best be described as organised chaos and fans of AACM will be in their element here. In parts, the music here is a little too diffuse and disorganised for this writer with some losing their thread part way through, and this is definitely not music for the faint-hearted. That said, there is no doubting the sincerity of the music and to have so many of the key members the band reunited is a triumph in itself.

Tim Stenhouse

Emily Saunders ‘Outsider/Insiders’ (The Mix Sounds) 4/5

emily-saundersBrazilian vocalists other than Astrid Gilberto tend to be overlooked as influences for jazz singers, but in the case of Emily Saunders, there has been a detailed examination of the craft of Flora Purim not to mention the compositional genius of Hermeto Pascoal and instrumental prowess of Airto Moreira, and the result is an excellent recording that drives along from start to finish. Saunders specializes in uplifting, Latin-tinged numbers and the breezer, ‘Summer days’ is quite simply the perfect accompaniment to a spring or summer’s day.
The title track pays homage to Lee Morgan with an electric piano riff in ‘The Sidewinder’ vein and features a quasi-spoken delivery with a catchy ‘Nurthern like Thuthern’ bass line that lingers long. Return to Forever’s early-mid 1970s’ sound is incorporated on the wordless vocals to the exquisite ballad ‘Moon’ with an extended piano solo and this is a flowing piece with the use of subtle percussion from Fabio de Oliveira and Asaf Sirkis.
In general, fine brass ensemble playing is delivered by Byron Wallen on trumpet and Trevor Mires on trombone while keyboardist Steve Pringle is to be commended for his sensitive electric piano performance throughout.
If one had to make any comparison at all in terms of the actual voice, then it would probably be the light and gentle voice of Stacey Kent, but that is where the parallel ends for Saunders’ songbook is a slightly later and more progressive one. Her previous debut, ‘Cotton Skies’, goes back to 2011 and it has taken another four years to wait for this follow-up. On this evidence, it has certainly been worth the wait. The briefest of UK concerts took place in March and hopefully there will be more to follow.

Tim Stenhouse

Anders Jormin/Lena Willemark/Karin Nakagawa ‘Trees of Light’ (ECM) 4/5

trees-of-lightIn recent decades ECM has played a leading role in the promotion of world fusion music and this is no better illustrated than on this fascinating project that combines Swedish instrumental and vocal folk music with the Japanese koto. In order to fully appreciate this interweaving of folk music traditions, one means of comparison for the general listener might be the wonderful Tony Scott album from 1964, ‘Music for Zen Meditation’, that fused clarinet with flute and koto to such thrilling effect. In this new example, the music was performed by the trio for a full two years prior to the musicians going into the studio to record in Gothenburg and the results in general are excellent with odd caveat. This writer was especially taken by the instrumental pieces with Hirajoshi’ an outstanding number and more of the same calibre would be very welcome on future projects. Interestingly, despite the extensive use of the twenty-five string koto from Nakigawa, in places the feel is distinctly Celtic-sounding as on ‘Urbanus’ which features a steady bass line in tandem with koto. The vocals from Lena Willemark are quite offbeat and do require repeated listening before they fully envelop the mind and the genesis of the lyrics emanates from poems that Willemark herself has composed. Swedish double bassist Anders Jormin impresses throughout in the same way Dave Holland shone on ‘Thimar’. A series of concerts have already taken place in Sweden in March and the trio have now moved on to Japan where they will be performing during May.

Tim Stenhouse

Buena Vista Social Club ‘Lost and Found’ Cd/LP/Dig (World Circuit) 4/5

buena-vista-social-clubIt is virtually twenty years ago that the first recording took place of a then virtually unknown collective of Cuban musicians that had graced the music scene there during the mid-late 1950s, but for a good four decades thereafter had largely fallen into oblivion. Thankfully World Circuit saw fit to record the veteran at the Egrem studios in Havana and Wim Wenders had the presence of mind to film them and document both their live performances and their first trip to New York and over eight million copies of the first album were shifted globally. What marvellous cultural ambassadors they now appear with a thawing in relations between Cuba and the United States. This new release is in reality a collection of the band in its myriad formations at the absolute peak of the creative powers and is a worthy album in its own right and not simply a collection of discarded numbers. The big band (banda gigante) re-working of Bruca Manigua’ simply fizzes with panache and vitality, and this was recorded in 2000 when Ibrahim Ferrer was still taking care of lead vocals. Ferrer was that most versatile of singers and elsewhere he delivers a heartfelt bolero on ‘Como fue’ which is virtually a signature tune. Semi-instrumental pieces work particularly well with ‘Boclas de oro’ a stunning track with a wonderful piano solo from Rubén González. A younger band member whose contribution is sometimes overlooked is singer Calunga and on the infectious ‘Tiene sabor’ he opens up and the heavens open with catchy piano vamp while another big band extravaganza awaits on ‘Guajira en F’. This year represents the adios or farewell tour and several of the key band members have now passed away. However, the cannon of music that this collective have laid down will remain for decades to come.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘¡Chicas! Spanish Female Singers vol. 2 1963-1978’ (Vampi Soul) 4/5

ChicasHow did Spaniards internalise the emerging and prevailing sounds of the Brit invasion in the 1960s and beyond? That was the rationale behind this latest compilation from the ever wonderful Vampi Soul and once again they have unearthed some gems from the past.
What immediately comes across from this cross-section sampling is that even under Franco’s rule, Spain was slowly beginning to soak up external cultural influences and in the musical sphere this in practice meant singers from overseas recording specifically Spanish language repertoire. The results were often entertaining and, on occasion, quite surprising choices into the bargain. Who, for example, would have thought that Millie Small’s ska-pop hit ‘My boy lollipop’ would be covered some twelve years later in Spanish by US singer Donna Hightower with ‘Tú eres mi idolo’ and a lovely rendition it is too. A pity, then, Hightower did not record a whole album’s worth of reggae-infused music, or maybe she did and that should be a future re-issue project. Merseyside trio the Satin Bells fancied themselves as Motown scousers of sorts, but the excellent B-side, ‘Come c’mon’ features lovely harmonies that would not be out-of-place on a soul-blues 45.

Bossa Nova was not overlooked by the Spanish music scene and a very Sergio Mendes feel is to be found on a lush take on Jorge Ben’s classic, ‘Más que nada’, completely revisited with a new set of Spanish lyrics. The French musical and fashion revolution was well underway by the mid-1960s with Brigitte Bardot leading the way for Les Françaises and one of her compatriot’s, Claudine Coppin, decided to chance her luck in Spain with 40° a la sombra’. Interestingly the evocative title was revamped in a different setting by French writer Philippe Djian when penning the cult novel and later to become film, 37° 2 le matin (‘Betty Blue’ being the English language title).

Home grown ye-ye came in various guises such as the uptempo and brassy hues of ‘Un millión de lágrimas’ by Claudya con Ramon y sus Showmen and the rhetorical sounding title, ‘Tú no eres yé-yé’ from Blanca Aurora. Indeed even Stax soul classics from the era were not immune from a reworking as ‘Los Quandos illustrate on Sam and Dave’s eternal, ‘Soul Man’ There are in addition some old favourites from the recent past in Elia and Elisabeth, a duo of sisters whose Spanish parent settled in Colombia and here the pairing offer up ‘Porte bajo el bol’ with joint vocals and an eerie organ accompaniment. Bilingual inner sleeve notes and memorable photos of the singers plus individualised notes on the songs leave no stone unturned and the reader and listener is very much the beneficiary.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Tony Minvielle presents Into Somethin’ Vol. One’ (The Sound Of Everything) 4/5

into-somethin_vol1If you buy one compilation album this year, make sure it’s this one! The album, lovingly compiled by Mr Tony Minvielle – and when we say lovingly, we mean lovingly! When it comes to a man who not only has the musical knowledge and history, but also the respect of his peers, including the likes of Gilles Peterson and the ilk, he really is an encyclopaedia of jazz, funk and soul with over 30 years experience. Having worked with and interviewed greats like Roy Ayers, Curtis Mayfield, Incognito, Maceo Parker, Weldon Irving and Gregory Porter, it comes as no surprise to which the standard of this compilation reaches and delighted by the implication of the title that there are more to come!
The obvious apparent factor on listening to the album is how the each track stands out on its own merit, unlike those albums that fall into a certain style or containment and usually filled with one or two main cuts that carry the rest of the fodder! Here though, Tony presents us with a stunning collection of quality songs from over the past few years, boasting 12 tracks that range from the soulful groover of ‘Distance Can Be Sweet’ from London-based band Personal Life (lifted from their album Morning Light), to Liz Elensky with her stunning mellow Jazz number ‘Distractions’ reminiscent of Seawind’s ‘He Loves You’, in style – but totally fresh with the likes of Jessica Lauren and Marc Rapson on musical duties. The piece originally started life as an Emanative project via The Lions of Judah sessions, oozing quality and worthy of buying the album for this cut alone!

The golden boy Carl Hudson is also represented here, from his excellent Jazz Funk album ‘Zoology For Martians’ with “Sea Snake”, a beautiful slab of Soul Funk, which Tony again avoids the obvious choice of the brilliant “Cell Divides” and heads instead for another hidden gem. ‘Let the Music Play’ from Detroit’s Collective Peace is a beautiful slab of quality mellow soul, and yet another winner from 2014. One of my favourites is ‘Miss Purty’ where Snarky Puppy’s keyboard genius, Cory Henry, delivers an excellent Jazz Funk groover – essential for all George Duke/Chick Corea fans alike. Lauren Desberg’s sublime take on ‘You Go to My Head’, from her Sideways EP, makes a classic number respectfully her own, and with Daz I Kue on production duty, it is a given that the standard is assured. Finally, with the added bonus of Cecilia Stalin (ex-Koop), plus Khari Carbral Simmons take on the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ this will surely be expected to set standards. Amazing!

With tracks that include Leon Ware on Guida de Palma & Jazzinho, Mauricio Maestro, Nana Vasconcelos and Jesse Fischer, I really cannot recommend this release enough. Tony Minvielle has delivered a compilation of exceptional standards with some real musicianship and soul. Into Something? You bet.

Head over to iTunes and pick up a copy.

Bruce Q

Jennifer Holliday ‘The Song is You’ (Shanachie) 2/5

I was so disappointed with this release. I mean this is the lady who gave us the totally spell binding “And I’m telling you I’m not leaving” 20 plus years ago (no not Jennifer Hudson). With a gap that long you would be thinking there is something big coming from Ms Holliday… then bang – nothing! Theatrical, over-produced, and clearly her many years of treading the boards in stage musicals has removed her so far from her roots, it’s just so painful to listen to. I suppose the cover should have warned me, air brushed, theatrical presentation – I just wanted it all so badly it just had to fail. However, all is not quite lost, there is one track that saves the day, a spoken monologue ala Shirley Brown/Barbara Mason/Millie Jackson leads us into the most exquisite ballad which I haven’t been able to stop playing these past few months. Echoes of days gone by (and I’m playing it as I type) and no amount of words can do this monumental piece of soul music justice, grab a listen yourself, seriously moving. 5 Stars for “Are You Leaving Me” but yet another one-track album for the soul music lovers worldwide.

Brian Goucher