Various ‘Amplificador. Novissima Música Brasileira: the Brazilian 10s Generation’ CD/LP/Dig (Far Out) 5/5

amplificadorHere is a supremely well thought out compilation of contemporary Brazilian music from the various underground scenes that does precisely what all the very best compilations should do and enlightens the listener as to what is actually happening in the present day music by selecting the strongest elements. Potentially, this could have gone astray and covered too wide a territory. However, in the very capable hands of curator Marcelo Monteiro and his devoted team one need have no such fears since the music is generally sumptuous and never anything less than excellent. A classy red, white and black cover adds a decidedly 1960s retro feel to the whole package and fans of classic Brazilian music from that era will find all manner of connections here, but, in addition, a whole new set of rhythms to familiarise themselves with and that is the genius of this fine overview. The compilation works best on the samba associated numbers such as the samba-funk of ‘Iracema’ by Fino Coletivo. Here the lush mid-tempo groove is taken at a leisurely pace that suits the Caetano Veloso inspired vocal delivery and the gentlest of fender rhodes/electric piano sounding in the background. In a more uptempo mood is the terrific bubbling percussion on the instrumental ‘Iconili’ by O Rei de Turpanga with lovely dub-soaked horns. Afro-Beat and Brazilian music at first sight may not seem obvious bedfellows, yet the history of Brazil is steeped in Afro-Brazilian culture and ‘Abayony’ by Obatala is taken at a lesser tempo than its Nigerian ancestors might attempt and the piece features some lovely soloing from both rhythm guitar and keyboards. For sheer eclecticism Zulumbi from the state of Pernambuco could hardly be bettered and their heady mix of art and social conscience with musical influences as diverse as funk, rock and rap reminds one of the US new wave groups of the 1970s such as Talking Heads. In fact David Byrne is similarly evoked on the indie rock flavours of Summertime’s ‘Luziliza’, though somewhat less impressive is the offering from the Baggios. Elsewhere there are echoes of the great Brazilian guitarist Rosinha de Valença on the all acoustic ‘Faria lima pra cá’ by Passo Torto and of note here are the lead vocals that conjure up Edu Lobo in his prime. Where this CD wins hands down over the standard Brazilian compilation is that it delves into the very recent contemporary scene and extracts some extremely hard to find grooves that have a classic feel to them and the rootsy samba of ‘Cerveja’ populares’ typifies that being an example of an EP of the south Rio music scene, complete with trombone and cavaquinho. Simply delightful and likely to feature on the summer playlists and beyond of more than one discerning DJ.

Tim Stenhouse

The Polyversal Souls ‘Invisible Joy’ (Initiative Music Germany/Philophon) 4/5

the-polyversal-soulsBerlin is a hive of music activity and the Ru-Ting Clan Sound laboratory is the home of one Max Weissenfeldt (aka of Whitefield Brothers fame) and who has made it his life’s ambition to become interested in drum rhythms across the globe and incorporate them into his music, much as Ginger Baker did in the late 1960s and 1970s. In 2010, after travelling the globe to take in multifarious drum influences, multi-percussionist Whitefield founded the Polyversal Souls with a definite world beats feel from the outset. The funky opener, Yello be bobre’ hints at late 1980s Salif Keita in outlook and is a stunning number that features lovely percussion and lead vocals from Guy One. This is already making waves on the dancefloors of the world and rightly so. An intriguingly titled, ‘Starlet Road filling station romance’, is a musical encounter between Ethio-Jazz and Jamaican dub that fuses genres effortlessly, and features vibes from the leader and a tenor solo from Tobias Delius, with Ethiopian guest Hailu Mergia (of Walias band fame) on authentic lead vocals. The Ethiopiques series by French musicologist Francis Falcetto may well have served as the inspiration here. Jamaican flavours are the order of the day on ‘Arembi Ara Amoz’ which has melodic keyboards and lead vocals from Yusef Bayani. The left field credential of the band are showcased on a Sun Ra cover, ‘Love in Outer Space’, with a jazz-inflected acoustic piano intro courtesy of Niko Meinhold and then some tasty collective vocals with percussion and tenor saxophone to the fore. An all too brief Duke Ellington cover ‘Race’ comes across as a homage to the great alto saxophone playing of one Johnny Hodges and might have been inspired by one of Duke’s sumptuous suites, such as ‘Brown, Black and Beige’. Already attracting attention from discerning specialist publications of the calibre of Wax Poetics, Polyversal Souls are a name to be reckoned with and this fine album illustrates precisely why.

Tim Stenhouse

Iness Mezel ‘Strong’ (Wrasse) 3/5

iness-mezelWorld roots music only occasionally enjoys the commercial success of a musician who is able to crossover to a wider audience, but North African/Algerian Berber singer Iness Mezel has done a pretty fine job of promoting herself and her music in recent years, and consequently has landed a deal with a major. Although the promotion clearly aims at a world/crossover audience with its glossy inner sleeve, the music itself is firmly within the world roots tradition, albeit with a pop/rock sensibility. Mezel’s voice is a softly delivered one and the songs in general are pleasant, though not necessarily all that memorable. Recorded in London, with producer and multi-instrumentalist John Reynolds at the helm, whose credits include Bjork and Sinead O’Connor, the question remains of once one actually strips down the external layer of PR gloss, is the voice itself sufficiently distinctive to warrant the attention of a mass audience? Her supporters will point to a percussive mid-tempo number such as ‘llni’ where the fusion of pop with Berber lyrics and local percussion in the form of the derbouka works extremely well and that would be an ideal single to promote the album as a whole. Her detractors will, on the other hand, point to an uptempo rock-tinged song such as, ‘Izha Wuliw’ and possibly legitimately ask the question: ‘Who will like this?’ A French language song, ‘Eau fil de l’eau’ hints at her potential cross-Channel appeal and the repetitive guitar is supplemented by whispered vocals that together create an unusual sound effect, and wordless vocals on the attractive sounding ‘Agellid’ are another side of Mezel’s craft that is worth pursuing further. Incursions into the English language are made on the downtempo ‘Precious Souls’ which is the official first single and of a trio of English numbers, the pick of the bunch for this writer is the gentle breezy mid-tempo ‘Aim at your dream’, the title of which pretty much sums up Iness Mezel’s philosophy of how to approach and crack the inner workings of the music industry.

Full bilingual lyrics are provided and this is to be applauded and Iness Mezel is a distinctive artist who sings in a combination of her native Tanzazight (Berber), French and English. Whether this linguistic mix eventually pays dividends still remains to be seen, but there is no doubting her determination to succeed and that may just prove to be her greatest asset.

Tim Stenhouse

David Torn ‘Only Shy’ (ECM) 3/5

david-tornGuitarist and producer David Torn has plotted his own highly distinctive music path and on this new offering veers between minimalist guitar and exploratory sound effects with the thought provoking title literary in tone and reflective of the album as whole. At best, it is mood-inducing music, as on the opener, ‘At least there was nothing’, but some of the rock inspired sound effects can pass for a certain degree of self-indulgence in this writer’s ears. Whether one agrees with the latter sentiment, or judges Torn to be a creative genius is a matter of conjecture. However, there is no doubting the musician’s sincerity and on the folk-jazz of ”Spoke with folks’ there are echoes of Brill Frisell and, likewise, Torn conjurs up the vastness of the prairies here and this writer much prefers this blues-inflected edge to the guitarist’s soloing. Eerie layered textures are invented on the intimate guitar piece, ‘OK Shorty’, which would be ideally placed on a film soundtrack, surely a medium where Torn’s work would be best appreciated. On the other hand, some of the rock-inflected on ‘I could almost see the room’, are best left aside and detract from the lyrical numbers. Of the latter, ‘Only sky’, stands out as a beautifully constructed piece in a minimalist setting, as does the minimalist strumming of ‘Reaching, barely, sparely fraught’, and why Torn does not concentrate more of his efforts on this style is something of a mystery. A worthy effort, but some of the pieces on occasion do drag on a little too long and would be better served in truncated format.

Tim Stenhouse

Ismael Lo ‘Best of’ (Universal France) 4/5

ismael-loTo be called the ‘Bob Dylan of Senegal’ is quite a title to live up to, but singer-songwriter Ismael Lo is a special musician whose focus on acoustic guitar and harmonica has invited comparison with the great American troubadour and wordsmith. That is where the comparison ends, however, because Lo is very much his own man with different frames of reference and this excellent overview of his career from the mid-1990s through to mid-2000 provides some explanation why.
If there is just one song that typifies Lo’s entire career, then it has to be the atmospheric ‘Tajabone’. It featured on the soundtrack to Pedro Almodovar’s ‘All about my mother’ film with the epic overview of the city of Barcelona forming the dramatic backdrop. Here both the original and a later version featuring strings are included. Ismael Lo excels on the gentler numbers and one fine example is ‘Lotte Lo’ where the piercing vocal range of Lo’s voice is not dissimilar to that of Baba Maal and one can hear the blues inflections of Ali Farka Touré in the use of guitar. He continues in a relaxing groove on ‘Nafanta’ while on the tasteful keyboards and guitar accompaniment of ‘Dabah’, Lo sounds quite similar in tone to Salif Keita. Both Keita and Maal have surely counted among the singer’s influences, but these extend beyond even West Africa. An attempt at the English language co-written by Pink Floyd member Roger Waters on ‘Without Blame’ is handled professionally and is a duet with none other than Marianne Faithfull. That Lo has been listening to other singer-songwriters elsewhere is self-evident and in France Bernard Lavilliers has made a successful career out of exploring African and other world roots music. Lo pays homage to Lavilliers when covering the 1990s anthem to a more diverse and plural France in ‘Noir et blanc’ and this laid back, largely acoustic version features stunning joint lead female vocals which make this a truly inventive interpretation and the lyrics in favour of a more tolerant French society are ideally suited to Lo’s own outlook on life..

One major caveat that needs to be mentioned here concerns the absence of any lyrics in the all too basic accompanying inner sleeve which prevents the non-native speaker of Wolof, or occasionally French, to be able to properly contextualise the lyrics of the songs. This shows a profound disrespect for the singer and especially one who prides himself on the quality and universal nature of his lyrics. To be deprived of his words is a major oversight that requires urgent attention.

Tim Stenhouse

Ginger Johnson ‘African Party’ (Freestyle Records) 5/5

ginger-johnsonWhen the full story of African music and musicians in post-war Britain is finally told, a large space will have to be made for Ginger Johnson. Alongside the great Ambrose Campbell, Johnson was a pivotal figure in black British music of the later 1940s and 1950s. The contribution of African musicians remains a relatively unsung feature of the musical culture of the 1950s, and the impact that drum and percussion masters such as Johnson and Campbell had on British jazz and indeed the nascent pop scene is both poorly understood and much underestimated (as indeed is the extent of their influence within with the burgeoning 1950s Caribbean music scene, particularly in mambo and calypso bands).
Johnson played with both Ronnie Scott and with the ground-breaking Afro-Cubists lead by Kenny Graham, as well as working with Edmundo Ros. His Haverstock Hill nightclub, the Iroko Country Club, was a hub for African musicians in London, and a plethora of future African and Caribbean greats would pass through the ranks of his own bands, Fela Kuti and members of Cymande among them. By the middle 1960s he was held in universally high esteem as a versatile master drummer, skilled in both African and Afro-Cuban styles, but he recorded very little as leader – the only long play releases under his own name are the exceptionally rare Contemporary Mood 10” on Melodisc and 1967’s African Party. Both have been unavailable since original release, and so Freestyle Records reissue of African Party is an overdue reintroduction for one of London’s less familiar musical masters.

African Party has long been sought after by those in the know, and for good reason: it is an unadulterated blast of West African percussive intensity, thickly layered and motoric, finished by heavy duty brass and reeds. Unlike many similar albums of its era, it is without notable compromise and does not tip its hat to either mainstream musical fashion nor to the softer mores of the exotica crowd. In its purity of sound and intention, it is probably closer to the deeper African recordings that appeared on labels like Melodisc in the 1950s, though the extra depth of the late 60s production sound give it a noisy heft that few of them muster. Fundamentally, the record showcases Johnson’s furiously uptempo brand of highlife jazz, well seasoned with calypso and afro-cuban flavours. The record is bursting with energy and verve, and while overwhelming sonic sensibility is naturally West African, the tracks are in profound melodic and rhythmic conversation with the music of the Caribbean. There are precious few British recordings which illustrate this Afro-latin overlap as directly, and in that sense African Party is a classic of the post-Imperial diaspora – a record which emerges from the vigorously crisscrossing pathways and routes of African and Caribbean music in global transit.

Francis Gooding

Gary Peacock Trio ‘Now This’ (ECM) 4/5

gary-peacock-trioGary Peacock the bassist in Keith Jarrett’s long-standing trio is no new revelation to most jazz, or indeed piano fans. However, his own outings in the trio format are a little less well publicised and this is why this new release that showcases Peacock the composer and instrumentalist is such a welcome treat. Recorded in July 2014, and featuring Marc Copland on piano and Joey Barron on drums, it offers a different insight into the art of the piano trio and below the surface there is so much happening of interest with influences ranging from impressionistic classical to contemporary jazz piano. The all bar one original compositions are universally excellent and provide the pretext for some delightful excursions into how the trio can evolve and function organically and pose the vital question: why go from A to B when you can do a zig zag and enjoy the experience? Debussy-esque tones mark out ‘This’ which is a terrific piece with counterpoint between bass and piano and an album highlight. Copland on the delightful ‘Vignette’ succeeds in conjuring up Brad Mehldau while on the introspective ‘Gaia’ the pianist plays a more restrained role, restating the attractive melody and then engaging in fine interplay with Peacock. The latter comes to the fore on ‘Shadows’ where Copland performs Corea-like musings. As a composer Peacock has travelled widely and taken in many disparate cultures and this seems to be the inspiration for the meandering and exploratory number ‘Moor’. A cover of Scott La Faro’s ‘Gloria’s Step’ is a delicate piece with a haunting piano vamp over which Copland lays down Romantic classical notes and both bass and drums enter gently. The pianist comes into his own on ‘Esprit de Muse’ with extended soloing by Copland, further interplay between piano and bass, and some understated percussive work from Baron. This is a fine piano trio album that should not be overlooked and being such an integral part of the Jarrett trio has so obviously rubbed off.

Tim Stenhouse

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil ‘You’ve Been Watching Me’ (ECM) 4/5

tim-bernes-snakeoilSaxophonist Tim Berne is an interesting musician in that he has actively favoured live performance over studio recording. This latest album is only the second in studio in a decade and follows on from ‘Shadow Man’ (2013).
Essentially, the New York band is showcased here and that means a quartet plus one, the latter being guitarist Ryan Ferreira. To give proceedings that ‘live’ feel, the music was recorded at the Clubhouse in upstate New York under the expert production of David Torn, himself a musician (a future album review will be forthcoming) fellow ECM stable mate and former colleague. The material is at once dense and meaty, with four numbers alone going beyond the ten minute mark. Berne and band are at their most lyrical on ‘Semi-self detached’ which features some glorious collective work on horns (Oscar Noriega featuring throughout on clarinet), the piano of Matt Mitchell (who doubles up on various electronica elsewhere) and guitarist Ferreira. In a more intimate vein is the eighteen and a half-minute opus ‘Small world in a small town’ with a rapport between piano and alto saxophone. Mitchell is in fact the favoured pianist of trumpeter Dave Douglas and here stretching the outer limits of the duo format, one can hear why. In parts the music is densely layered, no more so than on the fourteen minute plus ‘Embraceable me’ where piano, saxophones and percussion all gradually come together and the overall sound becomes increasingly frenetic. Ferreira tales a leaf out of the Pat Metheny acoustic guitar on the title track and this writer would certainly like to hear more of the aforementioned musician in this vein. As an interesting aside to the rest of proceedings, the brief ‘Angles’ is a brooding mix of piano and percussive overload with Berne entering at pace. The album ends on an athletic, pulsating note with ‘False Impressions’ where bass clarinet predominates from Noriega with some wailing saxophone from Berne creating a veritable cacophony of sound.

Tim Stenhouse

Grant Green ‘Racing Green. Guitar solos 1959-1962’ (ÉL) 4/5

grant-greenHad Grant Green lived well beyond his premature death in 1979, this would have been his eightieth year on the planet and it is an opportune moment to reflect upon his contribution to the development of the jazz guitar. More evolutionary than revolutionary, Green’s extended tenure at Blue Note where he became the de facto session guitarist for the label, is the primary subject of this 2CD retrospective, which, rather than attempt a comprehensive overview of his entire career at that label, instead focuses upon the fixed period of his early years between 1959 and 1962. This handily includes recordings on other smaller labels that Green cut as a sideman. The fact that he was so prolific that even two CDs only barely covers three years of his Blue Note career is testimony to his hard work. A first CD concentrates on the leader sides for Blue Note and this covers gospel, Latin and straight ahead modern jazz modes (i.e. with a bop undercurrent) and this is typified on ‘Miss Ann’s Tempo’ from his debut for the label, ‘Grant’s First Stand’, which is a pared down trio affair with just organ, drums and guitar. Already the distinctive We Montgomery-inspired guitar licks are becoming more individual in tone and, as always, deeply melodic and accessible at that. The early gospel singing of Sam Cooke seems to have weaved a spell on Green on the ‘Sunday Mornin’ LP from 1962 that features a very young Herbie Hancock on piano and from this a lovely relaxed feel emanates from a cover version of ‘God bless the child’ that Billie Holiday immortalised. Contrast this with an all out attack on Miles Davis’ ‘So what’ that is resolutely modern in approach and makes for an interesting comparison with the 1990s version from the sadly departed Ronnie Jordan, and the former is taken at a slightly faster tempo. Latin hues were the sole focus of a marvellous recording, ‘The Latin Bit’, that has long been sought after by collectors and from this ‘Mambo Inn’ is no less than a classic slice of Afro-Cuban jazz. It is a pity there are no more examples here.

The second CD reveals the collaborative musician in Green and, when in partnership with a tenor saxophonist of the calibre of Hank Mobley, this was always likely to create some creative sparks. That proves to be the case on a swinging ‘Uh Huh’ from one of a trio of early 1960s Hank Mobley albums and the duo create an instant groove with Mobley at his absolute peak and a then member of Miles Davis’ reformed band after the dizzy heights of ‘Kind of Blue’. The Davis connection looms large throughout the Mobley album in that the rhythm section comprised former Davis alumni in pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones.

Among the most interesting discoveries for this writer was a hitherto unknown vocal item by Joe Carroll for whom Green contributes some memorable tasty licks on ‘Get your kicks on route 66′, and this includes on piano Ray Bryant who would record with a then debutante Aretha Franklin for her jazz-influenced Columbia album plus trio. Grant was equally adept on funky soulful numbers as on a 1962 Blue Note recording for Lou Donaldson, Funky Man’, with another long-time collaborator ‘Big’ John Patton, and on more sedate pieces such as with tenorist Ike Quebec, a master of the ballad repertoire. Undercutting all influences was a profound knowledge of the blues and this is no better illustrated that on the extended ‘Blue’s in Maude’s flat’ that Green cut on the 196s album, ‘Grantstand’, that notably features multi-reedist Yusuf Lateef and organist Jack McDuff. A real favourite among Green’s sideman albums is one that he recorded under altoist Sunny Red and ‘The Mode’ remains a classic early 1960s modal flavoured jazz number where Red was at his most restrained and with a quasi soprano saxophone approach in direct contrast with his normally fiery tone (one that recalls Jackie McLean and his main influence Charlie Parker).

Ideally, in order to fully appreciate Grant Green’s contribution to the Blue Note label, one would want to include the recording he made with a virtual replica of the John Coltrane classic quintet rhythm section minus bassist Jimmy Garrison, the albums recorded with John Patton and Larry Young (and a stunning one under Reuben Wilson from 1969), and at a later second period, the funkier sides on Blue Note where Green was clearly influenced by the new drum beat of James Brown. A second and third volume might just about cover all that terrain. This early period anthology, however, goes a long way to introducing a wider public to the art of Grant Green.

Tim Stenhouse