ECM has rightly established a reputation for esoteric fusion of world folk sounds and albums of the calibre of ‘Making Music’ and ‘Ragas and Sagas’ remain perennial favourites while a variety of albums by the likes of Egberto Gismonti and Codona equally spring to mind. Now a seasoned performer for the label with some twenty plus albums to date, Stephan Micus explores the sounds of the ndingo (Botswana), genbri and bass lute (Morocco), the Egyptian nay, central Asian rewab as well as flutes from both Ireland and Japan. The virtuosity required to first envisage and then execute this project with an array of instrumentation is beyond doubt and the sound is never more haunting than on the strongest piece, ‘The Fest’, where nay and guitars combine thrillingly. Likewise there is a gentle, lilting quality to the sound of the Balinese reed flute on ‘Suling’. In general there is something of a quasi-monasterial ambience to the music that is at once meditational and reflective and on a piece such as ‘The Blessing’, adopts a medieval tone. With the Botswanian ndingo, a sound akin to the percussive kalimba is created and this is used delicately on ‘The Spring’. Each of Micus’ albums has a distinct character to them with the previous release, ‘Panagia’, having music based around the prayers of the Virgin Mary.
Multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus is to be applauded for this latest project which was recorded over two years between 2012 and 2014 and is a personal exploration of stringed instruments and varieties of flute from around the globe. All the compositions, music and voicings are by Micus, but one cannot buy help wondering whether the project itself would have been enhanced by some external presence and this in spite of a definite and deliberate attempt by Micus to vary formats. On some pieces not an awful lot sonically seems to be happening and on a specific number such as ‘Laughing at thunder’, the five genbri are barely audible. However, it is probably true to say that below the surface there is more going on and repeated listens are required to soak up the subtle influences. Liner notes courtesy of Songlines contributor Simon Broughton hint strongly at the album being aimed primarily at a world roots audience, though the music is accessible to all, and especially to anyone with an interest in how folk instruments combine.
Tom Paley is a veteran of the US folk scene, having been among the very first to record for the then fledgling Elektra label way back in 1953. He then became a key figure in the folk revival movement of the mid-late 1950s and beyond as a member of the New Lost City Ramblers. Now in his mid-eighties, Tom Paley has long made the UK his home from the 1960s onwards, performing at local folk venues thereafter. Indeed, son Ben was born in London, though has been influenced by folk music either side of the Atlantic and studied fiddle in North Carolina, before returning to England where he made the major discovery of Swedish fiddle music and has subsequently recorded with a host of musicians including Damian Albarn and Michael Nyman.
For this second album for specialist folk indie label Hornbeam following the 2012 release, ‘Tom Paley’s Old-Time Moonshine Reverie’, Tom this time has son Ben onside throughout and, while the latter lays down some mean fiddle, Tom concentrates on banjo duties and vocals. Add double bass, dobro and harmonica and you have a quality roots album that could have been recorded at any time in the last fifty years, with the notable caveat that the music’s influences are far wider with Scandinavian folk subtly incorporated into the whole.
The pieces are relatively short, yet still packed with virtuosity and they cook up an instrumental storm on a medley of two 1930s songs in ‘Mississippi Medley (Sullivan’s Hollow/Rufus Rastus)’ while harmonica player Rob Mason excels on ‘Done Gone’. Tom Paley’s plaintive vocals work best on numbers such as ‘Little Sadie’ with its black humour and he has an entertaining storytelling quality that shines through on ‘The devil and the farmer’s wife’. A varied line-up that oscillates between solo, duet, trio and quartet keeps the music sounding fresh and Tom sings accompanied by guitar alone on the Mississippi John Hurt composition, ‘Louis Collins’. Aiding and abetting proceedings with her own brand of Celtic folk is singer and roots DJ Cerys Matthews who makes a guest appearance on vocals and guitar on ‘This Train’ and she sounds very much at home in this environment. Ben displays his own mastery of the fiddle on the rousing opener, ‘You piney mountain’. Another quality package with a lovely gatefold sleeve crammed with information on the studio dates and including extensive liner notes from journalist Robin Denselow. This is an authentic slice of American folk, yet one that simultaneously pays homage to the very real influence of the European folk tradition.
The West Midlands played a key role in the spread of reggae’s popularity from the 1960s onwards in at least two respects, with an interest in early forms of Jamaican popular music first generated by the starting up of record shops devoted to imports from Jamaica as well as UK copies. This in turn stimulated an interest among 1960s musical tribes that became known as mods (through reggae was not their only sphere of influence, gritty soul and even jazz 45s being among other interests) and early skinheads (those who were inspired by the rude boys of Kingston). Brian Harris was one shop owner who played a pioneering role in popularising reggae music in its earliest manifestations and a decade later he was at the forefront of the roots reggae emergence in that he launched a label, Mango, that would release classic Jamaican roots music such as Yabby You. Another fledgling label, Black Wax, would follow suit and release Wayne Wade’s ‘Black is our colour’, another classic roots production from Yabby You. This access to the then latest sounds coming out of Jamaica enabled a younger generation of British born youths of West Indian heritage to take on board the musical developments there and start to perform their own brand of roots music which created the genesis for a home grown UK reggae sound. It is the latter that is the subject of this extremely well documented anthology of early roots sounds from the mid-late 1970s. Birmingham, as the largest city in the West Midlands conurbation, played a pivotal role, but it should be stressed that it was not alone and both Coventry and Wolverhampton had their own important role, for the former in a new form two-tone that took elements of the past in ska and fused that with the infectious DIY enthusiasm of punk and the Specials and the Selector influenced a new generation of youths in turn irrespective of ethnic origins.
If one West Midlands group gained an international reputation in reggae circles above all (with UB 40 as the more pop friendly the other Birmingham group that should be mentioned, though their first album and dub companion stands the test of time as a roots inspired release), then it was Steel Pulse whose 1978 album ‘Handsworth Revolution’ on Island records is a seminal slice of UK reggae that compares favourably with anything that was coming out of Jamaica at the same time. However, that and subsequent releases were on national labels whereas the first 45 included here, ‘Kibudu-Mansatta-Abuku’ , was on a small DIP Concert Jungle outlet. It takes a leaf out of the close vocal harmonies of groups such as the Abysssinians and is a fine example of early Steel Pulse. The instrumental version complete with dub effects is included. Another group that would enjoy pop chart success in the 1980s is featured and their sound will surprise some. Musical Youth came to fame with ‘Pass the Dutchie’, a reworking of a Mighty Diamonds ode to smoking a spliff or ‘kutchie’. However, before that they enlisted a former lead singer of the Techniques, a Jamaican rock steady group of distinction, in Frederick Waite Sr. to perform lead on the message laden ‘Political’. Many UK reggae groups were heavily influenced by their own social concerns at the time and their place within British society. One of this writer’s favourite songs is by a little known group called Man from the Hills, probably a reference to the Burning Spear album of the same name, and this is entitled ‘Redemption day’. The horns are especially strong and have something of a ‘Satta Massagana’ feel
However, Birmingham was not the only city in which there was feverish reggae activity in the West Midlands and Wolverhampton is represented by a relatively short-lived group who nonetheless made a major impact within reggae circles and eventually secured a contract with Greensleeves and this was Capital Letters. Their debut single, ‘I will never’, features a typically roots backdrop. One of the advantages of this compilation is that enables the listener to hear some of the very first examples of a UK roots sound emerging and in the case of ‘Instruments’ by Mystic Foundation that meant some adolescent sounding lead vocals. Elsewhere the bass heavy ‘Rome’ by Oneness is a hard to find 12″ that hints at the dancehall revolution that was then soon to arrive, while a 1981 release from the excellent Eclipse in ‘Blood fi dem’ deserved to be a bigger hit and has a strong 1970s feel to it. Dub poetry was an offshoot of the social concerns of reggae and Benjamin Zephaniah has progressed to being one of the foremost poets in contemporary British society. It was an unexpected pleasure to hear Zephaniah here accompanied by instrumentation and a typically upfront statement in ‘Unite Handsworth’ has definite shades of Linton Kwesi Johnson to it, the latter of whom is arguably Britain’s finest ever dub poet. It needs to be indicated that this excellent anthology forms part of a larger documentation of British reggae and not only are other geographical locations covered, but different eras and styles with more contemporary reggae not forgotten.
Focussing on themes of love and loss, “Behind the Sky” explores the grieving process through the medium of eleven Irabagon compositions. But if you’re expecting a down-beat, introspective album of solemnity, think again. This is an unusually straight-ahead jazz album for Irabagon, his more familiar territory leading him into more experimental modes of jazz. “Behind the Sky” is filled with hard swinging, deep grooves and features some incredibly good tunes from Irabagon, proving without doubt the multi talented saxophonist/composer can turn his hand with ease to any particular genre he chooses. The songwriting is masterful. There is an immediate accessibility to the tunes, an almost familiar feel, whilst leaving room for some innovative, interactive soloing from all of the musicians involved. Joining Irabagon is Luis Perdomo on piano, Yasushi Nakamura, bass, and Rudy Royston, drums. The session also includes special guest Tom Harrell on trumpet and flugelhorn. Irabagon explains the premise of the album: “I lost a couple of loved ones and mentors in a short amount of time, and the music I had been writing began to reflect different aspects of dealing with those losses. I wanted to celebrate their lives and their spirit and legacy, and that feeling and attitude became the first tune on the record, “One Wish.” When I realised that these various stages of mourning were important and different to everyone, the rest of the tunes started to write themselves.” This recording is jazz of the highest standard, the strength and unity of the band’s performance being a key feature; bold, daring, precise and at times simply spellbinding. Great interaction and creativity throughout. I could listen to this over and over and still enjoy the element of surprise and sheer brilliance of the soloing. The album opens with one of its strongest tracks, “One Wish”. Setting the tone for the rest of the album, the togetherness of the musicians is immediately apparent. A thoughtful, melodic opening soon develops into some soulful soloing from pianist Perdomo. The killer rhythm section then provides the base for the lyrical elegance of Irabagon’s sax improvisations. The band leader plays with freedom and verve, structured yet loose at the same time. The band are just so tight, so cool and effortless. “The Cost of Modern Living” could well be a classic you’ve never heard. It drives with a joyful passion and swings like crazy. Irabagon sizzles with his imaginative soloing, all underpinned by a burning fireball of drums, bass and piano. Perdomo takes up the mantle with a scorching piano solo, a feature of the whole album being the time and space the composer leaves for each band member to shine. Just listen to the last couple of minutes of this track and you’ll know exactly what I mean. The yearningly beautiful “Music Box Song (For When We’re Apart)” is the perfect example of how good this composer is. It’s melancholy is never overpowering, the beauty of the melody shining through with the saxophonist providing one of the album’s most soulful solos. Nakamura provides a searching, lyrically engaging bass solo as the tune moves into an extended coda section and a chance for the emotion to pour out from piano and sax. Irabagon switches to soprano sax for his duet with pianist Perdomo on “Lost Ship at The Edge of Sea”. A wonderfully crafted piece, it’s all about the mood here, with the duo taking the listener on an inner journey, emotive and passionate. The life-affirming “100 Summers” is reminiscent of Jarrett and Garbarek in their 70’s heyday. A conversational, immersive piece of music sees the quartet facing challenges together and creating a rarified glowing beauty that shimmers and sparkles with inventiveness. As stunning a piece of music as I will hear from anyone this year. There’s a gleeful exuberance to the title track “Behind the Sky (Hawks and Sparrows). Irabagon plays tenor and soprano simultaneously with the composer making comment; “The two voices symbolise yourself alongside the experiences with and love for the ones you’ve lost.” And it works, once again featuring some highly creative and engaging musicianship from all involved. Tom Harrell brings a graceful poignancy to the proceedings. Harrell is a longtime hero of Irabagon’s and the legendary trumpeter brings a lyrical buoyancy to the wonderfully enigmatic piece “Eternal Springs”. The interplay on this track between drums and piano is also astonishing, there’s so much going on it’s easy to overlook the contribution of Harrell. The trumpeter shines on “Obelisk”; some ravishing horn harmonies going on here. Nakamura’s walking bass takes us into slightly more off kilter territory with Perdomo’s ethereal piano allowing for the sax and trumpet combo to cut through in style. “Still Water” is a more reflective piece and once again allows the two horn players to combine with a graceful ease.
“Beyond the Sky” is Jon Irabagon’s eighth release as a leader, and possibly his most straight-ahead jazz album to date. The tunefulness and spirited performances make this a stand-out recording no matter what the genre. Irabagon sums it up; “Behind the Sky goes back to basics and aims for hard-swinging deep grooves and detailed group interaction. The songs are meant to be recognisable and enjoyable.” And that they most certainly are. Potentially at the opposing end of the musical spectrum, Irabagon also releases his full length experimental solo soprano saxophone recording, “Inaction Is An Action”, this September. This simultaneous release emphasises the breadth, scope and vision of Irabagon and his record label and this has to be a good thing for a writer and performer who’s distinctive personality is lighting up the world of jazz.
This is as much a social history document as a musical one and it covers a critical period in US race relations, the period of African-American activism during the civil rights era. Fannie Lou Hamer embodies the struggles that so many fought for during the 1960s and her life story, supremely chronicled in the extensive line notes that run to over thirty pages, is worthy of a documentary alone. From the humblest of backgrounds, working in the cotton fields of a deep south plantation, Hamer slowly worked her way up and by 1964 ran for Congress in her native Mississippi, becoming the founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). She ran for Senate and was defeated, though so few blacks were registered at the time due to exploitative restrictions. As for the music, it was originally only available on a limited cassette, has been re-mastered and gives a true indication of Fannie Lou Hamer’s prowess as a civil rights singer with a gospel background.
The songs themselves are in microcosm a history of the African-American experience in the United States and the voice comes directly from the heart. They cover some of the most famous of the gospel canon with traditional spirituals such as ‘I’m going down to the River of Jordan’, ‘This little light of mine’ and a rousing call-and-response take on ‘Certainly Lord’ to name just three. It is important to stress that the music never comes across as overly preachy since the texts are couched in the everyday struggle for human dignity. Fannie Lou Hamer ends the memorable recording with the all-time classic ‘Amazing Grace’ ands one wonders what the then young Aretha Franklin made of the delivery. Hamer was by no means the only gospel singer to interpret this number and Mahalia Jackson covered it with a near definitive version, but, as the inner sleeve notes rightly indicate, this particular song had an important resonance for the Civil Rights Movement since it expressed the moral righteousness of the struggle against racial segregation in the United States.
Included are an interview between Fannie Lou and Julius Lester from 1965 during which Hamer talks about what is was actually like being a sharecropper and how she sought to better her life, and a speech excerpt where she speaks about the civil rights struggle and how she relates this to her religious beliefs. Other gospel singers would emerge in the 1960s such as Marion Williams and Shirley Caesar, but none had quite the impact on the wider political scene as Hamer. Worthy of your attention equally is a previous releases on the label entitled, ‘Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966’.
Following on from the Sam Records compilation, Harmless Records now pay their attention towards New York’s Easy Street record label. Easy Street began during the height of NY’s boogie movement in 1983 but then later became known as an influential house label, with this collection concentrating on releases from 1983 to the mid 1990s, when New York was the centre of house music.
Another 3 CD set from Harmless and again compiled by Bill Brewster, the album showcases the New York club scene via some of the most interesting 12”s to come out of the city at the time, starting in 1983 with World Premier’s ‘Share the Night’, an infectious synth and drum machine heavy boogie cut, Shot featuring Kim Marsh and ‘Main Thing’, a 100 BPM downtempo groover and Lukk featuring Felicia Collins and ‘On the One’, all of which were commonly heard in clubs and parties during the mid 1980s in the US and UK.
Easy Street then began to move into a more proto house sound from 1985 with landmarks releases from Serious Intention’s ‘You Don’t Know’, the early afro house offerings of ‘Ma Foom Bey’ by Cultural Vibe and The Paul Simpson Connection with ‘Treat her Sweeter’, which are all now established classics of the scene and very much influential on the later house scene. The delayed organ sound is still used in club music productions today but was first famously popularised in ‘You don’t know’ 30 years ago.
The label then moved fully over into house music territory with examples here including Adeva’s ‘In and out of my life’ and Todd Terry’s Hardhouse pseudonym with ‘Check this out’ from 1988, with its insanely infectious intro. From this period onwards, the label then concentrated on mainly vocal releases, such as those by Cassio (aka Cassio Ware), De’Lacy and Alexander Hope. This section of the anthology is a little more hit and miss, but the difficulty with a compilation of this nature is not always which songs to include but also which mix better suits the compilation. Personally, I would have liked Gary L’s ‘Anything is possible’, a DJ Tony Humphries favourite to be included and the original version of Adeva’s ‘In and out of my life’ rather than the later Roger Sanchez dub mix. And also East Street’s very first release, Orlando Johnson’s ‘Turn the music on’ would have been a nice addition – but you could never please everyone with a compilation of this nature from a label that has had so many releases.
Generally the anthology provides the listener with a snapshot of the New York club scene during its most formative years and beyond, displaying the exceptional talents of the era, such as, Paul Simpson, Jellybean and Todd Terry. And with the relative low price of the Harmless Anthology series, these albums are an accessible insight into this pivotal time in New York club culture.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” – Ernest Hemingway.
“A Moveable Feast” is the debut album from 24 year old pianist/composer Mark Pringle. Featuring his eclectic 12-piece ensemble it is inspired by such diverse influences as Oliver Messiaen, Ernest Hemingway and Django Bates. Released on the innovative Birmingham based label Stoney Lane Records, it is an adventurous instrumental journey of thoroughly original music, utilising a wealth of ideas from the composer’s opulent imagination, brilliantly creating picturesque soundscapes with brass, strings, drums, bass and piano. The music is distinctly shaped by Pringle’s time living in Paris, where he studied for four months at the Conservatoire National Superieur and took part in projects with Joachim Kuhn and Larry Grenadier. Pringle graduated from Birmingham Conservatoire with First Class Honours in 2015, winning the Jazz Department Performance Prize, the Dean’s award for Exceptional Achievement, and the Principal’s Prize for outstanding contribution to the life of the Conservatoire. After learning classical piano from an early age, Pringle fell in love with the music of Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson and in 2010, at the age of 19, he recorded the piano duo album “This Is” with renowned pianist and former teacher John Law. From this point on Pringle appears to have never looked back, working tirelessly towards this point in time, his debut release on Stoney Lane Records, and beyond.
“A Moveable Feast” features eight of Pringle’s striking compositions, drawing on themes of nature, wildlife, literature, the chaos of cities, and the lives of people who inhabit them. The 12-piece band consists of the pianist’s core trio, with drummer Euan Palmer and bassist James Banner, along with an outstanding horn section featuring Percy Pursglove, Chris Young, Don Searjeant and Alicia Gardener-Trejo. Ben Lee provides electric guitar and the stirring, multifaceted strings are played by Christine Cornwell, Sarah Farmer, Megan Jowett and Lucy French. The album opens with “A Real Bombshell”, (Messiaen’s reaction on first seeing a score of Debussy), and begins with a strong rhythm section as the tune meanders its way into dark passages featuring strings and horns. Pringle uses themes and motifs with a compelling style and energy, allowing for some powerful soloing and a deep underlying uneasiness that permeates its way through this piece. “And That’s Ok” may be short and sweet but it is a shining example of how sumptuously beautiful brass can sound. On “Happy Plants (Part 1)” we have an awakening, a slow stretching of plantation with limbs climbing towards the light of “Happy Plants (Part 2).” Horns and drums combine to create a party like atmosphere with a Jamaican feel that spreads the foliage love and sways with pleasure. The brooding “Hasha’s Theme” is playful whilst still being earnest. The disjointed intro leads into a brass-led melody, reminiscent perhaps of Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra. The arrangements are stunning. There is a deep, dark, lyrical beauty to this as the feel lightens somewhat with a crisp sax solo lifting the somber mood. The underpinning drums and bass are superb, with the plucked strings and tender piano rounding off the tune in style. “Ode To The Trees” is a veritable feast for the ears. Imagine if Vaughan Williams had gone into the forest to sample the wild mushrooms, and whilst writing his Symphony Number 1, Gustav Mahler had discovered jazz, this might have been the outcome. Beneath a light, shimmering backdrop of beautifully sparse piano, a slightly sinister fairy-tale comes to life with strange little creatures dancing out from the undergrowth, smiling, laughing, beckoning. As the piano chords gain momentum, the creatures get louder and more daring, overpowering the tune with their intense jibber-jabber. A brilliant piece of music. The oblique nature of the music continues with “The Writer”, an oddly fragmented track that flirts with obscure sounds and experimentation, taking the listener on a tormented journey into the mind’s scarier places. “Through The Grate” is softer… a flickering light that is slowly fading, taking with it the unanswered questions that this album sometimes asks, leaving behind it a quiet tranquility, a lone breath in the darkness.
“A Moveable Feast” is an intriguing album, one which heralds a new voice in jazz. Mark Pringle has put together a recording that is both expressive and innovative, with his compositions exuding character. His intelligent use of strings and horns is a key ingredient in the creation of a musical vision that is quirky, yet positively original. Touring extensively throughout the UK with both his trio and dynamic twelve-piece band this autumn, Pringle launched “A Moveable Feast” with performances at The Manchester Jazz Festival and the BBC 3 broadcast at The Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall. Catch him while you still can at the following venues:
• Tues 1st September – Birmingham – The Spotted Dog (Large Ensemble)
• Fri 4th September – Birmingham – The Red Lion (Trio)
• Sun 6th September – London – Lume Presents @ The Vortex (Large Ensemble)
• Tues 8th September – Manchester – Matt and Phred’s (Trio)
• Weds 9th September – Glasgow – The Butterfly and the Pig (Quartet feat. Adam Jackson)
• Thurs 10th September – Edinburgh– Jazz Bar (Trio)
• Fri 11th September – Newcastle – Jazz Cafe (Trio)
• Sunday 13th September – Oxford – Wine Cafe (Trio)
• Weds 16th September – Cardiff – Dempsey’s (Trio)
• Fri 18th September – Birmingham – Symphony Hall (Trio)
• Sat 19th September – Wells, Somerset – Wookey Hole Club (Trio)
• Sun 20th September – London – The Green Note (Trio)
• Fri 25th September – London – Southbank Centre (Quintet feat. Joe Wright + Lluis Mather)
• Sun 27th September – London – Omnibus, Clapham (Quintet feat. Joe Wright + Lluis Mather)
• Mon 28th September – London – The Oxford (Quintet feat. Joe Wright + Lluis Mather)
Fresh from being an integral part of Phronesis, pianist Ivo Neame returns as leader on this fine all-original set of contemporary jazz. If the compositions are sometimes challenging and explore complex harmonies and texture, they are nonetheless accessible and it is the musicality of the ensemble that shines through here. Two years in the making, Neame expands his own sound to include the use of accordion and synths, though fans of his acoustic piano will not be disappointed since that is his preferred instrument and it is indeed the one that predominates here. The album starts off with an uptempo and dense opener in ‘Personality Clash’ where the trio plus vibes accompany at a rapid tempo and comes across as a latter day mid-1960s Bobby Hutcherson album with either Chick Corea, or Herbie Hancock at the piano, both of whom seem to have exerted an influence upon Neame’s approach. There is great subtlety in the combined use of piano, vibes and, on occasion, flute and this is wonderfully illustrated on ‘Folk Song’ with shimmering effect from vibraphonist Jim Hart. A bustling ‘Crise de nerfs’ (French for ‘nervous breakdown’) once again combines flute and vibes and explores different moods, yet still maintains a clear melody throughout. Piano trio only operate on the reposing ‘Eastern Chant’ that is not based on modes, but is instead an opportunity to hear Neame the pianist in full flow and the supportive rhythm section of drummer Dave Hamblett and joint bassists on the album Andrea de Biase and Tom Farmer are all worthy of mention. Elsewhere, the delicate use of textures on keyboards is showcased on the title track which some might liken to a number in the Weather report bag, but to these ears is more akin to the participation of Lyle Mays in the Pat Metheny group, with melodic saxophone from Freestone very much in the Jan Garbarek mould. Ivo Neame is to be commended for an album that is distinct from Phronesis even if some of the qualities of that formation seep through from time to time on this new recording. A brief late June series of dates to promote the album took place in the Midlands and south east England. Hopefully, there will be further dates in the UK to follow.
New York was overrun with independent disco and boogie record labels in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with Salsoul and Prelude probably the most influential and well known. But of the other east coast labels, Sam Records produced a strong catalogue of releases during this important time in black music history. Founded by Sam Weiss in 1975, Sam Records began issuing club friendly records for the then burgeoning New York club scene, having some success during their eight-year existence.
Here, Harmless Records again use the services of Bill Brewster to curate this triple CD 38 track compilation, the DJ and co-author of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, which covers most of the labels important releases from 1975–1983 and mainly concentrates on their 12” single output, except for two album cuts. The collection crucially reflects the musical changes occurring during this period, from its fully orchestrated and string heavy disco releases, to the synth heavy boogie stylings of the early 80s, and finally, the post ‘Planet Rock’ Electro Funk era.
Notable additions include Sam’s first release in 1975 by Doris Duke, the hypnotic ‘Woman of the Ghetto’ and the 1976 block party breakbeat standard ‘I Can’t Stop’ by John Davis and The Monster Orchestra – and in its rarer extended form. But it’s Sam’s catalogue of 12” vinyl classics that will appeal to most music fans. These include in-demand boogie favourite Greg Henderson’s ‘Dreamer’, forgotten gem ‘Doin’ It’ by Underground and another John Davis and The Monster Orchestra stormer with a vocal version of Ashford & Simpson’s instrumental classic ‘Bourgie, Bourgie’ (also recorded by Gladys Knight).
Unlike some of the other independent labels at the time, the production values of Sam’s releases were always very high, with strong musicianship, songwriting and studio engineering skills displayed, with legends Leroy Burgess, Andre Booth, Greg Carmichael and Nigel Martinez at times all part of the Sam Records family. And with many of these releases appearing on CD for the first time, they will hopefully be discovered and experienced by music fans outside of the vinyl collecting fraternity.
I would argue that Sam Records was more of a boogie label than a disco one, as they had far more releases during the 1980s than the 1970s, with this set containing only eight songs from the 70s, which mainly consisting of releases by keyboard and saxophone player John Davis, and by Queens based disco outfit Gary’s Gang. And it’s rarely mentioned that the disco backlash that occurred in 1979 actually helped disco to become more structured and move into a more song based form that ultimately became known as boogie, with its prominent use of keyboards, synthesisers and drum machines, with Sam Records showcasing worthy examples from this crucial time.
Being a fan of the label, I couldn’t see an obvious omission from the set and thankfully Harmless have managed to use the original master tapes rather than transfer some of the releases from vinyl recordings. It also uncovers some of the lesser known material of Sam’s catalogue in addition to their popular records such as Vicky D’s ‘This Beat is Mine’ and Convertion’s ‘Let’s Do It’. But as like all labels from this period there are hits and misses, but Sam managed to maintain a high quality of output and fans of the boogie sound will undoubtedly enjoy this compilation.
Folk-blues singer-songwriter Huddie Leadbetter aka Lead Belly is one of the towering figures of the blues tradition and, although he passed away in 1949 at the age of sixty-one, his music provided the springboard for the folk music revival in the 1950s and beyond. The kind of music in fact that was feted in the last Coen Brothers film, ‘Inside Llewelyn Davis’. Lead band member Derek Mason went over to the United States and enlisted the support of one Pete Seeger, himself a seminal individual in US folk music history (and someone who actually performed with Lead Belly when he was alive), and his participation opened the doors to further key musicians who participated on this celebratory recording such as singer Oscar Brand, Odetta, Tom Paley and the UK’s very own Ralph McTell. The Lonnigans specialise in old-time and folk-blues, and excel throughout on both instrumentation and harmony vocals. Pete Seeger narrates on a terrific folk-blues tinged ‘Bourgeois Blues’ while the repetitive trombone heavy riff on ‘Black Betty’ cooks up a storm. There is something of an old-time feel to ‘Carless Love’ on which Connie Lonnigan offers the sweetest of lead vocals with banjo and harmonica in accompaniment. A beautifully illustrated booklet evokes the great folk-blues singer tradition with some gorgeous black and white photos as well as colour ones of the present day.
This album was originally released in 2010, but was only on limited availability since it was sold exclusively at LSG concerts and this is the first more general distribution allowing a much wider audience to appreciate their multiple talents. Two of the US participants have died after the completion of the project, Odetta in 2008 and Seeger in 2014. Incidentally, the collective group’s name is a hybrid of the name Lonnie Donnigan whose main musical claim to fame was as a pioneer of the UK skiffle movement in the 1950 that so influenced a whole new generation of musicians who would subsequently be in the vanguard of blues, jazz, rock and other related music forms. These included Van Morrison, Robert Plant and Keith Richards. A wonderful recreation of a key period in the evolution of British blues. As a tribute to the music of Lead Belly, in June 2015 a concert event at the Royal Albert Hall was organised by Derek Mason and featured an all-star cast with Eric Bibb, Eric Burden, Jools Holland, Paul Jones and Van Morrison among those participating and an equivalent concert had already taken place at Carnegie Hall in April with Alison Krauss, Robert Plant and Lucinda Williams actively present. For further information on the legacy of Lead Belly, visit www.atributetoleadbelly.com