Ashford and Simpson ‘A Musical Affair’ (BBR) 4/5

ashford-and-simpsonThe eighth and final album for Warner Brothers turned out to be a triumphant one for soul singer-songwriter duet Ashford and Simpson and they were most definitely in a highly creative and productive writing period with the ‘About Love’ album for Gladys Knight and the Pips about to place the letter back into the limelight with the hit single, ‘Bourgie Bourgie’. Showcasing the new recording for Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson was the sumptuous ‘Love don’t always make it right’ that became a top ten R & B hit in the States and was equally successful in the disco charts. An unreleased and slightly longer version mixed by Jimmy Simpson is included here. However, it was not the strongest song on the album and that accolade goes to the sumptuous soulful dance number, ‘I ain’t asking for your love’, that simply oozes class. Bizarrely this was never released as a single and one wonders why. To these ears it sounds a sure fire winner. For fans of the Quiet Storm format, ‘Rushing to’ will appeal and the brooding bass line is matched by some tasty flute and string accompaniment. As befitting any album by the pair, only the top session musicians were invited and these included string master Gene Orloff and an impressive horn section that boasted John Faddis and Eddie Daniels as well as band regulars. Of interest to fans of Chaka Khan is the inclusion of the original version of ‘Clouds’ that the singer would make a hit single out of. Ashford and Simpson were both evolving a singers and this is recognised on the two-stepper, ‘We’ll meet again’, where first Nick takes the lead and then Valerie takes over on what is above all a gospel-infused number of distinction. Viewed from a historical perspective, this album marks a new high point in the career of the duo and was preceded by their production imprint on Diana Ross’s excellent, ‘The Boss’ and participation in both the film soundtrack to ‘The Wiz’ and on Quincy Jones’ ‘Stuff like that’ album.

Tim Stenhouse

Jack Costanzo ‘Mr Bongo’ CD/2LP/Dig (Jazzman) 5/5

jack-costanzoIncredibly master percussionist Jack Costanzo is now in his mid-nineties and it has taken this long for some open-minded record company to decide to pay homage to his talent with an anthology. This is where Jazzman records enter the fray and are second to none with a major heavyweight retrospective of his career, and not a day too soon for this writer’s taste. Costanzo is something of a musical legend who was the favoured percussionist of none other than Nat King Cole and even taught Hollywood actor Marlon Brando how to play on Latin percussion instruments. What is less known is that he even accompanied the late great Tubby Hayes, arguably the UK’s finest saxophone player, and a supreme example of how the two shaped up is to be found here with the Afro-jazz flavoured, ‘Adjaye adjaye’. Newcomers to the Latin tinge in jazz will be right at home with the full-on larger ensemble reading of the standard ‘Caravan’ in the company of Costanzo and his Afro-Cuban band and they certainly cook up a storm. However, the jewel in the crown is a devastating reworking of the Spanish folk song, ‘Malaguena’, that here becomes a frantic piano from the great Eddie Cano and percussion-led ditty with Latin piano vamps complete with a son montuno breakdown section to truly whet the appetite. Latin music seldom gets better than this. Big band mayhem ensues on the infectious ‘El Diabolito’ with some exquisite bass phrasings and a choppy percussive beat underneath it all. What really comes across is the sheer speed of hand that Jack Costanzo possessed in his prime and the trumpet-led ‘Cumbanchero’ features manic-paced percussion while ‘Bongo fever’ is like an A-Z lesson in bongo performance. Little wonder, then, that Costanzo became known as ‘Mr Bongo’, a sobriquet coined by none other than the renowned jazz critic and composer, Leonard Feather. A pared down Latin workout on ‘Sax con ritmo’ works a treat while evocative flute emerges on the decidedly eastern sounding, ‘Taboo’. The evocative 1950s style cover in red, white and black finishes off an impeccable and long overdue re-issue that is the most significant and indeed enjoyable Afro-Cuban historical musical document of the year.

Tim Stenhouse

Daniel Fortin ‘Brinks’ (Fresh Sound New Talent) 3/5

daniel-fortinToronto based bassist Daniel Fortin is one of Canada’s most in demand musicians. His thoughtful, stylistic and eclectic approach has led him to perform with a variety of artists in the worlds of jazz, rock and pop music, including among others, Serena Ryder, July Talk, Matt Wilson Florian Hofner and David Occhipinti. Fortin is also co-leader of the Juno nominated trio MYRIAD3, along with pianist Chris Donnelly and drummer Ernesto Cervini. With two albums already under their belts, a third is due for release in 2016. “Brinks” is Fortin’s debut as band leader on the excellent Fresh Sound/New Talent label, and brings together long time collaborators David French on tenor saxophone, Michael Davidson on vibraphone and Fabio Ragnelli on drums. Daniel Fortin plays both acoustic and electric bass on the album.
All of the tunes that make up “Brinks” are written by the bassist and the album as a whole owes much of its sound to the performances of saxophonist French and perhaps even more so to the vibraphone playing of Davidson. But listen more closely and the real quality here is unearthed, with the tight, interconnected playing between Fortin and drummer Ragnelli. There are many passages to be heard where the bass and drums duo excel, bringing a rare and often sensitive synergy to the compositions. It is their crucial understanding that underpins the music on this album, allowing for the sax and vibes to take the lead roles with an assured confidence. Contemporary jazz can cover a wide spectrum of music, and this album would perhaps sit more comfortably with ECM aficionados as opposed to Blue Note enthusiasts. In truth, it’s somewhere in between, thoughtful and measured but most definitely rooted in the jazz tradition. Fortin’s playing reminds me a little of Charlie Haden. There’s often a deceptive simplicity to what he does, allowing for a depth and beauty to be resonating out from the music he is making. Whilst his approach to writing (at least for this quartet) is one of a quietly personal and slightly introspective nature, bringing us a warm and thought-provoking listening experience, to my ears it does lack a couple of key ingredients to lift it into the higher echelons. It’s all just a little too measured, never really taking off- whether that be by means of pulling at my heart-strings, or catching fire with a pulsating energy. I do appreciate that this is not necessarily what “Brinks” is all about, but it doesn’t have that edge or impromptu surprise about it overall. The tracks are all fairly evenly paced and similarly structured- I would have liked a little more variation from the obviously talented quartet. That said, it still makes for a very enjoyable listen, and I particularly liked a number of tracks, most notably the middle section of the album with the excellent performances that feature on “So As To”, “Smithereen” and “ADLDMBOLD”.

Daniel Fortin is definitely one to watch. It will be interesting to see where his undoubted talent takes him to next, and on this evidence there should be much more to come from this highly skillful bass player and composer.

Mike Gates

Royal Southern Brotherhood ‘Don’t Look Back: The Muscle Shoals Sessions’ (RUF) 4/5

royal-southern-brotherhoodIf a large dose of southern blues is what you are in search of, then this excellent release should fit the bill admirably.
The brainchild of the project is Cyrille Neville, of Neville Brothers fame, and here he takes on the role of lead vocalist as well as that of percussionist. The emphasis is firmly on strong groove-oriented material, sometimes with a touch of blues-rock, but elsewhere with more soulful hues. The nine piece band sound most convincing in the latter genre and a strong contender for most compelling song is the mid-tempo, ‘It’s Time For Love’, that has an extremely catchy hook. Vying for pole position on the album is ‘Don’t look back’ which has a repetitive banjo riff that lends a quirky and funky air to the music and this is one of the best individual blues songs of the year for sure. A quality soul ballad is in fact a showcase for Cyrille and family member Ivan Neville to shine and this they most certainly do on ‘Better Half’. Funkier flavours abound on the JB influenced number, ‘Hit me once’ while ‘The Big Greasy’ is a brooding combination of funk and rock. All but three of the fourteen songs on offer were co-written by Cyrille Neville and, perhaps, not surprisingly, his native city of New Orleans was always likely to be the subject matters someway along the way and so it proves on the 1970s feel to ‘Bayou baby’ that references various facets of Louisiana popular culture. Guest musicians are of a an especially high calibre and include Devon Allman and Wet Willie. Muscle Shoals in Alabama has been the setting for many a classic soul recording, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, among the very greatest, and this new album will doubtless feature on many a blues fans end of year highlights. There is even a decent stab at the electric blues on the driving piece, ‘Hard Blues’.

Tim Stenhouse

Guy Davis ‘Kokomo Kidd’ (DixieFrog) 4/5

guy-davisBeing the son of a famous African-American actor-director father and actress-civil rights activist mother probably stands you in good stead for many things in life. However, becoming a blues musician still requires a good deal of individual investment in the craft and singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Guy Davis has quietly charted his own path, and this latest offering marks his thirteenth album in total. His musical role model is Pete Seeger and this goes someway to explaining why the repertoire includes both songs from the 1920s and 1930s as well as more contemporary covers and originals. Bob Dylan is a natural frame of reference and Davis’ take on ‘Lay lady lay’ is both respectful and faithful to the original with just a slight country-folk emphasis. Much closer to home is the bittersweet ballad, ‘Wish I hadn’t stayed away so long’, that refers to the death of Davis’ mother, Ruby Dee. Female background vocal harmonies and Dylanesque harmonica make this song a little special. The title track has a definite southern blues feel and the guest appearance of Preservation Hall Jazz Band tuba player Ben Jaffe is a major factor for the down home flavour. Guy Davis has a slightly worn and lived in voice akin in some ways to that of a latter period Johnny Cash and. although recorded in New York, the music has a genuine authenticity to it. A more updated version of the electric blues therefore comes as a pleasant surprise on the Willie Dixon standard, ‘Little red rooster’, that many including the Rolling Stones have made famous and the inclusion of guest musician Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica on this subtle reading of the classic tune is the icing on the cake. A perennial dilemma for the male species is posed on, ‘Have you ever loved two women (but couldn’t make up your mind)’ and treated as an uptempo number complete with banjo and harmonica. Rounding off matters is a cover of Donovan’s ‘Wear your hair like heaven’ and the 1960s folk revival movement is conjured up to perfection. A fine album from a musician of some integrity.

Tim Stenhouse

Mette Henriette ‘Mette Henriette’ 2CD (ECM) 4/5

mette-henrietteYoung Norwegian saxophonist and composer Mette Henriette debuts on ECM with what may just be the year’s quintessential Scandinavian music album and one that cuts across a variety of genres. Born and raised in the city of Trondheim, Henriette was a precocious talent listening to flamenco on the one hand, and the music of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler on the other. Simultaneously, she began composing at home in the evening and this debut reflects the sum total of the musical experiences she has soaked up thus far. The double CD offers two contrasting sides to her music. The first is more intimate and features Henriette’s trio while the second is an expanded larger collective affair. Together, they serve to showcase the different facets to this immensely talented musician and what this demonstrates beyond doubt is that form and freedom can co-exist in a harmonious relationship. This writer was especially fond of the thirteen piece collective and it is the kind of reflective music that could easily form a passage in the cult hit Swedo-Danish television series ‘The Bridge’. A stark piano-led number ‘Passé’ is a highlight with strings brought in to heighten the tension. Elements of classical music emerge on ‘Pearl rafter’ and Henriette’s saxophone integrates into a cohesive and convincing whole. The first CD has an equally atmospheric quality with minimalist piano and brooding saxophone on ‘oOo’, a candidate for the year’s most unusual title. In terms of Henriette’s playing, while she has clearly taken on board the freer musings of Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, there is no wild blowing at all. Evocative black and white photos in the inner sleeve transform Henriette into a Bjork-like figure (minus that distinctive hair style) and she is equally photogenic with a not dissimilar silhouette. One of the most intriguing new releases of the year and it just may find its way on to the best newcomer of the year list.

Tim Stenhouse

Matthew Stevens ‘Woodwork’ (Whirlwind) 4/5

matthew-stevensBritish guitarist Matthew Stevens has come up with a strong album that sounds as though it has come straight out of middle America and is very much in the fusion territory of both Pat Metheny and Steps Ahead. Surrounded by some impressive young musicians, this is a group on a mission and consequently the music has an inner urgency to it. This is illustrated from the very beginning on ‘Blasted’ where the ensemble work is impressive and reaches a thrilling crescendo. In particular the rapport between leader and pianist Gerald Clayton (better known for his participation on acoustic recordings elsewhere) is highly effective one and the virtuosic musings of Stevens combine beautifully with the tasteful piano of Clayton on ‘Star L.A.’ Of note is the tasty Jaco-inspired bass line from Vicente Archer. Now based in New York, Matthew Stevens has performed with some of the cream of American musicians including Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lynne Carrington and veteran fusion drummer Harvey Mason. If Pat Metheny Group circa 1985 is your bag, then the intricacy of the guitar work on the title track will prove to be a revelation and the piece is notable for the rotating drum beat pattern and a lovely piano solo. In addition to Metheny. Stevens has taken in the influence of Bill Frisell and it is the latter who is most evoked on the dissonant guitar sounds of ‘Gut check’ which has something of a blues-rock meets folk guitar quality. The bubbling, percussive-led (courtesy of Paolo Stagnaro) features guitarist and pianist in tandem. Overall, this album has an authentic American feel with Weather Report, Steps and Metheny all weaved into the mix to good effect. Could Matthew Stevens just be the next John McLaughlin for the twenty-first century waiting to happen? Watch this space and see how his music evolves over time.

Tim Stenhouse

Eric Bibb and J.J. Milteau ‘Lead Belly’s Gold’ (DixieFrog) 4/5

eric-bibb-jj-milteauFolk-blues is Eric Bibb’s speciality and this mainly live recording from the Sunset club in Paris, augmented by five studio numbers, pairs the blues guitarist with one of Europe’s finest blues harmonica players in J.J. Milteau. The focus is on intimate interplay and in this endeavour the duo conjur up some wonderful moments together. An inventive take on the standard, ‘The house of the rising sun’, receives an achingly slow rendition and as a result adds a chilling poignancy to the lyrics. Taking on folk ballads is a Bibb trademark and ‘Good night Irene’ is the kind of tune that outlaw country wordsmith Willie Nelson might attempt. Blues and gospel have always been close cousins despite assertions to the contrary and a medley of ‘When that trains comes along/Swing low, sweet chariot’ works a treat and is gently uplifting in tone with fine harmonica work by Milteau. On several numbers, Big Daddy Wilson contributes backing vocals. Of the studio numbers, the Dylanesque hues of the folk-blues song ‘Grey goose’ stands out, as does the melodic mid-tempo ‘Bourgeois Blues’, while the Bibb original ‘Chauffeur Blues’ is a fine example of his song writing craft. The lovely warm and intimate live sound recording comes courtesy of Agnès Minetto. Bilingual English and French inner sleeve notes shed light on the individual songs and are in keeping with a French label devoted to exploring and dissecting the blues. This introspective offering showcases the contemplative side of the blues and makes for a refreshing change of tempo at a time of year when the rest of the planet are seemingly in overdrive. This is music to relax to and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

Tim Stenhouse

Brian Ellis Group ‘Escondido Sessions’ (El Paraiso) 5/5

brian-ellis-groupLet me set the scene. It’s late 1969 and we’re at a small club in a big city. The place is heaving, full to bursting with cool looking people of all ages, an infectious trippy atmosphere hangs in the air. The stage in front of us is a sea of cables, leads, instruments, boxes, amps and microphones. The house lights go out and the crowd roars. A psychedelic light show swamps the room with its constantly changing colours and random images, pumping, probing, searching. The band take to the stage. Joe Zawinul acknowledges the crowd. Charles Lloyd takes off his shades. Robert Wyatt spins his drumsticks. Syd Barrett plugs in his guitar. Jaco Pastorius raises his bass above his head. A shadowy figure appears at the microphone and announces; “Good evening my friends. I am the conductor of all things strange, wild and beautiful. My name is Miles Davis. Let us set the controls for the heart of the sun…”
Now wouldn’t that have been a gig!? In reality however, it’s the back end of 2015, not 1969, and I’m visualising one of my dream gigs as I sit and listen to “Escondido Sessions”, a new release from The Brian Ellis Group. The music I’m experiencing is taking me on this incredible journey, back in time, back to the future, back to the days of experimental, adventurous, mind-bending jazz-prog-rock-ambient-groove music…

Southern Californian Brian Ellis has collected together a group of offbeat musicians on this short but sweet album. Intergalactic free-form psychedelic jazz with a spacey, raw, funky edge just about sums up the mood. It’s refreshing and fun, whilst still managing to engage in some seriously good adventurous interplay. The recording may well evoke memories of Miles Davis, Donald Byrd, Tony Williams, Weather Report and even Soft Machine and Jimi Hendrix, in spirit anyway, but it’s very much an album for the now. “Be here now” as Ram Dass would say. And this is certainly the feeling one gets from this session. Whether intentional or not, the impression given is that of six musicians getting together for a cosmic jam and allowing that particular moment in time to take them where it will. There’s a vibrant, luminous positive energy emanating from the sounds being created, with the musicians seemingly revelling in the opportunity to express themselves. Ellis is at the forefront of the adventure, the multi-instrumentalist utilising his skills to great effect through his chosen instrumentation; Fender Rhodes, Hammond Organ, Wurlitzer, Minimoog and Moogerfooger Subphatty. (He also plays sax and guitar though not on this album). He is joined by David Hurle on congas and percussion, Michael Hams on drums and percussion, Patrick Shiroishi on alto and soprano saxes, Paul Marrone on drums, percussion and guitar, and Trevor Mast on bass.

The album’s four tracks weave their own individual magic but it’s essentially irrelevant how many tracks there are, it’s the spacially aware whole that counts. Mesmerising moog-lines mix with Coltrane-esque spiritual outpourings. Thick groove-laden bass riffs blend with tribalistic percussive beats. Ambient pastoral chords vie for position with organic mind-blowing solos. It’s all in there, and the band bring out the best in each other to create a wonderful atmosphere of music unbound by the stratosphere that would normally hold us in place… The music is set free by the unashamedly spirited performances given on this uniquely unabashed recording. “The Escondido Sessions” is filled with warmth and clarity, the feel of the recording capturing well the intentions of the musicians. A special album that is quite unlike anything else I’ve had the pleasure of listening to this year. Allow your ears to step out of their comfort zone and welcome in the other-worldly sounds of The Brian Ellis Group. You might just find a surprisingly rewarding experience awaits.

Mike Gates

Brad Mehldau ’10 Years Solo Live’ (Nonesuch) 5/5

brad-mehldau“10 Years Solo Live” is a fully immersive 4 cd or 8 vinyl album box set covering a compelling selection of live solo performances from pianist Brad Mehldau. Taken from recordings made throughout the last 10 years, the sheer scope and depth of this release is stunning. Mehldau’s ability to push the boundaries in his choice of material, alongside his own wonderful compositions, is evident more than ever here. From Monk to Bach to Radiohead to Pink Floyd to The Verve to Jeff Buckley and beyond, it is quite an incredible achievement for an artist to take on such a wide breadth of music and yet still retain his own unique style and originality… Mehldau is one of the few musicians on the planet that could succeed with this. Succeed he does; and some. The set is divided conceptually into four sections: “Dark/Light”, “The Concert”, “Intermezo/Ruckblick” and “E minor/ E major”, with the pianist exploring a whole host of themes and improvisations along the way in his own inimitable style. Mehldau’s influences stretch far and wide, from the beginnings of the jazz standard, through classical, rock and alternative pop music, but the music he performs throughout this five hour tour de force is always delivered in what can best be described as “The Mehldau Method”…where the innovative pianist takes a tune and sometimes with a gorgeous simplicity, or at other times with a twisted inside-out mentality, delivers jazz-hued masterpieces one after another. It’s an emotional experience, from start to finish.

Solo piano has almost become a genre within its own musical space in the world of jazz. Keith Jarrett and Fred Hersch spring to mind immediately as artists who have carried a torch and shine a guiding light on the multifaceted wonders of this instrument. Jarrett in particular surely has taken the piano into new frontiers with his spontaneous improvisations and solo concerts throughout the last half-century. There can be few that have such a natural gift when it comes to sheer skill and virtuosity, Brad Mehldau is most definitely one of them. His playing for me tends to have a melancholic yet adventurous spirit that is second to none in the current world of jazz. Often emotive, dark and beautifully downbeat, but also playful, light and wistful, the recordings put together on this set of albums represent a clear and insightful historical document of one man’s pursuance of a musical vision that will stand the test of time for many years to come. There are some truly spellbinding moments on “10 Years Solo Live”, too many to mention in fact, but for this listener, here are just a few of my highlights…

The journey begins with Jeff Buckley’s “Dream Brother”. The tune is instantly recognisable, with Mehldau interpreting Buckley’s timeless classic with a deft sincerity and moving subtlety. As the listener, it takes no time at all to be fully immersed in this music, curious and eager to hear how the tune develops. And a few minutes in, Mehldau drops into a stream of consciousness that takes us on a dream-like soundscape of unbelievable depth and beauty. As the track ends, I press pause and take off my headphones to draw breath, it’s that good. A lighter touch ensues with Lennon/McCartney’s “Blackbird”. This is a familiar path taken throughout the whole set; long, deep, developing improvised passages, interspersed with shorter, easier to listen to (yet no less brilliant) tunes. Depending on the mood, the listener can completely lose themselves in the longer pieces or dip into the shorter, more accessible tracks. It’s easy to see how Mehldau takes inspiration from originals written by the likes of Radiohead or Nick Drake – the pianist delving into the melancholy and heartfelt emotion of these composer’s music, but perhaps it is only Mehldau who could take a tune such as The Beatles’ “And I Love Her”, and perform it with such longing and tenderness before taking it down into the deepest, darkest recesses of the human soul. This is truly inspirational, unfathomable in its twisted beauty. In contrast, the pianist appears to be enjoying the brighter side of life on the classic “My Favourite Things”, employing a slightly playful air. “Waltz for JB” and “John Boy” are two gorgeous Mehldau originals that stand out. Part romance, part blues, they personify the pianist’s skill as a composer, every subtlety and nuance seemingly touching on a knowing chord within the human spirit. For me, there are times when Mehldau’s music touches a raw nerve within me – one that brings an unqualified pleasure, perhaps in the visual form of a painful memory or an exquisite thought…one might call it the light and dark that the pianist refers to, or perhaps the sometimes inseparable nature of pleasure and pain. This is summed up in the genius of Mehldau’s interpretation of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”. There’s a hint of madness hiding behind the beauty, making for an incredibly striking piece of music, perhaps one of the most astonishing performances I have heard from the pianist. “Knives Out” is both melodically captivating and heart-stoppingly intense; another feature of Mehldau’s uncompromising search for understanding and empathy. Whilst “Monk’s Mood” and “I’m Old Fashioned” capture the essence of the jazz standard, there are even more surprises in the renditions of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” and Nirvana’s “Smell Like Teen Spirit”. And these are just a few of the many highlights to be discovered here.

For Brad Mehldau fans, this is the release you’ve been waiting for; go buy it now. It doesn’t get any better than this. For modern jazz/ piano enthusiasts, this will be a welcome addition to your collection and one that will surprise and delight in equal measure. For me personally, this set captures one of the world’s greatest living musicians at his peak, the pinnacle of where one human being and his chosen instrument can take themselves and their audience to, through the vehicle of their music.

Mike Gates