Hidden Jazz Quartett ‘Raw and Cooked’ (Agogo) 4/5

hidden-jazz-quartetSometimes in music, though perhaps not often enough, record label owners have a clear vision of what their label’s output should sound like. The classic example would be Manfred Eicher of ECM, a true visionary. Moments of clear thinking aligned with the passion and dedication to see a project through often develop from hearing performers play in different settings and being bold enough to put something new together with a particular sound or musical collaboration in mind. And this is how The Hidden Jazz Quartett came about. Ralf Zitzmann, Agogo Records label head, masterminded the production behind the eclectic sounds that make up “Raw and Cooked”. As the respected elder statesman of the German club scene explains; “One night, while our Calameri Moon Club in Hannover was cooking and the DJ’s were spinning spicy jazz sounds I thought- it sounds so fresh and vibrant like there’s a jazz quartet hidden somewhere behind the curtain.” Zitzmann took to the phone and called saxophonist Stephen Abel, organist Lutz “Hammond” Krajenski, drummer Matthias “Maze” Meusel and bassist Olaf Casimir, all well travelled musicians, and The Hidden Jazz Quartett was born. Producer Christian Decker was brought in and the label head’s idea soon became a reality.

“Raw and Cooked” has an energy to it that that is both immediately likeable and fresh. It’s late night club sound evoking the past, present and future, it’s jazz chops positively at the fore, with its cool and vibrant, almost lazy grooves tuning in and dropping out throughout the excellent recording. The album features guest artists Bajka, Omar, Greg Blackman, Anthony Joseph and Tim Hollingsworth. What is apparent throughout the session though, is that the cool sounds created by the quartet are never lost or watered down and when a vocalist does take the lead, it is very much in keeping with the ethos of the album. Kicking off proceedings is the wonderfully seductive “Luvlite” featuring a gorgeously chilled vocal from Bajka. A mix of soul, jazz and modern R&B ensues, at once setting the tone for the album. UK modern soul legend Omar then raises the temperature with the excellent, uber-cool “High Heels”; an instant classic. The band let out the swing on “The Footlocker”, providing some first class, spirited performances. It’s not just the way these guys play with a refreshing fearlessness, it’s obvious they’re enjoying creating the vibe, none more so than organist Krajenski who excels throughout the whole session. Greg Blackman provides the soulful vocals on “Tap on the backdoor” before Bajka takes things back to the nitty gritty with “Soulsophy”. “Kimberley Hotel” is a kind of Last Poets vs Hustler’s Convention excursion translated for our times, with Trinidad born poet Anthony Joseph voicing the spoken word. “Nardis” has a distinct late 60’s, early 70’s feel to it, whilst “Walzer”, almost mystical in a European jazz kind of way, was actually the band’s first release back in 2010 as a limited edition 10″ vinyl. Tim Hollingsworth provides a deep, late night feel to the jazz standard “Lush Life”, an interesting take on this timeless classic. The band sign off with bonus versions of what could well become their theme tune, “Luvlite”.

“Raw and Cooked” may well appeal to many, being an engaging mix of jazz, soul and late night club music. It all fits together very nicely, testament to the skills of the quartet themselves, and of producer Christian Decker who has succeeded in achieving a wonderful vibe whilst remaining true to the sincerity of the different elements of the music being performed. With its cool grooves it’s chilled yet modern, making for a very enjoyable listen.

Mike Gates

Miles Davis ‘The Last Word – The Warner Bros. Years’ 8CD Boxset (Warner Brothers) 4/5

miles-davisIn 1986 Miles Davis turned sixty and his thirty year musical relationship with Columbia records had ended. The last five years of Miles’ musical life proved to be at once a productive and creatively fertile period and one in which his own sound on the trumpet was at its strongest since the five year inactive period from 1975. In fact it was a good deal more consistent than the early 1980s recordings for Columbia where Miles was still struggling to find his feet again after taking a lengthy period out. A major contributing factor was that the trumpeter had finally managed both to secure and maintain a new regular band of musicians. These included bassist and arranger Marcus Miller, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett as well as some of the top session musicians from seasoned veterans such as George Duke to a younger generation such as Adam Holzman.
Indeed, for the first and only time in his illustrious career, Miles was persuaded by old friend and musical arranger extraordinaire, Quincy Jones, to revisit some of those immortal collaborations with Gil Evans from the late-1950 and the beginning of the 1960s. While there are no bonus tracks from those already in possession of the original albums, as a whole this is a vital historical document that requires repeated listens. A sixty page booklet aids the listener in order to better appreciate what Miles was seeking to accomplish and, there are, moreover, extended essay notes from renowned jazz author Ashley Kahn (who has authored books on Miles and Coltrane among other works) as well as the original 1993 notes to ‘Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival’ from legendary Downbeat reviewer, author and songwriter Leonard Feather. Contained within is a black clamshell box with individual facsimile album covers, a box set that is in keeping with a musician of Miles Davis’ colossal stature.

The music commences chronologically with ‘Tutu’, an album from 1986 that cemented Miles’ reputation and at the time was heralded as a return to his past glory. There is certainly a case for arguing that these were some of his best compositions in nearly twenty years and the distinctive sound was in no small part down to the considerable efforts of Marcus Miller who contributes both on electric fender bass and bass clarinet. The ‘Bitches Brew’ sound, then, was given a modern and more accessible update and numbers such as ‘Portia’, ‘Splatch’ and the title track all stand the test of time remarkably well, even if the drum machines do sound a tad dated. If anything, its follow up recording, ‘Amandla’ (1989), is even more cohesive and quite possibly the strongest album of his post-inactive era. There is a touching homage to the departed ex-Weather Report bassist on ‘Mr. Pastorius’, a bubbling funk undercurrent to the opener, ‘Catémbe’ where the band really hit top form here. Once again catchy riffs abound and are illustrated on the brooding piece, ‘Cobra’. Miller’s imprint is all over this project and his trademark plucked bass can be heard in full on the laid back ‘Hannibal’ which is probably the pick of the compositions.

A lesser known recording and one that this writer regards as much underrated is the film soundtrack to ‘Siesta’. Here the musical collaboration with Marcus Miller is the key element and, viewed some twenty-five years later, comparisons with the Gil Evans partnership are inevitable. The music once again conjurs up images of Spain, albeit a more contemporary vision, and parts one and two of ‘Lost in Madrid’ illustrate the sheer beauty of the orchestrations with Miller outstanding on bass clarinet accompanied by flamenco guitar. This is an album that urgently needs to be revisited and is far better than given credit for at the time. In contrast another film soundtrack, ‘Dingo’ (1990), was a lesser triumph. The Australian film reunited Miles with French arranger, composer and pianist Michel Legrand with whom the trumpeter had guested on the 1958 album, ‘Legrand Jazz’. Davis even plays a small role in the film and the brief motifs recorded are a reference to the classic era of ‘Milestones’ and ‘All Blues’. The big band orchestrations are somwhat jaded and Miles does not even feature on half the trumpet solos, those being executed instead by Chuck Findley.

A major coup was convincing Miles to re-record pieces from the Gil Evans period and this was achieved with the ‘Live at Montreux’ recording in July 1991, just three months before Miles was to pass away. The ambition was to re-create the Evans collaborations in a live context and, while this was always going to be an impossible task to match the glittering peaks of those studio recordings, this was nonetheless a major event for long-term Miles fans who never dared think he might look back to his past. The George Gruntz concert band backed by a further twenty-two musicians included current band member Kenny Garrett and deputising on trumpet solos, as and when required, Wallace Roney was under the overall control of master orchestrator Quincy Jones. If some of the pieces from ‘Miles Ahead’ and ‘Porgy and Bess’ on the new readings are given too modern and rapid a reading in comparison with the magisterial original versions, the frail muted harmon trumpet of Miles on ‘Sketches of Spain’ pieces such as ‘Solea’ works a treat and any true jazz fan would have given their right hand just to be present to witness events in person. Most importantly, Miles himself seemed to enjoy the concert and it must have recalled very happy memories of working with Gil Evans.

The final studio album Doo-Bop is the least essential of any of the offerings in this box set and was indicative of Miles’ constant desire to keep up with a younger generation, in this case the hip-hop generation. The difference is that whereas at his creative zenith he was making the pace, here Miles was merely playing catch up. From a purely intellectual perspective, this album indicated how Miles’ quest for searching for something new remained with him to the very end and was unquestionably a factor that distinguished him from his own generation, who tended to rest on the laurels.

Closing up the box set are two live recordings, one specific to different evenings at the 1986 Nice Jazz Festival and the other, ‘Live around the world’ capturing a selection of Miles’ live performances globally, dating between 1988 and 1990. The former is noteworthy for extended versions of ‘Tutu’ and adaptations of then current pop tunes, Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time after Time being a fine vehicle for Miles to solo at length while Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ demonstrated Miles’ seemingly innate ability to capture a quality ballad and make it his own. For the latter, there is a tantalisingly brief reprise of ‘In a silent way’ and further extended jams on from his recent albums of that time.

If there is one regret with this set, it is that the early July reunion of Miles alumni live at la Villette in Paris has not been captured, even though a video of the performances did become available and was aired on British television a few years later. Hopefully, at some stage in the not too distant future, those performances will be available in digitised format. That gripe aside, this box set marks a momentous end to a fabulous musical career and, as ever, stylistically Miles Davis was in several musical bags and never someone who could be categorised into one pigeonhole. He was always going to be far too open-minded, forward thinking and musically creative ever to fall into that trap and that is why he continues to be loved so dearly.

Tim Stenhouse

Charles Lloyd and The Marvels ‘I Long to See You’ (Blue Note) 4/5

charles-lloyd-marvelsLast year saw the release of Charles Lloyd’s incredible “Wild Man Dance”, a remarkable live recording that personifies everything that the saxophonist/composer has stood for throughout his long, illustrious career. The music therein took the listener on an adventurous and spiritually rewarding journey, its depth and beauty knowing no bounds. Lloyd’s creativity thankfully shows no sign of letting up, with this, his second Blue Note release in the last twelve months. This album however, is very different to his previous outing, one that sees the evergreen saxophonist enlisting a stellar band to help him produce an album that focusses largely on shorter, sweeter tunes that bridge the gap between jazz, country, folk and blues, effortlessly blending their histories into gentle, yet rewarding musical moments in time. The cross genre musical influences are insignificant in Lloyd’s hands, the music walks its own path, as is always the case with the iconic saxophonist. The seed for this latest project was planted in 2013 when Lloyd invited guitarist Bill Frisell to perform with him at UCLA’s Royce Hall. They had met earlier that year when they shared a stage, and Lloyd says, “We made a connection. I knew that we were moving towards this sound. Bill is sensitive and very intuitive. We don’t need to say much when we get together – it’s all expressed in the music, in the sound, the feeling.” Joining them for this recording are Pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, a regular collaborator of Frisell’s, the awesome rhythm section of Eric Harland on drums and Reuben Rogers on bass, and special guest contributors Norah Jones, Willie Nelson and Joe Harley.

“I long to see you” features a collection of ten songs, old and new. From traditional hymns to anti-war folk protests to reinterpreted originals that look for new light on Lloyd’s ever searching musical path. The album opens with one of its stronger tunes, a brooding interpretation of Bob Dylan’s classic “Masters of War”. What becomes apparent very quickly is the excellent interplay between Frisell’s country/jazz tinged guitar, and the subtle atmospheric playing of Leisz on pedal steel guitar. Throughout the album as a whole, Lloyd allows the two guitarists time and space to create their sound, with the pair performing beautifully whether up front or creating a backdrop for Lloyd’s effortlessly tuneful sax playing. But here, paradoxically, we have perhaps the album’s strength and weakness all rolled into one. There are times when Lloyd takes a back seat, as is the case on the magnificent “La Llorona”, where the ambience and mood created by the guitarists working in unison is sheer genius. The resulting piece of music makes for an incredibly warm and affecting atmosphere, undoubtedly one of the stand-out tracks of the album. Yet at other times they do seem to get a little lost in the ‘country twang’ of things, the vibe losing its oeuvre somewhat. I am a great admirer of Frisell, but sometimes I can’t help wishing to hear more of the surprise and spark we once heard in the days of the Paul Motian and Joe Lovano trio recordings. But there are plenty of highlights to enjoy, and not just from the guitarists and band leader himself. On “You are so beautiful” we get to hear a gorgeous vocal from Norah Jones. The track itself is a delightful triumph, with Lloyd at his breathtaking best. Simplicity is sometimes all that is required, and the touch and feel provided by the saxophonist is exquisite. As, indeed, is the vocal delivery from Jones. There is a brief moment where her voice rises slightly that sends a shiver down the spine with its simple, affecting, emotional beauty. A stunning take on an old classic song. Whilst most of the tracks hover around the five minute mark, it is perhaps the shortest and the longest tunes that leave the most lasting impression. The shortest is the hymn “Abide with me” with Lloyd’s melancholic tenor providing the lead as Frisell’s guitar shadows his notes. The longest, by some margin, is the only new piece of music on the album. Clocking in at sixteen minutes, “Barche Lamsel” is by far and away the most exploratory piece on the album. It starts slowly, but after a few minutes it cooks, with the brilliance of drummer Harland and bassist Rogers providing a groove that is just ‘there’. Barche Lamsel is a Buddhist prayer to remove all obstacles, and as Lloyd explains; “As we started to record the track, it became Barche Lamsel. There seemed to be no impediments to the flow of notes and ideas. It is a prayer for peace, a sutra for tenderness.” And the tune truly sparkles, giving the listener a true feel for just what the musicians involved are capable of. As good as the rest of “I long to see you” is, this track leaves me wondering what might have been if the band had focussed more on developing new material together, exploring fresh ideas and playing together in a more open way than the other tracks allow. But then perhaps that’s one for the future, let’s hope there’s more to come from Charles Lloyd and The Marvels, in a setting that allows the music to breathe and develop, always a strong point in the saxophonist’s remarkably unique, musical vision.

Mike Gates

Veteran tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd returns for his second album on Blue Note and was a key signing for producer Don Was, but this is the first in the studio and the change in direction is indicated by the absence of any piano and the inclusion in its place of the guitar of Bill Frisell, a long-time admirer of Lloyd’s work from way back in the 1960s when the guitarist listened as a youth to Lloyd’s Atlantic albums.

Here, Frisell adds his own personalised take on the American folk tradition within a jazz framework and the pairing of these two jazz musician is little short of revelatory. It was Lloyd’s original intention to record this band in a live context. However, that opinion changed on the advice of co-producer and wife of the saxophonist, Dorothy Darr. The overall impression is one of a relaxed and invigorating environment and the guitarist and saxophonist revel in each other’s company. That relaxed feel is evident on ‘Shenandoah’ which is a major highlight and, perhaps, surprisingly on a laid back reading of the 1960s hit, ‘Sombrero Sam’, that found an audience for Lloyd way beyond the jazz establishment at the time. Here the inventive use of space with evocative flute playing from the leader and subtle drums from Eric Harland is a joy and with the extended and melodic guitar intro by Frisell, one hears the number in an altogether different light. Another famous piece is the title track to a mid-1960s Columbia album, ‘Of Course, Of Course’, and the listener can appreciate the simplicity and joyous nature of the new version with a quasi-jam session approach. Lloyd has always excelled on balladry work and that most gentle of piece, ‘La Llorona 6’, was previously recorded in 2009 for ECM. There is lovely delicate guitar work from Frisell while Lloyd caresses the tune on tenor. Charles Lloyd has never shied away from socio-political concerns without ever attempting to be preachy.

A reprise of Dylan’s ‘Master of war’ has received extensive radio coverage and the supportive folk-blues guitar of Frisell invokes the late great Ali Farka Touré. Another politically-themed number, ‘All my trials’, was originally a Bahamian lullaby, but is linked to the 1960s protest movement. Lloyd adopts a mournful tone on tenor with sensitive accompaniment from Frisell. Guest vocalists are few and far between on Charles Lloyd recordings so the rationale had better be clear and Willie Nelson proves to be an ideal partner for the anti-war song, ‘I had the strangest dream’. It is typically relaxed interpretation by the singer who, it should be remembered, recorded an album of jazz standards, ‘Stardust’, in 1978 and possesses a naturally jazz-inflected voice. Moreover, he recorded an excellent live recording with Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center which deserved to be a major success. A Billy Preston composition, ‘You are so beautiful’, was a hit single for Joe Cocker back in 1974 and Norah Jones makes a decent stab at it. It should be stated that neither of the pairing of vocal numbers hinders one’s appreciation of the instrumental remainder and, provided that Lloyd is not pigeonholed into regularly featuring singers, the results enhance rather than detract from the music as a whole. One Lloyd original is an epic sixteen minute piece, ‘Barche Lamsel’ that ends the album on a spiritual high. This beautifully crafted album is only marginally short of a five class rating. Charles Lloyd’s playing is of the highest order and, in this writer’s opinion, he fits comfortably into the top three of greatest living saxophone/reed players.

Tim Stenhouse

Avishai Cohen ‘Into The Silence’ 2LP/CD (ECM) 5/5 & 4/5

avishai-cohen“Into the silence” is trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s debut as leader for the ECM label, and what a breathtaking album it is. The six compositions were written by Cohen during the six months that followed his father’s passing in November 2014. During his father’s final few weeks, Cohen listened almost constantly to an album of Rachmaninoff’s solo piano music; “I think the emotional spirit of those preludes, etudes and elegies wound their way inside me” the trumpeter reflects, “I became obsessed with the harmonies of his music, particularly the inner voices. It was inspiring for me.” Yet at the same time Cohen was also also listening a lot to Eric Dolphy’s “Out to lunch” and he adds “Obviously my record doesn’t sound anything like that- but the honesty of Dolphy’s music and the close way his band interacted were on my mind.” And it is the honesty of Cohen’s music that shines through with a clarity and purity of sound that is stunningly beautiful. The trumpeter plays with a very personal, deeply moving tone that is not only touching and soulful, but also free-spirited and open.

The core quartet for this session features Cohen alongside two long-time collaborators: pianist Yonathan Avishai and drummer Nasheet Waits, with bassist Eric Revis, who has been a rhythm section partner for Waits in many bands, completing the foursome. Augmenting Cohen’s quartet on several pieces is tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, an understated modernist who adds a subtle harmonic depth when playing alongside Cohen. It is quite incredible that this recording marks the first time these musicians ever played together as a collective, but as Cohen points out; “I’ve known Yonathan since I was twelve, sharing music with him in so many ways over the years.” This is something that undoubtedly stands out on the recording; the close relationship between Cohen and Yonathan Avishai, their musical and personal relationship entwining to wonderful effect with an unerring understanding. This stands out above all on the opening track “Life and Death” and the title track “Into the silence”. They share a gift for the understated, an eloquence and grace that is rarely heard. The whole album has a quiet sincerity to it, yet it’s not without a remarkable spirit, at times lyrical and hauntingly melodic. Cohen takes the lead on most of the tracks, and rightly so, playing with a freshness that is enlightening. I cannot think of many musicians that sound so passionate yet softly understated all in one breath. Saxophonist McHenry brings a quiet skill and deft touch, especially on “Behind the broken glass”.

“Into the silence” was recorded in Studios La Buissonne in the South of France and according to the band leader was very relaxed and very cohesive, with recording, mixing and mastering all taking place in three days. Cohen lived with his thoughts and melodies for months leading up to the recording, just in his head or at the piano. Much of the music had never come through his horn until the first takes in the studio; “I played through the tunes with Yonathan at the piano before the session, but it was brand new to everyone else, so everyone’s responses were completely fresh”. The trumpeter adds “We were all discovering the potential of the music as we were playing.” And this to my mind is an important element in the music that the musicians deliver here – there is an intimacy to the whole recording that the listener can almost reach out and touch. It hangs in the air, in the spaces between the notes, in the unspoken thoughts that pass between the performers, in the unwritten poetry that they are making through their music. It is something that can’t quite be defined, something that could so easily be lost if one tried to hold onto it for too long. Luckily for us the spirit of this musical journey is captured beautifully on this recording. A wonderful album.

Mike Gates rating 5/5

Now permanently based in New York, trumpeter Avishai Cohen (not to be confused with his namesake and fellow national who is a bassist and formerly recorded for Blue Note) makes his major label debut for ECM on an all-original series of compositions that breathes new life into the acoustic quintet and takes a major leaf out of both the mid-1960s quintet of Miles Davis and his earlier formation that debuted for Columbia way back in 1955 with ‘Round Midnight’. Avishai Cohen is a rising trumpeter who has, in recent years, been heralded by US critics as a major new talent (he is in fact now thirty-seven years of age) and has won the Downbeat rising trumpeter category for four years in a row. Indeed, Cohen has been a multi-faceted and prodigious operator in the past few years: performing as part of the Triveni trio with Omer Avital, another ‘new kid’ on the block garnering plaudits, and Nasheet Waits; an integral member of the SF Jazz Collective for some six years; and last, but by no means least, part of a family Cohen’s sextet. Initially working as a studio musician with Israeli folk and pop acts, Avshai Cohen’s early career was oriented towards classical music performing with the Israeli Young Philharmonic Orchestra under the tutelage of Zubin Mehta and Kurt Masur. This changed and Cohen gained useful experience with the Mingus Big Band and as part of Kenny Werner’s group. Simultaneously, he pursued a parallel career with French-Israeli pop singer-songwriter, Keren Ann.

If one had to make any kind of parallel, then, given the sheer diversity of formations Cohen operates in and out of, Dave Douglas at the beginning of his career might well serve as a useful comparison. The album is dedicated to the memory of his late father and the compositions were written in the subsequent months of that tragic event. The music as a whole is quite dense and within a given individual piece, the mood changes markedly. A gentle opener in ‘Life and death’ is an explicit reference to his father and immediately creates a nocturnal atmosphere with lyrical muted harmon and sedate piano from Yonathan Avishai who sounds as those he has soaked up the contemplative side of another ECM stable mate, Keith Jarrett. Without ever specifically trying to duplicate the sound, this piece has something of the mid-1950s feel that Miles Davis created with his final recordings for Prestige and the early beginnings for Columbia. It is at once a brave and clear statement of intent. Elsewhere, the music becomes more intense and abstract as on the fifteen and a half minute, ‘Dream like a child’, that features a lengthy opening cymbal crescendo and the rhythm section of pianist and drummer seem to float along with bowing work from double bassist Eric Revis. One of the strongest numbers is ‘Quiessence’ where the pianist plays a melodic riff akin to the sound of a clock and the trumpeter delivers a suitably melancholic solo. This pared down and intimate setting suits the group to perfection and is surely the avenue to follow wholeheartedly. A mournful lament is one way to describe the ballad ‘Behind the broken glass’ and the clarity of tone by the leader is matched by the development of tempo as the piece progresses and goes up several gears. Greatly enhancing the listening pleasure is the warm tone of tenorist Bill McHenry who comes across as a Wayne Shorter acolyte. One minor reservation overall. Some of the extended numbers are overly long, testing the listener’s powers of concentration to the hilt, need truncating slightly and, with time, the compositions will become tighter. Otherwise, this is a musician and formation who are going places fast and observing the journey will be required practice for reviewers and jazz aficionados alike over the next few years.

Tim Stenhouse rating 4/5

Edith Piaf ‘100e Anniversaire’ 2CD (Warner France) 5/5

edith-piafWho would be a serious contender for the female vocal voice of the twentieth century? Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would certainly be prime contenders in the field of jazz with Bessie Smith for blues, Aretha Franklin for soul and Maria Callas for the classical world. However, another contender, outside the English language, would have to be considered with Edith Piaf and in December 2015, we celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of Piaf’s birth being on 15 December 1915. To coincide with this celebration Warner Brothers France have brought out a major re-issue programme, the pièce de résistance of which is a sumptuous 20 CD box set with separate individual vinyl re-issues of classic albums. For those on a more modest budget, the two CD set contained within will serve as an ideal introduction to the work of Piaf and, with forty songs, there are the essential songs for the first-time listener.
As with the box set, this smaller anthology is presented in a mock 1940/1950s design and, along with the music, serves to conjur up something of that era. Piaf was closely associated with the music hall culture when people danced along to the music in a live musical setting and this is very much the atmosphere conveyed on a song such as ‘La goualante du pauvre Jean’ from 1954. To this writer’s mind, it brings up images of the early French new wave films with Truffaut’s second full feature, Tirez sur le pianiste’ (‘Shoot the pianist’), the obvious comparison. A favourite of this writer is the homage to ‘java’ style dancing in ‘L’accordéoniste’ which conjurs up the dances that took place in the more popular, suburban districts of Paris

Piaf was an excellent balladeer and on ‘Avec ce soleil’ her power and the sheer emotion in the voice is on full display while she was capable of great subtlety as illustrated on ‘Les amants d’un jour’. In an intimate vein accompanied by accordion, ‘Sous le ciel de Paris’, offer an alternative reading to the more famous rendition by her former partner, Yves Montand. Some of the all-time great songs for which Piaf is adored are included and her quasi-signature tune, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, is included along with ‘La vie en rose’, and ‘Milord’, composed by singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki. What is less known about Piaf is that she could write songs, often co-written, and that proves to be the case on ‘Les amants’.

There is a Tati-esque old-school charm to several of the songs with the everyday life of the French recounted and raised to an art form as on ‘Salle d’attente’. The cinematic quality of Piaf’s singing is in evidence once again on ‘La fête continue’. Factor in the folkloric ‘Bal dans ma rue’, the passionate ‘Hymne à l’amour’ and ‘Les trois cloches’, both accompanied by angelic choir and strings and you have a fine overview of the music of arguably France’s greatest interpreter. Some might dispute this and argue in favour of either Montand or Charles Trenet, or prefer the polemics in the prose of Georges Brassens that challenged the social habits of the time. Such contenders to the throne unquestionably have their merits. That said, none scaled the same heights globally as Edith Piaf and the mere fact that she is invariably referred to by her surname speaks volumes for her exalted status. A fine introduction that builds on the previous anthology, ‘L’Accordéon’ from 2003.

Tim Stenhouse

David Bowie ‘Blackstar’ (ISO/Columbia) 5/5

david-bowie“Look up here, I’m in Heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now.” So sings David Bowie on “Lazarus”, one of seven dauntingly brilliant and unfathomably poignant tracks from what was to be his final album. Let’s get one thing straight from the start here, amid the incredible worldwide emotional response to Bowie’s death, and indeed, my own sense of loss as a life-long Bowie fan, it could be difficult to remain objective when reviewing “Blackstar”. Yet I feel confident in proclaiming this album to be one of Bowie’s best, certainly in the last thirty years or so. A fitting end for a musical genius who has journeyed, innovated and inspired more than most could ever dream of doing. I was blown away on first listen, and the more I listen, the better it gets. Bowie fans haven’t had much to engage with in the last decade, until the surprise release of “The Next Day”, a very welcome return to form, though perhaps not the classic we wanted it to be. There was also the excellent 2014 release “Subterranean- New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin” by drummer Dylan Howe, an incredibly good jazz/rock reinterpretation of Bowie’s Berlin era music which helped fill the void for this Bowie aficionado, much more so than previous efforts by the likes of Philip Glass, not without merit though that may be. But “Blackstar” is a different beast altogether. It shines in a way that all of Bowie’s best efforts always have- with a fierce originality that is both musically engaging, yet also dripping with elements of avant-garde oddities and quirkiness. And then of course, we add in the emotional element, one that the listener can genuinely hear and feel throughout this recording, and we have Bowie’s final masterpiece.

To my mind, many (though certainly not all) of Bowie’s finest moments have come when he’s been collaborating with musicians capable of operating on a similar level of thought and musicianship. The obvious example of an artist influencing and working together with Bowie would of course be Brian Eno. And as far as Bowie working with a “shit hot” band of musicians, I’d suggest looking no further than the Station to Station tour in the 70’s. And it is the collaborations and musical inventiveness that once again stand out on this release. Maria Schneider, (V2?) big band leader and jazz writer, arranger, co-wrote some of the music, and it is indeed some of the finest, cutting-edge jazz musicians making their mark in the early stages of the 21st century, that help make this album what it is. This is definitely not a jazz album, but what Bowie does so well is to utilise the skills of his chosen band to the fullest, even writing with this in mind. It goes without saying that Bowie has written an album of incredible words and music here, and with long time producer Tony Visconti, all the wondrous elements have come together perfectly to create a sound of sheer brilliance, the performances from all the musicians involved helping make this album what it is. From the moment Bowie sat down in a New York jazz club to watch drummer Mark Guiliana perform, the seed had been planted. Even before that, Bowie had been working with Maria Schneider and had had saxophonist Donny McCaslin in mind when writing the incredible “Tis a pity she was a whore.” Shortly after Bowie’s death, Maria Schneider wrote; “David Bowie’s fearlessness at headlong swan-diving into the unknown was astounding, inspiring and freeing. To experience that daring creative spirit first hand was our magic and a great gift. Even at 68, his true passion for creativity and daring artistry, brought him to yet another new edge. He created a universe all of his own”. Donny McCaslin also commented; “Working with David Bowie was a life-changing experience for me and a gift beyond measure. He was always gracious, generous and funny. I will always be inspired by him.” One can only imagine what it must have been like to have been involved in the making of this album, oh to have been a fly on the wall! Similar accolades from Mark Guiliana, keyboardist Jason Lindner and bassist Tim Lefebvre also followed, all showing a heart-warming sincerity and genuine sense of loss.

“Blackstar” opens with the title track, just shy of ten minutes in length, it being a suitably other-worldly piece of musical theatre. As with much of the album, it employs that rare gift of musicality where a tune is performed in a way that it never quite lets the listener be at ease. There’s always something unexpected, whether it be a change of pace, a small moment of beauty, a touching line of words, or a twist in the direction and sound of the song. Stunning production and arrangements just add to the timeless feel of the track. The aforementioned “Tis a pity she was a whore” utilises keyboards and saxophone to gradually wind up and build piece by piece with unnerving brilliance. The arrangements and sound created is on a par with anything Bowie has conceived in former glories. “Lazarus” grabs your heart and doesn’t let go. Incredible songwriting, and just so devastatingly poignant given the timing of the album’s release. Another fine example of a master at work. “Sue (Or in a season of crime)” is shorter and much more vitally hard edged than last year’s big band version. It’s much more immediate and uncompromising in its boldness. “Girl loves me” harks back to the Bowie strangeness that sums up his fearlessness in writing and recording. Quite remarkable. “Dollar Days” reminded me, purely from a production point of view, of Bowie’s 70’s Classic “Wild is the wind”. It also engages the listener in its sweeping soundscape and emotive performance from the singer. There’s such a strong pull and emotional connection as he sings; “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me…” The final track, a roller coaster of songwriting mastery and soulful eloquence, is the hauntingly beautiful “I can’t give everything away”. To this I would like to say, Mr David Jones, you did give it all away, you gave us everything. You gave all you could and for this we will be eternally grateful.

The final words have to go to Tony Visconti, Bowie’s long time producer and friend, who hours after Bowie’s final transformation wrote; “He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us.”

Mike Gates

The Undisputed Truth ‘Method to the Madness’ / ‘Smokin’ 2CD (Robinsongs/Cherry Red) 4/5

the-undisputed-truthNorman Whitfield is one of the most innovative producers in soul music history and in the late 1960s and early-mid 1970s he carved out a new direction for soul with a more psychedelic influence. Key musicians for his production imprint included Edwin Starr and the Temptations and the latter scored major success with songs as immortal as ‘Papa was a rolling stone’. However, a lesser known group, The Undisputed Truth, were equally the recipients of Whitefield’s production genius and we have included on this CD a pairing of two funk-inflected albums that originally came out in 1976 and 1979. The group had in fact scored a crossover hit in 1971 with ‘Smiling faces sometimes’, but the mid-1970s re-incarnation of the group was a major makeover with only Joe Harris remaining and a large number of the instrumentalists on board second time round would become part of a new Whitfield created formation, Rose Royce. One of the joys of this re-issue is that, with the benefit of hindsight, we can hear how the classic Rose Royce sound was evolving in its infancy. The first album was a summation of Whitfield’s musical mind and the opener, ‘Cosmic contract’ featured space-like sound effects and hi-hat cymbals (what was to be known as the classic disco drum beat) and this number serves as an overture to the rest of the album.

A major dancefloor hit was scored with the epic eleven minute, ‘You + me = love’ and the title borrows something from a Ray Charles album, ‘Genius + Jazz = Soul’ and this song alone practically defines the funkier side of the disco era and is a much-loved 12″ slice of vinyl. A second dance floor friendly song graces side two of the original album with the somewhat title of ‘Let’s go down to the disco’ misleading in that this was anything but formulaic dance music. If anything the song has similar elements to Rose Royce’s ‘Car Wash’ and the comparison is certainly not co-incidental. Singer Taka Boom is at her absolute stunning best here on lead vocals and the expert arrangements of Paul Riser who worked on many a Motown album add to the musical delights. A false cappella ending and instrumental breakdown make this a treat for dancers and listeners alike. It deserved to at least mirror the success of the first single. In a slower vein, ‘Sunshine’ was a quality ballad that hinted at the future Rose Royce sound minus the voice of Gwen Dickie.

The second album, ‘Smokin’ featured the then novel sound of the syndrum and ‘Talkin to the wind’ was another precursor to the Rose Royce ballad template. However, ‘Sandman’ was the strongest song and was a dance number with distinctive gospel-tinged vocals and this could and, perhaps, should have been released as a single to showcase the album more generally. Of note is ‘Space Machine’ which was sampled in 1998 by Def Sound on ‘Check’n’ me out’. The original version contained within has a guitar riff right out of the O’Jays ‘For the love of money’. ‘Smokin’ did not score as highly as the first album here, largely because the end of the disco era was nigh and there was no obvious commercially oriented song to attract a wider audience to the music. Viewed from the prism of four decades later, it is a perfectly decent album and very much in the mould of the Norman Whitfield production.

Tim Stenhouse

Maze ‘Silk and Soul’ / ‘Back to Basics’ 2 CD (Robinsongs/Cherry Red) 4/5

mazeSoul group Maze received cult status in the early-mid 1980s in the UK with their music regularly featuring on soul radio stations and the all-dayer/nighter scene. The live recording ‘Live in New Orleans’ album is a prime contender for the greatest ever live performance from a soul artist (Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding would be among the rivals) with ‘Joy and Pain’ a true soul boy anthem. Their biggest UK hit entered the pop Top Forty in 1983 with ‘We are one’ and this was arguably the group’s strongest studio recording.
This new CD pairing of two albums captures the very end of the group’s career and one when they had changed labels from long-term stable mate Capitol to Warner Brothers. Both contain bonus cuts and, revisited at a distance in time, shape up surprisingly well with the first album, dating from 1989. the significantly stronger of the two and very much in the Maze tradition of quality mid-tempo songs and intimate ballads. The title track of ‘Silky Soul’ features an understated delivery by Frankie Beverly and was a classy mid-tempo number that also served as a tribute to the late Marvin Gaye and morphs briefly into, ‘What’s goin’ on’ with even some Marvinesque whoops. However, the main song on the album that became a number one R & B chart hit was ‘Can’t get over you’ and with a funk-tinged bass line and subtle use of keyboards, this was classic Maze terrain and in a minor key chord that the group perfected. A personal favourite of this writer with instrumentation ahead of its time is ‘Just us’ which features the catchiest of keyboard riffs and once again this is a fine mid-tempo vehicle for Beverly’s honey-toned voice. It fully deserved to be released as a single, but remained an album track of distinction.

The follow up album was some four years in the making and did not surface until 1993. It was to prove to be the very last recording by the group and did not live up to its predecessor in either quality, or commercial success. A first single, ‘Laid back girl’ was released, but this reached a disappointing number fifteen in the R& B charts. Something of the magic had gone and, quite possibly. the group would have been better served going out on a high with the 1989 album. In general, Maze were characterised by a sound that went counter to the prevailing in-fashion disco-funk sounds of glossy production and this was indeed part of their old-school charm. Over the period 1976-1986 Maze created their own personal path and this endeared them to soul fans both young and old. This reputation was cemented by one of the finest live sounds ever heard. It would be great to see and hear a re-issued version of the seminal ‘Live in New Orleans’ coupled with ‘Live in Los Angeles’ the latter which originally came out as both a double LP and in a separate video format.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘The Ultimate Guide to Scottish Folk’ 2CD (ARC) 4/5

scottish-folkThe annual Celtic Connections festival is now upon us and concert venues the length and breath of Glasgow are currently enjoying hearing sounds familiar and exploring the folk music of Africa, Latin and North America and the numerous inter-connections with Celtic folk traditions throughout the globe. BBC radio and internet listeners have the opportunity to hear this music across the various formats.
It is a propitious moment, then, to explore the roots of Scottish folk music, which has especially close ties to the Irish folk tradition in its highland manifestations, but is distinctive in its own right. This double CD guide does exactly what it proverbially says on the tin, namely provide an extremely useful introduction to Scottish folk music old and new, and it spans across the generations from the indomitable Sir Jimmy Shand to the more recent Lau. In the very capable hands of Gaelic speaking musicologist and BBC radio presenter Mary Ann Kennedy. who provides insightful liner notes, the compilation helps debunk a few myths south of the border about Scottish music being all bagpipes and little else and demonstrates beyond all doubt that Scottish folk music is a living and constantly evolving creature unlike the Loch Ness monster which is merely a fiendishly canny device to attract in the tourists.
One of the overriding impressions is that Scottish folk enjoys both an empathetic and symbiotic relationship with rock music and Scottish national identity is inextricably linked to both. Thus the Red Hot Chilli Peppers offer up ‘We will fix you’, while Capercaillie, who are conversant in both folk and rock formats, contribute ‘Seinneam Clù nam Fear Ur’ and elsewhere Karine Polwart continues the singer-songwriter tradition. The Transatlantic connections are an important aspect of the music contained within and there is a winning combination of South Uist piper Fred Morrison with American banjo player Tim O’Brien on a rousing ‘Kansas City Hornpipe’, unquestionably a musical highlight on the compilation. Sheltand fiddler extraordinaire Aly Bain has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the common roots of Celtic music across the Atlantic and ‘The day dawn’ is a sumptuous illustration of his craft. Bain is of course one of the co-hosts along side Jerry Douglas, of the critically acclaimed Transatlantic Sessions series. Gaelic song is a key element of the Scottish folk tradition and Mary Ann Kennedy provides some lovely examples of song in this most evocative of languages. The young Mischa MacPherson has great potential as evidenced on ‘Cha d’Fhuair Min Cadel’ which is a delightful pared down vocal and guitar number.

Some of the historically important figures of Scottish folk are included. Among these Archie Fischer was a personal favourite with his stunning reading of an original composition, ‘Reynardine’, while Dougie McLean, wrote what is considered a de facto alternative Scottish national anthem in ‘Caldeonia’. While that piece is not included here, the genial singer-songwriter does contribute the fine ‘Bonne Bessie Logan’. Ceilidh music is an integral part of the Scottish and, in marked contrast to the dour stereotype, Scots do like to enjoy themselves and let their hair down regularly. Jimmy Shand has been a stalwart of the ceilidh scene north of the border and his rendition of ‘Bluebell Polka’ is guaranteed to get the feet tapping frenetically. In an altogether different and highly politicised vein, Dick Gaughan is one of Scotland’s truly original singers with a principled stance to boot and his Topic albums from the late 1970s and early 1980s are the equal of anything else on that label of that era. Here, we hear a later a typically uncompromising, but deeply melodic, ‘No gods and precious few heroes’. Haling from the port of Leith in the nation’s capital, Gaughan expertly weaves his deeply held political convictions into his music and the listener is all the richer for his insightful lyrics.

One minor gripe. No inclusion of one of Scotland’s finest Gaelic-speaking singers currently, Julie Fowlis, but that may simply be down to legal complexities for forming part of the compilation. Another omission, that of Bert Jansch, is more logical in that his music revealed little of a Scottish influence in style, spending most of his professional life in England, though he was very proud, and rightly so, of his Edinburgh roots. Otherwise, this is an ideal place for the neophyte to begin and discover the wonders of a folk tradition that does not receive its fair due across the border.

Tim Stenhouse

Joe Williams ‘That Kind of Woman’ / ‘Sentimental and Melancholy’ (Poll Winners) 4/5

joe-williamsBorn in Georgia, but moving to Chicago with his mother and grandmother at the tender age of three, a city with which the singer will forever be associated, Joe Williams began singing professionally as a soloist in 1937 when he was just nineteen years old. While most associated with both the Basie band and accompanying big bands, singer Joe Williams was a versatile musician who could adapt his sound to different contexts and so it proves on this pairing of albums that showcases above all else his balladry skills and therefore departs from his more famous recordings of the blues. The first album is probably the pick of the two and a personal favourite is a lightly swinging version of ‘Candy’ that Lee Morgan recorded a superb instrumental take of on a late 1950s Blue Note album. There is a slight Latin undercurrent to the percussion on ‘Day by Day’. possibly influenced here by Nat King Cole and his pair of Cuban albums. In general the music functions best when the rhythm section have to work up a sweat and this occurs on ‘For all we know’ with the subtle use of horns and additional flute. Indeed the rhythm section swings gently on ‘Love is the sweetest thing’ with Williams stretching the words and with impeccable phrasing. Joe Williams covers the whole range of the Great American Songbook here and in this case that means composers of the calibre of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, New Washington while even more contemporary writing duos of the time such as Bacharach and David are deployed to useful effect on the title track to ‘That kind of woman’. There is just enough variety in the tempi to keep the listener occupied throughout, but for long-time followers of Joe Williams this CD provides the opportunity to hear him in a slightly different light. A well presented inner sleeve provides a Downbeat review by Ralph Gleason, black and white photos of conductor Jimmy Jones and Joe Williams, full original album cover sleeve facsimiles. Quality music.

Tim Stenhouse