Wes Montgomery ‘One Night in Indy’ CD/12″ Ltd Edition (Resonance) 4/5

wes-montgomeryModern jazz giant and guitarist Wes Montgomery has already been the subject of a previous Resonance issue in 2015 with ‘In the beginning: 1949-1958’. This new release takes the story one year forward to a live recording from January 1959 at the Indianapolis Jazz Club (IJC). Backed by a local trio of leader Eddie Higgins on piano, Walter Perkins on drums and an unknown bassist, this is a welcome first issue that showcases six standards including Ellington and Monk. Higgins is clearly a disciple of Errol Garner, but a distinguished performer nonetheless. Unlike some of the issues by Resonance, this is a no-frills presented album. However, the music is strong enough in its own right to warrant a first issue and the genesis behind the music being discovered is that the tapes were in the possession of photojournalist Duncan Schiedt who co-owned the original jazz club.
While no rediscovery could ever compete with the superlative live ‘Smokin’ at the Half Note’ which is the definitive Wes Montgomery live recording, this 1959 date is surprisingly good with a clear, crisp quality sound and Montgomery is immediately recognisable from the outset. It begins with a lovely relaxed, extended jam on ‘Give me the simple life’ which comes across as the kind of soundtrack that French film director Jacques Tati might have utilised whereas he ups a gear on the leisurely mid-tempo rendition of ‘You’d be so nice to come home to’. This is a number that weighs in at just under three minutes, a harbinger, perhaps, of his later period work on A&M/CTI. A blues-inflected piano intro to ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ places the focus firmly on Higgins and he proves well up to the task. While the extra slow reading of Neal Hefti’s, ‘Li’l Darling’ sounds slightly odd, the gentle, understated interpretation of Monk’s ‘Ruby my dear’ adds new meaning to the composition. The only pity is that there is not a greater balance between tempi with the emphasis mainly on the balladry work of Wes. That said, it makes for a fuller picture of the musician and works a treat as a parallel album to ‘The incredible jazz guitar of Wes Montgomery’.

Tim Stenhouse

Maze featuring Frankie Beverly ‘Maze Live in New Orleans’ / ‘Maze Live in Los Angeles’ 2CD (Robinsong/Cherry Red) 5/5

maze-frankie-beverlyThe early 1980s was a transformative period for soul music and a smoother production sound was on the way in. One group that bucked the general trend and carved out their own path was Maze with Frankie Beverly in the lead vocalist role. This unbeatable value for money package pairs up the quintessential Maze album, ‘Maze live in New Orleans’, with a second live album from five years later in Los Angeles. Thankfully, there is virtually no overlap between the choice of songs and therefore the listener can appreciate a wider range of the Maze songbook that commences in the late 1970s and spans a decade through to the mid-1980s. The music is evenly divided up on separate CDs and need to be listened to on different occasions to fully take in the quality of the musicianship.
Maze were at their absolute peak on the New Orleans recording and from the very beginning, this performance captures a very special concert. With the opener, ‘You’, the band enter into a jam session feel and there is the sense from the listener’s perspective that you are straight into the concert proper and experiencing the moment live in person. Maze were a stunning live band, arguably stronger than in a studio setting and this is exemplified by the thrilling reading of the funk-tinged, ‘Southern girl’. Melodicism is the order of the day on ‘Happy feelin’ with a guitar riff that would not be out-of-place on a George Benson album, while the vocal harmonies sound as though they were directly influenced by Earth, Wind and Fire. That is without factoring in the mellifluous vocals of one Frankie Beverly who is a towering influence on the band, both as the lead man and as a gifted songwriter. His close and intimate rapport with the audience comes across on the extended riffs and direct involvement with the crowd on, ‘Feel what you’re feelin’ which has a fabulous mid-tempo groove.

Pride of place, however, must go to the definitive version of ‘Joy and pain’ and so compelling a rendition was this that it was released in all its glory as a 12″ single in the UK. Side four of the original double album was actually new material recorded in the studio and of these new numbers, ‘Before I let you go’ is by far the strongest and upon release in the US reached a respectable number thirteen slot in the R& B chart.

How do you follow an album as near to perfection as ‘Live in New Orleans’? By waiting another five years, assembling a new set of material from subsequent albums and then working hard to perfect those songs in a live setting. Only two songs were repeated from the New Orleans recording on the 1986, ‘Live in Los Angeles’ double album. In the meantime the group had recorded arguably their strongest ever studio album in ‘We are one’ and this forms the backdrop to much of the new live recording. A fine interpretation of their 1985 top five R & B hit, ‘Too many games’ was typical Maze terrain in a down home mid-tempo funky vein that suits their sound down to the ground. A stunning ‘We are one’ complete with dramatic intro before settling into a relaxed groove first equals then improves upon the original with another of those fabulous guitar riffs while it sounds as though Beverly is enjoying every second on stage while ad-libbing on ‘Back in stride’.

Extensive notes by soul music connoisseur and journalist Charles Waring round off a terrific package. If you want to know what the very best of early-mid 1980s soul sounded like, then this is as good a starting place as any alongside some Bobby Womack and Anita Baker. With hindsight what is particularly impressive about the Maze sound is that it managed largely to avoid the slickness of a lot of soul music from the same period, even if by the second recording elements of glossy instrumentation were slowly creeping in. Full marks to Robinsong for finally putting out these two recordings together.

Tim Stenhouse

Preston Glasgow Lowe ‘Preston-Glasgow-Lowe’ CD (Whirlwind Recordings) 4/5

PrintDavid Preston, guitar, Kevin Glasgow, bass, and Laurie Lowe, drums, are three of London’s most creative young instrumentalists. Their eponymous debut album draws on a heady mix of jazz and rock influences, resulting in a set of thrilling and unique compositions, performed with relentless energy and intricate skill. All three musicians have cut their teeth on the live circuit, with guitarist Preston having worked with the likes of Melody Gardot, Martin Taylor, Curtis Stigers and Zhenya Strigalev, bassist Glasgow with Tommy Smith, Tim Garland, Clark Tracey and Asaf Sirkis, and drummer Lowe with Gilad Atzmon, Nicolas Meier, Dave O’Higgins and Andy Sheppard. Clearly a good foundation then for this exciting trio of musicians. Working together since 2012, the threesome have steadily honed their own particular style of complex riffs and thunderous rhythms complete with subtle, low-level electronics and overdubs. From listening to this album, one does get the impression that the performers share a close, creative connection. As David Preston comments; “For me, the trio format is one of the most interesting, with its opportunities and challenges to either create or fill space; so it’s always exciting to get together with like-minded musicians analysing what you want to explore so you can answer that question as thoroughly and honestly as you can.”

The album opens with a flurry of invention on “Colour Possesses”, a startling introduction to the music of this trio. It’s an opening number that truly lays down a marker, an exclamation of intent. Evolving, multi layered guitars shimmer with life as the bass and drums conjoin to add fuel to the fire on this spirited, uplifting piece of music. The brilliant interplay continues on “Elephant and Castle”. Most notably on this tune there are high-speed resonating guitar runs, equally met by fluid, evolving bass lines; all very quick and all very sharp. Reminiscent perhaps of when Pat Metheny recorded with Jaco Pastorious, even the sound and feel of this track takes me back to Metheny’s “Bright Size Life”. Personally I enjoyed the jazzier tunes presented here, and as the album progresses, as good as Preston’s incredible technique and guitar pyrotechnics are, the rockier, more ‘showy’ elements have much less authority and creative ‘feel’ to them for this listener. There’s some interesting and complex writing going on, with the powerful “Everything Is Everything” and the hypnotic “The Priory” with the trio at times taking time to individually impress, and at other times colliding head-on, their collective colours and textures rising to the surface in style. There’s a prog-rock feel to some of the tunes, especially through the middle section of the recording, with guitarist Robert Fripp just one who springs to mind, as the tunes lead up to a three-part suite entitled “Within You”. The trio’s versatility and virtuosic skill can be heard clearly throughout this suite. It’s on music like this that we really get a sense of how good this trio can be. Oscillating guitars, articulate drums and intricate bass all combine beautifully as the music weaves, twists and turns, in many directions. There’s subtlety, there’s grace, and there’s excitement. The variation on the themes are exceptional, especially prevalent in the subtleties of Part 2 and the Metheny/Etheridge/Abercrombie overtones of Part 3.

A very promising debut from Preston, Glasgow and Lowe. Rich in intensity and spellbinding in parts, there’s obviously much more to come from this exciting trio.
The band are currently rounding off a UK tour, but there’s still time to catch them live at Ronnie Scott’s on the 4th and 5th May (supporting Simon Phillips).

Mike Gates

Isley Brothers ‘Masterpiece’ / ‘Smooth Sailin’ 2CD (Robinsong/Cherry Red) 3/5

isley-brothersAfter the major success of the ‘Between the sheets’ album in 1983, the Isley Brothers underwent a period of significant internal unrest, resulting in the unthinkable. After decades together a split occurred between rival factions. The founding members of the group remained and these included Ronald, Rudolph and O’Kelly Isley. A second, breakaway group formed comprising brother-in-law Chris Jasper, Ernie and Marvin Isley. While the latter enjoyed immediate success in the UK with a hit single, ‘Caravan of Love’ the former went through a transitional phase in their illustrious career and it is these two sides that are the primary focus of attention on this re-issue. Both date from the mid-1980s when technological changes in the instrumentation deployed meant synths and drum machines were the new norm. Unfortunately for groups with a distinctive sound such as the Isleys adapting to this new reality proved to be an uncomfortable experience and the first album showcased here is a pretty non-descript effort from a production perspective and even their glorious voice harmonies are only just recognisable amid the excessively glossy hi-tech sound. Rising above the below average material is a song by Skip Scarborough, ‘My best was good enough’. In fairness, there were still some top session musicians on board such as several of the Quincy Jones horn section lead by Jerry Hey as well as veteran arranger Gene Page. In comparison to its predecessor, ‘Masterpiece’ from 1985 fared poorly only securing the lower echelons of the Billboard top two hundred. A single, ‘Colder are my nights’, nestled outside the top ten of the R & B charts and is an above average song, though nothing on a par with the Isley classics of old.

However, the musical quality brightens up considerably on the second offering from 1987, ‘Masterpiece’, and this was in no short part due to the non-negligible contribution of singer-songwriter Angela Winbush, formerly of Rene and Angela, and now Mrs. Ronald Isley. Groove ballads were now the flavour of the day and Winbush composed some excellent material at the same time as releasing a stunning solo debut, ‘Sharp’, in the same year. The title track of ‘Smooth Sailin’ became a number three R & B hit and this time round the Isleys distinctive harmonies were given a subtle, yet nonetheless modern update that long-time fans both recognised and appreciated. A reprise of a Rene and Angela tune, ‘Come my way’, became a second single and integrates into the cohesive whole of the album concept. It is in fact the slower ballads that work best of all and ‘Send a message’ revealed a return to form of sorts. Detailed inner sleeve notes come courtesy of Mojo journalist and soul music aficionado Charles Waring.

Tim Stenhouse

Phronesis ‘Parallax’ LP/CD/DIG (Edition) 4/5

phronesis“Parallax” is the 6th album from the Scandinavian/British jazz trio. Formed in 2005 by Danish double bass player Jasper Hoiby, their charismatic and unburdened approach to music making has seen the band receive much critical acclaim, including a 2014 MOBO Award nomination. Alongside Hoiby, pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger have successfully fashioned their own style and sound, with the threesome gaining an enviable following from jazz circles and beyond. Their energy and focussed direction are rarely matched, with their live performances in particular marking them out as something special. Parallels can be made with the course chartered by the Swedish trio EST; perhaps in more ways than one. When EST first broke onto the European jazz scene, there was something fresh, bright and bold about the trio. They wowed jazz audiences with their energy, technical brilliance, and emotive journeying into the depths of the music they performed, seemingly relishing the task of unleashing surprises alongside a tight, melodic lyricism, unafraid of taking chances. And much the same could be said of Phronesis; daring to be bold and shining brightly with musical brilliance. A trio in the truest of senses, where all three musicians are equals, all of equal importance to the dynamic and development of the music being made over a number of years. Up until the extremely sad and untimely death of pianist Esbjorn Svensson, EST toured and recorded year in, year out, and although, in my opinion, they never really made a ‘weak’ album, the element of surprise and audaciousness gradually waned… or at least appeared to, if only because we, the listeners, became familiar with their sound. I’m sure that the music itself was none the less startling, but we kind of knew what to expect. And this, perhaps, is where we are at with Phronesis. “Parallax” is an excellent album, with the trio continuing to astound at times, but it is perhaps becoming a little familiar. Too much of a good thing maybe? Who knows. Are they still making brilliant music? Are they still intergalactically interconnected in their interplay? Are they still full of energy and entertainment? Yes to all of the above.

Nine original compositions begin with the aptly titled “67,000 MPH”. Sparks fly from the off on this single day Abbey Road session. The characteristic sound of Eger’s unrelentingly energetic and inventive drumming is well matched by the muscular and angular bass playing of Hoiby, and the rhythmically darting diversity of pianist Neame. It’s like they’re on a mission and nothing, absolutely nothing is going to stand in their way. “OK Chorale” is a gunfight of mighty proportions, bullets ricocheting from one instrument to another. Hoiby’s luscious bowed bass leads the listener into “Stillness”, one of the deepest and most rewarding pieces of music on the album, a glowing example of how well the trio work together and are able to develop a tune from beginning to end. Whilst “A Kite For Seamus” has an edgy romanticism to it, “Just 4 Now” has a stop-start feel to it, lavish in its independent spirit. “Ayu” is filled with intrigue, prodding and probing as it journeys on with its killer bass lines, percussive piano and driving drums. Two of my favourite tracks come towards the end of the recording. The first is “A Silver Moon”, with a melodic beauty and softer touch. A nice change of pace, expertly performed by the trio. The second is the quirky “Manioc Maniac”, an off kilter blues given the Phronesis treatment, bold and mouth-wateringly enigmatic. The album closes with “Rabat”, an oddly infectious folk tune turned jazz/rock anthem.

And so the trio journey on, producing high quality music to an ever-increasing audience. And although one could argue apt use of the phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, might one also dare to suggest that there comes a time when something slightly different would be welcomed? A change of pace or a diversion along a different path perhaps? Who’s to say. For now, at least, we have another very good album to enjoy.

Mike Gates

Herbie Hancock feat. Jaco Pastorius ‘Live in Chicago 1977’ LP/CD (Hi Hat) 2/5

hancock-pastoriusHerbie Hancock is one of those rare musicians who has managed to maintain a level of critical and commercial success, whilst demonstrating adaptability and embracing new technologies.
As a teenager, in the 80’s, my first exposure to Herbie’s music was through “Rockit”, which at the time sounded mind-blowing with its futuristic blend of scratching, heavy beats and spaced out keys. However it’s the 70’s and those great electric jazz funk, starting with Mwandishi through to the more commercial fusion sounds on Sunlight, that really hit home for me. As a result I tend to overlook the Blue Note era although anthems like “Maiden Voyage” (featured here) were regularly updated and re-interpreted.
This recording was made by local radio station WXRT-FM of a concert at Ivanhoe Theater in Chicago, on 16 February 1977, and has been available as a bootleg for some time.
In fact, searching through blogosphere, it appears that there are lots of bootleg recordings of Herbie Hancock from this period, with very few live dates getting official releases. This intense interest in live recording is also evident in Jaco Pastorius’s musical estate, although many more of these were released posthumously.
Hancock and Pastorius had played together before; on the legendary bassist’s debut solo album, but at this time he was still a part of Weather Report. The quartet is made up of Hancock’s long time collaborator and fellow Headhunter, Bennie Maupin playing Soprano/Tenor Sax and Lyricon, that strange wind synthesizer, and James Levi on drums.

The group performs three Hancock songs, the Headhunters classic ”Chameleon”, “Hang up your Hang Ups” from the Man Child Album, and the evergreen “Maiden Voyage”. “It Remains to be Seen” is the exception, composed by Benny Maupin.

To be honest I have a number of issues with this release. Firstly it’s apparent that the recording is not the whole of the concert and with a running time under 45 minutes is disappointing in terms of value for money, if nothing else.

The recording itself is OK, although there are points where feedback, clipping and flutter are distracting.

As for the music itself, with the exception of “Maiden Voyage” the tracks are extended jams over funky beats. The opening tune “Chameleon” features interplay between Hancock with Pastorius, taking it in turns to riff over that familiar bass line. For me it struggles when held up to the original, the fluency and melody of the album version missing in this stripped down version, especially in the second half.

Bennie Maupin blows pretty hard on “Hang Up Your Hang Ups”, on what would be my favourite track if sound issues did not get in the way. The tempo is dropped for “Maiden Voyage”, which again focuses on the musical chops of Messrs. Hancock and Pastorius. It’s pleasant enough in a slightly loose, improvised way. “It Remains to be Seen” is the funkiest tune in the set but not the most memorable.

This release will be of interest if you are an avid collector of Herbie Hancock or Jaco Pastorius and adds to a fairly limited set of live recordings of the former, but struggles to offer much else.

Andy Hazell

Various ‘Gilles Peterson – Magic Peterson Sunshine’ 2LP/CD (MPS/Edsel) 4/5

gillesThe MPS label out of the Bavarian Black Forest was that most esoteric of labels, but the personal attachment and involvement of its founder meant all manner of jazz musicians, European, American, and others were able to record under optimum recording conditions. DJ Gilles Peterson has regularly trawled the label’s archives and on this occasion has unearthed some gems with discoveries aplenty alongside the established winners. The album starts with an atmospheric opener, layered textures and a hint of the East on ‘Dew’ by Don Ellis, who constantly played around with time signatures. A feature of this compilation are the delightful short vignettes that regularly feature and this adds a lovely personal touch that makes the music flow all the more easily. Pedro Iturralde was a vastly underrated Spanish saxophone player and his ‘Jazz Flamenco’ (not to be confused with a separate duet of albums, ‘Jazz Flamenco’ volumes one and two) recording from 1967 was a major innovation and featured a then young Paco de Lucia who would go on to become the major flamenco guitarist of the second half of the twentieth century and cross stylistic boundaries in the same way that Miles Davis did. Here, a reworking of classical composer Manuel de Falla’s ‘Cancion del Fuego Fatuo’ is transformed into a modal work with bass and piano in unison on the main theme riff, while the drums hint at Elvin Jones. Masterly. In stark contrast, the Singers Unlimited are prime examples of elegant vocalese and here offer up some tasty wordless ad-libs that are not without recalling Brazilian MPB harmony group MPB 4. North African flavours are evoked via an extremely hard to find album from George Gruntz, ‘Nemeit’, with the flute excursion, ‘Night in Tunis’, just the kind of number that Roland Kirk might have contributed to. A major
bonus on CD only is the inclusion of John Taylor with his trio and ‘White magic’. Taylor was at the beginning of an understated career and one that requires a dedicated record company at some point to cut across labels and produce an authoritative anthology of his work. This flowing, expansive number is a listening joy to behold and an undoubted album highlight. If left-field grooves are your forte, then the little known Jonny Teupen with his ‘Harp revolution’ will fit the bill admirably and this is a bop-inflected piece with avant-garde harp plucking and trumpet that stands out from the rest. unlike either Dorothy Ashby, or Alice Coltrane. Big bands are certainly not forgotten and a Jimmy Heath composition, ‘Big P’, from the Modern Jazz group Freiburg works a treat with a lovely melodic main theme riff from saxophone and trumpet. In between, the Orchester Kovac offer up a brief treat in the brief rendition of ‘Service 1’.

Key American musicians who were picked up by MPS included Mark Murphy and Mary Lou Williams and both are showcased here. For the latter, an outing with the Clarke-Boland band resulted in a stunning number, ‘Why and how?’, and this has long been a jazz dance favourite. For the more reflective jazz fan, ‘It ain’t necessarily so’, is a wonderful skeletal version of the Gershwin classic and Williams is on top form throughout. French jazz was, on occasion, explored on the MPS label and, in Hammond organist Eddie Louiss, this was not necessarily of the standard soul-jazz variety. In a trio setting, along with drummer Daniel Humair, ‘Out of the sorcellary’ is a piece that well and truly drives in intensity. Louiss recorded among others with Stan Getz. An excellent overview of the MPS label in general, then and full marks to Gilles Peterson for offering such a wide-minded selection. Perhaps some Barney Wilen could be included in a future edition?

01: Don Ellis – Dew
02: Mary Lou Williams – It Ain’t Necessarily So
03: Johnny Teupen – Harp Revolution
04: Petro Iturralde Feat Paco De Lucia
05: Gunther Hampel – Our Chant
06: George Gruntz – Nemeit
07: Orchestra Roland Kovac – Service 1
08: Third Wave – Love Train
09: Singers Unlimited – Stone Ground Seven
10: Eddie Louiss – Out Of The Sorcellery
11: John Taylor Trio – White Magic (CD Bonus Track)
12: Modern Jazz Group Freiburg – Big P
13: Francy Boland – Lillemor
14: Mark Murphy – Why And How
15: Wolfgang Lauth & Hermann Impertos – Denn Liebe Ist Stark Wie Der Tod
16: Wolfgang Dauner – Love In Summer

Tim Stenhouse

Silbongile Khumalo ‘Breath of Life’ DIG/CD (Private Press) 4/5

sibongile-khumaloMany people will associate South African jazz with the exiles that found success in Europe and the US away from the repressive apartheid regime – of the likes of Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba and Letta Mbulu or the more avant players, Johnny Dyani, Chris McGregor, Dudu Pakwana or Louis Moholo.
Not all jazz musicians left South Africa during this era and subsequent generations got to see the end of apartheid. However it feels like this generation, of the likes of Sibongile Khumalo, Zim Ngqawana, Bheki Mseleku and Feya Faku, rather slip under the radar in terms of international attention.
So “Breath of Life”, Khumalo’s 8th album is my first experience of a singer who is already an established name in South Africa. She is a multi-award winning artist whose music spans indigenous South African as well as western musical forms.
It’s 7 years since her last album a delay that Khumalo puts down to practical difficulties in terms of funding and releasing an album independently and artistically to having a cohesive message to deliver.
The theme underlying the album is healing, not just on a personal level, but also in terms of relationships with others, and as an inspirational message to South Africans to come together to do better. The lyrics are written by Khumalo and co-produced with long time collaborator Mduduzo Mtshali (piano/keyboards) who, along with drummer Sabu Satsha and electric bassist Cheka Mthethwa, make up her regular trio. Additional support is provided by pianist Paul Hamner, guitarist Themba Mokoena and Khumalo’s daughter, Ayanda on backing vocals.

The result is a really strong collection of songs imbued with spirituality and inspiration. Vocally my reference points would be Carmen Lundy, Anita Baker maybe even Linda Tillery. It’s a classic style of singing influenced not only by her classical, operatic background, but also choral traditions and the jazz greats. Each word is lovingly embraced and extolled in a sophisticated and powerful (but not overpowering) way. Credit also should be given to her musicians, and in particular Mdu Mtshali, who provide the perfect melodic and rhythmic support.

The title track, “Breath of Life”, a gospel-tinged number, is also the album’s highlight for me. Inspired by a melody Khumalo created whilst trying to sing a lullaby to her grandson, the lyrics testify to her devotion. This nurturing love builds to the point it becomes wordless, spurred on by the band.

Khumalo wrote the lyrics for the gentle, township ballad “Sula Izinyembezi” (Wipe Your Tears) to compliment an original Paul Hamner composition, written about the brutal murder of his friend, McCoy Mrabata’s, daughter.

“Out of the Mist” is a wordless evocation, which serves as an opportunity to take stock and submerse yourself in Khumalo’s pitch perfect intonation.

“Warriors of Peace” is another inspirational hymn, to all of those brave enough to stand up for their convictions and seek a better world. The album is rounded off with a reading of a poem written by Don Mattera, “This Land, South of Africa” accompanied by Mtshali’s piano; a fitting statement of the love that Khumalo has for her native country.

I recently found out that Khumalo performed at last year’s London Jazz Festival alongside fellow powerhouses Gloria Bosman and Thandiswa Mazwai (who also has a jazz album coming out soon). Had I known then what I know now I would have been first in the queue.

Andy Hazell

Michel Benita / Ethics ‘River Silver’ CD (ECM) 5/5

michel-benita-ethicsThe name of bassist Michel Benita will be unfamiliar to most, but in reality his has been a lengthy low key career, mainly within his native France, but increasingly cosmopolitan in character from the mid-1990s onwards with distinguished collaborations along the way.

Benita’s early career began in his mid-twenties in the 1980s and in 1986 he was spotted by the new leader of the Orchestre National de Jazz, François Jeanneau, and became a member of that that many of the new talents to emerge on the French jazz scene. A year later he formed his own quartet with Italian drummer Aldo Romano (the beginning of a long-term collaboration), tenorist Dewey Redman and another Italian, pianist Rita Marcotulli. Collectively they recorded two well received albums for the now defunct French indie label, Label Bleu. By the mid-1990s a new quartet, Quartet Palatino, had been created with Romano the sole survivor. This new group included the exciting Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and Glenn Ferris and was the entry point for this writer to Benita’s maturing talent. Three CDs followed in succession. Further collaborations with guitarist Marc Ducret included trio and tentet formats. By 2000 a new trio had been formed, this time with Pete Erskine and French guitarist Nguyen Lè and two albums in 2000 and 2008 were the result. Electro-jazz albums were recorded with Swiss trumpeter Erik Truffaz in the early noughties and an unlikely hooking up with luxury brand Hermès facilitated a recording with the Newance quartet in 2004. British jazz fans will probably be most familiar with the 2012 collaboration with Andy Sheppard and Sebastian Rochford as part of Trio Libero.

Thus Michel Benita’s debut for ECM as a leader is no immediate happening, but rather the fruit of a long and varied musical journey. All the more reason, then, to celebrate a superlative offering that, in character, is something of a twenty-first century update on those classic Kenny Wheeler ECM albums from the mid-1970s, albeit with a deeply French sensitivity, very ably assisted by wonderful flugelhorn playing of Matthieu Michel, and going further still by including elements of world roots music via the participation of Japanese koto player, Mieko Miyazaki. Scandinavian participation comes in the shape of guitarist and various electronica performer Eivind Aarest while Philippe Garcia provides sensitive percussive support on drums. It was recorded at what is proving to be ECM’s very own second home in southern Europe, in Lugano, Switzerland.

From the opening piece to the very end, this recording has a maturity and melodicism that cries out classic and nothing is at all rushed. This is where ECM is at its very best in the quietly introspective, deeply melodic strand of music. The brooding opener, ‘Back from the moon’, sets the scene immaculately with a modal bass line from the leader, shades of Alice Coltrane on the harp from the koto and a gorgeous flugelhorn solo from Michel that commences with the quasi-tone of a flute. A stunning way to begin proceedings and a major highlight on the album as a whole. Another favourite is the exquisite composition by Miyazakai, ‘Hacihi Gatasu’, with a wonderful duet throughout between bass and koto, two instruments that complement each other perfectly. More of this, please! Competing for first place in the execution of pieces is the stunningly understated, Toonari’, which has a refined and subtle Latin meets Far Eastern undercurrent concealed just under the surface. Finishing off matters with aplomb is a sumptuous duet between koto and bass on the intro to ‘Snowed in’ before flugelhorn organically enters with a solo of great delicacy.

Michel Benita is no Young Turk, but rather a seasoned performer with a clear vision of what he seeks to achieve. That he has so magnificently succeeded is testimony to his powers as both a leader and individual musician. A candidate for new album of the year.

Tim Stenhouse

Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith ‘A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke’ (ECM) 4/5

vijay-iyer-wadada-leo-smithTrumpet and piano duos are rare on the ground and this particular collaboration is even more curious because it groups together musicians from vastly different backgrounds and even different centuries. Wadada Leo Smith was one of the post-Coltrane generation that emerged in the late-1960s when the avant-garde was trying to figure out where they went next after the passing of the titan tenorist. Smith was an integral part of the seminal recording by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), ‘Three compositions of jazz’ that surfaced from the underground Chicago jazz scene. His association with ECM, however, dates from a decade later when he recorded with Lester Bowie on the 1978 album, ‘Divine Love’. His first solo album for the label fast forwards to 1992 with ‘Kulture Jazz’.
Vijay Iyer has rightly gained a reputation as one of the leading pianists of his generation and very much a child of the twenty-first century, inter-weaving acoustic and electronic sounds, and recording in a variety of settings. Most recently for ECM he has recorded with strings and trio. This first recorded collaboration with Smith has as its centrepiece a seven-part suite that is dedicated to the Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi who passed away in 1990 at the age of sixty-three. Interestingly, the music comes across like a cross between solo Miles Davis circa 1965 and a pianist with avant-garde leanings. Parallels with Miles are at their most obvious and convincing on Part two of the suite, ‘All becomes alive’, with Smith blowing an impassioned and at times frenetic solo while there are some lovely meanderings from Iyer. This is equally the second longest number at just over nine minutes. Elsewhere, pieces such as ‘Labyrinth’ are much freer in character and Iyer sounds as though he has been influenced by Cecil Taylor. Trumpet comes to the fore on Part four, ‘A divine courage’, which is a kind of minimalist ballad with the subtle use of electronics by Iyer including a bass-like synthesizer line while the sheer beauty of Smith’s clear tone makes for a thrilling contrast. Dissonant piano greets the listener on Part five, ‘Uncut emeralds’, and on this uptempo piece Smith really opens up on trumpet. A final piece, ‘Marian Anderson’. is a heartfelt tribute to the singer and prominent civil rights activist, Marian Anderson. Not easy listening by any means and far more geared towards the melodic end of free jazz than anything remotely spiritual. That said. the pairing does work and hearing a trumpet in this pared down environment is a joy to behold.

Tim Stenhouse