If one had to capture the underlying mood of this latest album from trumpeter Ralph Alessi, then it would probably contain adjectives such as reflective and meditative. It is the second album on ECM, following up Alessi’s debut album, ‘Baida’, from 2013. The one major difference is in the absence of pianist Jason Moran, replaced this time round by Gary Versace. The latter does not partake in the same amount of soloing and that is one of the album’s shortcomings.
Unquestionably, Ralph Alessi is a technically gifted musician. However, there is something about the melancholy nature of this recording that leaves this reviewer in particular cold and it is certainly somewhat lacking in soulfulness. If anything the sound created is a tad too clean and the album as a whole would benefit greatly from a wider variety of tempi. Only on the end track, ‘Do over’ does the pace become anything near frenetic and even that composition is way too short in length and there are simply not enough examples of this kind overall. That said, there is something to admire on the soloing of a piece such as ‘I to I’. Post-bop hues emerge on ‘Smooth descent’ which is the nearest the rest of the album gets to mustering energetic enthusiasm
Fans of Kenny Wheeler and the melancholic late 1950s Miles will find much to admire in the work of Ralph Alessi. It is pity, then, that we come away with a somewhat one-dimensional view of the trumpeter on this occasion. Something of a missed opportunity.
It is impossible to ignore the depth of history that lies within this trio recording. 50 years ago, as a young drummer sitting in with John Coltrane’s group, with bassist Jimmy Garrison, Jack DeJohnette played with the fathers of both Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison. For “In Movement”, this trio’s first recording together, DeJohnette, Coltrane and Garrison touch upon multiple legacies, bringing new life and a free spirit to some classic tunes and new compositions. And although it may well be their histories that initially drew them together as a trio, it is their open minded approach to 21st century music making that comes across in the recording itself. The album features DeJohnette on drums, piano and electronic percussion, Coltrane on tenor, soprano and sopranino saxophones, and Garrison on electric bass and electronics. DeJohnette says of his trio partners; “We are connected at a very high, extremely personal level that I believe comes through in the music.” With the iconic drummer having served as something of a second father to Garrison, and having mentored Coltrane at length, it should come as little surprise that they enjoy an innate chemistry, wonderful in its alluring, cohesive sound. “In Movement” is produced by Manfred Eicher and bares all the trademarks of ECM’s intensely beautiful sound quality that over the years listeners have come to expect.
The session begins in a strong, powerful way. “Alabama” was written by John Coltrane as a response to the 1963 white-supremacist terror bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist church. The emotional pull and intensity of this tune is captured perfectly by the trio, providing the listener with a performance that stands out as not only one of the finest pieces of music on this album, but quite possibly also as one of the highlights of DeJohnette’s long, illustrious career. The drummer’s playing throughout the recording is exemplary, but it is on this track in particular that Coltrane’s soul-searching, ethereal tenor sax, combined with Garrison’s intelligent, spacious and thrilling bass and electronics, work together as a whole in formidable style, creating a uniquely impassioned sound. There’s a tension to “In Movement”‘ the title track, that gradually releases as the trio wind up to fever pitch, with Garrison’s bass lines richly rewarding as it develops into a fuzz-tastic energy that is mirrored by Coltrane’s driving, impassioned soprano sax and DeJohnette’s fiery, yet often sensitive, drums and percussion. The mood is dark, and with an Eastern flavoured backdrop created by the subtle use of electronics, “Two Jimmy’s” weaves a magical spell of its own, drums and bass combining with such skill and virtuosity, one can feel the energy in the room. The mood lightens from this point on, which is fine of course, but the album seems to lose its way a little. The individual performances are still pretty stunning, but there’s not such an intensity to the music which the trio appear to thrive on. The classic “Blue In Green” employs a sparseness that works very well with DeJohnette at the piano and Coltrane’s poignant soprano filling the air with its lyrical warmth. The trio’s Earth Wind and Fire cover “Serpentine Fire” gives room for the threesome to stretch out and flex their musical muscles, whilst DeJohnette’s “Lydia”, a tune dedicated to his wife, successfully evokes a mood of thoughtful reverence and quiet beauty. “Rashied” is more upbeat, but personally I find it difficult to listen past the high pitched sound of the sopranino sax, not one of my favourite instruments. The album ends on a high note with “Soulful Ballad”, a gorgeous piece of music.
Musing upon the studio experience with Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, DeJohnette says; “I’m inspired by what we did- we got into some amazing sonic grooves. It’s a continuation, a moving of our music forward- music that’s not locked into any one genre. I know I haven’t heard any combination like this. There’s the past, the present and the future in what we’re doing.” And that for me sums it up well.
Contemporary blues can be a linguistic nightmare for some with so many different and contrasting styles, but in the extremely capable hands of multi-guitarist and lead vocalist Neal Black and rhythm guitarist Larry Garner, this extremely varied album does a de facto A-Z of the sub genres of the idiom without the listener having to even break into a sweat. Both musicians hail form the southern States and have a fine grasp of the rootsier approach to the blues, with Black a Texan while Garner originates from that fine state of Louisiana, both states dripping wet in the blues heritage.
The album sub-divides into several styles, but it is in the amalgamation of genres where/that the music impresses most of all. This is exemplified on a wonderful number such as ‘Chances’ where country-folk blues and gospel interweave and maybe this is something the duo might want to explore in greater depth on subsequent albums. Soul-blues is another domain in which the pair excel and one can hear something of a Robert Cray influence on both the terrific ‘Back at it again’ and the opener, ‘God Today’, where the throaty delivery of Black conjurs up Greg Allman in his prime. In particular this reviewer enjoyed the rapport between Hammond organ and the catchy guitar licks.
If it is a raunchier blues-rock that you are searching for, then ‘Better Days’ is sure to fit the bill with some fine acoustic piano from Mike Lattrell while in a more reflective vein, ‘Bad things, good people’, features some deep vocalising from Black. Arguably the strongest track on the whole album is the heavy bassline intro plus electric guitar accompaniment to the mean and moody, ‘Do not stand at my grave’, with two male lead vocalists for good measure. Rounding off a fine cross-selection of the blues is the uptempo repeated Hammond and guitar licks oriented hues of ‘Guilty’ with a melody that linger long on the mind. Recorded in the south of France, the recording has a relaxed feel throughout and includes the participation of fine French blues musicians in accordionist Christophe Duvernet and drummer Jean-Michael Tallet. As ever with DixieFrog releases, excellent presentation with a gatefold sleeve and full lyrics inside.
One of the all-time great European jazz albums was recorded in the mid-1960s by Swedish pianist, Jan Johansson, ‘Jazz på Svensk’ (‘Swedish Jazz’) whose life was tragically cut short in his prime and this and other Johansson recordings of the 1960s have been reviewed in this column previously. However, this excellent tribute truly does his work justice and brings a contemporary touch to matters while retaining the simple and beautiful melodies of the original compositions. It was actually recorded as part of the Ystad Sweden Jazz festival and if the town’s name rings a bell, then it is most likely to be connected to the various Wallender detective series which were set in this sleepy abode. Aiding the jazz musicians are the Bonfiglioli Weber String Quartet and their participation is wholly in keeping with the cross-genre approach that Johansson himself advocated.
In fact the original album alluded to was a duet between the pianist and bassist Georg Riedel, and Lundgren and company have done well in allowing the new versions to retain the intimate feel that permeated the very first readings with bassist Mattias Svensson being his principal collaborator in arms. The music of Jan Johansson was characterised by simple, yet beautiful melodies, and he should have become a major international figure. This homage contains elements of Swedish, Russian and Hungarian folk melodies, and interestingly it is the Russian ones on offer that impress the most. A light, swinging mid-tempo number such as ‘Kvällar i Moskvas förstäder’ has something of an Oscar Peterson influence in its execution while the haunting melody of ‘På ängen stod en björk’ repeats a gorgeous piano riff to stunning effect. In a slightly more uplifting and indeed playful mood, ‘Det vore synd att dö än’, comes across as a prototype Scandinavian tango with plucked strings conveying the exuberant feeling of downtown nocturnal Buenos Aires. In various places, the influence of Bach can be felt and heard and this is certainly the case on a piece such as the blues-inflected ‘Visa från Utanmyra’.
Stylistically, Lundgren is deeply rooted in the Jan Johansson tradition and the absence of any percussion frees up the pianist and bassist, and this in turn creates something of a floating sensation to the music with the subtle and restrained use of strings. The homage in fact serves as another tribute to a figure in Swedish jazz, namely flugelhorn and trumpter Bengt-Arne Wallin who passed away in 2015 in his late eighties.
Pianist Kenny Barron is one of the finest jazz musicians on the planet and his impressive CV includes the all-time greats from a 1960s tenure with Dizzy Gillespie to regular accompanist with Stan Getz, and recording at various times with the likes of James Moody and Yusef Lateef, to mention but a few. However, from the mid-1970s onwards, Barron has regularly recorded as a leader and in the early noughties this included two fabulous live sets in New York. With six decades of work before him, Kenny Barron has stacked up a wealth of experience. Twenty selections were whittled down to ten, and many of these have served as a vehicle for regular live performances.
Thus the recently re-invigorated and re-launched historical label Impulse, home for Ahmad Jamal as well as Duke Ellington’s smaller group projects during the 1960s, is an appropriate setting, then, for Kenny Barron’s latest endeavour, another trio album this time in the studio with young Turks Kiyoshi Kitagawa featuring on double bass while Jonathan Blake occupies the drums with aplomb. Occupying the executive producer role is none other than Frenchman Jean-Philippe Allard and it was he who was responsible for many of the Gitanes/Verve recordings of the 1990s on which Kenny Barron participated along with Joe Henderson and Randy Weston. Without question, the whole is enhanced by a classy French input to the graphic presentation.
The new recording took only two days to complete and there is certainly a spontaneity about the music that indicates that the musicians allowed the music to flow organically and the listener is most certainly the beneficiary. Seven of the pieces are Barron originals previously recorded, but here re-interpreted and a continued love of the music of Monk is attested to with two covers while Charlie Haden is the other composer revisited. Of particular note is the warm tribute to the recently departed bassist Charlie Haden on ‘Nightfall’ and this is supplemented in the sleeve notes by a personal written tribute by Barron.
Barron’s own influences beyond Monk are revealed on the cu-bop driven ‘Bud Like’ that has similarities to ‘Un poco loco’ in its phrasing. An underlying Brazilian influence permeates the opener, ‘Magic Dance’, which is a Barron original that he has rarely performed and only recorded on Japanese import previously. What impresses is how the new versions condense the larger group settings of the original versions. This is the case of a piece such as ‘Lunacy’ where Eddie Henderson, John Stubblefield added brass phrasings to the original live performance, the trio reading still manages to sound bigger than the sum of its parts. Two lesser known Monk originals, ‘Light Blue’ and ‘Shuffle Boil’, the latter a solo number for Barron complete the package and, like Barry Harris and Steve Lacy, are testimony to Barron’s abiding love of the be-bop maestro. Masterful craftsmanship from the leader.
Here is a welcome return for East Anglian band Mammal Hands who weigh in with a strong follow up to the excellent debut that came out Gondwana eighteen months ago in ‘Animalia’. Once again minimalist cover graphics, possibly a nod to the Factory label that became inextricably linked with the Manchester indie scene, make this CD stand out from the crowd and the same can certainly be said of the music within.
Mammal Hands have carved out their own distinctive path that takes on multiple influences that range from Sufi and African trance to eastern European and Irish folk influences. Contemporary improvised and electronica music are skilfully weaved into the mix and Weather Report are surely one of the major jazz influences for the band. This reviewer immediately warmed to the intimacy of ‘Hourglass’ and the ability of the band to conjure up seemingly simple, yet highly effective and melodic collective riffs, with an empathy between piano and saxophone evident here. That should come as little surprise since they are the brotherly nucleus of the band in pianist Nick Smart and saxophonist Jordan Smart. A real favourite is the North African flavoured ‘Think anything’ that has at once a supplementary and complementary Latin undercurrent with sensitive percussive accompaniment from regular drummer and tabla player, Jesse Barrett. At times the interplay between musicians takes the breath away as illustrated on the percussion plus saxophone intro to ‘Kudu’. Hints of acoustic period Steps Ahead emerge on ‘Hillum’, with another pretty folk-tinged melody and the lilting hues of ‘Quiet fire’. This is music for the twenty-first century, and very much in keeping with the musical ‘global village’ that we now inhabit. What marks Mammal Hands out from the rest is the creative use of such resources while still retaining their own image.
If Mammal Hands receive sufficient promotion, they will surely appeal to an audience well beyond the already committed jazz fraternity and there is floating quality to their work in general that is not without recalling the most lyrical of EST. Mammal Hands will be performing live on the bank holiday Saturday (27 May) at the launch of their new album in their native city of Norwich and on 31 May at the Jazz Café in London.
I’m sitting on a rocky outcrop, overlooking a distant, hazy valley; contemplating, waiting for the sun to rise. As the deep blue hues of the Northern sky begin to lighten, I look below as a half-hidden landscape gradually reveals itself. Gently frozen lakes, shimmering trees, long, angular rocks, all peaceful and stately in their serenity. And as I sit, in reflective pose, thinking of someone who holds a very special place within my heart, my soul awakens as I see the first sparks of sunlight break from the horizon. And very quickly, as if a miracle is taking place, magnificent shafts of light the colour of my heart, race toward me, lighting up the majestic landscape in front of my eyes. The day is new. The time is now. And I am alive. Every inch of my body feels the gentle, caressing breeze, my senses heightened as mind, body and spirit become one with everything that is. These are my thoughts as I listen intently to Kenneth Dahl Knudsen Orchestra’s “We’ll Meet In The Rain”, a stunningly beautiful and evocative album. Powerful, emotional, intense and richly rewarding, this music is all of these things….and more.
Bassist/composer Knudsen was born and raised in Denmark, and as is often the case in life, it was on returning from a time away from his homeland that he first found inspiration for this album; “It seems like all the music I’ve written for this album, is basically soundtracks to the thoughts of my mind.” He continues; “There is always a story or a person on my mind when I compose for this orchestra… I’ll walk around with that thought on my mind for some time, and make it evolve into musical ideas in my head, before I even touch the piano.”
One of the first things that strikes me about this music, is its naturalness. There is such an open, honest feel to it, that the listener actually senses the composer’s thoughts and intentions whilst listening. There is a breathtaking beauty to it, provided not only by the skill of the composer’s writing, but also by the strength and poignance in the way it is performed. The orchestra features 19 of Europe’s best young improvisers, all up and coming musicians in their own right. It is essentially a jazz orchestra, conducted by Malte Schiller, and also featuring the wonderful vocals of Marie Seferian. Each piece of music weaves its own magical tale; a spellbinding combination of jazz, folk and classical music. What does stand out a country mile is the importance to the writer of Danish folk music traditions. I asked the composer if he felt this was as important to him as his jazz influences; “Yes for sure. I mean, the jazz is important because that’s the area of work I’m in. But it’s not me. It’s just what I’ve learned. I’ve been playing jazz for 15 years, but I was born into this part of the world where the music is simple, epic and very, very beautiful. It’s a folk tradition here, and I like it more and more every day, as I mature.” I went on to ask him about who, if anyone in particular has influenced him musically over the years, and I think his response sums up well his open-minded attitude, one which has obviously helped him develop his music in such a way as to make writing this beautiful album possible; as a musician yes, but essentially as a human being; “I’ve always liked the players that can create some tension and release. I like players that can bring out a lot of emotions. For example, a guy like Gilad Hekselman. I did 2 albums with him. For bass players I like Pattitucci, Colley, Mcbride and a guy called Renaud Garcia Fons, a very inspiring musician. In general I think I just try to soak up all the inspiration I get through travels and music, whether it’s in Europe, The US, South America or Japan. To me music is music and people are people. And it changes all the time and that’s totally OK. I mean, jazz is only about 100 years old. Let’s not put ourselves into boxes all the time.”
“We’ll Meet In The Rain” begins with “Light Unfolds”, with its beautiful opening suggesting “first encounters” as the composer puts it, “and thinking back on them and reflecting about the outcome as a learning experience and joy.” The tune’s welcoming intro soon develops into a magical celebration of life, love and friendship, as Seferian’s vocal melodies turn the glimpses of light into a raging, passionate sunrise for all the earth to enjoy. The level of musicianship throughout is excellent, with some of the solos, especially on sax and trumpet, simply spellbinding. There’s a youthful energy that comes across in the music, one which often surprises and delights. There is a sensitive romanticism to Knudsen’s writing, yet this often manifests itself as if in a passionate embrace. On “Krig og Kaerlighed”‘ inspired by the composer’s chance meeting with a group of Syrian refugees, we get a clear understanding of what he refers to as “tension and release”, with the rising and falling of the music, gripping and intense, before letting go. Brilliant sax and trumpets intertwine as the tune reaches fever pitch. The funkier “Dapo” uses folk traditions in a stunning way, to take us on a wonderful journey, exploring thoughts and themes, based on the bassist’s friendship with a Nigerian musician whilst spending time in Berlin. There’s a much more reflective nature to “The Camera Man”, the orchestral strings and voice combining to create one of the most wonderful pieces of music you will hear this year. “A Merry Song”, with its Garbarek/ECM – like musical colours and textures, sweeps the listener up in its depth of emotion. Knudsen wrote the melody when his mother became ill, and one can hear the love shining out from the music being performed. As the composer says; “from sadness and suffering, to joy and a celebration of life…” Knudsen refers to his country’s folk music traditions as being “simple and very, very beautiful”, and this is perfectly captured on “Mettelody”, a tune without an ending… If seeing the positives is a gift in a person, Knudson has that gift, with the upbeat “Victoria’s World” having been written to celebrate the life of his autistic niece, Victoria. An incredibly uplifting piece of music. The title track, “We’ll Meet In The Rain” is perhaps best explained by the composer himself; “You will cross paths with a lot of people in your life. Some for a short time, and some for life… You’ll meet these people in different ways, but most of them, through other people. Like the drops of rain running down a window, meeting new drops, splitting into new groups, forming beautiful patterns.” His words are almost as beautiful as his music. A common theme through the whole album is the composer’s wonderful, sensitive arrangements, bringing the best out of the musicians in a way that shows such maturity and musical intelligence. The final track “Tucked In”, a piece that teeters on the brink for so long, hanging on the thread of a single, soulful piano note, gradually builds until eventually leading the listener into the essence of what this music is all about… With stirring emotion the temperature rises until it explodes from within into a wonderful life of its own, like a first kiss, like seeing a baby being born, like being reunited with long-lost parents… whichever way one chooses to describe it, this is a moving, life-affirming piece of music. A fitting end to an incredible album.
It’s rare to hear an album that takes the listener on an emotional journey such as “We’ll Meet In The Rain” does. This will undoubtedly be one of my album’s of the year, and I emplore you to go and buy it now. It is only a limited edition release, so don’t hang around. Kenneth Dahl Knudsen’s music has enriched my life and for that I simply and sincerely say “thank you”. It is a pleasure to have experienced this music, one which continues to grow with every listen.
Portugese fado singer Ana Moura returns for her sixth album in total, and the music on this occasion embraces both traditional fado territory and, in addition, looks beyond to other influences, pop and roots. This time round the album is overseen by the expert production talents of Larry Klein, who has previously done wonders for both Joni Mitchell and Madeleine Peyroux. Klein’s understated production works well for the majority of songs and is exemplified on the gentle, uplifting number that is ‘Ninharia’, with Portugese guitar in the foreground and the lovely use of dissonant guitar. For those hitherto unfamiliar with this music genre, fado is the Portugese equivalent of the blues. While it may take time to soak on first listen, once fully digested it has the ability to get right under the skin.
Moura excels on the impassioned vocals to the decidedly laid back vibe of ‘Moura encantada’ and the haunting strings make this one of the album’s most atmospheric songs. African tinges creep in on the uptempo, ‘Fado dançado’, while a duet of great refinement and an album highlight comes in the form of ‘Eu entrego’ (‘I give over’) where Moura duets with Cuban diva and Buena Vista Social Club member Omara Portuondo. Fans of the veteran Cuban sound will love this.
In places the pop influence is omnipresent as on the contemporary ballad, ‘Cantiga de Abrigo’, with Klein’s distinctive keyboards adding a touch of sophistication to proceedings. Only on ‘Dia de folga’ does the rock-tinged guitar accompaniment sound out-of-place. This contrasts with the pared down production on ‘Ai eu!’ (‘Oh me!’) which will appeal well beyond the strictly roots audience and fado unquestionably has universal appeal. The Everly Brothers emerge as an unlikely influence on the Afro-Latin meets rock and roll feel of ‘Agora é que é’ (‘Now is the time’) and Moura’s vocals soar over the guitars in stunning fashion.
Ana Maura is now well and truly established as modern-day fadista who, in her native Portugal, is seen as a serious rival to her better known rival, Mariza. Between them, they have done a marvellous job of carrying on the lineage of Amalia Rodrigues, finding new avenues to explore. This new recording expands upon the fado tradition and, in the process, uncovers some new potential areas for cross-pollination.
Both Dick Oatts and Mats Holmquist come from the world of Big Band Jazz. Oatts has been performing and recording since the 1970’s, most notably as a sideman with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. He is currently the lead woodwind player and Artistic Director of The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, originally founded by Jones and Lewis. Whilst Holmquist can’t currently match Oatts’s impressive back catalogue he has made a name for himself through his arrangements of classic works by Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter.
In planning this project the pair brought together a talented pool of musicians from New York, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Describing the group as an Orchestra might be a bit of a push though, given that it comprises only of brass, woodwind and rhythm sections; in this instance Big Band is probably more appropriate.
In case you had not already guessed, this album is Holmquist’s homage to another of the 60’s/70’s Jazz gods, Herbie Hancock. The plus one in the title relates to the only original composition, “Stevie R”, dedicated to another one of Holmquist’s inspirations, Steve Reich.
With the exception of “Chameleon” and “Stevie R”, the music comes from Hancock’s Blue Note period in the 60’s. My initial impression, before listening to the album, was that some of the choices seemed a bit safe, especially as Hancock’s work has previously been interpreted in a Big Band setting (take Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra’s Live in Montreux, which Dick Oatts performed on).
It’s the arrangements that make this album different. Holmquist refers to his technique as “Big Band Minimalism”, inspired by the likes of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. If the thought of Big Band jazz mixed with art music fills you with dread then don’t worry. His arrangements do not deconstruct the originals; rather they maintain and repeat the main themes developed to his style.
The results, whilst not exactly revolutionary (this is big band jazz after all) are an interesting take on familiar ground. The brass section is much busier, with a series of short repetitive notes, different instruments adding distinct voices, at times across each other. This intricate phrasing and layering of sound is characteristic of the album and is testament to the talent involved given that they only had a day and a half to rehearse and record.
The album opens with “Cantaloupe Island”, with it’s instantly recognisable piano line. The tempo is faster than the Hancock original and the sound more powerful, as you would imagine. The solos by Adam Birnbaum on piano and Mark Gross on alto sax stand out.
The minimalist style is immediately apparent from the opening bars of “Chameleon”. The piano starts with a single note, becoming four, introducing sax, trombone and trumpets who build similarly before combining for the hook. Whilst Holmquist tries to add different texture towards the end with a guitar solo the track is overlong for my liking, a criticism that I would level at the original as well.
“Dolphin Dance” gives some respite from the energy in the album up to that point, before “Eye of the Hurricane” cranks up the tempo again. Whilst I prefer the Mel Lewis/Bob Mintzer-arranged version for intensity this version swings and uses the original theme really well.
“Maiden Voyage” lends itself to a bigger production. The original itself is quite minimalist, to which Holmquist adds a touch more colour both in the chorus and the solos (most notably from Dick Oatts on soprano sax). My one criticism would be the spaced out, echo filled ending, which feels lacklustre.
For me the pop sounding “Stevie R” does not really fit within the rest of the album, although it does adhere to Holmquist’s approach to music making.
Having played the album any number of times now, I find myself with the same thought; that whilst I enjoy individual tracks I find the overall sound too busy, too overwhelming to make listening to the whole thing an easy experience.