The Emotions ‘Blessed – The Emotions Anthology 1969-1985’ 2CD (BBR) 5/5

the-emotionsThe medium of the CD is much decried, but where it wins hands down in format usefulness is when it spans several decades and separate labels of a given artist, and so it proves on this fully comprehensive overview of one of the most sublime vocal harmony groups in soul music, the Hutchinson sisters Sheila, Wanda and Jeanette, aka The Emotions. Devotees of Earth, Wind and Fire will marvel at the collaborations between that group and the sisters, but may be totally unaware of The Emotions earlier gospel-inflected soul on the off-shoot labels of Stax. Fans of Stax may well be unfamiliar with the later mid-1980s recordings of the sisters. While at Stax Isaac Hayes and David Porter were entrusted with song writing duties for The Emotions and came up with a few gems, most notably the downtempo, ‘Show me how’ from 1971, while another uptempo song and original b-side, ‘Blind alley’, revealed that the distinctive collective harmonies were already in evidence and like, the Everly and Louvin Brothers before them in country and pop music fields, the Hutchinson’s possessed a melodic gift that only siblings could truly conjure up. Not everything was wholly convincing as the Motown sounding, ‘From toys to boys’, from 1972 demonstrated. However, the sister hit a mid-1970s zenith with a trio of stunning albums, ‘Flowers’, ‘Sunbeam’ and ‘Blessed’, and unsurprisingly, this triumvirate comprises a large part of the songs on the new anthology. Classy uptempo numbers such as ‘Love vibes’ and the minor hit, ‘Shouting out love’. remain eternal soul favourites, but it was the pairing of the sisters with the Earth, Wind and Fire hit making factory that propelled the sisters to ever greater heights and these sides are rightly showcased here. Anthemic dance grooves succeeded one another with ‘I don’t want to lose your love’, ‘Best of my love’ and ‘Boogie wonderland’, all major hits’. Even the lesser popular songs were of a high calibre and these include the impeccable harmonies of ‘Smile’ from 1978, the classy ‘We go through changes’, and the subtler side to the group with the mid-1980s, ‘You’re the one’, that was in stark contrast to the prevailing simplistic hooks of the period. Irrespective of era, label or production stable, The Emotions were capable of producing their own sound. Impeccable sleeve notes with full colour front cover albums, individual listings of album details. terrific photos of the ladies in their prime, and ten pages of discographical information from music writer Christian John Wikane grace this superlative anthology.

Tim Stenhouse

Christopher Zuar Orchestra ‘Musings’ (Sunnyside) 4/5

christopher-zuar-orchestraJazz orchestras seem to be enjoying something of a resurgence of late. New York trumpeter and composer Christopher Zuar, together with a 19 piece orchestra, celebrates life’s “Musings” with an excellent debut, adding to the increasing list of jazz musicians taking on composition for large ensembles, big bands and orchestras. What is of note in particular here though, is that Zuar had not yet turned 30 when this album was recorded. I mention this for two reasons; firstly, it’s not just the elder statesmen of jazz turning their hand to this genre of music, and secondly, when I listen to “Musings” it is refreshingly youthful in some of its mood and outlook, yet is written and performed with such skill that one might have expected it to be written by someone more mature in years, the music being to such a high standard.
To aid in the preparation and execution of the recording, Zuar enlisted Mike Holober as producer. The experienced ensemble that Holober helped assemble is truly top-notch, featuring woodwind players Dave Pietro, Ben Kono, Jason Rigby, Lucas Pino and Brian Landrus, trumpeters Tony Kadleck, Jon Owens, Mat Jodrell and Matt Holman, trombonist so Tim Albright, Matt McDonald, Alan Ferber and Max Siegel, guitarist Pete McCann, pianist Frank Carlberg, bassist John Hebert and drummer Mark Ferber. Vocalist Jo Lawry also features on four of the tracks, as well as percussionist Rogerio Boccato. The resulting performances throughout this album are to an exceptional standard, with all of the musicians showing an astounding amount of flexibility and prowess.

Ranging from tender, gentle and thoughtful, right through to fiery and explosive, “Musings” manages to cover just about every musical angle. Yet it is all held together so well by the composer’s startling ability to not only deliver individually wonderful moments, but to also give the listener a sense of time and place, with the overall resulting album feeling like a journey the listener is sharing with the composer. The opening piece, “Remembrance” is based on the writer’s recollections of his childhood and familiar places as he considers where he came from and where he is going… and so the adventure begins, with the beautiful tonal colours and textures of “Chaconne”, the rousing emotion of “Vulnerable States” and the Brecker-like funky horn-led “Ha! (Joke’s on You)”. Special mention has to go to the incredible “So Close, Yet So Far Away”. This is a truly mesmerising piece of a music, haunting and anguished, yet beautiful and thought-provoking. To my mind, this tune above all else, marks out Zuar as an exceptional composer, one with strength, passion and that rare skill of being able to touch a listener’s soul with the music that has been written. This track also features a remarkable solo from one of my favourite saxophonists, Jason Rigby. Our journey continues with “Anthem” which was written as a proclamation of strength and perseverance, and “Lonely Road”, more simple and reflective in nature. The album closes with an uplifting take on Egberto Gismonti’s “7 Aneis”.

“Musings” is a fascinating collection of compositions. A brilliant debut from Christopher Zuar, and one that acts as a mouth-watering prospect for things to come from this exciting writer and performer.

Mike Gates

Boris Kozlov ‘Conversations At The Well’ (Criss Cross Jazz) 3/5

boris-kozlovAfter 13 appearances as sideman on the Criss Cross label, Boris Kozlov, one of New York’s busiest and well-respected bassists, now makes his debut for the label with the trio outing “Conversations at the well”. With David Gilmore on guitar and Rudy Royston on drums, the trio work their way through nine tunes from Monk to Shorter to Mingus and Ellington. Kozlov has, throughout his career, contributed original pieces in various settings, most notably with the cooperative quintet “Opus 5”, but for this recording he took the decision to record a sonic autobiography comprising repertoire composed by eight of his heroes. “There are times I’ve felt the holy grail for any musician would be to record their own music and hopefully make some kind of new statement on that”, says Kozlov “But when I thought about what I should do on this record, I realised that I’m a sideman 90 percent of the time. You fall in love with other people’s tunes, and their music can take precedence over your own.” After determining this, the bassist reached out to guitarist Gilmore and drummer Royston to help realise his vision. The strong affinities can be heard throughout the session, the mutual associations that are shared between the three musicians making for a sincere and intuitive recording.

The album opens with Bill Evans’ “Five”, an excellent intro to what this trio are all about. “Evans always played it concise, and I’d want him to open it up more for everyone to play on”, comments Kozlov. “So we decided to play the tune for itself before jumping into the rhythm changes.” Kozlov, Gilmore and Royston show throughout this recording that the classic tunes they choose to take on are in very safe hands. At times their interpretations are inspiring, whilst at other times, whilst I fully appreciate the skill of the performance, I am left just a little cold…perhaps a touch too much reverence in the approach? Mingus’ “Conversation” sees the bassist unleashing a mighty opening solo, and Wayne Shorter’s “Orbits” benefits from some great trio interaction. There’s some excellent soloing from all three musicians on Keith Jarrett’s “Semblance”, and a lovely bowed bass stands out on Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss”. For Herbie Hancock’s “Eye of The Hurricane”, Kozlov takes his approach from listening to the great Ron Carter; “He plays different changes on each version, and I utilised these ideas in putting together a solo chorus that follows the tune’s logic, and doesn’t become an F-minor blues, as it often does.” There’s a really good take on Ornette Colman’s “Latin Genetics”, before the only band original on the album, “Headless Blues” which was co-written by all three band members. The album closes with a very enjoyable version of Monk’s “Pannonica”.

Overall, “Conversations at the well” is an enjoyable, solid jazz recording from this trio. It doesn’t quite lift this listener as high as I would have liked, but it is filled with some superb playing and trio interaction, making for rewarding listening.

Mike Gates

Esperanza Spalding ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ (Concord) 3/5

esperanza-spaldingBassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding returns with an album aimed firmly at pop chart recognition and in this intent former Bowie producer Tony Visconti is enlisted. Sadly, from a jazz perspective the instrumental virtuosity we have come to be accustomed to has been relegated to a distant secondary role in favour of a prominent rock guitar with folk elements surfacing in the vocals. The problem with this new approach is that Spalding is simply too complex and sophisticated a musician to suddenly carry off this major shift which risks alienating regular fans, and one has to seriously question the decision to pair Visconti with her and the suitability of the former with a musician who normally straddles jazz, soul and funk grooves. Spalding seems to have undergone a stylistic change with Joni Mitchell a major influence on her vocals. If only this album had the faintest hint of ‘The hissing of summer lawns’ or ‘Heijira’, the listener would be in for a treat indeed.
Instead the absence of keyboards has deprived the listener of the usual depth of underpinning sub-rhythms that have hitherto been Spalding’s trademark. This is illustrated on the vocal echo intro to ‘Rest in pleasure’, that has way too much rock guitar content and comes across as a halfway house between jazz tinges and full-on grunge. At best, Esperanza Spalding sounds more like her old self on the staccato rhythm and heavy bass line of ‘One’, with harmonies here taking a leaf out of the Stevie Wonder school. Furthermore, the light Brazilian touches on ‘Noble nobles’ are a delight and the acoustic guitar accompaniment is infinitely superior to the rest and one wishes for this deployment across the entire album. Vocalese explorations are a welcome relief on ‘Judas’, complete with a melodic bass line, that reminds us that her musicality is still firmly intact. This new recording marks something of a disappointment and hopefully may be a mere temporary departure from the musician’s overall trajectory.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘On the Corner Versus’ LP/DIG (On The Corner) 4/5

on-the-cornerLondon’s On The Corner Records are a relatively new label set up by DJ Pete Buckenham, which comprise of various jazz influenced artists but with a contemporary outlook, and so, the label is not afraid to blend Electronica, Spiritual Jazz, House, Afro Beat and everything else in between.
And here with their recent release On the Corner ‘Versus’, which is a kind of compilation album of sorts, which includes original tracks and remixes of previously released material. But of the eight tracks featured here, five are by Collocutor; a collective led by saxophone player and flutist Tamar Osborn but also feature Simon Finch (trumpet), Josephine Davies (additional sax), Marco Piccioni (guitar), Suman Joshi (bass) and Maurizio Ravalico on percussion, along with other players for both studio recording and live work.
These five pieces are all in remix form, with ‘Gozo’ keeping its Afro Jazz stylings but some adding DJ friendly drum parts, ‘Loop Thriller’ in its FYI Chris Re-Fix, provides a slightly Detroit/Moodyman influenced groover which is very infectious, and Al Dobson Jr.’s ‘Agama’ remix maintains the jazzy looseness of the original but with dollops of added percussion. ‘Archaic Morning’ (Body Moves Remix) is a touch more electronic, but the other mix of the same track by Antoine Abayomi is a more Afro House affair and has been heavily designed for the dance floors.

The second half of the album contains the three remaining tracks; Fiium Shaarrk ‘Bogan Sunrise’ (Petwo Evans formaldehyde Dip) which has a twisted Techno-cum-Afro Beat rhythm, Group As Salaam ‘L’burh l’buh’ (Rich Thair Remix) uses a very interesting tempo increase and great use of polyrhythms, and finally, Black Classical ‘Running the Voodoo Down’ – the only original piece, is a heavy slab of African percussion influenced Jazz, from the DJ who once did a 12 hour Spiritual Jazz radio show.

So it’s a very eclectic affair but actually very accessible, with many of the remixes designed for the more refined DJs, clubs and parties. And with the album additionally available on vinyl and being quite cheap in price this is highly recommended, alongside the rest of their growing catalogue which can be found on their Bandcamp webpage. And with the number of independent record labels on the increase, this is a fantastic time and opportunity for small labels like On The Corner to flourish and establish themselves.

Damian Wilkes

Various ‘Space Echo – The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed’ 2LP/CD/Dig (Analog Africa) 4/5

space-echoCape Verde is best known from a musical perspective for its wonderful morna rhythms as exemplified by the late great Cesaria Evora. However, that is but one of the musical styles on offer, with the uptempo caladeras and funaná rhythms showcased here. Indeed, this this new compilation provides no less than an insider’s guide to the sounds of the islands that comprise Cabo Verde, to give it it’s official name from the late 1970s, and particularly during the 1980s when modern instrumentation made a chance appearance. As the inner sleeve notes indicate, this became literally the case in one example of a ship destined for Rio de Janeiro from the US port of Baltimore that turned up off the coast of a tiny village, full of all the latest musical technology. One Cape Verdean musician who took advantage of the new instrumentation was Paulinho Vieira who went on to become a prominent musical arranger. Cape Verde had, in fact, by 1975 gained independence from former coloniser Portugal and culturally this was reflected by the emergence of new music that combined traditional rhythms with new technology. Multiple influences, both from elsewhere on the African continent and way beyond, come to the surface and make this an appealing and endearing feature of the new anthology.

A key name who graces two songs on the compilation is that of Abel Lima and this writer would like to hear an entire CD’s worth of the singer. From 1977 the more traditional sounding ‘Corre Riba, Corre Baxo’, impresses greatly with brass and guitar the fore and the distinctive vocals that are repeated to some extent on a number three years later, ‘Stebo Cu Anabela’, from 1980. Some of the strongest grooves have a shuffling, percussive beat and in the case of Joao Cirilo’s ‘Po d’Terra’, cheesy keyboards and stunning percussive accompaniment create an unbeatable tandem that is at once subtle, yet rapidly grows on the mind and soul. External influences can be heard on a track such as José Casimiro’s ‘Morti sta bidjàcu’, from circa 1983 with an intoxicating dance rhythm and guitar breaks learnt possibly from listening to Santana while the shift from laid back blues in the intro to all-out rhythm guitar outing with funk and disco flavour on Fany Havest’s, ‘That day’, is delivered in English. The overwhelming majority of the songs are in Portugese.

Needless to say, as with other Analog Africa compilations, the music contained within is impossible to find outside the locality and the authentic grittiness of the original recordings has been retained, which is to the label’s credit. One of the numerous joys of the series as a whole is that a significantly wider audience, and not exclusively a purely world roots one, can finally appreciate how modern instrumentation and North American/European music can be married in total harmony with indigenous rhythms and this fine overview proves exactly that.

Tim Stenhouse

Adrena ‘Better Days’ (Bone 40) 5/5

adrenaThis much-anticipated album has arrived with very mixed feelings. On the one hand we have an excellently produced southern soul album with a great voice, which at times really excels in all departments. However, a good proportion of the tracks have been made available and have featured quite heavily on soul radio shows for some months now, indeed I was personally sent four of the tracks, those and others were freely available as MP3 downloads too. Some may think what is the point of buying the album? I can understand wanting to promote the voice etc. but on an album where there are only 10 tracks and 5 have already surfaced, it would have been nice to have some additions to the 5 that didn’t get released – gripe over. This really is a top album, ballads, mid-tempo strollers and dancers all combine to create an album you can leave on without skipping. The subject matter is relationships, slipping around in all its trials and tribulations, Millie Jackson would never have made an album like this – that feisty bitch would never let any man treat her badly! Echoes of Shirley Brown here, Barbara Mason and Denise Lasalle can be heard on the pleading ballads “Ready to love” and “He wont leave his wife”. Then we have the dancer “Broke man”, in which she laments life with a penniless man with bills to pay and no Dollar, “Right here, right now” is a tour-de-force crisp mid-tempo dancer which has been hammered on radio yet sounds so damn good as is “Man gone do” in which Denise Lasalle looms so heavily, “Better Thangs” is quite superb with 70’s guitar fills and stabbing horns, head nodding its way into your head. In southern soul circles ‘Jody’ is the man stealer and she’s here in the shape of ‘Joann’ who was a best friend who’s stealing, a mid-tempo strutter that will also get into your head. The big plus is the vocals of Adrena, she has a smokey lived in quality to her tone but also a fragility too as she wanders off key on occasions, but I love that, I can’t stand these perfectly mixed sterile passion-less sounds and I’m afraid we are swamped with them at the minute, she’s real and long may it continue. The album utilises real instruments with some great horn and guitar fills, the drumming is very sympathetic and simply guides the whole project. Recorded and mixed at the famed Royal Studios in Memphis with Lester Snell on piano. Those great guitar fills are provided by Kevin ‘Fuzzie’ Jeffries and with a Tenor Sax, Trumpet and Baritone Sax all wanting a piece of the pie it’s not surprising the sound created is truly soulful. May I mention the backing singers who have aided and abetted the sound perfectly, Sharise Norman, Stephanie Bolton and Shontelle Norman… take a bow ladies. An album that I suggest will be in or around my top ten this year.

Brian Goucher

Allen Toussaint ‘American Tunes’ (Nonesuch) 3/5

allen-toussaintThis late New Orleans virtuoso had a CV with such a variety that sadly this feels less of an album, in an artistic sense, than a hasty wrap-up. By no means does this make it a poor record, but certainly gives the sense of a collection of tunes from several sessions than anything with a specific scope, message or concept.
The central thread is Toussaint’s exacting virtuosity on the piano. The net is dragged wide for style and sensibility, seemingly able to inhabit any musical form he attempted, evident here. The opening track, by Toussaint, “Delores’ Boyfriend” is a charming ragtime, followed by Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag”, with its sassy Broadway menace. I was settled in to what I felt was a well observed collection of tunes full of American life, stemming from a New Orleans R&B root. Slowly, however, my interest faded as the content became rather less direct, spilling into the mawkish and over-sentimental in a way that stopped my enjoyment. This is not due to the source material, which is from a wide mix of luminaries, but in the execution.
The musicians playing along with Toussaint are very much just a backdrop, save for a few moments of soloing, and vocals on two tracks, which only further waylay the record on muddier roads. The effect of working up half of the tracks simply distracted me, and the endeavour had failed to hold my attention by the end, not helped by a rather laboured cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune”. This was even despite superb re-workings of Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief” (which mutates genres beautifully) and Gottschalks “Danza, Op. 33” (well crafted American romanticism reworked into what could well be a perfect ’70’s TV drama theme). Toussaint seems to shine at this certain refined approach, and when it hits, it hits in a surprising and satisfying way. It seems a shame that there wasn’t more slip and sleaze to some of the tracks. For example, Ellington’s classic lust-o-thon “Rocks In My Bed” comes off feeling rather more embarrassingly middle-aged than sexy.

The production, however, is impeccable. Recorded in Toussaint’s own studios, there is space and clarity by the bucket-load, if at the sacrifice of a bit of “live” bite. This is probably to the benefit of displaying the dynamic range and ability on display in his piano playing.

Ultimately, this is a fine collection of well-known classics presented solidly and unpretentiously, but perhaps a bit safely and unimaginatively from a production and arrangement standpoint. This is, however, a perfect primer for listeners new to Toussaint, and with further investigation, those who enjoyed this may find his other achievements and credits a pleasant surprise.

Thomas Pooley-Tolkien-Sharpe

Dorothy Donegan ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 4/5

dorothy-doneganThe name of Dorothy Donegan will probably be unfamiliar to many and, like other women jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s, their contribution has never been fully appreciated, which is why this re-issue fills in an important gap in our knowledge base. Here. the four albums focus mainly on the live recordings of Donegan and this was unquestionably her forte, recording numbers from the great American songbook in small supper clubs, interspersed with her own highly individual compositions. Influenced by Art Tatum on the jazz side and the virtuosic talents of Earl Wild from a classical perspective, Donegan was a more spontaneous pianist who followed an unpredictable career path. Capable of producing a powerful sound that few pianists could match, there are echoes of both early Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner with a symphonic quality to the chords she was able to strike up. Her own compositions such as ‘D.T.T.’ and the uptempo vehicle, ‘Donegan walk’, reveal a profound love of boogie-woogie and this should come as no surprise since Donegan would have grown up in her native Chicago listening to the sounds of Big Maceo among others. Of the standards, a deeply percussive reading of ‘That old black magic’ impresses as does a truly swinging rendition of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. Dorothy Donegan is at her most Tatum-esque on pieces such as ‘This can’t be love’. As ever with Avid re-issues excellent value for money time-wise with four albums squeezed onto the two CDs and full back cover information. It should be stated that the vivid re-mastering of the liver performances adds a poignant vibrancy to the listening experience. Dorothy Donegan rightly belongs among the very greatest of post-war jazz musicians and this writer looks forward to further releases of her excellent, if unevenly distributed output.

Tim Stenhouse

Azymuth ‘Outubro’ LP/CD (Far Out Recordings) 4/5

azymuthAttempting to follow up the stunning 1979 debut for Milestone, ‘Light as a Feather’, was never going to be an easy task, but Azymuth came up with a winner in its own right with ‘Outubro’ (Portugese for ‘October’) and this really set the template for all subsequent Azymuth releases. It is an extremely well-balanced set, with dance floor winners, subtle intimate jazz-inflected numbers, and gloriously uplifting percussion as only the Brazilians know how with assorted guest musicians of whom Aleuda’s participation is particularly praiseworthy. While not as infectious as a rhythm as ‘Jazz Carnival’, ‘Dear Limmertz’ was convincing enough with gritty bass line from Ivan Conti and those multi-layered keyboards from José Roberto Bertrami. It reached the lower echelons of the UK pop charts and was backed on the original 12″ by the lovely groove of ‘Papa song’, which happens to be the opening track of the album. Bubbling bass and inventive percussive work make this as near to a part two of ‘Jazz Carnival’ as could be achieved without resorting to pastiche, but this wisely featured on the B-side of the single. The funky disco of ‘Maracana’ has long been a favourite of this writer and even the slightly formulaic handclaps now speak of a hedonistic bye gone era with vocoder vocals and repetitive keyboard riffs. The title is presumably a homage to the iconic national football stadium. For jazz fans a sensitive cover of Chick Corea’s opus, ‘500 Miles High’ stands out for its lengthy intro which has more of a live feel and the subtle fender touches by Bertrami are a pure delight. A second cover is that of Milton Nascimento’s ‘Outubro’ and the dream-like keyboards showcase the more reflective side of the band. For an often overlooked left-field number, the rootsy folk of ‘Un amigo’ (A friend) is something of a lazy samba with lovely vocoder-led vocals and the acoustic guitar accompaniment hints at ECM period Pat Metheny while the keyboards could just as well be George Duke in his prime. Of note on this recording is the use of short vignettes, a device that Azymuth would utilise on future recordings.

Tim Stenhouse