Mark Dresser Seven ‘Sedimental You’ (Clean Feed) 4/5

mark-dresser-sevenClean Feed records are a small independent label based in Lisbon, Portugal. To quote from their website:
“It all began in 2001, with ambition, passion and some lunacy. What about now? Well, the only certainty is that this bunch of Portuguese jazz fans will continue to want the improbable, believing that’s the only way to be reasonable in this spaceship called Earth.”
So here’s the latest helping of the “improbable”.
A collection of seven works for seven instrumentalists. It might be helpful if I quote further from the Clean Feed website:
“This collection of compositions seeks to balance gradient levels of sound such as bitonal harmony, microtonality, timbre, spectral harmonics and variable pulse with more traditional aspects of melody, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm and form”.
Mark Dresser goes into greater detail regarding the music and its inspiration on the label’s web site, and does so far better than I could, so I will confine myself to giving you some background information and some thoughts from simply listening to the music.
Mark Dresser is a bassist and composer who has worked with many of the leading lights of what has come to be known as “new” jazz composition and improvisation, including Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne, Gerry Hemingway and John Zorn. He’s made more than sixty recordings. He has been composing and performing solo double bass and ensemble music since 1972.

For this recording, Mark is joined by a cross-section of the new and more established names on the East and West Coasts of America: Michael Dessen, trombone, Nicole Mitchell, soprano and alto flutes, Joshua White on piano, Marty Ehrlich clarinet and bass clarinet, David Morales Boroff, violin and Jim Black drums and percussion. A somewhat unusual collection of instruments making for an unusual tonal palette. At times sounding a little like a chamber group at others a band much larger than the sum of its seven pieces.

The definition of ‘sedimental’ is formed of or from sediment. Does this help us when listening to this new release? Well, no, not really. it turns out that ‘Sedimental You’ is a deconstructed version of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” written in 1932 for band leader Tommy Dorsey. Those expecting the familiar Dosey-style rendition will be wrong-footed immediately. The pianist alone playing the melody, which surfaces only intermittently, and the rest of the band burbling, scraping and squeaking around him. I’m oddly reminded of the “Livery Stable Blues” here by the Original Dixieland Jass Band with their imitations of farm yard animals. Or even Tom Waits’ “The Piano Has Been Drinking” but for a seven piece band, the familiar melody coming into focus briefly and then being submerged by the other band members. But this is strangely compelling music. This is the third longest track on the album at over twelve minutes. This is serious music but with a certain degree of humour at its heart and a sense of theatricality.

In terms of influences, I can hear elements of Ellington in some of the voicings, Monk too, and Mingus in the sheer energy and excitement of the music and even Sun Ra.

This is an album that rewards repeated listening. In the same way that Ornette Coleman’s early experiments with ‘Free Jazz’ remained accessible due to not jettisoning entirely the usual musical signposts of tempo, and melody, some harmonic footholds are retained always providing the listener with musical reference points.

There are lyrical interludes amongst the maelstrom. Try “Will Well”, “I Can Smell You Listening” and “Two Handfuls Of Peace”. The whole ensemble acquit themselves well, but I must make particular mention of flautist Mitchell who is a revelation.

Open your ears and your mind and you will not be disappointed.

Alan Musson

Georgie Fame and The Last Blue Flames ‘Swan Songs’ (Three Line Whip) 4/5

georgie-fame-last-blue-flamesGeorgie Fame’s early career as a ‘Pop’ artist is very well documented and he has held together the Blue Flames, in one form or another, for many years. The genesis of the band goes back to the time when Fame played piano for Billy Fury in his backing band, called none other than the Blue Flames. When the backing band got the sack towards the end of 1961, the band were re-billed as “Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames” subsequently enjoying great success with a diet of rhythm and blues material. Later, Fame enjoyed considerable solo success and success with his close friend Alan Price, but he never abandoned the Blue Flames project.

Fame’s musicality is never in doubt. His attractively light vocal style, clearly modelled on Mose Allison was also influenced by Jon Hendricks. He is a more than competent keyboard player and we get to hear many examples of this throughout the album, especially, Hammond organ.

The one thing that has always seemed to remain constant with Fame is his ability to surround himself with the best musicians, many of them from a jazz background. In particular ’Sound Venture’ from 1966 with the Harry South Big Band whose ranks included saxophonists Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Dick Morrissey and Ray Warleigh, Kenny Wheeler, Jimmy Deuchar and Ian Hamer in the trumpet section and a rhythm section of Stan Tracey on piano, Phil Bates, bass and Bill Eyden and Phil Seamen at the drums. I think this album could have marked a turning point for a musician hitherto more concerned with rhythm and blues and clearly shows his jazz credentials. He subsequently appeared live with Count Basie at the Royal Albert Hall on 20th April 1968.

Fame is often cited to be a rhythm and blues and jazz artist, but his music also contains influences from ska and soul.

Can this really be Fame’s final performance of his career, as the album title intimates? If so, it’s a great way to bow out. The vocals are as strong as ever, as are the keyboard skills. The band is billed as “The Last Blue Flames” seemingly adding to the finality of it all. This edition of the “Flames” is as strong as any with stalwarts of the British jazz scene Guy Barker (trumpet), Alan Skidmore (tenor saxophone), Anthony Kerr (vibraphone) and Alec Dankworth (bass) aided and abetted by Fame’s sons, Tristan (guitar) and James (drums) and not forgetting percussionist Ralph Salmins. Add to this the presence of vocalist Madeline Bell on two tracks and we have all of the ingredients for success.

The songs seem to provide something of a commentary on Fame’s career. The music being an act of bidding farewell to his fans and bringing the curtain down on a productive recording career.

A parting is often accompanied by sorrow. There is no feeling of sorrow here, however. When Fame, during “The Diary Blues” sings “In the twilight of a long career/When dementia’s all I have to fear”, he has his tongue firmly in his cheek. “De Caribbean Way” follows in a style typical of the music of the sunny West Indies. I imagine that “Gray’s March” is a tribute to the late keyboard-player and composer and arranger Steve Gray who was a friend of Fame’s.

The comparison between Fame and Mose Allison is an oft made one and no summary of Fame’s career would be complete without a tribute to him and here we have “Mose Knows” which is tellingly subtitled “The Catalyst”. The album covers a well-trodden path including elements of swing, shuffle and a tasteful ballad “Lost in a Lover’s Dream”.

My only quibble is that I would have liked to have heard more from the wonderful backing band. There is only one instrumental “Spin Recovery”.

Can this really be the last that we will hear from Georgie Fame? Possibly so, but he has certainly left us on a musical high. There will, of course, be the regular re-issues of earlier material to enjoy and, in fact, the aforementioned ‘Sound Venture’ is due for re-issue in November.

Alan Musson

Leigh born singer Georgie Fame has enjoyed a lengthy and successful career stretching back to the early 1960s when he was a regular keyboardist at the cult Flamingo club in London’s Soho scene and later at Ronnie Scott’s, as well as enjoying pop chart hits including the immortal, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’. This album is reputedly his very last studio recording and if that does prove to be the case, and he is always welcome to break that pledge, then at the very least we will have gone out on an artistic high. Each song has a subtitle, which seems to reflect a specific personality of character, and maybe reflective of a different musical facet of Fame’s own armoury. In musical terms, the music covers much of the stylistic changes that Fame has undergone throughout his career and that means influences ranging from ska and R &B to calypso, blues and soul-jazz, to name but a few. Surrounded by a stellar cast of musicians including Guy Barker on trumpet, Alan Skidmore (sadly one of his final appearances before his recent passing), and Anthony Kerr on vibes, Fame is in fine form throughout with his creative brand of songwriting an additional treat.

Big band boogie greets the listener on, ‘The diary blues (the diarist)’ where the leader operates on vocals, Hammond and piano. He strikes a decidedly uplifting tone on the Caribbean big band jam of, ‘De Caribbean way’ (the fantasist)’ and the horn phrasing hints at South African jazz and especially Abdullah Ibrahim on, ‘Uncle Ezra (the realist)’, with a lovely piano vamp and some soloing on vibes.

If Georgie Fame had to cite one seminal vocal influence, then it would surely be Mose Allison who towers over all other singers in Fame’s estimation (and there are many more who he revers) and fittingly there is a tribute to the latter on, ‘Mose knows (the catalyst)’ where horns and Hammond work in tandem. A more sensitive side to the Fame repertoire is showcased on the ballad, ‘Lost in a lover’s dream (the ecologist)’.

Interestingly, Fame adopts something of an Al Jarreau soul-jazz feel on, ‘My ship (the optimist)’ which has an attractive mid-tempo soulful groove and with Fame himself on Hammond organ, and with plenty of percussive support whereas it is another soul-jazz groove that is referenced on the excellent, ‘The Lurper (the isolationist)’.

Crucially, and typical of the man, Georgie Fame is not so much looking back here, but rather looking forward with a new set of compositions to go out with listeners wanting more. For those who wish to re-examine his career, the Columbia back catalogue has been re-issued and is available individually, or a part of a larger box set edition. Neophytes should sample the Harry South Band recording first before moving on to the other albums.

Tim Stenhouse

Lonnie Johnson ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid Roots) 5/5

lonnie-johnsonGuitarist, composer and multi-instrumentalist Lonnie Johnson was always more than a blues singer and his influence on other musicians was profound, impacting upon jazz innovators such as Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and even T-Bone Walker, while his later period, chronicled here, led Bob Dylan to seek him out. Moreover, Johnson performed with the all-time greats including Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and James P. Johnson among a host of others.
All the more reason, then, for a timely re-appraisal of his works. This masterful collection groups together four albums that came out in the space of a year between 1960 and 1961, and they were recorded in the pristine surroundings of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio and released on the Prestige off-shoot label, Bluesville. Long collectors items on their original vinyl, to have them together coupled with another duet recording with ace blues singer Victoria Spivey is a treat to behold for any fan of the blues. Historically, these recordings are significant in that they coincide exactly with the blues and folk revival of the early 1960s and without question Lonnie Johnson was still in peak form.
More contemporary in outlook for the time, the first CD fuses folk blues with R & B on ‘Blues by Lonnie Johnson’, with a band comprising Hal Singer on tenor saxophone and long-time collaborator Wendell Marshall on bass. A superb all original set is highlighted by ‘No Love For Sale’, ‘She Devil’ and ”Big Leg Woman’, though in truth everything is worth listening to repeatedly. A duet recording with Victoria Spivey is testimony to Johnson’s adaptability and Cliff Jackson joins on piano for a collection of originals by both singers with Spivey’s own ‘Long Time Blues’ and Johnson’s ‘Please Baby’ and ‘Leave Me Or Love Me’, the major numbers.

The second CD captures Johnson in more reflective mood, with a correspondingly more pared down sound on the epic, ‘Blues and Ballads’, which was recorded with guitarist Elmer Snowden. A varied repertoire includes two blues standards, ‘Back Water Blues’, by Bessie Smith and ‘St. Louis Blues’ by W.C. Handy. Both are expertly handled by the duo. However, the best is reserved for the originals that are nothing less than superlative. Arguably the pick of an outstanding bunch is the chilling, ‘Haunted house’. On the second album,’ Losing game’, the formula is repeated with Great American songbook classic numbers revisited, of which ‘Summertime’ is inventively re-interpreted and featuring a more laid back rendition of, ‘What a difference a day makes’, that would be a swan song hit for Dinah Washington, barely a year or so later.

Outstanding music which is matched by the exceptional time value of eighty minutes per CD. If you do not already possess these sides and would like to hear blues with a jazzy dose of virtuosity, this music is unquestionably for you and what a musical voyage of discovery you have in store.

Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Africa Airways One & Two: Funk Connection 1973-1980 / Funk Departures 1973-1982’ 2CD (Cherry Red/Africa Seven) 4/5

africa-airwaysPreviously released as separate compilations on vinyl only, CD fans who like their African music heavy on the funk side will be attracted by this well researched anthology of hard to find sounds that features a few recognisable names such as Manu Dibango and Myriam Makeba, but in general sheds new light on relatively unknown groups and singers. Both volumes focus attention primarily, though not exclusively, on the English-speaking part of Africa and make an ideal companion to the Afro-funk re-issues that have surfaced over the past fifteen years from a variety of independent labels. Funk-tinged Afro jazz comes from Tala A.M. in the shape of,’ Black gold’, which is not a million miles away from the jazz-funk sounds coming out of the United States at the time. Disco and funk influences are discernible on the synth plus percussive tinted, ‘Father time, mother nature’, from Jake Sollo and this features chanted male vocals. As for Manu Dibango, ‘Mimbo’ is a slight departure from his more famous numbers, with strings and soulful vocals added to the horns, before those trademark saxophone solos kick in. If funky JB guitar riffs are your cup of tea, then check out, Jo Bisso and ‘Give it up’, with some Stax like horns and this could be the soundtrack to a blaxploitation film from Africa. Elsewhere, Myriam Makeba and her distinctive vocals light up, ‘Toyota factory’, from a 45 releases that is virtually unheard of outside of the African continent and from an era when major stars were commissioned to sing for a specific purpose, in this instance a multi-national car company promotion.

Crate digging here has unearthed some gems and one can only wonder at what vinyl delights still remain to be (re)-discovered. In the meantime, marvel at these fusion sounds that indicate clearly that modern Africa was listening in to music elsewhere and fully capable of reproducing with a pronounced local flavour.

Tim Stenhouse

Martín Robbio Trio y Los Guevaristas ‘Tierra’ (Brabacam) 4/5

PrintMany jazzheads when speaking of the synthesis of jazz and latin american music will automatically bring up Brazil (in particular bossa) or Cuba (especially afro-cuban rhythms). If they think of Argentina at all it might be as an aside to pay homage to the Tango Nuevo (new tango) pioneer Astor Piazolla and the jazz influences to be heard in his compositions.
But to leave it at that would do a disservice to the richness and amazing diversity of both Argentine culture and Argentinian jazz history. Argentine musicians have long dug deep into the lodes of their own folklore (such as zamba, tonada, chacarera, chamamé, baguala, milonga and the aforementioned tango – to name but seven from the 50 or so distinct folkloric forms in this vast country) and from this vein have cut, shaped and polished these gems into musical jewellery. And that includes the jazz-minded musicians who delight in exploring the many rhythms, structures and vibes of these forms.*
In fact, it always seems to me that latin american musicians in general see both folklore and jazz not as distinct lands with barbed wire fences saying “Private Property – Keep Out!”, but as adjacent lands to be explored, mined, cultivated and inspired by. Contrast that with the divide between British folk and British jazz for instance.

So, it’s against all this background that pianist Martín Robbio and his Trio have made their name with various shows and two albums of original music over the last five years (Parresía, and El Mismo Río).

On this third album, Tierra (Land, or Earth) Robbio and his trio (Ariel Sánchez on drumkit and Juan Fracchi on double bass) team up with Los Guevaristas, a percussion quartet led by Facundo Guevara and featuring Javier Martínez Bucas, Julián Solarz and Jerónimo Peña. The theme underpinning this particular album is to focus on the African bases within American music (hence, the partnership with Los Guevaristas).

[I should explain that within the rest of the American continent (North, Central and South) the term ‘America’ applies to ALL the lands and inhabitants of ALL the countries (not just the United States). So Argentine, Colombian, Guatemalan and Canadian music is all ‘American music’ within this context.]

To this end, Robbio and Guevara have selected music from some of the great composers from across the length and breadth of the continent such as Eduardo Lagos, (the late and great) Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos, the inimitable maestro of chacarera piano Cuchí Leguizamon, Oscar Alem, Juan Raffo, McCoy Tyner, Alice Coltrane, Dino Saluzzi and others. This is an album with a pan-american vision, but remains peculiarly yet enjoyably Argentine.

They have stripped back each piece to its ‘birthday suit’, as it were, in order to appreciate better the African influences throughout – although it also nicely highlights the other latin american influences too. They then approach it with all the innovation and improvisation you would expect from a jazzer, but always keeping true to the traditions of the rhythms and music. It’s very refreshing.

The album has 11 tracks that each shines light on aspects of ‘American’ music. The opening track La Bacha (by Eduardo Lagos) moves from 5/4 to 6/8 meshing a very Argentine piano style with the bombo drum of the Andes and the congas of the African heritage into a trance-like groove over which Robbio lays down his grand piano. Lush.

There’s the McCoy Tyner track Elvin (Sir) Jones which obviously pays homage to the great post-bop drummer Elvin Ray Jones (Mingus, Davis, Coltrane, McCoy etc) in a piece that effortlessly just swings and swings (via a double bass solo) until the momentum propels it into a montuno (latin piano vamp) and the congas, timbales and drumkit take over.

Chegada (written by Naná Vasconcelos) is a dark, broody piece (with periodic sunsplashes of joy!) that features guest singer Vicky Zotalis and a rhythmic motif taken from (I’m guessing) the afro-bloc traditions of North-East Brazil, that explodes into a wild 6/8 over a 2/4 breakdown. In contrast Marty Ehrlich’s Hymn is a contemplative piece that also utilises the bandoneon (of tango fame).

I also love the jagged push and pull of Leguizamón’s chacarera tune La Ida y Vuelta (Coming and Going) and the very afro-cuban jazz feeling of Alice Coltrane’s Los Caballos (The Horses) that features an exhilarating ‘conga’ breakdown (ie ‘conga’ as in the carnival rhythm of Eastern Cuba).

Honourable mentions also go to the gorgeous wooden vibes in Toda La Pampa/Nadie Arriba, Nadie Abajo (written by Oscar Alem and Nora Sarmoria) and the short closing track: Atahualpa Yupanqui’s El Payador Perseguido (the pursued minstrel) which contrasts a relentlessly repeated phrase “pero hay montañas de arena” (“but there are mountains of sand”) over layers of hand percussion, clapping and vocal choruses. Quite mesmerising, you just want it to grow and grow…

Other tracks are Juan Raffo’s Meléndez, Bheki Mseleku’s Thula Mtwana and Dino Saluzzi’s Chancho.

Don’t worry if I seemed to have concentrated on the Latin American and African sides of this album – it’s definitely a jazz album! And well worth the listen – whether you’re an inveterate latinophile like myself or a jaded jazzhead looking for something a little different to tweak your ears and pique your appetite!

Glyn Phillips

* If you are interested in the music of some of the (now) older generation of Argentine musicians you might also want to check out Manolo Juarez, Gato Barbieri, Cuchi Leguizamón, Lito Vitale (both solo and with El Trio Vitale/Baraj/González), Enrique Villegas and Marián Farías Gómez.

Mark Murphy ‘The Jazz Singer Anthology : The Muse Years 1972 – 1991’ (Soul Brother) 4/5

mark-murphyIt is now just over a year since Mark Murphy passed, at the age of 83. A good innings by most standards. Although Murphy was not a star in the conventional sense, within the jazz community amongst fellow performers and fans he had an enduring status as a consummate singer and performer. Whilst his appeal may have waxed and waned, if the epithet ‘‘star’ is not appropriate then ‘legend’ is closer to the mark, especially towards the end of his nigh on 60-year career.
Murphy had mixed fortunes during his early recording career. Groomed as a crooner in the mould of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, relationships with first Decca and then Capitol were short lived, neither quite working out, probably because their style was not necessarily his. “Rah”, the album he released in 1961 on Riverside, is seen by many as his most significant early success. It features “Milestones”, an instrumental track from Miles Davis’s hit album of the same name, to which Murphy added lyrics, an early blueprint of the style and delivery that Murphy would later become synonymous for.
Soul Brother’s anthology focuses on Murphy’s output on Muse Records, the catalogue that contains most of his quintessential material. Whilst it is not branded as his greatest hits, it almost becomes that de facto. Surprisingly there are few compilations of his work so this collection helps to put that right.
Joe Fields, the Muse president, clearly had a lot of faith in Murphy, giving him the opportunity to record 16 albums in 21 years. In his Muse recordings you can hear that he invested heavily in his own ideas and interests, primarily the improvised sung/vocalised versions of hip jazz instrumental classics and covers of a broad range of Bossa Nova/MPB. Murphy’s style had matured since his early recordings (he was 40 when he recorded his first album, “Bridging The Gap” with Muse); his pitch had dropped and vocally he had developed a rich, debonair, cultured sound. The blend of improvised lyrics with vocalese/scat meant that he blurred the line between singing and the use of the voice as an instrument. Murphy had not wanted to be a traditional jazz crooner, although much of his tone and emphasis is informed by that style.

The selection of material and what Murphy does with it are critical. If you take the components of a typical Mark Murphy song and put them in less capable hands you end up with a fairly average pub or club singer fronting a covers band, but he delivers with such panache, such endless class and style that you can’t help but be beguiled by him. The backing arrangements, whilst fairly straight, aim for authenticity and give Murphy the space to extemporise.

Collections, rather than straight reissues, reveal a certain subjectivity on behalf of the compilers and the skill is in getting the balance just right. I like the mix of familiar tracks like “Stolen Moments” with lesser known numbers (for me at least) like “Looking For Another Pure Love” or the funky “Come and Get Me”, incidentally one of the few original songs. The sweet fusion of “Two Kites”, from the album “Brasil Song”, has long been a favourite. Murphy is hands down a better singer than Jobim and gives the track a more intimate feel. “Ding Walls” and “Eleanor Rigby” are tips to the UK market with the former named after Gilles Peterson/Patrick Forge’s jazz dance session, which did more than its fair share to help a new generation discover Murphy’s recordings.

For me “Maiden Voyage” and “Naima” are not amongst the best examples of his work and do not compare favourably to the vocal versions by Jon Lucien and Doug/Jean Carn. That said they do not spoil what is overall a fine collection of Murphy’s artistry.

If you are already a Mark Murphy fan then I am sure that would want to add your own favourites; after all looking back over 16 albums is bound to leave some gaps. Nonetheless this compilation is a great opportunity to spend some more time engaging with his musical legacy. If Murphy’s name is new to you then let this album be the start of many great adventures.

Andy Hazell

Scott Morgan ‘Songs of Life’ (Miranda Music) 3/5

scott-morganI initially thought of this album as something of a Curate’s Egg. This is the debut jazz recording from vocalist Morgan. He clearly has a background in musical theatre. In my experience singers from the world of the musical seldom cross over successfully to the jazz arena. The delivery of a show song is completely different from that of a jazz vocalist. A certain musical flexibility required of a jazz singer is often lacking.
The jazz credentials are supplied by pianist Fred Hersch who also provides three of the compositions including the title track which has lyrics by Norma Winstone. It might be instructive to compare and contrast Morgan’s interpretation of the song with Winstone’s, which appears on ‘Songs and Lullabies’, a duo album with Hersch from 2003.
I should make it clear that this is not a bad album – far from it, it’s simply that I wonder if it is a jazz album per se.
The thirteen songs are varied and well-chosen. The first track, ‘It’s You Or No One’ will certainly be familiar to jazz fans. Morgan handles the song well and has a pleasing timbre to his voice. The song includes a vocalese lyric by Morgan to a classic Chet Baker solo, as if to emphasise the jazz values of the album. The album includes guest performances from Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel on the Morgan and Hersch composition ‘I’ll Follow’ and tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm who is featured on three tracks and puts in a particularly spirited performance on the Ellington tune ‘I’m Just A Lucky So And So’.

Morgan describes the album “as a musical photo album of the touchstones in or lives”. To quote from The Republic of Jazz blogspot, “his (Morgan’s) interpretations are imbued with the loves and losses that accumulate over a life well lived”.
Throughout, Hersch, who is also Morgan’s partner in life as well as music, provides sympathetic accompaniment and thoughtful and appropriate solos, ably supported by Matt Aronoff on bass and Ross Pederson at the drums.

The repertoire is richly varied and includes, not only classics from what has come to be known as “the great American songbook” but also, for want of a better phrase, pop classics. Including ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight’ by James Taylor and a particularly effective duet with Hersch on Lennon and McCartney’s ‘I Will’.

Whilst listening to the album, I’m drawn to comparing Morgan with the likes of cabaret singer Michael Feinstein and even further back to the era of Matt Dennis. But perhaps the most accurate comparison would be with Kenny Rankin. Rankin was not a jazz artist either but both share the same warm vocal intonation.

So in conclusion, not an out-and-out jazz album but nonetheless a very enjoyable offering from a vocalist who is clearly passionate about song. His attractive voice and varied song selection should ensure the disk a wider appeal outside the jazz community and Morgan’s native New York City, where he has garnered a devoted following.

And that reference to a Curate’s Egg, well, maybe I was a little harsh. This album certainly repays repeated listening.

Alan Musson

John Scofield ‘Country For Old Men’ (Impulse!) 5/5

john-scofieldThis album comes hot on the heels of Scofield’s 2015 album ‘Past Present’ featuring Joe Lovano. That album was Grammy Award-winning. Is another Award in prospect for this album? We have to wait to find out.
John Scofield has worked with many of the jazz greats of the last forty years including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, George Duke and more. He is as at ease playing bebop as he is playing jazz fusion, funk, blues, soul, rock and now…….country.
Jazz has long appropriated songs from other genres to work its magic on and country music is no exception. Consider the blue-grass and country and western influences on guitarist Bill Frisell’s ‘Nashville’ from 1996. Whilst Frisell has made a career out of incorporating elements of various American roots music styles including country, folk and bluegrass, Scofield has more often chosen to plough a different furrow.
For his forty-sixth release (and his second for Impulse!) Scofield has built on the ‘Nashville’ foundation and produced a Country music album. But, of course, with Scofield things are never quite that straightforward. Joining Scofield are his regular band-mates, Steve Swallow on bass guitar and Bill Stewart behind the drums. Along for the ride this time is Larry Goldings on piano and, crucially, Hammond organ.
It’s not often these days that music so easily raises a smile. But this one does it for me. From the clever pun of the album title which also, apparently, alludes to the Coen Brother’s 2007 film ‘No Country For Old Men’, to the witty guitar playing of the band leader, unadorned by effects. The relaxed tempo of the opening track ‘Mr Fool’ has a typically bluesy feel, with Steve Swallow underpinning proceedings in an exemplary manner.

Just as you think you know what to expect, the group launches into ‘ I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry’. This Hank Williams song has never sounded so good. But the song itself is quickly dispensed with and we are off into wildly swinging territory. Shards of sound springing from the guitar with wild abandon grounded by Hammond organ and Steve Swallow doing what he does best: walking the walk. When it’s Golding’s turn to solo we get some very strange otherworldly sounds which nonetheless seem to fit perfectly. The whole group were having great fun with this one.

Now I’m certainly no devotee of country music and many of the twelve songs on offer here were previously unknown to me. I’m not familiar with James Taylor’s ‘Bartender’s Blues’, but what a treat, down-home blues-drenched with the organ reminiscent at times of a gospel choir.

‘Wayfaring Stranger’, taken in a sort of New Orleans style includes a short, but sweet solo from Swallow. ‘Mama Tried’ is another swinging rendition. Then, goodness me, we get Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’. The theme is played relatively ‘straight’ the first time around then we get the group breaking into 6/8. Great playing all round, but again, for me, Swallow steals the show with his solo.

Having recovered my composure after the Dolly Parton track, we are treated to Shania Twain’s ‘You’re Still The One’. Certainly not a song which one would have thought particularly conducive to a jazz treatment, but it’s transformed in the hands of these masters. Throw in the rock n’ roll stylings of ‘Red River Valley’ and the relaxed treatment of ‘Just a Girl I Used to Know’, with another feature for Steve Swallow and we have a near perfect album.

It almost seems churlish to complain about the 31 second rendition of ‘I’m an Old Cowhand’ played by Scofield on Ukulele, but I just can’t see the point of it.

I mentioned that the music put a smile on my face and it stayed there until the last track. I’m sure that Scofield and friends were also beaming from ear to ear during the recording session.

Alan Musson

Sharnette Hyter ‘Grown Folks Talkin’ (Lockdowne) 4/5

cd4.75x4.75.epsI’ve had this album for some months now but it arrived when several other albums turned up and sort of got lost in the pack – BIG mistake. Had this lady have been around in the halcyon days when the likes of Shirley Brown, Denise LaSalle, Candie Staton, Barbara Mason and latterly Millie Jackson, she would have held her own quite easily, we would be talking about her the way we do the others. Her voice is a perfect vehicle to convey the feeling, passion and grits required to tell a story, southern style. She reminds me very much of a female Clarence Carter, who for me is the greatest story-teller of all time (In addition it appears she had a hand in writing most of the tracks too).
A case in point is “Got Me Going in Circles”, an immense ballad which she masters with great ease and a track I’ve had on repeat for weeks, lowrider southern soul at its best, this has top-five soul track of the year written all over it. The album kicks off with “I’ve Got A Love”, a classy mid tempo dancer and for more of the same straight into “I’m Not Her”, two cracking songs you can shuffle too, throw your head back and sing your bloody head off, both have great choruses that cements the music inside your head. One of the real standouts is “Put It On Paper”, where she wants her man to make her a respectable woman, she aint into shacking up and he has to put the relationship on lockdown, listen this would have sat quite happily on those epic Millie Jackson “Caught Up” albums from well back in the da.
Next up for mention is the floating stepper duet between Joe Tex II and Sharnette, two great voices doing battle over a subtle beat, “Still Don’t Pay My Bills” is a mid-tempo swinging dancer with all the right touches, ideal for radio play where that smooth radio sound is on point. As usual I’m going to be honest with you, at times musically this is dire, there appears to be little or no production control on some of the tracks, the raps are poor and pointless and add nothing to the overall concept of this album but thankfully they are kept to a minimum. If a real drummer and real horns had been used on each and every track then this album could quite easily have been a contender for album of the year, it’s that good. Lyrically and vocally in 2016 you really can’t do better. Gripes aside the pluses far out-way my concerns, after over 40 years of buying and promoting this great music I will always want something better, but Southern Soul is in my blood and so many albums could be so much better, and don’t talk to me about cost either, a drummer and real horns should be the basic foundation along with the voice. Lockdowne as with other small independent labels should be applauded for putting out what can only be described in the UK as specialist music, thank you. Essential for the vast majority of the tracks on the album.

Brian Goucher