Ralph Towner ‘My Foolish Heart’ (ECM) 5/5

One of the longest serving musicians on the ECM label, who has performed with the likes of Jan Garbarek, and others as well as with Oregon, Ralph Towner returns with a solo guitar project that has a quasi-live feel to the sound, yet still retains a wonderful intimacy. The project has as an underlying theme a warm tribute to the late great pianist Bill Evans, but is really a pretext for Towner to display his own dazzling virtuosity in a variety of musical settings and this he succeeds in accomplishing with aplomb. A folk feel is discernible on the opener, ‘Pilgrim’, and throughout the album, Towner delights in exploring the roots of different musical traditions, and on several pieces one can almost hear the nylon string guitar played flamenco style and there is both a finesse to and a freshness in the performances that is totally absorbing to the listener.
Towner was, as a then young pianist back in the 1960s, heavily influenced by the Bill Evans trio and their masterful interpretation of, ‘My foolish heart’, and hearing that reading had a major impact upon him. Thereafter, the twelve sting classical guitar became Ralph Towner’s main instrument of choice and is in fact the only non-original performed on this occasion. On ‘Dolomiti dance’, he seemingly goes back in time to the Elizabethan era and, perhaps, the music of John Dowland and approaches the music with great subtlety. Classical influences are not absent, especially on, ‘I’ll sing to you’, which could just as easily have been played by John Williams. There is fine comping from Towner on the pressing, ‘Saunter’, which at barely over the five minute mark is still the longest piece on the entire album while the guitarist’s dexterity is on show on, ‘Clarion call’, with fine interplay between his own hands. An exemplary ECM recording from a label that is enjoying renewed vitality. Ralph Towner is at his absolute best here.

Tim Stenhouse 

Søren Bebe Trio ‘Home’ CD (Private Press) 5/5

It sometimes feels that we might drown under the almost constant deluge of wonderful music from so many Scandinavian piano jazz trios. Whilst most, if not all of it is worthy music, I often find it difficult to distinguish between the various trios. It seems to me that very few have developed distinct identities. Off the top of my head, I can only think of EST and Tord Gustavsen. Then, along comes Søren Bebe. Søren seems to have assimilated the influence of Gustavsen to good effect and yet, to me at least, seems to have established that all-important individual group sound, subtly different from the others.I’ve been aware of the trio’s music for some time, since hearing ‘A Song For You’ from 2012 and thereafter ‘Eva’ an album from 2013 featuring bassist Marc Johnson. For this release, alongside Bebe on the piano we have Kasper Tagel on bass and regular drummer Anders Mogensen. The album was recorded in Copenhagen in 2015 and was mixed and mastered by Jan Erik Kongshaug at the famed Rainbow Studio in Oslo. It seems very fitting that the veteran sound engineer known for his work with ECM is on hand here.

The overarching feature of Bebe’s music is its lyricism. There is a clear lineage from Bill Evans to contemporary masters such as Keith Jarrett. Like, Gustavsen, there is often an emphasis on simple folk-like, almost mournful melodies.

The Danish pianist established the trio in 2007 and together they have released five previous albums.

The opening track ‘The Path Somewhere’ has an almost classical influence allied to a folk-like melody. Intensely melodic with bass and drums marking out a rhythmic pulse under the piano.

‘Tango for T’ follows and, like much of the album, it is very contemplative, and reveals its musical secrets gradually. Another melodic jewel.

One of the outstanding tracks for me is ‘A Simple Song’. It is exactly that. The trio asserts a hypnotic influence on the listener and it is impossible not to allow yourself to luxuriate in the soundscape that they create time and time again throughout the album.

This is not simply a pianist with a rhythm section, each member of the trio is an equal partner in the music-making and the trio breathes as one.

‘Look Out Now’ is another fantastic piece of music, seductive in its simplicity.

It would be easy to simply dismiss this as just an album of background music, but to do that would be to do the music and the musicians a grave disservice.

Along with the jazz music, Bebe has also produced a series of albums of music for Ballet classes. Listening to both it is clear that there are similarities between the two genres. Indeed, I suspect that Bebe sees no distinction between the two.

Bebe is justifiably proud of this album and has said that he considers it to be the trio’s “best album yet”. He goes on to say that “the record is the first time I’ve actually been true to my artistic vision. ‘Home’ is a quiet, slow album – the kind I’ve always wanted to make but didn’t have the guts to do.”

Listen to this album and you too, like me, will be transported to a better place.

Alan Musson

Chameleon ‘Chameleon: Expanded Edition’ (BBR) 4/5

One of the lost treasures of the disco era, Chameleon were a one album outfit produced by and featuring two jazz instrumentalists in multi-reed player Azar Lawrence and trombonist Fred Wesley, the latter of whom was an integral member of the James Brown organisation and offshoots, the J.B’s. Lawrence had performed as part of McCoy Tyner’s band and with the more obscure sounding formation that comprised the mid-1970s period in Miles Davis’ career, on ‘Dark Magus’ from 1974. He led a parallel career as a leader on the jazz label Prestige and recorded two well received albums that long-term fans of spiritual jazz have warmed to. Both ‘New age’, featuring the vocals of Jean Carn, and ‘Summer Solstice’, are richly deserving of a re-issue at some stage.While this self-titled album release on Elektra records from 1979 was clearly aimed at the dancefloor, the quality of musicians on board elevated this album above the rest, and alongside elongated disco numbers, are jazz-tinged funk numbers, such as, ‘Mysteryoso’, which takes a leaf out of the Herbie Hancock Headhunters era. Elsewhere, there are contemplative soul songs with fine accompaniment from the likes of Gerald ‘Get down’ Brown on bass and Ronald Brune on drums. The pick of these is, ‘Game of life’, sung by Earl Alexander who doubles up on guitar.

As a memorable bonus, the two disco-oriented numbers are included in their full length 12″ versions and probably worth the purchase of the CD alone. While ‘Get up’ is the more conventional of the two dance tracks, ‘We’ll be dancin’ was the late 1970s in microcosm with beefy percussion including the obligatory syndrums and a stunning percussive breakdown, a fine horn section that included Earth, Wind and Fire hornman Andrew Woolfolk and the smooth lead vocals of Delbert Taylor. An underground disco hit for sure and one that thankfully has stood the test of time remarkably well.

To this writer’s knowledge, no follow up record was issued so this is all we have to represent the band and the liner notes written by Christian John Wilkane feature an interview with Azar Lawrence. A worthy re-issue item that would be all too easy to overlook.

Tim Stenhouse

Graham Central Station ‘Now Do U Wanta Dance’ / ‘My Radio Sounds Good to Me’ / ‘Star Walk’ 2CD (Soul Music) 3/5

Heavily influenced by the music of Sly and the Family Stone when for a brief period funk and rock seemingly met in perfect harmony as did the existence of a truly multi-racial band, Graham Central Station was created by bassist Larry Graham in 1974 and made a self-tilted debut for Warner that year. This latest collection of three albums on two CDs takes the story that little bit further to 1977 when funk was facing a major challenge to its throne with disco in the ascendency.
The first album is notable for two covers that demonstrated Graham’s ability to ire-interpret and indeed stretch out a famous original. Attempting Al Green’s anthemic opus, ‘Love and happiness’, was no easy task, but the bassline is a whole lot funkier and the music grittier than the lushness and warmth of the textured original. A fine alternative reading, then. Equally, Bobby Bland had cut, ‘Lead me on’ as a southern soul-blues number, but Graham sought to create a more laid back version with hammond organ incorporated. Both covers were minor hits. Where Graham really got himself caught in a musical spider’s web is with a track such as, ‘Earthquake’. There was certainly no doubting the virtuosity of the bass playing, or of the instrumentation in general, but something was simply being lost in the musicality with far too great an emphasis on rock-tinged guitar.

A 1978 produced album by jazz veteran Benny Golson provided a new path for Graham with, ‘Is it love?’, a ballad with a guitar intro straight out of the Isley Brothers repertoire and this again scored minor chart success. However, even here, the non-distinctive pop-rock of ‘Have faith in me’ was simply out of tune with the times. On the other hand. ‘Saving my love for you’ could just as easily be an early Prince song and it is clear that Prince was influenced by the high falsetto harmonies on evidence here and these are reminiscent of the early 1980s work of the sadly departed Purple One. In fact, even some of the titles come across as Prince-like, with ‘Now-do-u-wanna dance?’ a perfect illustration.

By 1979, Graham was clearly struggling to re-invent himself and a new album, ‘Star walk’, was co-produced by the Philly International musicians Bobby Martin and Ron Kersey. From this the disco hit, ‘(You’re a) foxy lady’, was a short-term solution, but both disco and Graham could not survive on this alone. As a whole, funk-rock was already in the mid-late 1970s starting to sound dated and adding disco into the equation (the very last Parliament album being a prime example) was a hazardous enterprise at the best of times. While this offering represents value for money in terms of time, the music itself does not represent either Larry Graham, or his band at their best. The voice in particular sounds warbled in places, though Graham was clearly making progress and would have the last laugh when he scored a major soul and pop hit with the 1980 love ballad, ‘One in a million you’.

Tim Stenhouse

Wingfield / Reuter / Stavi / Sirkis ‘The Stone House’ (MoonJune) 2/5

“The Stone House” features two of today’s most original, risk-taking guitarists; the UK’s Mark Wingfield and Germany’s Markus Reuter. They are joined for this session by Israeli born UK transplants, bassist Yaron Stavi and drummer Asaf Sirkis.
The concept behind this recording was to incorporate many of the elements which have drawn listeners to progressive music for decades, embracing a whole host of genre leaping influences, from free jazz, rock, ambient, psychedelic, trance, fusion and much more besides. The music on the album was completely improvised with none of the music written down or rehearsed. An ambitious project then, and one that when looking at the musicians involved really does whet the appetite.

Having listened to the album several times, whilst I can fully appreciate the undoubted skill of the musicians involved, I have to say I’m left a little cold by the resulting sound that courses it’s way through my ears and brain. A simplified explanation or summary of genre that forces its way from my lips, is ‘Stoner-Jazz’. Don’t get me wrong, there are some high points to the album, most notably Sirkis’ incredible drumming which makes the album worth a listen to in its own right. And the undoubted quality of the two electric guitarists, with sounds shifting effortlessly and effects ranging from harsh to even harsher to metal to grunge to ambient to vitriolic shape-shifting and back again, is very impressive. But overall, as much as it grieves me to say this, it just sounds soulless.

Perhaps in the grand theatre of invention, a key element sometimes gets forgotten. And that key element is that somewhere there needs to be either cohesion, or emotion, to enable the audience to ‘get’ what they are listening to. For me I’m not getting either of these things. I dare say that at the time the quartet felt it, but to my ears something somewhere has got lost in translation between the live session that makes up this album, and the audience who listen to it. Others will no doubt disagree, but I can only speak as I find.

Recording spontaneous and improvised music is a risk, one that to my mind will always be well worth taking. Sometimes the results will be nothing short of revelatory and astonishing. And sometimes it just doesn’t work as well for the listener as for the musicians giving their all on the music they are making. For me, although “The Stone House” is most certainly not without merit, it does fall into the latter of the two aforementioned categories.

Mike Gates

Chip Wickham ‘La Sombra’ LP/CD/DIG (Lovemonk) 3/5

Flautist/saxophonist Roger “Chip” Wickham is a name you might be familiar with if you read liner notes. Since he started out playing in Manchester during the ‘90s, his credits include work with Rae and Christian, Eddie Roberts and Matthew Halsall as well as an album under the moniker Malena with partner Dan Broad. To date Wickham has only released a couple of singles in his own name, “La Sombra” is his first album. Currently based in Dubai, the album was recorded in Madrid, where he lived for some years. Musicians on the set are Gabriel Casanova on piano, David Salvador on double bass and Antonio “Pax” Álvarez on drums.
Much of Wickham’s previous work has been in a retro vein, Soul Jazz or vintage funk, and as a whole “La Sombra” takes us into similar areas. The title track is an enticing opener, one that primes and focuses the senses with its clean, soothing tones and an unhurried, lighter-than-air aura that encourages reflection and introspection. Wickham’s flute and pianist Casanova’s piano lines have enough about them to elevate and add colour to this mood in a spiritual way.

I first heard “La Sombra” last year and have been keen to hear more since. Unfortunately I have mixed feelings about the rest of the album. For me the sound, whilst admittedly rooted in Jazz of the ‘60s and ‘70s, is too derivative and lacking in individual, original touches. I find this particularly so on uptempo, Soul Jazz numbers like “Sling Shot” or “Red Planet”; compact, melodic tunes that are easy on the ear, but don’t really capture or maintain my interest. Elsewhere, down tempo tracks like “Pushed Too Far” and “Tokyo Slo Mo”, both of which have some nice work on the vibes, are pleasant enough, although I appreciate that in saying this I am damning them with faint praise. Neither has the impact of the title track.

If the retro scene is your bag then you will probably find plenty to like in this album, but for me I’m afraid that I can’t see beyond the title track.

Andy Hazell

Jimmy Reed ‘Four Classic Albums’ 2CD (Avid Jazz) 4/5

Singer-songwriter Jimmy Reed is one of the undisputed greats of blues singing, yet he is still relatively underrated. This despite the fact that the Rolling Stones have never ceased to sing his praises, at regular intervals covering his songbook, and that includes their very latest album which is a series of blues covers reinvigorated with the Stones’ own trademark licks.Avid have again done a sterling job of condensing four of Jimmy Reed’s late 1950s and early 1960s albums onto two CDs. This comes with one caveat. While all the albums are worthwhile and help showcase Reed’s majestic delivery, this does not as such amount to a greatest hits package since it is missing some of the singer’s biggest hits of the calibre of, ‘Honest I do’, ‘Ain’t that lovin’ you baby’, ‘Bright lights’ big city’ and ‘You don’t have to go’. Thus, you would need to supplement the present package with an authoritative anthology to have the near complete picture. That said, the music within captures Jimmy Reed in excellent form and some of the songs are definitive examples of electric Chicago blues with a strong dose of R & B.

Unlike other singers of the same ilk such as any of Albert, B.B. or Freddie King, Jimmy Reed did not engage in long instrumental solos and simply left his understated voice to do all the talking for him. This writer immediately warmed to the funky undercurrent and raunchy drum beat of, ‘Big boss man’, which is a highlight while a classic bass line groove and intimate guitar greet the listener on, ‘Baby you want me to’, which does nonetheless feature a harmonica solo that Reed repeats elsewhere. Another winner is, ‘Hush hush’, which has the catchiest of riffs and a terrific soulful delivery from the leader. Some of these songs originally came out on a double vinyl and was mistakenly titled, ‘Live at Carnegie Hall’. In reality, they were not live at all. Like many blues musicians, Reed was born in Mississippi and moved up to Chicago in 1943, after completing his military service, before relocating to Gary, Indiana (where the Jackson Five family would be raised). He worked at a meat packing plant while gradually integrating himself into the rapidly emerging Chicago blues scene.

It was a tragedy that Jimmy Reed should be plagued by epilepsy throughout his career and depart this life aged just fifty-one in 1976. Consequently, the world of music was deprived of one of its truly great disciples. Hopefully, this two CD set will help fill in at least some of the gaps.

Tim Stenhouse

Sugar Pie DeSanto ‘A Little Bit of Soul: 1957-1962’ (Jasmine) 4/5

When ACE records released, ‘Go Go Power: the complete Chess singles 1961-1966’, a few years back, you could have been forgiven for thinking that would be all the Sugar Pie DeSanto sides you would ever require. Thankfully, this excellent new compilation proves all sceptics wrong and adds to the panoramic picture with the inclusion in full of a 1962 album that the singer recorded for Chess on their soul offshoot, Checker. In addition, it offers the substantial bonus of a series of 45s on independent labels that preceded her tenure with Chess. Moreover, there is precious little duplication either since there are only four songs that overlap and thus the new set represents a fine accompaniment to the existing and already excellent ACE overview.
Of great interest to fans of gritty R & B is cult bay Area producer Bob Geddins for the self-titled album from 1962. Where this differs crucially from the singles is that Sugar Pie’s wonderfully vibrant vocal delivery was, on the album format, given full reign to cover a diversity of styles and these included gospel, blues and jazz, as well as R & B idioms. There is a definite hint of the influence of Dinah Washington on some songs here and the former was at the zenith of her commercial popularity at the time, something that a young Sugar Pie DeSanto could not fail to have observed, and possibly hoped to replicate in turn. Certainly, the intimate jazz-tinged guitar and saxophone work wonders on, ‘Maybe you’ll be there’, and on the standard, ‘It’s not for me to stay’. Fans of Donny Osmond will recall his hit single from the 1970s, ‘The twelfth of never’, but how many are aware that Johnny Mathis had the first hit with that song in 1957 and DeSanto transforms the piece into a slow moving gospel number. One of this writer’s favourite numbers from the album is the gentle mid-tempo groove of, ‘I still care’, which actually has a strong Chicago blues feel even though it was not actually recorded in the Windy City. In fact, another song, ‘I don’t feel sorry’, comes across as a proto-Motown sound, albeit with a country-soul bent. Of course, the driving uptempo R & B songs are what DeSanto is best known for and she could certainly belt them out as and when required. An album track that should have been released as a 45 is the low down grit of, ‘Tell me what’s the matter’, which is a contender for the strongest song on the CD as a whole along with the beautiful female harmonies to ‘Ask me’ and ‘Open your heart’. Arranger and conductor Riley Hampton is to be congratulated for his work here and on several numbers including the excellent, ‘Can’t let you go’, the lovely bass line and hi-hat drums are a prominent feature and only enhance the listening experience.

As for the early singles, they are notable in that they feature duets with her husband, Pee Wee Kingsley, aka Alvin Parker. DeSanto would make duets a trademark of her repertoire and, while the early singles lack the same quality of instrumental support or studio sound of the later Chess period, they nonetheless are an indication of what was to come and for fans of the singer, it is extremely useful to have them all in one place to compare and contrast. A very worthy re-issue, then, from one of R & B’s most tenacious and individual singers. The photos by the way are most likely taken from a live date at the Jigsaw Club in Manchester circa 1966 and are testimony to the athletic and expressive prowess of the singer.

Tim Stenhouse

Aaron Parks ‘Groovements’ (Stunt) 4/5

Seattle born pianist Aaron Parks first came to prominence in 2008 with his acoustic fusion debut for Blue Note, ‘Invisible Cinema’, and then five years later followed this up with an excellent ECM solo recording, ‘Abrorescence’, which was arguably his strongest album to date. Parallel to this, Parks has been a regular contributor to the James Farm collective that among others includes saxophonist Joshua Redman.
His new trio outing is on the independent Danish Stunt label that is carving out a reputation for quality jazz musicians and he is accompanied in the endeavour by bassist Thomas Fonnesbaek and drummer Karsten Bagge. While, perhaps, not as adventurous as the ECM album, this is nonetheless a highly enjoyable and melodic recording that takes on board various classical and contemporary influences from Debussy and Satie to Arvo Pärt, and from a jazz perspective from Paul Bley to Keith Jarrett and through to Brad Mehldau. In parts, there is a lightness of touch that recalls the Bill Evans trio, especially on a piece such as, ‘Elutheria’, and the interplay between trio members suggests that collectively they have soaked up the innovatory aspects of the classic Evans era.

Musicality is at the very core of, ‘Alcubierre’s law’, which has wonderful floating quality, and where one really hears the trio in unison. Whereas there is a reposing quality to, ‘Forever this moment’, the emphasis is more on the blues on, ‘A rabbit’s tale’, with a delightful bass line in the main theme that lingers long on the mind. In general, Aaron Parks specialises in quiet contemplative music and this is illustrated further on, ‘Winter’s waltz’, a piece that was composed by Fonnesboek. The choice of what has become something of a modern jazz standard in Cedar Walton’s, ‘Bolivia’, is treated less as a Latin-infused number as on the original and more as a piece with shifting polyrhythms that are expertly crafted by Bagge. One pop cover is intriguingly a Bruce Springsteen composition, ‘I’m on fire’, that here takes on a distinctive gentle New Orleans mid-tempo groove with inventive percussion work from Bagge. Classical music is not forgotten with a gorgeous pared down ballad taken from Carlo Neilsen’s, ‘Tit er jeg glad’, and featuring just piano and double bass, with Fonnesboek entering into an extended solo. In sum, a well balanced offering of modern and classic straight ahead flavours that impresses the listener from start to finish.

Tim Stenhouse

Club d’Elf ‘Live at Club Helsinki’ (Face Pelt) 4/5

Crossing musical boundaries is something that some artists do better than others. Club d’Elf must be near the top of the tree in this respect, with their genre-leaping, eclectic fusion of dub-jazz, prog-rock, drum ‘n’ bass, psychedelic Moroccan dosed improvisational music. As much defined by sci-fi writer Philip K Dick, as by the parallel universes of Miles Davis and Fela Kuti, the band draws its inspiration from many diverse sources. Featuring keyboard wizard John Medeski, along with Brahim Fribgane, Duke Levine, Mister Rourke, Mike Rivard and Dean Johnston, this Boston based collective excel in the combined use of analogue keys and synths, guitars, turntables, laptops, horns, tablas and all manner of exotic instruments. Other guest contributors include DJ Logic, Mark Sandman, Hassan Hakmoun and Billy Martin, as the band take to the stage to embrace their non-convention with their musical menagerie of sound and spirit.Live at Club Helsinki is a double album of improvisational acumen, performed and recorded at one of the band’s favourite venues. The combination of excellent sound, intimate environment and an audience tuned into the band’s every nuance, makes for a heady mix as the album captures the feel of two complete continuous sets of improv and classic Club d’Elf tunes.

Disc one starts with the free jazz opening of “Mogador”, featuring Medeski on grand piano, and segues seamlessly into one of the finest tracks on the album, “Africa”, driven by the brilliant, rootsy Telecaster of Duke Levine. The whole performance throughout this album constantly shifts from one style of music to another, almost tormenting the audience in a quirky kind of way, as if to say, ‘I bet you didn’t see this coming’. And yet Club d’Elf are masters at this, succeeding where many try and fail, with the incredible achievement of making it sound so natural that so many different styles can be mounded together to create something new, exciting and ultimately skillful and very enjoyable. “The Booloolu” employs an almost long forgotten groove, whilst “Hegaz” is based on a traditional Arabic scale. There is at times a wonderful flow to the music, as the solos sparkle and the deep grooves flirt with vivacious exuberance. The bass driven hip-hop of “Secret Atom” showcases the wizardry of Mister Rourke, whose rock-steady beat-matching and ability to pitch samples into the key of the song set him apart from many DJ’s. The first set closes with “Berber Song”, featuring some blistering solos from Medeski and Levine.

The Moroccan influence comes to the fore on the second set, beginning with a tribute to the late Maalem Mahmoud Guinia. “Zeed Al Maal” is another album highlight, featuring the vocals of Fribgane and Rivard’s intense and commanding playing of the Moroccan sintir, a camel skin covered bass lute. “Power Plant” follows, with Levine adding a James Bond-esque melody over a sintir propelled rhythm. The band then flows effortlessly into “Salvia” and “Green Screen”, with dance-floor filling electro-jams fuelled by Medeski’s funky clavinet. The last tune “Sidi Rabi” features Fribgane’s oud and vocals, closing the set on a spiritual note.

Club d’Elf have been drawing on a wide spectrum of styles since their formation in 1998. Each performance can feature a different line-up, drawn from a constellation of some of the most creative musicians from the jazz, DJ, rock and world music scenes of Boston and New York City, and “Live at Club Helsinki” captures well exactly what this band are all about.

Mike Gates