Tom Haines & The Birmingham Jazz Orchestra ‘Live’ (Private Press) 5/5

This album has been a true labour of love. It was funded, as is becoming increasingly common, with the aid of a Crowdfunder Project, whereby supporters of the band and its music were able to pledge money in return for various rewards ranging from a free download of the resultant album to having one’s name listed on the CD inlay as a contributor or even a 3-hour music lesson with Tom. Ultimately, the Crowdfunder target was exceeded and so now we are all able to enjoy the wonderful music that was recorded at Stratford Jazz on 7th December 2016. This date too is important as it marked the 30th Anniversary of Stratford Jazz, a venerable institution which now under the leadership of saxophonist Jay Riley and colleagues is going from strength to strength.

The Orchestra is the brainchild of trumpeter Sean Gibbs. All five compositions on the album come from the pen of Mr Haines who also conducts the assembled aggregation. Two of the compositions are award-winning pieces, and one of these, along with two others, received their UK Premiere in Stratford.

The Orchestra includes a mix of some of the more established musicians on the local scene, including Eliot Drew, Chris Young and John Fleming in the saxophone section, Sean Gibbs and Mike Adlington on the trumpets, Richard Foote, trombone and David Ferris on piano and the ubiquitous Jonathan Silk at the drums. Young whippersnappers making up the remainder of the Orchestra include Vittoria Mura on tenor sax and flute, trumpeter Tom Syson, who’s own excellent album is reviewed here and the guitarist who’s name is on everyone’s lips at the moment, Ben Lee.

So we have great compositions and an equally great Orchestra to interpret Tom’s work.

The opening piece ‘Yitzoid’ features unusual voicings for the instrumentalists and fine solo work from Young on alto saxophone and Gibbs on trumpet. The rhythm section, including Stuart Barker on double bass build up quite a head of steam as the tension mounts. In places I’m reminded of the work of Colin Towns, at others the memory of Loose Tubes is evoked.

‘Mystery Dog (Mr E. Dog)’ follows and clocking in at more than thirteen minutes is the longest piece on the album, but allows more than ample time for the musical delights to unfold, including a beautiful contribution from Drew on soprano sax. Later, as the tempo changes, we have muscular solos from Alicia Gardener-Trejo on baritone sax and Kieran McLeod on trombone.

‘Remembrance’ is next and is, perhaps, a conventional big band piece. We have considered solos from Ben Lee and Mike Adlington. This is a truly sumptuous piece of work.

Next is ‘Strange Utopia’ and my immediate thoughts were of Gil Evans’ earlier work. The tone and feel changes however as vocalist Rosie Harris is introduced and Lee and the rest of the rhythm team create an almost rock foundation for the quite delicate vocals to soar over. There follows an impassioned solo from John Fleming on tenor sax before the vocalist re-enters cushioned by piano and bass.

The final piece ‘Whistleblower’ sounds like it was great fun to play. Mura, Ferris and Silk are given a chance to shine on this to great effect.

The recorded sound is exemplary and it is very easy to forget that this is a live recording. The audience’s applause is often hard to discern.

This is an auspicious debut from a composer that I for one am keen to hear more from.

Alan Musson

Denys Baptiste ‘ The Late Trane’ (Edition) 3/5

Comparisons, comparisons… I know, we shouldn’t make them. But when listening to the music of John Coltrane how can we not? No matter how we choose to describe it; Coltrane’s music ‘reinterpreted’, ‘reworked’, reenvisioned’, etc etc, it is still the music of John Coltrane. For an artist, the challenge has to be to find an original voice and character from the music that is already so familiar to the listener. To this end, “The Late Trane”, the new album from British saxophonist Denys Baptiste does succeed in the main. Baptiste is a commanding, enigmatic musician, and here he attempts to balance his unique artistic vision with the visceral emotions and cosmic references that encompass Coltrane’s late music.

Baptiste enjoys the company of a stellar band; Nikki Yeoh on piano and keyboards, Neil Charles on bass, Rod Youngs on drums, and with special guests Gary Crosby on bass and Steve Williamson on tenor sax. And at times, they really do fire on all cylinders, blowing up a spiritual storm. Yet at other times, I’m left a little nonplussed, wondering how all this talent appears to have got a little lost on their journey. Too many wrong turns or questionable direction? The cosmic sat-nav has a glitch; it should know where it’s going but it just doesn’t quite get there.

Eight of the ten numbers presented here are Coltrane tunes, with the remaining two, “Astral Trane” and “Neptune”, being fitting Baptiste originals. There’s a nice flow to proceedings, with Baptiste and Yeoh, two formidable musicians who I greatly admire, on occasions striking planetary gold together. But for me, these moments are a little too rare on this occasion. The exploratory style that Yeoh employs here is a little out-of-place at times, and somewhat surprisingly, Baptiste’s energy, whilst fluently rhythmic on occasion, also appears slightly disjointed. A mixed bag that leaves me wanting to like what I’m hearing more than I actually do. And whilst some tunes do work particularly well, with a fresh edge and sincerity making for a very enjoyable, almost visionary feel, there are other tunes that simply just don’t work.

If I was to take this album in its own right, without knowing anything about it, or without having heard any of the tunes before, would I have liked it more? Yes, I probably would, because the originality and wonder of the tunes themselves would sing loud to me. But as it is, I can’t ignore the fact that on this recording I’m left with a keen sense of what might have been. There is nonetheless still much to enjoy and admire. For me personally, it’ll be a big ask to find anyone who plays Coltrane quite as well as Joe Lovano does. The big man fits comfortably into the great man’s shoes.

Mike Gates

Quercus ‘Nightfall’ (ECM) 4/5

Trio Quercus typify the eclectic approach of the ECM label. Pairing an established and revered folk singer in June Tabor with pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Iain Ballamy (ex Loose Tubes) was always going to be an intriguing coming together of sounds and this builds upon the excellent and critically acclaimed eponymous debut on ECM from 2013. The new recording is a demonstration in musical restraint and understatement. Although some might question whether that simply means a lack of imagination and be put off by the pastoral hues of the album that are certainly present within, this is happily not the case here. An eclectic selection of songs takes in English and Scottish folk traditions, revisits the great American songbook and adds a couple of interesting originals by the two instrumentalists. Moreover, at just over sixty-five minutes, the trio clearly still have plenty to say and express themselves collectively in an understated manner. Ballamy and Warren offer an empathetic and ever supportive role as exemplified on, ‘The Manchester angel’. A stripped down take on Dylan’s, ‘Don’t think twice’, works a treat and focuses attention on Tabor’s vocal prowess. Timeless material in, ‘Somewhere’ by Bernstein and Sondheim and the standard, ‘You don’t know what love is’, are the nearest this album gets to a more conventional jazz treatment. An interesting Ballamy original in, ‘Emmeline’, allows piano and saxophone to combine in collective harmony. Folk and jazz complement one another on the playful rendition of, ‘The Cuckoo’, while fittingly, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ends the album on a pared down and less optimistic tone than one might normally expect.

Folk fans who might balk at the prospect of jazz intervening, are most likely to be enthralled by this recording. The jazz component is never intrusive, but rather a downplayed and more supportive part of the mix.

Tim Stenhouse

Oumou Sangaré ‘Mogoya’ LP/CD/DIG (Nø Førmat!) 5/5

Here is one of the finest new offerings of the summer to date and an album that in some ways is an updated version of Salif Keita’ landmark, ‘Soro’, for the twenty-first century. First, take an experienced Malian singer in Oumou Sangaré and pair her with a younger generation of producers from France and Sweden. Second, retain some of the rootsier elements to her sound, but embellish them with influences outside her native land and give them a subtle modern touch. This is precisely what has happened on this new recording, the first album that Sangaré has recorded in fact for some eight years and it proves to be a revelatory listening experience.

This all original set of compositions is relatively short, weighing in at just over forty minutes, but there is absolutely no filler whatsoever and this writer immediately appreciated the subtle blend of traditional instrumentation (ngoni, marimba) with funk-tinged bass lines and dance floor rhythm guitar. Nigerian Afro-Beat drum patterns are a key feature on ‘Yere faga’ (‘Suicide’), where Tony Allen guests and the shuffling drum pattern allied to Sangaré’s distinctive vocals are a winning combination. Another dance floor oriented groove, and arguably the strongest song of all, is the infectious, ‘Kamelemba’ (‘Womaniser’), and this listener warmed to the use of layered percussion that enters gradually into the overall sound. This could be a potential crossover hit if released as a 12″. Competing with song is another gorgeous groove in, ‘Kounkoun’ (‘Bad millet grains’), and the interweaving of bass line and rhythm guitar, alongside collective overdubbed vocals and handclaps make this a stunning number where tradition and modernity meet in perfect harmony.

Oumou Sangaré first came to prominence internationally (in her native Mali she scored a hit with her cassette only debut in 1990) via the World Circuit label and the title, ‘Moussolou’ or ‘women’ set the tone for much of her work, exploring social issues from the perspective of an African woman and one who felt sufficiently liberated to criticise where she felt it necessary to do so. Her deeply her views have been expressed across a whole range of issues and she has never been one to sit on the fence and see which way the wind blows.

This is both an extremely well thought and supremely well executed album. It pulls no punches lyrically and yet it is immediately accessible. Expect this to be on all the right playlists over the summer months and beyond. Already a strong contender for new African album of the year and a triumphant return for Oumou Sangaré.

Tim Stenhouse

Dwight Trible ‘Inspirations’ LP/CD (Gondwana) 4/5

One of my musical highlights from last year was Dwight Trible’s gig with Matthew Halsall & the Gondwana Orchestra at London’s Jazz Cafe. It was a night that will live long in my memory, a complete immersion in spiritual jazz, from the eastern-tinged, instrumental soundscapes of the “When The World Was One” album in the first half, to classics and crowd pleasers like “Wise One”, “John Coltrane”, “The Creator Has a Masterplan” and “I’ve Known Rivers” featuring Dwight on vocals, in the second.

Between both men there seems to be a genuine admiration and respect as well as a lot of shared ground musically. Trible has been criminally under-recorded over the years and it’s clear that in Halsall he has found a kindred spirit.

“Inspirations” brings together 8 songs that have inspired them both, and which are in turn inspiring, sharing in their lyrics uplifting messages of hope, of healing, of spirituality and love, as well as an active awareness of political and social conditions.

Trible makes these songs ring out with emotion, a passion borne out of an unwavering commitment to their lyrics and the message(s) he needs to convey. His energy isn’t driven by anger, but is fuelled by love and given credibility by knowledge and experience. If this makes him sound like a preacher, then I guess that’s because there is a real sense of that running through his performance. His deep, authoritative tones are rooted in gospel, blues, soul and jazz and draw comparison to the likes of Leon Thomas, Andy Bey and Bernard Ighner, but it’s distinctly Dwight Trible in style.

The album opens with the Bacharach and David classic “What The World Needs Now Is Love”, a bright, uptempo number. This track has the Gondwana Orchestra sound, which is not surprising as the band features many of the regular Gondwana cohort. Taz Modi’s distinctive piano, accenting Trible’s vocals, Rachael Gladwin’s sweeping harp and Halsall’s melancholic trumpet solo are all familiar features to those conversant with Halsall’s back catalogue. In fairness, apart from this track the rest of the album feels like it’s Trible’s, for which Halsall, as producer, should take credit.

The core musicians – Modi, Gavin Barras on Bass and Jon Scott on drums – work well in the more traditional jazz trio setting. Halsall pops up from time to time; never the brashest of players, his solos are sympathetic, just enough to remind us he is involved. In this setting Modi’s piano playing comes to the fore, showing his adaptability and confidence. If Halsall’s music is “rain-streaked spiritual Jazz”, then Taz Modi’s rippling piano melodies are the droplets falling from the sky.

The choice of Donny Hathaway/Leroy Hutson’s “Tryin’ Times” goes to show that some messages can resonate through the ages. The same can be said of the powerful spiritual “Deep River”, an expression of sorrow, of the past and of the hope for the future. In the early 20th Century this song was closely associated with the singer Marian Anderson and her own struggles against prejudice. Trible makes these songs personal, none more so than this, the most touching song on the album.

The only song that doesn’t quite work for me is the Cole Porter song “I Love Paris”. This may just be about context – elsewhere Trible sings about issues affecting humanity; broad, important subjects, to the extent that the fluffy subject matter of this song leave me underwhelmed. Perhaps a palate cleanser is what is needed.

Whilst I might have wished for some original music, maybe even a 21st century “Trying’ Times”, “Inspirations” more than delivers as a collaborative endeavour and whets the appetite for more.

Andy Hazell

Sometimes unexpected pairings of musicians are simply meant to be and thus a chance encounter at a jazz festival in South Africa in 2005 between singer Dwight Trible and trumpeter/label owner Matthew Halsall has resulted in this collaborative effort that is at once a wonderful example of the spiritual jazz sub-genre and a fitting observation on our atomised contemporary society and the fissures that exist globally and nationally.

Stylistically, the Cincinatti born singer owes a debt of gratitude to both Andy Bey and Leon Thomas (minus the yodelling exploits, thankfully), with his bass baritone register, but now based in Los Angeles with a thriving jazz community resident there, he has soaked up influences that range from cult 1970s soul to the continual presence of the Coltrane’s husband and wife, and even drawing upon in parts the spiritual activism of Paul Robeson.

For the former, the soulful composition by Leroy Hutson, ‘Tryin’ Times’, has never sounded as apt for a social commentary and it is the bass line that leads the way and lyrics of the calibre of ‘Folks wouldn’t have to suffer if you had more love for your brother’. Moreover, Trible’s ability to vary the tempo of a standard is illustrated on an infinitely slower rendition of ‘I Love Paris’, which makes for a lovely contrast with Jackie Terasson’s interpretation. A Dorothy Ashby composition, ‘Heaven and Hell’, is treated at a shuffling pace on piano and drums, with Trible imbuing the lyrics with just the right dose of emotion. Modal piano accompaniment is the order of the day on an uptempo take on ‘Feelin’ good’, while Eastern philosophical hues are showcased on a traditional song that Nina Simone made her own in ‘Black is the colour of my true love’s hair’, with a sparse bass intro from Gavin Barras, and some delightful harp from Rachel Gladwin. As a statement of what thew musicians are seeking to communicate, the waltz-like opener, ‘What the world needs now is love’, pretty much says it all as a plea for greater global unity and is delivered at a pace that is in stark contrast with the Dionne Warwick original. Matthew Halsall plays a secondary role on this album, but as and when required, enters with a subtle trumpet solo. Jazz music can and should provide a voice on the world that surrounds it, especially when that same world is in seeming disarray and searching for deeper answers.

Tim Stenhouse

Jazzmeia Horn ‘A Social Call’ CD (Prestige) 4/5

Major new female do not come along all that often, but one thing seems certain; Jazzmeia Horn is destined for a glittering career if this debut recording is anything to go by. Interestingly, her voice is a composite of various singers, but still comes out sounding very much her own. There is unquestionably a strong nod to Betty Carter whom she most resembles, but then there are equally shades of Erykah Badu and, in the scats at the very least, Al Jarreau, which comes as an extremely pleasant surprise, while Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carmen Lundy and Sarah Vaughan all emerge in the mix at various points.

The judicious selection of jazz standards allied with more unusual and quirky choices hints at a jazz singer who knows both how to best extract music that suits her and adds an individual touch to her interpretations. Interestingly, the standards are generally relatively short, yet Horn compensates by attempting medleys of two and three songs and these can last as long as thirteen minutes in one case. The lesser known Myron Butler composition, ‘Up above my head’, was a real favourite and here the phrasing does come across as influenced by Erykah Badu (Horn on the cover also physically resembles a younger sister of Badu) and it features a trombone solo from Frank Lacy.

One of the most interesting combinations of songs into a medley is the unofficial/defacto African-American anthem by James Weldon Johnson, ‘Lift every voice’, which segues into Bobby Timmons’ opus, ‘Moanin’. few singers would even dare to fuse those disparate songs, yet Horn does and she pulls it off too. For further variety, the blues-inflected soul of a classic Norman Whitfield composition, ‘I’m going down’, suits Horn’s voice to perfection and the Les Mccann influenced piano playing of Victor Gould helps create precisely the right ambiance. Horn contributes some wonderful ad-lib and call and response vocals. There is no doubting the major potential here. Just keep on progressing in this manner and the most promising of futures looks assured.

Tim Stenhouse

Rubén González ‘Introducing… (extended Edition)’ 2LP/CD/DIG (World Circuit) 5/5

One of the off-shoot individual projects of the global Buena Vista Social Club phenomena, this little masterpiece of an album first came out in 1997, produced by Nick Gold, and is arguably one of the very best of any of the albums that the constituent members ever recorded. Twenty years later comes an extended and deluxe edition complete with gatefold box sleeve and additional notes, celebrating this vintage Latin American set of musicians from Cuba who conquered the world and, inadvertently, led to a thaw in cultural relations between Cuba and the United States that served as precursor to the thawing of political relations under the Obama administration.

Revisiting the music twenty years on, one is still struck by the rawness of the studio sound which was recorded live with no overdubs. It certainly lends a timeless quality to the music. Various all-time great Cuban composers are showcased on this album, but there is unquestionably one who sticks out in particular and that is Arsenio Rodriguez. He is quite simply one of the all-time greats of Latin music, and not only an outstanding composer, but equally a gifted instrumentalist. Rubén González first made his name as a young musician as a sideman with Rodriguez.

In general, a variety of Cuban styles are on display on the album and these range from fast-paced guaracha and explosive descarga numbers to the more relaxed cha cha cha and bolero genres. Tellingly, González proves himself to be equally adept in all of these.

Of the uptempo tracks, ‘Mandinga’, is a personal favourite and one that has been covered by another giant of the Latin piano, Eddie Palmieri. On this interpretation, González adopts a medium tempo with vocals and trumpet entering half way through. It is a stunning rendition. In close competition, the percussive son muntuno piece, ‘Tumbao’, is mightily impressive with chanted vocals and the pianist demonstrates an admirable dexterity and facility with the ivories. The tastiest of repetitive riffs seems to go on for ever, but over this there is some scintillating improvised percussion work. One unissued piece comes in the shape of, ‘Descarga Rubén y Cachaito’, which is a juicy jam session of a number and one with an air of distinction and telepathic communication between pianist and bassist.

Three of the original album numbers are now found in extended form, but still retain their essence. In a more sedate fashion, the danzón style is illustrated on, ‘Almendra’, which builds up from a slow beginning into a thrilling crescendo. In a more staccato mid-tempo vein, the opening number, ‘La Engañadora’, is a cha cha cha that also features the sound of the trumpet. A second piece in the same style is, ‘Tres lindas cubanas’, and this is showcased by some delicate bass and piano work.

All in all a superb piano recording and still sounding as fresh now as when it first surfaced.

Tim Stenhouse

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan ‘Small Town’ (ECM) 5/5

Guitarist Bill Frisell returns in a leader (albeit in a joint setting) capacity to ECM for the first time since 1988 and the resulting live recording proves to be something of a revelation. Frisell has of course recorded as a sideman on the label in recent times, notably with Stefano Bollani and Andrew Cyrille. However, this is the first time the pairing of Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan have come together. The latter is now thirty-five and has built up an impressive CV that takes in recordings with John Abercrombie, Chris Potter, Tomasz Stanko and Craig Taborn among others, but this duet performance trumps all before it.

First of all, and as one might expect with the legendary Village Vanguard club, the sound is at once warm and intimate and lends itself perfectly to a bass-guitar pairing, with Frisell deploying a Gibson semi-acoustic guitar to wonderful effect. Secondly, the eclectic repertoire embraces the whole of Frisell’s career and offers up the odd surprise or two. Who would have expected, for example, an interpretation of that staple Bond theme, ‘Goldfinger’, yet Frisell and Morgan pull it off, with the latter creating a lovely bass line underneath the main theme and Frisell going off on tangents as only he knows how. So compelling a reading is this that it is every bit as punchy as the original brass orchestrations of the Shirley Bassey version, with marvellous improvising on a riff towards the end by Frisell and repetition of that same riff.

This writer especially enjoyed the deeply melodic tones of, ‘Wildwood flower’, and in general the combination of country-folk and jazz influences together marks Frisell out as a distinctive voice in the world of jazz guitar. For some escapism, the New Orleans R & B hues of, ‘What a party’, while Paul Motian with whom Frisell recorded is fondly evoked on a composition by the drummer, ‘It should have happened a long time ago’, that surfaced on an ECM album from 1985. In general, the telepathic rapport between Frisell and Morgan and supportive bass lines throughout significantly enhances the listener’s experience, and Thomas Morgan is to be commended for adding such depth to this performance. One of the year’s very best recordings for sure.

Tim Stenhouse

Labelle ‘The Anthology’ 2CD (SoulMusic) 4/5

The idea of bringing together the collective works of Labelle the group and the individual constituent parts as solo singers is a laudable one and the extremely authoritative notes by both Prashod Ollison and label owner David Nathan (fourteen pages in total) are equally praiseworthy, and from the outset this writer would like to stress that there is absolutely no questioning the value for money aspect of the extremely generous timing. However, from a strictly logistical point of view, there is one issue that grates with this otherwise commendable re-issue, and that is in attempting to cram so many songs onto two CDs and editing a large number of these, something has been lost for the soul connoisseur who appreciates the original longer versions. In particular, given that it covers the disco era, some of the key classic full-length 12″ versions of soulful disco classics by Patti Labelle in particular only feature in severely truncated form and that is a pity and something of a missed opportunity when such versions are highly sought after and attract a wider public. For that reason alone, a full five stars cannot be awarded, but otherwise the music within is impeccable.

That caveat aside. there is much to savour and an early representative of the debut Labelle album, ‘Pressure cookin’, features an inventive medley in, ‘The air/The revolution will not be televised’, which is a revelation to these ears and probably years ahead of its time, which is presumably why it sunk without trace in 1973. It is just a pity that we do not have the opportunity to hear other examples of this lesser known and harder to find album, and hopefully Soul Music might see fit to re-issue the album in its entirety. The music then moves on to the more familiar hues of, ‘Nightbirds’ and the huge pop/disco hit, ‘Lady Marmalade’, with those ever so suggestive French chorus lyrics. Another three songs feature from that Allen Toussaint production. Funky and ever so catchy, ‘Get you somebody new’, features disco rhythm guitar, horns and some terrific call and response background vocals from the ladies that elevates this particular dance number well above the era norm. Rounding off the first CD, singer Sarah Dash is possibly the least known of the individuals as a leader, to this writer at least, and so the Tom Moulton 12″ mix of, ‘Sinner man’, from 1978 comes as a very pleasant surprise and is even complemented by the original 12″ b-side John Luongo re-mix at a more leisurely mid-tempo in, ‘(Come and take this) candy from your body’. Full marks for including these gems.

The very end of CD 1 and first part of CD 2 is devoted to the solo recordings of Nona Hendryx and these are quite separate in style from the rest. Chronologically, they were recorded in the early-mid1980s when technological innovations meant that drum beats and synthesizers were in vogue. Secondly, Hendryx had become a regular background and even featured soloist with the Talking Heads and this had unquestionably informed her musical outlook. Key tracks from this selection include the techno-synth drum heavy beats of, ‘B-Boys’, an early 1980s disco not disco underground success and, ‘Keep it confidential’, both of which are single edits.

Thereafter, the remainder of the second CD is devoted entirely to the epic recordings of Patti Labelle. Apart from the aforementioned comments on the shortening of length, Patti Labelle became such a productive and successful solo artist that bringing together the Epic and Philadelphia International recordings and placing those all onto a 2 CD anthology might have been a more cohesive option. Having said that, the group Labelle would be nothing without the participation of the irrepressible diva Ms. Labelle and there is an obvious logic to coupling together the work of the group and singer respectively. Again, several edits are made in order to have as many examples as possible of Patti’s solo work. Two stunning dance winners are the Latin-disco of, ‘Teach me tonight (me gusta tu baile)’, with a piano vamp made in heaven, and especially one of the best ever soulful disco numbers in, ‘Music is my way of life’. Further listening joys include the uptempo and ever so soulful, ‘It’s alright with me’, while the balladry that would come to be the Labelle hallmark at Philly International in the mid-1980s and beyond is hinted at on, ‘You are my friend’, even though at the time it only charted in the lower échelons of the charts. However, her undoubted pop crossover potential is evident for all on, ‘Love and learn’. For more classy dancefloor action, the bass heavy stomper, ‘Release (the tension)’, fits the bill to perfection.

Conceptual limitations aside, this is nonetheless a strongly recommended anthology for anyone who has an ounce of interest in the soulful of dance music in the late 1970s through to the early 1980s and with so much pertinent information in the inner-sleeve notes, is highly likely to stimulate the mind to explore the group and individual singers in even more depth.

Tim Stenhouse

Ahmad Jamal ‘Marseille’ 2LP/CD/DIG (Jazz Village/Pias) 5/5

Now in his eighty-seventh year, pianist Ahmad Jamal is revelling in the company of his regular long-term quartet of bassist James Cammack, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena. The leader certainly seems to be reinvigorated with both new compositions and a new CD which has a distinctive French theme, the title track devoted to the city of Marseille, and this comes in three separate versions. The first, the opening piece, is an instrumental, that is the strongest and most conventional of the trio of interpretations, the second is accompanied by a spoken rap, while the third features the singing of Mina Agossi. A wonderful modal take on the standard, ‘Autumn leaves’, (the original being a French composition, ‘Les feuilles mortes’, co-written by Joseph Kozéma and Jacques Prévert) deploys that instinctive use of space that has become a Jamal trademark and a stylistic device that Miles Davis took a leaf out of in his late 1950s work. Another favourite is the quasi-improvisational created ambience of a Jamal original, ‘Baalbeck’, which is a groove-inflected ditty that is notable for the wonderful interplay between percussion and piano. However, it is the overall simplicity to Jamal’s pianist skills that is most impressive of all and this is amply demonstrated on another original number, ‘Pots en verre’, with scintillating percussive work from Badrena whose sound is omnipresent.

As a teenager, Ahmad Jamal was enthralled to meet the great Art Tatum, arguably the most naturally gifted of all jazz pianists, but was equally influenced by classical piano and in particular the music of Franz Liszt. Jamal has interiorised these multiple influences and made them his own and now belongs very much in a league of his own. The listener should consequently be grateful that Jamal is at present producing music of such a high quality as he verges on becoming a nonagenarian.

Tim Stenhouse