Ketil Bjørnstad and Anneli Drecker ‘A Suite of Poems’ CD (ECM) 4/5

Here is a most intriguing concept. Think of the various hotel rooms in the world that a musician might reside in and how a musician might react to that environment. Then enlist a poet to write about that very same very experience and place those words into a musical context with a pared down piano and vocal accompaniment. Perhaps, only a label with the track record of ECM would have the confidence and sheer braggadocio to issue such a release, but this precisely what they have done. Regular ECM participant Ketil Bjørnstad is joined here by vocalist Anneli Drecker who performs the totality of the repertoire in English. The voice has something of a pop/folk tone and to these ears seems to have been influenced by Kate Bush. As to the poems themselves, these have been composed by Danish poet Lars Saabye Christensen and they all refer to specific places, predominantly hotels, in major cities throughout the globe. The most compelling songs to these ears are those devoted to Hamburg, ‘Vier Jahreszeiten’, and to Lisbon, ‘Savoy, Lisbon’, while hotels that are no longer are paid homage to on with, ‘Mayflower, New York’, a hotel where Ketil Bjørnstad stayed, but which has subsequently closed down and replaced, by all things, Trump Tower! The very last hotel, Schloß Elmau, has also been used as a location for recordings of musicians on the ACT label and thus locations and music can operate in tandem.

If anything, the music has an American songbook feel to it. The only question mark this writer would raise is why the words are not also linked to the cities themselves. Where for example is the Lutetia in Paris (it is for the uninitiated located in the swanky Rive Gauche of the Latin Quarter in the sixth arrondissement, but none of this information is at the listener’s disposal), and how does it relate to the stay in Paris as a whole? We learn nothing about that experience from the lyrics which is a pity. Otherwise, a truly creative endeavour and the music does operate effectively independent of the words.

Tim Stenhouse

Valia Calda ‘Methexis’ CD/DIG (Private Press) 4/5

A real discovery here and two Greek brothers Ziarkas, bassist Thodoris and guitarist Nikos, have come up with a small-scale gem of a quartet album that has all the strengths of a classic ECM recording, yet operates separately. Mediterranean folk music meets acoustic jazz and the combination makes for a scintillating exchange of ideas. The rationale behind the album is clear from the title which means a ‘coming together’ and offers a more utopian vision for solving twenty-first century issues, especially in the Mediterranean nations on both sides, of migration, exile and social struggle.

Full marks first of all to engineer and assistant George and Tasos Botis for creating such a wonderful recording sound. Acoustic bass and bass clarinet working in tandem is just one of the endearing features of this recording and on the melodic ‘Exiles’ the intimate rapport between the two is outstanding before trumpeter Sam Warner then soars off into a plaintive solo. Arguably the strongest number of all is, ‘Trip For Nothing’, which has a simply melody that is beautifully performed by the quartet and with the clarinet and trumpet playing off one another. The influence of the Balkan folk music tradition is clear on ‘Typo’, which is a mournful tune with duets between acoustic bass, guitar and trumpet, while on the expansive opener, ‘Dilek Dogan’, bass clarinet and trumpet combine effectively.

The band departs from an all acoustic sound on one piece only, ‘Gorge’, which hints at different avenues that Valia Calda might wish to explore in future albums. Here, the use of space is dissected with a brooding bass clarinet and guitar sound that comes across as a re-visiting of the ‘Bitches Brew’ era, and this more experimental approach works well and adds a new dimension to the album as a whole. One of the year’s hidden discoveries and a slow burner of an album that should see it occupy more than just this writer’s end of year best of list. The May launch of the album was in London, at the Total Refreshment Centre, and further details of the band are available at: www.valiacaldamusic.com

Tim Stenhouse

Espen Eriksen Trio with Andy Sheppard ‘Perfectly Unhappy’ LP/CD (Rune Grammofon) 4/5

British saxophonist Andy Sheppard first teamed up with the Norwegian based Espen Eriksen Trio a couple of years back, touring Korea and Norway. And so one imagines a studio album must have been on the cards for some time now. Those familiar with Sheppard’s recent ECM recordings will be accustomed with the saxophonist’s more laid-back offerings of late, and this session certainly fits nicely into that mould. Not that that’s a bad thing by any means, “Perfectly Unhappy” being a quite sumptuously exquisite album in many ways.

Espen Eriksen’s trio has been touring and recording for ten years now, with Eriksen on piano, Andreas Bye on drums and Lars Tormod Jenset on bass, they combine with an assured cohesiveness that makes it all sound so easy. Graceful and melodic, their music exemplifies that Nordic jazz/folk thing that takes the listener on a wonderful journey across mountains and fjords and back again.

The music on “Perfectly Unhappy” may not break any new boundaries, but it’s just so well written and performed that listening is made easy and rewarding. The addition to the trio of Andy Sheppard is reminiscent in style and mood to that of another recent piano trio plus sax recording, by another of my favourite piano trios, Marcin Wasilewski Trio. The Polish outfit’s ECM album “Spark of Life” features Norwegian saxophonist Joakim Milder, and the results are very similar, with this listener taken away on a musical Nordic breeze to a land of serenity and peacefulness.

The album’s opener, “Above The Horizon”, sets the tone perfectly for what is to come, with Sheppard and Eriksen taking turns to pick out the melody and go with the flow. On tunes such as “Indian Summer” and Naked Trees”, it is Sheppard’s smokey, breathy, free-flowing sax that is more to the fore, whereas on “1974″ and “Revisited” it is the beauty of Eriksen and co that shine a guiding light for Sheppard to follow. And when the foursome combine in perfect harmony, as on the closing track “Home”, one simply has to sit back, admire, and enjoy.

An album of simple delights then, and one I shall return to time and time again when I need a little bit of calm and serenity. Here at UK Vibe we don’t do things by halves, but if we did, I’d rate “Perfectly Unhappy” as a four and a half.

Mike Gates

Samba Touré ‘Wande’ LP/CD/Digital (Glitterbeat) 4/5

This is a great return both to form and to the very roots of Malian blues, following on in the great tradition whilst building on that towering cannon of work and adding his own authentic signature. Recorded in Bamako, this return to a more acoustic and rustic sound has resulted in arguably Samba Touré’s most impressive and well-rounded album to date, this being the third album that follows on from his 2013 debut ‘Albala’. Simple melodies are laid down and then deftly worked over with multi-layered percussion comprising instrumentation such as the calabash, played by Lassine Kouyaté, and complemented in turn by sublime collective harmonies that are repeated over and over again until they reach the deepest levels of the inner subconscious. The title track is an absolute treat and is a gentle, relaxing number with a slow build up before calabash and finally the high-pitched sound of the sokou string instrument (likening it to a violin would be a great disservice, but nonetheless it is probably the nearest western equivalent, but in a West African context it blends in seamlessly with the other percussion instruments).

It is important to recognise at this juncture that the multi-faceted nature of Malian music means that it is invariably difficult to assemble musicians for recording sessions since they often perform at social gatherings such as weddings. Little wonder, then, that these seasoned musicians who regularly perform live are able at will to convey myriad moods and on ‘Hayame’ (Be Careful), it is the beautifully, slow-paced and pared down combination of guitar and calabash that wins the day. If the music is so expertly delivered that is seems like simplicity personified, then the social message behind the lyrics is at once direct and sincere and this is illustrated on the affirmative ‘Irganda’ (It Is Our Land), that leaves no room for ambiguity. There are shades of the early 1970s Rolling Stones, a group that has constantly paid due homage to the blues, in a piece such as, ‘Yerfara’ (We Are Tired), with a bubbling rock-tinged guitar and a stunning talk drum accompaniment. Touré sounds closest to his mentor on ‘Hawah’, with a relaxed mid-tempo pace that proceeds to grow in intensity as the song unravels.

A fitting way to end the album is with a heartfelt tribute to Samba Touré’s heart on ‘Tribute to Zoumana Tereta’, complete with spoken dialogue. The music within comes across as a direct link between the heritage of one John Lee hooker and the late, great Ali Farka Touré. It would be difficult to pay a higher compliment to Samba Touré.

Tim Stenhouse

Binker and Moses ‘Alive in the East?’ LP/CD/DIG (Gearbox) 4/5

Captured live during a June 2017 recording at the thriving Total Refreshment Centre in north east London, this, the third duo album by saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd adding to the growing catalogue of UK (but mainly London-based) jazz releases from this young community of players and artists. Again, additional musicians are utilised including award-winning and legendary trumpeter Byron Wallen, supplementary drummer Yussef Dayes who is also one half of the now defunct Yussef Kamaal, UK veteran free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker and previous live collaborator and contributor to ‘Journey to the Mountain of Forever’, harpist Tori Handsley.

The set begins with ‘The Birth of Light’, which is essentially a drumming showcase by Moses and quite unusual for the start of an LP release to contain such a drum focused track as its first. ‘How Land Learnt To Be Still’ includes auxiliary saxophone lines from Evan Parker as well as additional harp voiceings by Tori Handsley for one of the most textured and longest of the set at just over 8 minutes in length. Definitely a personal favourite. The harp is also a prominent feature of third track ‘The River’s Tale’, with its shuffle dominated rhythms which again feature Evan Parker and trumpeter Byron Wallen within the first half for possibly the most accessible piece of ‘Alive In The East?’. ‘How Fire Was Made’ is a fiery uptempo jam with ostinato phrasing and additional freer saxophone elements combined with the loose but tight drumming of Moses and Yussef.

At 1’19”, ‘How Air Learnt To Move’ feels like a short transitional segment between compositions rather than a full-blown track or even an intro for the next track ‘Children of the Ultra Blacks’, itself a somewhat continuum of ‘The Valley of the Ultra Blacks’ from their previous album. This vigorous and dynamic piece is the funkiest of the album, although, this is by no means funk but it does possess a hip hop head nod quality. Byron’s trumpet sets the agenda before the saxophones intertwine especially towards the final few minutes, with the harp providing the musical backbone whilst the percussive drum parts become more frantic over its duration. The final section establishes a cacophony of sonics that is almost trance-like. ‘Mishkaku’s Tale’ is a more retrained affair, if that’s the correct term, and I particularly enjoyed the harp embellishments after the midpoint which are almost guitar like, but Binker and Moses would definitely miss Tori Handsley if absent. Other notable compositions include, dare I say it, the jazzy ‘Beyond The Edge’ and the atmospheric ‘The Death of Light’.

For those who have enjoyed previous Binker and Moses releases then this is a no brainer – and this is my favourite of the three albums. The offerings of the ‘guests’ cannot be understated, especially the work of Tori Handsley, a previous UK Vibe interviewee. I know Tori has her own band which has included Moses, but her improvisational work, phrasing and understanding of collaboration heavily contributes to the success of this recording. Clocking in at around 45 minutes in length and containing ten tracks, ‘Alive In The East?’ is at times unashamedly raw and energetic as anything you’ll hear this year. Some of the playing is blisteringly frantic and at other times much more subdued and poignant – thus, very much akin to the experience of a live show. Additionally, being part of the Gearbox community, the vinyl based record label, studio complex and post production facility will do them no harm, as the current interest in vinyl culture has simultaneously supported the advance in new jazz recordings within the UK.

The phrase ‘semi free jazz’ perfectly suits this project with Binker and Moses very much at the forefront of young jazz in London. Mosh pit jazz anyone?

Damian Wilkes

Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ / ‘Pied Piper’ CD (Doctor Bird) 5/5

Now properly remastered, with a digitally enhanced cover photo looking better than ever, this is quite simply one of the greatest ever reggae albums, with two singers at an early peak in their illustrious careers, and as a duo, operating in perfect harmony, within and outside of the recording studio. The title track and first single was a smash pop hit going all the way to number five in spring, 1970, and has lost non of its charm. An uplifting tune if ever there was one, it is an adaptation of the classic Nina Simone composition and ode to a positive black consciousness, which Aretha Franklin then made her own with a grittier and earthier soulful rendition. Bob and Marcia take it out slightly of this context (though still mighty soulful) and have enveloped it in a light, but nonetheless spicy Jamaican jerk chicken sauce and the result is an all-time classic that has never dated and probably never will. In particular, the use of layered strings on the UK version made it far more accessible and embellishes the basic riddim. This expanded edition has the major bonus of enabling us to hear the rawer and harder sounding Jamaican 45, devoid of any strings, with the bass far more prominent and, interestingly, here the vocals are more to the fore and that adds a different quality to the song, thus making it a sheer listening delight and one that is a refreshing alternative take on the immortal reggae song.

The rest of the album is hardly less thrilling with some gorgeous covers of songs that were barely out of their original. In the case of ‘Ain’t Nothing But The Real Thing’, the influence of the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell original is still discernible, but is now displayed over a chugging reggae rhythm section. On a lovely take on ‘United We Stand’, the simple, yet highly effective chorus is the pretext for Marcia Griffiths to take the first lead, with Bob Andy in close pursuit. Both were already fine lead vocalists, but the cherry on the cake here are the sublime collective harmonies. Of note is that, along with ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, Bob and Andy were marketed in the United States on Motown and its earlier offshoot, Tamla. At that particular time, there was no specific label which catered to the then emerging reggae sound. Bob Dylan was clearly an influence on reggae singers, especially given his consistent and unwavering stance on civil rights, with ‘It Ain’t Me Baby’ being one of the earlier examples of his songwriting skills being transposed to the reggae idiom. A real favourite is the beautifully structured, mid-tempo groove of ‘Peace in Your Mind’, with the rasping lead vocals of Andy never more lovingly illustrated. Ending the CD as a whole is that Jamaican version of the title track that showcases the two vocalists in their prime.

Making up a marvellous coupling is the follow up album, ‘Pied Piper’, that while not scaling the dizzy heights of its predecessor, still has plenty to offer. Once again, the album title track served as the introduction to the album as a whole and was another pop chart success, albeit just outside the top ten. Vying for the most compelling song and delivery on this follow up album are ‘But I Do’ and the catchy harmonies of ‘You Are Mine’. Previous re-issues have tended to offer compilations of the pair along with individual songs. This new and definitive re-issue provides us with the complete package and therefore is a clear first choice selection. Extremely well annotated notes by Harry Hacks set a benchmark that only the pioneering Blood and Fire label of the 1990’s set in the UK, with a plethora of references for the devotee to follow up on, various European pressings of 45s, promotional photos. Both singers would go on to enjoy illustrious careers in their own right, but this pairing of albums captures them in their youthful glory and, as such, remains a timeless classic that every new generation can discover with relish.

Tim Stenhouse

Harry J All Stars ‘Liquidator: Expanded Edition’ CD (Doctor Bird) 4/5

If you have never heard the oh so distinctive opening riff to ‘Liquidator’, you are, in all probability, not an inhabitant of planet earth. Adopted by 1970’s football fans and early skinhead reggae fans alike (sometimes indistinguishable, it should be stated), this is one of the most well-loved of all early reggae instrumentals and a founding pillar stone of the reggae collector, in 45 and LP formats with a classic front and back cover to match. This brand new edition wins hands down because it has the major attraction of twelve bonus tracks. Harry J was in fact producer Harry Johnson and the conglomerate of studio musicians that made up the All Stars were something of a mystery, even though they regularly performed with singers on the Jamaican imprint of the Harry J label. This was reggae music with a happy and open-hearted face and that meant covering some of the popular tunes of the day. One such interpretation was Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’, which is a stomping cover tune and an ideal vehicle for the All Stars to impress. Taking a more uptempo rhythm than on the original Beatles version, a chugging take on Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (aka ‘Operamatic’) really works in a reggae idiom, while the faithful cover of the Anglo-French ode to love, ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’, would be so loved by Serge Gainsbourg that he returned the compliment, recording a whole album of roots reggae in Kingston, with Sly and Robbie, and a host of others. Of the excellent bonus offerings, an instrumental take on the evergreen, ‘Young Gifted and Black’ stands out. Expert notes from renowned gospel/blues and soul writer Tony Rounce who regularly contributes to the ACE reissue series, provides some insightful historical context, and the All Stars certainly deserve their place alongside the likes of other all-star formations under the tutelage of Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd and Alvin G.G. Ranglin, to name but three prime examples.

Tim Stenhouse

Dave and Ansel Collins ‘Double Barrel: Expanded Edition’ CD (Doctor Bird) 4/5

Fifty years of the Trojan reggae label this year and this album is one of the most successful of all that were released, and in the early 1970s the weekly new releases on the label was truly prolific. Interestingly, the 1971 original title track, with its unique vocal gymnastics and catchy riff, was initially released as a 45 and rocketed to the very top of the UK pop charts at a time when reggae could do no wrong and Trojan were the premier label on which to record and receive widespread media attention. The duo of Dave Barker and Ansell Collins were the de facto Simon and Garfunkel of reggae insofar as you could barely think of one without the other. How do you follow up such an instant classic? was the question posed, but in, ‘Monkey Spanner’, they had yet another quirky tune to attract the masses and that 45 again sold well to a wider audience. Produced by Winston Riley of Techniques fame and his own self-titled record label in Jamaica. Nothing quite tops either of the aforementioned, but as a whole the album stands up to repeated listens with duet operating together on ‘I The Third (aka Karaté)’, which repeated the formula and was somewhat less successful chart-wise, but another fun tune nonetheless, while individually Ansell Collins impresses on both ‘Secret Weapon’ and ‘Ten to One’, while Dave Barker takes over lead vocal duties on ‘That Girl (aka Groovy situation)’. Of the plethora of bonus cuts, an alternative version of ‘Double Barrel’, and some rarer 45’s that surfaced on the independent labels of the day such as Big Shot, one should take note equally of a cover of a Norman Whitfield Motown song, ‘It’s Summer’, and certainly reggae music during this period shared a close affiliation with the emerging soul sounds in the United States, with other memorable covers following in hot pursuit. The striking and terrific front cover graphics with a double-barreled smoking gun still never fails to impress and that can also be said for the musical content within, The usual high standard of accompanying photos and 45 label graphics and the single in particular was a major hit in other European countries at the time. A must have item in any serious reggae devotees collection and a fine continuation of the series, rediscovering the historically significant albums of the era.

Tim Stenhouse

Roy Roberts ‘Back in Love’ CD/DIG (Rock House) 5/5

I have been waiting nearly four months for this album to surface, having heard the subtle flowing title track on the Soul Discovery Show, and having popped its head up in the Blues Critic store I was in there pretty sharpish placing my order. Any new album by this giant of the blues is to be applauded from the roof tops, along with the likes of Johnny Rawls etc. he is one of the last purveyors of the old sound, essentially blues you can dance to but with enough soul to keep the likes of me happy. As usual the sound is lush, immense and full of surprises, Roy of course is a consummate, and very well-respected, guitarist in his own right, but on this album he also plays one of my favourites, a Hammond B3, piano and strings. He is also credited for writing nine of the ten songs presented. Eric Collands also lends a hand with Piano, Strings and the Hammond B3, Scott Adair takes care of the excellent Sax solos, we have Scott Adair and Rusty Smith to thank for the horns on the remake of “Let It Be Me” and “We Still Together”. There is another lovely voice on here too, take a huge bow Sherry Norris.

The dominant force on here is the subtle percussion, which drives the whole album without it getting to up in your face, everything else just feeds off that and Roy’s timing is impeccable. Over the years Roy’s voice has been likened to BB King, Ray Charles, Tyrone Davis and Brook Benton. We can trace Roy back to the early 60s, where he started out providing backing for such luminaries as Eddie Floyd, Solomon Burke and Otis Reading. He released his first 45 on Nina Simone’s Stroud label in 1967, and been on one hell of a ride ever since. He created his own label and released a stack of 45s, before albums began surfacing, never copying or trying to imitate anyone, just being himself. He was part of the group, Electric Express, when they had a million seller with “Real Thing”, which got picked up by Atlantic Records, and at the height of the disco craze he headed off to Nashville with the country music scene accepting him with open arms. He plied his trade as a guitarist within this genre for ten years touring with OB Clinton, and whilst all this was happening he was still releasing blues influenced 45s, acknowledging the impetus to get back into the blues being Robert Cray. In the early 90s, whilst sitting in his studio, he heard a track from them and he thought to himself that is my sound. The result, five albums in five years appeared which simply showcased what a master bluesman he was. For me personally the 2001 “Burning Love” set is the one that gets regular plays, his interpretation of Pickett’s “I’m In Love” is a truly sublime moment in time, if you have that set or any album from those five then the good news is that the voice is there, never straining, effortlessly conveying his mood and the feeling of that particular moment.

So to the music presented on here, only one track doesn’t do it for me, “Let it be me” should have been cut from the final ten. Betty Everett and Jerry Butler can never be beaten no matter how good you are, it’s from a certain time and belongs in that era, it’s a tune that conjures up all manner of memories for me so it wouldn’t matter who recorded it. However, the rest of the nine tracks are simply wonderful to these ears, top track for me is the strolling “Should Have Been Over”, which has been on repeat play so often my neighbours are humming along to it, with tinkling piano, an injection of saxophone and that restraining, almost soft, drumming. Another track of serious note is the melancholy head nodded “She Didn’t Know”, with more piano and some nice guitar runs too, as it seeps into your head and gets you humming away. For more of the same, try “You’re My Lady”. When you listen to Roy Roberts albums you can’t help thinking this is what inspired the James Hunter Six, whilst the JHS are definitely a 60s sounding band there are some very strong resemblances to Roy’s music. I mentioned Sherry Norris earlier, who surfaces on the rolling mid tempo duet “We Still Together”, with its fabulous horn injections. If like me you have stretched the boundaries of your soul music to have accepted the other genres of black music, then this really is an album for you, if you have never dipped your feet in the ocean that is the blues then look no further, it’s a sad fact but albums like this don’t stand a chance, no synths, no computer enhanced nonsense, no gimmicks and very few radio jocks who would even acknowledge its existence. CD only at the minute and very doubtful vinyl will ever appear.

Brian Goucher

Idris Ackamoor ☥ The Pyramids ‘An Angel Fell’ 2LP/CD (Strut) 4/5

For those unaware, The Pyramids were founded back in 1972 in Ohio when Afro-centrism as a concept was at its zenith. The search for African roots and making musical connections is very much the raison d’être of Idris Ackamoor ☥ the Pyramids. Taught in part by the late exponent of avant-garde jazz piano, Cecil Taylor, the band actually formed in Paris and three independent releases surfaced between 1973 and 1976, with live performances becoming their trademark. Subsequently, the band moved to San Francisco and disbanded there in 1977. A thirty-five year gap then ensued before 2012 when the group reunited in response to an increasing demand for their vinyl output. In 2016 the German label Disko 3 released a new album by the band, in a more free form idiom, and then they signed to Strut where the critically acclaimed, ‘We All Be Africans’, came out in 2016.

The new album will once again appeal to a wider audience beyond the traditional confines of jazz and devotees of dub reggae in particular will find much in common in the music contained within. Overarching the work of the Pyramids is a lifelong attraction to both the music and philosophy of Sun Ra, and thus the homage paid to him on ‘Land of Ra’ should come as little surprise. It is a bubbling percussive number with dub effect on congas and drums, and collective vocal chants. One of this writer’s favourite numbers is the gentle paced ‘Papyrus’, which features a lovely melodic bass line and tenor saxophone and guitar in tandem, a feature throughout the album as a whole. On ‘Tinoge’, the bass line is straight out of Marvin’s ‘Inner City Blues’, while an impassioned tenor solo is accompanied by violin and the delicate guitar work of David Molina. If any other source of inspiration might be present for the band, then it would surely be the saxophone and socio-political outlook of Archie Shepp, and the leader himself has clearly been influenced in both respects by Shepp. Overall, the use of dub effects works beautifully within the context of politically aware left-field jazz and the biggest complement that one can pay Idris Ackamoor ☥ the Pyramids is that Sun Ra himself would surely have approved this band and their Afro-centric direction. A prime contender for the year’s best album front cover and very 1970’s in outlook.

Tim Stenhouse