Michael Olatuja ‘Lagos Pepper Soup’ 2LP/CD (Whirlwind Recordings) 5/5

I’ve always had this, perhaps overly idealistic, perspective that albums are very much like diary entries or snapshots of where that artist is in their lives, both musically and personally. For someone who has created a piece of art, to look back at it five or ten years later brings up all kinds of feelings and emotions to them, as the creator of said piece of art, that we as listeners or viewers or readers, etc wouldn’t be privy to. And that’s a sentiment that goes both ways – music we listened to years ago can quite often attach itself to nostalgia that forever influences what we hear however many years may pass.

Michael Olatuja’s debut album ‘Speak’ – released back in 2009 – could very much be seen as a reflection of his time in London, being an album supported by leading British musicians and vocalists including Lynden David Hall, Andrew Roachford, Terri Walker and rapper TY – even the incredible Heidi Vogel lends her talents to backing vocals for several tracks as well. But for bassist and producer, Michael Olatuja, his life has very much been divided between the three cities that raised him and shaped his musical foundation: his childhood was spent in Lagos, Nigeria, then he moved to London, UK, in his teens before moving to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music. Olatuja’s new album, ‘Lagos Pepper Soup’, is very much an album that celebrates this wonderful culmination of cultures nodding to all of them through this stunning piece of work that bridges the gap between the continents he has called home at one time or another.

Released through the fantastic Whirlwind Records, home to stellar projects by Alice Zawadzki, Jure Pukl and Kate Nash, ‘Lagos Pepper Soup’ assembles a dream line-up of vocalists and musicians, many of which have served as past collaborators to Olatuja over the years: the inimitable magic of Brandee Younger’s harp blesses ‘Ma Foya’, the excellence of Laura Mvula’s vocal graces ‘Brighter Day’ and the legendary Dianne Reeves guests with guitarist Lionel Loueke on the album’s first single ‘Soki’. ‘The Hero’s Journey’ is probably the most apt title for any song in recent memory – over the course of its eight minutes the string-heavy – almost cinematic – aspect of the composition fully immerses you in its twisting narrative propelled by Regina Carter’s masterful violin and Thana Alexa’s lush backing throughout.

This *cinematic* aspect to the whole album, thanks in large part to the exquisite orchestration throughout, is what really turns ‘Lagos Pepper Soup’ into something truly special. The entire project comes off like an intricate sequence of events celebrating life, love, joy and hope – it’s the type of vision that forever emphasises the importance of a fully-realised album. As ‘Speak’ was in 2009, ‘Lagos Pepper Soup’ is now the snapshot of where Michael Olatuja is now – a world-renown artist taking his own hero’s journey.

Imran Mirza

Wako ‘Wako’ LP/CD (Øra Fonogram) 4/5

If you like something diverse and intriguing with a vivacious blend of cross-pollinated jazz seeds that have grown into something fresh, wild and adventurous, this is an album well worth checking out.

Coming from the vanguard of the New Wave of Nordic Jazz, Wako are one of the most original and innovative groups on the scene. Their music is vibrant with flair and dynamism, impressively traversing the full spectrum of jazz-fusion and beyond. Touring extensively since 2015, they have honed their stagecraft and performances, garnering a solid fanbase and critical acclaim along the way.

Individually, the members are part of different bands and projects, such as Hegge (Norwegian grammy award winner 2017), Megalodon Collective (Norwegian grammy nominee 2016), Espen Berg trio (NTNU ambassadors 2016), Kjetil Mulelid Trio, Kjemilie, MMO-Ensemble and the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. Collectively on this recording, they enjoy a free-spirited romp that is bold and adventurous, with a playful exuberance that suggests they’re totally immersed in the joyfulness of making music together.

Martin Myhre Olsen and Kjetil André Mulelid’s compositions interweave order and chaos, dissonance and harmony, light and shade, and all manner of musical grit and gusto in a unique fashion. Moments of pensive serenity collapse into ecstatic frenzies. Other moments appear saturated in colourful abstract expressionism. Wako’s healthy disregard for any kind of musical purism actually makes their music a delight to experience, bringing a sense of risk-taking to music which has to be a good thing.

This isn’t one of those albums where you can judge the consistency of the music as a whole. Wako’s musical palette is so varied, that the listener has to take each track as it comes, taking each piece on its own merits. Some tunes hit the spot straight away, whereas other tunes might not ever quite get there, the cohesive glue occasionally coming apart at the seams, but the accomplished way with which the musicians weave their sounds in such a decisive way is very impressive.

Personally, I love the textural layers that are used to alter the mood, highlight the drama, and heighten the tension, like a movie score or avant-garde soundscape from a different planet, the music flickers in and out of individual virtuosity and group interaction. All of the musicians involved rise to the sense of occasion on this session, including Arve Henriksen’s mercurial trumpet and sampling contributions, Rob Waring’s dynamic vibraphone playing, inventive sax performances from Jonas Kullhammar, Espen Reinertsen and Sissel Vera Pettersen, and the use of occasional synths and vocals all adding to the eclectic mix.

Band-leaders Martin Myhre Olsen and Kjetil André Mulelid have made a fine job of piecing together fragments of sound that form loose, entangled and multi-faceted melodies. Listening to this album is a little like almost completing a complicated jigsaw, only to find the last piece is missing. Rewarding, yet frustratingly not quite the finished article.

Mike Gates

Avishai Cohen Big Vicious ‘Big Vicious’ LP/CD (ECM) 4/5

Every now and then ECM drops an album that appears to be distinctly out of character. Big Vicious certainly fits into that category. It’s a surprisingly refreshing affair, although anyone seeking the subtle, sensitive Avishai Cohen of recent ECM outings will need to be very open-minded about this one. The character and clarity of the trumpeter’s playing hasn’t changed though, it’s just in a very different setting this time around.

Although Big Vicious is new to me, Cohen actually launched his exuberant home-grown band six years ago, after relocating from the US to his native Israel, rounding up players to shape the music from the ground up, and co-authoring much of its newest material together with them. The full band is made up of the band leader on trumpet, effects and synthesiser, Uzi Ramirez on guitar, Jonathan Albalak on guitar and bass, Aviv Cohen on drums, and Ziv Ravitz on drums and live sampling. Together the band forge what can possibly be best described as psychedelic-stoner-ambient-jazz-rock… if that paints a rather loose and intriguing picture.

The album is made up of co-written originals, Cohen originals, Tel-Aviv musician-producer Rejoicer originals, and covers; most notably Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”. There’s a fascinating cohesion to the music that suggests the band fit together particularly well as musicians, sharing a similar post-jazz vibe that allows the band to take improvisation into a new world of melodic pop-tinged electronica.

For me personally, the album is a little hit and miss, with some tracks working better than others, but the standard is nonetheless very high throughout the entire recording. A little samey after a while maybe, but there are some incredible stand-outs. The final track “Intent” is a stunner, sending shivers down my spine. “Teardrop” works very nicely with Cohen’s crystalline playing, “Hidden Chamber” benefits from an edgy groove that runs deep, I love the rockabilly cool of “King Kutner”, and the psychedelic folksiness of “The Things You Tell Me” is mesmerising in its own quietly meandering way.

Big Vicious is an intriguing mix of an album. It grows on you the more you listen. Try it. It might surprise you.

Mike Gates

Read also:
Avishai Cohen / Yonathan Avishai ‘Playing The Room’ LP/CD (ECM) 4/5
Avishai Cohen ‘Cross My Palm With Silver’ LP/CD (ECM) 3/5
Avishai Cohen ‘Into The Silence’ 2LP/CD (ECM) 5/5 & 4/5

Various ‘Uzelli Elektro Saz 1976 – 1984’ LP/CD (Uzelli) 5/5

Elektro Saz 1976 – 1984 is a new compilation of gems hand-picked from the extensive and exhaustive Uzelli label back catalogue and is expertly curated by Esma Ertel and Murat Ertel, the lead vocalist and electric saz player of BaBa ZuLa, the legendary Istanbul based psych group. The Ertels also contribute to the beautiful but garish packaging which wallows in the exotic 70s vibe and the informative sleeve notes.

However, the story of this compilation starts over a thousand miles away from Turkey. Muamer and Yavuz Uzelli founded Uzelli Kaset in Hamburg in the early 1970s, peddling cassettes of music from the home country to the Turkish Gastarbeiter ex-pat communities lured to West Germany by the hope of new opportunities and loads of Deutsche Marks. By the late 70s, having released albums by most of the stars of Turkish music as well as German-based musicians, Uzelli relocated to Istanbul.

It’s hard to undersell the importance of the saz or bağlama in Turkish music. It is the main instrument of the folk music catalogue promoted by the new republic in 1920s after the perceived decadence of the Ottoman era. It is to Turkish music as the guitar is to the blues. During the second half of the 20th century, it is inevitable that someone would attach a pick up and plug in much to the dismay of purists.

The 13 tracks showcase the sonic possibilities of electric saz. It is fuzzy and raw with a garage rock feel with Kina Gecesi Ensemble on “Misket” and “Ari Yildiz”. It’s the smooth polished phase and wah-wah affected sounds in the opener “Darıldım Darıldım” from Akbaba İkilisi, immigrants to West Germany themselves. It’s the ideal companion for the more folky singing style of Mehtap Tuna on “Gönül doği” and also Handan Yazgan on “Mavilım Hangi Ellidir”. Electric saz can take centre stage in the hands of Sarı Zeki on the groovier tracks like “Topal” and “Dom Dom Kurşunu”. The phasey saz melody lines intertwine with the slap bass on Aşik Emrah’s disco workout “20 Asrin Bozuk Düzeni”, which closes the album.

Above all though, the variety and consistent quality of all the tracks make this essential to anyone with a passing interest of Anadolu Pop. Without albums like this, our only access to some of this amazing music would be fruitless digging for those obscure old tapes. Like Uzelli’s excellent Psychedelic Anadolu compilation, released a few years ago, this is aimed at an international audience but skilfully avoids the more obvious artists such as Erkin Koray, Cem Karaca, Bariş Manço or Selda Bağcan. While some modern-day acts like Gaye Su Akyol and Altin Gün successfully recall the styles from this era, it’s good to get to hear the real deal.

Kevin Ward