Floating Circles Quartet ‘Humble Travelers’ CD (Self-released) 4/5

“Humble Travelers” is a bit Ronseal, in that it is an apt title. Confidently understated, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this loose, easy-going collection of simple-yet-complex tracks. Clicking the huge go button on my Pentium 486, the first title “Brockley N Peas” gave me concern. It felt like one of those jazz titles. You know the ones; “Minestrone Enigma”, “Mystery Refried Beans”, “Calamari and Catherine”. Glancing over the rest as a snippy break was honked over, I relaxed, feeling that Floating Circles were taking a more jovial angle. They’ve cast a wide net pulling in all sorts of textures and styles, resulting in something both ambient, driving, purposeful and meandering all at once.

There are constantly strong motifs and heads poking up amongst the tracks that give the listener an anchor. More akin to more modern folk-fusion-jazz like Cinematic Orchestra or Portico, but for me served a deeper experience than those two outfits. Leaning into technicality rather than trying to mask it in “atmosphere” serves Floating Circles well. The third track “Caravan Curtains” has a desert staccato guitar, metallic violin and an urgent double bass, providing all the description without being flooded with an overt field-recording sample to hammer it home. “Caravan” is one of the highlights for me, counter-pointing Arabian textures with a chamber feel. There is a deep character to it. Rather than staring at Omar Sharif emerging out of the shimmering heat with grandiose aplomb, it’s more like the human relatability of the booze at the end of Ice Cold In Alex.

Another standout is “Wading Through The Mist” that unfurls and reveals itself like a really anxious Penguin Café Orchestra track. Again, the guest violin by Johanna Burnheart is stunning. The drums open and contract the mood skilfully, while the guitar tries its best to unpick itself, and the bass hoping to hold it all together. It’s a cracking little journey that never tests my patience.

The finale of “Galactic Pedalboat Rescue Trip” is, to me, a classic travelling track. Obviously, nothing will ever usurp “Tijuana Taxi” as the Lord Regent of the descriptive travelling music, but this can be a strong contender. And it manages it without pummelling one’s ears with a car horn (admittedly). There are even strains of “Ipanema” hidden within, and that’s fine by me. I’m with them by this point, trying to hold it together after too many gawdy cocktails in the sun.

“Humble Travelers” is the right sort of not-quite-relaxed-but-still-very-relaxed tone for me. It’s not asking for too much of your attention, but if you give it you get a lot more than you think. Pitched beautifully and played with class.

Thomas Pooley-Tolkien-Sharpe

Tomoko Omura ‘Branches Vol. 1’ CD (Outside in Music) 5/5

Making her debut for Outside In Music, Japanese violinist, composer, producer and arranger Tomoko Omura presents us with six compositions on this, her fourth album as leader. And rather exciting it is too, with her band; Jeff Miles on guitar, Glenn Zaleski on piano, Pablo Menares on bass and Jay Sawyer on drums, “Branches Vol.1” achieves a wonderful balance and harmony between all of the instruments to create a highly compelling contemporary jazz album.

Omura’s compositions are inspired by Japanese folktales and popular songs and her music is refreshingly dynamic and inventive. There’s a crispness and vitality running through this album that in my listening experience is often hard to find among violin led jazz ensembles. Omura seems to have a clearly defined feel and presence to her writing and performing, suggesting a very natural understanding of her cultural and jazz traditions, which brings an intuitive warmth and freedom of expression to the music recorded here.

In 2004 Omura relocated to America to further her studies, gaining many accolades along the way. Since moving to New York in 2010, the violinist has released several albums and gained a large amount of experience performing with many well-known musicians across many different musical genres. It’s clear to me, listening to this album, that she has successfully integrated much of this experience into her music, with a masterful creativity and originality now flowing from her bow. The mind, body, heart and soul appear to be as one as she rewards the listener with an effortlessly virtuosic performance.

It’s evident from the outset that the composer has a vision for her music that encourages a collaborative approach from all of the musicians involved. Most noticeable throughout this session is the intelligent use of instrumentation, especially the partnership between the two lead string instruments, Omura’s violin and Miles’ guitar. As the opening piece, the classic 1944 “Moonlight in Vermont” unfolds, Omura pays particular attention to the lyrical structure, which interestingly follows the ancient traditional form of a Japanese haiku poem. “Three Magic Tales” combines a lovely Japanese traditional feel with modern jazz aesthetics, putting the listener somewhere in the middle of a beautiful Japanese water-garden with drifting musical notes skating the waters. The exciting “The Revenge of the Rabbit” mixes some classy, energised soloing with a rich, rhythmic eloquence. The intro to “Return to the Moon” has an incandescent beauty that flows eloquently into the main tune itself. This is a simply gorgeous piece of music, reminiscent perhaps of a Bill Frisell piece. “Konomichi” is a well-known Japanese Folk Song, originally written by Kodak’s Yomada. It sounds familiar somehow, like a long-lost memory making its way back into the present day.

“Branches Vol.1” is an excellent album that shows in many ways the skill and maturity of a wonderful writer and musician; Tomoko Omura. On this evidence, I very much look forward to hearing Vol.2.

Mike Gates

Norman Williams and The One Mind Experience ‘The Bishop’ 180g Vinyl (Pure Pleasure) 5/5

Rooted in Bebop, Norman “The Bishop” Williams’ alto is a swinging affair “in the Kansas City Charlie Parker tradition”. This debut 1976 recording with The One Mind Experience was to be the first release on the Californian Theresa label – their Pharoah Sanders’ releases being widely recognised – with some 44 years passing before lovingly remastered by Ray Staff and reissued by Pure Pleasure Records. A Theresa partnership that would have Williams working alongside Hadley Caliman, Babatunde Olatunji and Dave Liebman in 1978 on the Bay Area Music Award-winning Theresa album ‘Bishop’s Bag’, for which he is perhaps better known, before a third release, ‘One For Bird’ in 1979 with Pepper Adams.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of his passing it is with celebration that we now unwrap this, his first release, and encounter two original songs penned by the leader, four by pianist/band member Paul Arslanian and one Hal Galper composition from 1971 which opens side A. Together with Pierre Obadi Baynes on drums, Michael Formanek on Electric Bass and Allen Pittman on Flugelhorn, the sextet unleashes the full weight of their energy on the opening Galper piece ‘Figure Eight’, a non-alto sax original that excels here as Williams soars through with Paul Arslanian’s keys lifting each passage to a majestic place. A stand-out piece indeed and with only one drummer!

Arslanian’s ‘Terry’s Song’ is funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter and a wonderful platform for the leader to dazzle, although there is no mistaking whose song this belongs to and pains this writer to discover there are very few releases with Arslanian featured. His writing skills return with ‘Don’t Go ‘Way Mad’, a jazz samba dance-floor monster [did I say this hasn’t seen a rerelease before now?]. We then close the first side with Arslanian’s ‘Christina’, a swinging ballad propped up by Williams’ alto. Delightful.

Flipping the disc over for Arslanian’s last composition, ‘Mr. Peabody’, I’m further convincing myself this is a showcase for Paul Arslanian and question then why there wasn’t more for us to discover. This compelling piece, supported by stunning bass playing by Michael Formanek is on par with Gary Bartz NTU Troop sprinkled with the reverence bestowed on The Headhunters. It’s already a five-star album…

The final two songs are those of the leader; ‘Trane’s Paradise’ nods to the foundation for The One Mind Experience as his own progressive church, the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Body of Christ (renamed St. John Coltrane Church) highlights his devotion to Coltrane, although very much a pity Alice Coltrane herself filed a $7.5 million lawsuit against the church in 1981 for “misrepresentation” – he would go on to write songs dedicated to Lee Morgan, Eric Dolphy and Charlie Parker – before ‘Ole’ Brown’ plays the encore. Make no mistake, Williams knew how to pull a tune together, notably having worked alongside Max Roach and Phineas Newborn Jr. The experience and energy truly unfold through the entire album.

As I ponder on how familiar this album sounds, evidence of previous encounters proves embarrassing. There are no tracks featured on any compilation I own, there is no reissue by Evidence Music during their 90s take-over to be found on CD and therefore a proven example of how important this release is, in the music, the mastering and the sense that this needs to be part of our respective collections. I applaud everyone along the journey from the San Fransisco recording date in 1970 to today with even one-time band member, Eddie Henderson, stamping his approval with liner notes. Essential listening feels like an understatement.

Steve Williams

Oneness Of Juju ‘African Rhythms 1970-1982’ 3LP/2CD (Strut) 5/5

‘African Rhythms 1970-1982’ marks the new anthology compilation by Oneness of Juju – originally released in 2001 by Strut Records, the revered label have repackaged this stunning compilation to once again introduce listeners to the forward-thinking and progressive sounds of this timeless collective with a refreshed Frank Merritt / The Carvery remastering makeover.

Founded in San Francisco in 1971, and spearheaded by saxophonist, James “Plunky” Branch, the initial incarnation of the band saw them score releases on Black Fire Records and Strata-East originally under the name of Juju before evolving into Oneness of Juju, and later, Plunky & The Oneness of Juju. Already an eclectic and diverse outfit, Plunky’s affection for “African rhythms” ultimately proved to be the driving force behind the band’s concoction of R&B and funk. But it was more than just Africa’s rhythms that served as the inspiration for what Oneness of Juju were striving to achieve through their music – Plunky and the band gravitated just as much towards Africa’s essence of rebellious music; music that depicted a stance against war and a desire for independence.

While the Oneness of Juju would go on to make music spanning over three decades – leaving the door open perhaps for future volumes of this potential reissue series – ‘African Rhythms’ explores those early years of the band’s history that saw them making a name for themselves in New York before relocating to Branch’s home of Richmond, Virginia. With a compilation boasting 24 songs, including a selection of album tracks and their most notable single releases like ‘African Rhythms’ and ‘Every Way But Loose’, there are a hefty amount of treats enclosed in the form of alternate mixes and previously unreleased tracks including the eleven-minute masterpiece that is ‘Bootsie’s Lament’. And the highlights really aren’t hard to find here – the otherworldly brilliance of ‘Space Jungle Funk’ contrasts beautifully with the mellow groove of ‘West Wind’ that I could personally listen to on a loop for hours.

Strut Records have become this incredible – and pivotal – bridge when considering their ability to connect these vastly different eras of world class music to each other. This concept of understanding where the music has come from – its past, its roots, its history – and how that understanding can, while still paying homage to the past, can pave the way for the music’s future. This year alone, Strut’s release of new projects by pianist Greg Foat (‘Symphonie Pacifique’), new singles from Nubiyan Twist (check out their 2019 ‘Jungle Run’ release as well), along with original releases from ONIPA (‘We No Be Machine’) and Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids (‘Shaman!’) are inspired and innovative projects with a vision for the genre’s future. It’s an ideology perhaps shared by James Branch, himself, all those years ago when simply percolating on the notion of what the Oneness of Juju could represent in the years going forward. While the Oneness of Juju could have been perceived to be a project ahead of its time, it’s reissues like this one that celebrates Branch’s bold approach and the awe-inspiring music that was born as a result.

“Both formats feature a 12” sized 4pp booklet featuring rare photos and a comprehensive interview with Plunky Branch within liner notes by Chris Menist.”

Imran Mirza

Meraki ‘Meraki’ CD (Ubuntu Music) 5/5

Ubuntu Music is a relatively new record label, which in its short life has already built a diverse and enviable roster of artists from widely differing creative backgrounds. The label was established by businessman Martin Hummel and renowned trumpeter Quentin Collins. During 2019 together they issued no less than 29 releases and achieved six ‘Album of the Year’ awards for artists including Leo Richardson, Dave O’Higgins and Rob Luft, Paul Booth and Collins himself. Along with these established names, the label is also home to some of the brightest of the rising stars including ‘Wandering Monster’ and ‘Bonsai Club’. I was particularly pleased to see the American pianist and long-time Kurt Elling collaborator Laurence Hobgood has a home with the label.

It was therefore exciting to hear that the debut release from ‘Meraki’ was slated for release in 2020. ‘Meraki’ is a trio comprising Jacky Naylor on piano, Nick Jurd on bass and Jonathan Silk behind the drums. The trio have strong connections with Birmingham; Naylor is a graduate of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and is equally adept at big band work as he is trio work having been awarded the Dankworth Prize for Jazz Composition in the big band category. “He has a wonderful way of combining tradition with innovation……. and groove with lyricism.” Nick Jurd also has strong links with Birmingham and has shared the stand with Silk in the latter’s big band. Silk has worked with the likes of composers Vince Mendoza and Maria Schneider.

So, to the music, as the trio expertly “travel through the various moods, emotions and complexities of Naylor’s original contemporary music.” ‘Meraki’ is a word which describes what happens when you leave a piece of yourself (your soul, creativity, or love) in your work. The members of this trio have done just that. The shadow of the European stylists looms large and I’m reminded particularly of the work of EST. The music really does share some of the excitement of that much-missed group. There are also similarities with other Scandinavian piano trios. ‘43’ is a restless piece, pulsing and changing pace. The first ’Interlude’ is contemplative with wonderful washes of percussion and is all too brief and unresolved. ’Two Sides of the Same Coin’ is a lovely melodic piece, which like other pieces on the album will long remain in the listener’s memory. It includes a fine bass feature for good measure. Indeed, the keynote of this album is melodic accessibility. In contrast, ‘Sherpa’ is more insistent and isn’t afraid to swing. The influence of EST is evident again on ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. ‘Simple Things’ makes for a fine closing piece with crisp percussion work and more fine bass playing.

This is an album that reveals its pleasures slowly but will certainly repay repeated listening. I’m already looking forward to their next album.

Alan Musson