US-based group Morgan Heritage have constantly bridged the gap between old school roots reggae and soulful grooves with an updated version that combines the two styles. Their latest offering finds them stretching out even more into non-roots reggae territory with music recorded in both Florida and Kingston and this with mixed results. On the plus side, a take on Michael Jackson’s ‘The girl is mine’ works surprisingly well with soulful lead vocals and this could be a potential single to showcase the album more generally. Furthermore Morgan’s long-term roots fans will not be disappointed by a song such as the title track which has an endearing lilting groove with both tight harmony vocals and a rocking rhythm section with dub effects. There is even a reprise of Junior Byles’ ‘Chant down Babylon’ for Lee Perry re-titled ‘Stand up’ and one only wishes more numbers in this vein had been attempted. Where the album falls down slightly is in the group’s deliberate attempt to meddle needlessly with their long-established sound. Introducing ragga-style vocals simply sounds strange in this context and is typified by songs such as ‘Looking for the roots’ and it does come across as though Morgan Heritage are searching for new pastures, but not really finding new terrain they actually feel that comfortable with. Having too many co-producers on the album has simply resulted in a confused state of mind on their part. The group sounds far more confident on roots riddims and social lyrics like ‘Dem all run come’, which was recorded at Tuff Gong. Quite possibly, Morgan Heritage are attempting to attract a younger generation that has grown up on dancehall and ragga, but the group’s forte has always been a modern update on the roots tradition and that is surely where their long-term future success lies. Tim Stenhouse
Euro disco sometimes receives a bad press in the UK and that would be unfair because it groups together disparate elements some of which have produced enduring dance floor grooves and were massively popular in France and much of the rest of continental Europe at the time. A case in point is Italian songwriter, arranger and producer Celso Valli who was closely linked to another New York-based producer Jacques Fred Petrus who in turn would be instrumental in promoting the early careers of Change, BB and Q Band and of course his own Peter Jacques band. It is important to stress from the outset that Valli was not in any sense attempting to create a carbon copy of the New York dance beats. Rather the producer was primarily focused on including his own highly eclectic influences that took in world roots beats from the Mediterranean and Africa interspersed with Latin flavours. These all combined beautifully on the hit dance floor tune ‘Hills of Katmandu’ which is included here not only in its original album format, but equally in a much sought after unreleased full-length Patrick Crowley mix. The piece has a Middle Eastern feel with the keyboards replicating a horn instrument quite convincingly. Elsewhere there is a harder, funkier edge in the bassline and drum beat to ‘Wishbone’. For more of an Afro-Latin sound, the berimbau intro to ‘Su-ku-leu’ leads into some African-style chants whereas ‘Mother Africa’ has a more contemporary soulful groove in the male lead and harmony vocals. The second CD has one of the strongest disco cuts in a near seven minute take on ‘Get happy’ and this is the one occasion on which Valli sounds as though he was directly influenced by music from the Big Apple, most notably here with the pared down rhythm guitar and heavy bass of the Chic organisation. Even the use of collective female harmony vocals and strings is a homage of sorts to the masterful Edwards/Rodgers production line. Not everything comes off as well and the rock guitar on ‘Top shot’ should have been dispensed with first time round while ‘Get ready to go’ has all the feel of Abba. Otherwise this is a sonic delight for fans of Euro disco and that should cement the reputation of Ceso Valli internationally.
Women reggae singers have been few and far between on the ground in the general history of reggae music which says more about their limited access to opportunities than anything whatsoever to do with the quality of their singing. A few years back, US re-issue label Heartbeat released an excellent anthology of women singers at Studio One and Trojan trumped this with a double CD that covered the 1970s and early 1980s that plugged the gap magnificently. Joe Gibbs’ label regularly released 45s and 12″ disco mixes of women artists and this new anthology is a terrific overview of those singers at a crucial time in Jamaican musical history. Pride of place goes to the duo of Althea and Donna who went to the highest echelons of the UK pop and reggae charts in the late 1970s with the anthemic ‘Uptown top ranking’ and here the full-length extended version is made available in all its glory. Of course the riddim was based on an earlier classic by Alton Ellis, ‘I’m still in love with you’, and this was reprised by another singer who regularly recorded with the Mighty Two, Marcia Aitken. This update was a minor hit at the time. Invariably, reggae singers of either sex would cover classic soul numbers and the sister of Alton, Hortense Ellis, offers an excellent interpretation of Ann Peebles’ southern soul anthem, ‘I can’t stand the rain’ in its 12″ version while Marcia Aitken and Ruddy Thomas collectively cover ‘Emotion’. There has always existed an intimate rapport between soul and reggae music and it is certainly true to say that US soul music heavily influenced the singers of the rock steady era. It should come as little surprise, then, that there would be a cover by Marica Aitken on the anthology of ‘Danger in your eyes’, a hit first time round for the Paragons featuring John Holt. A surprise inclusion is by one of the members of the I-Threes, Judy Mowatt, under her earlier name of Julie Ann with ‘The gardener’, which was a soul standard for the Staple Singers. Another addition of interest is the interpretation by Althea alone this time of a classic Studio One riddim in ‘Downtown thing’. Lovers rock was an ideal way for UK-based women singers to enter the reggae market and Joe Gibbs quickly sensed the gap in the field and the result was June Lodge’s ‘Someone loves you honey’ which has something of a Wackies groove in the instrumentation. Elsewhere a clear indication that women singers were equally adept at more cultural themes is illustrated on the bouncy rockers riddim of ‘Ina Jah children’ by Dhaima. What made these recordings special was the accompaniment of Kingston’s very top session musicians and these included the who’s who of reggae instrumentalists such as Sly Dunbar, Lloyd Parks, Cedric ‘Im Brooks to name but a few. It should be pointed out that these sides have been re-mastered from the original vinyl rather than master tapes, which are simply unavailable. As such on a top grade hi-fi system, they will not play at an equivalent sound frequency to the original vinyl, but for most sound systems having all these songs in one place will be sufficient and on most hi-fi units the sound is perfectly acceptable.
Roots reggae singer Cornell Campbell captivated fans during the 1970s with his sensitive falsetto vocals over some of the toughest of roots riddims and so it is very welcome indeed to hear him return to recording duties after a prolonged absence with a brand new album of new lyrics backed by some of the UK’s top session musicians collectively known as the Soothsayers. In many respects this is a trip back to the golden era of roots music in Jamaica and the instantly catchy bassline and subtle use of horns on this writer’s favourite song ‘Good direction’ is a sure indication that Campbell is right back on form. The voice still delivers that distinctive understated sound and the harmony backing vocals are ideally suited to compliment the lead singer. Dennis Brown would feel at home on the minor theme soulful groove of ‘There’s a fire’, which is a potential single and has something of a lover’s rock feel to it. For those in search of a more pared down sound, ‘Conqueror’ will fit the bill accordingly with piercing horns and dub effects giving this song a harder feel. There is even some Stevie Wonder inspired 1970s keyboards and funk-tinged backbeat on ‘Never give up’ while ‘I’ll never leave’ is a real grower of a tune. Long-time fans will want to compare and contrast the original interpretation of ‘Jah Jah me no born yah’ with the new one on this set which also features it’s instrumental version. After the collective horn intro. The tempo goes up a notch and this take bears favourable comparison with the original. It is worth pointing out that the lyrics of the original have never been more relevant today. A fine return for Cornell Campbell and this should be the continuation of a long and fruitful collaboration with the Soothsayers, which began with a single ‘We’re not leaving’ back in August 2011, which is not included here.
Tenorist/pianist and leader Jerry Bergonzi has come up with a novel idea of all original compositions that are in turn based on well-known standards.
If the idea is a laudable one, the results are technically accomplished, but overall lacking somewhat in soulfulness and this does unfortunately come across as something of an academic exercise. Bergonzi in fact is both a musician and music teacher at the New England conservatory in Boston and this may be part of the problem the listener faces in that the two roles should be separate whereas on this recording the academic aspect of his career directly impinges upon the nature of the music. Taking that factor into account, there is still some interesting music on offer for the listener to appreciate. A reworking of Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ into ‘PG 2013’ is a fascinating opener with some excellent accompaniment here and on the rest of the pieces by bassist Will Slate and drummer Karen Kocharyan. However, maybe the conception itself was ultimately just too clever for its own good and this is illustrated on ‘First lady’, ostensibly a tribute to Michelle Obama, but which has nothing of the potency of the original tune it is inspired by, namely ‘Lady bird’ by Tadd Dameron’.
The ongoing debate on West African music aimed at a local versus an international audience will continue to be voiced, but on this release it seems as though one independent record company has actually released a local cassette recorded in Bamako (still the primary medium for listening to music) onto CD format. Ideally one would have liked an enterprising company to have offered better value for money in placing two local cassettes worth of music onto a single CD and the meager thirty minute overall time is reflected in the evaluation. That said, the music itself is uncompromising with no concession whatsoever to an international audience and as such this will undoubtedly be part of its charm to the listener in search of authentic acoustic Malian music. Leader Baba Sissoko performs on large ngoni, doun doun and sings as part of a five-piece group that includes the leader’s mother, Djeli Mah Damba Karuba, who sings. The music is typified by numbers such as ‘Boli’ with talking drum, ngoni and the soku (a kind of violin) all heard to great effect with the inspirational vocals of Djeli and the up-tempo ‘Tche fari’ which has a lovely rambling feel and the talking drum in the background makes for a scintillating listening experience. As for the songs themselves, they are relatively compact in length with the longest only just over four minutes long. A worthwhile release, then, but one that requires a little more thought in terms of delivering value for money for the financially hard-pressed record buyer.
French-based, but with a cosmopolitan multi-national line-up, El Después are a tango quintet that have been influenced by the classical tango tradition of Pugliese and Triollo as well as the more innovative explorations of Piazzolla. This is reflected in their overall approach, which reveals a strong classical bias, with the inclusion of French cellist Henri Demarquette, and the group is the brainchild of native Porteño (Buenos Aires) bandoneon player Victor Hugo Villena. Villena is part of a generation that grew up not automatically listening to tango and in fact in his personal case was more exposed to other folk music forms such as chamané. El Después is a formation that has been formed in tribute to a group that in turn was created way back in 1960 and the aim of the new group is perform music to be listened rather than danced to, though the two are not musically exclusive. Adding some welcome diversity to proceedings, vocalist Sandra Rumolina contributes on two non-standard pieces by Kurt Weill (both adapted to the French language) including ‘Youkali’ and ‘Je ne t’aime pas’. Rumolina has something of the commanding presence of Juliette Gréco in her voice and this lends an impressive extra dimension to the quintet sound. Indeed it would be a mouthwatering prospect to hear an entire album of the singer plus quintet devoted exclusively to the Kurt Weill songbook in the tango idiom. For dancers who know their milonga, the number ‘Ana de San Talmo’ should fit the bill to perfection and this is a deeply uplifting performance from the quintet. In a more reflective vein, the appropriately titled ‘Reflexiones’ features Villena on an extended bandoneon solo, but above all else it is the ensemble playing that shines through here.
Veteran pianist and founder member of pioneering Cuban group Irakere, Chucho Valdés has established an international reputation as an outstanding leader and composer, but from the 1990s onwards has increasingly turned inwards towards his own career and for a long time was an artist on the prestigious Blue Note label. Now signed to Harmonia Mundi’s Jazz Village off shoot label, Valdés has surrounded himself with some top new musicians and a few choice guest musicians including saxophonist Branford Marsalis. The repertoire is firmly in the Afro-Cuban jazz groove and the pianist excels in this idiom. With eight lengthy pieces averaging out at some nine minutes per number, there is ample opportunity for the individual band members to shine, not least the leader himself. For those unfamiliar with his style, Chucho Valdés belongs very much to the McCoy Tyner School of jazz piano playing and that means glorious modal piano vamps in abundance. A distinctive Spanish tinge is present on the Jazz Messengers flavoured piece ‘Tabù’ which has a delightful Afro-Cuban backdrop in the use of percussion features some tasty trumpet and tenor saxophone playing from Reinaldo Melian Alavarez and Branford Marsalis respectively. For no-holds barred Afro-Cuban jazz, look no further than the frenetic opener to the album which features elongated piano vamps from the leader some interesting changes in tempo. The virtuoso skills of Valdés are very much in evidence here. For all his potential power, Valdés is best heard here on the gentler piece such as the melodic ballad ‘Caridad amaro’ which has something of a pop tune immediacy to it and this merely underlines what a fine composer Valdés has become over time. A fitting tribute to Valdés’ father who performed well into his nineties comes in the form of ‘Bebo’ and is a mid-paced number with attractive collective horns.
American folk singer-songwriter was one of the original pioneers of the folk revival movement back in the 1960s alongside Joan Baez and Buffy Saint Marie and is interestingly a true contemporary of Bob Dylan who even moved to the same part of the United States in Minneapolis from New York and thus had a personal connection with the iconic singer from the latter’s early days. Koerner made his name primarily as part of the Koerner, Ray and Glover trio that recorded two seminal albums for the Elektra label during the early 1960s. Moroever, when touring the UK at the same time, Koerner played the legendary Les Cousins venue in London along with Davy Graham Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy. During the 1970s, Koerner briefly retired from folk music altogether, but returned to perform a few years later and had to ovecome some formidable obstacles in order to perform the music he loves, not least of which was heart bypass surgery.
If one had to make any parallel at all, then it might be with another singer of the same era, Rambling Jack Elliott. In terms of influences Spider has taken in some of the clasici folk-blues singers such as Jesse Fuller and gospel-blues singers of the calibre of the reverend Gary Davis, both of whom Dylan and others have regularly been regularly inspired by. On this new album by Koerner, the selection of songs, the majority of which are originals, are essentially a mixture of traditional numbers, some of which were composed way back during the 1960s. A particular favourite of this writer is ‘Creepy John’ which is actually a re-working of a song on an early album ‘Blues, Rags and Hollers’ for Elektra. Here the blues feel is embellished by some delightful fiddle and a lovely bassline. Elsewhere historical references abound as on the gold rush in California on ‘Acres of clams’. Another early composition which works especially well in its new format is ‘Good time Charlie’ which has a spoken intro with Spider on harmonica and a rip-roaring country-folk tune it is too. Rounding off a deeply melodic album and consistently agreeable listening experience is some outstanding packaging which may just be a contender for album cover of the year. It is beautifulltyillustrated with a lush gatefold sleeve that immediately conjurs up a truly bygone era and there are notes on every song on the album contained within which simply makes the reader’s/listener’s experience all the more enjoyable. Hornbeam are to be commended for such a fine release and Spider John Koerner is in excellent form throughout.
The Rough Guides series have come up with some inventive and thankfully more specialised selections in recent times and here is another fine illustration. This focuses on the dancefloor side of music from the African continent and covers a multitude of countries and styles. West Africa seems to hold pride of place here with the Afro-Beat drummer in legend Fela Kuti’s band Tony Allen and his Afro Messengers branching out with an elongated excursion into the genre with ‘Love is a natural thing’. The subtlest of drum grooves leads into some classic classic Afro-Beat with 1970s style keyboards, intricate guitar riffs all in evidence. A different feel to Fela’s sound, then, but the connections between the two former group members are obvious. Equally from Nigeria, the Lijadu Sisters were recently showcased on a Soul Jazz compilation in their own right and deservedly so. Here the song ‘Come on home’ features a talking drum intro with an instrumental melody that is akin to the early disco hit ‘Rock you baby’, though both the bassline and piano vamp are taken at a slower tempo. Staying with West Africa, highlife is popular in both Ghana and Nigeria (and many other nations in fact) and from the former, long-time exponent Pat Thomas offers the relaxed groove of ‘Yesu san bra’ which once again has some retro 1970s keyboards. Moving across the continent to Cameroun, Manu Dibango was one of the first African musicians to score an international success outside the continent of Africa with ‘Soul Makossa’ in 1973. Here the simple, yet effective repetition of ‘Yekey Tenge’ has a rippling groove with collective chanting over which Dibango himself performs lead vocals.
From South Africa, two choice selections have been made and of these fans of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album will probably be familiar with Mahlathini and the Mahotellas and the offering ‘Kazet’. Typically pared down instrumentation and dynamite vocals are the order of the day here while for fans of a poppier sound Yvonne Chaka Chaka is most definitely the first port of call. UK-based African groups started to emerge during the 1970s and of these arguably the most successful in commercial terms alone were Osbisa. They fused African and western sounds and pioneered their own Afro-rock sound. Here they offer ‘Dance the body music’, the title of which says it all and has become an instant dancefloor favourite of ajust about any era. Given the numerous choices that have to be made on such a compilation, some parts of Africa are under-represented and the lusophone world is totally absent which is a pity and, perhaps, a compilation of the various nations making up this linguistic entity is in order. As with recent issues, a second CD featuring a worthy lesser known artist is included and in this case it is Maloko. Excellent value for money as ever and a fine way to discover some dancefloor favourites of an altogether different variety.