Category Archives: Album Reviews

Various ‘BLACK FIRE Soul Love Now: The Black Fire Records Story 1975-1993’ 2LP/CD (Strut) 5/5

The title of this compilation from Strut gives the listener a pretty good idea of what to expect from the record. The story of Black Fire Records is told with a finely curated selection of 10 tracks spanning 1975-1993. That may be almost 20 years but the offering has a striking continuity and the album flows beautifully from start to finish without incongruous juxtapositions or jarring inclusions.

The album comes with a comprehensive 25-page booklet detailing the history of the label. One crucial fact is that founders DJ and producer Jimmy Gray and saxophonist James ‘Plunky’ Branch ran into money troubles early on at the label and unfortunately many recordings had to be canned before release. Although some were eventually issued on CD in the 90s this is their vinyl debut.

‘Soul Love Now’ the title track is from Oneness Of Juju, sax player James ‘Plunky’ Branch’s band, blending soul jazz with the rhythms of Africa. ‘Africa is our Mother’ vocalist Eka-Ete Jackie Lewis harmonises with impressive power as Afro-beats and the vibes of Lon Moshe drive the song forward. As a cornerstone of Black Fire’s output, various incarnations of the band get three tunes on the album.

An earlier example when they were simply known as Juju is ‘Nia (Poem: Complete the Circle)’ a song documenting personal and spiritual growth, ‘to find peace you must be it’ gives a flavour of the vocal. The circle is literally completed by Branch’s impressive circular breath as he blows his instrument for the concluding duration.

For completists also included is a 1975 live version of ‘African Rhythms’ which is not released elsewhere. Branch says of the song ‘we created this piece to be spiritual, informative, something you could get off to.’ This could also be a mission statement for Black Fire as a whole, music to move the listener both spiritually and politically but also crucially something you can dance to.

Wayne Davis’ soul groove ‘Look At The People’ retains its political relevance and bite as a commentary on life in contemporary America, ‘Sippin’ Coca-Cola, eating apple pie just like everything’s alright’ is delivered in his gutsy vocal.

The 1993 recording ‘Third House’ by Southern Energy Ensemble has all the ingredients that give the previously uninitiated listener (like myself) a sense that this is the distinctive Black Fire sound: Afro percussion, in this case, congas, tight horns, jazz elements fused with a soulful sensibility and transcendent qualities which aspire to take the listener to a higher plane.

Ghanaian percussionist Okyenema Asante’s ‘Follow Me’ sees the band’s vocalist incrementally raise the pitch of her voice until she’s competing with the sax to shatter any glassware in the vicinity. This is combined with squelching keyboards and treated sax alongside Asante’s beats to give the piece a mesmerising hypnotic quality.

The final selection, ‘People’ by Experience Unlimited is taken from their 1977 debut album Free Yourself. It’s a soulful duet brimming with vocal harmonies. The band went on to release many more albums and saw a revival of their fortunes in the 90s thanks in part to some high profile sampling of their work from this era.

The Black Fire Records Story’s continuity is achieved by focusing on musical flow rather than chronological sequence which gives the listener an immediate feel for the elements that make Black Fire as relevant in 2020 as it was back in 1975.

James Read

Damani Rhodes ‘R.E.A.C.H’ CD (Self-released) 5/5

‘R.E.A.C.H’ marks the debut solo recording from pianist and composer, Damani Rhodes, from Sacramento, California. The release of this project could well be argued to be long overdue. Drawn to music from a young age, Rhodes’ passion saw him gravitate to different instruments in his youth from drums to guitar, before really finding himself at home with the piano.

Recent years have really seen Rhodes’ musical efforts gain increased notoriety as his work amongst varying projects have garnered steady acclaim and resulted in some fantastic projects: there’s the eclectic and fusion-inspired musical collective known as Mino Yanci (“musical freedom”), founded by Damani, who at the time of this writing currently have their excellent self-titled debut EP (2017) available and that project’s subsequent follow-up single, ‘Sho-vel’ featuring bassist Aneesa Strings and vocalist Vadia released in 2019. There is also Damani’s contributions to the socially conscious hip-hop collective known as SOL Development who have a number of powerful and politically charged releases to their name, most recently their ‘Sol Affirmations’ project released earlier this year in collaboration with Rhodes.

These varied and dynamic projects have gone a long way to laying some exciting groundwork for Damani’s R.E.A.C.H with elements from his work as a part of these different groups really seeming to shine through at various parts of the album.

Recorded exclusively within the hallowed grounds of Washington, DC’s, revered Kennedy Center following a week-long residency at the REACH, the five songs that comprise this release were born solely of those live sessions. Backed by bassist Chris McEwen and fellow Mino Yanci collaborator, Somadhi Johnson, on drums, R.E.A.C.H marks an exciting stage in Damani’s career as he takes that bold step towards his introduction to centre stage.

And what an introduction this is.

With much of the music on R.E.A.C.H being born of improvisation, proceedings are kicked off with arguably the most fascinating piece on the whole album in ‘Sludge’ – the track is propelled by these heavy blasts of synths, that would likely make Herbie Hancock cock an eyebrow before the song completely transforms for its second half with this thrilling journey only taking place over the course of three and a half minutes. I certainly wouldn’t have been angrier at a further three and a half minutes of ‘Sludge’-filled bliss.

Another strong album highlight comes in the form of the album’s lead single ‘Mon Yawn Ugh’ featuring the prestigious trumpeter, Keyon Harrold. With several album releases of his own and countless collaborations with artists including Vivian Sessoms and Jay-Z under his belt, as well as subbing for Miles Davis’ trumpet in Don Cheadle’s ‘Miles Ahead’ biopic, Harrold makes an incredibly welcome contribution to the album. A further guest is introduced through vocalist Vadia, who we cited as having guested for Mino Yanci’s ‘Sho-vel’ single, and who guests on ‘Slow Dance in the Jungle’ beautifully layering her wordless vocal amidst the exquisite arrangement.

With R.E.A.C.H, Damani Rhodes is set to really see his star rise, and rightfully so. His past efforts as a part of Mino Yanci and Sol Development have led to some excellent projects but it’s now time for Rhodes to focus on sharing his own and complete musical vision to audiences who will no doubt fully embrace his talents.

Imran Mirza

Major Surgery ‘Rare Live Performances 1978’ CD (The Last Music Company) 4/5

It’s Donny from the Block! “No matter where I go, I know where I came from (from the Cronx!)”

Croydon sax legend Don Weller died earlier this year having enjoyed a career that benefited many household names including Cat Stevens, David Bowie, Alex Harvey, Gil Evans, Stan Tracey and the Jack Bruce/Charlie Watts version of Rocket 88. This live recording of his jazz-fusion band, Major Surgery, mixes Weller-penned tracks from their only album, The First Cut, with other gems that Croydonian’s(?) would have relished during an early 70s, six-year(!), booze and fags stint at the always-packed Dog and Bull pub.

Joining him in those heady, stage-much-too-close-to-the-lavs, days were drummer Tony Marsh, bass player Bruce Collcutt and guitarist Jimmy Roche. People who spent time with the man, or witnessed the band, speak with a deep fondness for him and his music. Obituaries from earlier this year suggest that I would’ve really enjoyed sharing a pint with him: “well-loved”, “self-effacing ”, “a big presence”, “idiosyncratic sense of humour”, “guileless indifference to just about any form of PR” and “an amiable bearded giant complete with beret, sandals and (sometimes) odd socks”. In fact, his beret lust led to him hustling a beret sponsorship off Kangol for his 16 piece Big Band’s head!

I’m sure you’re getting the picture by now but let me give one last example of why I so warmed to him: His long time sparring partner, Art Themen, fondly/irritatedly remembered him phoning while Art was attempting to get the hang of a Cedar Walton tune, “I’m practising” Art said. “Practising?” Don replied incredulously, “that’s cheating!”

So, the music then. The typically-for-them (atypical for everyone else) titled “Fred Bear the Threadbare Bear” roars off proceedings. It’s a rollicking, 6 minute 70s fusion with the 4 piece now augmented by Pete Jacobsen on keyboard. It runs freely but punches accurately and hard when it needs to. The musicianship is a joy – lots of just behind and just ahead one-upmanship. Stylistically it comes from an old bop head, soul-jazz type of fusion rather than a rock fusion – more like Les McCann’s stuff than, say, Mahavishnu or Brand X.

“Old Useless and White” (I know the feeling, mate) grooves effortlessly as Collcut and Marsh prod it along and Weller circles an evolving, slightly angular, motif that could easily be the pre-edited theme for a 70s TV comedy. Roche and Jacobsen deliver breezy, incremental solos.
The 12-minute solofest, “Shrimpboats”, (I don’t know the feeling, mate) starts with a Mahavishnu-esque cosmic, flanged guitar arpeggio and Weller/Jacobsen atmospheric washes before Weller grabs it by the throat with a muscular but melodious solo. Roche, Jacobsen, Weller again (with some funky, hard chopping guitar from Roche) then, finally, Marsh all take spots before close.

“Beans” is a protein/fibre rich, late-afternoon-at-a-festival blues with Roche and Weller throwing down engaging, heartfelt solos before Jacobsen goes off on an incongruous space jazz guitar emulation. Next, and totally unexpectedly, is his passionate, classical solo piano, mood-exploration entitled “A Touch of the PJs”. It segues into Roche’s Hendrix-inspired intro to “Six/Nine” which genty shifts into Weller’s spiritual space before it drops into a Marvin Gaye romancing groove with Roche getting heavy soul-busy in support. It finally rests in the divine again. Weller’s an absolute star on this track.

The finale, “Tightrope”, is eastern blues meets a fusiony Starsky and Hutch. Its effusive flow, with everybody again trying to sit just behind or ahead of each other, is compelling and lovable.

So, OK, the sound’s not great but considering it started off on a cassette recorded in a pub it’s pretty damned remarkable actually. The major positive throughout is that the player’s character and joy is palpable. I didn’t need to read the obituaries to understand Weller was warm, witty, big, integrous, idiosyncratic or that he was up for a laugh and a beer or two. All of those things are evident from the music. It’s charming and humorous and the musicianship frequently catches you off guard. You come away wishing you had been there in the Dog and Bull every week, pint glass and fag in hand, marvelling at both their playing and your good fortune that this was happening down your local.

Ian Ward

Mulatu Astatke + Black Jesus Experience ‘To Know Without Knowing’ LP/CD (Agogo) 4/5

Mulatu Astatke, legendary vibes player and pioneer of Ethio-jazz in the 60s and early 70s has teamed up with Melbourne based Black Jesus Experience to create an eclectic array of transcontinental fusions in a second musical collaboration following Cradle Of Humanity in 2016.

Black Jesus Experience or BJX are a diverse nine-piece band, not only from the perspective of the band members heritage, Moroccan, Maori, Zimbabwean, Ethiopian but in their age range as well, from veteran pianist Bob Sedergreen to percussionist Kahan Harper who toured with Astatke from just 12 years of age.

‘Mulatu’ the album’s first track is a reworking of an early classic tune by Mulatu Astatke. The gently hypnotic vibraphone groove of the original is retained as a sound layer in a more contemporary setting but with phrases and echoes of the earlier variation. The piece is driven forward with the precision of Ian Dixon’s trumpet and velocity of James Davies’ rhythm section. At around four and a half minutes the band up the ante and MC Mr Monk interjects with some lyrical laments regarding the state of Aboriginal land rights in Australia right now, ‘survivors of genocide and displacement in this modern-day playpen’ as well as stating his intention to whet our appetite with some ‘Ethiop-flavour’.

I found it satisfying to compare this version of ‘Mulatu’ with his 2009 collaboration on the same tune with London based Heliocentrics, to my ear that version sounds somehow darker and more contained, the groove fitting around it more closely. The Northern hemisphere version contrasting with the brighter more expansive sounding Southern hemisphere take on the theme.

Astatke’s vibes are not prominently featured on the album and after the first tune really only come to the fore towards the close of the record. ‘Blue Light’ a lower key more serene piece with a beautiful trumpet part by Ian Dixon. ‘A Chance To Give’ is a great example of the band weaving their stylistic threads together with a delicate guitar melody from Zac Lister which achieves a simultaneously modern and nostalgic feel that Mulatu’s sinuous vibes occupy like a dream.

As well as Mulatu Astatke the other Ethiopian voice on the record is that of Enushu Taye whose interpretations of Ethiopian wedding songs bring a distinctive sense of place to the music. There’s jazz here and there’s Ethio-jazz here but then there is this other realm altogether that her voice occupies. Somehow the band absorb these diverse influences and rework them to give us something new and vital.

James Read

Read also:
Mulatu Astatke ‘Mulatu of Ethiopia’ LP/CD (Strut) 5/5
Mulatu Astatke ‘Sketches of Ethiopia’ LP/CD (Jazz Village) 4/5
Mulatu Astatke ‘Mulatu Steps Ahead’ 2LP/CD (Strut) 4/5
Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics ‘Inspiration Information’ LP/CD (Strut) 4/5

Pan Amsterdam ‘HA Chu’ LP/CD (Def Pressé) 4/5

“Two scratches, beef jerky and a Powerball”. Iggy Pop’s guest appearance on Pan Amsterdam’s ‘Mobile’, from his EP ‘Elevator Music, Vol. 1’, still infectiously runs through my head bringing a smile with it every time. In UK Vibe’s review of the ‘Elevator Music’ EP, I mentioned my affection for the closing 90 seconds of this song which features Iggy’s line repeated over that time backed by trumpet by Leron Thomas as just a great moment within a great track. The mish-mash of styles captured within that moment still remains the perfect representation of everything great about Pan Amsterdam…

The off-kilter rapper who has met with incredible success when paired with similarly inspired production is famed as the alter ego of New York jazz musician, Leron Thomas. Thomas seems to revel in presenting himself through various musical facets from his jazz roots on the New York circuits playing amongst various ensembles to ‘Leron Thomas’ – the frontman and lead vocalist for the R&B/disco-inspired project, ‘Cliquish’ (Heavenly Sweetness, 2015). The creation of Pan Amsterdam with Def Pressé marked a further stage in Thomas’s evolution that has seen him seemingly refuse to sit still.

The Iggy Pop connection extended into Thomas’s heavy involvement for Iggy’s ‘Free’ project which went in tandem with the album’s accompanying tour. And following the release of ‘Elevator Music, Vol. 1’ last year, Thomas has continued releasing music under his R&B guise with the UK’s Lewis Recordings housing the singles ‘Corporate’, ‘Blind’ and the Kid Creole & The Coconuts cover ‘Endicott’, all in the run-up to the full-length release ‘More Elevator Music’ – released on the same day as Pan Amsterdam’s ‘HA Chu’ no less!

Which brings us to the album in question, ‘HA Chu’ – the highly anticipated eighteen track album, released through Def Pressé and a project that has best been described as “the sonic retrospective of Pan Am’s international touring experience”. Throughout ‘HA Chu’, the varied and somewhat unpredictable nature of Amsterdam’s music is captured throughout even through the variety of producers involved in the project – French DJ and producer GUTS delivers with the strong album highlight ‘Carrot Cake’, Madison Washington’s Malik Ameer delivers with the eclectic and vibrant ‘Al’s Courtyard’ along with a pair of more menacing compositions in ‘Dried Saliva’ and ‘Trix’.

Sometimes with hip-hop releases, the right combination of rapper paired with apt production can allow you to just bask in the magic they’ve created. With Pan Amsterdam releases, however, although the combination is just right as regards to the production, Amsterdam is still very much the centrepiece here as you still find yourself listening intently to every line, every word, not wanting to miss any of it. His charm has always rested within his witticism and unique perspectives of the world as emphasised through numerous pop culture references: “Shinin’ like Nicholson, wielding an axe” (‘Kubrick’, 2019), “I kinda just leave it there, with the comfort of knowing, that I’m somewhat self-aware, I kiss my own derriere” (‘Dried Saliva’) or “What’s love got to do with it? Nutbush, I’m through with it” (‘Hall N Oats’).

As has been the case for Leron Thomas for a while now, the question will now be ‘what will he do next?’ With so many creative avenues open to him, it could practically be anything and while the wait will be interesting, ‘HA Chu’ will keep fans more than happy in the meantime.

Imran Mirza

Read also:
Pan Amsterdam ‘Elevator Music Vol. 1’ (Def Pressé) 4/5

Błoto ‘Kwiatostan’ LP (Astigmatic) 4/5

Arriving just three months after the successful release (three sold-out vinyl pressings so far!) of the debut album, ’Erozje’ is the follow-up ‘Kwiatostan’. With limited options for gigs and promotional work to support the first album, Polish quartet Błoto holed up for a few days in the newly opened Jassmine club in Warsaw putting together the tracks for this new platter. ’Erozje’ is a fusion of jazz and hip-hop beats. The new album has slightly expanded on this template to incorporate dance and other breakbeat grooves. Kwiatostan translates in English to Inflorescence and the theme of wild plants continues in the naming of the tracks.

“Rumianek” is a deceptively gentle introduction to the set. It has an early 90s ambient feel with fluffy synths, looping sax phrases and minimal drums while the simple arpeggiated bass guitar morphs into liquid synthesised pulses. The loping Wu-Tang beats on “Rzepień” give way to the crisp and tight rhythm driving the simple repetitive sax lines and angular keys.

Although there’s light and shade on this album, I feel Błoto are most effective and exciting when they are abstractly riffing over relentless bludgeoning rhythms. Here on “Mak”, they combine insistent pounding percussion and intense synth which is layered with disorientating spacey often sparse horns. A standout track, “Oset” is a scorched-earth landscape of sinuous horn shards and off-kilter drums held together by a gnarly synthy bass hook.

The hard edges are softened slightly on the propulsive but danceable “Mlecz”. “Kaczeńce” recalls early drum and bass with breakbeat style drums, wub-wub bass and delay affected distorted sax. “Jaśmin” is a surprising but also welcome slab of lush, sunshine jazz-funk stacked with swidgy synth licks. This sharply contrasts with the stark keys and edgy bass on “Chabry”. “Hortensja” is straight forward old-school hip hop with a rap (in English) by guest vocalist Anthony Mills aka Toni Sauna. “Don’t bring me no cut flowers….. just let them stay in the bed”. The smooth, pleasing but slightly uneventful “Niezapominajka” is the neat closer.

Translated to English, the title of the debut album is erosion and more specifically discusses erosion due to human activity. It drips of despair and righteous anger. For the second album, Kwiatostan, wildflowers and “weeds” spread and flourish over the cursed earth. The anger is still here but maybe while there’s life, there’s hope.

Kevin Ward

Read also:
Błoto ‘Erozje’ LP/CD (Astigmatic) 4/5

Kenneth Dahl Knudsen ‘Uummat’ LP/CD (Self-released) 5/5

For me, the most rewarding music, regardless of genre, fires the imagination and takes me on an emotional journey, adventuring into places I’ve rarely been, tugging at the heartstrings along the way. Danish bassist/composer Kenneth Dahl Knudsen seems to have an uncanny knack of achieving this. His 2016 release “We’ll Meet In The Rain” was an astonishingly beautiful album, written for and performed by a 19 piece jazz orchestra. His 2018 quintet album “Tete” was no less impressive. Let there be no doubt, “Uummat” is a massive artistic statement, both in terms of its complex compositions and the stellar musical performances by a diverse ensemble of musicians from both jazz and classical musical backgrounds.

As a reviewer, I rarely comment on how I approach a review. Everyone takes a different view, and indeed, my approach varies from album to album depending on a whole host of different reasons and circumstances. But there’s always one thing I like to do, and that is to listen to the music before reading any notes, info or press release. I find it easier to listen to the music with an open mind. And then I read up on the artist and album. A lot of the time the information is not that relevant, but occasionally, as with this recording, it adds awareness and gravitas, increasing the depth and meaning of the music itself. I love it when this happens. When I first listened to “Uummat” I was completely blown away. It’s a journey of the most compelling kind; beguiling beauty, tenderness, unparalleled joy, mixed with dark melancholia, a sense of danger and unease, and a harrowing restlessness and uncertainty. It’s all in there, and much more besides. As a whole musical piece, I feel it has the same kind of oeuvre as Henryk Gorecki’s masterpiece, Symphony No.3, otherwise known as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, with its direct and highly emotive themes based around war and persecution, and a parent’s perspective on losing a child. Those were my first impressions. And then I read the “Uummat” album notes…

Working on Western Greenland island Ummannaq, Knudsen was exposed to the vast, calm and awe-inspiring surroundings, which were the first catalyst for a new set of compositions. Soon, a second incidence added a new dimension to the music. During a dinner with the leader of a local orphanage, the composer was invited to read from author Lise Andersen’s book Uummat – Stories from the heart, a book documenting the personal experiences of neglect of children from the orphanage. Third, Knudsen encountered the rich Greenlandic folklore in the recently published Bestiarium Groenlandica – an illustrated handbook of mythical beings, spirits and animals. The resulting music is rich and organic, ranging from clear and precise compositions to wild and chaotic improvisation. As Knudsen comments in the album’s liner notes; “It was heartbreaking to learn of these stories, and be in the midst of it. To witness how life still prevails and how resilient people can be. I had to write this music.”

Musically speaking, Knudsen wears his heart on his sleeve. And thank goodness he does. I do not know him personally, but in him, I feel something of a kindred spirit. Maybe there are many who do, who knows. What I do know is just how incredibly powerful his music is. It is life, it is nature, it is human-kind. It stirs the emotions, whether they be empathetic and euphoric, or dark and disquieting. Uummat’s riveting journey of discovery begins with “Allamioq”, acoustic piano and edgy strings leading into the melody. There’s an uneasy eloquence that builds with tension, the music revealing its beauty as the piece unfolds. Throughout the entire album, Knudsen juxtaposes hope with despair perfectly, the highs and lows creating a diverse world in which the listener never quite knows what’s just around the corner. Undine Rolava’s voice is stunning. Her crystalline vocals add an immense presence and depth to the entire recording, with a purity that truly raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Uffe Markussen and Tedas Pasaravicius, the two excellent saxophonists stand out on several of the tracks, none more so than on the mesmerising “Uummannaq”, a gloriously beautiful piece of music. I can feel the heart and soul of compassion shining like a guiding light as I listen and get lost in the emotive wonder of this. The arrangements are fresh and inspiring, whether it be a quiet reflective section of music, or a full-blown cacophony of sound, as heard on “Monsters” and “Maliina”. Experimental electronics blend with crazy sax improv and a frantic, screaming voice of despair. Imagine you’re with that person who half-hides their eyes whilst watching a horror movie, yet are still glued to what’s happening, unable to look away. This is the musical equivalent of that scenario. “Anngiaq” brings a sense of serenity to the proceedings, and a joyful exuberance as the strings dance and play with an arrogant frivolity. As with much of this recording, there are surprises galore towards the end of the track, surprising and delighting in equal measure. “The Sleigh” wouldn’t be out of place in any of the great composer’s masterworks. It’s like Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff getting drawn into Igor Stravinsky’s strange new world. Shades of light and dark are a repeating theme throughout the album, with unfathomable textures and blinding colours creating sounds, paths, footprints, memories and imagery. The mood can change in an instant, as on “Inua” where sweet moments of beauty mix sympathetically with a sudden moment of unease. The cascading rhythms of life lead us into the closing piece “Sorsunneq” a cross-pollination of all that is modern jazz and contemporary classical music, in a life-affirming celebration of sound.

Kenneth Dahl Knudsen’s “Uummat” is an incredible achievement. The music is nothing short of astonishing; at times comforting, safe and homely, at times challenging and testing. Ultimately it is intensely rewarding. In my humble opinion, it defines what truly great music is all about, and indeed, what it is to be human, with passion, depth, honesty and integrity.

Mike Gates

Read also:
Kenneth Dahl Knudsen ‘Tété’ CD (Sound Seduction) 5/5
Kenneth Dahl Knudsen ‘We’ll Meet In The Rain’ (Two Rivers) 5/5

Nellie “Tiger” Travis ‘I’m A Tiger, I’m A Woman’ Deluxe CD (CDs) 4/5

The current queen of Southern Soul hits us with another cracking album, I say current, she’s been sitting at the top table for easily 15 years now. Others come and go without the longevity, but Nellie puts these albums out without too much fanfare and lets her faithful mop them up as soon as they hit the streets. On every album there is a killer ballad or scintillating dancer, she mastered the art of that swaggering, head-nodding, foot-tapping beat years ago. It’s insidious and seeps into your very being, stays with you for days, with a voice that so obviously came out of the church, she’s blessed with a unique immediately recognizable voice, full of depth, passion and when its needed grits.

Born in the early ’60s in the deep South, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, for the most part, she was raised by her grandmother who was a minister and sang in the church. Nellie began singing in the church at the age of 5 years through to her early teens, her family is rooted in music both singing and musicianship. She graduated from the John F Kennedy High School in 1979 and eventually relocating to Los Angeles launching her singing career moving to Chicago in 1992 only to be mentored by Koko Taylor, a giant of the RnB and soul world. Nellie added “Tiger” to her name after feeling she needed something to standout amongst the pack and didn’t take her long to establish herself on the Chicago Blues circuit, sharing stages with such luminaries as Buddy Guy, Bobby Rich, Otis Clay and Little Milton. I have all of her albums here on the shelves and she has been consistent throughout and lyrically great. We all know modern southern soul albums don’t have a wealth of instruments generally, mostly are supported by synthesizers, there are artists like Sir Charles Jones, Willie Clayton and Nellie we can pull it off.

So to this album then. Three tracks have taken front running; “Don’t Talk To Me” is possibly the ballad of the year, six-plus minutes of gut-wrenching agony as she finds out her love has been playing away, lyrically masterful and powerful enough to stop you dead in your tracks with impassioned vocals over a slow tick-tock rhythm supplied by the edge of a drum and possibly a bass. With a wavering voice, she tells him “This marriage is shot to hell”, female backing coming in out reinforcing the notion it’s over, this is simply stunning on every level. And if you haven’t been totally drained by that then “Who Knows You” will finish you off – another searing ballad with an unknown male voice, straining at the leash to make his mark, but Nellie ain’t finished yet, in she comes masterfully taking her rightful place. What a fabulous duet this is, soul radio should be all over these. The other biggie on here is the two-step monster “I’m With You Baby”. I can state without any fear of contradiction that this could and should blow up everywhere, what a shame we can’t get together the way we used to as this would destroy the floor at the Soul Essence and Soul4Real weekenders – this is just so damn irresistible. She’s telling her man she is with him, ignore what’s being said on the streets, she will do anything for him, so so good. The upbeat dancer, “I’m A Woman”, has that groove going on that makes you move with an unknown instrument in the background that sounds like a twanging elastic band, I kid you not, it has me moving whilst typing. One of the main problems of these digital promo advance albums is that very often they have no release sheet, I’d love to know who the male singer is, who played what, who wrote the lyrics, where it was cut, all the usual stuff, but alas I can’t find anything on the net either. “MOD” (Man on drugs) is another great dancer, strong storyline, it’s a strange one this, on some of the tracks it’s clearly just a synth but then on others, it sounds like a real drummer and bass, guitar solos, sadly though, no real horns, which would really take this album up that last notch. Another real grower is the subtle funky “Tornado Wrapped In Fire”, now we really do have real instruments and it really does make for a better sound, percussion, bass, keys provide the backdrop, great stuff. Listen, I’ve rambled on far too long, go get this 18 tracker, it could be your album of the year, for me it’s well up there.

Brian Goucher

Will Vinson / Gilad Hekselman / Antonio Sanchez ‘Trio Grande’ LP/CD (Whirlwind Recordings) 5/5

What happens when three of the world’s most accomplished jazz musicians get together for a new trio project? Fireworks! … and an innovative, exhilarating debut album. Saxophonist (plus keys) Will Vinson, drummer Antonio Sanchez and guitarist Gilad Hekselman first came together at the legendary club Cornelia Street Cafe, and the chemistry and excitement was immediate. Their intuitive musical connection is obvious to hear on this stunning recording, as all three musicians combine so creatively well together, following their impulses to make an album that sparks with electricity, surprising and delighting with its freshness and originality.

As a listener, it’s clear to hear how the musicians must have inspired each other on this session. The threesome all come from different backgrounds with many varied musical influences, and as with all the best collaborations, especially trios, there’s a magic captured on this recording that is seemingly undefinable. As Will Vinson says; “We’re all grounded in jazz but all of us are also looking for other sounds and influences to bring in- that’s what we have in common, and what sets us apart is that all our sounds and influences are so different.” The scope of the trio’s openness and no-limits approach to music-making is vast, and the resulting music is utterly compelling.

The trio share the compositional credits, with eight tracks on the album. Available on CD, DL and limited edition double vinyl LP, the LP also contains three bonus tracks which is a nice touch. The album opens with “Northbound”, a Sanchez tune, with its powerfully insistent guitar riff cleverly underpinning the whole piece. Hekselman’s “Elli Yeled Tov” dances for joy with an uplifting carnival atmosphere. One of the most compelling tunes on the album is Vinson’s “Oberkampf”, a brooding atmospheric piece which features contrasting solos from Hekselman and Vinson. Another Vinson original, “Upside”, is much lighter and breezy, with an elegant catchiness running through its swinging melody. With an obvious nod to guitarist John Scofield, Hekselman’s “Scoville” allows the writer to flex his guitar chops whilst paying homage to the great master. Perhaps the most adventurous piece on the album, Sanchez’s “Gocta” is quite simply a magnificent example of jazz-fusion at its very best. This is an electrifying piece of music from start to finish, bringing home just how original and exciting this trio are. Also written by Sanchez, “Firenze” is lower-key, yet none-the-less satisfying, with the trio performing freely over its pleasing jazz structure. The album closes with a beautiful, masterful ballad from Hekselman, “Will You Let It”. Its haunting melody and subtle performances make this a gorgeous end to what is quite clearly an inspiring, wonderful album.

Mike Gates

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Sun Ra Arkestra ‘Swirling’ 2LP/CD (Strut) 5/5

“I saw Sun Ra at the Bottom Line in the 80s and it took 3 days for The Weirdness to wear off. 72 hours of trees not looking (or acting) like trees. 3 days of the wind whispering terrible secrets. And the STARS…!”

That half-a-week trip was tweeted by none other than Vernon Reid on the very same day I started listening to “Swirling”. It perfectly sums up not only Frequency Bias but also the out-there legend that is Sun Ra. A legend that absolutely befits someone who was, among other things, a pioneer of Afrofuturism, the co-creator of the Outer Space Visual Communicator (a giant machine, played with hands and feet, that allowed artists to create and finger-paint with light) and, of course, the only man to have visited Saturn.

The 15 member Arkestra assembled here is obviously not led by Sun Ra, who died in 1993, but by 96 (!) year old saxophonist Marshall Allen, who has captained the spaceship since the mid 90s following John Gilmore’s passing. Of the 15 musicians on this album, the group’s first since 1999, there are contributions from a pair of late long-time Arkestra members, saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson, who died in March, and percussionist Atakatune, who died in October 2018. Nice to think (however scientifically unlikely) that they’re all cosmic-jamming together in a very well equipped Saturn-based Arkestra right now.

“Swirling” was recorded in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Soundworks and revisits some of Ra’s classic compositions, offering new arrangements for the likes of “Satellites Are Spinning”, “Door of the Cosmos”, “Rocket No. 9” and “Angels and Demons at Play”.

Tara Middleton’s pure vibrato hopefulness introduces “Satellites Are Spinning/Lights on a Satellite”, stepping aside to allow the Arkestra to sensually massage our 2020 aching muscles, frayed nerves and damaged souls. Layer upon layer of calm plus washes of mildly dissonant, reversing horns instill a serene, yet always stirred, feeling. It’s like being orbited by a boundless, enlightening wisdom.

“Seductive Fantasy” is more seductive; a serpentine shimmy, oscillating on a baritone riff. Again, deep understanding is communicated – beckoning us to look up to the stars where everything will be OK. The Allen penned “Swirling” brings some sophisticated, playful swing to the astronomical soothing. It benefits from a jubilantly articulate Farid Barron piano solo.

“Angels and Demons at Play” riffs afro hard with the Arkestra building, swelling, and compellingly expanding. Middleton tells us how it is, coercing trombonist David Davis to vocally echo her key messages.

“The sky is a Sea of Darkness when there is no sun to light the way. There is no day, there’s only darkness. Eternal sea of darkness.” “Sea of Darkness” is a pulsating drama that acts as a long, sometimes foreboding segue into the Bounce! Bounce! crossover hip-hop of “Rocket No. 9”. This No 9 is a very hooky, spirited, uptempo rendering of the original “Rocket #9” complete with sprightly Davis/Middleton vocal interplay. Zoom! Zoom! Up in the air! Note for all you parents with young kids – this could easily be their Sun Ra gateway.

“Astro Black” is a cosmic duet highlighting Middleton’s expressive, deep voice-of-the-universe and Allen’s EVI-tastic space whistles and burps. “Infinity / I’ll Wait for You” dances between a Clangers vs orchestra tune-up free jazz and several winning, cacophonous peaks.

The swinging, finger-clicking, cockel-warming “Sunology” precedes the album exit that is “Door of the Cosmos/Say”. Fred Barron’s fervent, take-it-to-church piano is fluid and evangelical throughout as the Arkestra billows warmth, the sax dances and the EVI sprinkles occasional incongruous cosmic dust. “Love and life, Interested me so, That I dared to knock, At the door of the cosmos”…repeat til fade-out.

“Swirling” is a timely gift. It swirls, soothes, vibrates and uplifts. It seems to understand what we need. It isn’t the untreelike Weirdness that Vernon experienced back in the 80s, it’s a series of superbly arranged, accessible wisdoms; delivered by folks who know better, expect better and hope for better.

“We truly hope that this recording brings much joy to a planet which is so deeply in need of a spirit sound and vibration,” saxophonist Knoel Scott said. “We hope it contributes to a change in the ominous direction of man’s journey through the cosmos”.

Allen added “This new release is the Arkestra’s love offering to the world. Beta music for a better world.” Cue applause and EVI space toots.

Ian Ward

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Sun Ra and His Arkestra ‘To Those Of Earth… And Other Worlds’ 2LP/2CD (Strut) 5/5
Sun Ra Arkestra & Marshall Allen ‘Babylon Live’ Ltd Edition CD + DVD (In and Out) 4/5