Juliette Gréco ‘Collector’ (Milan) 4/5

Left-bank chanteuse Juliette Gréco typified the cool, elegant style of the French chanson tradition in the 1950s and 1960s and this single CD neatly brings together some of the highlights of the earlier period. Gréco has always bene known for her exquisite choice of song and it is true to say that she grew up as a musician at a time when some of the finest wordsmiths of the French language in song were still alive and productive. Thus the dynamite duo of Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prévert penned the delightful ‘Les enfants qui s’aiment’, Les feuilles mortes’ and ‘Je suis comme je suis’. While Gréco’s interpretations of the first two are up there with those of Yves Montand, she is truly on her own on the latter which has come to be something of a signature tune. Her deep, emotionally-charged delivery works wonderfully well on the then up and coming singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour on ‘Je hais les dimanches’ while there is an evocative version of ‘Sous le ciel de Paris’. Even Georges Brassens’ old chestnut ‘Chanson pour l’Auvergnat’ is given her inimitable treatment. The only glaring absence is that of any songs by Serge Gainsbourg who fell under her charms as did the trumpeter Miles Davis with whom she enjoyed a long-term friendship. Otherwise this is a first rate guide to Gréco’s 1950s output. While collectors may want to investigate further the two CD ‘Je suis comme je suis’ on French Universal, this new edition covers a good deal of territory and serves as a fine introduction to the work of a singer who continues to be respected among subsequent generations of French singers, including world music aficionado Bernard Lavilliers. Notes are in French and focus on excerpts of interviews with other musical figures paying tribute to the singer’s craft. Tim Stenhouse

Jorge Ben ‘The Definitive Collection’ 2CD (Wrasse) 5/5

As a songwriter Jorge Ben (changed to Jorge Benjor later in life) is only marginally behind Tom Jobim in terms of the affection he receives in his native Brazil and as a purveyor of the samba-funk style in the 1970s, he can rightly be regarded as one of the most innovative figures in Brazilian music in the last fifty years. This comprehensive overview of his career from the early 1960s through to the mid-1970s covers all the classics and a fair few more. It was ‘Mas que nada’ that catipulted Ben to national prominence and thereafter Sergio Mendes’ version that enthralled the entire world and has been regularly trotted out as a theme tune whenever the Brazilian football team are in town. During this period Ben was clearly under the influence of the bossa nova composers such as Jobim and Lyra among a whole host of other great songwriters (Bahian legend Dorival Caymmi should never be forgotten, nor Vinicius de Moraes) and this is reflected further in songs such as ‘Chove chuva’ and ‘Balanca pena’, the latter of which took on a modern and funkier flavour when Maris Monte interpreted it gloriously in the mid-1990s on her ‘Rose and charcoal’ CD. As the 1960s progresed so did Ben’s musical style which was taking on an increasingly Afro-Brazilian tinge. Compositions such as ‘Comancho’ off a super rare vinyl album and ‘Oba là vem elà’ heralded in a new era during which Jorge Ben would take on board the innovations in US soul and funk, but with a more acoustic flavour in keeping with the Brazilian musical heritage. The bass and brass intro to the killer Portugese lyrics, but English chorus and title of ‘Take it easy my brother Charles’ was testimony to this newly emerging style as was the equally impressive ‘Bebete vao boro’. Indeed so influential was Ben becoming by the mid-1970s that Rod Stewart, upon hearing the irresistable groove of ‘Taj Mahal’, copied the melody and came up with a hit single ‘Do ya think I’m sexy’. Ben repaid the compliment by taking Stewart to court and successfully winning his case. From the seminal ‘Afirca Brasil’ album the stunning ‘Xico da Silva’ is also the tale of a runaway slave and it would be wrong not to view Jorge Ben’s music output without at the very least understanding some of his deeply held views on what it meant to be a black Brazilian in a world where white Brazilians dominated the corridors of power. Forty songs of the highest calibre and as ever tastefully packaged by Wrasse. A triumph from start to finish.

Tim Stenhouse

Ravi Coltrane ‘Spirit fiction’ (Blue Note) 4/5

For reedist Ravi Coltrane’s debut on the Blue Note label, he has assembled a start cast of accompanists, although in truth the most convincing numbers are those performed by his regular band members and they are likely to be the ones that the general public sees in live performance. The all-star cast includes on half of the album Geri Allen on piano, James Genus on bass and Eric Harland on drums,, collectively forming a crack rhythm section. For a debut album on a major label the music is surprisingly loose in form and has almost a live atmosphere to it. The majority of compositions are originals and arguably the best are those penned by regular band trumpeter Ralph Alessi. The gentle paced ‘Gentle cat’ with a lovely introductory solo from Coltrane is but one fine example of Alessi’s compositional skills. Best of all is left to last with lyrical soprano playing from the leader on ‘Marilyn and Tammy’ and featuring a fine piano solo from other band regular Luis Perdamo. Ravi Coltrane has acquired a wealth of experience from performing with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Jack deJohnette and is currently co-leader of Saxophone Summit that includes album guest star Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman. On one of two standards, the Paul Motion piece ‘Fantasm’, Coltrane and Lovano trade licks accompanied by piano only. The former might want to consider an entire album of piano-saxophone duets at some stage of his career, mirroring Lovano’s masterful recording(s) with Hank Jones on Blue Note. The other standard is an Ornette Coleman composition from his 1968 Blue Note album ‘Love call’ and the number reworked here, ‘Check out time’, is a faithful rendition that combines elements of free jazz with advanced bop ingredients thrown into the mix. Ravi Coltrane has an impossible task to follow in his father’s footsteps given his latter’s gigantic contribution to the music, yet on this evidence is well on his way to pursuing his own path and his sound is more akin to Hank Mobley than of John Coltrane. A most promising start on the prestigious Blue and white label. Tim Stenhouse

Enrico Rava ‘On the dance floor’ (ECM) 4/5

Here is one of the surprise releases of the year so far. Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava is known for his fluid playing style, but on returning home one night after the death of Michael Jackson, he caught his wife watching a live video of the singer. Rava was simply entranced by the music, went out and bought some choice albums by Jackson and then decided he would would record an entire album of the soul star’s compositions with a big band. The result is this magnificent live recording from the futuristic Rome auditorium known at the Parca della Musica, something of an equivalent, perhaps, of the French Cité de la Musique complex in Paris. There are some real gems here and it is as though you are hearing the familiar Jackson sound through an entirely new and exhilarating prism.
Possibly the strongest cut of all and a potential clubland winner is ‘Blood on the dancefloor’. ECM scored a major hit in the late 1990s with Nils Peter Molvaer and ‘Khmer’ and this particular interpretation has enough percussive energy (with fine guitar solo courtesy of Marcello Giannini) to appeal to a non-jazz audience that likes left-field dance music in the same vein as say Gotan Project. How about a 12″ cut of the number, ECM? Of course the main theme to ‘Thriller’ is one of the best known on the planet, but here the array of synthesizers on the Quincy Jones produced original is replaced instead by a thumping brass section that is scintillating from start to finish. In a more reposing style is the opener ‘Speechless’ with Rava leading the brass with his usual clarity of voice and this features a pared down duet between trumpet and piano. Throughout there is fine individual and ensemble playing with bass à la Jaco Pastorius on ‘I just can’t stop loving you’. In contrast ‘History’ is performed in a mournful manner more in keeping with a New Orleans funeral wake (at the beginning of such a procession at least) and it is unlikely that most other musicians would have contemplated approaching the number in this way. The creative spirit is typified on the same piece by the fine bass and percussion breakdown. Enrico Rava deserves great credit for attempting this project and pulling it off with such panache. Tim Stenhouse

Frank Sinatra ‘Ring-a-ding-ding’ / ‘I Remember Tommy Dorsey’ (Poll Winners) 4/5

Cool school vocals were never cooler than those of Frank Sinatra who could swing with the best of the crooners and both albums handily placed on one CD here illustrate precisely why. These date from the beginning of his newly created Reprise label and the earlier the better in terms of quality. There is a genuine freshness and vitality to the orchstrations with Johnny Mandel in control on the first recording while Sy Oliver takes over the reins on the second. The first is slightly stronger with a wide range of the great American songbook on offer. This includes a storming ‘Let’s fall in love’ with the lightest of string accompaniment, with an atmospheric ‘In the still of the night’ and a latinesque take on ‘The coffee song’. Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Kern and Cole Porter all get a look in. The second album is a tribute to trombonist and band leader Tommy Dorsey and the uptempo brassy intro to ‘Imagination’ typifies the sound. Perhaps not as compelling in its more mournful sound overall, ‘I remember’ would probably benefit from a few more swinging versions, especially of ‘Polka dots and moonbeams’ and ‘East of the sun (and west of the moon’). Fine musicianship nonetheless with flautist Bud Shank and vibist Emil Richards just two of the musical treats to be savoured.

Tim Stenhouse

Quincy Jones and Orchestra ‘Around the world’/’I dig dancers’ (American Jazz Classics) 4/5

This is a real find. Fans of early Quincy will be familiar with the ‘Big Band Bossa Nova’ album, but they would probably be unlikely to know either of these hard to find releases that are conveniently placed here on one CD. The first album has something of an Afro-Cuban flavour (and a pan-Latin one come to that) and one fully understands why when browsing the cornucopia of talents on percussion. Nigerian Babatunde Olatunji, Tito Puente and Carlos ‘Potato’ Valdes would help hot up any musical proceedings and the brass section is just as good with Curtis Fuller, Jerome Richardson, Sahib Shihab and Phil Woods on hand. Key numbers include ‘Hot sake’, which takes a leaf out of the Cal Tjader songbook, (Horace Silver devoted a whole album to the country’s music) while big band mambo comes in the shape of Rico Vacilón’. A major Afro-Cuban workout is exemplified on ‘Africana’. Flamenco-style castanets ring out on the lovely ‘Manolete de España’ while a downtempo take on Ary Barroso’s ‘Baia’ with the flute of Shahib Shihab impresses also. The second album is more melancholic with French impressions on ‘Under the Paris sky’ featuring the trumpet of Clark Terry and baritone saxophone of Jerome Richardson once more while there is even some barrelhouse piano in the intro to ‘Mack the knife’. Quincy Jones was just twenty-seven years of age when these recordings that date from the beginning of the 1960s were recorded. He never lost his jazz sensibilities and even on ‘Thriller’ three decades later, a jazzy input is clearly recognisable, not least the hammond organ playing of one Jimmy Smith. This re-issues represents excellent value for money and is a welcome extension to the early part of Jones’ career. Tim Stenhouse

Barney Kessel ‘Some like it hot’ (American Jazz Classics) 4/5

Of course the title refers to the seminal comedy film starring Jack Lemon, Tony Curtis and a certain Marilyn Monroe and the songs in the film are used as a pretext to re-interpret them here in a jazz idiom and joyfully swinging one at that. This archetypal West coast recording dates from 1959 on the Contemporary label and arrived during a prolific period for leader Barney Kessel. A terrific line-up includes Art Pepper on alto, Joe Gordon on trumpet, Jimmy Rowles on piano, Monty Budwig on bass with the great Shelly Manne on drums. Kessel solos beautifully with pianist Jimmy Rowles on ‘I wanna be loved by you’ which Monroe immortalised with her wispish voice. What is particularly lovely to hear is the revisiting of many of the songs that date originally from the 1920s in a pared down setting of bass and guitar duet and this is not better illustrated than on ‘Stairways to the stars and ‘I’m thru’ with love’. Two alternate takes and three additional pieces, not on the original album and from a different session with only Kessel and Rowles retained, make for a most welcome re-issue.

Tim Stenhouse

Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron, Ron Carter ‘Where?’/’The quest’ (American Jazz Classics) 5/5

Alto saxophonist and flautist Eric Dolphy is often regarded as part of the avant-garde, but here on this superlative pairing of albums, he, along with other musicians, skilfully craft their way between melodic post-bop and newer territory that borders on free without ever losing the plot. In fact the music recorded sounds as fresh as the day they were first recorded with comprising sessions completed on 20 and 27 June 1961. Booker Ervin is added on the second album and his duets with Dolphy are thrilling with ‘We did it’ which is a standout number while ‘Status seeking’ recalls an imaginary Charlie Parker meeting Coleman Hawkins head on. Yet there is great beauty equally from Dolphy on bass clarinet on ‘Warm canto’. There are even hints of the ‘Sidewinder’ riff on ‘Warp and woof’ a full three years before Lee Morgan recorded the tune! On the first album the version of the standard ‘Softly, as in a morning sunrise’ is as different as you are ever likely to hear. Lengthy and informative orginal sleeve notes, including by Nat Hentoff, round off the impeccably packaged music. Tim Stenhouse

Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross ‘The Real Ambassadors’ (Poll Winners) 4/5

This fine album has not been re-issued since the 1980s when CDs first arrived and this is an infinitely superior sound and package all round. It is fascinating to hear Louis Armstrong outside his normal context of either strings and big band orchestrations with greater emphasis on the voice which still carries some punch. The recordings date from 1961 and there is the opportunity to hear Louis play trumpet on ‘Someday my prince will come’ which, by chance, Miles Davis recorded during the same year. Elsewhere the pairing of Carmen McRae with the Dave Brubeck band in trio format is a marriage made in heaven and they would repeat the experience live at ‘Basin St. East’, a few numbers of which are included as extras here. On the original album Carmen and the trio excel on ‘Summer song’ which is the better of the two versions on offer while the live vocal take on ‘Take five’ is a classic’ and ‘In your own sweet way’ a lovely refined number. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross end up dueting with Satchmo on several numbers, but this writer would have liked to hear a more equal distribution with the trio shining by themselves plus trio. Ironically their tribute to the legendary trumpeter can be heard on ‘Blow Satchmo’ with the fine accompaniment of the Brubeck trio.

Tim Stenhouse

Diana Navarro ‘Flamenco’ (Warner Spain) 4/5

If you are looking for a release that contains that captures that elusive essence of flamenco known as ‘duende’, look no further. This live recording from Seville in July 2011 will cater for all your musical needs and then some. Navarro is a highly respected flamenco singer and her albums have consistently sold well in her native land. Here we have the opportunity to hear the singer in her purest form, accompanied solely by guitarist Juan Antonio Su☺arez. One is immmediately struck by the sheer beauty of the voice which is devoid of the commercial clichés of the genre in so far as there are no excessive ad-libs or embellishments. Rather Diana Navarro focuses on delivery alone and in this respect she excels. The repertoire is eclectic within the confines of flamenco and covers a variety of sub-genres that are difficult in parts for the non-specialist to distinguish. Highlights include ‘Tinieblas’ with a gorgeous, lengthy guitar introduction and the faster paced cambiñas style of ‘Deja que te mire’, but this is definitely an album to be savoured as a whole. Deserves to be heard outside strictly flamenco aficionados.  Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993