Tu Sheng Peng ‘Trouble Time (Makasound) 4/5

Following on from last year’s debut masterpiece ‘Around’, Tu Sheng Peng return with another excellent slice of contemporary roots reggae. If anything the Jamaican presence is even more impressive this time and features some of the cream of the crop vocalists still alive (Clinton Fearon of the Gladiators, Derek Harriott, Michael Rose, Rod Taylor)and a whole host of DJs from Prince Jazzbo, Tappa Zukie and daddy U-Roy to Ranking Joe, U-Brown and Joseph Cotton. As before the aim is to create an acoustic, authentic and organic roots feel from the 1970s and one would be hard pushed to find a similar band that can convincingly recreate this sound in Kingston. One of the albums surprises is the pairing of reggae producer and singer legend Derek Harriott with Bunny Brown on ‘I’m a believer’. This was a masterstroke and from the lovely fender intro is an absolute gem of a song. Likewise the welcome return to recording of Rod Taylor, now permanently settled in France, who is back on top form on the rootsy ‘Love grows’. It would be a mistake, however, to think that French singers cannot convey the feeling of roots reggae. Ras Daniel Ray, lead singer of the band, offers a superlative modern anthem in ‘Vision Land’ with accompanying righteous lyrics. This receives a DJ version over the same riddim courtesy of Joseph Cotton. An added bonus is the instrumental piece ‘True love can never die’, which showcases the considerable talent of the recently departed trumpeter and long-time member of the Skatalites Johnny Moore. He will be greatly missed and this will serve as a fitting memory to him. One hopes that at some point promoters will see fit to bring the Tu Sheng Peng live act to the UK.

Tim Stenhouse

Franco and the TPOK Jazz ‘Francophonic VOl. 1 1953-1980’ 2CD (Sterns Africa) 5/5

Congolese guitarist Franco is still widely revered as Africa’s greatest musician and this Stern’s compilation is a great insight as to why. The opening track ‘Esengo ya mokili’ was made at the age of 15, after he had come to attention as a brilliant street busker who built his own guitar at the age of 7. The double CD takes us through 27 more years with 28 tracks in total and extensive sleeve notes. Some called him Godfather others the Sorcerer but we should just call him genius and revel in the brilliant music he created.

Graham Radley

Congolese guitarist and band leader Franco ranks alongside Fela Kuti as one of the true giants of African music. Indeed it is arguable that the influence of the former on numerous countries music on the African continent has been greatest of all. Had it not been for Franco’s untimely death in October 1989 when the concept of world roots music was still in its infancy, he may have become as household a name as members of the Buena Vista’s. Thankfully he left as his legacy an extensive discography and it is from this that Sterns have selected a first volume of his early period weighing in at over two and half hours. Even this only scrapes the surface of Franco’s genius, such was the prolific nature of his recording career. The evolution of his music is evident in the contrasting styles between CDs 1 and 2. The first focuses on the early years from the mid-1950s when Franco was searching for an individual style to the end of the 1960s when Congolese music was about to undergo a major transformation with the policy of ‘authenticity’. From this formative period key tracks includ ‘On entre O.k., on sort k.o.’ which is typical of Franco’s 1950s sound. Noticeable during this period is the influence of Cuban music, but here transposed into a uniquely Congolese hybrid. Whereas Cuban instrumentation would include flute, violins and piano, Congolese rumba would favour electric guitars and reverb. The influence of Cuban music was pervasive and on ‘Tcha tcha tcha de mi amor’ is a delicious slice of Congolese Cubanissimo with a nod towards the great Grand Kalle.

Political and cultural changes were afoot from the mid-1960s onwards in the newly independent Congo. With the coming to power of Mabutu in 1965 a new policy of ‘authenticite’ was implemented and this impacted upon music as in other cultural domains. Secondly, an unprecedented period of growth and confidence was characterised by the commonplace slogan ‘My Mercedes is nicer than yours’. It was into this new era that Franco had found his own distinctive sound as exemplified on the 1970 song Marie Naboy’. By the early 1970s Franco, along with long-term rival Tabu Ley Rochereau, had significantly extended the length of songs with the use of the ‘sebene’ section, and indeed Franco cut some of his most enduring music from this period. Vocalist Sam Mangwana had joined the band and the combination of his sweet vocals and Franco’s guitar virtuoso along with brassy horns resulted in an irresistable and cohesive sound that listeners will be enthralled by. From the melodic lyricism of ‘Cherie Brandowe 2’ to the Afro-Cuban feel of ‘Mabele’ with its beautiful use of brass and especially saxophone, through to the endless guitar riffs on the lengthy ‘Liberte’ and the anthemic ‘Azda’, Franco was in his golden era and the compilation could easily have filled two CDs alone with additional gems from the era. 
A lavish forty-eight page booklet with incisive bi-lingual notes from musicologist Ken Braun and original photos of Franco and band members round off an indispensable guide to the early part of le grand maitre’s career.

Tim Stenhouse

Issa Bagayogo ‘Mali Koura’ (Six Degrees) 5/5

Excellent release from yet another wonderful Malian artist, with great production, from Yves Wernert and Philippe Berthier, neatly mixing the rural sound with a raw funkiness and Western dance loops. Gael Le Billan is a major player as well, not only as an arranger but also adding a whole range of playing from acoustic guitar to sax to this album of many flavours. Issa Bagayogo is clearly with this CD ready to find a bigger audience, I recommend you are one of them.

Graham Radley

Issa Bagayogo has been a recording artist for just over a decade and thus far has primarily focused on rootsy acoustic Malian music. While generally well received, his music has yet to be perceived among the premier league of African singers. This may be about to change with the release of ‘Mali Koura’, a stunning collaboration between West African and French musicians and one in which the exceptional production chores have resulted in the musical marriage of two continents where creativity, sensitivity and mutual respect are all in evidence. Not unlike the production talents of Manu Chao with Amadou and Mariam in bringing the music of the latter to a wider audience, multi-instrumentalist Gael Le Billan and producers Yves Wernert and Philippe Berthier have come up with a winning combination. Recorded at Issa’s home in Wassalou, south west Mali, but with further instrumentation added at the supremely eclectic Le Billan’s home in Nancy, eastern France, this is a highly inventive mix of tradition and new technology.

Possibly the stand out track is the infectous ‘Poye’ with its lovely use of percussion in harmony with the duet vocals and Malian violin thrown into the rootsy mix. However, this is an exceptionally strong album throughout. The uplifting ‘Dibi’ impresses with keyboards acting as surrogate brass while ‘N’Tana’ is a busy, bustling song that incorporates complex rhythms that build in intensity. Contrast these with the altogether jazzier feel to ‘Ahe Sira Bila’ with nice use of guitar and the opener ‘Sebero’ with a stronger emphasis on electronics, and you have a superbly well balanced and diverse album. Unquestionably one of the world roots albums of the year and a major surprise arriving at the very end too.

Tim Stenhouse

Azymuth ‘Butterfly’ LP/CD (Far Out Recordings) 4/5

Rio-based trio Azymuth have been together on and off for the best part of thirty-five years and with this latest recording have come up with one of their best all round albums in over a decade at least. They have returned to the grittier groove of their early Milestone albums and this ideally suits the band. The opener and title track is a tribute to keyboard legend Herbie Hancock and his composition, and they remain faithful to the original with subtle use of strings and lovely fender rhodes playing from their own keyboard maestro Jose Roberto Bertrami. However, it is the mid-tempo groove of ‘Os cara la’ and ‘Triagem’ that typify the Azymuth sound and the former may become a dancefloor favourite with its fine funk bass from Malheiros and use of vocoder vocals. Where Azymuth have added to the original concept of the group is in the jazzy colouration of instrumentation as in ‘Caitutu’ which is a short samba with gorgeous flute, or the light and breezy folk-influenced ‘Meu doce amigo’. A percussion breakdown courtesy of the renowned Robertinho Silva is on offer on the brass-led ‘Avenida Rio Branco’ with Bertrami exploring on fender. The laid back mood of ‘New dawn’ rounds out a terrific recording and one that will rate among the finest Azymuth have recorded thus far.

Tim Stenhouse

Chick Corea/Hiromi ‘Duet’ (Concord) 4/5

In 1978 Chick Corea undertook a concert tour with Herbie Hancock the result of which was the acclaimed piano duet evening. Thirty years on Corea repeats the formula, this time with upcoming Japanese pianist Hiromi and what a winner of a collaboration it is too. Based on live recordings at the Blue Note club in Tokyo from 2007, this is the latest in what historically has been an intense relationship between jazz musicians and Japan and one that stretches back several decades to the like of Horace Silver with the ‘Tokyo Blues’ album, or Dave Brubeck and his ‘Impressions of Japan’. For Corea it is over forty years ago that he visited Japan as part of Stan Getz’s group in 1967. The connection with Hiromi goes back a decade to when the Japanese pianist was only seventeen. Now a maturing musician, Hiromi and Corea played together again at the 2006 Tokyo Jazz festival and a year later decided to record an album.

Compositions are shared between the two with Corea’s ‘Windows’ receiving a sumptuous treatment that conveys all the beauty of the original while ‘Deja Vu’ and ‘Place to be’ by Hiromi are surprisingly lyrical pieces from the pen of a relatively young pianist. The sensitive quasi-classical feel to Jobim’s ‘How insensitive’ is another highlight and Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ becomes an extended improvisational number. Only ‘Concierto de Aranjuez/Spain’ disappoints with Corea’s latin-tinged theme being over-elaborate. Otherwise this ranks alongside last year’s Hank Jones and Joe Lovano live duet, and the Bebo Valdes and Diego El Cigala collaboration as one of the finest duet albums of recent years.

Tim Stenhouse

David Sanchez ‘Cultural Survival’ (Concord) 3/5

Puerto Rican born tenor saxophonist David Sanchez has over a fifteen year period explored his musical folk roots of bomba and plena in a variety of contexts, but has steered away from the Latin jazz formula. Indeed his last recording was devoted to Latin classical composers and involved work with a symphony orchestra. Now on the Concord label, he has returned to a more abstract, jazzier sound, and one that reflects the influence of the tenorist he sounds closest to, namely Sonny Rollins. Sanchez employs his own band with long-time collaborator Adam Cruz on drums and guitarist Lage Lund filling the space normally employed by piano. However, piano is in evidence on three tracks, two of which feature Danilo Perez. The majority of the lengthy compositions are Sanchez’s own and perhaps he does not yet possess the lyricism of say a Michael Brecker or Kenny Garrett to carry this off wholly successfully. The uptempo piece ‘Adoracion’ is actually the same title of a famous Eddie Palmieri composition and part way through Sanchez plays a riff from the original chorus, with Cruz impressing on polyrhythmic percussion. Lund stretches out on ‘Coast to Coast’ with Metheny-esque guitar licks while Perez accompanies Sanchez and the band on the Michael Brecker sounding waltz ‘Mambo Azul’. In general while technically accomplished, some of the tracks simply lack warmth and tend to drag on for too long. It is on the laid back ‘Monk’s Mood’ that the soulfulness in Sanchez’s tenor playing comes to the fore and in future he should concentrate on this aspect of his playing.

Tim Stenhouse

Debashish Bhattacharya ‘Calcutta Slide Guitar’ (Special Edition)CD/DVD (World Music Network) 4/5

Previously chronicled in the original studio edition which has earned critical acclaim and introduced many to his music, Bhattacharya has pioneeered the use of the slide guitar within the field of Indian classical music and became a ‘pandit’ or master at the age of forty. Furthermore he has come to prominence equally as a member of the revived and renewed line-up of Shakti under the aegis of John McLaughlin.

This latest CD features an entirely new selection of pieces recorded live in trio format, but indoors with, as a bonus, the live studio concert on DVD. Excellent audio and visual quality enable the viewer to appreciate the trio’s ensemble playing and of the five lengthy pieces, the opener ‘Usha’ and ‘Aanadan’ stand out as particularly fine examples of Bhattacharya’s craft. The only drawback is there is no interview with Bhattachrya explaining how he has adapted the Hawaian slide guitar to Indian classical music. That would have greatly enhanced our understanding. Otherwise an excellent illustration of one of the new masters of Indian music.Tim Stenhouse

Various ‘Rough Guide to Romanian Gypsies’ (World Music Network) 4/5

Located predominantly in central Transylvania, gypsy music has combined Romanian as well as Hungarian melodies, and the folk songs from the region have served as the inspiration for Hungarian classical composers of the calibre of Bartok and Kodaly. In fact by virtue of their nomadic lifestyle and marginal status, gypsy music tends to cut acorss national boundaries. On this latest edition, which updates a previous compilation of the genre, we have a rich variety of sounds. Internationally the best known band is Taraf de Haidoucks and as the first part of their name might suggest, there is something of an oriental flavour to their music. This is typified on ‘Parlapup (Sa va spun de un bautor)’. There is a tendency for gypsy communities to reside in the same street and consequently these are referred to as ‘musicians’ street. Instrumentalists of note abound and are exemplified here by clarinetist Mielu Bibescu on ‘Mite mite’ accompanied by guitar and Toni Iordache playing the uniquely sounding kunan (a kind of zither with Middle Eastern origins) on ‘Cantec si Breaza (ca la fantanele)’. Musicians often play at weddings to earn a living and have an instinctive knowledge of the repertoire. Moldavian brass band Fanfare Ciorcalia fuse traditional and contemporary folk sounds (adding drums) and here contribute two excellent songs ‘Alili’ and ‘Kan marau la’. For an authentic introduction to grass roots gypsy music from central Europe, this compilation should be your first port of call. Tim Stenhouse

Sam Rivers ‘Dimensions and Extensions’ (Blue Note RVG) 4/5

Sam Rivers strided the stylistic gap between post-bop and free jazz to great effect on a series of classic albums in the mid-late 1960s for Blue Note such as ‘Fuschia Swing Song’ and ‘Contours’. In addition he was briefly a member of Miles Davis’ band and as a sideman featured on the superb Larry Young album ‘Into Something’. This late 1960s release featured a fascinating line up of four horns and no piano with Rivers shifting between tenor, soprano and flute. He enlisted a stellar cast of Julian Priester on trombone, James Spaulding on reeds and Cecil McBee on bass. Tracks cover a wide variety of styles from the melodicism of ‘Paen’ and the beautiful flute duet with Spaulding on ‘Involution’ to the freedom of Afflatus’. One hopes that the vastly underrated album ‘A new conception’ is re-issued a some point to complete the Rivers repertoire on Blue Note. Tim Stenhouse

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou ‘The Voodoo Effect’

Covering 1973-1975 this is funk & sato from Benin’s obscure labels often recorded in the most basic of ways. This is music for the people, people who want to dance to this raw mix of horns, guitar, organ on a driving bedrock of bass and drums. It’s amazing where all this brilliant music keeps coming from but you end up wondering how you’ve not come across it before. Thanks AnalogAfrica – keep them coming.

Graham Radley

Until recently Benin was a relatively unknown country from a musical perspective and our knowledge was restricted to present day diva Angelique Kidjo. However, during the 1970s independent labels released some sumptuous music and the first volume of a two-part series by enterprising UK label Analog Africa is devoted to one of the key bands of the era in Benin, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Myriad influences come to play in this intoxicating mix, but elements of Nigerian juju and Afro-Beat, US funk and soul and Latin rhythms are all evident. However, the distinctive sound of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo is due to the voudous religious component in the form of the indigenous sato drums and the disonnant guitar riffs that are omnipresent on these recordings. Key tracks include the brass-laden ‘Se we non nan’, the juju-influenced ‘Assibari’ and the funk riffs on ‘Aho ba ho’. Weighing in at seventy-five minutes, this is an excellent value compilation of one of Africa’s least known bands.

Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993