Monday, 9 December 2013

Review: Sons Of Kemet - Burn

‘Sons Of Kemet’ is the new group starring two of the UK’s biggest and best names in jazz – namely the greatest drummer of his generation Sebastian Roachford, and saxophone and clarinet master Shabaka Hutchings. Here however they are joined by not the most usual choice of instrumentation. Despite being known as a drummer of great rhythmic feel and invention, and also one of great profile, Roachford here aligns himself with second drummer Tom Skinner. And rather than choosing a more obvious chordal instrument (excepting two numbers where guitarist Dave Okumu drops in), the group is instead rounded out by the rarely heard tuba, courtesy of Oren Marshall.

‘Burn’, their first record, gets off to a sudden and powerful start courtesy of some pounding driving drums, that even when the horns enter, never let up. The tuba is the real revelation here though, providing a different yet driving and strong bass feel, while Hutchings’ creates a clutch of different melodies, and both lead instruments play off each other in a sublime, fiery and free manner. It’s not ‘free’ as you may fear it though - whilst it borrows elements and the power, the album is absolutely filled with hooks. The second track, 'The Godfather', is a brilliant example of this, where everything seems to build and snake itself around the lead melody line to great effect.

Fourth track ‘Book Of Disquiet’ is the first to offer something more reflective (and yes, quiet), with all the sounds of the group working to create subtle ideas, both individually and together, and crucially the two drummers are able to showcase something tasteful and notably different from most usual twin-drum line-ups. ‘Going Home’, that follows, offers a more fun approach and Hutchings at his most lyrical - all the while weaving around Marshall’s tuba that offers a steady and insistent pulse for the listener to hang onto.

Although ‘Burn’ is their debut recording, Sons Of Kemet have been around and playing the live circuit for more than two years, gathering rave reviews wherever they’ve played. Given the electric sense of fun and energy they create on record, it would truly be something to behold to see them live, but for once here the studio doesn’t neuter the experience. Boasting power, groove, melody and soul, it’s an album that manages to cram in a massive amount, all the more impressive given its more experimental line-up, but this is no exercise in experimentation – this is wall-to-wall music of the highest order and certainly one of the best British groups currently on the scene.

****

Monday, 2 December 2013

Review: Jan Garbarek - Visible World

Following on from his excellent ‘Twelve Moons’ album, Jan Garbarek returns with the unique elemental sounding melancholia of which he seemingly has become both the master and sole student. Creating something perhaps slightly less austere than this earlier works, this is in fact due to a good deal of the music here being based on work for various previous soundtracks. As such it isn't really comparable to previous Garbarek works, as there doesn't exist a common theme or unifying thread, and that in turn creates the biggest problem with ‘Visible World’.

At times it falls somewhere between ambient and minimalism, a chilled and relaxing listening experience, heard best on the album highlight ‘Desolate Mountains’. At other times we get spirit-lifting euphoric tunes such as ‘Red Wind’ or ‘The Healing Smoke’. We also however get pieces that border dangerously close to being contemporary background and dinner party music, with ‘Survivor’ giving us at times something akin to ‘Panpipe Moods – Volume 4”.

For a recording, and recording artist, that seems focused on creating a mood – either one defined mood, or an evolving and developing set – there is quite a juxtaposition here that means you never quite settle in. It’s pleasant and at times even interesting, suitable for background music to some late evening soiree, but it never really hits a stride and gets going. There are a number of good pieces here for sure, but as good as they are, they never come together as a whole, feeling overall like a badly programmed chill compilation.

Occasionally Garbarek gets unfairly generalised as ‘new age’, as much a result of his more ethereal sounds and the lack of easy classification for his music to fall into, as it is the laziness of his commentators. Here though, although a qualified success, he has stepped almost willingly into the genre - albeit while keeping some of the euro-jazz spirit he is known for. For fans, there’s good music here, but with its soft nature and overall lack of cohesion it’s one of Garbareks less important and more unessential items.

**

Review: Herbie Hancock - Headhunters

Herbie Hancock had, before he’d even hit twenty years old, been a talent to watch. In his early twenties he laid down some classic recordings for Blue Note with some of the best players around, played with the great Donald Byrd, and been drafted into Miles Davis’ band to help form the second great quintet. Helping Miles on his seminal electric fusion jazz album ‘In A Silent Way’, Miles would then go onto develop his own darker heavier funk sound through recordings such as ‘Bitches Brew’, ‘Jack Johnson’ and ‘On The Corner’, as well as increasingly funkier sounding live performances.


Hancock though would spend a few years dabbling with funking-up his acoustic music and band, before making a move into the fully-fledged electric funk that Miles had embraced. Joining the same label as Miles, ‘Sextant’ released on Columbia in 1973 found him testing the waters with the electronic sounds of the gradually emerging jazz-fusion movement, but it was ‘Head Hunters’ released later in the same year that launched him head-first into jazz-funk stardom.

The stunning sixteen-minute opener ‘Chameleon’, unlike anything else at the time runs a funkified musical labyrinth of a rich tapestry of sounds and electronic manipulations. Electric bassist Paul Jackson lays down a steady, yet cool groove with Harvey Mason on drums, while Bernie Maupin on saxophone follows Hancocks leading melodies with an effortless ease. Full of great segments, the whole works to great effect, and has been sampled countless times, but nothing compares to the fantastic original.

An earlier tune from the decade before, ‘Watermelon Man’ from 1962’s debut ‘Takin’ Off’ is given a complete redux, as Hancock and his team strip it down to a tropical sounding funk, with Maupins flute shimmering against a great rhythm backdrop. Hancock’s keyboards lead the melody gently as he gives breathing room to his players for some free improvisation. Taken from it’s beginnings as a relatively conventional acoustic group number, it is reset into a tribal-electro-jam, and it sounds magnificent.

‘Sly’ is the peak of improvisational free-for-all funk, with a frantic yet carefully laid out style as everyone gets to show off their musical muscle. Bill Summers infectious percussion rhythms, here with congas, comes into its own as the pace increases. Combined with Harvey Mason’s drums, they create a solid and highly grooved percussive wall that only adds to an already top-flight composition.

By contrast to the first three numbers, the last piece, ‘Vein Melter’ finds everyone at a more relaxed pace. The keyboards and sax, light and gentle, mix with swaggering funk of Jackson’s bass, while Mason and Summers again get to show their musical prowess in the equally subtle yet captivating rhythmic wave they create.

‘Head Hunters’ was a massive success on its release, selling over a million copies and beginning Hancocks straddling of the jazz and pop worlds. Creating a new funk style, it would go on to influence other music outside of jazz and in no small way help change the way people listened to music overall. Also helping open the doors for electronic music such as electro, hip-hop and other sample-based music, its influence can be felt in almost all music genres. Hancock took a different funk route to the funk bands of the time, and a different one to that of the other jazzers’ gone funk, like Donald Byrd funk-pop, and Miles’ jungle-funk, and in doing so became a different pioneer. Time has not diminished this most influential of recordings, and it still to this day remains a highly addictive listening experience. Dig out your copy now.

*****

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Review: Grant Green - Easy

To say this is not Grant Green at his best would be a polite understatement. To say ‘Easy’ is perhaps a comment on Greens attitude to making this record would be nothing but entirely correct.

After a line of funkified jazz albums that had met with varying successes, Green again left Blue Note, his home for the most and best part of his career, and recorded for a number of different labels. Obviously aiming at a more commercial market the output was frequently less than stellar, and more often than not completely dire. This manages to fall into the latter camp. Hell, it practically owns it.

The seventies were often awash with jazz stars capitalising on the success and popularity of soul, rock and R&B, and Green himself had done very well mining this field with his ‘Caryin’ On’, ‘Visions’ and ‘Green Is Beautiful’ albums, not to mention a string of live albums. Here though Green is clearly not in charge, and the effect is obvious.

A huge band is the first problem, with Grant Green often at his best when working in small tight groups with every player able to crucially make their mark. Here instead we have a cast of thousands creating a distinctly unfunky funk gloop, with Green himself almost all but buried in the mix.

That’s not to say there aren’t great solos here. There are. And lots of them. You just won’t hear them unless you find some way of remixing the album yourself, such is the sheer number of instruments competing in their way. If you listen closely you can hear Green still close to his peak, playing with the technique and soul that you would expect. Why someone felt the need to suddenly add strings on top of him afterwards is a mystery only compounded further by the insult. Why bother having a star if he’s the one person you can’t hear?

‘Easy’ then is for the completist only. But even they’d be better off just ignoring it’s existence and accepting that Grant Green pretty much started and ended on Blue Note, with just a few small exceptioins. Remember him that way, not this.

**

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Review: Hiromi - Brain

Japanese pianist Hiromi exploded into the music world with her debut ‘Another Mind’. Displaying almost over-whelming technique and power at the keys, both she and her album grabbed your attention, took you on a rollercoaster and left you breathless and slightly dazed.


Album number 2, ‘Brain’, then does not grab you in the same way – it couldn’t - but still showcases an incredible and still very young artist who has plenty to say. Opening with the surprisingly electronics-heavy ‘Kung-Fu World Champion’, Hiromi displays a mastery of analog keyboards and squiggly sounding synths, with Tony Greys bass also perfectly melding into the mix. A few minutes in, Hiromi switches to building the pace with the acoustic piano, and the vibe generated is first rate. The next two tracks in comparison are entirely acoustic piano-trio pieces, with ‘If’ a perfect example of trio interplay, the bass and drums more to the fore than previously seen, and with ‘Wind Song’ displaying a dreamy waltz-like quality.

Throughout the album the piano does dominate, and rightly so - in Hiromi’s hands, the instrument is masterful and comes alive. However the keyboards that Hiromi also enjoys are more prominent than on her earlier recording. The title track for the most part, for example, sounds like a winning theme from an Oscar-nominated underdog epic, but is book-ended by some swirling keyboard effects that tend to jar and stand out. The penultimate ‘Keytalk’ too moves from an all-out jam with wonky sounding keyboards, before settling into first a more jazzy, then African sounding, dance groove. Sliding into a more European dance feel, the electronic sounds don’t truly gel with the rest of the music around it, and sounds much more ‘assembled’ than the more organic live interplay going on.

Much more successful are the acoustic piano pieces; ‘Desert Moon’ with its galloping pace but lightness of touch gives it a feel of a more sprightly Bill Evans, but perhaps as backed by Buddy Rich, whilst ‘Green Tea Farm’ with its moving slow and plaintive quality has more than a hint of prime era Keith Jarrett.

Best of all though is the ending ‘Legend Of The Purple Valley’. Epic in sound, it switches between jazz and film score music. Sounding like Hiromi is going for her very own concerto, it makes a truly great finale to the album.

After the success of her debut ‘Another Mind’, ‘Brain’ offers a follow-up that takes some new directions. Each of the pieces manages to be varied and interesting, while still holding as a complete album. Very occasionally the electronic sounds don’t gel with the acoustic. Make no mistake though; this is not a fusion record. Hiromi basically is making an album of music that she wants to make – some jazz, some some classical, a hint of rock, acoustic here, electronic there. Some listeners then won’t like what they hear, but everyone will find something here that will hook them. All of the pieces are bursting with incredible ideas, and for anyone willing to listen without prejudice to the electric elements, will find an awesome and satisfying musical journey.

****

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Review: Grover Washington Jnr - Winelight

‘Winelight’ is one of Grover Washington Jnr’s best-known and highest selling records, producing his smash hit ‘Just The Two Of Us’ with Bill Withers, and nominated for four Grammys, winning two – one each for the song and the album. Washington since has gone down in the history books largely as being the creator, or godfather, of the later ‘smooth jazz’ genre, and being a romance-and-wine music specialist. It’s an unfair tag and, though to a certain degree true, it belies both his extraordinary talent and his music.


His first album of the 80’s is both a classic and the absolute pinnacle of the genre, as well as transcending it, and it still sounds fresh even today. The one vocal piece is the obvious and notable standout, and as good as it is, the instrumentals are all great and in fact even better, with his skill and his heart on tenor, alto and his trademark ‘pure-toned’ soprano all really coming through.

The leading title cut is sublime and catchy, but ‘In The Name Of Love’ is the winning highlight, with a beautiful melancholy all of its own. Yes, it’ll appeal to the romantics, but it’s much more than that, with just like everything else here, coming tooled with a winning melody but also with a bite and solid foundation usually missing from most music in this area. Other ‘soft players’ like Kenny G and Richard Elliot would later bring down this style in a mire of predictable gossamer-light floating melodies backed by dated keyboards and lifeless electronic drums, but here Washington is creating something new and beautiful, just maybe pointing to something else even bigger and better around the corner.

‘Just The Two Of Us’ with Bill Withers of course is still a great song, and if tired out then only by familiarity. And Washington’s incredible solo is inspired, as indeed they always had been. In fact there isn’t a weak track at all on this classic album. Granted, this isn’t the grittier funk of Washingtons earlier ‘70’s albums, and as the cover shows, it’s clearly aimed with one firmly arched-eyebrow and a teeth-clenched red rose at the candlelit valentines crowd. As such then it’s a very smooth listen, but also with some real meat to sink your teeth into. Longtime collaborator Eric Gale is a welcome presence throughout too, playing some sophisticated and restrained guitar to match up with Washingtons pristine sax work.

If there is anything expressly bad about this record, it’s the slightly dated 80’s percussion on a couple of the tracks here, that in hindsight would be better omitted from the mix entirely, that and Marcus Millers sometimes overly ‘springy’ bass. As good a player as he is, and he is good, his bass tone in this decade was always incredibly plastic and processed sounding, and unfortunately the same is largely true here also. Those tiny quibbles aside, this is fine silk-like music from beginning to end, that would admittedly later regrettably lead to the creation of ‘smooth’ as we now know it. Featuring many a good solo from some inspired players and truly a great saxophone player, it really is one of Washingtons best albums.

*****

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Review: Jan Garbarek - Dresden

Jan Garbarek has become a frustratingly slow recording artist of late, with his last few releases being punctuated by gaps of sometimes up to five years each. Now again some five years after his last album ‘In Praise Of Dreams’, and still touring every year, the Norweigan saxophonist releases what might arguably be his most anticipated recording ever. The first ‘Jan Garbarek Group’ work for sixteen years, having worked with much of the band, as well as newer players and the choral Hilliard Ensemble most recently, ‘Dresden’ is also surprisingly the much-admired reed mans first live album. Even better, it’s great.


Recorded in 2007, a largely new line-up plays here. Longtime under-rated piano and keyboard maestro Rainer Bruninghaus returns, but sadly usual bass sideman Eberhard Weber suffered a - thankfully not fatal - stroke shortly before this tour started. Fresh blood then comes in the form of Brazillian bassist Yuri Daniel and sometime Garbarek partner French drummer Manu Katche.

For anyone who thinks that Garbarek had become too ‘new age’ over the course of the preceeding years, here he shows just how capable he and his formidable sidemen are. A complete reinvention of violinist Shankar’s ‘Paper Nut’ opens the concert with a stunning driving and energetic drum shuffle from Katche, before Garbarek quickly enters the fray with a tense and building trademark ‘searching’ soprano sax riff. A better opener Garbarek could not have chosen.

Pieces are pulled and re-interpreted from all over the saxophonist’s bountiful discography, but with a surprisingly large chunk of material being released here for the first time. Daniel plays highly lyrical and very soulful sounding bass throughout, and Katche crucially gives everything a pulsing drive that some may have thought Garbarek previously was missing. Bruninghaus is the secret weapon here though, constantly filling in the gaps everywhere with complex and harmonic orchestral splashes and piano runs. At one point he even lays down a hot blast of a dancing salsa solo.

Three tracks are culled from his ‘Twelve Moons’, with ‘There Were Swallows’ sounding gentle and reflective, while ‘The Tall Tear Trees’ features a simply awesome crescendo. ‘Tao’ offers Daniel a showcase for his bass playing prowess, and its sublime; multi-layed rhythm and solo all laid down at one with his unique and beautiful sound. Elsewhere ‘Once I Wished A Tree Upside Down’ becomes a joyful and uplifting latin groover, but not before ‘Transformations’ gives Bruninghaus a long and skilful, yet moving solo spot to act as a tremendous segue. ‘Milagre Dos Pieces’ offers a more traditional sounding jazz, again with which Bruninghaus steals the show.

A thrilling and varied two-hour set, that offers plenty of room for all four players to shine, ends with a funky and uplifting extended take on ‘Voy Cantando’. Garbareks solo is typically economical, but sparkles with its clean tone and piercing quality. A live recording at last from a man who should by all rights have several to his name, ‘Dresden’ brings his and his groups improvisational prowess, as well as their own powerful yet elegant playing, to bear on some outstanding material. Everything here sounds better than any other previous version, and for any listeners who found Garbareks more recent works to be increasingly too ethereal and overly adhering to the so-called ‘ECM aesthetic’, here there is a real bite, edge and grit. A great live recording, ‘Dresden’ is also arguably Garbareks best album yet.

*****

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Review: David Murray - Octet Plays Trane

Recording a tribute to John Coltrane has become a mixed between a rite of passage and a cliché that all jazz players have to at some point in time adhere to. And as with many tribute works, some work, and some really don’t (in the pro-camp, witness John McLaughlin, in the against-amp, there’s a whole world of smooth jazz takes on ‘A Love Supreme’ that will just reduce you to tears).

David Murray, also a tenor man (though preferring to double up on bass clarinet rather than ‘Trane’s favoured soprano sax), is in theory perhaps the best placed to take on a whole Coltrane tribute. He’s his own man, plays in a wide variety of settings, frequently changes stylistically, and plays with the same blend of highly musical yet decidedly free. In fact, in print, it has been more than once suggested that Murray is the closest thing to a spiritual successor to ‘Trane.

‘Octet Plays Trane’ straight off is a great idea for a tribute, in that it already starts with a freshness than many other do not. John Coltrane never played in an octet, and Murray, though choosing to tackle five favourite ‘Trane numbers, does not go for the easy approach, going for following ‘in the spirit’ of the great man, rather than following him to the letter.

The core group here is made up of drummer Mark Johnson (not to be confused with Bill Evans alumni Marc Johnson), bassist Jaribu Shahid and pianist D.D. Jackson, with a hot horn section comprised from trombone player Craig Harris, alto sax and flute man James Spaulding, and two trumpets courtesy of Rasul Siddik and Ravi Best. Under Murray’s adept stewardship they are able to play the lighter quieter spaces without sounding cluttered, and yet when required they are also able to generate a sound that usually only big bands three or four the times the size of this line-up can create. Indeed the riotous take on ‘Giant Steps’ here will have you wishing that ‘Trane himself had at some point lead his own take on a plus-size group.

The gorgeous ballad pieces ‘Naima’ and ‘India’ get suitably brilliant treatments that though recognisable as the compositions, sound completely unlike the original versions, and are remade in uniquely Murray-esque way. ‘Lazy Bird’ is big loud fun, and the highly revered classic ‘A Love Supreme: Acknowledgement’ is utterly mesmerising.

Oddly however, snuggled in between the five Coltrane originals, is one of Murray’s new pieces ‘The Crossing’, which seems bizarre given that the title of the album is ‘Octet Plays Trane’. That being said however, it is a great tune and fits in nicely with the ‘Trane originals.

Throughout Murray of course utilises the tenor saxophone for the majority of blowing, but the bass clarinet gets a good workout too, and to great effect – to the extent that you’ll want to hear much more bass clarinet jazz. You’ll want to hear more of Murray’s octet work too, given the tight, full-bodied sound they achieve here. More than just a great Coltrane tribute, it’s a very strong Murray effort too, and will reward anyone looking for good evidence of eithers genius.

****


Monday, 4 November 2013

Review: Stanley Turrentine - Do You Have Any Sugar?

After a lengthy stint with ‘Blue Note’ in the 60’s, and starting with 1970’s ‘Sugar’, Stanley Turrentine made sure he was always firmly in control of his recorded output, and subsequently found himself blessed with strong and consistent sales, his sound always sitting somewhere in the wide area between big soul-jazz and swooningly romantic ballad playing. In truth though, his best recordings musically have always been in the earlier category, while his more lounge material has always done good financial business for Turrentine with the candelit dinner and wine crowd.


‘Do You Have Any Sugar?’ recorded late in Turrentine’s career, at the age of 65, is a sweet and soulful record that lies somewhere comfortably between straight-ahead jazz and it’s pop and soul counterparts, but benefitting from having little of the sickly strings that smothered some of his more overly ‘romantic’ works in heavy schmaltz. Fielding a set of different small groups here, he uses electric sounds without being overly reliant or attempting to sound too contemporary and he enrols a set of good side-men in some key guest players, with strong mention in particular going to Rick Braun and his rich, smooth trumpet on ‘Stuff You Gotta Watch’.

The better cuts here are, as expected, the straighter and more soul-inflected jazz pieces, although the smooth numbers aren’t themselves bad, more just a little too light and insubstantial. ‘Favourite Heart’ is a relaxed samba that suits the soulful Sugar Man nicely, but it is the medium paced and hugely melodic ‘Keep On Keepin On’ and ‘Back In The Day’ and their driven spirited feel that stand out the most.

Singer Niki Harris, daughter of Gene (who famously played with Turrentine on masterwork ‘The Blue Hour’) and the most distinctive element of the album, contributes her impressive vocals to a number of the cuts here, but alas with some decidedly mixed results. Generic smooth obvious radio fodder assault the senses with syrup to spare in the sugary ‘Pause To Wonder’ and the so-treacley-it’ll-rot-your-teeth title-track, but at the other end of the scale ‘Calling You’ offers a more meditative mood to proceedings that showcases both Harris and Turrentine masterfully. The clear highlight though is without a doubt Turrentine’s soulful rendition of ‘Far Too Little Love’, a beautiful ballad featuring the legendary Joe Sample on piano playing a delightful solo.

Full of strong moments, there’s a good deal to love here, but there’s also a great amount that veers into sickly smooth jazz territory. Niki Harris is a strong singer too, but most of the tunes that are given over for her to take centre stage with the big man himself tend to border too much on saccharine pop-jazz, and as such most of her numbers are fairly fluffy and indistinct. And therein lays the issue with ‘Do You Have Any Sugar?’ - for every golden Turrentine moment, we get sappy and syrupy airbrushed jazz-lite that wouldn’t sit out of place on a Kenny G album. Fans will relish the excellent solos Mr. T still belts out in his own uniquely bluesy way, and for the strength of playing at this late a stage in his career. But it’s far from great, and the overall feeling for anyone listening is bound to be one wishing that he’d record less crossover slush and just follow his instincts, recording an album purely of his own desire. Not a classic then, but sporadically brilliant.

***

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Gig Review: David Murray Infinity Quartet - Live At St George 16.10.2013

The first thing to hit you when David Murray’s first notes come exploding out is just how big (and perfect) his sound his. The tenor saxophone has always been the weapon of choice for sax players who want to make an impact, but Murray truly raises the bar when it comes to really filling a room with his sound. And what a big round pure tone sound it is too. In fact it could also over-dominate his group were he not so generous, and they not so willing to grab any opportunity that came their way.



Rod Williams for example is a pianist who has played on and off with Murray over the years, but here tonight the two men were completely simpatico, Williams playing underneath Murray subtley and gently, but always highly musically, and when his solo moments came, he made them shine with tasteful aplomb. Nasheet Waits by contrast is a young lion of a drummer who every moment played his heart out, and showcased some impressive chops, as well as why he won the Downbeat poll for drummer of the year. But surely the discovery of the night for me was bassist Jaribu Shahid. A cool and relaxed looking player you’ll never find, and his playing though tight and melodically rhythmic, managed to look effortless, despite the dextrous fury on display from his nimble figures and constantly dancing feet.

Murray’s quartet embraced a wide spectrum of musical styles and ideas, and together they managed to always keep things swinging and soulful, even when dipping into more avant garde or free territory – which perhaps has always been David Murray’s greatest strength as a player, to be able to play more ‘out’ and yet keep things deeply passionate and highly musical. If you have ever heard him recorded then you need to do yourself the favour and listen to him live – it’s an almost spiritual experience.

For me, his musical high point during the night came when he finally decided to break out his bass clarinet. Recognised by many as perhaps the premier bass clarinettist of his time, Murray can always be relied on to get as many sounds as possible out of the instrument, and frequently he generates a sultry, smoky and dense tone that can work wonders for the right tune. Here though, as much as were able to enjoy the dark huskiness of the clarinet, Murray still managed to up his game further. Playing slow and soulful, he occasionally created interludes where his breathing was able to make ‘popping’ bass vocal sounds in a rhythmic and melodic way that I’d wager most of the audience had ever heard before.

A superb group, headed by one of the greatest tenorists of all time (and I will argue that if you don’t agree), and with excellent opening support from local heroes The Jim Blomfield Trio, this was a fantastic musical night out. Full of bold, bright and melodic improvisation, this was clearly not a night for those not inclined to give a little ‘free’ a chance, but the soul and power of each of the players was squeezed brilliantly into every moment. Here’s hoping Murray returns to our shores very very soon.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Review: Troyka - Troyka

Troyka are a London trio made up of piano/keyboard player Kit Downes, guitarist Chris Montague and drummer Joshua Blackmore, and whatever funk or soul-jazz preconceptions you may have about the classic organ-guitar-drums lineup here are already wrong.

Full of virtuosity, bags of energy and incredibly inclusive, here everything is thrown into the mix – jazz, rock, dance, funk, and more – and everything comes with a distinct cerebral edge. This is not a funky groove workout. More this is a unique experiment that doesn’t stand close to anything else you’ve ever heard. And as such you’re warned to approach with caution, but absolutely encouraged to approach.

“Tax Return” kicks things off with a driving rhythmic workout that snakes away into something more serious and free – a form of free-jazz-funk - but though good, you can’t help but wish that the killer groove went on for just a bit longer. “Clint” that follows it (obviously a dedication to Mr Eastwood, whose films have more than occasionally boasted a great jazz inflected score), comes armed with some fiery slide guitar that showcases how perfectly suited Montague would be to a career as a full-time bluesman or funk god.

The real meat of the album though is clearly in the second half, where things ramp up to a higher level, with even tighter playing and some wonderfully off-kilter melodies and sounds. Witness the album highlight ‘Noonian Song’ (who knows the Star Trek connection?). Constantly shifting, with some delightfully wonky sounding guitar and beautifully languid keyboard playing, the groove builds and evolves into that perfect kind of musical moment that most albums can only hope to possess.

Troyka is not perfect. For many it will prove too winding and multi-directional and perhaps lacking focus, choosing as it does to explore as much as possible, rather than just settling with a perhaps expected route - conversely though that is also the major part of its charm. Sure they could get down with some funky grooves, or rock out, but that would be too easy. Instead they have created a clever, multi-layed, multi-textured and not without humour diverse debut that, while requesting your full attention to get the most out of it, reveals new elements with each fresh listen. And it leaves you hungry for just what they might come up with next.

****

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Review: Stan Getz - Anniversary/Serenity

Reviewing Trish Clowes and being reminded about her possessing that similar melodic and lush sound lead me to dig out and polish up one of my favourite Getz albums. Well, two in fact.


1987 was an interesting year for Stan Getz. Now approaching his 60th year, he was considerably ill, although recently finally free of drugs and drink, and was largely considered a has-been by the music world. Having spent more than a decade attempting to follow the shifting fashions in music and for the most part producing mostly forgettable or uneven inconsistent recordings, 1986 saw him form his first new acoustic quartet for some time and recorded the more-than-solid ‘Voyage’. A strong recording, it sold a good if not spectacular amount and marked for some a small if notable comeback.

The new year then, marked the real growth of the Stan Getz comeback. Performing live with his new band, he found a kindred spirit in piano man Kenny Barron, and together they formed one of the best sounds of Getz’s already strong career. Musically and critically successful concerts led to Getz playing a set at the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen - for many years his new home, having lived there on-and-off with his wife of over thirty years, Swedish aristocrat Monica Silfverskiold.

The entire concert recorded live, with no overdubs, and broadcast on radio, and also later released as two separate live albums, shows ‘The Sound’ - as he was dubbed - at an incredible new musical high. The first half of the show would be released as ‘Anniversary’, with the second half later released as ‘Serenity’. And both are essential Getz items. Not just great live albums, but great albums in their own right.

Avoiding anything sounding like the Bossa that had propelled him into the mainstream in the mid-Sixties, the music focuses entirely on the velvety densely-sculpted takes on jazz standards similar to that with which he had started his career. There’s no cool posturing here either - just straight up and emotional playing from start to finish.

A jaw-droppingly good ‘El Cahon’ opens the concert with outstanding performances from the entire band and ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ is delivered at a fast uptempo pace. And despite his then frailty, easily detectable in his few words to the audience, Getz’s tone has lost none of its warmth or melody enriching qualities. Entrancing long and flowing lines are played through, over and around the chords in a truly masterful show of not just musicianship, but beautiful melody.

Kenny Barron and the rhythm section, consisting of Rufus Reid on bass and Victor Lewis on drums, more than acquit themselves, accompanying Getz perfectly, whatever mood his playing dictates. Barron especially shows himself to be one of the best players to have ever shared a stage with Getz, his playing light and tender one moment, funky the next. His solo on ‘I Can’t Get Started’ is a jaw-dropping highlight worth the price of admission alone.

The first half of the show is the slower, ‘bluer’ Stan, and is collected on the superb must-have ‘Anniversary’. The second half of the show, released after the success of the first, makes up ‘Serenity’ – an odd choice of title given that the music present on this second disc is the more upbeat and driving material. Perhaps the best song on this set is the ballad ‘Falling In Love’, but ‘Green Dolphin Street’ and the Barron original ‘Voyage’ make for exhilerating listening. Plus Getz’s takes on ‘Blood Count’ and ‘Stella By Starlight’ are arguably without peer.


Recorded to celebrate his then 60th birthday, you can tell that both Getz and his sidemen really pushed for that extra level of perfection. Bouncing back from both cancer and a stalled career, this truly is a great musical comeback, and arguably some of his best recordings ever. Although taken from a live gig, the sound quality and recording are of the highest calibre, and as such both albums come highly recommended. If forced to choose only one, then ‘Anniversary’ just nudges it ahead of ‘Serenity’. But, ultimately, would you want to leave a gig halfway through? Get both albums and hear one of the best gigs you always wished you’d went to.

*****

Monday, 7 October 2013

Review: Trish Clowes - And In The Night-Time She Is There


London based saxophonist Trish Clowes had a strong slowburner of a debut album that, though ambitious, probably had a bit too much in there. The full orchestra in places tended to distract from Clowes’ fantastic talents, and although her compositional abilities were nicely highlighted, her playing was perhaps not shown in its strongest light.

‘Tangent’ however did feature some excellent players, and guitarist Chris Montague, bassist Callum Gourlay and drummer James Maddren all return here to provide a powerhouse quartet with Clowes. But this time though, star pianist Gwiliym Simcock drops in to lend a stellar guest appearance, also with Heidi Parsons on cello, and even some vocals provided by the much welcome addition of Kathleen Willison.

Willison also brings ‘The Sphinx’ to the table (based in part on the Oscar Wilde poem of the same name) and manages to boast a new career best guitar solo from Chris Montague, who also counters Clowes on the strong duet number ‘Little Tune’, a beautifully romantic piece that showcases the perfect pairing of these two A-list performers. ‘Seven’ too, though not a duet, also features some superb interplay between the two soloists, that almost makes you hope Montague abandons all other projects just to work more with Clowes.

‘Iris Nonet’ and ‘Animator’ boasts some brilliant piano work courtesy of Simcock and an improvising string quartet (led by the equally brilliant Thomas Gould) that just sound incredible and have to be heard to be believed. ‘Iris Nonet’ in turn throws every emotional style into the mix; languid romance one moment, complex and darker turns the next, and even some welcome relaxed humour, it all comes together to make a full-to-bursting musical movement that for now at least is sure to be Trish Clowes calling card.

So what of Clowes, and ‘And In The Night Time…’? Still a wonderful composer, Clowes here has stepped up a gear, and even better displays here talents as a saxophonist. Her softer-toned tenor sounding even more confident than on her debut, the sometimes too frequent Stan Getz comparisons are in-truth perhaps appropriate here, boasting as she does not only his silky smooth sound, but also his richly melodic masterful command of the instrument as well.

A great collection of pieces, and a rewardingly rich tapestry when taken as a whole, ‘And In The Night Time…’ is Clowes at a new peak. Sat at the head of the premier league of contemporary UK musicians, based on what she has produced here, she will only go from strength to strength, and you really must make an effort to catch her live when you have the chance.

*****

Review: Miles Davis - Agharta & Pangaea

‘Agharta’ and its sister recording ‘Pangaea’ recorded in 1975 are together the last official music Miles Davis would produce in the 1970s – before the six-year retirement until his return in 1981. Miles previous studio album proper ‘On The Corner’ had been released way back in 1972, and since then he had been touring with a band made up of more funk and rock musicians than from the jazz fraternity. His only released albums since ‘On The Corner’ had been the mix-and-match collections of previously recorded unreleased music ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Get Up With It’, the latter of which featured most of the musicians Miles would tour with between ’72 and ’75.

Recorded on February 1st at the Osaka Festival Hall, ‘Agharta’ gives us the afternoon performance of the band, while ‘Pangaea’ gives us the evening performance from the same day. In effect then, rather than two separate double-disc sets, it has more the feel of a complete four-disc set (surely a repackaging opportunity for another Columbia box).

At this time, Miles himself was in a very bad way. Recently recovered from two broken ankles, thanks to a horrific car crash, and suffering from ill health and fatigue, Miles was – having already successfully kicked a massive heroin addiction earlier in his life – now also at the peak of his cocaine usage. Not that you would even guess any of this from the music here though. The band themselves are deserving on all numbers of such superlatives as powerful and thrilling, and Miles especially is on stellar form, laying down strong and fast runs on the trumpet one moment, slow plaintive melodies the next.


‘Agharta’ itself kicks off with ‘Prelude’, beginning with a churning theme that at the time was simply dubbed ‘Funk’. Developed from the Jack Johnson side one piece ‘Right Off’, the mood is violent and driving, with Miles stunning solo silencing any who had claimed he’d lost some of his playing ability - despite chronic illness and pain, he here plays with great unbridled energy. Shortly before the seventeen minute mark, the music shifts itself into what has now become known as the ‘Agharta Prelude’. A strong and uplifting piece, it is a highlight and certainly a moment to win over any would-be converts. The gentle ‘Maiysha’ that follows, relaxed and calm, is a more focused and intense performance than the version from ‘Get Up With It’, with a simply beautiful flute solo by Sonny Fortune.

Getting off to a furious start, the second disc is not as strong as the first, but still maintains great energy, taking in a faster harder version of ‘Right Off’, an electric take on the motifs from the classic modal number ‘So What’ and plenty of Miles on organ - giving the trumpet for the most part a back seat until the last number where Miles plays with a sublime and lyrical, almost Spanish, feeling.

While ‘Agharta’ is the more cohesive throughout, ‘Pangaea’ on the other hand is a record of two extremes - the yin and yang of Miles 70’s fusion work. Disc ones forty minute ‘Zimbabwe’ is driving grinding edgy funk with a heavy fast rock beat and snarling twin guitars, and is arguably the most electrifying of Miles recordings from this time. ‘Gondwana’ alternatively begins with just flute and gentle percussion, and providing one of the most gentle-sounding pieces of music to be heard on any Miles record since ‘In A Silent Way’.

Like ‘Agharta’, hints of earlier songs are present, but effectively they are simply used as a springboard for the band to jump into new territory and show their improvisation chops. And everything is woven together with such skill, that it comes together as just one long piece over two discs, continuously flowing from one groove to the next, with the first disc ending on a fade and disc two beginning the way disc one had ended. The overall effect is that this music could go on forever.

With Miles for some four years, throughout Michael Henderson provides his always outstanding funky and unshakable bass grooves, effectively anchoring, and driving the band. ‘Prelude’ in particular benefits, and in return gives out some spectacular energetic climaxes. Al Foster too drums pure rhythm, and together he and Henderson are a formidable partnership, which percussionist extraordinaire Mtume enthusiastically takes every opportunity to enhance.

On the front line of the band Reggie Lucas lays down his trademark riffs and rhythm work, while Pete Cosey once again shows himself to be perhaps one of the most under-recognised guitarists of all any time. Fearless and wildly experimental, yet incredibly funky and groovy, his experimentation with the guitar is outstanding, and the soloing he produces is nothing short of phenomenal. Similarly, Sonny Fortune on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones outdoes almost all of Miles previous fusion sax players (no-one outdoes Wayne Shorter). But the bands strongest point is not any these. The true shining presence is the whole cohesiveness of the band, weaving all their contributions into each others and making music that literally no-one else could.

‘Dark Magus’, ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ then are all released from the same year long phase of Miles career, and as such may seem like excess, but in truth they all have such a different feel from each other, that each recording sounds totally fresh and different when placed against another. ‘Agharta’ probably makes the best first pick for the uninitiated, but ‘Pangaea’ is every bit as dynamic and challenging in its own right. Certainly if you can get hold of both of them, then do so, as they are incendiary works.

A minor note : where ‘Dark Magus’ was also previously a Japan only release and is now more easily available and superbly presented for a good price, ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ have had slightly less love afforded them. As such, the American masters have a more muddy sounding mix with less defined bass and some cloudy sounding instruments, while even the artwork is pretty poor. For the full beauty that these recordings can convey, go for the remastered Japanese versions. Properly remastered and remixed with superb clear sound and excellent artwork, these albums just glow.

*****

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Review: Miles Davis - Get Up With It


‘Get Up With It’, Miles’ final two-disc set from the 70s was seen as a bit of a hotch-potch release when it first appeared, and garnered itself some middling reviews saying as much. Again, like ‘Big Fun’ and other recordings from this period in Miles’ career, it has with the passing of time seen itself keenly re-evaluated and now praised as pushing the boundaries of music forward (but, unlike ‘Big Fun’, with no new added material).

Not an easy album to write or even think about, it’s an even harder album to try and put in the confines of one genre. And not really a coherent album, it is basically a collection of works from a four year period of ever-changing personnel and experimentations, that rather than sounding like ‘Big Fun’s missing link between ‘Bitches Brew’ and ‘On The Corner’, it sounds instead like pieces either taken from each, or from other scrapped directions (some tracks featuring as interesting directions as having as many as three guitarists).

‘He Loved Him Madly’, the major showcase of the album, dominating the first disc at thirty-two minutes, is a languid and simmering crawl lead by gentle wave after wave of reverbed guitar and Dave Liebmans superior unaffected flute. When drums, bass and Airto Moreiras persussion enter at around the ten-minute mark, a gradual intensity begins to take hold as Miles’ yearning trumpet gently cuts through the sonic haze. Languorous and shimmering, the piece contains a beauty and lyricism easily as great as ‘My Funny Valentine’, and one can see the influence it would later have on other musicians and even whole genres (Brian Eno himself has stated numerous times just how important this recording was to his later ambient works).

The rest of the first disc is made up of three very couldn’t-be-different tracks. ‘Maiysha’ is, bizarrely, pretty much a standard cocktail jazz arrangement, whilst Miles interrupting by stabbing out harsh-sounding organ chords. ‘Honky Tonk’ is not much to write about and seems to be here solely to show us the stellar, who’s-who of 70s jazz and fusion, line-up on display (John McLaughlin! Herbie Hancock! Keith Jarret! Billy Cobham! Airto! Steve Grossman! Michael Henderson!). The biggest stand-out of these three though is easily the bizarre and polarizing, what can only be called an experiment, ‘Rated X’. Featuring a dense, heady mix of tabla, drums, various African percussion and thumping bass that, with its oddly very danceable beat, sounds to modern ears like an uncanny precursor to drum ’n’ bass, Miles again away from his trumpet fires out keyboard riffs that sound like unholy shrieks. Ocassionally the rhythm stops, leaving nothing but fierce organ howls. Then the beat starts up again. Some will revel in this strange early heady beats-based dance music. Others will run in fear at the unholy horror-soundtrack keyboards.

‘Calypso Frelimo’, in stark contrast to the first disc, kicks things off on disc two with a bang. Frenzied layers of percussion and freak-out guitars jostle for space with Miles’ Latin-sounding high-powered trumpet. Again running well over the twenty-minute length, it sustains itself for the whole duration, with a nice slow-down section and some excellent stop-start bass moves from funk-bass prodigy Michael Henderson.

‘Red China Blues’ continues the hard edge, complete with wails of blues harp, which on any other album would be out of place, here though it seems to fit in and make sense. ‘Mtume’ on the other hand gives a nice workout to the stellar eponymous percussionist, whilst ‘Billy Preston’ ends proceedings with Miles on piano giving him a chance to give tribute to one of his soul inspirations and is simply a riot of fun and funk.

‘Get Up With It’ is, like many other recordings from this period in Miles Davis illustrious career, seriously over-looked – either for being too ahead of its time or only now being listened to without any bias or pre-conception. It isn’t jazz. There is some funk, there is some rock, and there is some jazz, but mostly trying to put this into one genre would be useless, and false.

When it finally closes, the album feels like the end of a long and winding, unplanned one-way roadtrip. Like listening to an over-stuffed cassette or CD mix tape an over-enthusiastic fan has made for you, it’s sequencing and structure doesn’t really feel coherent, and you probably won’t remember half of what you heard. Smaller selected journeys are required for ‘Get Up With It’, so the hard funk can be appreciated separately, away from the soulful and moving, the larger group sounds away from the smaller. Not the best Miles album as a whole entity, by far, it has more than a strong number of compelling tracks (you need to hear ‘He Loved Him Madly’ at least twice in your life), and perhaps each has to be listened to individually to be fully appreciated, but it is a journey that has to be done, because the highlights are spectacular.

****

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Review: Andrew Hill - Andrew


Andrew Hill in the 1960's forged a strong relationship with Blue Note head Alfred Lion that lead to the pianist creating and recording some of the finest avant-garde post-bop jazz of the period. As enjoyably cerebral and challenging as his work is however, it was (and sometimes remains) clearly difficult music to market, and of course to sell. Which can really be the only reason why this most intense and resolutely uncommercial of artists appears on the front cover in glorious smiling teen pop-idol soft-focus. Indeed, if ever there was to be a jazz pin-up to rival Chet Baker from this time, then this is the photo that would do it.

The ubiquitous Blue Note exclamation marks too make their return, complete with oddly unnecessary subtitling, meaning we get a title that reads bizarrely like a lounge singers churned out bland covers album. Don't be fooled though, 'Andrew!!! The Music Of Andrew Hill' is one of the man’s very best - and also, with terrible irony, one of his very hardest to find.

Backed by a team of familiar stars and Hill collaborators, we are treated to an unusual piano, sax, vibraphone, bass and drums line-up. Rhythm is superbly handled by Hill regular Richard Davis on bass and Blue Note favourite Joe Chambers on drums, while Hill lays down his tightly knit complex piano lines with rising star Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes on top. And yet despite this, the star saxophonist guesting here is what will grab many jazz fans attentions.

John Gilmore held one of the strongest most distinct voices on the tenor saxophone, that had always led many critics to compare him favourably with John Coltrane (lesser known of course is that Coltrane had in the late fifties actually studied under Gilmore), but unlike Coltrane, Gilmore had never actually been particularly bothered about becoming a leader or star in his own right. Happy to maintain a unique position in Sun Ra’s Arkestra as his right hand man, and always given highly interesting music to play, Gilmore was rarely recorded playing with anyone else, and many were perplexed at his extreme loyalty to Ra. His appearance here with Hill then is most noteworthy, before you’ve even heard a single minute. Luckily then, his playing from the first note is nothing short of exemplary.

Together this awesome band storm their way through six addictively hypnotic Hill originals full of his trademark complexities and flourishes, that though enthralling are probably among his least easily accessible at first listen. It's this same energetic restlessness however that creates the real success in the music here too. Yes, it is complicated densely woven tapestry, and so obviously fails as easy background dinner music, but all brought together it creates an eminently listenable experience all its own that draws the listener in and doesn't let up for a single moment.

One of Hills very best recordings, it puzzlingly remains one of his most neglected, currently existing solely on Blue Note's valuable yet undersold limited Connessieur label (as opposed to the much wider Michael Cuscuna or Rudy Van Gelder reissue programs). As such, it comes wholeheartedly and fully recommended - just be prepared to pay that little bit extra. But don't worry, sitting up there with career high Point Of Departure’ it's 100% worth the cost.

*****


Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Review: JD Allen Trio - The Matador And The Bull


A label hop for any artist can usually be a good indicator of a change in sound to come - whether it be a bigger budget, a glossier production, a change in band, a change in style, or more – and it can as many times mean a development for the worst as it can be for the best. With J.D. Allen however, though he may have left regular home Sunnyside for the newer (and bigger) Savant, he takes his usual band with him again lays down some audio dynamite.

The music on ‘The Matador And The Bull’ further shows Allen’s move from more straight-ahead bop (and post-bop) into more open and adventurous musical endeavours. Not that the words open or adventurous should scare anyone off. Far from being free or avant-garde, the results here are concise (all but two tracks fall under the four minute mark), listenable, richly melodic and always highly enjoyable.

The album kicks off in fine style, and throughout there is a strong theme of the bullfight, in the same way that Grant Green conveyed the fight with the similarly themed ‘The Matador’. But where that album had McCoy Tyner’s rolling piano providing the insistent Spanish rhythm, here Allen uses just his backing bass and drums team, and they rise masterfully to that challenge.

As usual the work as a whole is what is important, with all the individual pieces contributing to create more. ‘Cathedral’ possesses a dark atmosphere that is counterparted by ‘Paseillo’ and it’s more light rhythm. And whereas ‘Santa Maria’ hangs loose and free, ‘Ring Shout!’ is tight and driving. And despite the Latin title of the album, Allen rarely decides to play an obviously ‘Latin’ sound – avoiding any overt Spanish clichés, and in fact only playing with a slight accent on one or two numbers.

As usual Allen, despite his name holding the album, shares equal space here with his two cohorts Gregg August and Rudy Royston. And every member of the team is clearly a master of improvisation, with both longer passages and shorter flashes or inspiration showing what each is more than capable of doing - and doing so with laser-like precision. There are no wasted moments here, or long-winding noodles that go nowhere. And if you’ve ever wanted to hear a saxophone trio where each member is contributing equally to the sound of the group, rather than just two players backing a lead, then this is where you should look.

For many jazz artists, smaller outfits are usually formed out of necessity, the dual concerns of personal commitments and finances, and indeed many performers expand their line-up as soon as the money starts to roll in – for better or for worse. The better comes from when an artist is able to fully realise the sounds they hear in their head with a greater musical palette, and the worse comes from when the artist smothers their music with too many instruments from said palette, or drowns out their own distinct voice with too many others. For Allen though this appears not to be a concern. He is constantly exploring the intricacies and interplay of the trio, and always endeavours to find new ways to express himself, and each further work from him is another winning success that leaves you hungry for more.

****