Sunday, 17 February 2013

Review: Grant Green - Grant's First Stand

Grant Green is my favourite guitarist, jazz or otherwise. My love affair with his distinct clipped guitar sound and soulful varied sounds began when bought a tatty copy of his d├ębut album from a record store, based entirely on impulse  The first time I heard the album through I was hooked, and over the course of three years worked to acquire all of his recordings, available or otherwise. To this day I'm still working to pick-up most of the remaining albums where he worked as a side-man, and there's a lot - Lou Donaldson, George Braith, Horace Parlan, Hank Mobley, Herbie Hancock - but it's a treasure hunt I'm loving every minute of.

Grant Green has sadly suffered in the eyes of posterity somewhat, mainly due to the sporadic availability of parts of his catalogue, and also the relative domination of other contemporary jazz guitarists Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, and later George Benson, Pat Metheny, John Scofield and others. As good and as influential as all of these players are, history has unfortunately and unkindly put Green firmly on the sidelines, with just a brief interest re-ignited in his work in the nineties thanks to the equally brief acid-jazz years.

Thankfully, now facing a decent catatlogue availability push by Blue Note and its superb Rudy Van Gelder remaster series, ‘Grant’s First Stand’, his debut as bandleader for the label, now fills in the holes of his earlier days and shows us just what a great talent he really was.

An organ trio format, often the home of many of Green’s best work, makes up the sound, with the relatively unknown ‘Baby Face’ Willette handling the organ work, supplying a strong bass role as well as some nice fills and strong solos, and Ben Dixon on drumming duties. Together this small group gets off to a cracking start on the high energy ‘Miss Anns Tempo’, with Green showing all the qualities of his signature sound in spades. His one-note runs too are a stellar highlight everywhere on this recording.

Compositionally, Green’s other tunes are just as strong too with ‘Blues For Willareen’ deserving to have become a standard just from its intro alone. The improvisation all over this album is good too, making you wonder why we never saw much from either Willette or Dixon. Very little is wrong with this set, with the exception of the organ occasionally sounding just a little ‘off’, but not distractingly so. Dixons drumming too is superbly tight throughout and Green’s guitar work is frankly top-notch.

More than just filling in the missing gaps of Green’s earlier years, ‘Grant First Stand’ is a great recording and genuinely deserves to be mentioned alongside the recordings of Montgomery and Burrell. Criminally under-rated, this comes recommended for anyone with an interest in guitar or early soul-jazz.


Review: Grant Green - Street Of Dreams

A huge Grant Green fan, I have pretty much written reviews for everything he ever recorded (so much, and yet so little). My struggle now is to stagger these so this doesn't become the Grant Green Blog. At some point I'll post some of his less favourable albums, but in the meantime here is the 'companion' recording to his masterpiece 'Idle Moments' - 'Street Of Dreams'.

Sometimes referred to, quite rightly, as the godfather of acid jazz, Grant Green is surely now one of the most sampled guitarists of all-time. Whereas his earlier material and records took on a cool slant on jazz, his work from the late 60’s till his death in the late 70’s became increasingly funk driven, often built around extended and, crucially, infectious  jams.

His legacy has tended to be vastly overshadowed by Wes Montgomery, who in truth was a more rounded and polished player, but his albums with Blue Note, especially those from the early part of his career have endured incredibly well, of which ‘Street Of Dream’ is definitely in the list of top picks.

‘Idle Moments’ is arguably his finest effort, and ‘Street Of Dreams’, though not as strong, breathes that same late-night atmosphere, also boasting a welcome reunion with vibes-man Bobby Hutcherson. A line-up featuring no bass or horns in any form, the group is completed courtesy of organ player Larry Young and, borrowed from John Coltrane’s quartet, Elvin Jones on drums.

Four tunes make up the album, including the much covered, usually as a vocal number, ‘Lazy Afternoon’. Structurally different to its normal performance, Green makes it the best tune here. Throughout, his guitar is so fluid and smooth; he makes it sound effortless and dreamlike. By listening here you can clearly see the influence he paved for future guitarists, notably George Benson, and to a lesser extent Nigel Price.

What really makes the album cook though is Young’s organ playing. Indispensable  he plays with a soulful and gentle touch that many others could never reach. Jones makes some some strong poly-rhythmic work, which when combined with Hutchersons subtle vibes work, works to create a nice richly-textured background.

The title track alone needs to be heard, and is one of Green’s best covers, but also very worthy of note is the ‘Naked City’ TV series theme ‘Somewhere In The Night’, which after the version played here would go on to be picked up by many more jazz players.

A mellow groove permeates the whole of ‘Street Of Dreams’ with some slick and astounding lines from all three soloists. A great Green recording, and clearly one of his best, it’s one of the most soulful jazz albums to ever be released and should be in any guitar jazzers collection.


Review: Bobby Hutcherson - Oblique

'Oblique' is probably my favourite Bobby Hutcherson album of the sixties. Odd then that it sat in the vaults unreleased for almost 15 years. Such is the way of prolific Blue Note recording artists...

‘Oblique’ was Bobby Hutcherson’s second session both leading a quartet and attempting a more commercially viable take on his normally more avant-garde stylings. Sharing three-quarters of the band from ‘Happenings’, Herbie Hancock and Joe Chambers both make a welcome return, while Albert Stinson replaces the more well-known Bob Cranshaw on bass. Not that this should be seen in any way as ‘Happenings 2’; here there’s much less focus on Hutcherson the composer, with Hancock and Chambers both contributing - for the better - and also whereas before everything both benefitted and suffered from a little too much simplicity, ‘Oblique’ revels in it’s greater complexity.

The opening sweet samba-light ‘’Til Then’ sounds, at first glance, like a simple number, but underneath there’s a huge amount going on, and both the vibes and the piano get some exhilarating solos. As does ‘My Joy’, which starts at first as a waltz, before moving into a harder territory, and serves as a perfect launchpad for a blinding solo by Stinson.

The third piece though raises the bar. Hancock’s classic ‘Theme From Blow-Up’ is given perhaps the most straight jazz reading that he was ever involved in, with some stellar complementing between Hancock and Hutcherson, and the only real downside being that it highlights just how much stronger the pianists compositions are than that of the bandleaders.

‘Subtle Neptune’ returns to samba and gives the vibesman his best solo of the album, while intriguingly Hancock delivers his worst. Not outright bad, it’s merely long and winding without really adding anything. Afterwards though, we hit the double winning hit of the title track and ‘Bi-Sectional’. ‘Oblique’ is the emotional peak, with thoughtful traded moves between piano and vibes, while ‘Bi-Sectional’ begins almost playfully, before Hutcherson and Chambers begin a full-on percussion attack.

Bobby Hutcherson’s ‘Oblique’ is along with ‘Happenings’ only one of two quartet dates he recorded for Blue Note, but unlike that earlier album, was another of the label’s sessions that stayed in the vault until 1980 for it’s first release – and then only in Japan. And the truth is, it’s actually a far superior date than ‘Happenings’, boasting greater energy, creativity, compositions and even band. Albert Stinson is a wonderfully inventive player, who if listened to closely is doing a great many things under the rest of the band. Tragically, he would die only two years after this recording, aged just twenty-four.

One of Hutcherson’s greatest albums, its infrequent availability only serves to heighten its status. Not that it needs it by any means; the whole recording is a clear winner from start to end. Anyone with any interest in Hutcherson at all should seek this perfect five-star session out immediately.

Oblique artworks - 1980 Japan-only release, and the more traditional Blue Note style 2005 RVG Remaster.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Review: Bobby Hutcherson - Happenings

Bobby Hutcherson is probably my favourite vibraphone player. I say 'probably' as I love the music and playing of Gary Burton, but Hutcherson's sheer variety of sound in his work is absolutely incredible. Personally I'm a fan of his more avant-garde material, and his work from the 1970's in particular. But for a first Hutch album review, why not something a little less cerebral, and a little more easy to get into...

Bobby Hutchersons ‘Happenings’ marked a new direction for the vibraphonist. Moving away from the avant-garde and his adventurous compositions that had made his name, it’s sometimes seen as perhaps less important than the work that he recorded just before, and that he would create later. It’s a perhaps uninformed opinion, with the album being the first to present the vibesman as the soloist leading a conventional rhythm section of piano, bass and drums, instead of the experimentally focused larger groups he’d played with earlier in his career. As a consequence it’s probably one of the easiest of his albums to get into and also one of the the best introductions to his music.

Another first is that the entire album, barring one track, is composed by Hutcherson, whereas previously he had relied on other writers. Much of it is very good too, right from the stomping opener ‘Aquarian Moon’. It’s balanced nicely too, from the swinging of ‘Head Start’, to the soft and gentle ‘Bouquet’, while taking in funky Latin grooves on the excellent ‘Rojo’, and on ‘When You Are Near’, showcasing some strong ballad playing that also stands as Hutchersons best composition here, but somewhat frustratingly it’s also the shortest. The best overall though is the take on Herbie Hancocks classic ‘Maiden Voyage’, which has always been an outstanding piece and here is given a brilliant treatment. Hancock of course is here too, and he’s on fire as he always was throughout the sixties, with the remainder of the rhythm team being made up by Bob Cranshaw and Joe Chambers.

Most of the pieces in truth though are more nicely composed than being exceptional, but the playing on each of them is second to none, and it is this that elevates everything to sounding absolutely terrific. The only disturbance to this highly listenable and accessible music comes with the final track ‘The Omen’. An ambitious sprawl that sounds more at home with the far experimental music of his earlier records, its stop-start cacophony doesn’t sit at all with the rest of the album - and its likely to make most listeners confused as to what they’re hearing, having just experienced the much easier sounding grooves a few minutes earlier. Its inclusion here really on this record is a very big mis-step.

Having laid down highly memorable work on other Blue Note alumni’s recordings, such as Eric Dolphy’s much-lauded ‘Out To Lunch’ and Grant Green’s outstanding double-excellence of ‘Idle Moments’ and ‘Street Of Dreams’, Hutcherson with ‘Happenings’ launched himself as a more acceptably closer-to-the-mainstream artist, and the gamble largely paid off. Just over a year later the same band, with Cranshaw replaced by Albert Stinson, would go on to record Hutchersons ‘Oblique’. He and Hancock’s exquisite partnership would even better highlight just how good they could be together, and with the upping of the quality of the writing the session would be even better.

‘Happenings’ is Hutchersons bid for mainstream jazz acceptance and it works a treat. A classy recording, it’s one of the vibes players most easy and relaxed dates as a leader, and only one of two ever dates leading a quartet, as well being a simply great showcase for Hancock. For the best introduction to the Bobby Hutcherson, this is for most a good starting point – but there is much greater music worth exploring in Hutcherson’s catalogue for anyone wanting to dip more than just a toe in the water.


Sunday, 10 February 2013

Gig Review: James Morton Quartet - Live At Bristol Fringe Bar 07.02.2012

Alto sax player James Morton and his career is very much on the up, and despite the Bristolian playing many gigs out of his home city, he frequently makes sure to regularly come back home and entertain the local fans. Originally he started playing (and recorded his debut album) with his backing group ‘James Morton’s Porkchop’, a funky sax-organ-guitar-drums outfit that found a near perfect blend between jazz, soul and funk. Though more recently Morton has been playing with other groups, and different line-ups and sounds, he always comes back to the soulful sound he loves best – after all it is what he excels at.

February 7th then saw Morton play a quartet gig at Bristol’s still new Fringe Bar (quality jazz gigs every Thursday people). Advertised as The James Morton Quartet, it was the same instrument combination as his Porkchop line-up, but with a different roster of musicians. Clive Deamer, known to most for his work with Get The Blessing and Radiohead, provided drums for the night, while keys wizard Dan Moore supplied some grooving Hammond Organ, and together they created an alternately tight and loose funky rhythm team. The real revelation in the group though was local guitar hero Kit Morgan, who flitted convincingly between George Benson-esque jazz guitar and more rock god stylings.

Cracking opening number ‘Burk’s Work’ was a gloriously soul-drenched blues piece that got off to a flying start, with Morton throwing everything he had into it, and all four members of the group getting to show their admirable chops. As the song entered its final stages it also became a light-hearted trading blows contest between Morton and Morgan, with the guitarist having fun unleashing his fastest shred, and Morton’s alto sax more than keeping up to the task, much to the delight of a very happy and entranced audience.

From there on in the gig only got better and better, with Morton and all of the group showcasing that not only are all four virtuosos, not only are they adept at improvising great melodies,but also that they clearly enjoy playing for an appreciative audience and do so with a great deal of fun and humour. Throughout the gig Morton lead the group superbly, gesturing with his free hands, giving subtle nods, and more frequently wooping and hollering with approval. Not only was it good bandleading, but the shouts and wild exclamations helped work the audience and up the already strong atmosphere. In between numbers too he came across as relaxed and charming, with a nice line in easy humour.

For the die-hard jazz fans, there was much to smile about too. A funked-up version of Miles Davis’ unmistakeable ‘Flamenco Sketches’ received nods of approval and built into a gig highlight, while some name-checking and a cover of the under-rated tenor sax man Eddie Harris was a nice gesture to Morton’s less well-known influences.

The second set though closed with another highlight, courtesy of an unexpected guest spot from Bristol singer Celestine. Choosing a familiar number such as Nina Simone’s ‘Feelin’ Good’ was a bold move, but Celestine’s strong and soulful vocals were a revelation and she gelled with the band perfectly. An incredible vocal range and carefully controlled performance, it’s amazing she hasn’t yet made the big time. She certainly deserves to.

We went to this gig expecting something good, but within the first five minutes there were smiles and cheers all round as we very quickly realized we were at something much more. James Morton is a clearly brilliant alto player, but it’s his personality, literally and musically, that really make him the stellar performer. He lays down a terrific jazz gig, but at the same time creates a fantastic atmosphere and engages his audience so that even non-jazzers will enjoy the classic soul stylings. James Morton is clearly a rising star, but he deserves to rise much higher, and a great level of success. For a fun and energetically enjoyable jazz gig you’d struggle to find a better performer. Check him out as soon as you can.

Sadly no photos as I was too busy enjoying the gig...

Monday, 4 February 2013

Review: Anouar Brahem - The Astounding Eyes Of Rita

Broadening my scope for jazz reviews, I give you a fine example of oud master Anouar Brahem and my personal favourite of his, the 2009 'The Astounding Eyes Of Rita'.

Since first playing on the ECM label in 1991 with his ‘Barzakh’ album, Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem has tread two very different paths. On one hand he showcases his more traditional sounding ‘classical’ works, while on the other he chooses more varied projects which attempt to meld his Middle Eastern sensibilities with that of equally strong and compelling western jazz players, highlighting a unique fusion of Brahem’s Tunisian heritage, contemporary classical and subtle European romanticism.

The exquisitely titled ‘The Astounding Eyes Of Rita’ showcases a new and decidedly international group for Brahem, one that brings in both new and old musical elements. The bass clarinet, heard best on his musical benchmark ‘Thimar’ with John Surman, is here again courtesy of the rich toned German player Klaus Gesing, while electric bass is supplied by Swede Bjorn Meyer, usually recognised more for his heavy groove-laden funk, and completing the line-up is Lebanese percussionist Khaled Yassine who brings some pulsing rhythms to the mix. Together they create an intriguing blend of tranquil, landscape-like chamber music full of the typical introspection that has made the Munich record label what it is today.

The group takes a traditional Middle Eastern approach against its strong and defined modern rhythm, with Meyer laying down an utterly pulsating groove on the brooding yet almost spiritual sounding ‘The Lover Of Beirut’, while he rises to a springier step for some almost transcendent joy on ‘For No Apparent Reason’. All this while Gesing plays surprisingly the most western element here, with the woodwind providing a darkly-coloured yet ethereal pairing with the similarly low sound of Brahem’s oud, making you wonder why it doesn’t appear in any of the worlds musical genres more often. The title-tracks melody in particular works a treat when channelled through this often-neglected instrument.

Yassine and his darbouka provide a thrilling drive to the whole album, that both infuses the world flavour just that bit extra, but also expands and increases the sound of the group to something much fuller and richer. His work on ‘Dances With Waves’ in particular is a subtle and understated highlight, and it’s this particularly successful grouping of electric bassist and eastern percussionist that makes this stellar recording what it is.

The music throughout is all about strong melody, with the three guest players all strong and creative foils to Brahems numerous and multi-faceted ideas. And after a period of sparer, more open music, it’s incredibly rewarding to see him back playing with stronger rhythms and, in Meyer, a pulsing and throbbing beat. Not that his music has lost that mysterious air that made Brahems such a unique talent before. The eight pieces that make up ‘The Astounding Eyes Of Rita’ are beautiful in just about every way, and grow with each subsequent listen. Possessing the high yet equal qualities of an ethereal atmosphere and a definite and beating rhythmic heart, with these three perfectly hand-picked musicians, this is Anouar Brahem’s most complete and fully-realised album to date, and ultimately his best.