Sunday, 24 March 2013

Review: Diana Krall - Stepping Out

Diana Krall is not one of my favoured jazz artists. Her slow woozy lounge jazz singing is good, but doesn't excite me greatly. And yet, if you dig around in her discography, you will find more than a handful of good and even great jazz recordings where you discover the real strength of her voice and just how good a piano player she can be. This is what I think of her little-known debut recording.

Diana Krall has for years been bringing jazz to a new audience, with a combination of sultry vocals, nimble piano skills and - hard to deny – highly photogenic good looks. Her ‘more developed’ recordings however have shown a consistent maturing artist saddled with an ever-growing band size and an increasing persuasion to slow down the pace, which in the eyes of many have moved her solidly into the Smooth/AOR/MOR bracket.

Here though on her 1992 debut, aged just 27, she sings and heads a trio, playing the piano with honesty, subtlety and power. What is truly surprising though for anyone only familiar with her later material is her piano work and skill as an absolutely grade A improviser. Later she would serve more as an occasional accompanist rather than a lead, but here her abilities are shown in equal measure, weaving her dual gifts into one. In a way it’s disappointing that she would be remodelled and pegged as a sultry pin-up babe who sings, and happens to sit at a piano. Here it is her playing at the forefront rather than her voice (and it is a good voice). What is remarkable about her voice here though is the feisty and looser quality it has compared to the laid-back candles-by-the-bath smooth she is primarily known for today.

Easy highlight Duke Ellington’s ‘I’m Just A Lucky So-And-So’ swings, and Krall sings it with a wink of knowing humour, while idol Nat Cole’s ‘Straighten Up And Fly Right’ gets a spirited treatment that Cole himself would have approved of. ‘Body And Soul’ finds Kralls singing intimate and caressing, giving a hint of her later favoured direction, though the songs limited and weak lyrics still do no favours. Something that one wouldn’t find on any other Diana Krall album though is the instrumental ‘Big Foot’. A light touch, her skill at the piano is impressive, and it is a pleasure to appreciate her for once beyond her singing abilities.

There’s a good deal of creativity here too. Heard enough versions of ‘On The Sunny Side Of The Street’? This one will make you think again. Sticking to the song, but inflecting it with a unique flavour, the small group of three raise the bar and make it one of the very best versions of the song you’ll ever hear.

Diana Krall’s debut displays her full talents as a multi-talented artist, perhaps more so than anything that would follow. More chances are taken here vocally than later as well, and it’s exciting. For anyone who likes jazzy arrangements of the classics, this album comes highly recommended and it gives us a view of where Krall may go later if she chooses to move past the slightly dull glamourpuss-lounge-singer role she seems to have put herself in.


Sunday, 17 March 2013

Review: Grant Green - Goin' West

Another of my idol Grant Green's albums from his classic Blue Note period. This one though is one of my least favourite of his sixties recordings. It does however feature a young Herbie Hancock. And that can't be bad.

Grant Greens ‘Goin’ West’ is another one of his fistful of ‘concept theme’ records that someone in Blue Note occasionally decided would be a good idea. They weren’t – Green was at his best when given the sidemen of his choice, when he chose the tunes and when he was allowed to play the way he wanted to. Regardless, following the Hispanic and samba moves of ‘The Latin Bit’, the southern hymms of ‘Feelin’ the Spirit’ and ‘Sunday Mornin’s’ gospel vibe, ‘Goin’ West’ makes the unusual gambt of taking on a mesh of country and western, folk and bluegrass.

‘Virtuoso jazz guitarist takes on country music’ though, as terrible as that sounds, this is not. It’s easy to dismiss as jazz-lite, with the easy tunes and lack of risks taken here, but with the sheer abundance of talent on display, the players involved all manage to elevate this to much more than just a small sidenote in an otherwise impressive discography.

At only thirty-four minutes, it’s a short album, and a ‘nice’ one – but far from a great one. Joining Green for duty are Herbie Hancock, Reggie Workman and Billy Higgins, and it feels like a natural grouping. The pairing of Green and Hancock in particular is effective, and you can easily hear why the pianist included the guitarist on his second album as leader, ‘My Point Of View’.

Five traditional, rather than jazz standard, songs make up the album, with opener the traditional ‘On Top Of Old Smokey’ tooled with an initially killer sounding pulse and one of Greens in-truth best ever solos - brief and bluesy, it’s incisive and sings perfectly in its very short time. ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ is short but sweet, and ‘Wagon Wheels’ is almost as good as Sonny Rollins take from his equally county-tinged ‘Way Out West’. The best though is ‘Red River Valley’ tooled with an unexpected yet highly successful bossa-nova beat and latin feel, with ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ rounding out the set.

A classic, no - it is though an intriguing release. The result of being instructed to do a number of themed works, and from one of Greens six sessions as leader from 1962, this was then not released for seven years. And when it finally did see the light of day it was fairly poorly treated – just check out the generic, and lacking any artistic merit, album cover. But as sure as it is from being one of his best recordings, it’s also far from his worst, with its high musicality and all of the players bringing their best to the gig. Not that Green ever recorded anything truly bad anyway.

As MOR jazz it works well, and it’s fun and catchy. It’s for Green fans only though really, with nothing here that isn’t done better on any of his other much stronger releases. Nothing bad here, nothing great, it’s a nice ‘safe’ listen with modest if mis-placed ambition, and on that level on those terms it succeeds.

Review: John Coltrane - Interstellar Space

My beloved John Coltrane and one of his more experimental posthumous recordings - a very interesting free-form sax and drums duet recording.

'Interstellar Space' is one of many 'in the vault' recordings that initially went unreleased by Impulse records during John Coltrane's short life, but that slowly trickled into public consciousness in the years since. And although not released until 1974, seven years after Coltrane's passing, this is arguably one of the most famous, and certainly one of the most distinctive and intriguing, of the great mans posthumous recordings.

The distinction comes largely from the paired down musicianship on display here, featuring as it does just Coltrane, on tenor saxophone and occasional percussion, and Rashied Ali on drums. And despite the in theory limited options available to such a pairing, each of the four pieces here are full to bursting with ideas, aggressive fire and deep emotion. The near constant invention that comes from each player too is sure to surprise - easily defying any predetermined negative assumptions.

On the downside however, despite the often high emotive power delivered by these two virtuoso musicians, the music remains not so easily accessible. Part of this can be attributed to the often repetitive (and repetitively simple) structures of each piece - Coltrane leads with shimmering percussion and bells, Ali states the rhythm, Coltrane takes the melody, both men lock into a cohesive yet distinctly free movement - but also the fact remains that a duet of just sax and drums is ultimately destined to be limited. The effect of this is that by the time most listeners have heard the otherwise brilliant 'Mars' and 'Venus', and get to 'Jupiter' and 'Saturn', two decidedly stronger and superior pieces, the repetition would easily have set in, lessening the effect. Were each of these individually strong pieces placed in a different context, ie. as part of a break in a quartet session, then they would be surging powerful highlights, but together they instead just form a collection of moments rather than create a cohesive flow.

Throughout Ali is impeccable, but it is Coltrane who shows real chops, skill and true musical handling of his virtuoso playing, alternating between subtle quiet moments and then intense heated sections of unbeatable technique. And while he can clearly improvise without a bass, piano or guitar backing present, the missing instrumentation creates a very spare polarising sound. Both men are at the top of their game and the music they paint together is powerfully rousing, but ultimately too much of their sound is just that, too much. Coltrane fans will love this, as will any real admirer of the passion that can be stirred from music alone, but this is not to be an experience to be entered into lightly.


Sunday, 10 March 2013

Review: Tomasz Stanko - Dark Eyes

Tomasz Stanko is a highly impressive and richly expressive jazz trumpet player, with an equally richly varied discography. His trumpet tone is dark and husky, and yet everything he records is just gorgeous. For me personally he improves with age - not even letting new dentures and having to re-learn playing the trumpet slow him down. His absolute peak, for me, is 2009's haunting 'Dark Eyes'.

Sixty-seven years young and Polish trumpet master Tomasz Stanko, with itchy feet after a trio of outstanding releases, has chosen to debut a new quintet. As ever with his new release ‘Dark Eyes, he is still moving forward as he continues with his interest in the simmering tension between composed and improvised music. A moody and smoky set, it smoulders with a hazy and dark blend of beauty and mystery.

Known more recently for playing with his trio of strong and fiery younger Polish players (who on the strength of playing with Stanko have now formed their own trio), here Stanko revels in his new quintet – a mixture of Danish and Finnish musicians. Both guitarist Jakob Bro and bassist Anders Christensen choose to amp-up and bring their own style and some sharp bite to the use of electric instrumentation. Drummer Olavi Louhivuori and pianist Alexi Tuomarila sensibly here though both stay resolutely acoustic.

From the opening track ‘So Nice’ we are in firm film-noir territory, with Stanko’s darkness-hued tone perfectly suited to the soaring melody line. The drums here are subtle, while the main rhythm is laid down by the piano with the bass shadowing with Bro’s restrained guitar adding a tasteful and lyrical texture.

The pace on ‘Dark Eyes’ rarely goes above the one set on the opening number, choosing to be all about mood and atmosphere, where subtlety is key. ‘Terminal 7’ displays some highly inventive rhythms, while ‘Grand Central’ with its faster and pulsating tempo almost gives us a bop, albeit a noir-filled one. ‘Amsterdam Avenue’ chooses to take a break from the program by going for a warmer sound, and yet still fits in perfectly.

‘The Dark Eyes Of Martha Hirsch’, the longest piece here at just over ten minutes long, runs languorously over the variety of styles presented on the whole record. Starting as a thickly-hued slow burn, Stanko heads the melody, letting it gradually rise and fall, before Christensen’s bass comes in and leads the band on a full swing, with Stanko roaring out a surprising flurry of notes. As the melody mellows, the piece concludes, aided by some gentle yet dramatic swells from the dynamic group.

What really makes this such an impressive entry in Stanko’s discography is the variety on offer, but even more is that their playing manages to maintain a consistently strong thread throughout the whole recording, with atmospheric enhancing pieces like ‘Dirge For Europe’. The music breathes in a way so as to give plenty of room for each musician to shine, no matter how subtle and refined their playing, and creates a superbly cinematic feel. Stanko himself gives a brilliant performance, and the extra edge he brings to certain pieces only serves to increase the listenability. His previous groups were well-deserving of the good press they received, but the prospect of this quintet’s next step is an exciting and tantalising one. Whatever and wherever they choose, ‘Dark Eyes’, be it the start of something greater or a one-off, is enchanting, entrancing and out-standing.


Thursday, 7 March 2013

Review: Keith Jarrett - La Scala

Keith Jarrett is a name guaranteed to spark heated debate in the world of jazz. On one side, complaints range from the trivial to the genuinely legitimate, such as his physical movements when playing the piano (described most commonly as writhing, epileptic and gyrating) to his on-stage squawks, woops, grunts and ‘singing’ along, and his occasional confrontational attitude to ‘intrusive’ audiences. On the other side, praise runs high for his superb now 25-year old standards trio, his near peerless take on such classical heavyweights as Bach and Shostakovich, and of course his undeniably stunning improvised solo piano concerts.

Recorded live at the world famous Teatro Alla Scala opera house in Milan, Italy on the evening of February 13th 1995, ‘La Scala’ is a solo piano set capturing the two lengthy Jarrett improvisations created that evening; a historical first for La Scala, being famous, up until this moment, for hosting solely classical and opera events.

Titled with the usual simplicity, ‘Part One’ the first piece begins slowly and delicately, Jarrett taking his time in pacing and progression, and gentle flourishes gradually giving way to more complex playing. Very subtlely this slowly emerges into a much darker and brooding theme that relentlessly refuses to give the listener a single uplifting note. Around the fifteen minute mark, when the pace begins to pick up, is when Jarrett’s wails and moans join the fray. Whether you can ignore these, or choose negatively to focus on these, is by the by, but the vocalisations are also accompanied with slow rhythmic foot-stomping which surprisingly only adds to the almost stirring foreboding atmosphere that emerges.

This darkness continues for some twenty minutes, with skillful improvisation running throughout, and just when it begins to seem as though it might outstay its welcome, a truly beautiful release begins to unfurl. Bringing a strong resolution to the piece, it is a gorgeous and lyrical conclusion that will defy any criticism of his ability to spontaneously create truly heart-string pulling music. Were the word beauty to ever be used for any moment in music, this would surely be that moment.

‘Part Two’ chooses to begin very differently from ‘Part One’, with fast and frenetic notes pouring from the piano almost as though Jarrett is playing a stream of his sub-conscious. This after five minutes emerges into a slower and quieter passage, but with light-fingered and fast dancing runs skipping over the top – Jarrett matching the pace with orgasmic sounding moans and wails.

Seven minutes in and the pace hits top gear, Jarrett exploring the whole keyboard and the energy levels never flagging. The thirteen minute mark though is where the money is; Jarrett winding his playing into a gorgeous ‘swimming’ section, the keys mimicking the sound of rippling water, on top of a quiet and gentle melody underneath. It is deeply moving music.

The music then picks up into an incredible whirlwind stride, getting faster and faster and then suddenly comes to a halt. And the reception from the audience is nothing short of enthusiastic, enthusiastic and grateful for being able to witness this one-off event, where one man is able to spontaneously create whole and complete music.

After the brooding and beautiful first piece, and the almost chaotic high energy emitting from the second piece, the rapturous applause gives way to an absolute delight of an encore in the form of the standard ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. A luminous performance, Jarrett’s delicate touch makes the song, and happily for any dissenters, given the langorous pace, the loud vocalizations are completely absent, allowing us to focus solely on the quiet elegance of the piece.

A first-class addition to Jarretts solo piano work, ‘La Scala’ is a great slice of outstanding music. If you’re new to Keith Jarret, then this is a pretty good starting point to his solo ventures, sitting proudly up there with with his more famous ‘Koln’ and ‘Vienna’ concerts. The range here may be slightly less than those masterworks, occupying as it does a mostly dark ground, but you will still find much to savour. ‘La Scala’ continues Jarretts bold and beautiful inventions in music, and long may he continue.


Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Review: Baby Face Willette - Mo Rock & Behind The 8 Ball

It is now near impossible to find Baby Face Willette's final two recordings other than bolted onto each other. As such they get reviewed together here. And while both good efforts, they pale in comparison to what went before.

After just two sessions for Blue Note as a leader, and not a great number more as a sideman, Baby Face Willette suddenly left the label for reasons largely unknown (although it is accepted that he perhaps felt he wanted to travel more and leave New York). After a period of complete musical silence he eventually yet quietly reappeared on the Argo roster. The first product of his signing with the small label was the album ‘Mo’ Rock’, with assistance from guitarist Ben White and drummer Eugene Bass. And while it’s a solidly enjoyable effort, it’s clear on first listen that it certainly isn’t up to the standards set by his excellent, though brief, Blue Note work.

Regardless there’s some great moments here, such as ‘Zip Five’ where the organist and guitarist get to showcase their musical skills to explosive effect, and the title track itself, which gets a heady and forceful rhythm that Jimmy Smith would have been proud to call one of his own. ‘Unseen And Unknown’ has an almost mystical atmosphere to it that, while strong, unfortunately doesn’t really make much of a lasting impression. The rest too, although enjoyable, are pretty standard easily-paced groove numbers, that fans of relaxed organ trio music will enjoy, but with nothing else spectacular.

‘Mo’ Rock’ is a solid recording, and fans will dig it, but mostly because there isn’t that much Willete out there. It is nowhere close to the standards of brilliance that he achieved with Blue Note, and part of this can be attributed to the company he keeps. Here White and Bass are competent sidemen, and technically strong session players for sure, but they most definitely aren’t Grant Green and Ben Dixon, who had earlier played with Willette with both fire and improvisational finesse. Willette is best here on the harder, faster tracks where he gets to show some good juice and display some highly creative playing around the melodies, so it’s a frustrating shame that the majority is made up of slower mid-tempo numbers. Overall though, this is a fine recording, and worth seeking out if you enjoyed his other more famous works.


After just two sessions for Blue Note as leader, and one for Argo three years later, Baby Face Willette would make just one more recording (also in the same year), before quickly fading into obscurity; the reasons for his small recorded output and his disappearance from the scene still largely a mystery.

‘Behind The 8 Ball’, his final record, is a brief affair of eight tracks with most sitting under the five-minute mark, and with only two of the numbers self-composed - the rest being covers of some Willette favourites. While this might perhaps sound off-putting initially, it does allow for some fine space to essentially hear Willette play the tunes with which he originally gigged and made his name.

Like the earlier Argo release ‘Mo’ Rock’, Willete is again joined by Ben White on guitar, while drummer Eugene Bass is replaced by Jerold Donavon, and together they focus more on an R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel sound. Willette’s own title track is catchy and sounds like it could have been a big hit, while the standard ‘Amen’ gets a nice sole guest spot from alto sax player Gene Barge to lend that strong gospel punch.

‘Just A Closer Walk’ is an interesting take on a number recorded around the same time by earlier playing mate Grant Green, which in fact bears well in comparison, but best of all here is Willette’s extended hi-tempo ‘Song Of The Universe’ that showcases Willette - light-fingered and fast as a flash - at his organ playing best.

Much as it was with ‘Mo’ Rock’, ‘…8 Ball’ isn’t up there with Willette’s superb Blue Note duo, lacking both the great material and the premier league sidemen. There are some good pieces here, but there are also almost equal parts so-so and by-the-numbers covers, while again White and Donavon prove themselves as capable and solid, but hardly anything special. White does shine occasionally, much more than on the previous session, but at other times just sounds completely lost. Willettes fourth studio album is a good buy for any fans, and it ends his extremely slim discography nicely, but any newcomers are best directed to either ‘Stop And Listen’ or ‘Face To Face’.


Monday, 4 March 2013

Review: Baby Face Willette - Stop And Listen

Baby Face Willette's second album, his best, his last on Blue Note, and sadly only two more were to follow...

Frequently touted as Baby Face Willette’s strongest recording, ‘Stop And Listen’ stands very much as a high-point of early-sixties soul-jazz, managing to improve on his already impressive debut album ‘Face To Face’. The same team from that session make a welcome return, with the exception of saxophonist Fred Jackson. Not that this is a problem however, in fact it does the opposite, allowing Willette to build on the strong rhythmic relationship he had established with Grant Green and Ben Dixon on both Green’s and his own first record, as well as the tight work he’d laid down playing with Lou Donaldson.

And as good value as Jackson was on ‘Face To Face’, his absence here as an added bonus allows Willette and Green greater time to solo, and the trio as a whole play tighter and cleaner, with a more fiery and crackling energy than before too. The material present is much greater also, taking in some good yet not obvious standards, but also some very catchy originals.

Green is at his absolute funky best here, delivering some of his trademark licks and solos played to perfection. But it is Willette who appropriately shines the most, with some light-fingered playing that interestingly doesn’t obviously sound too indebted to any of the contemporary major organists of the time. He maintains a strong sizzling groove with Dixon throughout, whilst always laying down some highly imaginative melodies and harmonies that highlight just how big he would have become had he continued his career past the mid-sixties.

Song titles really don’t matter with this solid platinum session. Every piece here is a memorable groove, with ear-catching solos everywhere, and no flab or wasted space is present for any aimless noodling or wandering. The three men are of course all excellent individually, and together they make a great group. A great artist with sadly just a meagre discography to his name, ‘Stop And Listen’ is essential for any soul-jazz fan. And for any of the many that seriously digged Grant Green’s blinding debut ‘Grant’s First Stand’, this is essentially the same band but just playing at a different hour in the day. This truly is a sadly near-forgotten and neglected gem. And one that is absolutely worth your investment.


Review: Baby Face Willette - Face To Face

A very under-recognised talent, anyone who digs the funkiness of Grant Green and Lou Donaldson is sure to be a little familiar with Baby Face Willette. But for many, the organ player that seemingly came out of nowhere, and then disappeared almost as quickly, just simply isn't on the radar. His small catalogue however is very much worth tracking down.

After being allowed to show his mettle as a sideman on other player’s albums, most notably alongside Grant Green on his ‘Grants First Stand’ and Lou Donaldson’s ‘Here ‘Tis’, ‘Baby Face’ Willette was given his opportunity by Blue Note to record as featured headline artist, for which he chose a solid yet mighty and impressive quartet line-up. Repaying the earlier favour, Green duly returned for guitar duties alongside drummer Ben Dixon, who’d also played with the two on that preceding Green session, whilst completing the group was tenor sax-man Fred Jackson.

Together they formed a great soul-jazz unit that chose to opt for a distinctly rough and ready slant to suit Willette’s more percussive organ playing style, than say more famous organ man Jimmy Smith. This subtle difference is clear right from the first track ‘Swinging At Sugar Rays’, where his tough solos include everything from the blues, to gospel, to R&B. Not that it’s the Willette show at all; Green flexes his muscles in a way not commonly associated with his playing style, playing loose, with higher register intense single-note runs, and even bending the strings here and there. It’s a sure fire way to kick the session off, and it leaves you tantalised, wanting more.

‘Goin’ Down’ then slows the groove for a more bluesy number that gives Jackson an incredibly strong and emotion-soaked solo that makes you wonder just why he didn't become a bigger name in jazz. Clearly trying to show a variety in range, the band then tackle a mambo take on ‘Whatever Lola Wants’, which showcases some nice interplay in particular between Willette and Jackson. While elsewhere we get some soulful hard bop in the title track, a smokey blues and then harder soul altogether in ‘Somethin’ Strange’, and finally some slow and relaxed grooving-out on ‘High ‘N’ Low’.

There’s not a weak moment here, nor a weak link in the brilliantly tight band line-up, with Green’s playing typically confident and full of style, Jackson giving it his all, and Dixon laying down some very fine work, much as he always did on the few dates he recorded for Blue Note, and with Green in particular. Willette has a distinctly punchy and muscular way with the keys that isn't so apparent on his dates as a sideman, and it sets him apart from the much more famous competition nicely. The actual tunes themselves too are good, if not overly creative or destined to ever be covered by anyone else, but the band and their interaction together is just perfection. ‘Face To Face’ is a great outing for Willette, and one that belies his shockingly small catalogue.