Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Review: Miles Davis - Dark Magus

Miles Davis is arguably the biggest names in jazz history, and certainly one of the best. A favourite of mine since the age of 12 when I first heard the epochal 'Kind Of Blue', his work from all periods however is known to divide all kinds of fans, and none is more divisive than the mid-seventies heavy funk work that often filled live double disc sets. And yet there is something truly hypnotic in these that can also attract people who perhaps don't get his more popular recordings.

Miles Davis, Miles, The Prince Of Darkness - the latter title could have been coined almost solely to describe his Carnegie Hall live recording. ‘Dark Magus’ was recorded in 1974, around the time of the release of double epics ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Get Up With It’, and between Miles’ last studio album ‘On The Corner’ and his unexpected half-decade retirement in 1976. It is easily the densest and darkest music that Miles ever recorded, and it was not until 1977 that it was finally released and even then only in Japan.

As with ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’, both recorded in 1975, the whole world would not be granted access to these unique recordings until much later in 2000. ‘Dark Magus’, recorded a year before, includes most but not quite all of the band that would later go on to record those classic albums. Third guitarist Dominique Gaumont would leave after this date, and saxophonists Dave Liebman and Azar Lawrence would soon go on to be replaced by the much under-rated Sonny Fortune.

By this point in time, the various Miles Davis performing bands were no longer rehearsing, and they were no longer obeying even a tentative structure. Rhythms, keys and colours would change almost on a whim, and melody could almost be totally absent, apart from a few riffs to hook into here and there. What we do have though is buckets of deep dark funk, rhythm and groove. Featuring just four titles, each split into two parts, and all of them titled the Swahili numbers one through four, ‘Dark Magus’ is all about jams – heavy and intense jams.

Opening with the furious sounding ‘Moja’, the band rock harder than any rock band of the day, with Al Foster drums on full-throttle for a truly pounding rhythm, and Miles electrified trumpet up against the wall of sound that is three amped-up guitars. A raw energy infuses throughout and somehow the band manages to maintain the incendiary pace. The true funk though doesn’t start until the second number ‘Wili’, with an almost menacing interaction between bass and drums, and Miles stabbing out wild notes on both keyboard and trumpet, while Cosey, Lucas and Gaumont slash away on guitar with almost total abandon.

Disc two though is where things get really intense, with the sound of Michael Henderson’s exceedingly huge and fat basslines almost dominating everything. The dark atmosphere takes hold from the off and ‘Tatu’ displays a truly funk-laden rhythm. A brief quiet passage offers a gentle respite, but it’s not long before the funk takes hold again. ‘Nne’ on the other hand begins slow but builds into an out-of-this-world everything-loose superb closer. Overall the second half of the double package is the far superior offering, with a mesmerising and heady brew well to the fore, and the first two numbers ultimately sound like a warm up to the bigger better stuff, as well as being weighed down with just a bit too much average sounding sax work.

Hendrix-influenced Pete Cosey is a star performer here, with an excellent partnership being built with the highly rhythmic and inventive Reggie Lucas. Of the three guirtarists, Dominique Gaumont is the only one to disappoint - a strong and very able guitar player, his work here is at best just good, but too often is full of highly self-indulgent effects-laden solos. He doesn’t fit with the other two, or gel with the band, and so tries to amaze both the band and audience with his almost boastful playing. It doesn’t work at all, and if listened to carefully you’ll hear Miles cut his solos off abruptly mid-way, whereas the rest of the band is allowed to properly segue and flow with theirs. Gaumonts absence on the later ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ is notably not missed, with Cosey and Lucas fully able to let their guitars, and their partnership, shine.

The deep and heavy funk that would fuse on the two later live recordings hasn’t properly formulated by this time, and Dave Liebman has gone on record many times (including in the liner notes herein) that this wasn’t this incarnation of the band at its best. Certainly Liebman’s own playing is below par here, especially when compared to what the rest of the band is doing. But it makes the listener ask why, given that it was Dave Liebman who contributed such superb work to Miles’ earlier work, including ‘On The Corner’ and ‘Get Up With It’. His flute playing on ‘He Loved Him Madly’ alone deserves to afford this man some very big recognition within the Miles canon. And talking of Miles, his own playing here is particularly strong, if bizarrely, with heavy wah-wah, it sounds like another over-amplfied electric guitar.

If not jazz then, not funk (at least not in the conventional sense), and not rock, what is ‘Dark Magus’? Simply put, it’s nine players performing 100 minutes of completely unrehearsed full-on everything-in music without the standard conventions of melody or harmony to encroach on the awesome sonic rhythm they create. Raw and powerful, the Miles Davis band would in its final incarnation, as captured on ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ recorded just over a year later, become more refined - without losing any of its intensity. While both are stronger albums (and both double albums), ‘Dark Magus’ is a compelling and aggressive listen; its outstanding rhythm section captivating and hypnotic. The front end of the band display on occasion weak links, but the brooding and thick atmosphere captured here is staggering; it is without doubt the heaviest and most menacing music Miles ever recorded.

So, of the three excellent live double albums to choose from, which is the one to go for? Recorded on the same day ‘Agharta’ and ‘Pangaea’ (the first an afternoon set, the second an evening set) with very different feels to each of them work well as a complete set. Overall the performances are better, thanks to exchanging two perhaps ill suited saxophone players for one superb one and losing one too-showy guitarist. Due to having more working experience as a unit, given the choice, they are the set to go for. ‘Dark Magus’ though, apart from being the more easily available, is heavier, raw and the more extreme music. If you like pounding deep rhythms and a musical atmosphere that needs a knife to cut through, then this is the album to truly immerse yourself in. Also if you want an idea of where Miles was heading after ‘On The Corner’, before he unexpectedly decided to retire for the remainder of the decade, ‘Dark Magus’ is highly recommended.


Review: Stanley Turrentine - Sugar

Stanley Turrentine possessed one of the biggest and fattest soulful tenor sax sounds of all time. And 'Sugar' is his masterpiece. Anyone with even a passing interest in Turrentine or soul-jazz needs to look here.

After some twenty varying works over almost ten years for the established Blue Note label, ranging widely in quality but with a good number of excellent sessions, tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine then signed with the still young CTI. Formed by Verve producer-extraordinaire Creed Taylor, who brought with him highly-regarded Blue Note engineer Rudy Van Gelder, the label fast developed a strong reputation for sharp sound, production quality and most importantly giving an extra commercial boost to many jazz artists without having to resort to pandering or ‘selling-out’.

Turrentine joined the label in 1970, having made a respectable if not particularly huge impact with his former employers. A long-time yet still young veteran of the soul-jazz scene, he was quickly paired by Taylor with some of the finest contemporary players around, including the fast-rising George Benson on guitar, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Lonnie Liston Smith and Butch Cornell, on organ and electric piano respectively, Billy Kaye on drums and unsurprisingly Ron Carter on bass. Carter being of course almost the sole bass player of the CTI label. Together, armed with just three extended tracks, they seemingly effortlessly made Turrentines then best record.

‘Sugar’, the title track, is a grooving soul-blues number with a mellow yet irrestibly funky rhythm at its centre giving a nice springboard to Turrentine, Hubbard and Benson to turn up the heat and lay down some smouldering and blistering solos. It’s a perfect party number, was a suitably huge hit, and would become a firm Turrentine fan favourite, before eventually even becoming Turrentine’s most popular nickname.

Butch Cornells own ‘Sunshine Alley’ is a funkier number with a nice rhythm set by Smith’s organ. Faster paced than the opening cooker, it keeps the party feel going from the first piece and ups the groove by just the right amount. A surprising take on John Coltranes own ‘Impressions’ then wraps everything up with an emotionally uplifting and solid ending, and again highlights all the soloists strengths as performers.

It’s not a fusion session, although there are some electric and electronic instruments and other fusion elements here, and it isn’t jazz-funk either - ‘Sugar’ though is Turrentine’s own blended take on soul-jazz with plenty of both funk and groove. It’s a very listenable record and has many fans. While his Blue Note records can be good, and they frequently are, very few are as exceptional as the recording shown here, and there’s often a lack of unique distinction to his own voice. This though is an incredibly satisfying listen and is easily one of the great mans, and the decades, best.


Monday, 27 May 2013

Review: Grant Green - Feelin' The Spirit

'Feelin' The Spirit' is one of the many many sessions Green recorded for Blue Note in his early 60's workaholic period. It falls easily into the category of 'flawed gem', but with the emphasis more on the gem than the flaws.

Grant Greens best albums are without a doubt his straight jazz works, particularly those in a trio or quartet setting where his guitar gets to shine in the spotlight – usually spectacularly. His perhaps less interesting work is usually the novelty themed music sometimes passed his way. Never bad by any means, they are his sometime lesser successful recordings. ‘Feelin’ The Spirit’, following on from gospel (‘Sunday Mornin’), Latin (‘The Latin Bit’) and country and folk (‘Goin’ West’), is one of the most successful of these, focusing on jazz interpretations of African-American spiritiual hymms.

The key to Greens on-going popularity - apart from his unique sound, the complexity in his lines and his uniformly excellent playing – is the fact that everything he recorded is so instantly accessible. Never does he become indulgent or play overly experimentally, everything he plays and solos with is always melodic and musical, even his lesser rated works. And the same is true here.

Green is suitably inspired and fired up throughout, his solos arpeggio-like as the rapid notes are repeated to create a hypnotic and captivating figure, with his backup providing energetic support. A young Herbie Hancock on piano in particular makes sure to steal every possible moment he can, very almost taking the show away from Green. The highlight here, ‘Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho’, is a case in point. Eight minutes of pure soulful beauty, and Hancock’s piano solo is just sublime.

The overall feel of the album is much like the cover photo, a musician, shrouded in darkness and a thick haze of cigarette smoke, moved by the music even as it emerges, with a special emotional punch to gospel pieces such as ‘Go Down Moses’. And it’s this atmosphere that makes the music here so satisfying. Everyone here sounds moved and emotionally inspired by the spiritual tunes and they bear repeated listens incredibly.

This recording is far from perfect however and does have some very clear faults. One or two of the longer improvisations do go on for just that bit too long, so that when they end you find yourself more relieved rather than elated – in fact there is more than one solo here where the player clearly suddenly seems to simply run out of ideas, but continues on regardless. The worst aspect by far though is that apart from the excellent support from Hancock, and Butch Warren and Billy Higgins, on bass and drums respectively, Garvin Masseaux’s sole role here is to play the tambourine, and seemingly with no real instruction. It’s a fairly empty contribution and it adds absolutely nothing. In fact it even gets in the way of the other musicians more than just a few times. A distracting nuisance, it’s a real head-scratcher as to why anyone suggested his presence in the first place.

‘Feelin’ The Spirit’ is nearly up there with ‘Sunday Mornin’’ as transcending the themed ideas handed to Grant Green and, despite it’s flaws, is an emotional and spiritual jazz work. It shows yet another successful side to the man and is well-worth hearing.


Monday, 13 May 2013

Review: Grant Green - Live At Club Mozambique

The popular consensus has it that Grant Green's early sixties Blue Note work is his good work, and that everything else is sub-par musical wallpaper. And while that view does have some partial sympathy from me, largely due to his appalling late-seventies funk-lite works, he did produce a rich vein of work, that although did not follow his bop or soul-jazz roots, is still very well worth investing in. Three live funk-jazz efforts from the seventies are available, and while each has its merits, perhaps the best all-rounder is the post-humous (by more than twenty years) 'Live At Club Mozambique'.

By the time jazz and funk guitarist Grant Green had reached the seventies - his final decade - drugs and fame had taken their heavy toll on him and he had decamped to Detroit. Regularly playing a gig at the local Club Mozambique, the New York-based label Blue Note, now headed up by Francis Wolff, decided to record some of the shows on the nights of the 6th and 7th of January in 1971.

Aided by then regular band-mates Clarence Thomas on saxophone and Ronnie Foster on organ, Blue Note also flew out some additional players in the form of tenor sax-man Houston Person as well as funkster-drummer supreme Idris Muhammad to make the recording the very best they could. Oddly, bafflingly even, the tapes were then kept in the vaults unreleased for more than thirty years.

The music present is fairly simple half-funk half-jazz, and made up mostly of covers of then contemporary hits. Clearly the regular attendees at the club were expecting a good time for a drink and a dance, and Green - knowing his audience - was happy to oblige. Not that one should take this unambitious approach as a negative. Most of the pieces are based around just one or two chords, but the band plays with the creative opportunities afforded them and dance around the music. ‘Bottom Of The Barrel’ for example is a one chord jam that lasts over nine minutes. A commited performance, it is fun and aggressive with a particularly soulful solo by Person, who plays most of the sax solos here. He wails with pleasure on acid-jazz favourite ‘Jan Jan’, and plays seductively and intoxicatingly on an unusual cover of ‘Walk On By’. Not that the song is the sentimental squib it could have been - the band attack it with a raucous fury and sound like they’re having a great time.

The only original tune here is ‘Farid’, brought by Thomas. Given a rare spot to shine on his own composition, after being mostly pushed to the sidelines, he shows his commanding Coltrane-influenced playing and raises questions as to why he never became a big solo draw. Mention must also go to Foster and Muhammad, who cook up a rhythmic storm together and sound like they’ve been playing together for years, not just on these two dates. Green as expected plays pristinely the whole gig, his tone clear and bright, his rhythm work without peer, and his solos are absolutely some of his best.

Seventy-six generous minutes of funk, this reveals perhaps Greens stronger side to his later musical personality. An in reality awe-inspiring funk player, he was also a spellbinding improviser in the genre. This isn’t his jazz work, so don’t expect ‘Idle Moments 2’ or a rehash of ‘First Stand’. Where his later years funk efforts are frequently worthwhile, they do occasionally lack fire and punch. This live session, though left in the vaults for far too long, instead goes a good way to increasing this most under-valued of artists stock.


Monday, 6 May 2013

Gig Review: Kurt Elling - Live At Ronnie Scott's 15.04.2012

Kurt Elling both wows and seduces his audience within seconds of stepping onto the stage. His persona successfully managing to combine charisma, elegance, intellect, humour and also a knowing sense of self-depracation, works to great effect and makes his performance from start to finish an utter joy.

Touring in support of his new ‘1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project’ album, that celebrates the famous song factory that pumped out of the biggest songs and songwriting teams of the 20th century, Elling delved deep into an expansive catalogue of numbers that took in jazz, pop, rock and even medieval poetry.

A masterclass in charismatic performance, there isn’t a single empty space in the whole gig, with the gaps between songs filled with instrumental accompaniment, witty stage repartee, well-practiced on-the-road anecdotes, and the most fun of all, spontaneous band improvisation, utilizing not just a virtuoso performing band, but also Ellings incredible vocal skills. Not just a powerful baritone with an enviable five octave range, his scalpel-like precision in being able to alter and manipulate his voice is astounding, and the dazzling way he held an extended note at the end of his and Von Freemans’ ‘I Like The Sunrise’ made his voice sound almost like brass instrument, or maybe even several.

It was not just The Kurt Elling Show either, with a brilliant band performing incredibly for the whole performance. Playing the bass, in any genre of music, can often be a thankless and overlooked role, and yet Clarke Sommers was handed a very generous moment to shine, and he made absolutely sure to make his moment in the limelight his own. Theodore Roethke’s classic poem ‘The Waking’ is one of my favourite Kurt Elling pieces anywhere, and it was reproduced brilliantly on this night. Sommers’ soulful bass anchored and propelled the whole thing forward, while also working toward providing one of the more mellow moments for the evening.

The whole band however played to perfection. Drummer Kendrick Scott managed to showcase as many different possible styles as there were songs, and changed his pace skillfully to match any curveballs that his boss threw his way. Laurance Hobgood too showed why despite being labeled as ‘pianist’ is frequently referred to by Elling himself as ‘my musical collaborator’ – not one to hog the spotlight, he played sympathetically, and provided light skittering backing when required, but also made sure to join in with the shout-outs to the band during their driving solos.

One of the newer additions to the band and perhaps the key to expanding the sound of group is John McLean, a cool and bluesy inflected guitarist who contributed subtle shades of soun d and washes of colour as much as he dazzled with electrifying solos and melodic interplay with Ellings vocals and Hobgoods piano. Based on his performance tonight alone he deserves to be a much bigger name.

Although designed to be a showcase of his songs from the recen Brill Building album, Elling also dived into other songs that he had toyed with including on the album, but had ultimately left off. Previous album ‘The Gate’ was also picked from, with the highly gymnastic vocals of Marc Johnson’s ‘Samurai Cowboy’, but the clear highlight was a beautifully seductive take on Carole King’s ‘So Far Away’. Pure emotion has rarely sounded so good or so musical.

A skillful, highly charged singer with an incredible range, Kurt Elling’s untoppable charisma and quartet’s stunning interplay helps make this easily the greatest male vocal jazz outfit performing right now. During the gig Elling made a joke that it felt like a promotion, having gone from a five day residency last year to an improved six day stint for his 2013 European tour, and should probably have got ‘an exta taste’. As much as we all laughed though, I’d be very surprised if Kurt Elling doesn’t increase his residencies the globe over for many more years to come.

No photos from the night (club policy) but here's one of Kurt looking cool.