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.