Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Review: Masada - Sanhedrin – 1994-1997 Unreleased Studio Recordings

Masada have hardly been a slouch in recording terms, creating ten studio works and releasing a strong fistful of live albums, with most coming from just one seven-year stretch. And yet here, you would have thought impossibly, we have an out-takes selection.

Made up of pieces taken from eight separate sessions over a four year period, ‘Sanhedrin’ actually features pieces that for the most part have been released before, but in a different take; and this being John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron, none of the takes here sound like the perhaps more familiar versions. Rather each serves as a springboard for a very different improvisation.

And that’s where the fun lies; hearing how each of the players and the group as a whole vary in each of their solos and interactions, even though they probably only just laid down a different version only minutes before (or later).

It is in truth though not an essential Masada work, due to the partially mish-mash feel that this mix of different sessions over different times can give. It can feel like a collection of off-cuts, but does work better than one or two of the ‘official’ Masada studio albums that themselves felt like albums of scraps.

Whether this is for you depends on just how much Masada you already have and how much more you want. If you absolutely must have everything, then this is a good compilation that sits nicely alongside everything else. For anyone else it’s probably preferable to ‘Dalet’ and ‘Zayin’, the fourth and seventh studio volumes, but you would easily be better served by getting every other studio and live release by this stellar group before you invest in ‘Sanhedrin’. As a collection of its type though, its standard is very high and should not be dismissed as just a barrel-scraping exercise like many similar recordings of this ilk frequently, yet justifiably, are.

****

Review: Masada - Live At Tonic 2001

‘Live At Tonic’ is perhaps Masada’s greatest live album, benefitting from being not only one of the later, tighter and more muscular live entries, but also crucially being recorded in front of a home crowd, who really add to the atmosphere and excitement levels.

Featuring two complete sets from the same night, we have here more than two total hours of music that takes in everything (almost) from the Masada arsenal. And as with all of the quartets live recordings, the music reaches even higher levels than the already excellent studio works.

Throughout we get beautiful balladry with sultry atmospheres, and languid solos, and also furious frenzies with pounding rhythms and the front-line of John Zorn’s saxophone and Dave Douglas’ trumpet playing interwining and mult-layering dual melody lines.

Disc  one even touches on early 70’s era Miles Davis, in the heady brew and thick atmosphere generated, especially the driving pacy rhythms created by the winning combination of Greg Cohen’s bass finesse and Joey Baron’s incredibly multi-faceted drumming (whose hand drums in particular are one hell of a secret weapon). A seventeen minute epic ‘Karaim’ makes for a beautiful yet blistering opener, carried the whole way throughout by an undulating desert wind-swept sounding hypnotic bass that anchors everything else here, be the unified or split horns, or Baron’s mix of hand and drumstick percussion playing. ‘Ner Tamid’ that follows manages to be distinctly different, with a more straight-ahead bop style (comparatively) that winds to a close in a relatively succinct five minutes.

‘Acharai Mot’ is John Zorn does Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’, and throwing in some Ornette for good measure, with everyone playing full-force, and cooking up a storming maelstrom of sound. ‘Kisofim’ returns us to a desert-at-midnight’ pulse, with typical dual playing from Zorn and Douglas, but Zorn just edging it with a wistful yet focused and melodic solo that should hopefully silence any still curmudgenly critics out there. ‘Jachin’ opens up with a fast paced yet soulful bass groove, with Baron’s drum skittering over the top that becomes more insistent as it goes on.

The second set here is even better, with the focus being on the more intense and the more dramatic. Cohen shines throughout; standing strong and providng a driving yet anchored pulse that impressively never wavers, even in the face of the storm of horns and Barons thunderous drumming reaches new levels of power.

Over two sets you could be forgiven for expecting repeats of certain tunes, but of course, this being Zorn and Masada, with a catalogue of hundreds of pieces, there is just the one. ‘Malkhut’ is perhaps Masada’s take on Zorn’s other most famous group Naked City, possessing the same stop-start surf-punk-jazz feel as that outfit, but filtered through Masada’s own distinctive lense. Sadly both versions are perhaps the weakest things on the sets, but then, you can’t have everything.

Even if you have every studio recording Masada ever made, you would be well recommended to invest in some of the live albums, given the full strength of playing, occasion and excitement that each is able to generate, and just how much more full-bodied Greg Cohen’s bass is in a live context. But even if you already own every other live recording, ‘Live At Tonic 2001’ still offers something more - when the final piece here comes to an end you can feel the palpable euphoria emenating from the stage. And that is something you want to experience.

*****

Review: Masada - Live In Sevilla 2000

‘Live In Sevilla’, recorded in 2000, is another stellar live effort from one of the then most-recorded quartets in modern jazz. Live Masada albums of course are far from being short in supply, but Sevilla is perhaps a strong contender for first port of call for anyone who wants to look into the group, live or otherwise.

Notably the sound is absolutely pristine, with excellent sonics, and superb clearly defined instruments. But most of all the band on the night and the recording itself just crackles; with energy, with spontanaeity and with incredible intensity.

The band play at a personal peak here, with John Zorn having upped his more lyrical side, and trumpeter Dave Douglas having become simultaneously one of the most distinctive players on the scene and also Zorn’s perfect counter soloist. The rhythm section here however are exemplary, with a strong groove feeling throughout, and Joey Baron providing some soulful yet driving drumming, entirely with his hands in place of the sticks (which most often works best in this group), whilst Greg Cohen provides deep and resonant pulsing bass everywhere.

So, the best sound, of one of the best recorded nights of a band playing at their very best; ‘Live In Sevilla’ is a first rate album from a group that continues to make a distinctive Eastern free jazz that both goes more out there, yet is also incredibly accessible. Richly ethnically infused jazz, this is a fantastic recording.

*****

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Review: Masada - Live In Middleheim 1999

Masada’s ‘Live In Middleheim’ gives us the band possibly at the peak of their powers, in 1999, where the quartet had developed such an interplay together that anything they would play live would be bound to guarantee a high level of excellence.

The group absolutely explodes into action with the thrilling ‘Nevuah’, with John Zorn and Dave Douglas playing a dual solo lead that has a thunderous backing courtesy of Greg Cohen’s bass and Joey Baron’s storming drums. If you ever doubted Baron’s potential as best contemporary jazz drummer then this alone should convince you otherwise. ‘Sippur’ too maintains the intense nature of the music, albeit in a slightly quieter fashion, while after this things tend to ease off a little bit.

‘Kochot’ showcases Dave Douglas playing with a highly understated, yet enormously beautiful trumpet, that shows exactly why he’s been in so much demand for his entire career, while ‘Kedushah’ is Greg Cohen’s biggest moment in the sun, perfectly blending yearning beauty with full-blooded aggression.

Everywhere on here shows us a perfect melding of Eastern sounds and the avant jazz world, with the best pieces here being a very fine and deep-grooved ‘Ne’eman’, highlighting Zorn at his restrained and more-minimal best, and the stunningly gorgeous ‘Ashnah’ that surely is one of the very best group performance pieces by this quartet.

‘Live In Middelheim’ is without doubt one of the strongest, if shorter, of the Masada live albums (possessing just the one set/disc, as opposed to the usual two), and is a clear example of the musical telepathy displayed by the four men – all the more breathtaking given that this performance was their first appearance together in almost a whole half year. The recording quality too is pristine, giving us some deeply inspired solo and group playing with a full rich palette of sound. An ideal starting point for anyone interested in some Masada, live or otherwise, this is essential for anyone who counts themselves a fan of any of the musicians here, and even godfather of free-jazz Ornette Coleman. It’s that good.

*****

Review: Masada - Live In Taipei 1995

Masada possesses a rich catalogue of live albums, that in size almost rivals that of the studio works, but in quality is just something else. Like the studio sets however the live collections also suffer from having a dud here and there. ‘Live In Taipei 1995’ then is that dud.

The quartet is playing on top form throughout, delivering blistering takes on material from the studio albums volume 5 through to 7. And the highlights here are both exhilarating and enchanting, with typically brilliant interplay between the four men.

However it, surprisingly given Masada’s usual quality standards, is a substantially below-par sound recording. The acoustics are all wrong, and noticeably distorts Dave Douglas’ trumpet, while the bass is swampy and blurred. And that’s what effectively knackers the album for most, especially when a good number of the performances here exist in better recorded versions on other live sets. The sound is not terrible, but it is a deal below what you would expect – especially from an official release.

Not a terrible album, just a lesser quality one, and any fan would do well to get hold of every other live effort before this one, but for the dedicated many, once you have everything else, this isn’t a bad completion to the live collection.

***

Review: Masada - Live In Jerusalem 1994

‘Live In Jerusalem 1994’ is a double-disc set documenting and celebrating Masada’s trip to Israel and highly raved-about appearance at the Jerusalem Festival, having in that year only just appeared on the scene and also laid down material for their first four albums (‘Alef’, ‘Beit’, ‘Gimel’ and ‘Dalet’). The occasion is obviously an important one, to both the band and the audience, and a sense of this is palpable in the atmosphere throughout. So whilst much of this music can be easily found on Masada’s studio albums, the numbers here, and the feeling of each, is powerfully different, and perhaps even more compelling.

As with the best Masada, the key here is the tension in the music, and the way it can build, pushing higher and higher, further and further, with second piece ‘Bith-Aneth’ being a strong example of this. Beginning subtley and quietly, with the rhythm team of Greg Cohen and Joey Baron suitably hushed, before Zorn and Douglas play the main theme, and then start soloing, playing together, and interlocking with each other, and Zorn continuing to egg Douglas on just that little bit more.

‘Live In Jerusalem 1994’ is a superb live recording of a momentous performance that throughout it’s two hour running time sounds like an exhilarating blend of celebration and catharsis. Musically faultless and oozing raw power, you also benefit from a genuine feel of the connection between the band and audience – indeed the reception and response from the crowd is absolutely ecstatic.

If there is too be one complaint made, it is that Greg Cohen’s normally full, deep, rich and rounded bass is just a little too quiet in the mix – something that normally would not be too big an issue with most other groups, but given Cohen’s skill and sound on the instrument, it is slightly disappointing. Barring this however, the album is a fantastic document, perhaps the best live recording from their earlier days, and is a must have. Highly recommended.

*****

Review: Masada - Volume 10 - Yod

Exploding into life with manic fury, Masada’s tenth volume ‘Yod’ shows no sign of ending their studio catalogue run with a graceful retirement, instead choosing to play some of the most wild and free music the quartet have ever recorded. And while perhaps ‘Yod’ ranks as one of the more accessible of Masada’s works, it certainly is nowhere near an easy listen.

There’s a strong ‘go for broke’ feel to these final studio dates, but also a highly notable overt klezmer influence. Whereas before it was a sound that added to the melting pot, here instead it’s a more dominant factor, with pieces like ‘Tevel’ and ‘Zevul’ sounding almost like a traditional Jewish number filtered through free-jazz.

A darker feel too rules the album, whether on the yearning yet mournful ‘Yechida’, or the more in-your-face ‘Ruach’ that ranks as probably the most powerful number Masada have ever laid to tape. The centre of the album does possess a gentler pace than its bookends, but still maintains its distinct atmosphere, and also crucially some great solos from the front-line duo of John Zorn and Dave Douglas.

The last of Masada’s studio run, it’s a great album in its own right as well as being a good way to end the ‘songbook’. But crucially this would not be the end to Masada, with some brilliant live albums to come and Zorn reconfiguring the project in part with Bar Kokhba (and the Bar Kokhba Sextet), The Masada String Trio and Electric Masada, many of which would feature Masada alumni. Additionally Zorn would go on to write hundred more tunes for the Masada songbook under the title ‘Book Of Angels’ to be played by other musicians. All of which are very much worth investigating.

****

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Review: Masada - Volume 9 - Tet

Masada Volume 9 is at first glance exactly what you’d expect from John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron, with the Middle Eastern sounding Ornette quartet cooking up a brew and rising to a storm in fine style. It is though surprisingly the first real Masada effort where everyone involved gets to contribute as equal members.

It’s a two-way effect, with Cohen and Baron really pushing forward, but also with Zorn and Douglas being careful to create more space and ease off the accererator a little bit too. The effect created is that there are a significantly greater number of slower more bluesy pieces than expected – the winningly sad‘Kedushah’ being a great example, while ‘Moshav’ benefits both from being yearningly melancholich and possessing a superior opening solo from Cohen that ranks alongside his finest contributions to the quartet.

Baron plays at a new peak too, with his powerful tom-toms making a welcome return, and creating a powerful riot on the excellent ‘Meholalot’, which also gets a great Latinesque bass and drums break down. He cooks up a riot on ‘Leshem’ too, which also gets a new career highlight solo from Douglas’ trumpet.

In fact the most notable contribution here is that of Zorn, in an inverse kind of way, who creates a less dominant presence than usual. Not to say he’s not good here – he is – but the four men here create a distinctly different type of Masada than before. Not necessarily a better or worse group, but perhaps a more unified and cohesive yet moe varied one, that creates arguably one of the most unique entries in the quartets catalogue.

****

Review: Masada - Volume 8 - Het

Masada’s eighth volume of free-jazz meets klezmer Jewish music gets very much back on track after the relative mixed bag that was the seventh volume ‘Zayin’. Also somewhat striking is that ‘Het’ is a much easier ride than before; the sometimes aggressive drive and dramatic changes are here given a notably smoother (though ‘smoother’ by John Zorn standards) sound, and we even have ballads!

Opener ‘Shechem’ starts almost as a standard jazz-with-middle-eastern-inflections stroller before gradually building into some very Ornette style free sounds, but Joey Baron’s deft tom-toms driving everything skillfully and even catchily. Zorn and Douglas get some good solos in too, and the eleven minutes passes in no time. ‘Eliliah’ though then reigns things in with a fairly rare Masada ballad, that over just four minutes weaves a spell of dual melodies, before moving nicely into a second slower number ‘Kodashim’, where Greg Cohen gets to deploy a warmly welcome bass solo.

And just as you think Masada may be getting a bit too comfortable ‘Halom’ throws in two minutes of free and wild playing, seemingly almost just to act as a palette cleanser. It works too, with the strikingly eastern sounding groove piece ‘Ne’erman’ that follows positioning the quartet as late-night smoky jazz players, and Greg Cohen’s bass leading with some relaxed noir drive. Infectious and gorgeous, it’s probably the strongest thing here, and again shows Zorn and Douglas at their very best – both as soloists, but also when cross-cutting and interweaving with each other.

‘Abed-Nego’ and ‘Tohort’ display some typical Masada-like mid-way changes, though in very different ways, and ‘Mochim’ again eases on the pace for perhaps the groups most ‘standard’ ballad piece, which features some nicely woozy sounding lead sax work from Zorn.

‘Amarim’ then jumps in with some winding melodies powered by a very strong bassline that leads into Cohen being given his second big moment of the album, almost funkily pushing everything forward, before Baron gets to show his stuff, percussively dancing on top of the strutting groove. And things then round off nicely with ‘Khebar’, a mid-tempo stroll providing a nice bed for the two winding horns, and then coming to a perfect close.

Het is an interesting Masada record then, choosing to forgo the usual kinetic fireworks frenzy that can at times typify both Zorn and the group. Here the four players try a slightly different tact, and create something equally satisfying, and perhaps even more mesmerizing – a great disc stuffed with intriguing and strong material, played to perfection and all guided by an outstanding rhythm. Perhaps not the finest Masada around, but certainly one that offers something a bit different and on the strength of that, and on the actual music here itself, this is certainly one of the must-check releases from this most impressive of groups.

*****

Monday, 2 June 2014

Review: Masada - Volume 7 - Zayin

Impressively going from strength to strength, Masada hit a notable bump in the road with part 7, ‘Zayin’, a recording that surprisingly seems to be very disjointed and lacks flow, but like similar earlier bump ‘Dalet’ (AKA volume 4), there is still some beautiful music to recommend.

‘Hath-Arob’ is John Zorn and Dave Douglas blowing hard in their best Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry style, and Greg Cohen gets a deserved bass showcase on ‘Otiot’, seemingly written just for him. Joey Baron by contrast seems perhaps more restrained with his drums this time around, somewhat disappointingly.

But the playing here is not the issue. Too much here seems schizophrenic, with ‘Shamor’ swinging between melodic beauty and angry roars that don’t quite gel, while ‘Kadem’ is an almost polar opposite, boasting a nice ‘low ‘n’ slow’ atmosphere that then doesn’t do anything of interest. Were it five minutes, perhaps this would be less of a problem. As it stands though, it’s ten minutes that go nowhere interesting, before slumping to a tired finish.

And that’s how ‘Zayin’ stands up. There is still much joy and winning Eastern European and Middle Eastern melody, harmony and atmosphere all over the album, but the hugely mixed bag effect is jarring, at times to the extreme. Masada has been described as being equally a songbook as it is a group, however you get the feeling that perhaps a few of those in the songbook should have fallen by the wayside. As it happens, it instead it feels like part 7 is an odds-and-sods collection of the groups more out-there testing ground efforts that didn’t feel right on the other much better volumes. And for that reason this should really be considered one of this otherwise stellar groups very least records.

***

Review: Masada - Volume 6 - Vav

After Masada’s fifth and best volume, ‘Hei’, it seemed unlikely that the Zorn-lead quartet could maintain that peak of Eastern melodies against a strong jazz spirit, and yet entry number six in the Jewish free jazz catalogue is arguably just as good.

A good variety of the different sides of Masada is present on ‘Vav’, with a welcome number of quieter numbers lining up alongside the more intense, knotty and sometimes dissonant personality; but whatever the group play here, their playing is uniformly excellent and their best yet. Better still is Zorn’s writing. Of course, being his songbook, all of the pieces are again written by him alone (although with improvisational aid from his group here), but for some reason on ‘Vav’ the compositions just seem to be that much more well-formed than perhaps his earlier efforts.

Another winning element to the blend this time around is that Greg Cohen has seemingly been able to step up yet another gear. ‘Shebuah’ is brilliantly introduced by the bassist in style, while on ‘Avelut’ he gets a very good solo into the mix, and yet this is all just in the shadow of his superb supporting of the whole quartet – in particular drummer Joey Baron. On a number of occasions Cohen holds the pace (and pulse) whilst Baron gets to flex with typical aplomb, such as on the excellent ‘Nevalah’ which gives us one of Baron’s potentially career-best solos.

But what of the two leads – Zorn himself and trumpeter Dave Douglas? Again there is some more career-peak work from an already superb team, with the two soloing stunningly, playing dual leads, interweaving, improvising together and Douglas in particular displaying some very fine heart and soul on the slower more openly moving pieces.

‘Beer Sheba’ ends the album with something quite different, sounding more like a Jewish take on Zorns more hardcore rock pursuits. It comes as a surprise, and it won’t be for everyone, but it makes for a thrillingly visceral finale that brings everything to a close with a strong punch.

Masada continue to dazzle, with compelling music equally entwined with an incredible quartet that are probably one of the most exciting and muscular to ever play on record. Quite simply, you need to hear this.

*****

Review: Masada - Volume 5 - Hei

After a relatively disappointing volume 4, John Zorn and Masada decided to reconvene and show their best hand yet with volume 5, ‘Hei’.

Whereas the first four volumes came from two recording sessions (with one session providing material for a whole three and half of those),  ‘Hei’ comes from two entirely new fresh sessions, and it shows, with the band now having developed a much stronger and tighter sound, and arguably more confidence.

Zorn and trumpeter Dave Douglas shine even brighter than previously, referencing Ornette Coleman and also touching more on plenty of Middle Eastern melody and harmony, beautifully subtly on the opening ‘Paran’ but much more obviously as the album goes on.

‘Hobah’ returns the quartet to their more aggressive identity, shaking things up, but also crucially keeping things fresh. It is on album highlight ‘Beeroth’ though that bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron really get to play like men possessed, propelling the music forward with such power that Zorn and Douglas almost sound like they might need to reassert themselves.

A gloriously thrilling album, and arguably the pinnacle of Masada’s studio work (although there are easily a good number of potential rivals) it is also without doubt one of Zorn’s most melodic recordings, and for any fan of each of the men here, free jazz, Middle Eastern fusion, or even just new and exciting music, this is a great collection worth investing some serious time in.

*****

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Review: Masada - Volume 4 - Dalet

‘Dalet’ is the fourth volume in John Zorn’s Masada group and songbook collection cycle, and the first not to generate raw excitement but instead pangs of disappointment.

Not that this has much to do with the music, more with the fact that there is very little music here for an alleged full-length album. 18 minutes in total make up what is a effectively a compiling of three pieces recorded for volumes 1, 2 and 3, that could have been added on to the first three volumes, or left in the vault, rather than just being thrown together in a not-even 20 minutes left-overs package.

That complaint aside, the music here is good. As always each of the group play like it’s their last gig on Earth, and their ability to generate musical tension remains peerless, with ‘Midbar’ opening and sounding like a ‘Big Fun’ era 70’s Miles Davis, and then coming over like a Jewish Free Jazz R&B Blues number, with Joey Baron in particular providing some superbly stomping rhythms, before ‘Mahlah’ slows everything down to a sultry prowl that though quite fine goes on too long for its own good, and then ‘Zenan’ comes blasting in with Joey Baron’s finest big thumping drums.

And then it’s over.

It’s over, just as it feels like it’s about to get going – especially when you hear Baron’s fantastic drum solo at the end of ‘Zenan’. Which essentially makes it just one for the completists who already own all the great volumes but need to plug the gap between the genuinely brilliant volumes 3 and 5.

***

Review: Masada - Volume 3 - Gimel

Volume number three for John Zorn’s Masada, and ‘Gimel’ though recorded at the same sessions as ‘Alef’ and ‘Beit’ raises the bar to near-perfection. Of course the outfit of Zorn, Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron are as excellent as ever and together form arguably the finest twin-horn inspired quartet this side of Ornette Coleman.

‘Gimel’ is a notably more diverse and experimental record than before, though not necessarily toward the avant garde. Aside from the assumed dense ‘Masada sound’ of some pieces here, a good few numbers possess a stunningly meditative vibe. ‘Abidan’ in particular, featuring some superb Zorn and Douglas teamwork, is a real gem, not just on this album, but also in the entire Masada discography. ‘Karaim’ too benefits from some incredible playing courtesy of Douglas, while ‘Tannaim’ chooses a more spacious and clear sound than is usual, and with its sumptuous Eastern leanings it works to great effect. ‘Sheloshim’ is perhaps an odd mix, starting with a simmering tension that is pure brilliance, before exploding into something both passionate and aggressive, that though also strong, doesn’t quite gel with how it starts. It is however by no means a weak track.

A very strong slice of the hefty Masada catalogue, ‘Gimel’ with the first two volumes forms a genuinely great opening trilogy that should all definitely be investigated. Zorn obviously loved it a great deal too as he would go on to rework some of the material here for his equally great Bar Kokhba.

*****

Review: Masada - Volume 2 - Beit

After a winning debut recording with new outfit Masada, John Zorn followed up quickly with another recording from the same one-day session that generated the first volume.

And it continues to be a great musical melting pot, mixing up Jewish musical themes with avant garde jazz, creating a a fantastically unique genre of music that perhaps only a few other people if any at all have ever come close to.

Zorn plays with fire and aggression, Dave Douglas once again inspires with skill and raw power, and Joey Baron and Greg Cohen continue to supply a thundering driving rhythm that few in acoustic jazz can hope to aspire to.

‘Beit’ though does not quite reach the highs of ‘Alef’. A personal favourite group of mine, ‘Beit’ comes up just a little short compared to the debut, with an intensity that doesn’t let up and an almost bloodlust-like energy that rarely comes off the boil. However while the slight lack of variety is a downside, it really is just nit-picking on what is still a highly accomplished and viscerally exciting musical trip that you need to hear.

****

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Review: Masada - Volume 1 - Alef

John Zorn’s Masada was originally formed by the famed saxophonist and composer for two very different reasons; one, to create a group capable of playing a collection of self-composed Hebrew-titled songs of Jewish imagery, and two, to satisfy an itch of creating a group in the style Ornette Colemans classic quartet. While it may in theory sound a disparate mix, in fact together what was created in these highly capable hands was a uniquely distinct hot and intense musical blend.

‘Alef’ is step one to what would become a highly prolific and incredibly rewarding endeavour, featuring not only Zorn on his trademark alto saxophone, but also the excellent Dave Douglas on trumpet. And even though these two great players make a winning front-line, it is the rhythm section that really powers this group with such feiry dynamism – the always strong Joey Baron on drums, and Greg Cohen on bass, that though acoustic, possesses power, thrust and groove that only few players can ever aspire to own.

‘Jair’ kicks things off explosively, perfectly fusing Coleman with Zorn’s love of punk’s immediacy and drive, while the group are careful to then show another side of their playing with the comparitvely smoother ‘Bith Aneth’ that benefits from a very different but very good Latin-esque rhythm, that does need to be heard to be understood.

The whole recording is stunning from beginning to end, showcasing thrilling drive, rewarding melody and harmony, and simply outstanding musicianship. The tunes here are varied in emotion too, taking in moving balladry, almost standard swing jazz and of course, as you’d expect from Zorn, manic musical explosions of sound. Somehow throughout it all though, from pieces of just under two minutes to those of almost ten, it maintains a distinct and unique atmosphere and tension, all its own.

John Zorn is frequently the artist that always gets dragged into the “Is he jazz?” argument. And Zorn has always quite plainly stated that he considers himself not, but jazz gigs are what he gets to be able to play and showcase his many different outlets. However in truth Masada is probably his most near-to-jazz outfit and almost certainly some of the easier music to listen to that he’s ever laid down. Everyone gets to solo, but it is a strongly cohesive showcase, and everyone shines, playing to their fullest. Simply ‘Alef’ is a great recording, but for evidence of John Zorn the horn player and musician, it’s brilliant.

Also for those curious, ‘Alef’ is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – with each subsequent volume release being titled after each following letter.

****

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Review: Freddie Hubbard - On The Real Side

Freddie Hubbard’s final album, ‘On The Real Side’, was his first for almost seven years. A prolific and varied career that took in the legendary labels Blue Note and CTI, as well as fellow trumpet player Miles Davis’ home for thirty years, Columbia, Hubbard also played with a list of people that almost reads as a who’s who of jazz from the sixties through to the eighties.

Although less prolific in his recording for the last decade, he continued to play many live dates, even up until his final year. Heartbreakingly though, a number various factors, including ‘partying’, lack of practice and over-exertion, meant that as time progressed, his performances grew increasingly weaker and tired sounding. ‘On The Real Side’ however sounds as though all the stops have been pulled out to make it every bit an as-strong-as-possible swansong.

Granted, he doesn’t possess the fiery, full-ranged ability that he displayed to often fine effect on his defining Blue Note and CTI releases, but his playing is still inspired and passionate, and nowhere does this sound like a man at the end. Seven pieces are here, with six choice tunes appearing from his past, while the title track is a fresh new composition. ‘Sky Dive’ and ‘Take It To The Ozone’ are first rate, while the Latin-sounding ‘Gibraltar’ is the clear highlight of the set. The one new track here too is a very soulful side to Hubbard and well worth hearing on its own.

Regardless of the highs, and they are here in full-force, this isn’t a career best. Hubbard really needs his collaborators on this date, serving for the most part as the main solo or just as the jump-off point for the the rest of the group to come in or hit a groove. His technical skills diminished, he plays shorter phrases through necessity, missing the earlier bravura, and his solos last usually for just a few short choruses. He is however deeply musical and very tuneful throughout, and is still able to show his extraordinary gift for melody. A great artist, his sound is still here, despite the multiple obstacles of his various physical restraints, and it’s a mostly bittersweet joy for any jazz fan.

***

Review: Bill Bruford - A Part And Yet Apart

‘A Part, And Yet Apart’ marks the recorded debut of Bill Brufords Earthworks second coming – Earthworks Version 2, if you like. Having won over the jazz world with the first incarnation of the band, Bruford briefly yet successfully helped reform rock group King Crimson for three very strong years, before deciding to re-kickstart his jazz quartet.

Whereas though the first band had heavily featured Brufords experimental electronic drumkit, the sound with this newer line-up, with its members pulled from a very strong burdgeoning London jazz scene, is focused entirely on all-acoustic music. For the most part too, the tunes here are composed by Bruford, with the exception of ‘The Emperors New Clothes’ by saxophonist Patrick Clahar and pianist Steve Hamilton.

The afore-mentioned piece is also the perkiest number here, with a tropical melody that brings to mind the marimba and other similar percussion sounds, while the title track is a clear highlight from the first beat, with its bouncing bass line courtesy of Mark Hodgson and skittish drums and flourishes from the bandleader. The sudden shift in tempo and addition of rippling arpeggios from the saxophone and piano seals the deal.

Another favourite is the scrambling rhythm of ‘Some Shiver, While He Cavorts’, whereas elsewhere we get a solid if obligatory feeling ballad in the form of ‘Sarahs Still Life’, and a nice bop in ‘Eyes On The Horizon’. Bruford though knows his audience, and knows that we want to hear a patented Bruford polyrhythmic drumming frenzy, and as such we get two such treats on ‘No Truce With The Furies’ and ‘Footloose And Fancy Free’. Here the band locks into a tight repeating riff, whilst Bruford opens up laying down a percussive volley that manages to be both highly intricate and danceable.

A solid debut for Brufords second quartet to go under the banner of Earthworks, the music and the musicianship are here in spades, and will surely go toward gaining the band a solid fanbase. A certain something seems to be missing at times, which is perhaps down to the dry production. Live, this band certainly delivers the goods, and as much as this recording may feel like a more polite version of the live experience, this is a good flavour of what they are about and showcases Brufords rhythmic flair nicely.

****

Review: John Coltrane - Meditations

John Coltrane's 'Meditations' is the strongest of his Pharoah Sanders collaborative sessions – standing as a more musical and easier to digest experience than the perhaps more famous, and certainly more daunting and out-there controversial 'Ascension' – even if oddly it has remained a slightly more 'off the radar' release.

Five pieces make up the dense tapestry of powerful spirituality and strongly resonating emotional music, with the combination of piano, bass, two saxes and two drums (courtesy of new addition to the group, Rashied Ali) creating an intensity that stretches from the start to the very end of the record.

For those familiar with 'Tranes music from '66 to '67, the sprawling live jam feel of his concerts is absent here, with nothing outstaying its welcome by going on five minutes more than is necessary, and everything feeling the right side of both tight and passionate. Also, Sanders here is arguably at his best, with his screams and wails (and screeches) fitting into the mix better than anywhere else. Here they form an enhanced and even somewhat logical part of the intended spiritual playing, whereas other later blasts from the man tended to push everything just that little too far.

The last official recorded performance by the great quartet, if an augmented one, Coltrane would never again play with McCoy Tyner or Elvin Jones, instead keeping bassist Jimmy Garrison, Sanders and Ali, and recruiting second wife Alice to fill in on the piano stool. Anyone interested in the later stage of 'Tranes musical career, or in his partnership with second tenorist Sanders, would do well to check out this fine offering, and certainly anyone willing to take the plunge into his more overtly spiritual phase would be well-recommended to start here.

****

Review: Stanley Turrentine - Don't Mess With Mister T.

Stanley Turrentines successful and re-invigorating run of soul-jazz on the CTI label continued with 1973’s ‘Don’t Mess With Mr T’. As always produced by Creed Taylor, Turrentine was again re-united with many of the labels favourites and stalwarts such as Ron Carter, Joe Farrell and Eric Gale.

Backed by a greater string presence than before, it’s an obviously more commercial record and perhaps a more accessible one too. More soul than jazz than his earlier CTI dates, it’s reflected in the choice of material as well as their arranging and playing on certain pieces. The title track that kicks off is a strong soul number which balances the embellishments of the strings well with the front line players, so that everything is audibly clear and nothing is obscured by the mix.

‘Two For T’ that follows, is much more in the jazz vein but, written by Turrentine, no less strong. The album then maintains a balanced yet heady blend of soul-jazz, in the true meaning of the phrase, with some taking just a slight more jazz slant, others an edge towards a more soul approach. Regardless, there’s not a bad track here, although ‘I Could Never (Repay Your Love)’ heads a bit too close to being an early precursor to overwrought smooth-jazz, before some sterling guitar and organ work lifts things up.

Not quite as good a record as ‘Sugar’, which contained some nicely smouldering grooves and funky solos from everyone involved, ‘Don’t Mess With Mr T’ is a fine record and definitely for anyone with an interest in Turrentine. The string work and arrangements, though sometimes pointing to the future seventies excesses that would later lead the tenor man down a dead-end avenue of schmaltz and over-reliance on sweetened disco string sections, are for the most part strong yet unintrusive. This unfortunately would be ‘The Sugar Mans’ final recording with CTI, before signing with Fantasy and ultimately releasing album after album of smooch music, and as such this is perhaps the last great Stanley Turrentine. Enjoy it.

****

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Review: Anouar Brahem - Thimar

On ‘Thimar’, Manfred Eicher’s ECM expands its umbrella of sound even further with a true east-meets-west. Anouar Brahem, the oud master, joins seasoned jazz-men John Surman, who here plays bass clarinet as well as his trademark saxes, and bassist Dave Holland, which instantly will lure many American purists to cite this as being not jazz (no blues, no swing, no standards…). Regardless there are distinctive elements of the genre here, with an abundance of originality and improvisation, both group and solo, on offer.


In truth though, it’s genuinely difficult to work out where the composition and arrangement ends, and where the improvisation starts, such is the skill and subtle spontaneity that each of trio plays with, despite the frequently complex and varied pieces. ‘Badhra’ opens with Surman’s beautifully delicate soprano, before Brahem and Holland introduce themselves slowly, showing a number of paths the record might take from there.

While for the most part uncategorizable, some of the pieces lean more toward the middle-eastern, with Brahem and Holland forming a strong unity, as Surmans sometimes mystical-sounding horns play over the top, while others have a distinctly night-time cityscape sound to them. Brahem’s native Tunisia is referenced enough without totally overwhelming the album, and each of the trio is able to solo comfortably and meditatively while the other two lock into some decidedly strong yet different rhythm, with Holland’s distinctive and richly deep sound perfectly placed everywhere on this album.

It’s remarkable that for three so unusually matched instruments, that the entire recording manages to remain so good, so welcoming, and so thoroughly absorbing throughout. Captivating in both a spiritual and musical sense, there’s a lot going on that is sure to reveal itself over repeated listens. You can’t put this in a genre, unless you want to use the catch-all phrase of ‘world’, but it is both beautiful and fresh, with a wide range and as usual brought out to their fullest by Manfred Eicher’s always pitch-perfect production.

‘Thimar’ is an impressive, and genuinely three-way, collaboration that superbly mixes the pieces of the jazz world, classical, and Arabian all into one melting point, without falling into the easy clichés that those descriptions might conjure up. Full of care, subtlety and originality, there is much to enjoy here in both the exotic and lyrical qualities that these three extraordinary performers create together. This really is a minor gem of world-fusion and is very possibly Anouar Brahem’s best work so far.

****

Review: Bebel Gilberto - Bebel Gilberto

Bebel Gilberto’s debut album proper ‘Tanto Tempo’ (her eponymous actual first release more than a decade earlier was an EP) arrived like a welcome cool summer breeze. Mixing acoustic bossa nova with the subtle electronics, lush soundscapes and drum loops of producer Suba, it was a huge hit that sold millions and launched Gilberto as an iconic figure on the club scene. Since then, having been rather ungainly dubbed ‘electro-bossa’, numerous remixes appeared and then flooded the music world, with fans desperate for a follow-up to repeat the successful formula.


Her self-titled follow-up however is not ‘Tanto Tempo 2’. Following producer Suba’s tragic death just before the release of both Gilberto’s and his own debut, a direct sequel could never really be made, the album being as much a part of Suba’s input as hers. In place of his great talent, Gilberto enlists the in-vogue currently man of the moment Marius De Vries - known more popularly for his work with Bjork and Madonna among many others. His approach is much different to that of Suba, opting for a more ‘organic’ and acoustic feel, stripping out most of the obvious electronics and putting in more strings and woodwinds.

Here English-language songs sit alongside the Portuguese, with lead track Caetano Veloso’s ‘Baby’ sung in English and nestling up there solidly with Gal Costa’s famous definitive version. ‘Simplesmente’ that follows inhabits the same atmosphere, with ‘Aganju’ picking up the pace, but the pace here overall never really gets above mid-level, and the sound itself never feels as ‘alive’ or vital as it should.

Dance fans therefore who enjoyed the more generous layering of electronica on the previous album will more than likely express displeasure at the distinctly back-to-basics feel of this recording, whereas more traditional bossa fans may perhaps find the style more their cup of tea.

There are though a few problems with this approach taken on ‘Bebel Gilberto’. Suba very much liked his subtle drum loops and washes, and De Vries equally likes his strings. His wall of strings sound works well too in places, adding a nice seductive edge to proceedings - but on too many of the numbers here, what could have been light, fresh and understated becomes overproduced and too slick, drowning the songs in a ‘sonic sludge’. Think Claus Ogerman on one of his Diana Krall production bad days.

Too many of the songs too have the same pace and tempo, which creates a monotony of sorts with the sameness on offer. The choice of also having an excess of breathy vocal efforts seems to be a deliberate attempt to echo Astrud Gilberto, which is both something that Bebel should definitely avoid and helps create that same feeling of sameness. Add that to the not so appealing choice of songs, and we have some very odd choices and poor judgement decisions made.

Gilberto’s ability to captivate with her sensual and deeply expressive voice remains, but at times it comes over as unnatural, processed as it is along with the processed strings. So oddly, despite the more acoustic recording, it feels less real and less emotive. Not that it’s all bad. ‘All Around’ and ‘River Song’ are strong tunes sung wonderfully that both sit alongside the best of ‘Tanto Tempo’ showing what Gilberto can really deliver. And ‘Jabuticaba’ is a sheer delight, with its innocent and almost endearing quality.

Unfortunately the core problem is that Bebel Gilberto, although a terrifically good singer, and a great songwriter, really needs a good co-pilot to fully hone and shape her promise. She and friend Suba understood what the other wanted and the album they made together was almost perfection. Marius De Vries on the other hand is a much more mainstream producer and by the sound of the record has attempted to pull his employer into the more commercial world. And the reality is, some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Ultimately its Gilberto’s mistake, her choice of songs lacking some good quality control, especially the bigger proportion of English-language numbers which suffer badly under the weight of some horrendously vapid lyrics.

This is in truth an album of some very good moments, but ‘Bebel Gilberto’ unfortunately oscilliates mostly between not-that-good and quite-good, occupying a largely bland middle-ground. It will certainly appeal to the dinner party crowd and those of us who want chilled background music when you can’t find the latest Café-Del-Mal set, but rather than impressive, the best you can say about ‘Bebel Gilberto’ is that it’s pleasant enough.

***

Review: Grover Washington Jnr - Inside Moves

After his glorious successes with his turn-of-the-eighties album ‘Winelight’ – namely it’s enormous sales, the mega-hit with Bill Withers ‘Just The Two Of Us’ and his two Grammy awards – Grover Washington Jr then began a very long period of artistically barren yet commercially appealing recordings seemingly a million miles away from his smooth melodic urban funk work that had originally made his name.

‘Inside Moves’ from 1984 is a typical example of this, being surprisingly and overwhelmingly bad on almost all accounts. The tunes are for the vast majority dire and completely unmemorable, with an unfortunate focus on increasing the number of vocal songs, with in this case Jon Lucien performing without any notable distinction on five of the seven tracks here. The band too is equally flat, and devoid of any personality or interest, while the large ensemble of backing singers is just unpleasant, saccharine and bordering on the horrific.

It isn’t totally devoid of charm, with Washington still shooting the whole thing through with his usual heart and soul in his silky pitch-perfect playing. It’s just a shame that it’s wasted on such lacklustre material, in what is essentially his career worst album (although there are a good number of close contenders).

**