Thursday, 30 January 2014

Review: Shakti - Natural Elements

After two distinct and different, yet both impressive records, Shakti recorded just one more album together before calling it a day - arguably the strongest of the three, ‘Natural Elements’. And again, following the path set out by the first two efforts, the group retained their own personal sound but chose to make some more artistic changes and developments to the proceedings.

Most noticeable of all to begin with is the fact that instead of the usual short number of lengthy and winding compositions, here composers McLaughlin and Shankar have written a series of much shorter pieces, ranging in length from just under two to over seven minutes, with most hovering around the five minute mark – a clear change in direction from the fifteen minute and half-hour long hypnotic opuses from their debut.

Better still is McLaughlin’s continuing development and integration with the rest of the group, and overall sounding more relaxed and comfortable, allowing for a greater balance and stronger overall more cohesive sound, and for each of the group to play off of each other with confidence and ease, and more than a solid fistful of beautiful moments.

Offering a strong and diverse but coherent mix, ‘The Daffodil And The Eagle’ gives us some intense and arresting music, whereas the immediate follow-on ‘Happiness Is Being Together’ is pure unrestrained joy, and the climactic ‘Peace Of Mind’ absolutely beautiful high to end on.

Shakti of course only recorded three albums (not counting the partial band reunion ‘Remember Shakti’ some two decades later), with all three being supremely excellent examples of all the men involved and of ‘world-music’ fusion - before the name became muddied and too encompassing. ‘Natural Elements’ though stands, even if only on tiptoes, just above the two earlier recordings, and is a clear peak of admittedly many high-points in the careers of both McLaughlin and Shankar.


Review: Grant Green - The Complete Quartets With Sonny Clark

Grant Green, one of the most recorded lead artists on the Blue Note rosters, died unexpectedly from a heart attack in 1979 at the age of just forty-three. At the time of his death, despite an impressive and impressively sized recording output, Green reportedly had more than some dozen sessions unreleased. Not shelved due to quality, but often simply because of the perceived lack of commercialism of certain projects, and also because his prolific time in the studio had simply generated a lot of music - an unbelievable twenty-two albums recorded between ’61 and ’64 as leader alone.

Of these apparently ‘less commercial’ works, Green had recorded three albums worth of material between ’61 and ‘62 with pianist Sonny Clark, star of the classic ‘Cool Struttin’’ among many others. Clark of course also died young, aged only thirty-one, in 1963, and yet these three sessions went unreleased, for almost twenty years, until just after Greens death.

A major mistake was made in keeping these hidden away for so long, as together the two men had clearly musically hit it off and made something far greater than just the sum of their two formidable parts. No horns of any kind here, just a line-up of guitar, piano, bass and drums form a relaxed and elegant style that shows the two at their most comfortable. Released finally in 1980, as the three sets ‘Nigeria’, ‘Gooden’s Corner’ and ‘Oleo’, here they are collected together as one superb two-disc set.

And simply, if you’ve ever liked anything either man has recorded, you should own this. A cool atmosphere pervades the recordings, while Greens riffs are silky smooth and played to perfection. Clark displays a wide range full of blues styles and plays in a nicely understated fashion. And joining them are Sam Jones on bass, and alternately Art Blakey and Louis Hayes on drums.

The material is, save three Green originals, largely made up of standards played to their peak, such as ‘On Green Dolphin Street’, ‘The Song Is You’, Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ and ‘Airegin’ and Cole Porters ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’. The originals too are excellent, but best of all is a take on ‘My Favourite Things’, of which oddly Green also recorded a different version for another great album that went for many years unreleased; ‘Matador’.

There’s simply nothing here to dislike, and the hugely likeable easy-going mood and playing are enhanced by the passion and soul that comes through it all. For such a collection of ‘unreleased material’, this is breathtakingly just some of Greens best work, and no Clark fan should be without them either. This is essential guitar-led jazz.


Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Review: John Coltrane - The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording

Having released what really must have been every last possible studio and live recording by their most famous artist, Impulse (and their now vast array of parent labels) continue to expand their John Coltrane catalogue with a near scraping-through-the-barrel approach. However, because of the man himself, and of everything he put into his playing, some very worthwhile jewels are still to this day inching their way into the light. 'The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording' though is clearly not one of these.

Recorded late April 1967 in a gym (yes, a gym) in Harlem, just three months before his passing, it genuinely is one of the very last times that the great man would appear on stage, if not the actual final performance. The title however is not incorrect, as it is highly unlikely that a later live recording exists. Typical of his recorded and live output of the time, your opinion of the music here then depends largely on what you think of his then 'spiritually emotive', or simply very loud, playing style.

Backed by pianist and wife Alice, long time bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Rashied Ali, Coltrane leads with fire alongside Pharoah Sanders, and the energy and sweat created by all five is absolutely palpable. Just. Recorded for the most part through what sounds like two failing microphones, the sound is that of a middling bootleg, with frequently uneven levels and a few occasional tape failures to match. Worse still, the venue and its acoustics sound terrible (as they would do in a gym), and the two horn players' epic over-blowing comes off the worst, thanks to some bad over amplifying. Near hilariously too, one of the sometimes-on-sometimes-off microphones even catches some exterior noise from the streets outside.

The music itself however hardly 'suffers' at all from any of this. Violent and dissonant, you'll struggle to find anything approaching melodic here, despite the appearance of 'Trane's usually wondrously beautiful version of the classic 'My Favourite Things'. The take on the piece here bears little resemblance to the familiar reading, with Sanders pretty much leading the way with his high-pitched screaming and wailing, while Coltrane merely sits behind and mimics. None of the instantly identifiable melody is present for the first twenty minutes, and at the point at which it does finally come in you'd probably still be hard-pressed to name the composition, buried as it is in the spiritual free-for-all freak-out of, well, everyone on stage.

As an artefact of the final stages of Coltrane's career, after having forsaken both his famed 'sheets of sound' and half of the 'classic quartet', and now embracing the more extreme inner-depths of the avant-garde, it is an informative recording, showing where he and his band were at, with the heavy blasts of very free jazz and raw aggression becoming more and more headstrong, powerful, and of course, much more cacophonous. For fans of this era, especially for any who value 'Om', if your rabid thirst for all things 'Trane still remains unquenched, then here is your oasis. For the average, or at least less dedicated, fan too it gives them much easier access to what the dedicated collector often looks for – a lost recording, historic perhaps, made in less than excellent conditions with a decidedly poor mixing job – but at an affordable price.

On those terms it of course succeeds, but approached as it should be, solely on a musical level, there is nothing familiar or warm, to embrace or to love, leaving instead just waves and waves of ugly sonic noise. To be avoided by all but the most enthusiastic 'Trane-heads. And even then, great caution is still advised and recommended.


Monday, 13 January 2014

Review: Shakti - A Handful Of Beauty

After a blinding debut album recorded live at an American college, that more than just successfully melded John McLaughlin’s lightening fast guitar runs and virtuoso handling with the well-known southern Indian exoticisms, melodies and rhythms, the group Shakti lost member Ramnad Raghavan and chose to record in the much more standard environment of a London studio. 

And while losing one member and recording in a much less spontaneous and energised surrounding, the band here despite these sound much more united and cohesive, displaying both some highly dramatic moments as well as more subtle and moving passages too. Better yet, Shankar’s superb violin is thrust much more into the spotlight and takes up just as much of the solo space as the guitar. Everyone too overall sounds much more confident and with greater presence, the effect being much more like that of a group outing than a backing, if admittedly a spectacular backing, to the more famous leader (despite the album still being credited to ‘Shakti with John McLaughlin’).

All of the tunes provided are by McLaughlin and Shankar, with the exception of one lengthy traditional piece, and each seems much more fused in their joining of East meets West, as well all showcasing a greater lyrical approach than the earlier eponymous debut.
Despite all this though, it’s perhaps a less welcoming effort for McLaughlin’s earlier fans from the rock and jazz-rock worlds, with everything slightly more inward looking and meditative, with the sizzling and furious energy levels down at least two notches. It’s something else all of its own of course, although potentially lazily pinned into either of those non-genres labelled as ‘new age’ or ‘world’, but it is without doubt a distinct and beautiful, strongly spiritual work that always rewards repeated listens.


Review: Shakti - Shakti

Having made an impressive name for himself in just a short space of time playing with such stars as Miles Davis and Tony Williams, John McLaughlin went from strength-to-strength with the various incarnations of his own Mahavishnu Orchestra. Turning up his guitar amp to previously unventured decibal levels and successfully bridging the gulf between the jazz world and the rock one, he suddenly called it a day and announced the group as finished.

The definitive electric guitar man, for his next move McLaughlin surprised and shocked everyone by downing his usual instrument and picking up an acoustic model. A further shock for long-time followers was his decision to play with four men from southern India not affiliated in anyway with the jazz or rock worlds, or in fact any music genre familiar to his usual fan base.

Calling his new outfit Shakti, although purely acoustic, it notably maintained the fury and speed McLaughlin had instilled with the Mahavishnu groups. The lengthy ‘Joy’ that starts things off is a great example, with the guitarist shredding his customised acoustic guitar at almost light-speed. Not that Shakti was to be a McLaughlin vanity vehicle, far from it, Lakshminarayana Shankar on violin, both Ramnad Raghavan and T.H. Vinayakram on mridangram, and Zakir Hussain more than match the guitarists pace and the sprinting tempo with comfortable ease.

By comparison ‘Lotus Feet’ that follows feels like a quiet breather for everyone to relax, stretch out and collect themselves, before the lengthy and extended raga ‘What Need Have I For This…?’ shows the quintet at their genuine best. Shankar’s violin is in a class all its own here, but it’s the interplay between all of the members that truly impresses, while the Englishman gets to bend his notes in a manner not unlike playing the sitar and still fly at a soaring and blazing speed.

Seen by many, if not most, as a blind-siding shock move, Shakti had in fact been hinted at to his fans for a good number of years before it, with McLaughlin’s acoustic playing on earlier perhaps less famous records, his eastern musical influences and his increasingly spiritual leanings. Also playing his acoustic guitar with just as much speed, skill and panache as he did with his electric, the music here is less a departure than one might initially think, with plenty for the casual McLaughlin rock fan to enjoy, and it achieves a truly astounding high level of energy and euphoria that few – acoustic or electric - have ever reached.


Review: Hank Mobley - Dippin'

Having had the signs of a successful solo career about to take off in the late fifties, Hank Mobley was then arrested for drugs offences and sentenced to a year in prison in 1958. Getting back on track afterwards, with both an extended audition with Miles Davis and recording his best ever sessions (‘Soul Station’, ‘Roll Call’ ‘Workout’, ‘Another Workout’, and to a lesser extent ‘No Room For Squares’), Mobley then spent the most part of ’64 again behind bars.

If the first spell inside had clearly marked the period between his twin emergences as both a player and a composer, and his easily strongest output, then the second spell sadly easily marks the difference between his clear best work and his slow gradual decline.

‘Dippin’’ from 1965 though is still a recording full of vigour and confidence, as signalled by Billy Higgins explosive drum opening that kick-starts the up-tempo funk of ‘The Dip’. A great main theme leads into a catchy bridge that gives both Mobley and frequent collaborator Lee Morgan the chance to play two very hot solos. It’s the first of four variable blues originals from Mobley that form the most part of the album. ‘The Break Through’ and ‘The Vamp’ are good, if not as good, whereas ‘Ballin’’, that closes, is mere standard-issue hard bop – it’s fast and quite fun, yet instantly forgettable.

The only slower-paced piece here is the ballad ‘I See Your Face Before Me’, which showcases perfectly the beautiful sound of Mobley and Morgan together as one voice. The only other cover here is a take on Djalma Ferriero’s ‘Recado Bossa Nova’ which, alongside the almost-title track, is the best thing here. Dancey infectious samba that sounds almost like a possible soundtrack theme, Mobley and Morgan again deliver stunning solos against the highly melodic samba-funk hybrid.

Overall though, this isn't one of Mobley’s greatest efforts. It’s an above average one with a couple of stand-out highlights that would most definitely be welcome on any Hank Mobley compilation. If you've found his more well-known and revered work is not enough to satisfy your thirst for the tenor man and you want more, this isn't bad, and contains some of his best work this side of ‘No Room For Squares’.


Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Review: Herbie Hancock - Thrust

A jazz prodigy by the time he was in his early twenties, Herbie Hancock hit gold in 1973 with ‘Head Hunters’, his first dive into the full-on electric funk world. Mixing jazz with the worlds of funk, rock and soul, it garnered strong reviews, attracted a newer, hipper audience and launched Hancock into the commercial stratosphere.

Not wasting any time and buoyed by his success, Hancock swiftly headed back into the Columbia studios for the follow-up, with bassist Paul Jackson, percussionist Bill Summers and Bernie Maupin on saxophone, flute and clarinet all returning - Harvey Mason on drums from the earlier album though being replaced by Mike Clark.

Following a similar pattern to ‘Head Hunters’, though far from a complete retread, ‘Thrust’ instead has a much more jazz vibe, but still maintains a healthy touch of the funk muscle. ‘Palm Grease’ builds on a steady curveball of a rhythm created by Clark and Jackson, with Hancock and Summers joining in, bending it and jamming over the top. Bernie Maupin first states the melody line with his flute, before adding extra power by switching to the bigger voiced tenor saxophone. It’s here that the groove really gets into its element. A less punchy opening than ‘Chameleon’ from ‘Head Hunters’ perhaps, it chooses to start sparsely before adding layer after layer until it reaches into a rhythmic swing all it’s own.

‘Actual Proof’ continues the sound and the groove, adding more complicated rhythms and going for a distinctly contemporary jazz approach. ‘Butterfly’, perhaps the highlight of the set, opts for a more peaceful and slowed down tempo approach, and is easily the most beautiful piece from Hancock’s electric phase, with the mood and feel being a credit to Maupins skillful use of his celebrated bass clarinet and his less often played soprano sax. Hancock gets to show his synthesizer mastery by giving the impression of flight against a calm jazz backdrop, before finally stating the main melody line right at the very end. ‘Spank-A-Lee’ that closes is, in contrast, just pure groove. A new form of danceable jazz is formed, with all the rhythm players combining to give the perfect springboard to Maupins outstanding ability and feel for the tenor saxophone.

Less famous but by no means less successful than ‘Head Hunters’, ‘Thrust’ is a great jazz funk record that will appeal to anyone who liked ‘Head Hunters’, and comes highly recommended for anyone wanting more of the same brand of funk.


Sunday, 5 January 2014

Review: Miles Davis - The Complete Bitches Brew

‘The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions’ is a bit of a misnomer, and one that has drawn some small negative criticism its way. The music for ‘Bitches Brew’ was recorded over three very productive days in August of 1969, much like ‘In A Silent Way’ before it. Also, just as with ‘In A Silent Way’, it was for the most part constructed from music cut, spliced and looped by Miles Davis and producer Teo Macero. And for years fans argued (with both albums) whether or not the original master material was unheard genius, and Macero had ruined Miles’ work, or whether the original material was so bad, so unlistenable, that Macero had effectively salvaged the recordings and had gone unthanked.

When the ‘In A Silent Way’ complete sessions were eventually released as a box set, fans finally got to hear, for the first time ever, the original master tapes, before any cutting or editing work. Teo Macero furiously bemoaned their release, making it clear that Miles would not want any of this unreleased ‘work in progress’ material released, and neither did he himself. The more he protested though, the more the fans salivated. Where earlier box sets had given the listener unreleased snippets and takes, or even in some case whole entire unreleased songs, this was going to give the fans complete and whole material by Miles, as he’d played and recorded it, before it had been ‘hacked to ribbons’, and then ‘pasted back together’.

In fact, what the untouched material showed when it was eventually heard was that the original finished album released back in 1969 was perfect, and that the previously unreleased ‘demos’, while interesting, were incomplete. They were a curio, but musically, nowhere close to what had already been given to us.

What this four-disc box-set gives us though is very different. The complete six tracks from the original album sit proudly at the front, but there are no demo tracks or untouched fragments that would later make up the legendary album. What we instead get is three hours of unreleased material from recording sessions five months later in 1970. So not quite ‘The Complete Bitches Brew’ then, but more some additional largely unheard music recorded by most of the same musicians recorded sometime later that was probably quite difficult for the record label to package and market as a standalone release. Whether the criticism of this naming stands or not, this music is incredible, and the fact it remained in Columbias vaults for twenty-five years is testament to Miles’ quality control.

Including pieces from the previously released ‘Big Fun’, the overall package thematically contains the last presence of multiple keyboards. Later Miles would make his music much more guitar heavy, and eventually lose the keyboards altogether (unlike other jazz and funk acts who conversely were losing guitars to add more keyboards). These sessions were to be no ‘Bitches Brew 2’ though, and Miles sought to change direction again. For these sessions he chose the sitar and classical Indian influences.

‘Great Expectations’ and its segue ‘Orange Lady’ is a key track well-worth its inclusion, with its prowling bass, sinister trumpet and washes of sitar. Brooding and funky, it’s a truly awesome piece of music and shows a potential future direction, that though tantalizing was obviously considered by Miles to have no future. David Crosbys ‘Guinnevere’ too gets a beautiful, though barely recognizable, sitar laden remake.

‘Corrado’ and ‘The Little Blue Frog’ are great funk numbers that hint at what actual path Miles would later take, although here perhaps more lush, while ‘Recollections’ and ‘Lonely Fire’ feature such incredible solos, it’s a wonder that these weren’t released or at least edited into other tracks later on.

For the most part, the new music here differs in sound to the older more well-known ‘Bitches Brew’ material. While still possessing a dense sound, where ‘Bitches Brew’ was dark, murky, at times almost claustrophobic in sound, the newer pieces here appear more lush, and more in the direction of jazz-funk than the earlier jazz-rock. Ignore the complainers – this is vital and exciting music, helping show us the linking music between ‘Bitches Brew’ and the later funk-heavy sound Miles would adopt. Its release here, in a lavish presentation book with superb artwork, photographs and essays, is a cause for celebration.


Review: Miles Davis - Bitches Brew

‘Bitches Brew’ unsurprisingly on its initial release caused a great deal of controversy. The album was not ‘an album by Miles Davis’, but instead bore the heading ‘Directions In Music By Miles Davis’. This caused a minor furore but was quickly over-shadowed by the artwork, which had dared to be completely different from any other previous jazz album. To add further fuel to the fire this was a double album? In jazz? By the time the critics got to the actual title of the album, Miles must have been both smiling and readying himself for the critical knives-sharpening.

Recorded in just three days in August of 1969, sharing much in common with the previous ‘In A Silent Way’ recorded just six months earlier, ‘Bitches Brew’ is a darker, funkier and more aggressive take on jazz than jazz fans before had ever anticipated.

All of the musicians from the previous recording returned, with the exception of Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock, and a further seven joined. Not all thirteen musicians are present on all tracks but it still results in a dense and heady wall of sound. Jazz and rock had been bubbling away for a good while by the time it had arrived, but ‘Bitches Brew’ marked a huge shift. ‘Bitches Brew’ was considered THE jazz album to have this huge a level of influence, and it was the pivotal point for the birth of what would soon be dubbed ‘fusion’.

Similar to ‘In A Silent Way’ perhaps in method, the music itself is different in several very important ways. The music is denser, and murkier than before, a good deal of this is due to the two bassists’ present, playing electric and acoustic bass, multiple drummers and percussionists, and three electric piano players. All these playing at once, the resulting poly-rhythmic sound is mesmerising and hypnotic. The other major contributor to this new sound is Bennie Maupin who plays the bass clarinet throughout. There are no solos or rhythm pieces from Maupin, just layers of ‘dark sound’ from the clarinet – either shadowing other instruments or just adding to the haze in the atmosphere. Miles himself blasts through the murk helped by producer Teo Macero, clearly realising the renewed energy and spirit in his playing, by bringing him right to the front of the mix.

The two discs themselves that make up the album are actually quite different. Disc one seeming overall more experimental and more the product of Teo Maceros cuts and edits. Disc two seeming more composed and more aggressive.

‘Pharoah’s Dance’ has a long slow brooding building feel to it, with sporadic jams, and frenetic builds before giving way to quiet passages. Strong solos from Miles feature prominently. And because there were so many quality moments, Teo Macero took out John McLaughlins 4 minute guitar freak out, entitled it ‘John McLauchlin’ and put it in the middle of the more aggressive second disc. Like its most obvious cousin, ‘In A Silent Way’, ‘Pharoahs Dance’ has atmosphere in spades.

The album then changes gear with the title track, by starting with a sombre bass beat, before Miles comes in with an echo-laden trumpet that both haunts and plays with the listener, with the rest of the band coming in shortly afterwards. Guitar and pianos all work together to add a colourful rhythm, without ever coming to the fore and dominating proceedings. The band stops here and there, allowing the listener to hear just anonymous finger clicks and that sombre bass beat. The band plays with undulating sounds and volume before ending everything with just the bass fading in and out with Miles echo trumpet playing us out.

The first disc has slower, sometimes even mellower, grooves; whereas the second punches in a harder beat with the superb, almost centre-piece like, ‘Spanish Key’. A pacy strutting, stop-start build-up of basses and drums, with what sounds like the band one-by-one tuning up in the background ready to enter.  The horns of Miles and Wayne Shorter walk in and riff, then we’re hit with the first break-up hook from Chick Corea (that is certainly my highlight from the album). From here, the pianos add to the mix, and the guitar takes lead. A completely unedited take, the infectious heady groove keeps going incessantly, grabbing you, before that hook comes in again, and everything starts up again. Ending like a jam session, one-by-one the musicians start to tail off, gradually into silence.

Things then fade back in, almost seguing  with John McLaughlin’s eponymous track. A strong bass and piano rhythm covered in waves of superb keyboard washes with McLaughlin laying down hot guitar licks. Ending as it begun, it fades out having won us further admiration for the always excellent guitarist.

‘Miles Runs The Voodoo Down’ wins points for possessing one of the greatest titles of all time, as well being a masterpiece in its own right regardless. The slow strutting bass beat again leads up to Miles vamping in, leading the band, and then reclining to let them take over, before returning to lead them out. With a strong Hendrix influence, the track is easily the grittiest funkiest number here.

Wayne Shorter’s ‘Sanctuary’ closes the album, redone here as an electric jazz ballad opening, with Miles wistful trumpet, giving way to light keyboard flourishes. This gives the album’s end a frightening sounding frenetic climax.

An exhilarating ride, ‘Bitches Brew’ is not for everyone. Critics were polarized on its initial release, and this has for a good part changed with the passing of time. Alongside Miles’ ‘Kind Of Blue’, it is often cited as being the biggest selling jazz album of all time, indeed it went gold after just a few month.

Extra controversy was saved for the cut and edit techniques employed by Teo Macero though. Whereas ‘In A Silent Way’ had used a few edits and loops, and had critics grumbling quietly, ‘Bitches Brew’ used a completely different tack. ‘Pharoah’s Dance’ in particular was composed out of nineteen separate edits, loops and cuts to construct the music that Miles wanted. This prompted loud criticisms of this new way of recording, with the declaration being that jazz should be improvised in the studio, with one band in a single take. Such shouts were clearly bunk and Miles soon found himself playing to thousands, and leading the way forward in the new genre of fusion. Jazz soon then either chose to go electric, adopt electric instrumentation, or stay 100% acoustic for the purists. When Miles was eventually asked if he still played jazz – his reply was: “I don’t play jazz, I play music.”

Some people love it, others hate it – but no-one is indifferent to ‘Bitches Brew’. Undeniably it creates a strong and powerful feeling inside of you. Regardless of what you've heard, it demands your attention.