Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Review: Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto - The Best Of Two Worlds

More than a decade after their hugely successful collaboration classic ‘Getz/Gilberto’, tenor saxophone supremo Stan Getz and guitarist and genre creator Joao Gilberto decided in 1976 to re-unite and re-ignite the magic. Taking the winning combination of Antonio Carlos Join’s music and the musical arrangements of Oscar Carlos Neves, they were poised to conquer the world a second time.

Unfortunately for the duo, the musical world in the late-seventies was a vastly different one, with the current trends of more electric-based music in the form of disco, rock and fusion dominating. As such, on its initial release, the disc was completely over-looked and eventually largely forgotten. This though, even more unfortunately, is not some long-lost masterpiece worthy of re-evaluation and long overdue for good notices. It is instead a crushing disappointment.

Joining the two legends are a strong and eclectic band, including drummers Billy Hart and Grady Tate, bassist Steve Swallow, pianist Albert Dailey. Brazilian percussionists Airto, Ray Armando And Ruben Bassini also appear in order to add some samba colour to proceedings. Astrud Gilberto notably does not re-appear for vocal duties, largely in part due to her and Getz’s well-known affair, and so this befalls singer Heliosa Buarque de Hollanda, otherwise known as Miucha. Alongside the more than capable band, we get typically wonderful Jobim compositions such as ‘Waters Of March’ and ‘Falsa Bahiana’.

And yet, it’s a total mess. Getz, who should rightly be remembered as ‘The Sound’, possessing one of the most beautiful tones on any instrument, here is in a total slump. His sound is awful and bordering on the obnoxious, badly recorded and ultimately horrifically produced; for some reason the producer choosing to make Getz four times as loud as anybody else. Worse still is Miucha’s singing. Where Astrud Gilberto had under-sung, pretty much breathing her words, her style had fit the relaxed vibe perfectly. By strong contrast her replacement here decides some ‘free’ and off-key vocalising is the way forward. Not only does it not fit with Join’s music, but it just sounds terrible.

Ultimately, it’s the slap-dash feel that scuppers the record. With most tracks sounding under-rehearsed and most likely first takes, the afore-mentioned ‘Falsa Baiana’ cuts in loudly after a saxophone introduction and reeks of a tape cut-and-paste. ‘Eu Ven Da Bahia’ even ends with a voice clearly say “…felt good out there” before being cut off, enhancing the suspicions that whoever was behind this recording decided to do it in the quickest time possible, with minimal effort on making this a polished listening experience. All the more surprising given that this record bears the name of one of the worlds best producers and editors, Teo Macero.

Sub-par on every level, there are some relative ‘high’ points - ‘Ligia’ allows Gilberto full reign, his singing and guitar both top-rate, and the version of ‘Double Rainbow’ here being the clear highlight, benefitting from a really very good performance by Miucha. Ultimately whatever saving graces there are here, are due purely to Joao Gilberto - his beautiful guitar playing on ‘Joao Marcello’ contrasting sharply with the under-whelming poor form that Getz displays.

If you’re a fan of Bossa Nova, Getz or Gilberto, then you may be interested in this album, but truly it is the worst example of all three. ‘The Best Of Two Worlds’ was over-looked on its initial release, and frankly it’s best to leave it that way. Bearing the hallmarks of a poorly planned, badly executed and hurried recording, it’s one for die-hard collectors only, with just Gilberto stepping up, but even he is still marred by the lacklustre production. Apparently hating the results, Gilberto is best served anywhere else, and it is interesting to note that his 1973 watermark ‘Joao Gilberto’ actually contains many of the same songs here, and they are all undoubtedly of better quality. Similarly for Getz, this decade as a whole was just not a good one, whereas his work from the fifties, sixties and mid-to-late eighties is largely of the highest standard.

Most likely, given the animosity between them, recorded with Getz and Gilberto in separate studios, in as quick a time as possible, and spliced together at a later date (just as badly as the cover photos), it certainly sounds like it too. A disappointing missed opportunity, this really is one album that should be scrubbed from history.

**

Review: Grant Green - Matador

Grant Green’s ‘Matador’ was recorded in 1964 during his prolific four-year frenzy at Blue Note, where he recorded over twenty sessions under his own name (and many more as a sideman) for producer Alfred Lion. ‘Matador’ though is one of those many sessions that went unreleased for a good many years until after Greens premature death. Finally given a Japan-only release in 1979, it eventually went on to get the first of a few issues in the rest of the world in 1990. And again it’s another head scratcher as to why this recording took so long to see the light of day.

Teamed with two of John Coltrane’s famed quartet rhythm section, McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums, as well as Sonny Rollins regular Bob Cranshaw on bass, this is not only one of the best of Green’s unreleased works, but one of the best of all of his works.

The Green original ‘Matador’ leads, with an easy going rhythm - the mood one of smouldering energy, which surely inspired the pieces title, along with the theme that opens and closes helping to convey a subtlebut smouldering Spanish feel. Green seemed to possess more than just a passing interest in Spain around this time, also writing the similarly themed ‘Plaza De Toros for Larry Young’s ‘Into Somethin’’ album – which Green also played on. McCoy Tyner plays some supple runs that work to create a calming effect, and you’d swear you can hear some small hints in his playing of the next song to come.

An ambitious gamble makes the second track here, with Green deciding to tackle John Coltrane’s famous personal theme ‘My Favorite Things’. Playing with half of Coltrane’s band, Green none-the-less recasts the tune into his own, with a typically relaxed breezy take on the melody, before attacking a solo with gusto, but never losing the easy rhythm. Building in unhurried intensity, it’s an emotive release before returning relaxed and natural to the main melody. Tyner’s solo that follows is one of his best, and is if anything better than the more famous one he recorded on Coltrane’s well-known version. A brave move to take on another artists signature work, and especially one as revered as Coltrane, Green none-the-less succeeds with flying colours, and any comparisons that are to be invited are wholly favourable.

‘Green Jeans’ is an altogether lighter and freer piece, with Green sounding upbeat and playful, before ‘Bedouin’ takes us back to a more moody setting. Elvin Jones’ only solo of the album here is pure gold, and when the rest of the band come back in, full-tilt, they sound euphoric and brimming with renewed energy. In contrast, the oddly tacked-on cover of Burt Bacharach’s ‘Wives And Lovers’ is best described as ‘not bad’. Pleasant enough, it sounds good, but is not a patch on the four excellent tunes that go before it, and is by no means indispensible.

Seemingly treated (by the record label at least) as one of the lesser Green articles in his sizeable canon, with poor attention to more up-to-date remastering and even the artwork (it’s nice enough, but rivals ‘Iron City’ as the blandest, most personality-free Green album art), it is simply one of his best. Great tunes handled with skill and a real feeling for the music, it deserves serious re-evaluation and a more lovingly handled restoration work. After Green’s more famous and highly regarded work, you should immediately check this out.

****

Review: Remember Shakti - Saturday Night In Bombay

Having revived his Indian jazz fusion group Shakti some twenty years after their first incarnation split, John McLaughlin and the updated Remember Shakti garnered huge numbers of plaudits for their live shows and the albums pulled from these. High on this success the group then headed to Bombay at the tail-end of 2000 for a celebratory performance bolstered by special guests Pt. Shivkumar Sharma, Taufiq Qureshi and most notably vocalist Shankar Mahadevan.

Dubbed 'Saturday Night In Bombay', it's a playful take on his earlier much-loved 1980 collaboration with Al di Meola and Paco de Lucia 'Friday Night In San Francisco', but that isn't the only similarity here. Both records benefit from a warm and relaxed friendly vibe, with all of the men on stage clearly good friends and enjoying each others company and their music.

The short opener 'Luki' is a nicely spiritual piece that benefits greatly from Mahadevan's wondrous vocal performance, but the real meat here comes in the following 'Shringar'. A half-hour piece, its near total length is dominated by a hypnotic interaction between the guitar and santur. Simply incredible, it's one of the very best things that the group, and McLaughlin, have ever created.

'Giriraj Sudha' is an uplifting and bright number that unfortunately is over all too soon, while the following and closing 'Hussain' begins with a level of unrestrained high energy that only builds and builds, taking in high emotion and then ending on a spectacular high.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the previous Shakti and Remember Shakti albums, the new guests and instrumentation are a very welcome bonus, and again progress the sound, but the overall feel of the set is perhaps just a touch more sad, even mournful, than the others. And based on that this probably shouldn't be your first purchase of this great group, that honour still falls to the bands debut, but it is a good one and well-worth the investment of your listening time.

****

Review: Hiromi - Spiral

After her first two superb releases ‘Another Mind’ and ‘Brain’, Hiromi hits the ground running with her third, and best, album yet, ‘Spiral’. Comprised entirely of self-penned compositions, her music mixs a heady brew of various dramatic themes, and places them into a distinctive kinetic jazz setting.

The lead-off title track begins with a slow build before crescendoing into a full jazz workout, where the trio gets to flex their muscle. Possessing a strong bluesy feel, it continues throughout the second more melancholic number, before hitting a peak on the following piece, which winningly displays strong percussive flourishes from Martin Valihora. Outstanding though is Tony Grey, who having more than proven himself both on Hiromi’s previous two recordings and live on stage, steps up a further gear and delivers some awesome high-end bass work, that at first adopts a solo guitar role before returning to its rhythm nature and provides a truly hypnotising groove.

Penultimate track ‘Love And Laughter’ takes on a nice swing jazz feel, and stands out as being the piece to play the uninitiated. Comparisons abound still with her heroes Jamal, Corea and of course Peterson, but the most present voice here, overwhelmingly is her own; her piano at the same time driving and elegant, and crucially hitting the mark in both intellectually and soulfully.

What comes next though completely changes tact; ‘Return Of Kung-Fu World Champion’ energetically leaps into the fray with Hiromi employing analogue keyboards and electronics to power forward an exhilarating update on her earlier ‘Kung-Fu World Champion’. Hiromi’s switch to grand piano midway through too adds a dramatic thrilling touch, with a driving low-end rhythm, and even if not a fan of the previous incarnation, this new one is simply stunning and all of the band are on full-throttle, going to show how not just Hiromi, but all of the band have improved.

‘Spiral’ then is a brilliant work that has so far best realised Hiromi’s potential (no easy feat). Where brilliance was in spades on her first two albums, occasionally mis-placed effects and electronics could put off some listeners. Here however, the balance between the sounds is perfect, and just as importantly the album flows astonishingly well. If you have to start with one Hiromi record, make it this one. We can only salivate at the prospect of her future works.

****

Review: Tomasz Stanko - Suspended Night

Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko has been going from strength to strength in his traditionally referred-to as ‘autumn years’ with his return to ECM records in the mid-nineties. Having lost his teeth and had to completely start afresh with his technique, his work since has been characterised by a distinctive sound all his own, and with a daring and imaginative approach that players half his age would give their left arm for.

Playing with his hugely talented group of Polish teenagers through to their mid-twenties, his ‘The Soul Of Things’ was a great success in every way, and garnering the backing trio in particular especially good notices. Reconvening pianist Marci Masilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michael Miszkiewicz, two years of extensive touring between the two records having honed them further into arguably the strongest support Stanko has ever had, ‘Suspended Night’ is a work of art that perhaps betters his earlier album.

Opening piece ‘Song For Sarah’ showcases Wasilewski’s lyrical and cautiously longing piano to great effect. When Stanko’s rough-hued trumpet enters, they compliment each other perfectly, as they do throughout the recording over and over again. With the sole exception of ‘Song For Sarah’ the rest of the album follows the same path as the previous ‘The Soul Of Things’ with ten numbered ‘Suspended Variations’ on a theme.

Again, as before, most of the variations are of a slow-to-medium tempo, with rare exception. There is though perhaps a greater fieriness to the proceedings, with both parts 2 and 5 being of a faster pace, but still keeping with the dark hue and tone of the suite. A balancing act of tone variety comes in the positively optimistic – for Stanko – part 8, and the bleak sounding eulogy of the ending part 10, with many highlights coming along the way; Part 2 has an infectious melody and part 5 possesses a groove propelled by a surprisingly bouncy bass.

The players are of course all peak performance players here, with Stanko leading in his own unique brooding way. Interestingly the drums here aren’t used in their usual role to keep time at all, but more add colour and flourishes here and there, with the piano and trumpet dominating the atmospheric sound

An undeniably Tomasz Stanko record, ‘Suspended Night’ is a gentle and elegant record, displaying the best qualities of what has been called the ‘ECM aesthetic’ or ‘ECM sound’. Brooding, beautiful and haunting, it is another in a long line of triumphs for the Polish master.

****

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Review: Chris Botti - Slowing Down The World

1999 found Botti firmly climbing the ladder for the crown of the new king of chill. Having released two well-received and high-selling albums, written and recorded a deservedly lauded soundtrack to cult film ‘Caught’, as well as toured extensively around the globe, Botti settled down to produce an album that would unashamedly, as laid out crystal clearly in his liner notes, slow things down and create the perfect mood.

From the offset, the first track, the very radio friendly ‘Irresistible Bliss’, grooves along nicely with a moody sense of cool, but without becoming too ‘smooth’. Immediately too you can hear a better stronger sound to Botti’s work. The production is more rounded, fuller even, helping plump up the bass and enhancing the rhythm sound of the record. Also assisting on a number of tracks, is a strong orchestration, provided by none other than Anne Dudley, that helps add a richer sound to the proceedings – without ever sounding saccharine or over-powering the band.

Another thing to dawn on you is that whereas ‘First Wish’ had a distinct secondary voice in its keyboards, and ‘Midnight Without You’ featured the guitar in a secondary spotlight role, ‘Slowing Down The World’ has just one instrumental voice – the trumpet of Botti. And as ever, the tone of the instrument is gorgeous.

As before, Botti has a guest vocalist on one of the pieces, this time in the form of Sting, who adds a suitably world-wearied sounding vocal line to a suitably melancholic take on ‘In The Wee Small Hours’. A perfect pairing, Sting’s singing beautifully complements Botti’s wistful trumpet playing - the only let down being the slightly limp sounding backing keyboards.

It’s unfortunate then, that one thing ‘Slowing Down The World’ has in common with ‘Midnight Without You’ is having two vocals tracks – one very much worth its inclusion on the album, and one that should really have been left off entirely. Whereas the ‘Midnight Without You’ title track though was pure blandness, a cover of Randy Newmans ‘Same Girl’ is absolutely attrocious and sits completely out of place with the rest of the album. Why is it so bad? Unfortunately, although Chris Botti has easily the most beautiful and crisp trumpet voice, his singing voice leaves much to be desired. Straining weakly against some non-descript piano the song is simply a mistake and makes you wonder who thought this was a good idea.

Luckily, the next track ‘Where I’m Calling From’ instantly more than gets things back on the groove track, and the album ends on a good note too, in the form of the most orchestrated track on the album, ‘Letting Go’.

Interestingly, despite the more overt attempt at chill-out, Botti’s third album is perhaps the most jazz sounding, in both its arrangements and Botti’s own playing. And despite the more chilled direction, the album heads more toward jazz than the previously more pop-sounding first two records. The result is that both the slower moodier tracks and the more upbeat pieces all give the feeling of simultaneously being uplifting and chilled, despite being just a little more melancholic sounding than the earlier ‘First Wish’ or Midnight Without You’.

Ultimately, where the first two Botti solo efforts sounded very alike and in many ways were perhaps interchangeable, ‘Slowing Down The World’ attempts to and succeeds in sounding different – different whilst still maintaining the Botti elements. And with some elements working better than before, and others working much worse, it is personal preference in style that will determine which you deem the better of the albums.

Much better though was just around the corner. Botti would be enlisted to join Stings touring band for almost three full years. In the middle of this tour, he would be able to get just one ten week break. This would in turn provide the right stuff needed to produce his first great album – ‘Night Sessions’.

***

Review: Chris Botti - Midnight Without You

Chris Bottis first album under his own name ‘First Wish’ had proved to be a surprise hit for the Verve record label, which wasn’t entirely surprising given both his mastery and the pure silken sound he could get from the trumpet. Coupled with his boyishly good looks and highly photogenic nature, as well as strong live reviews, Botti’s album sold itself with little marketing needed.

In between tours, Botti was asked to compose and perform the score for sultry American indie film ‘Caught’, which garnered itself excellent reviews (more so than the film) and quickly became a hard to find collectors item. Shortly afterwards Botti’s girlfriend left him.

Recorded and released in 1997, ‘Midnight Without You’ offers a ‘more of the same’ approach to the second album, but with a few surprising differences. The electric guitar for one is a welcome guest, occasionally taking a lead role, but more often adding another layer to the rhythm of the music. It is perhaps this that makes ‘Midnight Without You’ less ‘chill’ than the first album. More compelling and grabbing perhaps than the first album, it does though posess less of a cohesive flow than ‘First Wish’.

It begins in a similar manner to the first album - good then but essentially more of the same. The title track that follows though is a weak number with vocals by Paul Buchanan, who struggles to add interest to the general blandness. Easily the weakest track on the album, its inclusion so early on in the album is unfortunate.

Dumping, for the most part, the drums that made up the first album, Botti chooses to extensively use African drums, and their presence certainly raises the music here. ‘Regroovable’ for example is a big highlight that follows on immediately from the disappointment of the title cut, featuring some good funk that helps get the album back onto track perfectly. Along with the very catchy and memorable ‘Way Home’, these two tracks are easily two of the three radio friendliest hits destined to attract new admirers.

The most obvious song here though to be a break out is ‘Forgiven’. The only vocal number from the ‘Caught’ soundtrack is here given a welcome second outing, and greater exposure, as the penultimate track. Featuring superb singing from Jonatha Brooke, whose voice complements Botti’s trumpet throughout, it is a genuine wonder why this wasn’t released as a single with the film. And it makes one wish for the rest of the soundtrack to be more easily available.

The last track, ‘Alone In The City’, written after a relationship breakdown, is a strong ‘late-hours’ comedown number. Ending perhaps on a melancholic note, it is is a strong finish to an equally strong sophomore album.

***

Review: Chris Botti - First Wish

Released in 1995, without knowing the date, if you were to take a guess, it would be fairly safe to say that you would most likely guess the recording date of Chris Bottis ‘First Wish’ to within two years.

Placed firmly in the ‘chill-out’ genre, ‘First Wish’ predominantly features the rolling flat drums that strongly formed the rhythm track of numerous dance and acid jazz records throughout the early and mid-nineties. Occasionally these can become repetitive, almost soley forming a steady rhythm for the rest of the band to perform against. Surprisingly then these drums are provided by both Jerry Marotta and Steve Ferrone, acclaimed rockers who usually provide a more individual and stand-out sound – and indeed on a few tracks the dance drums are thankfully replaced by something more funky and soulful.

Drums aside, the keyboards present are just right - sparing but used to excellent effect, helping add real depth to the mix, and providing, along with Botti’s trumpet, several emotive crescendo high moments. ‘Cubism’ and ‘Like I Do Now’ also superbly keep things fresh, with the addition of Michael Breckers guest tenor saxophone and Edie Bricknells honeyed and well-suited vocals respectively. This though is Botti’s record and his is clearly the lead voice - and what a voice. His trumpet has a bright, clear and beautiful tone, and Botti’s playing is strong and emotive throughout, showcasing a good range of wistful romanticism to groovable funk.

And in truth it is Botti’s playing that definitely lifts this out of, and above, the genre known as ‘chill’. Whereas most playing in this area is strictly smooth, and mild to the extreme (Kenny G, Rick Braun) Botti injects a real passion and sensuality into his playing. Certainly the music is good to chill and relax to, but it is most definitely a rung above other music that would be tagged with these categorisations.

Listening to this release many would be drawn to asking “is it jazz?” In truth ‘First Wish’ is not jazz, tenuously it could be placed in the smooth jazz or jazz-chill genres, but Botti here has tried more to create a smooth chill pop-jazz record, albeit one with more emotional resonance. And in large part he succeeds. Whereas most chill music is simply used to provide mellow background noise, the music contained herein breaks out of the mold and showcases an at times exemplary band. Granted, the majority of the tunes here can still be used to soundtrack a funky art gallery or playout an upmarket cocktail party, but it aims to be more and it succeeds.

A good debut, it serves well to highlight its star and the beautiful soulful sound he can coax from his trumpet. Ultimately Botti would later go on to make much better and stronger recordings, which would have much stronger direction – the night-time cool of ‘Night Sessions’ and the romantic high of ‘Italia’ being particular high-points. ‘First Wish’ however showcases a great talent, a name that in 1995 would have been one to watch, and with the passing in time would have greatly rewarded any early followers. If only someone had done something about those drums…

***

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Review: Slowly Rolling Camera - Slowly Rolling Camera

Cardiff based pianist, composer and producer Dave Stapleton is a busy man. Playing piano in numerous groups of varying sizes, leading an array of bands and heading up the very successful Edition Records, the enviably talented Stapleton has now invested his time into the electronic soul dance jazz outfit Slowly Rolling Camera.

Made up of a core of Stapletons piano, Fender Rhodes (always welcome) and Hammond Organ, Deri Roberts’s trombone, saxophone and electronics, Elliot Bennetts drums, the secret weapon is Dionne Bennett; a soulful singer who yearns and emotes, and showcases a beautiful and incredible range, without ever overpowering the band or the music.

The small group however is augmented by a whole host of well-known friends. Phronesis and Edition Records house bassist Jasper Hoiby lends his deep rich tones (and a real weighty thump to the killer ‘Protagonist’), and fellow house players Mark Lockheart and Chris Montague reunite their winning sax and guitar team from the excellent Blue Touch Paper, while Stapleton drafts in a superb set of string players and trumpet man par excellence Neil Yates. The overall sound works into one seamless blend of dance grooves, nu-soul, jazz and cinematic orchestral atmospheres that are sure to garner many fans.

Comparisons abound to Portishead (the ‘trip-hop’) and The Cinematic Orchestra (the feel and vibe of the sound), and though a good pair to match SRC to, it doesn’t do the group justice. ‘Fragile Ground’ and ‘Bridge’ would be perfect for the Portishead fans, but elsewhere there is a more drum ‘n’ bass rhythm, as on the faster paced ‘Rolling Clouds’ or the epic soul of ‘Dream A Life’, with ‘River Runs Free’ even lending an almost jazz-inflected soundscape to the album.

Slowly Rolling Camera is agreat group and this is a fantastic debut recording. Cinematic and moody, yet soulful and vibrant, Stapleton contributes some beautiful music and it is vividly brought to life by a near all-star cast, while Bennett purposefully stamps her personality and one-to-watch status all over the record. One of the first must-here albums of 2014, without a doubt.

****

Monday, 17 February 2014

Review: Blue Touch Paper - Stand Well Back

Colin Towns has built an impressive career built as much on variety as quality; in more recent years though he has become most well-known for his Mask Orchestra, and being its highly skilled composer, arranger and bandleader. However with this, his new smaller sextet Blue Touch Paper, what has really come to the fore is Towns the superbly skilled keyboard player. And this happily is just one of the many revelatory pleasures from the excellent ‘Stand Well Back’.

The top-flight group is headed up by Towns, but each member here is a star. Drummer Benny Greb and percussionist Stephan Maass create a highly tight and funky rhythm team, further raised by Edward Maclean’s strong full-sounding bass, and the soloists are some of the best of the circuit right now. Saxophonist Mark Lockheart, known from amongst many others Loose Tubes and Polar Bear, and constantly rising guitar star Chris Montague, are some fiery players and throw in some of the finest pure jazz, fusion, rock, funk and cinematic cop soundtrack sounds around.

Even Towns’ somewhat unexpected vocals are perfectly suited here, lending an articulate and intense, yet moving and lyrical quality to the music. This though is no mere vanity project of a player insisting he can sing as well, but a musician using all his musical faculties to best effect. And it works a treat. As does the interplay and interwining of all the instrumentation here, from the way one instrument solos into another, to the bubbling rhythms that play underneath and on top of those same skillful solos.

A fresh sounding recording, and full of vigour, it grabs your attention and doesn’t let up, even over a spacious seventy minute plus playing time. And though sharply produced with plenty of bite and grit, the interplay of the group is such that you just know they’ll be a killer live act. With so much going for them, you have to hope Towns decides to keep the group going far beyond this debut. A crack team of players, with some great tunes, and all under the leadership of a truly class act, this is a real must-hear record and deserves to find its way into as many record collections as possible.

*****

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Review: John Coltrane - Stellar Regions

Of the many (too many?) stock-piled John Coltrane works that would later see the light of day after his shock early passing aged just forty years old, 'Stellar Regions' is without doubt the most important, and easily the most musical.

A complete session, recorded on the day of February 15th 1967, just five months before his death, Coltrane is here joined by wife Alice on the piano, long-time bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Rashied Ali, making this his very final quartet date – notably lacking the presence of, the alternately powerfully moving and infuriatingly cacophonous, Pharoah Sanders (depending on your own personal opinion of course).

Eight numbers make up the session, with only one ever appearing elsewhere ('Offering', having made up part of 'Expression'), making it an incredibly worthwhile 'kept in the vaults' piece of 'Trane history. Although having only appeared as late as 1995, one has to wonder why it took so long for Alice Coltrane to unveil it to the world – especially when the results are as consistently brilliant as they are here.

Intriguingly though, while the music is itself very good, it doesn't really show where exactly the saxophonist was planning on heading next - the tunes are strong and the band play fantastically but, partly because of the studio nature of the date (as opposed to the sometimes epic live free-for-alls) and other unknown factors, the pieces are somewhat briefer and more concise than one might expect. Indeed many will strongly wish the tunes would stretch out and tantalise us with the future-looking musical ideas more.

Some may point to Coltrane's then deteriorating health as a factor for this ‘simpler’ and more refined style, but this is easily refuted by the man's impressive and intense playing, some as strong and as explorative as any he had ever laid down. And although decidedly free, everything he plays here heads toward somewhere planned, distinctive and rewarding. If he really was ill at this stage in his final year, then you certainly can't hear it.

The most major release of John Coltrane's posthumous recordings, 'Stellar Regions' is a complete and musical set that perhaps would (and definitely should) have actually seen the light of day had Coltrane lived, rather than the mostly out-takes and unfinished material that made up the bulk of the 'new and exclusive' music that came out after 1967. An impressive set, any Coltrane fan would do well and in fact be wholly recommended, to seek it out, with even the more casual appreciator of his later more 'spiritual' affairs likely to be won over. 'Stellar Regions' is more than just a great session though, it is arguably John Coltrane's last great album, and Impulse and John Coltrane’s may fans would do well to treat it as such.

*****

Review: John Coltrane - Coltrane

'Coltrane', one of John Coltrane's first sessions for Impulse, is simultaneously one of the least well-known of the great saxophonists releases, and one of the most favourite amongst his fans. Eponymously titled and lacking any particular specific theme along the same lines as say the overt spirituality of 'A Love Supreme', the obvious romanticism of 'Ballads', or the large ensemble arrangements of 'Africa/Brass', means that it is often confined by many lazy first-timers as being 'just another' in Coltrane's admittedly vast discography. They're wrong.

To start things off, the album opens with a bona-fide classic, here in the form of 'Out Of This World'. At fourteen minutes it's clearly the intended centrepiece, and for those minutes it creates a spellbindingly hypnotic sound that boasts an intense and swirling tenor sax lead. So enamoured with this composition would 'Trane be, that he would throughout his career frequently choose it as a concert staple, sitting up there with other such pieces as 'Naima' and 'My Favorite Things'.

It though is not the only tune here - even if it is the most famous. 'Miles Mode' shows a satisfyingly harder sound to 'Trane's tenor playing, one that is evenly balanced by McCoy Tyner's shimmering crystal clear piano work, while 'Tunji' offers more complex eastern-sounding moves that subtly oozes just the right hint of menace. And for the fans of Coltrane's gentler more romantic side, 'Soul Eyes' more than hits the mark, while 'The Inchworm' showcases the lilting and yearning qualities of 'Trane's second trademark sound on the soprano saxophone.

Despite, and also because of, the wide ranging variety in styles in this session, it all adds up to make an incredibly satisfying listen, which purely on musical merit is enough to recommend this album. But on top of that, for trivia fans, this is the first solely 'classic quartet' recording of Coltrane, Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones; and that surely should make this somewhere near the top of anyone’s to-get Coltrane list.

*****

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Review: Flora Purim - Nothing Will Be As It Was...Tomorrow

Flora Purim had both risen to stardom and earned critical acclaim while under the Milestone banner and Orin Keepnews stewardship. After four highly productive years though it was time for pastures new and bigger, and Purim made the move to jump ship from the smaller label to the much more commercially sized Warner Brothers.

It was unfortunately this move that signalled the end of Purim’s golden phase; as the more commercial sound strive for new acceptance would tend to move the talented songstress into less musically desirable areas. The opening shot from her Warner years, ‘Nothing Will Be As It Was…Tomorrow’ shows this, for better and for worse, perfectly.

Some good songs are here, courtesy of the Brazillian legend Milton Nascimento, Purim herself, and somewhat surprisingly also some of Earth Wind And Fire, who notably bring the excellent, and probably most famous piece here, ‘Angels’. Sounding like prime Earth Wind And Fire, Purim adds some typically lush vocal work, and the effect is an absolute winner. But in truth it feels less like Flora Purim, and more like Earth Wind And Fire with a Flora Purim guest spot. Purim’s own material works a whole lot better however, and Milton Nascimento’s songs get some good makeover, if with a much heavier funk effect.

‘Bridges’ aside, which gets a nicely soulful arrangement, this whole effort veers more into the late ‘70’s sounds of disco and funk. The album has a classic 1970’s R&B-jazz production quality to it courtesy of George Duke (though here listed as ‘Dawili Gonga’) and Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler, that though perfect for certain R&B and jazz acts, here does not quite meld with Purim’s uniquely Brazillian fusion style.

Purim’s silky Portuguese vocals and seductively accented English singing however still work a treat, and the musicianship here is of the usual high quality. As such it works for commited fans of Flora Purim, and of George Duke, and there are a good number of tracks here that will appeal to the casual listener. But for the devotees of Purim’s earlier and classier work, and as a recording on it’s own right it’s a fairly mixed bag.

***

Monday, 10 February 2014

Review: Flora Purim - Encounter

Flora Purim was on the crest of the first wave of jazz fusion in the early and mid 1970’s, and helped create her unique position in the genre by putting her voice up against a whole blend of Brazilian rhythms, new sounds and some incredible backing musician talent.

One thing that always helped position Purim and her music  was her playful and exuberant performances, and this rose to an uptempo peak on the excellent ‘Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly’. ‘Encounter’ then comes as a surprise to the more fusion-headed fans of Purim, aiming for a much more relaxed mellower mood than any of her earlier works. The results however remain unchanged – high quality music from start to finish, including great pieces, pristine musicianship and some of the Brazilian chanteuse’s finest singing to date.

As always featuring a winningly strong line-up of musicians, here new guest McCoy Tyner brings his personal piano touch to proceedings, with a winning duet between Tyner and Purim rating as some of the most interesting work either has committed to tape. Joe Henderson returns to lend some sterling saxophone work too, most notably on the excellent ‘Black Narcissus’, easily the album highlight. Always a fantastic piece of music, Purim’s version here just raises it to another level, with her singing perfectly pitched, and matched sublimely to Henderson’s brilliant solo.

A notably lighter, softer, mellower and distinctly more jazzy recording than any of Flora Purim’s previous works, ‘Encounter’ is a great album. Granted it heads in a different direction, but that is no bad thing. A chilled and relaxing listen, it offers a different side to the singer, a different yet great side, and though probably not the first port of call for newcomers, it should surely be investigated by any fans of her other works.

****

Review: Flora Purim - Open Yours Eyes, You Can Fly

Flora Purim had a terrific run in the seventies, with nine consistently strong albums recorded in a period of just less than seven years, as well as her excellent and famous work with Chick Corea in the first line-up of the Return To Forever group showcasing her to good effect on their eponymous debut and the hugely successful follow-up ‘Light As A Feather’. As a solo performer she gained her greatest praise and notices as a stand-out and more sensual latin-jazz artist, but the true commercial crossover came with her highly successful ‘Open Your Eyes You Can Fly’.

All of the songs here are great, with some perhaps not as impressive as others, but with fine top-of-the-league songwriters on-board, including Chick Corea, there are no weak moments. The players too are all dazzlingly good; witness the exuberant opener and David Amaro’s fuzzy yet instantly grabbing and playful guitar, or Hermeto Pascoal’s soulful flute playing throughout.

Best of all though, crucially and aptly, is Purim herself. Easily at her most charming here, she takes Corea’s ‘Sometime Ago’ and gives it one of her very best performances, while ‘Ina’s Song (Trip To Bahia)’ features her Portuguese vocals at their most passionate. Her writing contribution on ‘San Francisco River’ equally impresses, with a catchy melody and its uniquely cool and relaxing mood.

‘Open Your Eyes…’ is not up there with Purim’s absolute best work, but that really is just down to her producing such consistently good recordings. It does though come incredibly close and being notably more uptempo and upbeat than her other work, it is definitely one to check out.

****

Review: Flora Purim - 500 Miles High

Running at a career high thanks to some very impressive albums, both as a solo artist and as part of the original Return To Forever line-up, a strong and highly unique voice, and some incredible notices and reviews for her recorded output and live shows, Flora Purim did what all good jazz artists do, and recorded a live album that justifiably stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her acclaimed studio efforts.

‘500 Miles High’ gives us the cream of Purim playing live at the 1974 Montreux Jazz Festival, and supported by a typically strong and inspired group, most of whom had played on many of her then current records. As was usual for the time, husband Airto lends his percussive and vocal skills, while Ron Carter fills in on bass in his own unique way, Pat Rebillot handles keyboards, Herbie Mann plays flute and the stellar yet underappreciated David Amaro lets his soaring guitar fly throughout.

In fact, the band members are given such generous spaces and solo opportunities to show their thing that it feels as much a group album as it does a Flora Purim one. Without her the collective showcased here would have delivered something truly spellbinding – as they frequently do – but when the iconic singer takes the mic, everything is elevated to an almost transcendant high, with Purim enhancing everything here above their studo counterparts. Her near signature theme ‘500 Miles High’ is here electric and full of high energy, while Milton Nascimento joins in for a guest spot on both guitar and vocals for joyful and uplifting highlight in the form of his own ‘Cravo E Canela’.

A near perfect recording of a great live show, the only down note is that at only just over forty minutes it’s too short and leaves you craving much more. One of Purim’s greatest records, her studio recordings are definitely to be investigated first, but this is a gorgeous and dancingly beautiful piece of the songstress in her prime and is essential for anyone who is bewitched by her other performances, either under her own name or with Chick Corea. ‘500 Miles High’ is perfectly gorgeous.

****

Review: Flora Purim - Stories To Tell

One of Flora Purim’s most famous and loved recordings, ‘Stories To Tell’ sits at the highest point of the peak of her career, containing excellent song choices, standout turns from some superb musicians, and most of all that distinctively haunting yet gorgeous voice of the singer herself.

As with her best work, husband Airto Moreira leads a group taking in legends as diverse as jazz bass stars Ron Carter and Miroslav Vitous, keyboardist George Duke, trombone man Raul De Souza, and three incredible and very different guitarists in the most welcome form of Earl Klugh, Oscar Castro-Neves and Carlos Santana.

Plowing the same uniquely heady brew as her striking debut, Purim sings beautifully in English and her native Portuguese, as well as wordlessly adding colour, and here and there putting in her woops and yelps of celebration all over the music. And what music it is too; from the sublime ballads, including one cracking Tom Jobim song, to the uptempo party of some very funky jazz.

An album that holds together with no weak moments blotting it, everyone is a standout and every track is pristine, with ‘Silver Sword’ being a particularly great moment of freaky keyboard and guitar interplay, and the closing number ‘O Cantador/I Just Want To Be Here’ offering first a strong ending song and then slowly turning into a steamily energetic free-for-all jam for Purim and her band – and it works a treat.

An album taking in and blending elements from the worlds of jazz, blues, samba, bossa, fusion and many others, it’s Flora Purim at her very, very best in her own comfortable genre of her seemingly sole creation. Alternately funky, beautiful, melodic and rhythmic, it is repeatedly euphoric and hugely memorable, with ‘Stories To Tell’ arguably being the singers greatest album, certainly sitting up there with ‘Butterfly Dreams’, her incredible and perhaps more famous debut record, and it comes with the very highest of recommendations.

*****

Review: Flora Purim - Butterfly Dreams

First emerging on the jazz scene with pianist Duke Pearson and arranger Gil Evans, Flora Purim’s first proper leap into the limelight came with Chick Corea’s invitation to sing and play on the first two electric-jazz-samba Return To Forever albums. The success and exposure of these two landmark efforts then gave the Brazillian singer the impetus and means to launch a solo career, under the stewardship of the highly respected producer Orrin Keepnews.

‘Butterfly Dreams’ from 1974 is that album that launched Purim’s solo career and her unique approach to using her beautiful voice, with an incredible promise that would be fulfilled throughout the rest of the decade. Taking in a mix of material from Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Jobim, Gismonti and some original compositions, it’s a surprisingly brief yet varied and joyous recording that boasts some great supporting players, including as usual her husband and percussion maestro Airto Moreira.

Two very different takes of Clarke’s ‘Dr Jive’ almost bookend the recording with some huge tasty bass and distinctive uptempo Brazillian rhythms underlying Purim’s always outstanding yet perfectly controlled six-octave vocal range. Jobim’s ‘Dindi’ gets a gentle and sympathetic reading, while ‘Summer Night’ and ‘Moon Dreams’ are pure bundles of energy driven by the very alive hotly funky rhythm team.

Joe Henderson, the master tenor saxman, lends a very rare yet welcome appearance on flute, while David Amaro makes the first of many energetic and distinctive guest slots with Purim. ‘Love Reborn’ in particular gets to show Henderson’s saxophone at its best, and some nice acoustic guitar work.

Closing with a redux of Clarke’s ‘Light As A Feather’ that isn’t too far from the original and more famous version from the Return To Forever album of the same name, it signals the end of a beautiful yet also playful and fun debut that is able to showcase Purims many incredible vocal strengths and talents. An outstanding record, it’s recommended to practically anyone.

*****

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Review: Keith Jarrett - Staircase

Aside from Keith Jarrett’s much, and justly, celebrated solo concert improvisations, such as the popular ‘Koln Concert’ and ‘La Scala’, he has also on a handful of occasions entered the studio with the intent of improvising purely in-the-moment music. The most famous of these is the first solo improvised effort he recorded for ECM records, the classic ‘Facing You’. A slightly less well-known but much more ambitious, much grander statement is his later double album package ‘Staircase’.

‘Staircase’ is of course a slightly misleading title, as only three of the pieces here are named as such, with the others being various parts or ‘movements’ under the banners of ‘Hourglass’, ‘Sundial’ and ‘Sand’ – not that the mood changes a great deal throughout to justify the differing names. Although on the original vinyl pressing, it would have made a neat set of titles for each LP side.

Taking a slightly different path from his usual solo studio albums, Jarrett avoids his usually favoured funkier and overtly gospel tones of his earlier sessions, and chooses instead a deeply introspective and reflective direction. It then manages to be simultaneously one of his best and his worst, and exemplifying both.

‘Staircase’ one through to three is beautifully played and showcases Jarrett’s perfect touch and sensitive handling, but it is ‘Hourglass’ that is the unquestionable peak here; lyrical and moving, part two is one of his most gorgeous moments of all time, and even the most ardent Jarrett critic will struggle not to love it.

The second half of the double-set then is where the let down comes. Still sensitively played, ‘Sundial’ and ‘Sand’, though with elegant highs, meander for notable periods, becoming repetitive and occasionally flat, almost as though the pianist is momentarily lost for ideas and comping whilst waiting for inspiration to again hit. Also in the mix is some unwelcome dissonance and atonalism, which while they have their place, tends here to upset the otherwise inward-looking and gently soulful mood.

It’s hard to find a bad Keith Jarrett album, and his pitch-perfect tone and exquisite touch are always there to both admire and be hypnotized by. Here he finds great beauty which can often take the listener to musical places never before felt, and yet there is a certain wasted space, with a sometimes directionless tinkling of the keys sounding free of any of the necessary inspiration that his usual live audience provides. ‘Staircase’ is mostly strong and an appealing lesser-known work from Jarrett’s vast catalogue that, though would have benefitted from some editing, comes with many highs and also a fair smattering of lows. Jarrett has produced much better and much more consistent, but on its own terms this ambitious sprawl remains a definite and stand-alone listening pleasure.

***

Review: Keith Jarrett - The Melody At Night With You

During the late 1990s, Keith Jarrett had started to feel ill; seriously ill. Having for over 30 years been touring and recording as a solo improviser, as an interpreter of the classical works, and with his trio, among countless other groups, he ended 1996, at just 50 years of age, with a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Almost immediately he consigned himself to his house before attempting to rest and recover through an intense treatment program.

Two years of inactivity followed, with no new releases or performances, and almost certainly minimal contact with the piano. Then, faced with buying a Christmas present for his wife, and unable to leave the house, he miked his home piano and hit the record button. The results he gave to Rose Anne Jarrett. And now, much to our good fortune, he has given us ‘The Melody At Night, With You’.

If you’d followed Jarretts works chronologically up to this point, ‘The Melody At Night, With You’ would come somewhat as a surprise. Featuring only tiny occasional improvisation, this album is made up of just ten classic songs performed simply and disarmingly. Careful and thoughtful, Jarrett here removes any trace of technical elaboration or virtuosity, instead choosing to focus on the bare essentials of melody and harmony.

‘I Loves You Porgy’ is, despite its over-familiarity, sublime, while ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ is the perfect example of Jarretts ability to make any record his own with his own delicate and light-as-a-feather touch. The same lightness of touch comes to the fore of the sad beauty of ‘Blame It On My Youth’ which moves into the only improvisation of any length here titled ‘Meditation’.

Elegant in its conception this is music to move Jarrett, and in moving Jarrett, music to move his fans. For those that have always enjoyed his more exploratory works, you may perhaps find this too spare, too simple. But for those who are put off by his vocalisations during his performances, which admittedly are at times surprisingly loud, they will find a record almost entirely absent of this distraction. A very much night record, the presentation here is almost ethereal, and yearns to be heard by everyone at least just once.

For all fans of solo piano, jazz or otherwise, this introspective recording is near perfect, with only the slightly lo-fi recording sound negatively impacting in any way – especially when compared with ECM’s usual pristine crystal clarity sound. Regardless of this, it is an astonishingly subtle musical statement. Jarret has said many times just how intensely proud of it he is. A beautiful listening experience, he has every right to feel so proud.

****

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Review: Stanley Clarke Trio - Jazz In The Garden

Stanley Clarke has had an incredible career, fully of variety and experimentation – taking in traditional acoustic jazz, fusion, and a wide variety of film scores. He has also unfortunately had equally vast variety in the quality of his works, with a catalogue that includes equal parts masterpieces, forgettable fluff and those that are merely just okay.

Having spent most of the last few decades with the electric bass, Clarke - choosing to play in a rare piano trio - re-unites on ‘Jazz In The Garden’ with his Return To Forever partner in crime and drummer Lenny White, and returns for the first time in years to the acoustic bass. For the piano chair, Clarke could choose any pianist in the world, and for his return to the acoustic format, he chose the 29 year-old Japanese star Hiromi. A junior member in age alone, her solo work has already grabbed critics and audiences alike, and has shown that she should more than hold her own with the two veterans.

Opening with the Clarke original ‘Paradigm Shift (Election Day 2008)’, Clarke shows us we have much to look forward to, with a minute-long opening that shifts and changes directions tantalisingly, the bass establishing the rhythm punctuated by the cymbals of Whites drumkit. Clarke’s bass playing shows incredible dexterity, with some high-class slap-bass and use of the upper range. Sometimes the sound will make you swear he’s playing electric bass, but he’s not – he’s just that good he can caress the sounds from an acoustic bass that just sound electric. A climactic finish between the two rhythm buddies, with fast playing from Clarke and stunning tom rolls by White closes a perfect opener.

Hiromi brings two original pieces to the album, the very beautiful ‘Sicilian Blue’, which alone could become a Hiromi calling card, and the harder ‘Brain Training’ which features the bass and piano, riffing and swinging together in a strong bop. Aside from the two excellent originals, Hiromi also brings the traditional Japanese song ‘Sakura Sakura’ that is reworked to such a startling effect, with Clarkes’ bass echoing a traditional koto it becomes a highlight of the album.

Elsewhere we get some group improvisation in the form of duet piece for piano and bass ‘Global Tweak’, which is an effective jam that carries the two musicians and us along for a thrilling ride. ‘Take The Coltrane’, with its odd slowed down drum ‘n’ bass feel, simply sounds like two old friends having a ball, and we’re allowed to join in for the fun, whereas ‘Three Wrong Notes’ showcases Hiromi’s awesome talents to perfect effect in a style reminiscent of Brubeck or Powell, but it is Miles Davis’ ‘Solar’ that scores as the album standout, with some great arpeggio runs from Hiromi, while White lays down some sublime polyrhythmic work. A clever role reversal enters when the piano takes the bass role, while the bass plays melody.

The album closer is the odd choice of Hiromi’s arrangement of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers ‘Under The Bridge’, which although surprising, works wonderfully, with Clarke and Hiromi trading the lead melodic line duties with each other. The bass is downright funky, the sound intensifies and builds throughout, with the chorus adding an ethereal quality, and Hiromi offers first a discordant break before then launching into a free and expressive solo, building and then coming to a full stop.

Clarke has, contrary to the popular common opinion, played acoustic bass, on many occasions. But ‘Jazz In The Garden’ is his first all-acoustic album as leader of his own group, and interestingly, more than any other piano trio around, the bass seems more involved - both as lead and as rhythm – and it works stunningly well. As do his inspired bandmates, who both manage to innovate and sound like no-one could better them on these sessions. If there is one complaint, it is that Hiromi’s piano solos sometimes don’t sound completely integrated with what Clarke and White are laying down, almost as though someone has photoshopped a superb solo over a different rhythm, but the match doesn’t always quite fit.

Regardless, all the music here is first-rate and is an unexpected surprise from three musicians more commonly associated with more experimental and electrically-powered fare. Highly recommended for fans of any of the three players here, one can only hope the Stanley Clarke Trio is not a one-off project.

****