Sunday, 27 April 2014

Review: Freddie Hubbard - Night Of The Cookers

A live Freddie Hubbard recording should always really be something of a welcome prospect, which given their limited number makes ‘The Night Of The Cookers’ even more disappointing. A double album of two club night performances of long and extended pieces, we get four tracks all around the twenty-minute mark showcasing a duelling match between trumpet kings Hubbard and Lee Morgan, with support from a mixed band supplying sax and flute, piano, bass, drums and congas. And with one of those players being the excellent James Spaulding, this should have been a classic. Instead it comes nowhere close.

First of all, the recording itself is appalling, sounding badly miked, muddy and quite often nowhere near the instruments. There are some otherwise good solos here that are ruined by the fact that you can’t hear them because the rhythm section is so far in front, that the soloist is completely distant and buried in the mix.

Second is that the long jams that make up the bulk of the music are a chaotic and jangled mess. The full band is often found playing as hard and as much as they can all at the same time, with little in the way of space or breathing room. ‘Pensativa’ is almost a complete waste of time for this very reason, with ‘Walking’ benefitting from a more blues-sounding strut, but is still far from acceptable.

More confusingly and unexpectedly is that the legendary Lee Morgan here sounds completely abysmal and lost, with Hubbard clearly sounding in a different and stronger league. There are a lot of solos on this gig, and most of them are far too stretched out, starting as they do frequently with too little an idea - Morgan in particular is devastatingly uninspired throughout.

‘Jodo’ picks up things with some strong moments and a nice fast paced rhythm, which unfortunately gives way to some appalling conga solos, and leaving it to Hubbard’s own ‘Breaking Point’ to steal the small honour of easily being the best piece here. Melding Spanish-informed music with a calypso feel, it sounds like the band has finally finished rehearsal and is now stepping up to something approaching an A-game. It’s sad then that the sound is still atrocious.

There are some good bits and pieces here and there scattered throughout, but nothing that isn’t available in a much better format, or sound quality, on other more solid releases, for either trumpet stars here. Each also has better live efforts too; in Hubbards excellent ‘Without A Song’ and Morgans definitive three album set ‘Live At The Lighthouse’. Regardless of these though, nothing with this bad a sound recording should ever be put out as an ‘official’ release, and for the price and poor quality of the music in general, this one should without exception be side-stepped and forgotten.


Review: Keith Jarrett - The Out Of Towners

By this point, together for almost twenty years, the trio of Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette are easily the longest association and most constant group in jazz. All three masters of their individual craft, since first getting together their collective skill and interaction has resulted in an empathy and that almost no-one else can touch.

Preferring to avoid the more avant regions with which the members have individually sometimes gone to, either solo or with other groups, this Standards Trio have chosen instead to focus for the most part on original and sometimes surprising takes on classic jazz tunes. So, recorded at the Munich State Opera, ‘The Out Of Towners’ like all of the trios releases, comes with great anticipation. But, as some naysayers may enquire, what differentiates this from the many others in the trios’ catalogue?

To start, the sound recording here is absolutely pristine. I strongly doubt you’ll ever find a better live recording of a piano trio than you will here - the clarity of the sound is superb. But also just as importantly the song choices are more than just the usual standards.

Opening with a brief solo introduction, Jarrett makes ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me’ a lovely and complex rendition. And the way the rhythm duo enters behind him is so smooth it should be used as textbook for any aspiring group out there. Later ‘You’ve Changed’ is a gorgeous ballad and is a perfect example of how this group takes a song you think you know and is able to just open it up – presenting it in a new way that somehow enhances the melody of the piece.

Gerry Mulligans ‘Five Brothers’ swings as it was meant to do and Cole Porters ‘I Love You’ is near-perfection, only just a tad marred by a frankly odd and unengaging cymbals-only solo. The best trio piece here though is the Jarrett original title track; a lengthy and funky blues-gospel, it benefits greatly from some inspired soloing by Peacock. For those that - understandably - bemoan Jarretts lack of composition more recently, here is a shining example of his compositional talents, but one that is undeniably improved by the intuition of the band.

As an encore we are given a tranquil yet moving ‘It’s All In the Game’, in which Jarrett performs solo – his first in this context for two years, and live for six years, since 1995s ‘La Scala’. Perfectly as in the moment as his famous solo recordings, he shows great restraint and stays true to the melodically-rich piece. Achingly beautiful, it is unreservedly a highlight of Jarretts career.

A good starter for anyone unfamiliar to the trio, it’s also be a great additional volume for fans of the trio and their other recordings, showing as it does an incredible raising of the art of interpretation to what is arguably an even higher level. The way they play these tunes is so fresh that each of them can sound like an entirely new piece each and every time they sit down to play it. The sheer breadth of material and playing here gives the impression of something very complete, and Jarretts final stirring playing is so heartfelt, you’d have to possess the stoniest of hearts not to be entirely transfixed. ‘The Out Of Towners’ is stellar Standards Trio, but more than that, it is stellar piano trio, and simply brilliant music.


Review: Herbie Hancock - Secrets

Herbie Hancock had already long established his jazz credentials, primarily with his own now classic releases on Blue Note, and also with his wide array of sideman work; with among many others, Miles Davis. With 1973’s ‘Head Hunters’ though, he successfully crossed over into funk territory, with even more popular and commercial rewards; but still maintaining a strong jazz personality, including through his next subsequent releases.

With ‘Secrets’ however, his fourth in the jazz-funk vein, an alarming realisation of creative diminishing-returns comes to the fore. The previously strong mix of two genres melded together had started to feel a little too smooth-sounding with his third effort ‘Man Child’, which added guitars to the mix, as well as increasing the band roster quite heavily. ‘Secrets’, continuing this move, gives even more greater playing time to the guitars, and also sounds more funk-pop than anything funk-jazz.

For one, the emphasis here is on the mellower, softer side of the musical palette, with very little approaching up-tempo, and that which does is still given a distinctly relaxed edge. There’s no high-energy here, just rolling head-nodding grooves - many of which tend to go on far too long. ‘Doin’ It’ is a great example of this; opening with a slight disco inflection and sounding like a killer dancefloor hit - albeit for just two minutes. Repeating itself over six minutes, nothing much changes or happens, and it flatly wears its welcome out. ‘People Music’ sounds better, but basically feels like an attempt to re-do ‘Butterfly’, but in a different groove.

And much in the way the Hancock classic ‘Watermelon Man’ was re-worked successfully as an electric and funkier number for ‘Head Hunters’, here he takes another of his previous hits, ‘Canteloupe Island’ (arguably his most well-known number), and attempts to do something similar. But it really does not work at all. Almost unrecognisable, an electric guitar leads a yawning saunter, with the familiar melody coming in buried under an array of keyboard and synthesizer effects. It’s a largely lazy-sounding failure that surely can’t have anyone preferring it to the original.

The second half of the album is better however, with some nice seguing and an overall build to something close to climactic. The whole album though convinces that perhaps the energy, the enthusiasm and the ideas have all gone, and Hancock doesn’t know where to go from here. The drumming, previously a high-voltage and highly enjoyable part of the Hancock funk sound, is here just basic and simple, supplying little more than an at times metronomic beat for everyone else to follow. Another notable difference is Melvin Ragin AKA the self-dubbed ‘Wah Wah Watson’ on guitar and vocals. Whilst his guitar is flamboyantly good and well-suited, he also assists heavily on the composition and production duties, and you sense that it’s these contributions that have moved the album to its more ‘flat-sounding’ territory.

Yet there is still a good deal to enjoy and appreciate; Bernie Maupin emerges again as the hero, with his variety of saxophones and flutes, leading most of the solos along with Hancock’s numerous electric keyboards (no acoustic pianos here at all). Paul Jackson’s basslines too are as ever solid anchors for the band.

If you loved ‘Head Hunters’ and ‘Thrust’, those same vibes and sounds aren’t here. But if you liked ‘Man Child’, then there’s probably maybe something here for you. The multiple rhythms and layers, infectious grooves and spaced-out keyboards that made his earlier fusion efforts so good are sadly absent, replaced with a variety of not-quite-funky guitar and mellow sounds, and a decidedly more Caribbean feel. Not a great deal of it is very memorable however, and much of the tracks drag on without developing or finding a direction. If it sounds like the man had lost his hunger for it, tellingly his next few releases would be with the new all-acoustic quintet, alongside his Miles Davis cohorts and the swaggering trumpet of Freddie Hubbar, V.S.O.P. Buy those instead.


Review: Lou Donaldson - Pretty Things

‘Pretty Things’ is unquestionanly one of Lou Donaldson’s worst efforts, and it certainly reaches the lowest point of his two decade career with Blue Note. Less a terrible recording, and more just flat, an organ takes up most of the space over a range of material that is mostly lacklustre completely unmemorable; the only worthy points really being the jams and solos that Donaldson and underrated trumpet-man supreme Blue Mitchell only very occasionally contribute.

Oddly, Donaldson’s distinct alto tone is traded in on some pieces for some tryouts on the baritone sax, which while he plays just fine, lacks any personality or voom. There are small good sections here, but they are few and far between, and there’s certainly nothing here that hasn’t been done better elsewhere by Donaldson, before or after. Decidedly inessential and justly very hard to track down, ‘Pretty Things’ is simply best wiped from Donaldson’s generally otherwise strong discography.


Review: Hiromi - Beyond Standard

Having run out of words of praise in the English language for her outstanding career to date, four albums in of entirely self-penned compositions, and with we imagine a warehouse in Tokyo stuffed with the numerous awards for each of those four albums, Hiromi has chosen for her fifth release to be entirely made up of covers. We all knew it would come someday; a favourite performer, having made four stunning and brilliant works, and lapped up our near fanatical words of adoration, now tired from the strains of touring, decides to half-heartedly mail in the fifth album with some covers of some well-known standards.

Except, you’ve forgotten that this is Hiromi, haven’t you?

Using the same Sonicbloom band she recorded the earlier ‘Time Control’ with (electric guitar-piano-bass-drums), Hiromi here tackles not only a set of standards, but also some favourites that are distinctly non-standard. Opening with an intro taken from ‘Time Control’, the super-charged quartet launch into the Hammerstein-Romberg ‘Softly As A Morning Sunrise’, which takes on an other-worldly and enchanting quality. It is a beautiful start to the record and also highlights Hiromis modus-operandi for the following pieces.

This isn’t a tribute or homage to these standards, more a deconstruction and reconstruction. Here Hiromi is breaking the pieces down and putting them back together in a way that flavours each piece with her own distinct and quirky personality. The world doesn’t need another take on the dusty favourite ‘My Favourite Things’, so why bother? Hiromi also appears to have asked this question, and the answer appears to have been “to have some fun with it”. And that’s exactly what the band do here.

Debussys ‘Claire De Lune’ for example, is invigorating in the fresh take on the piece, moving the music from something classical in nature to something jazz. And the closing of the tune, with each of the band making individual expressions, is easily one of the album high points. Duke Ellington’s ‘Caravan’ on the other hand becomes an energetic fireball of a song, with some fluid and catchy guitar work by Fiuczynski and some simply mind-bogglingly fast rapid-fire piano solos.

Other covers here are far from standard; Japanese pop tune ‘Ue Wo Muite Aruko’ is a pleasant joy, while Jeff Becks ‘Led Boots’ and a cover of Hiromis own ‘XYZ – here re-christened ‘XYG’ allows the guitar to stretch out, whilst not pummelling the listener with the sonic overload sometimes present on the earlier Sonicbloom recording.

And of course, because this is Hiromi, things wouldn’t be complete without at least one sublimely nutty piece, equal parts inspired and insane. Like the earlier ‘Spiral’ and ‘Another Mind’, with their both spectacular and outstanding ‘Return Of Kung-Fu Champion’ and ‘The Tom And Jerry Show’ respectively, the best is kept for last. Almost a tribute, in the style of playing, ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ is Hiromi Uehara as Oscar Peterson - a stunning six-minute solo piano that oozes fun and will raise a smile to any listener.

A superb work from beginning to end, ‘Beyond Standard’ easily lives up to its name - which in lesser hands would simply have been a prompt to goad the critics - and Hiromi continues to be a fun and engaging constantly evolving musical presence. Anyone who was put off by the addition of electric guitarist Dave Fiuczynski will be pleasantly surprised here, with his subtle and elegant more refined contributions. And Hiromi herself only gets better. One day years into the future she may choose to mail it in, but from the evidence on display here, she’d really struggle to do anything less than interesting and brilliant. Five albums in, Hiromi is five for five, and ‘Beyond Standard’ is exquisite.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Gig Review: Hiromi The Trio Project Live At Cadogan Hall 13.04.2014

Having loved all of Hiromi’s albums to date, I have for years been trying desperately to attend one of her concerts – in any format; be it solo, in a trio, with her electric Sonicbloom group, duetting…

Alas, I’ve been thwarted for about five years, with various issues and other events getting in the way. This year seemed to be no different either, with my wedding and honeymoon seemingly topping three nights of Hiromi live in London in the importance stakes. Luckily I’ve married the right woman, who was more than happy to attend a gig of some of the most exuberant piano jazz artists of the moment during our honeymoon.

I’ve attended Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square too (very upmarket – go for a drink elsewhere first rather than locally) before, and approved of the venue; about a thousand people capacity, very good sound, excellent views for anyone in the audience, and very easy to get to (one minute walk from the tube), it’s a fantastic live music choice.

No support, and with the trio walking straight on to the stage, to thunderous applause, the trio of Hiromi Uehara, Anthony Jackson, and Simon Philips dived right in to playing some incredible dexterous and complex music, that managed to be both exhilarating and playful.

Playing largely a mix of music of her ‘Voice’ and ‘Move’ albums, which both Jackson and Philips have played with the pianist on, the group also played a few tunes from the upcoming ‘Alive’. Another welcome variance though was that it wasn’t just always the trio playing – after a short interval following the first half of the show, just Hiromi herself returned for the first number of the second half, and it was a winner from start to finish. Playing a typically dazzling array of notes, Hiromi did so in a way that created a kind of slow yet up-tempo glittering waterfall of piano that rose and fell, and went all kind of directions. Keith Jarrett may be the reigning king of the solo piano, but on the evidence tonight, the just 34 years old Hiromi could very much give him a run for his money.

Hiromi is without doubt an incredible pianist, but aside from her technical prowess, it is also her winningly fun personality that comes through that really makes her music. And tonight, this was in abundance – musically and visually. And you certainly won’t see any player having more fun on stage. Throughout Hiromi leapt about the piano and displayed a wild abandon in showing a full range of facial expressions (though to fair, mostly a big smile).

An even better bonus however is the band. Anthony Jackson and Simon Philips have already astounded on record, but live they excel. Jackson plays a relatively rare contra-bass guitar, that possesses a truly great range and sound, and in Jacksons hands, is something truly awe-inspiring, while Philips’ drumming (and drum kit) was just huge; able to play subtle and quiet one minute, and loud and driving the next, he has a great show stopping range and easily matched his two band mates in virtuosity and skill. Together though they made a killer unit, playing together and interweaving with wonderful finesse.

Overall the whole night was a great show, and huge fun. Somehow Hiromi managed to play jazz, and not yet jazz, taking in classical, rock, a little salsa, blues…anything went, and it went well. The audience all looked like they were having a fantastic time, applause was loud and plentiful, and the entire band looked invigorated and happy throughout.

The gig was over all too soon, and the encore was a wonderful thank you, but in all honesty everyone almost certainly wanted a whole lot more. I’d always expected to love Hiromi as a live performer, and on this night I was not only not let down, but was even further bowled over – not just by her playing, but by her groups, their interplay, and just by the sheer musicality on display. I really must catch her and her ‘Trio Project’ again.