Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Review: Masada - Volume 1 - Alef

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Review: Freddie Hubbard - On The Real Side

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

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

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

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


Review: Bill Bruford - A Part And Yet Apart

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

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

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

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

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


Review: John Coltrane - Meditations

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 1 May 2014

Review: Anouar Brahem - Thimar

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

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

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

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

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


Review: Bebel Gilberto - Bebel Gilberto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review: Grover Washington Jnr - Inside Moves

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

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

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


Review: Lou Donaldson - The Natural Soul

After reviewing one too many lacklustre Lou Donaldson albums, I realised that it might look like I don't actually like the alto sax great. But in truth I actually do love Lou Donaldson, or at least his fifties and early sixties classics. So here's perhaps my favourite Donaldson (it might change next week)...

After a direct and successful foray into soul-jazz with ‘Here ‘Tis’, Lou Donaldson took a further step away from hard bop and upped the funk levels a further notch. And as with that first organ effort, Donaldson assembled another crack band, again featuring Grant Green on guitar, with John Patton providing the Hammond this time around (in place of Baby Face Willette), Ben Dixon on the drumstool and Tommy Turrentine (brother of tenor sax man Stanley) on trumpet.

The overall feel of the session is one of a relaxed groove, with the three rhythm men providing a cooking pulse, and despite hitting some fiery highs, the group always sounds easy and comfortably laid-back. Green’s solos in particular simply soar, but also do so leaving a sensation of euphoria and invigoration. Patton and Donaldson for the most part keep up and match Greens heady solos, while Turrentine unfortunately mostly sounds awkward and somewhat self-muted, playing behind Donaldson and keeping his lines short, as if he’s struggling to adapt his trumpet sound from its usual hard bop to suit the slow soul groove being newly asked of him.

The three standards handled here are done so skilfully and full of verve, and with Pattons own ‘Funky Mama’ building up a steamy smouldering mood, while Johnny Acea’s ‘Nice And Greasy’ sounds cheerfully exactly as the title suggests. It’s Donaldsons own originals though that leave the overall indelible impression, which themselves aren’t more than just outlines of blues and souls vamps, riffs and rhythms, but they create the perfect springboard for all five men to work up something truly hot each time.

And it is exactly that which Lou Donaldson is trying to achieve with ‘The Natural Soul’; groove - hot and hypnotic groove. Funky jazz, without being funk, it leaves the listener knowing and feeling more for the chops of all the players involved, with the longer the pieces being, the more room each of the leads has to stretch and fully develop their solos. ‘Funky Mama’ and ‘Sow Belly Blues’ may both be close to ten minutes, but Patton, Green and Donaldson ensure that they pass in no time at all.

A strong jazz album on its own, it can also serve to double up as a backing to a laid-back smokey party without being cocktail music. It also builds on the incredible high standard set by Donaldsons first step into the soul-jazz waters with ‘Here ‘Tis’ and remains one of his very best efforts, in any genre. For the most ideal crossover between the worlds of bop and soul, look no further.