Jazz Music Reviews from dreadpirateroberts

SANTANA Santana IV

Album · 2016 · Latin Rock/Soul
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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Expectation.

It's always tough reviewing an album which is anticipated to be a band's 'return to its heyday' and the classic line-up from early 70s Santana is a pretty exciting prospect.

And it certainly works on just about every song. It's fun to hear interplay between Santana and Schon again for instance, especially on one of the stand-outs like 'Echizo' or the almost meditative 'Fillmore East' (and it must be said that Shrieve fires up a bit on 'Echizo' too, which is great) but there are a few songs that don't nail it for me.

Some of these are the vocal cuts ('Choo Choo' is one) but that isn't to say Rolie is in bad shape, he sounds great - especially on the smouldering 'Blues Magic' or the punchy 'Shake It' - but there's just a sense that everyone was so excited to play together again that they left a few b-sides in the running order.

Overall, the band is less fiery than in their youth (and that's not a surprise or a problem truly) but there's still passion and surprises to be had. Again, like 'Shape Shifter' a while back - I wouldn't call this an essential Jazz-rock album but don't write it off out of hand either, have a look if you're unsure.

THE SEATBELTS Cowboy Bebop No Disc

Album · 1998 · Jazz Related Soundtracks
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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While the first soundtrack to the TV series 'Cowboy Bebop' focuses mostly on hard bop, sizzling tempos and big band, the second OST 'No Disc' sees the Seatbelts perform across a wider range of genres and move away from mostly performing jazz.

There's still some big band, swing and even lounge in there for traditional jazz fans perhaps, but there's also forays into bluegrass, heavy metal and pop. This isn't a drawback, necessarily, but if you're looking for the kind of jazz found on the first OST you won't see much here on 'No Disc'.

Still, tracks like the beautiful 'Elm' and haunting 'Green Bird' are worth collecting and 'Gateway' does echo that bigger sound. 'Forever Broke' too has some great slide guitar. (Still, check it out if you're a fan of the series.)

HERBIE HANCOCK V.S.O.P.:Tempest in the Colosseum

Live album · 1977 · Post Bop
Cover art 4.60 | 5 ratings
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A furious live set of some stand out songs from a fire-cracker line-up, really, what's not to like here?

Hancock's V.S.O.P Quintet (same as the classic Miles Quintet of the 1960s - Hancock, Carter, Shorter & Williams but with Hubbard on trumpet) really cooks on this 1977 concert recorded in Tokyo. It's a monster of an album to my ear - everyone seems to be having a blast and the songs are snappier, faster - yet there's always room to adjust the arrangements.

Carter in particular sounds funkier than I've heard him - especially on Hubbard's 'Red Clay' and the reworking in parts of Hancock's 'Maiden Voyage' is just superb.

It's hard for me to say a bad thing about this album - so I won't! It's generally a much more fiery set of songs than the other V.S.O.P releases and if you like any of the legends mentioned in the line up, grab this album.

SAPO Sapo

Album · 1974 · Latin Rock/Soul
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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It's a shame these guys didn't release at least one more record but the single LP they have is still pretty ace.

Once lead singer and composer Bean left Malo he formed a new band to pick up with pretty much the same feel; rock-Latin rhythms mixed with salsa, punchy horns and some great songs. Maybe he's not the greatest singer it doesn't really impact my enjoyment of the songs - especially the charging 'Get it On' or opener 'Been Had.'

'Can't Make It' borrows clearly from the Bean's hit with Malo (Suavecito) and 'Nina' is pretty catchy too - overall, if you're into Latin Jazz and want something like Malo but still with a few subtle differences, have a look at Sapo.

SOT King Of Saltz

Album · 2011 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.99 | 7 ratings
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There's such a great sense of fun to SOT's songs here that is both surprising and welcome for me. It seems too much of the jazz history can sometimes be focused on the very serious, so I really enjoyed hearing an album that's fun without being trite in anyway whatsoever.

On each listen I find myself more and more certain that there's a definitely Mr Bungle influence but the quirkiness of the songs goes beyond one reference point.

'King of Saltz' is a fascinating mix of tech metal and jazz and its substitution of tuba for bass is a big draw, it really adds to the lower end. Great stuff - definitely check this out if you're looking for something complex and surprising.

TOSHIKO AKIYOSHI Tales of a Courtesan (Oirantan)

Album · 1976 · Progressive Big Band
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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'Tales of a Courtesan' didn't hook me the way the first two Akiyoshi/Tabackin collaborations did. It's certainly not a bad record at all, but I just didn't find the arrangements as engaging here.

There's still a lot of variety and punch (especially to the energetic 'Strive for a Jive') and some reflective pieces too, like 'Interlude', which reminds me a little of some CTI-era Freddie Hubbard, but I was surprised to find the title track a little too sparse. It almost sounds like it was scored for a film but suffers a touch without accompanying visuals. Still, some haunting flute from Tabackin in there.

The surprise stand out for me is the brooding 'Village' which brings more of the progressive big band feel to the fore.

For fans of either Akiyoshi or Tabackin, this is still worthwhile I'd argue, but maybe the start with their first two if you're looking for a spot to dip into their respective catalogues.

THE SEATBELTS Cowboy Bebop

Album · 1998 · Jazz Related Soundtracks
Cover art 4.95 | 3 ratings
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Hands down the best soundtrack to any animated series - but more importantly, what's it actually sound like?

Well, for my money 'progressive big band' is the perfect genre for this album. The pieces range from hard bop to Latin-influenced jazz to spacey sax ballads or bittersweet, sparsely accompanied pieces like 'Waltz for Zizi.'

Composer and pianist Yoko Kanno has brought together a sharp band in the Seatbelts and they hit hard with thunderous opener 'Tank!' - a charging blast of hard bop but with that Latin touch via the percussion bringing it something extra. A scorching alto solo from Masato Honda tops everything off too.

There's a good dose of stylistic variation on the album (though not as much as with their other releases) and it should keep fans of big band and hard bop interested from start to finish.

PORTICO QUARTET Knee-Deep in the North Sea

Album · 2007 · Nu Jazz
Cover art 4.04 | 6 ratings
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'Knee-Deep in the North Sea' is a great nu-jazz debut and might well introduce the 'hang' to some listeners, a percussive instrument that sounds like a highly dynamic steel drum.

Portico Quartet play a relaxed and at times brooding 'nu-jazz' led by Jack Wyllie's sax, which has a mostly melodic function rather than dissonant one.

At times the songs grow quite sombre, especially on a piece like the title track, which sounds a little like a precursor to ideas which will be revisited on 'Clipper' from the band's second album.

There are more frantic moments throughout, where the rhythm section really get to thump along for a bit, but these moments are used sparingly, such as during the latter parts of 'Zavodovski Island.'

I really enjoy this album, though their follow-up 'Isla' is my pick from the Portico discography.

DAVE BRUBECK Jazz Impressions of Eurasia

Album · 1958 · Cool Jazz
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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Released the year before landmark ‘Time Out,’ this is one of more than a few Quartet LPs that have probably been overshadowed by such a monster album.

But ‘Jazz Impressions of Eurasia’ is worth finding. It’s a distinctive set of pieces – take for instance the meditative yet jittery ‘Calcutta Blues’ or the catchy ‘Nomad’ – that draws from the Quartet’s long tour of Europe and South Asia. The album shows another wonderful set of recordings where the group have woven the music of other cultures into their cool jazz.

It’s easy to hear Dave’s ear for classical music, especially in standout ‘Thank You’ or the almost stately opening to ‘Brandenburg Gate.’ Brubeck’s playing has always sounded strong, firm, even considered to me – but it’s still relaxing too, still engaging. Despite great performances from Desmond on alto and Morello on the drums, for me this album represents one of my favourite Brubeck performances.

If you only have a few Brubeck albums and find yourself looking for more, then this might be a good place to stop off (along with another of his great travel-themed albums – Jazz Impressions of Japan.)

GRANT GREEN Idle Moments

Album · 1964 · Hard Bop
Cover art 4.74 | 24 ratings
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Much has been said about the original intended length of the title track, so I’ll just repeat it once – what a fantastic mistake! ‘Idle Moments’ as a fourteen minute bluesy exploration is cool – even silky – giving everyone a chance to stretch out and solo on a piece that I find myself chucking on repeat more often than not. Not to say that up-tempo numbers like ‘Jean De Fleur’ (or the rest of the album) aren’t enjoyable, but the opening cut sets a high bar.

The bluesy swing of the title track is returned to on ‘Django’ and ‘Nomad’ is another harder piece where Henderson plays a little rougher, taking the spotlight. Hutcherson is a distinctive voice on all pieces, and of course Green leads everything with his lovely tone but like many of the greatest jazz albums, there seems to be no lone virtuoso. As a listener, the pieces feel as though everyone gets a say, that everyone is working together so damn well.

Perhaps Grant Green’s defining album, and a rewarding listen for fans of cool and hard bop.

HERBIE HANCOCK Hear, O Israel - A Concert Service In Jazz

Live album · 1968 · Post Bop
Cover art 2.98 | 4 ratings
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I've struggled over the star rating on this one, though I shouldn't - but I just can't decide between three and four stars.

Because it's a great album, no doubt about it. It's simply hard to decide how much I've enjoyed it. No matter, more importantly - what's the music like? Well, it's great post-bop mixed with Jewish prayers. Spoken and sung over the jazz, the vocals weave in and out of the spotlight during this live concert from 1968, which showcases Hancock and Thad Jones, along with Jerome Richardson on saxes and flute, especially.

The pieces range from brief interludes where soprano and alto voices lead, to longer pieces where the jazz musicians stretch the music. Hancock is lyrical as ever, moving through cool moments, bluesy passages and more exploratory pieces like Torah Service and the wonderful Sanctification.

Ultimately, this should be of special interest to Hancock fans, and everyone turns in great performances but for me personally, the vocals don't gel with the jazz as smoothly as I expected. Not to say the vocalists aren't dexterous enough, but there's something about their vocal lines that seem disconnected to what the musicians are playing. It can distract me at times but it's not a flaw by any means.

MISINTERPROTATO / TRICHOTOMY Variations

Album · 2007 · Post-Fusion Contemporary
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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On their third album this trio from the sunny state of Brisbane, Australia, continue to play a contemporary jazz that might please fans of classical piano, along with listeners interested in an at-times free-wheeling, often emotive strand of jazz drawing from a range of traditions. There are hints of the great impressionist pianists in the ballads, little moments of avant-leaning jazz and snaky rhythmic passages where the drums, bass and piano lock together and are intercut with optimistic passages that turn a piece around midstream.

Elsewhere you get the feeling that the music wouldn’t sound out of place in a road trip movie or a film of some dramatic substance – ‘Start’ comes to mind, where the trio are assisted by a guest string section in evoking a sense of panic.

The fusion of styles on 'Variations' is held together by pianist Sean Foran’s classical influences, he has a manner of playing that doesn’t exactly evoke the Third Stream genre but more perhaps, as I’ve suggested earlier, an impressionist classical pianist who can also play jazz. This feel is supported by often minimalist instrumentation from Parker and Marchisella (on drums and bass respectively), who in a piece like ‘Please’ keep their contributions subtle, never crowding the piano.

Things get much snappier at times, like in ‘Variations on a Bad Day’ where the group build and release tension quickly, in a kind of madcap dance of a piece – where Marchisella turns on the distortion and Foran jabs at the keys – though the pianist does so again with yet more abandon on ‘Chunk.’ For the quieter side to the band, there are the equally representative pieces like the sombre ‘At the Right Moment’ or my favourite ‘Ascent’ which at times brings Keith Jarrett’s ‘Koln Concert’ to mind, only in a more composed manner and enhanced by Peter Knight’s muted trumpet. Knight, a top Australian jazz artist in his own right, does just enough here to add that extra mournful element, as does a whisper of electronics.

Running over an hour, the album is often exploratory, and while not every piece is as memorable as say ‘Branching Out’ or ‘Ascent’, this is certainly a great album of modern jazz that’s worth a listen for fans of the piano in particular. Released on quality Australian label Jazzhead, ‘Variations’ is a high point for the trio, who followed it up with the similar but slightly less enjoyable ‘The Gentle War.’ As I type the band are in the studio working on their next release, under new name ‘Trichotomy.’

BILL EVANS (PIANO) Waltz for Debby

Live album · 1961 · Cool Jazz
Cover art 4.82 | 11 ratings
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Bill Evans has more than a few fantastic live albums so if you’re looking for a place to begin, this is it. Released with perhaps his most complimentary sidemen, at a definite peak in his popularity, ‘Waltz for Debby’ is among the finest Cool Jazz releases.

Evans plays relaxed, as might be expected, but never dull. He is not known as a busy player and often seems content to let other musicians to utilize space that his notes move around, remaining gentle, emotive and effective (bassist Lafaro is an obvious example of this.) It’s a very together-sounding album, which is both a redundant thing to say about good music, and a thrilling thing to say about the trio – on their final album together, Evans, Motian and Lafaro sound whole.

While he never flies into lengthy solos here, Evans still draws out a set of standards and two compositions which later became standards, Davis’ Milestones and Evans’ own classic Waltz for Debby, which is a clear highlight. Equally pleasing is the almost ocean-like wash and shimmer of My Foolish Heart and the more upbeat moments toward the end of the album. (Evans’ fans will also enjoy familiar phrasings in Some Other Time.)

For me, more so than his more adventurous, more famous ‘Sunday at the Village Vanguard’ this is his best live outing. Not to be overlooked.

DON ELLIS Soaring

Album · 1973 · Progressive Big Band
Cover art 4.50 | 2 ratings
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One of his last studio recordings, Soaring brings together a wide range of elements from Ellis’ past to create an accessible big band album with its share of fusion and even pop sensibilities. The record certainly still has its tricky moments, where it seems like half the players are hard at work doing different things, but it does retain a sense of completeness.

Ellis essentially has a small orchestra to utilise but doesn’t crowd his arrangements. There’s also a focus on more ‘riff-based’ playing for some of the rhythm sections – take ‘Go Back Home’ or ‘The Devil Made Me Write This Piece’ for instance and it’s generally a set of exciting tunes, opener ‘Whiplash’ not least among them. There’s still room for a couple of slower numbers – of which the brief ‘Image of Maria’ is perhaps the more heartfelt, while ‘Nicole’ is a bit cooler.

‘Sladka Pitka’ written by organ and piano player Milcho Leviev possesses perhaps the most varied arrangement, melding CTI-sounding light funk with what could be described as a car-chase horn arrangement, and passages that evoke some sort of bad trip. The most expressive song, even the most direct, has to be ‘Invincible’ with its coy beginning and explosive middle section – the stand out piece for me.

Fans of his earlier work may not enjoy this album, but if you already own ‘Haiku’ ‘Connection’ or ‘Tears of Joy’ and don’t have Soaring yet, it’s definitely worth a look.

FREDDIE HUBBARD Sky Dive

Album · 1972 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.01 | 3 ratings
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Right on the heels of the brilliant ‘First Light’ comes Hubbard’s ‘Sky Dive’ which is a less consistent but still worthwhile addition to his canon, perhaps for the title track and the funk-influenced opener alone. While on the surface it doesn’t stray far from the approach taken on the previous album; Sebesky conducting strings and a horn section, Hubbard both fiery and lyrical and supported by a fine group of CTI regulars like Carter, Benson, Laws, Airto and Cobham, the balance of the songs don’t play together as well this time around.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with the performances (except that I’d liked to have heard more of Jarrett) but the ballad seems to play without aching and the other two cover versions, In a Mist and the theme from The Godfather, suffer a little from what seem to be scattered arrangements, even if the latter has a fantastic ending.

For me most of the joy in this album comes from the title track and Povo – each allow the band to get stuck into the rhythm and provide ample solo space for everyone – Hubbard sounds confident and Carter holds everything together with his bass line as band jam it out. Benson is great as ever and the really the piece’s only weakness might be a vague sense of sameness when compared to the song First Light on Hubbard’s previous release. Sky Dive is another cracker which gives a slight Latin feel to its laid back approach and ends the album very pleasantly.

I hesitate to say for fans only, as this is still great fusion and Hubbard is always a pretty commanding soloist, but for my money ‘First Light’ is the superior example of the fusion he was producing for CTI in the early ‘70s. Still, ‘Sky Dive’ does boast a couple of classics so if a reissue appears, it might be worth collecting anyway.

HERBIE HANCOCK Mr. Hands

Album · 1980 · Funk Jazz
Cover art 3.82 | 13 ratings
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On ‘Mr Hands’ Hancock blends a mix of the spacey sounds first heard on ‘Head Hunters’ with the more compact funk and jazz he showcased on ‘Man Child.’ Flash to 1980 and here his forward-looking production has blended ‘modern’ sounds with a more familiar funk and jazz sound, more than ably assisted by a revolving cast that features Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Alphonse Mouzon among others – even, on Shiftless Shuffle, a reunion of the original ‘Head Hunters’ line-up.

Overall it’s a pretty damn enjoyable album, one which seems to be overlooked in his canon sometimes (and that’s no small list to look through). It sounds like the performers are having fun and there’s a driving feel to much of the playing too, something which is quite welcome, put this album on and you’ll feel good too – start with Just Around the Corner and see. While no single player dominates, in Shiftless Shuffle where the Head Hunters band is reunited, Mason especially stands out. He’s handy indeed. On this song especially, a classic jazz funk fusion sound is clear and it reminds me just how much Herbie Hancock and his band pioneered for the genre.

In fact, while there’s enough of a laid back feel to the music to contrast the more upbeat pieces, such as the opener and especially the ‘textured’ 4 am, the focus overall remains on a funky fusion where Hancock’s variety of electric keys keep things interesting, making for a fine contrast to his solos, which are delivered with some aggression. Worth a look for fans of the genre, and damn near essential for Hancock fans.

PRINCE Diamonds & Pearls

Album · 1991 · Jazz Related RnB
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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Prince’s 1991 ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ was co-billed with his backing band the New Power Generation and saw him take further steps toward straight ahead pop, but steps also, into the hip hop market. This obviously constituted a departure from the RnB and funk material of earlier releases, but such elements are not absent here.

After a stretch releasing soundtracks (Batman & Graffiti Bridge) Prince delivered ‘Diamonds & Pearls’ which was a massive chart success in the UK, US and Australia especially. It was an album complete with slick early-90s production, raps and catchy hits that just begged for erotic film clips. While a similar production style would be taken further on albums like Michael Jackson’s monster-selling ‘Dangerous’ later the same year, Prince was always more eclectic. On ‘Diamonds & Pearls’ he puts touches from funk, RnB, rock, soul, jazz, and rap on his pop songs, even using the occasional industrial drum sound and spoken narrative. Lyrically he’s still in the bedroom most of the time, one of the exceptions being highlight ‘Money Don’t Matter 2 Nite’ or when he hands the mic over to dancer and rapper Tony M, who delivers boasting in a serviceable manner that isn’t ineffective but might not win him many ‘serious’ hip hop fans.

Prince also raps on occasion and the ‘up close’ vocal sound he employs (such as in ‘Jughead’) suits his sometimes almost lazy delivery and somehow adds more fuel to the sexualisation of his performance – something he takes to almost comical extremes in the slow-jam of ‘Insatiable.’ A more than talented vocalist nonetheless, his arranging skills are on display in the dramatic opener ‘Thunder’ where his lower register, rock voicing, and trademark falsetto are multi-tracked to great effect.

While Prince handles his usual plethora of instruments, The New Power Generation do feature too. The rhythm section sound together despite attempts to make them come across as ‘sampled,’ and aside from Tony M’s lead raps and the occasional co-write from some of its members, it’s Rosie Gaines who gets much the spotlight, especially on the title track. Her backing vocals are distinctive and she often appears in a manner comparable to the way Fergie would later be used in The Black Eyed Peas.

This isn’t Prince’s best album by any stretch. Instead perhaps, it’s now partly a time capsule of 1990s pop and should appeal to fans of the era as much or more than Prince fans, and this is certainly true if you’re mostly looking for his funk and RnB. Aside from ‘Willing and Able’ and the delightful ‘Strollin’’ there isn’t too much. The general feel of the album is better demonstrated by singles like ‘Cream’ or ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ and ‘Get Off.’ The occasional misstep like ‘Daddy Pop’ doesn’t really effect the general flow of the album, at its worst its formulaic and at its best it’s fun, well-written pop blessed with Prince’s distinctive singing.

ORIGAMI The Blues Of Joy

Album · 2011 · Post Bop
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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On ‘The Blues of Joy’ Australian reed man Adam Simmons leads a trio through a very contemporary post-bop set which sees him focus solely on the alto saxophone. Simmons is a versatile and hard-working musician, playing saxes, flutes and clarinets in as many as seven groups, among them ‘The Adam Simmons Toy Band’ where children’s toys join in on an almost big band setting.

As 'Origami' however, the stripped back sound of a trio allows the listener to hear Simmons wring a wide range of tones from his instrument, from the screeching and honking of ‘Jitters’ to the more gentle phrasing that opens surprise Snow Patrol cover ‘Chasing Cars.’ Released on the independent label ‘Listen/Hear Collective’ the album is another fine move in the general experimental ethos found in much of its catalogue (such as trumpeter Peter Knight’s ‘Fish Boast of Fishing.’) By confining himself to the alto, Simmons pushes the instrument, his trio and doubtless himself to achieve more with less.

Recorded mostly live in the studio after only a few shows together, the trio are particularly effective on the shorter, snappy numbers. Both the title-track and Outkast cover ‘Hey Ya’ come to mind here – part of what gives the album its contemporary feel at times is the way it draws from the pop music sense of dynamics and structures as much as the modern jazz of the post-bop heyday. Slower pieces like the lament of ‘An Ordinary Prayer’ almost, almost lose me in spots but Simmons’ confidence with melodic material and skill as a soloist keep things interesting, as does drummer Anthony Baker, whose staccato approach on ‘Morse Code’ is highly effective.

Elsewhere the darkness of ‘Chimera’ is led by Howard Carns’ sawing on the double bass and further supports the theme of ‘exploring’ your instrument, as he and Baker switch around techniques and approaches throughout the album – especially Baker who goes from brush to snare rim to sticks to ride and back again.

Well worth a listen if you’re new to the Australian jazz scene and looking for an album that while not revolutionary, is certainly inventive and has the right balance of soloing and ensemble playing – and which possesses, in addition to some great covers and originals –hand-folded origami packaging!

JOHN COLTRANE Olé Coltrane

Album · 1961 · Hard Bop
Cover art 4.72 | 23 ratings
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Squeezing the album in around changing recording commitments as he left Atlantic for Impulse! John Coltrane and his quintet recorded one of their most satisfying modal records late in the spring of 1961.

Sharing a core line-up with ‘Africa/Brass’ the three pieces comprising the original pressing of ‘Ole Coltrane’ provide just thirty five or so minutes of magic from John and co, though it's certainly worthwhile - each minute is memorable for the right reasons.

Joined by guests (Hubbard on trumpet and Art Davis on bass) an already impressive quintet launch into the semi-meditative title track, a long 3/4 jam reminiscent of ‘My Favourite Things' but which was based on a Spanish folk song known as 'El Vito.' While Tyner’s piano and Coltrane’s soprano phrasing is most obviously similar, Coltrane himself suggested that the 3/4 timing was something of a "straight jacket" in terms of soloing. Dolphy’s brief flute part and Hubbard’s usual fine work stand out as much as Coltrane’s hypnotic saxophone, where he often plays clear lines and variations of the theme. (Freddie Hubbard also guests on ‘Arica/Brass’ and would be back for Coltrane’s free-jazz monster, ‘Ascension’ a few years later.)

Of the second side, ‘Dahomey Dance’ is more ‘straight ahead’ hard bop but with perhaps just a little more of a laid back feel, with Jones’ swinging beat keeping things on track. Closing with McCoy Tyner’s soothing ‘Aisha,’ a showpiece for the pianist as both player and composer, the song casts its own soft spell, one that rivals the opener for impact. Once again Freddie Hubbard makes a soulful impression and it’s the perfect ending to what fast became my second favourite Coltrane release upon purchase.

This is an essential Coltrane record, almost a parting gift to Atlantic, and an enduring one at that. Modal jazz was reasonably young at this point in Jazz history (Davis’ landmark composition ‘Milestones’ just three years old and ‘Kind of Blue’ only two) and Coltrane would keep exploring and adding to those ideas, but with ‘Ole’ we’re privy to some of his first steps (along with last year’s ‘Coltrane Jazz’) and they’re exciting steps too, and not just because they would eventually lead to ‘A Love Supreme.’

*The CD Reissue adds ballad ‘To Her Ladyship’ to the CD and it’s a worthy addition, more traditional sounding than Tyner’s ‘Aisha’ but still graced with fine performances.

FREDDIE HUBBARD Liquid Love

Album · 1975 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 2.66 | 3 ratings
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Hubbard’s Columbia releases are more hit and miss when compared to his early hard bop peaks or his CTI output. For Taylor, he made classics like ‘First Light’ and ‘Red Clay’ which hint quite strongly where he’d end up by the mid 70s and after – up until his hard bop return in the 1980s that is – but here sadly, some of the snap and inventiveness is missing.

‘Liquid Love’ seems to occupy a space between his early CTI records and a pop-funk album with occasional hard bop solos, in some ways making for predictable 70s-era fusion. That’s not really a huge problem, it’s more so the relatively few highlights and the diffused effect that results. While his early 1970s work could easily incorporate its range of influences into a cohesive body, ‘Liquid Love’ doesn’t seem to manage the same feat. The pop cover, Maria Muldaur's ‘Midnight Oasis’ is slick but the rhythm section doesn’t really fire up even when Hubbard does, and the title track overstays its running time (despite sounding a little like a sped-up remake of ‘First Light’). ‘Put it in the Pocket’ is a little punchier and the group vocals are fun enough but I personally missed having one of Hubbard’s wonderful ballads on ‘Liquid Love’ and while ‘Yesterday’s Thoughts’ approaches that territory, the synthesiser clashes with the mood his trumpet attempts to create.

The best piece on the album has been saved for the end. ‘Kuntu’ is an African, reverb-laced fusion feast, where the band gets to display some more fire, as opposed to the fairly comfortable funk they mostly play prior. An oddly effective blend of space-hints and Latin jazz, it’s the song I return to the most, with a fantastic groove and some wilder soloing from Hubbard and band. George Gables’ keys are also given more of the spotlight on this track, with its slight Bitches Brew feel and general aggression.

How to sum this album up? Not every piece here is forgettable, but neither are individual songs going to rival his best work. If you’re a fan of the lighter blend of funk and jazz fusion then you’ll still enjoy this. However, if you’re interested in sticking to albums by Hubbard that manage a simultaneous artistic and creative highlight, then don’t rush out to find a copy of ‘Liquid Love’ just yet.

MILES DAVIS Live Miles: More Music From the Legendary Carnegie Hall Concert

Live album · 1987 · Hard Bop
Cover art 2.93 | 4 ratings
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Seeking this album out for its live version of ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ I was disappointed – not in the performances, but by the fact that I didn’t stumble across the expanded ‘Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall’ first. The two disc version brings the entire concert together in one set, and it’s worth having for the work of Miles’ Quintet in particular. Not to say Evans’ Orchestra is off its game for that matter.

Basically, ‘More Music from the Legendary Carnegie Hall Concert’ is made up of anything left off the original pressing of ‘At Carnegie Hall.’ Of most interest to collectors and to fans of ‘Sketches of Spain’ will be the rare live recording of ‘Concierto...’ and while there’s some imbalance to some of the orchestra’s recorded levels (at times the brass seems too loud to me) this is still great. It’s nice to hear subtle changes Miles makes throughout and though this version doesn’t outstrip the studio take, it’s still impressive.

What’s probably more satisfying however is the roaring take of ‘Walkin’ or ‘Teo,’ along with the lovely ‘I Thought About You’ from the Quintet, and which make me certain that I’m missing more great performances by not owning the two disc set. Cobb, Chambers and Mobley seem especially inspired and Miles too sounds very ‘in the moment.’ As a live recording it’s pretty good, though I do almost lose Kelly in the mix sometimes and Miles’ trumpet is almost brittle. It’s a relatively small flaw for the great performances however, so I’ve no hesitation recommending this album – only, I suspect you’re better off going for the expanded version ‘Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall.’ As I will soon do so myself.

PORTICO QUARTET Portico Quartet

Album · 2012 · Nu Jazz
Cover art 3.16 | 3 ratings
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Portico Quartet’s self-titled release is marked by a shift in sound toward more ambient territory. The electronic aspects, handled by nearly the whole group, sometimes approach soundscapes, often add texture to their nu-jazz, and ultimately dominate the album. They don’t always make for totally compelling moments, such as ‘4096 Colours,’ and the brief, sketch-like pieces, but there’s a consistent down tempo mood to the album.

Overall this electronic development is hardly negative, though I did find myself responding immediately to standout pieces like ‘Ruins’ or ‘Spinner’ and ‘City of Glass’ due to their similarities to material on the quartet’s previous album, 'Isla.' Wyllie’s saxophone once again carries the melody on these pieces, with the distinctive Hang still playing an important (if reduced) role. Of course, it might be a little unfair that I gravitated to these tracks, but not surprising, I liked 'Isla,' so naturally I’ll like similar songs from its follow-up.

Conversely, the stronger ambient-influenced pieces were really enjoyable too, steps away from jazz perhaps, but still great stuff – like the almost harrowing ‘Window Seat,’ which is at times droning or pulsing but mostly (and clearly) dealing with ideas of isolation. ‘Rubidium’ is a little similar, with a slow build of tension that leads into a jagged bridge demonstrating the band’s further exploration with forms different to their previous release. The sketches seem to inhabit similar roles on the album, but fall short of ‘Window Seat’ and ‘Rubidium.’

So while this is thematically consistent, ambient nu-jazz, there’s a dip in the compositions across the ten pieces. The album might have been better served by one more cohesive song as opposed to the sketches and its least successful moment, ‘4096 Colours’ which plods through its reverb before just sort of dissipating – but there’s still a lot to savour. Fans of ambient music might want to try this one out, along with nu-jazz fans who like their electronics – keeping in mind that it’s an organic if cold sounding electronic element. Fans of Portico Quartet’s ‘older’ sound might be thrown at first, but the changes aren’t insurmountable. Keep listening.

BRAND X Unorthodox Behaviour

Album · 1976 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.87 | 29 ratings
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While Brand X’s debut is highly derivative of the band's fusion heroes, that’s not necessarily an insurmountable problem. In fact, ‘Unorthodox Behaviour’ has some blisteringly good moments, even if from start to finish the compositions aren’t all as powerful as the opener or as effective as ‘Euthanasia Waltz.’ If nothing else, this album will remind you that Collins is a great drummer.

The fact that the record instantly brings the Mahavishnu Orchestra to mind puts the listener into familiar territory. It’s a fair comparison, as would be a mention of Billy Cobham or Weather Report’s work – both their early atmospheric output and slicker pieces. But that same aspect, that familiarity, also adds to the absence of discovery for the listener. There aren’t enough surprises here and many songs lack melodic muscle. ‘Born Ugly’ for instance, despite a nice Santana/McLaughlin-esque solo in from Goodsall, is indicative of such shortfalls. There are some quirks to the arrangement, yes, but no grit to the funk. ‘Smacks of Euphoric Hyst’ doesn’t really go anywhere and the title track doesn’t have a pay-off, it seems to do so little with its running time in a way that say, Miles Davis’ ‘In a Silent Way’ is never guilty of.

On the other hand, ‘Running on Three’ is another fantastic charge of energy, with Collins driving the band into high gear before they rein it in again for ‘Touch Wood’ where, in part thanks to the acoustic guitar, the track feels like one of the pieces least indebted to the past. It’s actually a toss-up for my favourite on the album (the other being ‘Nuclear Burn.’) This inclusion of acoustic guitar is one of the most distinctive aspects of ‘Unorthodox Behaviour’ and something I think is a really welcome aspect of their sound – especially in ‘Euthanasia Waltz.’

After finishing the album however, I’m often left feeling that I just heard something good, something that’s great at times, but not an album that floors me. Still, three stars overall, with a couple of five star moments throughout.

DAVE BRUBECK Jazz Impressions of Japan

Album · 1964 · Cool Jazz
Cover art 4.66 | 7 ratings
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The Dave Brubeck Quartet is pretty damn wonderful on their third ‘Impressions’ record, released not long after their commercial peak. If this album isn’t as well-known as monsters like ‘Time Out’ or ‘At Carnegie Hall’ I’d argue that it shouldn’t be too far behind. While it’s not a masterpiece, it’s an essential Brubeck work and deserves some extra attention.

A mostly contemplative set, there’s an ethereal quality to a lot of the pieces, as the influence of Japanese scales is skilfully interwoven with more familiar Brubeck fare – this is done most convincingly (to my ears) in the beautiful ‘Koto Song’ with its subtle cymbal and tom work from Morello and stand-out performances from Dave and Paul.

In fact, Morello employs a wide range of Japanese percussion instruments throughout, really adding to the Eastern tone of proceedings, ensuring this is one of the quartet’s most satisfying and distinctive records. While it is dominated by quieter moments and relaxed tempos, such as ‘Rising Sun’ with Desmond’s honeyed alto leading, or the mournful ‘Fujiyama’ which is another stand out, there is some snap to proceedings. Opener ‘Tokyo Traffic’ is jaunty and reflects the busy city, as does ‘Toki’s Theme’ (which also served as a characters theme song from a cancelled television series) and appears to be the song that has the most fun.

There are no missteps here; Dave Brubeck has soaked up the feel of urban and pastoral Japan while on tour and returned to New York to blend it with Cool Jazz in what is easily one of the Quartet’s best.

FREDDIE HUBBARD Hub-Tones

Album · 1962 · Hard Bop
Cover art 4.61 | 14 ratings
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On ‘Hub Tones’ we’re treated to one of Hubbard’s best hard bop records.

Having said that, only two of the numbers are as ‘hard’ as one might expect from Hubbard. One is the excellent title track, with great solos all around, and the other ‘For Spee’s Sake’ which is a little more conventional (especially by having Jarvis’ solo moments thrown in toward the end of the song as many drum features are.)

Both Herbie Hancock’s piano, and, on the first of many collaborations with Hubbard, James Spaulding’s flute and alto, help bring a new dimension to the music. Of course Hancock is his usual wonderful self – one of my favourite solos from him appearing toward the end of the excellent ‘Prophet Jennings’ – and Spaulding sounds great too. His flute is a welcome addition and appears in a dialogue Hubbard’s trumpet on ‘Lament for Booker’ and in more supporting or soloist roles elsewhere.

While Hubbard’s phrasing is more distinctive and varied than it has been on previous records, in fact, significantly so, part of what makes ‘Hub Tones’ shine is the arrangements, especially with the terrific version of ‘You’re My Everything,’ or the manner in which the rest of the group rise and support him with their own performances.

Hard to choose a favourite moment from this one, and so I won’t even try, but instead leave it with a recommendation, this is easily one of the best records from the early stages of his career and well worth picking up.

FREDDIE HUBBARD Hub Cap

Album · 1961 · Hard Bop
Cover art 4.01 | 5 ratings
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Across a long career like Freddie Hubbard’s, where do all of the great albums fit that aren’t any better or worse than each other exactly? I often compare this album to ‘Hub Tones’ for some reason, though it’s closer in feel to his first two – it’s basically a good hard bop record.

Freddie Hubbard’s third has numbers that charge ahead (the title track and ‘Plexus’ come to mind) and the ballad or ballad-like piece – here the lovely ‘Cry Me Not’ – and combines them with a few pieces that are typical of the genre and not poor by any stretch, but not truly memorable either. Adding trombone to his line-up has filled out the band at times, but not resulted in any major shifts in sound. While the playing of Philly Joe Jones here is a standout (along with Hubbard who ought to be of course) the pieces don’t exactly stay with me. ‘Luana’ is a little different, though it begins to wear a little in the middle, whereas there’s a bit more swing to other pieces but once again, nothing much to make them standout. In fact, if it weren’t for the opening two and the superb ‘Plexus’ this Hubbard record wouldn’t seem as strong for me.

His next, ‘Ready for Freddie’ is a more distinctive set that demonstrates a little more spark when it comes to arrangement and solos, and reintroduces McCoy Tyner to the line-up, whose playing is always welcome.

CURTIS MAYFIELD There's No Place Like America Today

Album · 1975 · Jazz Related RnB
Cover art 2.76 | 3 ratings
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The obvious highlight, anti-gun song ‘Billy Jack’ isn’t enough to salvage this album, which at first glance, has the potential to be one of Curtis’ most biting and hard-hitting releases since ‘Superfly,’ released just three years ago in 1972. The wonderful cover art and the title just beg for a protest album to rival works by Sly, Gaye or something from Curtis’ own back catalogue.

Of course, it’s unfair of me to expect an artist to look over their own shoulder or to judge ‘…America Today’ in terms of what it could have achieved. And while this is a step away from previous works, it’s not a large one nor a wholly exciting one. While the almost torpid tempos and lethargic funk that infuses the songs here can be effective, a few blasts of horns in ‘Billy Jack’ or ‘Love to the People’ don’t balance out the largely unmemorable melodies and arrangements seen elsewhere. Probably what’s most surprising (or not, based on his previous two releases) is that the vocal arrangements are not very strong – a case in point being ‘Jesus,’ a song which is a candidate for the most bland song he’s written.

‘When Seasons Change’ and ‘Hard Times’ are a little better and the minor hit ‘So in Love’ is classic Curtis, it’s nice to hear the organ and the horns playing full and bringing some extra soul to the album. However, I do miss the lush strings in some of these songs, and the grittier funk so satisfying in other albums. With regret I have to remind myself that ultimately two or three great songs, even two or three great Mayfield songs, certainly don’t make a masterpiece, or even a career highlight.

I’d urge people new to Curtis’ work to start elsewhere, perhaps ‘Curtis’ or ‘Superfly.’

PORTICO QUARTET Isla

Album · 2009 · Nu Jazz
Cover art 4.02 | 4 ratings
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Portico Quartet’s ‘Isla’ is distinctive nu-jazz with a moody, sombre feel. The group are sometimes likened to Radiohead – and there’s something fitting about the comparison, if taken as a statement about the darker, even melancholic atmosphere both bands can create. But rather than this notion (which isn’t the only tone they display in any event) what I find most surprising in terms of sound, is the ‘Hang.’ The Hang is a little like a large, cymbal or UFO-shaped bell that sounds a bit like a steel drum, often played with hands and fingers. On ‘Isla’ it features as both a percussive and lead instrument, stealing the show at times.

The band’s second album, and their last to feature Mulvey on the Hang, ‘Isla’ is an at times urgent, often reflective series of generally composed pieces dominated by Wyllie’s soprano and tenor. There is a strong emphasis on the melodies throughout, whether the rhythm section is being unobtrusive or somewhat busier. In fact, one of the great rewards of this album is the attention to dynamic throughout, exemplified in ‘Dawn Patrol’ and ‘The Visitor,’ where the rhythm section evokes the swells of an ocean and where the lead voices are careful to build, and who are certainly willing to play softly when needed. This is also apparent on more minimalistic pieces, such as ‘Life Mask’ one of the most interesting songs on ‘Isla’ – becoming a tender ballad after a semi-tortured intro, and featuring subtle sampling throughout.

One of my other favourites is the highly memorable ‘Clipper’ where bass and drums show a little more aggression between a series of softer passages that almost ache, in what could pass as a stunning pop song – similar ground that’s visited on bonus track ‘Subo’s Mental Meltdown,’ but with a slightly funkier approach.

In a landscape stuffed with modern jazz classics from the last sixty or more years, and nu-jazz still going strong for at least a third of that, Portico Quartet have definitely caught my attention. I’ll be looking for their debut, along with their self-titled 2012 release, and anticipating more great music too.

FULLMOONS Live in Studio

Album · 2009 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Greek band ‘Fullmoons’ blend rock, folk and funk with jazz on their ‘Live in Studio’ album, released independently before the untimely death of their guitarist in 2011.

There’s a jazzy-overtone to the music, in terms of the improvisational aspects, or the hard-bop like trading off of solos, but at the same time there’s a varied approach to the rhythm section and song structure that is at times, more in the vein of rock and progressive rock.

The liner notes reveal that “all tracks were recorded live in one take within a day…we sacrificed the artificial perfection that editing can provide because we wanted to preserve improvisation and to capture one moment in time, sounding exactly like we do when we perform live” which is great, the band sound together and the solos are neither lost nor overbearing in the mix. Generally speaking, it is Yiannis Legakis’ soprano and tenor saxophones, along with Yiannis Apostolidis’ guitar that are given the bulk of spotlight, though this doesn’t detract from the group feel, especially on ‘Funky Moon’, ‘Half Smile’ or the cruising ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ where both bassist Kostas Simatos and drummer Yiannis Varthalitis seem to catch the ear more often.

For me what appeals most on ‘Live in Studio’ is the Greek folk music influences, which at times have a bit of an epic sweep and other times bring a more traditional sound, blended with the funk or rock approach. ‘Byduska’ for instance, which bassist Kostas Simatos told me is the name of a traditional folk dance commonly found in South Balkans and Northern Greece, has a kind of charged feel to its upbeat tempo, and with the haunting (if short) sax solo, is probably my favourite piece on the album. I do have a fondness for music which blends cultural approaches, and on that level ‘Live in Studio’ is highly satisfying. ‘Pondos’ is similar – it’s almost warlike-feel evoking the bloody history of Greece and Turkey. Yiorgos Lellis’s keyboards star here, ranging from menacing textures to a nimble electric piano that at times floats over subtle shifts in the beat. In fact, Lellis employs more than a few sounds throughout the album, sometimes providing flute or other horns to give the band a fuller sound.

‘Fegaraki’ (Little Moon) also makes effective use of folk material before the beat slows to a Pink Floyd-like tempo for another of Apostolidis’ blazing guitar solos, in a build-up approach that’s revisited on the closing track, which perhaps more than any other song on the album works as an extended showcase for solos from the principal players.

I’d have loved to hear even more folk-influence on this album, but as it is I got a good dose of it, in an at times high energy, at times funky, at times moody, and even once, swinging album of jazz rock.

A big thanks to Kostas for the review copy.

CHARLES MINGUS Mingus Plays Piano

Album · 1964 · Post Bop
Cover art 3.90 | 7 ratings
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When I first came across it, the idea of ‘Mingus Plays Piano’ was pretty exciting, I wondered if there would be some raucousness or bite, especially as the album was recorded only a few months after ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.’ But instead this is quite introspective – and at times very moving – which in the end, makes it all the more pleasing.

And does not render the music toothless by any means.

In a way this album has a power similar to that of ‘The Black Saint…’ just in a more melancholy manner, and it might even have served as a great ‘come down’ for Mingus. A chance to step back and relax after the controlled chaos of recent recordings.

So is ‘Mingus Plays Piano’ an example of how constraint produces creativity – did using piano and only piano help him create such wonderful pieces? Or should we mythologise his and all creative genius and simply say, "it’s in him, it’s in Mingus"? Either way, the album demonstrates Mingus’ skill for improvisation and composition, along with a vulnerability that his bear-like, big band, double-bass-wielding persona may have eclipsed. At times it’s hard for me to reconcile something beautiful like ‘Myself When I am Real’ or the uncertainty in the snippet of studio chatter, with the man who was said to break one of Jimmy Knepper’s teeth and forever hamper the trombonist’s playing.

The album features a few standards, including ‘Body and Soul’ and ‘I’m Getting Sentimental Over You’ which are both lovely, but perhaps no more lovely than other performer’s takes. While I really like ‘I Can’t Get Started’ it’s the originals that are most exciting on ‘Mingus Plays Piano.’ ‘Old Portrait’ and the wonderful ‘Myself When I am Real’ (to later reappear in a different form on ‘Let My Children Hear Music’) which is reflected in the closing ‘Compositional Theme Story…’ The two make a pair of exploratory, often touching pieces of music, moments that the album would suffer most greatly without.

Elsewhere Mingus does hint at the wild feel his music generally has, with parts of ‘Meditations for Moses’ or the rumbling ‘Roland Kirk’s Message.’ It also lurks in the swagger found in ‘Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues,’ a real surprise in the greater context of the album, as the piece takes a bluesy approach and brings a late-night bar scene to mind.

It’s probably the more reflective pieces on ‘Mingus Plays Piano’ that I enjoy most and while not every song presented is as memorable as the opener for instance, it’s probably going to be enjoyable for not only the curious Mingus fan, but fans of improvised piano in general. In fact, this does bring Keith Jarrett’s ‘Koln Concert’ to mind at times, serving as a nice precursor to what Jarrett would expand upon in greater detail and abandon years later, though here Mingus demonstrates restraint in terms of the scope of his ideas. One of my favourite albums with which to escape the hassles of day to day living, and one of my favourite Mingus records.

WEATHER REPORT Mysterious Traveller

Album · 1974 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.85 | 24 ratings
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On ‘Mysterious Traveller’ a shuffling of the line-up enables a step toward the funkier, slicker fusion the band would soon be playing, but a sound they hadn’t full embraced just yet, as not every piece turns away from the more ethereal music of earlier albums.

The first few Weather Report albums produced some of my favourite pieces in jazz fusion, but across this record I don’t find the funkier pieces as effective. This doesn’t mean I think ‘Mysterious Traveller’ irreversibly flawed either, but ‘Cucumber Slumber’ for instance, doesn’t seem to have enough variation to hold my interest the whole way through. New bassist Alphonso Johnson certainly adds some pep to the piece, but I find the group’s approach to funk much more satisfying on the exciting ‘Nubian Sundance’ which also incorporates some African elements, mixed in with Zawinul’s sonic layering. In fact, he trots out a fair range of sounds on the song, seeming to have a great time with Wilburn’s urgent beat to ride atop of.

While some of Zawinul’s explorations on the keys don’t exactly fall down, something like the moody ‘Scarlet Woman’ is fascinating to me – because I can’t decide whether I enjoy it or find my ears getting ‘zapped’ every time he and Shorter sync up. While you’ll hear less of Shorter on this album than on prior releases, he still gets time for a nice solo on the title track, whereas elsewhere, on the more ambient pieces, he’s much more supportive, as if considering the effect of every note.

‘Jungle Book’ is quite a gentle closer, but one less sombre than the surprising ‘American Tango,’ which is still one of my favourite Weather Report pieces. Vitous’ only credit on the album, this piece is something of a stumbling ballad, with what should be jarring keys from Zawinul – but somehow their spacey immediacy gives the song something extra, even with what’s almost an awkward, lumbering and brief detour in there just before the long fade, with Shorter’s soprano tugging at the heart.

A Top Fifty Billboard release, this album would be something of a gateway between their more commercially successful period and the ‘In a Silent Way/Bitches Brew’ influenced output of their first three albums. Still one of my favourites of theirs, and probably not one that should be overlooked due to its transitional aspects.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN Trio Of Doom (with Jaco Pastorius & Tony Williams)

Live album · 2007 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 2.50 | 9 ratings
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Mostly live from the Havana Jam Festival in 1979, the ‘Trio of Doom’ album comes from something of a supergroup in terms of line-up, but also from something less than a side project, the trio apparently having been assembled expressly for the live show. While the three later recorded in the studio too, those pieces are not are raw as the live set, and suffer in comparison.

With Williams, McLaughlin and Pastorious together here, expectations should be high, though for me, they aren’t met. The line between ‘exciting improvisation’ and ‘aimlessness’ is criss-crossed too often for me, in spite of great individual performances and a wonderful ‘togetherness.’ Tony Williams is impressive, almost monstrous throughout the live tracks, while the studio cuts seem to pale with its cleaner sound and shorter running time. In fact, had the album been a longer live set, I think I’d have enjoyed it more. Taken together, the overall effect is almost redundant. I understand the desire to record in a controlled environment, but the studio versions, especially that of the powerful ‘Dark Prince’ (composed by McLaughlin,) don’t contain much fire and I feel the ‘Trio of Doom’ album would have been more memorable without them.

Jaco’s ‘Continuum’ is quite nice, it even approaches soothing and William’s ‘Para Oriente’ is probably the stand out, bringing some funk to their jamming and taking the piece all over the map at times. Passages of ‘Are you the One, Are you the One?’ represent some of the more unsatisfying moments, as if the three players were struggling for something memorable but never quite found it. In fact, that’s partly the problem for this one, though at the same time it is by no means a horrible release. I’m torn between suggesting this for fans only, especially of Williams who is the element who could have brought things up to three stars for me, even if ultimately, this is two albums in one. The live and the studio. And because the studio versions don’t bring much to the table, it’s not really a three star record in my book.

SANTANA Shape Shifter

Album · 2012 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 3.31 | 6 ratings
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In essence there are only three things ‘wrong’ with this album as I see it – one; it’s a little overproduced, two, the hints of ‘world music’ are not very strong in spite of what the package suggests, and three, it’s not an amazing album.

For an album not to be amazing is certainly forgivable, and I am enjoying ‘Shape Shifter’ with its focus on the guitar as a lead instrument, as opposed to an instrument that gets showcased between guest vocalists. And by ‘lead’ I mean it in terms of main focus, rather than its potential for jazz-fusion soloing. There’s nothing on ‘Shape Shifter’ that approaches the transcendence of say, ‘Caravanserai’ but it’s still Santana, still effective overall and distinctive at times.

In pre-release press, Carlos mentioned the band’s landmark 1972 album in relation to 'Shape Shifter,' and it bears some resemblance, in terms of its instrumental focus (the album has only true vocal track) and its occasional Latin moments, but not a lot of jazz. It’s more of a pop rock album at times, though that’s probably almost as misleading as comparing it to ‘Caravanserai.’ Most certainly ‘Shape Shifter’ is pop-influenced – blending aspects of his ‘Smooth’ era and select parts of his past, wilder efforts with some few steps toward world music. Admittedly, this North American Indian component isn’t a large feature, but it’s welcome when it does appear, most notably in the opening song, which is dramatic but still great stuff.

In terms of production, the use of keyboards rather than piano, and the very clean, almost plastic guitar sound that can be heard on many of the rhythm tracks, adds to the slick, partially unpleasant feel to some of the sonics. While it’s nice to hear an organ simulated on ‘Shape Shifter,’ some of the other synth parts don’t seem to gel, like in ‘Dom.’ Not to pick on the keyboards, they don’t stick out like a sore thumb or anything, but I didn’t find them effective on every song. Thankfully, much of the guitar solos are presented in a form that’s a little more raw, I feel I can just make out some of the attack on the strings – not sure if this has anything to do with Santana releasing this on his own (new) label ‘Starfaith Records’ but it’s nice to hear in any event.

Compositionally there’s a lot to like, despite a sameness to some of the material. The opener is probably the best piece on the album, while some of the more ballad-influenced material like ‘In the Light of a New Day’ or ‘Angelica Faith’ making use of the quintessential Santana guitar phrasing. Elsewhere it sounds like more of a band effort, especially in the early stages and latter half. In fact, it’s when they let more of the Latin rather than Pop feel into the record that I find myself enjoying ‘Shape Shifter’ most – tracks like ‘Macumba in Budapest’ or ‘Mr Szabo’ show this, with its percussion and use of keyboard. Even the vocal cut, ‘Eres La Luz’ has some of that feel. In addition there’s ‘Nomad’ where the band gets rocking. Here the keyboard solo reminds me a little of something like Flame Sky from ‘Welcome’ perhaps, and Carlos himself is spurred on to get a little more aggressive.

Despite being uncomfortable reviewing an album so soon after its release, I do feel that three stars or ‘good but not essential’ is a fair assessment of this one. Fans looking for moments akin to Santana’s first forays into jazzier material will not find it here. Few would truly expect that, I imagine, but fans in need of a rest from the (at times) formulaic approach that has dominated his work in recent years, should at least check ‘Shape Shifter’ out and make their own decision.

JIMMY SMITH Root Down

Live album · 1972 · Soul Jazz
Cover art 4.40 | 8 ratings
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Go Jimmy! This is one of my all-time favourite live albums, and if you’re a fan who doesn’t own this one, then get the Verve reissue with its unedited tracks, it’s well worth it. ‘Root Down’ is a really energetic record that just storms along. Jimmy Smith is like a wizard and while his Hammond is the centrepiece throughout, he’s really egged on by the rest of the players, especially Humphrey’s kit and the guitar of Arthur Adams – which is a little more rock-influenced than you might expect from a Jimmy Smith record. In fact, this album really surprised me when I first heard it and just one listen to the power of ‘Sagg Shootin' His Arrow’ and I was ready for more.

While Smith gets more soulful and bluesy on ‘For Everyone Under the Sun’ or ‘After Hours’ and the Al Green cover, ‘Let’s Stay Together’ everyone seems inspired to keep wowing the audience. In fact, despite the fantastic performances on the title track and ‘Sagg Shootin’ His Arrow’ this version of the Green hit is just as enjoyable, with its touches of percussion, loving treatment of the melody and energetic soloing. ‘Root Down (And Get It)’ is another highlight and showcase for Jimmy’s more aggressive playing, like the closer, the hard funk fusion of ‘Slow Down Sagg.’

When comparing this album to the others in his discography, there’s a sense of it being a little special due to how different it is, and that sums up my feelings pretty well. While his soulful touch is still present, this one also shows a more fiery side to Smith’s playing too. Very highly recommended for Jimmy Smith and organ fans. And for the curious too.

BILLY COBHAM Spectrum

Album · 1973 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 4.43 | 38 ratings
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Cobham delivers quite an attack on his first solo album, developing a style of fusion that it is somehow both aggressive and smooth – the funk is mostly fast and the rock is mostly flowing, creating something both unlike the ‘Mahavishnu Orchestra’ and deeply indebted to it at the same time.

‘Spectrum’ is fairly relentless, firing away right off the mark, where Cobham’s charging drums compete with solos from Hammer and Bolin in ‘Quadrant 4.’ It sets the tone for much of the album, though hardly all of it. Billy has certainly gathered a great lineup, and they manage to get a lot out of the ‘full steam’ ahead approach to some of the music, but probably more enjoyable to me are the funkier, somewhat slower pieces. These establish more of a groove, like ‘Taurian Matador’ or the fantastic ‘Stratus’ which is led by the beat and wonderfully effective bass line from Lee Sklar. The piece has a more relaxed feel, as if no-one is trying to impress anyone, listener or each other, but is instead having a great time. Everyone feeds off the vibe, whether it’s the keys or the wonderful lead work from Bolin.

Certainly every piece isn’t a wondrous composition but there are enough great moments on the record to make for pretty exciting stuff. While not a highlight, ‘Red Baron’ is certainly fun and elsewhere flute and saxes add welcome texture to the record, as ‘Spectrum’ sometimes suffers (to my ears) from an unpleasant synth sound. This isn’t an awful thing by any stretch, but I just didn’t enjoy it all that much.

But overall? Four stars easy.

WAY OUT WEST The Effects of Weather

Album · 2010 · World Fusion
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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‘The Effects of Weather’ is another impressive blend of world music and jazz, pulling the listener in and out of countries from parts of Europe, Africa, South East Asia and Australia. While I prefer their previous album to this one, that’s more a reflection of personal enjoyment rather than quality. ‘Effects…’ is just as good, and develops the band’s already fascinating sound in a way that suggests Dung Nguyen has taken even more of a leadership role this time around.

Part of me thinks of their last album ‘Old Grooves for New Streets’ as being ‘led’ by Knight but here I feel like Nguyen’s range of stringed instruments star more so. Whether it’s his modified electric guitar or the traditional Vietnamese instruments (the dan bau and the dan tranh) his jangling and singing lines are once again weaving in and out of the rhythms but also acting more as focal points, often leading pieces, such as in one of the highlights, blues workout ‘Blues for a Jungster’ or taking great solos like in the African influenced piece ‘The Seddonista.’

That’s not to say the rest of the band have melted away, they’re still there and the fusion of musical styles is still key to their sound. The ‘Droop Street Breakdowns’ for instance are reminiscent of ‘Old Grooves…’ and demonstrate the seemingly effortless blending of styles that the band achieves. In fact, even if some of the melodies here aren’t as memorable for me this time around, it allows more of that melding already mentioned, and here, almost as much as the guitar, Pereira and Jayaweera’s percussion and drums respectively are just as important to pulling the varied styles together. New drummer Jayaweera’s slightly busier drumming on this album actually seems to force some songs into slightly more abstract territory (‘Music for Six Friends’ for example). Knight and Williamson’s trumpet and saxophones are arranged a little more sparingly, but they still solo and still work the melodies, though there’s probably a shade less aggression to their roles. And I do mean a shade, it’s probably not that much – you can take Williams in ‘The Seddonista’ or Knight during ‘Music For April’ for evidence of energy.

In some ways quite a different album to their last release, but what is familiar is just as welcome – ‘The Effects of Weather’ is more great World Fusion from ‘Way Out West.’

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA Libertango

Album · 1974 · Latin Jazz
Cover art 4.08 | 5 ratings
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I imagine that without the Gilliam film ‘12 Monkeys’ in the 1990s, it would have taken longer for me to be exposed to Astor Piazzolla. But I’m glad it happened then, because I’ve been fascinated by the bandoneón (closer to a concertina than an accordion) ever since; it possess such a dark range, able to transform the tango into something as sinister as it is beautiful.

Of course, tango traditionalists weren’t happy with the classically trained Piazzolla’s ‘nuevo tango’ while he was developing it in the 1950s, which incorporated influences from the jazz and classical worlds, certainly evident in this album, named for his most famous composition ‘Libertango.’ Once I would have found it doubtful that an entire album could be based around the tango, but indeed it can, that was a younger, more foolish me. Glance at the list of instruments present on this release, and you’ll see that Piazzolla is ably supported in creating interesting variations of the tango.

Whether it’s the urgency that the hi-hats add to the amazing title track, with its film-score string section and sharp rhythm, or the marimba in ‘Meditango’ there are dozens of small touches that flesh out and support the at times creepy, sometimes romantic sound of Astor’s bandoneón. And it’s a powerful tool for suspense, take the stalking introduction of ‘Adiós Nonino’ – one of the more interesting pieces, complete with an great closing organ solo – or it’s follow up, ‘Violentango’ where the piano chords hold steady round a frantic rhythm section and wild dancing of Piazzolla’s fingers across the buttons. Structurally, a lot of the tangos here are more like classical compositions, possessing something akin to self-contained movements, like the wonderful ‘Meditango’ which runs a gamut of emotions, passages and tempos on its journey.

If you’ve a passing interest in tango or are looking for a new branch of Latin-jazz to explore, then look here to start, or at least, to any of the works by the ‘Great’ Astor.

JANKO NILOVIĆ Funky Tramway (aka Funky Music)

Album · 1975 · Exotica
Cover art 3.02 | 2 ratings
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Dramatic, (eclectically) all over the place, funky, surprising, yeah, all of those things and more. True to his ability to write and produce music in an astounding array of styles, Janko Nilovic returns to material with some relationship to the masterful ‘Rythmes Contemporains’ from the year before. While ‘Funky Tramway’ doesn’t deliver the same level of exciting pieces, or the same depth of exploration, it’s still one of his best records.

The pieces here are generally longer than most of his releases, giving the musicians more time to explore some interesting themes. The songs range across funk, jazz, pop, psyche, rock and novelty genres, with funk being the approximate overreaching banner. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this album is the introduction (or intrusion?) of the synths, a sound that I at first didn’t think suited Nilovic’s take on exotica, but then, somehow the spacey sounds work well enough. They contrast if not compliment the horns and funk approach common to a lot of the songs. What it does match is the airy, female wordless vocals that feature in so many of his recordings, and so here Nilovic continues to explore and meld at least.

That dreamy atmosphere he creates so well with such use of vocals is typified by ‘Flemish Suite’ where they lurk beyond a jaunty piano intro, and slow everything down to a Pink Floyd-esque tempo in the best example of how the synthesisers are effective. Elsewhere his knack for writing material that would suit any number of cop shows has not waned, as parts of ‘Underground Party’ evoke this, despite the big-sounding choruses. In fact, if anything pulls this particular release down for me, it’s the use of vocals throughout. They aren’t terrible at all, and they always fit what the music is doing, I just don’t always enjoy them. ‘Manneken-Pis Rock’ is a prime example, though it’s got some good counterpoint going at times…I don’t know. Maybe it’s too chipper?

Where Janko jumps into a funky ones with both feet is where this album succeeds most, such as the Shaft-like title track, ‘Disconnected Song’ or ‘Gipsy Funk’ each which have some nice beats and soloing from the keys. ‘Atomium 82’ is reminiscent of the dramatic vocal chorus he’s often employed, and it alternates between quieter moments and what might be a synth freak-out. ‘Little Butcher’s Street’ is worth mentioning too, it satisfies my need for some longer soloing and ‘build’ in a song, though I could use a few guitar or horn solos too.

In fact, the more I write about this album, the more I realise the synth is the real star here. So if you aren’t a big fan of that sound but you’re looking to add another Janko album to your collection, have a listen to a few tracks first. It’s still got that familiar music-library exotica style, and definitely remains one of his better records, but with a distinct change in the sound of lead voices. So I can't go as high as 'excellent' here, but for a fan, I recommend seeking it out.

MOOSE LOOSE Moose Loose

Album · 1974 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.00 | 2 ratings
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On their self titled album, 'Moose Loose,' led by guitarist Eberson, a pretty good debut is presented. 'Aggressive' is a fair description of what they do for the most part, it's a pretty powerful set of sounds, where drummer Thowsen, keyboardist Blix and Eberson himself seem to struggle for dominance. While channelling The Mahavishnu Orchestra helps establish the sense of forcefulness, there a little bit of subtlety here and there, but it’s still an album that packs a punch. I can imagine that they’d have been a great live band.

‘Eber’s Funk’ typical of their hard approach, both sonically and compositionally. It’s a great opening shot, but it seems as if the engineer was told to keep things ‘just about in the red’, so there’s a sense that every instrument (save the bass) isn’t too far from peaking. It does add a sense of rawness that’s in stark contrast with a lot of the slicker fusion the followed the early 1970s, and perhaps borrows from the rock side of the music world. Featuring a great Eberson solo and some frantic drumming, this one is a winner. ‘B.M’ reminds me quite strongly of The Mahavishnu Orchestra again, and I’d actually recommend this album from Moose Loose to fans of TMO’s debut. ‘Flytende Øye’ continues the attack and gives a lot of room to Blix’s electric keys, while ‘Skakke Jens’ is more of a jam than a showcase. The piece feels a little awkward, as though the band were just a little too excited about the ‘stop-start’ approach and pushed the idea beyond its value.

Closing the album is the almost delicate ‘O Kjød’, starting off with unaccompanied piano and featuring Eberson on acoustic guitar. He takes his time with his lead work here and the duet never becomes a race, it’s a pleasant contrast to the rest of the album.

This Norwegian group would follow up with ‘Transition’ which is less charging and has a cleaner production, but here it’s much more blistering. If you like your fusion a raw then have a look here. A good album rather than something game changing or stunning.

GALAPAGOS DUCK The Removalists

Album · 1974 · Jazz Related Soundtracks
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Some credit can probably be given to the conditions of creating this album – working on a soundtrack seemed to sharpen the band's focus, allowing them to capitalise on individual strengths and the group dynamic.

The compositions, while still bearing some clear influences from Hancock and others, are memorable and varied. There’s a ‘good-time’ feel to some of the music, especially with an almost raucous tone to the opening sax solo of the ‘Suite’ for instance, but there’s still time for more introspection, even melancholy, with the second half. Before Levy takes it that way though, the band showcase a kind of light funk that they keep just interesting enough with solos. Once the piano takes its first gentle, exploratory steps into more pensive territory, we’re treated to a lovely build-up to a bit of a semi-waltz where the rest of the band returns. The piece is quite a showcase and sums up the tone of the whole album nicely.

From there ‘Galapagos Duck’ usher in another long piece, ‘Theme’ which is where the harder funk is to be found, momentarily bringing Hancock’s Head Hunters to mind and giving Hare a chance to show off. Despite the tempo change and unaccompanied flute solo toward the end, it’s much in the ‘head + trade-off solos’ format, though that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective.

‘Carter’ brings back that ‘good time’ feel with its electric piano, once again typifying the Australian cliché of laid back people on beaches with surf boards (or at least it does for me.) It’s a snappy little piece and works as a welcome interlude before the closing pieces, where the listener is reminded how effective ‘Take Five’ styled beats can be on ‘Kate Did’ where the energy is high, before ‘Self “Bloody” Control’ reaches a kind of middle ground between the funkier moments and the gentler piano outro of the ‘Suite.’

This is an enjoyable album, and probably my favourite of theirs, in fact, one of their early peaks, especially in terms of composition. With piano and saxophone taking the lion’s share of the spotlight, especially the soprano, which is usually washed with reverb to add to the lonesome feel to some of the passages, you’ll still notice the rhythm section but part of me thinks this Dave Levy’s album as much as the whole band’s.

PETER KNIGHT All the Gravitation of Silence

Album · 2006 · Nu Jazz
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Peter Knight’s ‘All The Gravitation Of Silence’ is an introspective album. It’s beautiful and ethereal, uncluttered – players are given a lot of space to weave their magic, and soloists especially, are supported by an attentive rhythm section. What Knight and his Quartet (with guest Magnusson on guitar) do so well, is exemplified by the sublime opener 'Peppercorns.’ I had only to hear a short sample to know I was on board. I needed this album.

The impressionistic or ‘sketched’ approach here is equal parts soothing and equal parts unpredictable. Now I know drawing attention to the improvisational aspect of a jazz record might seem like a tautology, and while melody is really important in this release, what’s achieved around the melody keeps me hooked too. Maybe it’s moments like hearing Floyd’s fills on ‘Eunoia’ for instance, or when any other performer gets the spotlight and does something I wasn’t expecting, I haven’t tired of this album. I keep hearing new things. It could be a special resonance of notes in one of Hopkin’s solos or a neat transition from the whole group, this album keeps giving.

Occasional moments of dissonance surprise throughout, like the experimental ‘Haiku Number 2 and 3’ or the menacing, tension-building bass in ‘Cruikshank Park.’ Just one piece on the album kicks up a gear, when ‘Frankie D’ gets a little ‘Bitches Brew' and Magnusson’s usually delicate guitar becomes wild, but elsewhere the music is more peaceful, led by Knight’s lovely tone. Knight himself is an eclectic and versatile player, one of the best trumpeters in Australia, and one of my favourite jazz composers, both in a sense of risk-taking and in fusing styles (across his whole output) but here especially for his care in creating and supporting harmonious textures as a leader. His playing is never disruptive to the mood and ‘All The Gravitation of Silence’ is not short of moments where you can forget where you are, where you can forget whatever you've been feeling before you put it on. Beautiful work.

HUBERT LAWS The Rite of Spring

Album · 1971 · Third Stream
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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With ‘Rite of Spring’ Hubert Laws brings jazz to an album completely made up of classical works, this time sourced mostly from Impressionist composers. Bach also makes an appearance, but perhaps the most impressive piece is Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ which serves as a wonderful title track. Arranger Don Sebesky would use Stravinsky again on ‘Giant Box’ two years later (also featuring Laws) but here the combination is probably more enjoyable, in terms of its suddenness and brooding nature, its unpredictable shifts of mood. In fact, through use of guitar and vibes, along with percussion, the piece, at times, takes on a South American folk or even tribal feel.

Now whether you believe jazz and classical music can be truly melded, it’s clear Laws can play both styles, and he demonstrates that a jazz sensibility can be taken to classical compositions. Not every piece benefits as much from the mixture, as the gentle, melancholy aspect of ‘Pavane’ for instance, isn’t diminished, but neither is it improved or altered too much. That sounded incredibly stuffy of me, but basically James’ electric piano and the percussion don’t compliment the material as well as the flute does in this instance. Overall, it’s still lovely. Conversely, the use of guitar (across the whole album) is another matter. While the classical style of playing brings Spain to my mind (doubtless because of Rodrigo) both Bertoncini and Scharf are quite important to the record, in part due to the kind of bridging role they play, working to flesh out the space between the jazz rhythm of bass and drums and the lead voices of flute or bassoon.

As is often the case when I put on a CTI-era Laws album, there’s a piece or two that fails to click with me. I am in no way a classical music buff, but it seems that the Impressionist and Romantic styled pieces play better than the Baroque stuff. The pomp of composers like Bach and Mozart don’t seem to marry with jazz as effectively, and certainly not always on the Laws’ albums I own. While the Bach movements are lively here, there’s something missing between the jazzy rhythm and the flighty lead voices.

‘Syrinx’ is another showcase for Laws, like Airegin on 'In the Beginning', who takes it as a solo piece, playing a duet with himself. It's a delicate and quite mysterious reading of the Debussy piece, and while it’s not the highlight for me, it has a quality.

So if you like any of Laws, or CTI’s efforts to merge classical and jazz, wherever you’ve come across it, and feel like you need a bigger hit, then ‘The Rite of Spring’ has it. While not a collection of back to back triumphs, this should have enough interesting attempts to fuse two seemingly separate styles to keep you listening.

HUBERT LAWS Afro-Classic

Album · 1970 · Third Stream
Cover art 3.73 | 3 ratings
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‘Afro-Classic’ is very much in line with the variety a pop record often demands. Laws, joined by familiar players (who he would either use again or appear as guest on albums of their own) works their talents seamlessly into the material. Taking pop, classical and film scores as starting points, the album shows enough fire and enough restraint to be quite a satisfying listen, especially in its unashamedly ‘pop’ moments.

With a cool or at times almost dark tone, ‘Afro-Classic’ is more folk-sounding at times, thanks in part to the range of percussive sounds and guitar, but the album is also capable of going fairly straight classical, even if the vibes make for a surprising texture in the Allegro. ‘Theme from Love Story’ is sweet and Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain’ is given the Laws light-funk-jazz treatment, and serves as a knockout opener, featuring an kind of psychedelic solo from the fuzz-vibe and an almost aggressive Laws solo.

The second Bach piece is half-traditional, half blues and half jazz. (Yes, three halves. The jazz and blues can share with the classical aspects.) It ranges across gentle bass notes, washes of cymbal and the tinkling of electric keys behind the rich tone of the bassoon and the (Spanish) guitar and flute, to a more bluesy rhythm, and shows how well Sebesky and Laws can blend the two styles, not just across a whole album, but in a single piece.

The Mozart Flute Sonata is pleasant enough but perhaps a touch forgettable, but for me the strength of the album rests on its longer pieces anyway. Easily one of the better Laws albums, perhaps it’s not essential unless you’re a fan, but it’s still great. In fact, the casual listener might want to start here if ‘In the Beginning’ isn’t handy. Often a delicate record, ‘Afro-Classic’ is very rewarding if you’re willing to sit back and let him do his work, and it does hold its share of surprising moments too.

HUBERT LAWS Morning Star

Album · 1972 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 2.00 | 1 rating
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Employing a similar approach to what Laws perfected a couple of years later with ‘In the Beginning’ the flautist is backed by a large cast on ‘Morning Star’, an album which is almost doomed to miss the lofty heights of that later release, by what could be described as a ‘sameness’ to the pieces, or more likely, an over-orchestration.

Certainly it’s not a boring album, but it doesn’t feel as adventurous as many of his others. Laws is nimble as ever, but he seems to be strolling at times, over a band that’s strolling too, giving a fair few of the pieces a kind of ‘easy-listening’ feel that isn’t always unwelcome, but can sort of slip into the background of the consciousness. It might even be the multiple flute players on the record, with the tones of the bass flute in particular having a soporific effect on me, but whatever it is exactly, even after repeated listens, this album just plays it too even for too long. Sebesky’s arrangements do not help in this regard, lacking some of the verve from his other work, something that surprised me as I generally enjoy what he does. On the ‘Look of Love’ influenced ‘Where is the Love’ the strings are effective enough, but that’s not always the case.

When things pick up a moment, like during the latin-esque ‘No More’, it’s nice to imagine the band sitting up a bit, and getting into it, though here as elsewhere, it’s probably a little cluttered arrangement wise. The flute and strings rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ is nice enough, and the tune is essentially heartbreaking, but it’s almost Disney-fied by the strings. Closing with a piece that represents a missed opportunity perhaps, to challenge the listener with a deeper look at the darkness it hints at musically, ‘What do You Think of This World Now?’ is a odd moment and I’m not sure what to think of it. It feels a little like an experiment that was only semi-successful, incorporating film-score moments with some scattered vocals and a brief section more in line with the rest of the album, before drifting off.

The title track sits somewhere between ‘No More’ and ‘Where is the Love’ but is not as memorable as either, despite some flash from Cobham and Laws providing perhaps the most effective solo on the record. Essentially a disappointing release, and perhaps I’m being a little hard on ‘Morning Star’ but it’s simply not wholly enjoyable for me. My recommendation, for what it’s worth, is to start elsewhere for a taste of Laws.

HUBERT LAWS In the Beginning

Album · 1974 · Pop Jazz/Crossover
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Hubert Laws is a monster of the jazz world when it comes to the flute, and if you glance over his discography and guest appearances, you’ll see he’s lent his talent to more than a few albums over the years. His other great love is classical music, and one of the features common to many of his jazz releases, is a classical composition or two. Partially this is the old CTI formula too, but it’s quite suited to Laws, who often expands these pieces or at the very least, gives them an alternate reading simply by virtue of using jazz instrumentation.

‘In the Beginning’ represents a high point in his 1970s output, drawing from a variety of styles he’d explored in the past, giving the listener a bit of classical, a hint of the Latin world, a good dose of funk and an overriding pop sensibility. While this album is hardly tame, its pop/crossover label is apt indeed, though I’d argue that this release is both more eclectic and adventurous in terms of material and instrumentation than others from the period. And it’s also true that ‘In the Beginning’ doesn’t have much of the snap of his early post-bop releases, but Laws remains inventive and thoughtful throughout and there’s a different energy to album.

Part of that energy comes from Gadd, who might be accused of cramming a bit too much into the pieces, but he makes for lively listening and knows how to relax when he needs to. Laws’ brother Ronnie features on tenor, and Bob James on keys, but perhaps more so than either player (including the usually highly distinctive Airto) the other attention grabbing instrument might just be Dave Friedman’s vibes, which are often quite prominent. In terms of arrangement, there’s a fair bit more going on than a typical ‘head, solo, head situation,’ and the opener typifies this with its tempo changes, swinging in the middle, before closing on some funk. The listener gets another good shot of funk on the closer, where Laws returns to ‘Mean Lene’, expanding it from its original form on as heard on his debut, both smoothing it out and complicating its structure.

Laws is so effective in a gentle setting, but on many of the pieces here he’s speedy and flowing, such as in the full-steam ahead rendition of Coltrane’s ‘Moment’s Notice’ or the duet with Gadd, ‘Airegin’, which is a great showcase for Laws. While ‘Reconciliation’ almost floats by without making much of a mark on me, my only serious concern is the reading of the traditional piece ‘Come Ye Disconsolate’ which is just too earnest – unlike the subtler ‘Restoration’ where the vibes and piano take a bit of the spotlight.

A grand surprise was the interpretation of Satie’s stunning ‘Gymnopédie No. 1’ which, as a solo piano piece, is one of my favourite moments in the history of classical music. Before hearing it, I was worried that in the CTI setting, its beauty might be buried, but while there is guitar, bass, strings, piano and flute, the arrangement allows a delicate trading of lead roles, with unobtrusive backing. Played a little slower than I am used to hearing the piece, Laws gets the most out of the emotional impact of those signature notes.

Perhaps his finest work from the 1970s, and my preferred album over ‘Morning Star’ and ‘Afro-Classic’ or his equally well-known, more classical themed, ‘Rite of Spring.’

WIBUTEE Sweet Mental

Album · 2006 · Jazz Related Rock
Cover art 4.00 | 2 ratings
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Electrojazz is a great description of Wibutee, but then, there is a bit of rock to go with the nu-jazz sound too, and on their last album, 'Sweet Mental' that rock-feel is probably best demonstrated by the catchy 'Aalo' where Hakon Karnstad’s tenor is used to play a sequence of riff-like lines, something used to great effect elsewhere on the album. In fact, the focus on arrangement rather than soloing (though there are solos too, not to worry if you need to hear them in your jazz) demonstrates the rock and pop approach, and adds to the memorable nature of much of the music within. You hear it and a lot of the melodies get stuck in your head right away. Thankfully, in this case that isn’t a hallmark of something that I’ve tired of quickly, coming back to this one many times over the months since I picked it up.

The varied electronic aspects are vital to the overall feel of ‘Sweet Mental’ which is powerful in establishing an at times sombre mood (‘Stereo Plains’ or ‘Sebastopol’ for instance) and the album could not do without them. After the contemplative opener, one of two vocal pieces, ‘Aalo’ is probably the most uptempo. Whether it’s the quieter, clean tones of the guitar or the keys, synth and celesta, the uncluttered use of the drum kit (or any instrument for that matter) throughout, the album just keeps its head above too much pensiveness with a few upbeat songs, ‘Two With Nature’ coming as welcome burst of sound toward the end of the album.

Elsewhere the electronics blend nicely with the rhythm section in little clicks and smaller sounds designed for texture, such as in the jagged ‘Travel with You’ - a stand out with its overdubbed horns and haunting synths, it’s enhanced with shifts in rhythm and a careful but highly effective layering of instruments. In ‘Sweet Mental’ the tenor becomes especially distinctive, in part due to the contrasting instrumentation surrounding it (which is again, nice thinking from the band) but also due to the style of play, with a focus 'parts' rather than long solos.

While I’m not entirely sold on the vocal pieces with their reasonably minimalist instrumentation (neither are poor but rather just not as enjoyable as the other pieces) ‘Sweet Mental’ melds its seemingly disparate elements into a really cohesive and emotive whole that is memorable on first spin and reveals deeper textures the longer you play it.

CHARLES MINGUS The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

Album · 1963 · Progressive Big Band
Cover art 4.85 | 59 ratings
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A triumph. For my money this is one of the most thrilling jazz albums recorded, a post-bop miracle, with a big band feel and a most welcome dose of film noir. More, it’s unashamedly romantic and when it doesn’t evoke the score to a 1940s detective film it’s like a drunken ballet or a raucous dance hall explosion.

Wonderfully, the pieces have been arranged in such a way that transitions between what sound like a quartet and a big band, are handled not just with attention to space, but with an eye to the overall mood of a piece – ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ is emotive and complex without being cold, part of why it’s an ‘all-time’ album.

Mingus plays bass and some piano on his compositions, but I mostly think of him as directing traffic from behind his double bass, urging the soloists to weave in and out of the rhythm (the saxes especially well), the drums to thump and the trumpet to talk. At other times, I find my ear drawn to the piano, it provides a great tonal contrast within the movements and motifs throughout (as does the flute.) But whether it’s Richardson and Butterfield chiming in with all those lower-register notes, the more wailing moments from the rest of the brass or the splashing, flailing cymbals from Richmond – it’s the effect of the whole that pleases me most. It’s a very together sounding record, despite all the overdubbing that Mingus is said to have required.

After I’ve claimed that this album is a ‘post-bop miracle’ there’s not much else to say really, even Mingus suggested that the listener could turf his other albums in place of this one, and of course you cannot, but if an artist had to stand by just one release, this would be a great one to hold up.

STOMU YAMASHITA Stomu Yamash'ta's East Wind : Freedom Is Frightening

Album · 1973 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.83 | 2 ratings
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Stomu’s East Wind was formed off the success of his touring theatre shows but the group delivers something more than a ‘side project.’ The compositions on ‘Freedom is Frightening’ do have a theatrical feel and are quite dramatic at times but I enjoy that. In some ways, the music reflects longer moments from his earlier soundtrack to ‘Man from the East,’ making good use of builds and dynamics, especially on the title track, where the swirling and droning eventually gives way to soloing from Boyle, and actually, Stomu plays with a fair amount of restraint. It works for the song, but I still would have liked some more aggression from him in the closing minutes.

The album is actually a fairly high-energy outing for the most part, evidenced by the repetitive but spiky ‘Rolling Nuns’ which is like the downhill slope after the build up on the title track. Once more Boyle is all over the piece and again he’s assisted by Gascoigne’s fuzzy synth, which brings just enough menace to the piece. Stomu plays harder, driving the song from the drum stool and it doesn’t really let up until everything stops for a reverb heavy vocal outro. Some of the nice percussive touches here are continued in the more mid-tempo centrepiece, ‘Pine on the Horizon’ which almost brings Gentle Giant or Mahavishnu Orchestra to mind at times, or at least, a more sedate version of either band. Not just due to violin and guitar interplay but in the composition, it’s probably the most varied song structurally, bringing in a range of rhythms and moods to its eleven-plus minutes. It really gets rocking toward the end as Boyle cuts loose again, where a horn section makes a surprise appearance, and while not awkward, seems to be a little bit tacked on, as if the brass could have been incorporated further.

Bringing down the curtain is ‘Wind Words’ where Stomu’s wife Hisako takes the lead, her violin soaring over Gascoigne’s vibes and the acoustic guitar. It’s a haunting piece and a fantastic way to end a mostly charging album.

Stomu fans will want to get this one, it’s one of his best, in a varied discography, and those who enjoyed ‘Go’ may want to do so too. Just keep in mind the space-feel is not present here, it’s classic fusion with a flair for the theatrical, though fans of Isotope may want to check this one out for Boyle alone.

JOHN ZORN Mount Analogue

Album · 2012 · World Fusion
Cover art 4.05 | 3 ratings
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I certainly feel lazy, guilty even, by adding my tiny voice to the host of others describing John Zorn’s 'Mount Analogue’ as ‘mysterious’ – but that’s the feel the music gives me.

Setting aside the impetus of the surrealist novel of the same name, this is indeed enigmatic music. A sense of the unknown is evoked when you listen to its single track, the music pulls you along a near forty minute trip through South American jungles, rivers, mountains and caves. Or so it does when I hear it.

Once again, much has been said of the accessibility of this release, and when compared to some of Zorn’s other works, it is at that. At times it’s downright pleasant and soothing, beautiful. In other passages there is a sense of menace that never really gets too dark, accented by percussive thumps and at times, harsh or unsettling chanting. But there’s such a lightness to the music elsewhere, whether it comes from the variety of bells or the vibes, or piano in the opening minutes, it’s there. (And by ‘light’ I don’t mean to suggest that it has no depth.)

And so what does it actually sound like? World music, definitely, jazz, certainly, the Latin and folk genres, yep and yep. But more useful perhaps, would be to come back to that word, ‘mysterious.’ At times this music sounds like it would fit the discovery of a thousand-year old Temple, or maybe be played during a Shaman’s dance. But just have a listen and see what you get, the music is certainly capable of suggesting other images.

On 'Mount Analogue' John Zorn composes and has the Cyro Baptista Banquet of the Spirits quartet perform the work. Kenny Wollesen's vibes in particular play a vital role in establishing and changing mood with suddenness or subtlety as required, deserving of much credit. Perhaps the other standout for me in terms of performance, which was more of a personal favourite, was the organ. Throughout, Marsella does exactly what’s needed (as he does on piano too for that matter) and I found myself seeking it out probably more often than any number of interesting percussive instruments or the strings of the oud.

In short, I loved it.

CASIOPEA Casiopea

Album · 1979 · Classic Fusion
Cover art 3.11 | 3 ratings
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dreadpirateroberts
Casiopea do fairly slick fusion that can get spacey but is mostly funk-influenced. Their first album includes a horn section on several songs, and even strings at times, but the chief focus is on the guitar of leader Issei Noro and the keys of Minoru Mukaiya, both which spend as much time establishing texture, working on riffs and melody as they do soloing or digging into anything tangled. But that’s not a weakness, the accessibility and melody are nice features, and it’s also not to say there are no solos at all. ‘Swallow’ for instance has some great solos from both players, and in fact, I’m reminded of Al Di Meola at times.

I do feel like this is a good album rather than an essential release. It’s got a nice amount of punch from the bursts of lockstep playing or up-tempo numbers like ‘Black Joke’ or ‘Space Road’ and contrasts this with cruising moments, even including a nice ballad of sorts, in ‘Tears of the Stars’ where Noro brings out the acoustic guitar. Opener ‘Time Limit’ is great, but my favourite piece is probably the fantastic ‘Midnight Rendezvous.’ Not every song is as distinctive as some of those mentioned, and at times the album seems ‘safe’ and I found myself wondering what Casiopea would sound like if they approached some of the pieces in a less composed manner. (I ought to check out some live tracks and do a bit of a comparison.)

At a production level, the ultra crisp and reasonably trebly bass sound does date the album a little, it has a bit of an 1980s feel that doesn’t sit all that well with me, but this is nitpicking to some extent. Because it doesn’t truly detract from the better compositions, and probably my chief concern is with the overall slickness of the songs, both in terms of sound and composition, which is clear from first listen.

Casiopea were one of the most durable fusion bands from Japan, releasing over thirty albums in their career, and this is certainly an impressive debut, even if I don’t think it’s essential. It’s still a good album and would probably work as a fitting (and logical) introduction to the band, so slowly, I'm going to dig into the rest of their discography.

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