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Sam Crowe Group
Towards the Centre of Everything
Whirlwind ****
NEW SEASON HIGHLIGHT
The best Whirlwind release so far? Well that depends on your criteria, but for me this is, based on the life in the performance and the quality of the compositions and improvising group interplay. While the pianist composer’s Synaesthesia three years ago showed a lot of promise it wasn’t an album that stayed with me for long but this new one, though, shaped by the twin pillars of on different tracks saxophonists Adam Waldmann and Will Vinson with new bassist Alan Hampton (who appears in singer/songwriter guise on the Kendrick Scott album Conviction), and new drummer Mark Guiliana recently in the UK with Brad Mehldau as half of Mehliana, is different. Will Davies, a long time Crowe associate is retained, and Kairos 4tet singer Emilia Mårtensson crops up on the fourth track ‘Back into the Earth’. Recorded in Brooklyn last year by famed engineer Mike Marciano this is a step up in terms of ambition all round for Crowe. But put all the ‘facts’ aside and what is there?

Well, the title track with Vinson taking the melody on is a kind of anthem that has a certain gravitational pull to it, and you’d guess that physics plays a part in ideas behind the album. Some of the other titles have that sort of direction (‘Gaia’, ‘The Arrow of Time’ or the EST-like intro to ‘Bad Science’), but the album sounds very untechnical as there is plenty of humanity and spontaneity to it, and while the recording does not feature Jasper Høiby who appeared on Synaesthesia there is a sense of a Phronesis influence here and there. Maybe that comes from Guiliana who of course was on Alive.

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Crowe’s first truly ‘naked’ solo happens on the ballad ‘Gaia’ and it’s skilfully weighted, while Hampton on woody upright bass keeps the pace down as Crowe gains momentum. Davies adds some great touches to warm the ensemble sound on ‘64 Interlude’, while the tasteful Waldmann’s saxophone contribution has a saltiness that then lends itself to lead on to Davies’ Lionel Loueke-like solo. The much vaunted English sense of melancholia (whatever that is exactly) you can guess is here a bit in Crowe’s writing although Towards the Centre of Everything is more urban than a pastoral album, and on a track such as ‘Back into the Earth’ takes on a New Age-y sophisticated jazz-rock dimension, a tune that Chick Corea would perhaps be pleased to have written. Crowe in the solo after Mårtensson’s Flora-like vocal shows he can develop an idea in the course of a real-time solo, and that’s what Towards the Centre of Everything is all about: a sense of ideas at work and an improvising sophistication that gives it staying power. Mehliana fans might want to start with the drum ’n’ bass-driven ‘The Global Brain’ where Crowe also shows what he can do on Rhodes, and clearly it’s not all about Brad any more, is it, when players like Crowe appear on a quality album such as this?

Crowe says a little grandly but unapologetically in the notes that “Music for me has always been a gateway to the infinite”, and there is a sense of scale on Towards the Centre of Everything, in the miasmic conjuring of ‘The Arrow of Time’ and yet there’s a contrasting intimacy on the ballads, particularly ‘Lydia’. At the end reprising ‘64’ Hampton’s bass leads off the tune rather than the piano earlier, and it’s an interesting contrast that works to draw attention to one of the best songs on a robustly creative album.

Released today. Sam Crowe top and the album cover above. Review originally published on 7 April 2013 

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Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck
The White House Sessions Live 1962
RPM/Columbia/Legacy ****
It was a fairly humdrum Tuesday in Camelot that August day, less than three months before the Cuban missile crisis. Not that there wasn’t a tricky decision or two to make, as one of the nine justices of the Supreme Court had resigned and President John F. Kennedy needed to move to replace him. But entertainment was never far away in the Kennedy White House, and on that late-summer’s day in 1962 two American jazz legends, Dave Brubeck and Tony Bennett, came together to perform at a concert thrown by the President for college students working as interns for the administration.

Recorded in the Sylvan Theater in the grounds of the White House the Teo Macero-produced master tapes lay peacefully in the Sony vaults until December last year, not long after Brubeck’s death. None of this music is known at all to the CD-buying public or digital generation, apart from ‘That Old Black Magic’ issued in isolation as long ago as the 1970s.

The thumping, almost metallic nature of the sound recording, takes a minute or two to get used to; but when the ear adjusts (there is definite tantalising period appeal), and after the ubiquitous ‘Take Five’, the best bits in the first half are the Chopin-esque ‘Thank You, Dziekuje’ and the 5/4 ‘Castilian Blues’, performed by the classic Brubeck quartet, the pianist plus Paul Desmond, alto sax; Eugene Wright, bass; and Joe Morello, drums.

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Joe Morello above left, Eugene Wright, Tony Bennett, and Dave Brubeck

But The White House Sessions Live 1962 is very possibly more for Tony Bennett fans, and the five tracks with the Ralph Sharon Trio in particular. Bennett and the trio really swing, and there’s both poignancy contained in these tracks on a song such as ‘Make Someone Happy’ and soppy exuberance in ‘(I Left My Heart In) San Francisco’.

‘Small World’ is the pick of the whole album, with Sharon’s accompaniment eclipsing Brubeck’s later on, although that’s not surprising given the two men’s long standing rapport stretching back to the 1950s. This kind of music is all about rapport, like all the best jazz. Bennett really sells these songs, and these performances stand up more than well with his best jazz-flavoured work: in my mind that’s the singer’s 1975 studio collaboration with Bill Evans.

Bennett joins the Brubeck Trio towards the end of this album and there are some good moments here, maybe not quite as magic-laden as the earlier portion of the concert provided by Bennett and Sharon’s trio but very impressive nonetheless particularly on ‘Lullaby of Broadway’. Bennett’s ad lib announcement after hearing a siren: "I’d know that was Eliot Ness," a joking reference to the Prohibition era enforcer, is still one more fascinating aspect of the album.  A significant reissue then, and a fine excuse to reassess Tony Bennett’s jazz work again, as well as remember once more the Dave Brubeck quartet.

Released on Monday 27 May

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A series of albums such as Jazz for Babies doesn’t come along every day. You might ponder that there are more than a few babies out there, and not just tiny people, but this bunch of five albums, the brainchild of bassist Michael Janisch, is aimed at educating your tiny tots. “Calm and soothing lullabies” as they’re explained in the album’s strapline, the CDs are divided into instrument settings so there’s The Piano Album, The Saxophone Album, The Vibraphone Album, The Guitar Album, and The Trumpet Album. Aimed at the purchasing power of loving parents who know the core values of music and jazz for an age group starting “in utero to 3 years-plus.”

Part of Janisch’s point is that the music presented is not the product of synthesisers, and there are some great musicians here playing ever so gently. Joining the bassist on the Piano Album for instance is pianist Steve Hamilton, with this duo supplemented on the Saxophone Album by Steve Winwood sideman Paul Booth. The Vibraphone Album reverts to trio, Hamilton again and Janisch, but with Cloudmakers vibes man Jim Hart joining (perfect on ‘Emily’); and on the lovely Guitar Album’s lullabies the core duo is joined by Partisans guitarist Phil Robson (excelling throughout) and then Louis Lester Band trumpeter Jay Phelps is the guest on the Trumpet Album (listen especially to a fine version of ‘It Never Entered My Mind’).

When Janisch and his wife Sarah were expecting their first child, daughter Eliza, they set about introducing her to what they saw “as the right kind of music at the earliest age.” And this is the fundamental inspiration for the albums, an educational impulse. The UK-based Wisconsin-born jazz musician who runs Whirlwind Recordings and is a professor of jazz bass at the Royal Academy of Music wanted the music to be “calm, quiet and lullaby-like” and certainly that’s what’s here. Even the edgy ‘River Man’ on the Vibes Album is rendered coo-able.

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There are lots of very familiar tunes, for instance ‘Moon River’ and ‘Body and Soul’ on the Piano Album; and ‘My Funny Valentine and ‘Unforgettable’ on the Trumpet one. Anyone familiar with The Real Book will be completely up-to-speed with the material throughout all five albums although there are a few concessions to recent popular music here and there and inevitably Adele’s song ‘Someone Like You’ is included. The albums look good with matching squiggly-bright graphics, colours, and snazzy fonts and musically, compared to the highly bland non-jazz product that is available with cheesy tunes and cutesy sentimental tinkling based around nursery rhymes, the performances are of a very high quality. OK, the dynamics have been dampened down and the chords are resolutely major rather than minor but that doesn’t really matter: no one’s expecting harmolodics! Strident young maths jazzers and punk jazzers, whether they have babies or not, might hate the whole notion of lullabies (tough love, I suppose), so maybe this series is not for them. But for everyone else it’s a world away from muzak and processed sounds and is the gentlest, and most non-patronising, way possible for a tiny tot to enter the land of nod.
Stephen Graham  

Released on 10 June

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Nils Landgren Funk Unit
Teamwork
ACT **
An institution in Sweden since the 1990s and best selling in Germany but still failing to catch on properly in the UK the Funk Unit is an acquired taste. The charismatic trombonist and singer Landgren digs deep and gives it his all but somehow the results are pretty wearing although the band has come on immeasurably since their pretty awful Abba concept album. With Magnum Coltrane Price, Jonas Wall, Magnus Lindgren, Andy Pfeiler, Sebastian Studnitzky and Robert Ikiz plus guests who include Joe Sample, on ‘Green Beans’, and Wilton Felder from the Crusaders plus glamour trumpeter Till Brönner popping up, it’s highly glossy coffee table funk that somehow misses the point that the music needs to be a bit rougher around the edges, and not as highly finessed as Teamwork.
Released on 3 June

 

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The Ropesh
The Ropesh
Neuklang ***
They’ve only been going a couple of years but The Ropesh whose members came together after playing around in Frankfurt and Mannheim already sound like accomplished veterans. The album the cover of which sports a painting with a big splodge of red and what appears bizarrely to look like a smiling kangaroo in shadow begins with some scrapey improv before giving way to a woozy solo by trombone player Marcus Franzke. Basically a post-modern mainstream record with a grab bag of influences from Bob Brookmeyer through James Newton to drum ’n’ bass and beyond all the tunes are the flute player Lorenzo Colocci’s (presumably also responsible for the bizarre title ‘My Flute Is Longer Than Yours’). There are also some tasteful guest vocals from youth orchestra Bujazzo’s Miriam Ast on ‘NeuB’. Points of comparison? Well, the band sounds a bit like Steve Rubie’s band Skydive although lots of other styles are bolted on, and there are distinguishing factors such as the unusual “softly”-spoken word on ‘Amico Disagio’. Pianist Rainer Böhm, who has recorded with John Patitucci and Marcus Gilmore, guests impressively on a couple of spots and the tunes are well conceived and executed with fine developmental sections and the feeling that each member of the band is really listening and responsive. The Ableton-like electronics add to the improvising more in the manner of an extra instrument than a gimmicky add-on, and the recording sound is excellent. Worth seeking out. Released in June
The Ropesh, above

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Shingai Shoniwa above. Photo: Emile Holba

The chosen composers for the first New Music Biennial, to begin in January next year, have been unveiled. The PRS for Music-backed initiative will see new music performed at weekend showcases to be held at the Southbank Centre in London, and the UNESCO city of music in Glasgow next July and August, and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and available as downloads. Covering contemporary classical, folk, jazz, world music, urban and electronic music of the jazz composers involved Gwilym Simcock commissioned by City of London Sinfonia will combine with clarinettist Michael Collins in a work for clarinet, strings, jazz trio and speaker. Glyndebourne young composer in residence Luke Styles commissioned by Juice Vocal Ensemble will feature experimental vocal trio Juice and BBC New Generation artist Trish Clowes’ jazz/classical ensemble Tangent, performing alongside three dancers retelling a Native Canadian folk tale. Avant-garde composer Piers Hellawell will create a new work involving improvising trio Bourne Davis Kane, which has been commissioned by Belfast promoter Moving On Music; and The Noisettes’ Shingai Shoniwa and The Invisible’s David Okumu, commissioned by London promoter Serious, are to create a new vocal work inspired by the values of the 2014 Commonwealth Games to involve community choirs.

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The New Gary Burton Quartet
Guided Tour
Mack Avenue ***
Turning 70 earlier this year and showing no signs of slowing down, Gary Burton’s latest quartet album Guided Tour nonetheless does take a while to get going, and the first four tracks are as you’d expect tasteful, but not particularly gripping. But on the sumptuous version of Johnny Mercer and Michel Legrand’s ‘Once Upon A Summertime’ everything comes together, and from this point on vibes great Burton, with guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Scott Colley and Pat Metheny drummer Antonio Sanchez who return from 2011’s Common Ground and who all contribute songs, move to a new level. The album then acquires an energy it hitherto had lacked in the earlier tracks. Burton has deliberately written in a Bill Evans idiom on the waltz ‘Jane Fonda Called Again’ and, on another of his tunes, ‘Remembering Tano’, pays homage to Astor Piazzolla. It’s clearly the better of the tunes in terms of an internal song narrative matched to improvisational direction. A highly accomplished album as you’d expect but one that takes patience for all its pleasures to unfold.
Gary Burton above left, Julian Lage, Antonio Sanchez and Scott Colley. Released on Monday. The quartet play Ronnie Scott’s on 13-14 May www.ronniescotts.co.uk

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This afternoon at a reception in Bremen, Amsterdam club Bimhuis will be presented with the Europe Jazz Network Award For Adventurous Programming at European jazz expo Jazzahead! The EJN is an 87 organisation-strong association of producers, presenters and supporting bodies who specialise in creative music, contemporary jazz and improvised music in place to support the “identity and diversity of jazz in Europe and broaden awareness of this vital area of music as a cultural and educational force." This year at Jazzahead! an icon of jazz and improv in the Netherlands, drummer Han Bennink, received the expo’s chief accolade, the €15,000 Skoda award.
Bimhuis above

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Cécile McLorin Salvant
WomanChild
Mack Avenue ***** ALBUM OF THE WEEK

Opening in a traditional fashion with Bessie Smith song ‘St Louis Gal’ Miami-born McLorin Salvant is simply accompanied by the guitar of James Chirillo. But WomanChild makes a swift gear shift soon after with the modern mainstream accompaniment of pianist Aaron Diehl, the 2010 Thelonious Monk competition-winning singer’s labelmate, on the Rodgers and Hart song ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’. Diehl’s first solo opens up the shutters of the album before McLorin Salvant’s sighing return. Her tone is a thing of beauty and the delivery so very unhurried. The singer, with Haitian and French roots, spoke French as a child and even moved to France as a teenager where her jazz journey began, as Ted Gioia in the notes explains. That heritage is also developed on the album.

Womanchild is an instant classic, a real tonic, by a classic jazz singer of real quality. “She has poise, elegance, soul, humour, sensuality, power, virtuosity, range, insight, intelligence, depth and grace,” Wynton Marsalis has said and it’s easy to agree on the evidence here. It’s worth pointing out her style is very rare now especially among young singers, maybe only China Moses compares in this regard among the new generation of younger female singers however rooted in jazz they are. There’s a sense of the vaudeville era on ‘Nobody’ a real old time number with plunking bass from Rodney Whitaker and Diehl playing like a Harlem piano professor. McLorin Salvant can “talk” the song as well. Despite the worry in the lyrics McLorin Salvant “walks in stride” on her own song, the title track ‘WomanChild’; she sings in French on another of her songs ‘Le Front Caché Sur Tes Genoux’ and Diehl and the great drummer Herlin Riley make a strong rhythmic impression on Diehl’s ‘Prelude’ leading into the standard ‘Lull in My Life’, which has an elegance all of its own. Riley is brilliant at the beginning of the corny number ‘You Bring Out the Savage in Me’, and McLorin Salvant has fun with this via Betty Carter-like vocal acrobatics (also Carter-esque on ‘What A Little Moonlight Can Do’), a chance for her to experiment with daring intervals and grandstanding effects.

Other highlights include the sheer exuberance and pure vocal sound on ‘John Henry’ when the band builds up some whip-fast motion, Diehl’s prepared piano rolling back the years; and then there’s the sheer sensuality of ‘Jitterbug Waltz’. A wonderful album by a singer we’re going to be hearing a great deal more about in the years to come.

Cécile McLorin Salvant above
Photo: John Abbott