Sony Masterworks ****
Honouring Bobby McFerrin’s father the baritone Robert McFerrin Sr, the first African-American to sing a title role at the Met as well as a noted interpreter of spirituals, Spirityouall’s 13 freedom songs cover a lot of territory, and see the singer joined by a fine cast of players including bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Ali Jackson and singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding, with arrangements written by keyboardist Gil Goldstein. McFerrin’s intricate layering and overdubbed vocals harness gospel, jazz and pop styles seamlessly sweeping away each genre’s limitations with consummate ease. The spirituals have an everyman quality, and as ever with McFerrin exude an insatiable joie de vivre but also overtly give expression to his strong Christian faith, the first of his albums to draw on his faith in such a way.
There’s plenty of jazz feeling and protest especially on the standout ‘Woe’, a McFerrin original drawn from the book of Isaiah and also on Spirityouall as well as paying homage to his father’s musical heritage McFerrin draws on the spirit of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bob Dylan (a superb take on ‘I Shall Be Released’), framing the songs within American roots music and also providing within its remit a paean to womanhood. Spalding and McFerrin are just perfect together duetting on ‘Whole World’, while on ‘25:15’, Larry Campbell’s hypnotic resonator guitar and the achingly slow twin drum kits conjure an ancient Delta quality that is quite remarkable. An album that defies expectations, provides a 21st century reading of the spirituals that sets a new benchmark, and pays suitable tribute to McFerrin’s father in some style. SG
Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole
A seventieth birthday album by a bona fide jazz great paying tribute to an icon of the music, history both in the personal and musical sense are centre stage on Inspiration with lush strings provided by a 42-piece orchestra and guests from Broadway and the TV talent show pop firmament plus Wynton Marsalis superb on a swinging ‘Unforgettable’, Inspiration finds itself in a mainstream showbiz environment leveraged with a swinging jazz feel throughout. It’s an album you would have thought could not have been made any more. Benson’s career moved to a new high profile level when the guitarist became known, like the still much missed Nat Cole before him switched from being known as a pianist, primarily as a singer; but as a guitarist Benson has a genius sound, like a natural extension of Freddie Green, and the glimpses along the way here are of “stop the traffic dead in its tracks" quality as ever. Those octave runs and that doubling joyful scat vocal along for the ride in Benson’s inimitable fashion never pall. Inspiration make no mistake, though, is a glossy affair, and the Disney veneer can obscure what’s going on musically at times (the duet with Judith Hill on ‘Too Young’ for instance), but not often. Highlights? Benson’s romantic duet with Idina Menzel on ‘When I Fall in Love’ is just lovely; and ‘Walkin’ My Baby’ has an impossibly relaxed Sunday afternoon feel to it. The flute part at the beginning of ‘Nature Boy’ sets up Benson’s best vocal of the album, as poised as a wanna-be singer could only dream of; and the album contains some very fine arrangements with a Nelson Riddle-like treatment of ‘Just One of Those Things’ one example of the general approach and where the arrangements have been pitched. The lyric in ‘Ballerina’ with its advice to the dancer performing to a thousand people who’ve come to see the show to "just ignore the chair that’s empty in the second row," and "dance on and on and on" is advice Benson himself has taken to heart since he captured the wider music public’s imagination in the Breezin’ era. His appeal spans the generations from the tail end of the Golden Age through the soul-jazz and smooth jazz years to today. You can imagine Inspiration as the soundtrack to a family gathering or celebration and on that level it works perfectly in a special birthday year for GB bookended by ‘Mona Lisa’ that stands for then and above all, now. SG
Released on 10 June
The Thump festival had plenty of star power over the weekend, and none greater than bass don Richard Bona who appeared at the club over two nights. Although billed to appear with the great Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba who had cancelled for unannounced reasons, Bona has sufficient personality to carry the gig all by himself although he was joined by hard swinging post-bop drummer Ernesto Simpson, best known in the UK for his work with guitarist Phil Robson, plus Simpson’s fellow Cuban the New York-based pianist Osmany Paredes, who at times sounded uncannily like Chucho Valdés. Bona is a terrific showman, and has a winning way with the audience but isn’t above messing about and musing a tad mystifyingly about how he would talk to aliens should he meet them! He cut into the riff from the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ a couple of times just for fun and joshed with members of the audience and bantered with the band particularly after a couple of people noisily left to catch a train towards the end of the late set. Best bits were the rearranged or ‘deranged’ (as Bona called it) take on ‘All Blues’ and the epic ‘Destiny’ although switching for a slower number sung in Portuguese didn’t come off so well. Bona has a lovely soft singing voice and his skill at low volume and the melodiousness of his sound was enough to quieten even a very full jazz club on a warm Soho night. A lot of musicians were in the audience to hear Bona, including Monty Alexander drummer Obed Calvaire who had been on stage earlier with the great Jamaican pianist a few streets away at Ronnie Scott’s. MOBO-nominated guitarist Femi Temowo and pianist Andrew McCormack were also among those dropping by to hear Bona perform. Simpson was a suitable foil to the bassist and very au fait with his every move, and while the pianist was relatively restrained his montuno breakouts showed his consummate skill. Simpson excelled on some cowbell-flavoured descarga sections when the trio began to really move and when Bona lifted the tempo. The Cameroonian, who first came to international prominence with the Zawinul Syndicate, has extraordinary ingenuity and creative ideas on the bass guitar with so many original touches and daring breakaway figures too many to mention. It was a pity we couldn’t witness his interplay with the absent Rubalcaba but the upside to his no-show was that Bona’s role was enhanced and could be appreciated all the more intimately. An Afro-Cuban flavoured evening that had much to recommend it all in all. SG
Neil Cowley Trio
Live at Montreux 2012
Eagle Records ****
A live album is a rite of passage for any band. For the Neil Cowley trio making this their first, the location made the whole process even more significant. The band rolls with the sheer sense of occasion here, an element that should never be discounted when live performance is at issue. “With the legion of legendary talent that has graced the lakeside concert halls of Montreux, any band would mark it down as a watershed moment in their career," Cowley says in the notes. Yet a live album has to work as an album first and foremost no matter the buzz of the occasion. It can’t just come across as a document of a concert. The sound, mixed by Dom Monks, who produced the trio’s bestselling album The Face of Mount Molehill, helps this aspect along, and the way say the initial impact of ‘Rooster Was a Witness’ is captured after the reflective ‘Lament’ at the beginning allows the sonic environment a presence and character that few live albums can hope to match. There is a warmth and a different kind of musical presence as well that comes from bassist Rex Horan with some lovely reverb and the fireside glow of the strings on ‘Slims’ just one small instance of the production side of the process. The trio plus the strings of Julian Ferraretto, Miles Brett, Alex Eichenberger and Helen Sanders-Hewett exude spirit and vitality and make a significant contribution on ‘The Face of Mount Molehill’, the title track of the last studio album released some months before this Montreux set in the Miles Davis Hall. Horan has become the NCT’s Dan Berglund, if you like, a useful comparison because Cowley was inspired by EST early in his own band’s lifetime. Check Horan’s awesome solo on the improv-driven ‘She Eats Flies’, and throughout the outgoing Australian has a clear rapport with New Zealander Evan Jenkins that is absolutely convincing. Highlights? Too many to list, but the poignant ‘Box Lily’ has a power I’ve never witnessed before, and ‘Hope Machine’ is slicker than the studio version. Cowley excitedly calling the tunes is something you won’t hear at a concert unless you are perched up close by the pianist’s right elbow. The audience’s growing appreciation of the set also adds the extra vicarious dimension only live albums can provide.
On release, and also available on DVD
Another sad passing with the news that Mulgrew Miller has died following a stroke. A major influence on a generation of jazz musicians, including Julian Joseph and Trevor Watkis in the UK, Miller’s appeal was that he managed to reach the heart of the modern mainstream jazz tradition, a natural successor in a way to Oscar Peterson who was a big influence on the pianist. A former Jazz Messenger and Betty Carter sideman who kept in touch with the Noughties generation by recording with the likes of Robert Glasper sideman, the bassist and producer Derrick Hodge, with whom Miller recorded several albums in a trio format. As an educator he was a director of jazz studies at William Paterson University in New Jersey, and during his career recorded for a variety of labels including Landmark, Novus and Maxjazz. It’s perhaps his Novus period in the early and mid-1990s, which produced Hand in Hand, With Our Own Eyes, and Getting to Know You, that fans and admirers most recall with affection and a degree of wonderment at Miller’s natural often thrilling technique, hugely imaginative voicings and improvisational flair. His sideman work was equally significant whether with Tony Williams on the great drummer’s final album, or with Ron Carter’s Golden Striker trio. There’s a full obituary in The New York Times. The link is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/arts/music/mulgrew-miller-jazz-pianist-dies-at-57.html?_r=0
The New York Times has reported the death at the age of 94 on Monday of Jean Bach whose 1994 film A Great Day in Harlem, based on an Art Kane photograph of jazz musicians taken in 1958, is one of the most beloved jazz films of recent years. The full obituary is here http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/29/movies/jean-bach-jazz-documentarian-and-fan-dies-at-94.html