Last summer Jamie Cullum trialled new material some of which has now ended up on Momentum at a party Pizza Express threw in its Dean Street jazz club in July. Cullum sat at the Steinway as if it were his second home, which it kind of is as he had fronted the pizza chain’s Big Audition talent search the year before. Some of the singers present that night harmonised along to the ‘singalong’ that’s now on Momentum ‘When I Get Famous’ but it was ‘Save Your Soul’ that hit the mark. Momentum isn’t a jazz album at all, although that’s not the sole criterion the album should be appreciated on, a deliberate repositioning away from the genre first signposted well before Cullum’s move to Island news of which landed before Christmas. Momentum though is better than its predecessor The Pursuit from 2009, but not nearly as powerful as the underrated Chasing Tales four years earlier, or indeed his best album the remarkable Twentysomething. The endearing calling card that was Pointless Nostalgic back in the singer/pianist’s salad days even outshines Momentum for reasons nothing to do with production values and Cullum’s hugely developed artistry since, but just because it had an optimism, guts and distinctiveness that Momentum, post-fame, lacks. There are a few good tunes but ‘Pure Imagination’ and ‘Love for $ale’ aren’t really going to work as lollipops for jazz listeners even if they aren’t intended as such because the production and pop stylings create a different more anodyne atmosphere entirely. It’s an album more suitable for Maroon 5 fans and the vast middle ground who probably will be either blown away by this new collection of songs or at least put Cullum firmly on their radar. ‘Save Your Soul’ sounds as good as it did that night in Soho and of course Cullum could make another jazz album if he wanted to and may do even in the future. But this is a fairly safe release that moves the singer much further into the entertainment mainstream where his star power really counts.
Since La Notte’s release at the end of April the London Jazz Festival organisers have announced details of the inclusion of Norwegian composer and pianist Bjørnstad’s very different Edvard Munch project at this year’s running of the festival. By contrast, and choosing film as a subject and Antonioni’s 1961 drama La Notte a direct inspiration with a cover image from the film making overt the link, this live sextet album recorded in Norway just under three years ago, is less introverted than Bjørnstad’s sublime trio album Remembrance. Bjørnstad has commented interestingly on this new homage: “As long as visual art creates music in our minds, and music creates pictures and visual expressions with the same intensity, the two are deeply and profoundly interdependent”. Whether the appreciator’s distance from the object of admiration with all the filtering and distance of years that process involves will actually allow such provision is ultimately completely subjective. But La notte is accessible, with pretty themes and is quite poignant at times, yet can be a little overly sentimental. Both saxophonist Andy Sheppard and cellist Anja Lechner bring great personality to the bittersweet themes and Bjørnstad’s pianistic asides are interesting, for instance on ‘V’, the tracks following a pattern of 1-8 in roman numerals, but not always that gripping. Eivind Aarset and Arild Andersen play a more invisible role while Marilyn Mazur’s exuberance is contained until the more jam-inclined seventh track. Stephen Graham
Ketil Bjørnstad above
Photo Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen / ECM
Fats Duke & The Monk
Significant 1973 Toronto solo piano sessions reissued under the auspices of Delmark, available again
Listening to Abdullah Ibrahim is an immersive experience. Few artists can draw together the aspirations of different peoples from around the world in a shared musical language. Few can so eloquently protest, provide a cultural imperative, a link to and redefinition of Duke Ellington’s music, conjure the ancient music of Africa, and provide an advanced post-colonialist agenda via the keys of a piano. Ibrahim dreamt of the birth of the Rainbow Nation, and the medleys conjured on these albums 20 years before the post-apartheid years weave the icons of jazz history into an African tapestry via his compositional imagination. ‘Salaam’ for instance connects a range of pieces and influences in a highly syncretic approach including his own ‘Blues for a Hip King’, while the title track takes a more straightforward route, an unsentimental reading of ‘Single Petal Of A Rose’ at its heart with an inflection that serves as a personal signature of the pianist’s. These albums back in circulation and reissued under the auspices of Delmark bear witness to a cultural response to oppression and a reaction grounded in humanity and are part Ibrahim’s spiritual awakening having taken a pilgrimage to Mecca not long before these recordings, as John Norris mentions in the sleeve notes. Recorded in 1973 in Toronto on the same day, a decade after Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand) left South Africa for Zurich and later New York these Thunder Sound sessions are two sides of the same coin with Fats Duke & The Monk the pick only in terms of sheer immediacy and orthodoxy while Ancient Africa channel more complex and deeper waters that take significantly longer to navigate but are even more rewarding given patience and probe the outer reaches of free form improvising against a thunderously sustaining backdrop. Listen to Ancient Africa and you can locate some of the method of the sadly missed piano disciple Bheki Mseleku. Neither albums here are about the uplifting emotional anthems Ibrahim is more widely known for but ‘Cherry/Bra Joe From Kilimanjaro’ comes close as the great pianist reaches places few can even dream of locating in terms of improvisational imagination and an embedded spirituality. Immersion in Ibrahim’s world is a necessity for any listener and both albums make demands on both an emotional and intellectual level that is intensely rewarding. SG