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Gearbox Records has announced details of a partnership with leading independent jazz label Edition to issue limited edition 180g vinyl versions of their new releases, with the hotly anticipated Birds by Norwegian saxophonist and composer Marius Neset on the schedule for March. But first off the blocks in late-February is a milestone release for Edition and Gearbox, Mirrors by the great Kenny Wheeler.

Based in King’s Cross Gearbox is a remarkable operation. Run by Darrel Sheinman, a former punk-rock semi-pro drummer, and maritime industry risk specialist, with ex-Sony UK Jazz label head Adam Sieff shoring up marketing, the label has already built a cult reputation among the keen band of followers of the new vinyl reissue companies sprouting up in the last half-decade with its strong keeping-it-real analogue ethos, and passion for hard bop.

Speaking in the Gearbox vinyl mastering studio yesterday Sheinman told me a little of the philosophy behind the label, and played me extracts of ‘A Night in Tunisia’ from an as-yet unmastered new Simon Spillett record in the pipeline, as well as a track from a brand new Mark Murphy record featuring a sumptuous version of ‘But Beautiful’ with the bass sound of Curtis Lundy captured expertly.

Sheinman explained that Gearbox is set up to master what it wants. There’s no digital in the signal path but “digital has its place", in terms of restoring old tapes. Much of the equipment at Gearbox comes from Germany, and German sourced tape is key, with the studio centred around a restored Studer C37 valve 1/4 inch tape machine. The lathe, a Vintage Haeco Scully, with Westrex heads and cutting amps, is a beauty. Sheinman told me that Gearbox is also in the process of acquiring a tape baking machine that will be a major plus for the fledgling label.

So far Gearbox has put out releases by the Tubby Hayes Band, Joe Harriott Quintet, Don Rendell Quintet, and the late Michael Garrick, among others, tapping the substantial interest, especially in Hayes among collectors, and has even issued vinyl on the highly desirable but rarely seen 10-inch format. Sheinman says: “Interest in Tubby is also big in the US, and in Japan, and Gearbox has distribution there via Disk Union." Gearbox will also be looking to partner with other indie jazz labels who wish to issue their music on vinyl in the future.
Stephen Graham

The Gearbox vintage Scully lathe, above

Correction (20 December) Darrel Sheinman says: "Nice article. The only correction would be that whilst the tapes are sourced from Germany, none of the equipment is from Germany! The Studer is from Switzerland; the RCA KU-3A microphone is from USA; the Scully Westrex was from Columbia; the EMT 948 turntable was from BBC Bush House, and the rest of the stuff was from the UK." Apologies, SG

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Fifty years in the business, trained in the school of hard knocks, Bettye LaVette appeared at the Jazz Café in the wake of the venue’s recently announced sale to a private equity firm. LaVette, though, is the antithesis of corporate blandness. While, as she said herself during her chats to the audience, widespread success has not come her way, nonetheless she has a firm following as an “international" artist, as she proudly put it. Her new Craig Street-produced album for Anti, the label that did so much to remind everyone of the great Solomon Burke late in his career, has plenty of evidence contained within its covers as to just why LaVette has a critical reputation and strong following that is bigger than even she would expect and a new audience attracted to the honesty and soulfulness of her sound.

With Bettye, a Detroit soul survivor as some of the stories in her new autobiography A Woman Like Me goes some way to prove, were her musical director Alan Hill on keyboards, Brett Lucas, guitar, Charles Bartels, bass, and Darryl Pierce, drums, and the band helmed in the rhythm department by the superb Detroiter Pierce was up to the hard task of giving her a tight infectious groove and room for Lucas’ rhythm guitar breaks and his fat arpeggiated chords where necessary.

Big man Bartels held the line, and it needed to be strong. LaVette, frequently compared to Tina Turner but with a more expressively flexible emotive style and vocal manner, blues drenched, and real, was looking trim for her years. She’s 66 she told us unabashedly, with hair cut short, she was more than happy when the spotlight on her switched to a pink hue ("blue light doesn’t suit black people", she said with a wry grin).

Agile on the stage with a sideways shuffle going on, and plenty of eye contact with the audience particularly later with a lively fan who she crouched down to talk to off mike (as much to shut her up as anything else) as the band played a persuasive vamp to keep the vibe going. You could have listened to them all night in this parked style the Funk Brothers would have been proud of. LaVette has a highly durable, very strong contralto that goes straight for the emotions. Beginning jauntily with Lennon and McCartney’s ‘The Word’ from Rubber Soul, an early settling point was on Bob Dylan’s ‘Everything Is Broken’  a song featured to effect on LaVette’s latest album Thankful N’ Thoughtful with the Detroiter covering a pair of Neil Young songs (including as she self deprecatingly said her “minor hit" ‘Heart of Gold’), and Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, the first big talking point of the set turning the song into a slow burn with a different atmosphere entirely to the monster original hit.

She later dragged every emotion out of a song she told us has been keeping her going all these years, the pleading song ‘Let Me Down Easy’, which was the big achievement of the nearly two hour-long set, showing all LaVette’s consummate skills as a performer, it was both convincing and dramatic, and on this she became a female Otis Redding.

When the band left the stage she finished off with an a cappella gospel-infused ‘I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got’, delivered with a lingering vibrato and that look on her face that just said “take me as I am", which the Camden crowd more than happily did.

Stephen Graham

Bettye LaVette pictured above at the Jazz Café

Photo: Stephen Fourie

UPDATE 8 March 2013 A version of this review appeared in Classic Rock Presents the Blues below:

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While the collector’s edition is only available for pre-order at the moment, there’s a sense following last week’s news that Blue Moon has been nominated for a Grammy in the best jazz instrumental album category, and ahead of his receiving a lifetime achievement award at the inaugural Jazz FM awards in late-January, that Ahmad Jamal will start 2013 just where he left off 2012: back in the limelight where he undoubtedly belongs.

Released in the New Year the collector’s edition of Blue Moon adds a DVD of a concert he and his trio of Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley, plus percussionist Manolo Badrena, gave at the Olympia theatre in Paris on 27 June, four months after the original album release.

The DVD is faithful to the album covering most of the tracks, so in one sense it is a souvenir but one that Jamal fans will want to have. With pin-sharp images of the musicians in action, good sound, and while watching a DVD is never the same as being there or listening to the album on its own, a deeply satisfying document of a fine concert in front of an appreciative audience. There are no bells and whistles, no steadicam mayhem or flick-flickery stunt editing. It’s simple but effective. Blue Moon as an album stands by itself (it’s a joy from start to finish), but watching the DVD makes you want to seek out the songs that bit more. For instance, I found myself listening to different versions of Billy Reid’s ‘The Gypsy’ last night both as a vocal (by such fine interpreters of the song as Frank Sinatra, and the Ink Spots) and instrumental: the devastatingly sad version performed by Charle Parker during the ‘Lover Man’ session on 29 July 1946. Jamal’s version, like ‘Laura’ is beautiful, and goes into the song in such a way that it’s conceived anew. No one does this better than Ahmad Jamal.

Stephen Graham

The artwork of Blue Moon above

The collector’s edition is released on 14 January. Ahmad Jamal plays the Barbican in London on 8 February