2016 – WHAT A YEAR!

IT HAS BEEN A THRILL to either review or provide label copywriting for a wondrous diversity of album releases during 2016. I offer my gratitude to all concerned for the privilege of listening and appraising, as well as the ongoing life enhancement this music provides (an album is for life, not just for Christmas!).

In a year which has seen an extraordinary output of outstanding jazz and jazz-related recordings – and more reviews and views at this site than ever before – once again it seems virtually impossible to select ‘the best’. But it feels right to reflect on the past twelve months. So I have chosen to highlight, here, a dozen albums which have made a particular impression on me (though fluctuating, emotive responses to music – what it’s all about – would suggest that this selection could easily change at the drop of a hat!).

So, if you’re looking for recommendations… in no particular order, do investigate the following:

12_

Andre Canniere The Darkening Blue copywriting for label
Marius Neset / London Sinfonietta Snowmelt review
Snowpoet Snowpoet review
John Ellis Evolution: Seeds & Streams review
Snarky Puppy Culcha Vulcha review
Tim Garland ONE review
Shez Raja Gurutopia review
Phronesis Parallax review
The Impossible Gentlemen Let’s Get Deluxe review
Nigel Price Organ Trio Heads & Tales, Volume 2 copywriting for label
Roberto Olzer Trio The Moon and the Bonfires review
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra E.S.T. Symphony review

Thank you to all the astonishingly creative musicians who continue to feed our souls so richly.

Here’s to 2017!

🎹 AP

 

‘TOP ALBUMS OF 2015’
‘TOP 20 OF 2014’
‘BEST OF 2013’

‘Zentuary’ – Dewa Budjana (2CD)

zentuary

BALINESE electric guitarist Dewa Budjana seems to be a man on a mission. High-energy jazz-rock artistry pours from him like there’s no tomorrow! For latest double album Zentuary (follow-up to 2015’s Hasta Karma) he calls on a core, western powerhouse of bassist Tony Levin and drummer/keyboardists Gary Husband and Jack DeJohnette, as well as guests including saxophonists Tim Garland and Danny Markovich.

Major influences on Budjana’s career are iconic guitarists John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth and Pat Metheny; and such transmitted dynamism, coupled with heady, colourful infusions of Indonesian culture, provides the foundations for these one hundred minutes of intense, original composition and improvisation. With Bali some 8,000 miles from the UK, the guitarist’s often anthemic soundscapes traverse geographic borders – in music, what borders? – with ease, providing a window on exotic vocals, textures and rhythms. The scale of the project might initially feel pretty overwhelming, and perhaps Zentuary (the guitarist’s contrived word, melding ‘zen’ and ‘sanctuary’) could more easily be considered and digested as an entire, continuous movie soundtrack. In fact, Budjana thinks big, even taking the opportunity to incorporate sessions with the Czech Symphony Orchestra.

By turns, these twelve particularly expansive tracks are exhilarating and mysterious, Dancing Tears immediately chasing pace and bubbling to Tony Levin’s signature Chapman Stick bass. Budjana is undoubtedly a ‘guitar star’, his breathless, varying explorations of the fretboard shining out above thunderous rock drumming; and Solas PM‘s similar line is coloured by the rapidity of Danny Markovitch’s high-flying soprano. Lake Takengon adds flamboyant wordless vocals into the mix; the tropical atmospheres of Rerengat Langit (Crack in the Sky) combine the evocative tones of Indonesian flute with spoken phrases and delicious fuzz guitar; and the steady progression of Suniakala confirms the guitarist’s aptitude for orchestral, almost Pink Floydian grandeur.

Dear Yulman descends into dark, shady thriller territory, though Budjana’s impressively liquefied chromatics rise above; Pancarabo‘s Methenyesque vocals alternate with a driving synth groove redolent of Jan Hammer (and even Husband’s time with Level 42); and the exuberant, chiming celebration of Manhattan Temple glints to Tim Garland’s unmistakable vibrato and Levin’s beautifully resonant NS bass. At this stage of CD2, there’s a sense of envelopment, of basking in the aromatic wonder – and Dedariku‘s breathy suling flute finds a path through dense undergrowth to ascend melodically with synth and guitar (this is certainly theme tune material). The eastern joy of Ujung Galuh – one of many vast tracks – is carried by Danny Markovitch’s soprano improv; Uncle Jack‘s quirkiness is characterised by catchy guitar motifs, glissando bass and all manner of piano and synth hues; and the peaceful, closing acoustic guitar and strings oasis of title track Zentuary also has a symphonic urgency which suggests there remains plenty more for Budjana to say… next time.

A big statement from a strong Indonesian jazz-rock force, Zentuary is available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp and Amazon, as well as at iTunes.

 

Dewa Budjana guitars, soundscapes
Tony Levin electric upright NS Design bass, Chapman Stick
Gary Husband drums, keyboards, acoustic piano
Jack DeJohnette drums, acoustic piano
with guests
Danny Markovich curved soprano sax
Tim Garland tenor sax
Guthrie Govan guitar
Saat Syah custom-made Indonesian suling flute
Ubiet vocals
Risa Saraswati vocals
Czech Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michaela Růžičková

dewabudjana.com

Favoured Nations (in association with MoonJune Music) – FN2880 (2016)

‘A Magic Life’ – Alison Rayner Quintet

arq

A CELEBRATION of life itself, British double bassist and composer Alison Rayner’s second quintet album was, she recounts, inspired by two happenings: “…the loss of a friend last year, who wrote her own epitaph about how magic her life had been; then a chance encounter with a young boy, who asked me ‘Is music stronger than magic?’ I replied, ‘To me, music is a merging of magic and logic.’ These events set me on a course of thinking about connections between memory, mortality, magic – and music.”

Read the full review at LondonJazz News…

 

Alison Rayner double bass
Buster Birch drums, percussion
Deirdre Cartwright guitar
Diane McLoughlin tenor and soprano saxophones
Steve Lodder piano

blowthefuse.com

Blow the Fuse Records – BTF1613CD (2016)

‘Subterranea’ – Mosaic

mosaic_subterranea

VIBRAPHONIST Ralph Wyld can be found gracing many a contemporary jazz line-up (including those of Rick Simpson, John Martin and Tim Richards), so it’s good to see his own sextet, Mosaic, stepping out with debut album Subterranea.

An entirely acoustic band, Wyld’s personnel comprises James Copus (trumpet, flugelhorn), Sam Rapley (clarinets), Cecilia Bignall (cello), Misha Mullov-Abbado (double bass) and Scott Chapman (drums, percussion), and together they bring an often ruminative, atmospheric dimension to the vibraphonist’s seven, original compositions. Indeed, the specific instrumental blend of brass, woodwind, strings and percussion creates a predominantly inquiring chamber ensemble effect – though not without expansive moments of boisterousness – the writing appearing to offer all players acres of space for their improvisational free-spiritedness.

Ralph Wyld was announced by Edition Records and the Royal Academy of Music as the 2015 winner of the Kenny Wheeler Jazz Prize (following in the footsteps of Josh Arcoleo, Reuben Fowler, Lauren Kinsella and Misha Mullov-Abbado), thus providing the opportunity to record this release at Real World Studios.

Here is an album which often mysteriously, sometimes quirkily unfolds its fifty minutes of treasures through vibes-anchored expressions which might evoke Terry Riley or Pierre Moerlen, combining them with the kind of brash, theatrical mischievousness heard in the music of, say, Michael Chillingworth or George Crowley. Wyld’s sustained, modulating colours deftly permeate the evolving instrumental timbres; and with a markedly live, almost folk-band sonority, the sound is particularly direct.

White Horses, described as being influenced by Steve Reich and much-missed Steve Martland, holds the kind of anticipatory thrill of waiting for breakers to crash as the darkly-brooding vibraphone swell repeatedly erupts into foamy crests of trumpet and clarinet amidst a tumultuous bass-and-percussion rhythm (an exciting audio/visual connection can be envisaged); and title track Subterranea‘s luminous, undersea weightlessness reveals exquisite finds of double bass and bass clarinet extemporisation as Wyld’s measured touch supports throughout, and shafts of harmonic light are crafted with unusual tonal blending. Keira Konko (Hill of Peace, in The Gambia) is a multi-faceted, twelve-minute episode which balances lyrical cello with chirpy trumpet and sparkling vibes, its strongest melodic episode imaginable as a documentary theme tune; and Cryptogram (whose basis, Wyld states, is melodically and chordally derived from his name) is fidgety and excitable, with a bristling propulsion only stopped in its tracks by syncopated hiatuses – a cheeky old thing!

But one of the significant discoveries, at three points across this album, is the ensemble’s skill in serene abstraction. Interludes I and II, plus a Reprise, are interspersed amongst the larger works with a slow, otherworldly beauty reminiscent of Brian Eno; and the fact that these are overlapping acoustic voices makes them all the more special (perhaps a concept for the future).

The pleasure here is in navigating a route through this album’s unpredictable, winding paths. Where might they take you?

Released on 18 November 2016, Subterranea is available from Edition Records, as CD or digital download, at Bandcamp (album trailer here).

 

Ralph Wyld vibraphone
James Copus trumpet, flugelhorn
Sam Rapley clarinet, bass clarinet
Cecilia Bignall cello
Misha Mullov-Abbado double bass
Scott Chapman drums, percussion

ralphwyld.co.uk

Edition Records – EDN1077 (2016)

‘Fragment’ – Jonathan Silk

jonathansilk_fragment

A BIG BAND ALBUM whose stratified multicolours and dynamics are echoed by the cover art of British painter/printmaker David Stanley, Fragment is the original work of award-winning drummer and composer Jonathan Silk.

Increasingly a major presence on the Midlands’ contemporary jazz scene, following on from his graduation at Birmingham Conservatoire in 2011, the Scottish Young Jazz Musician of the Year 2014 has worked with luminaries such as Iain Ballamy, Stan Sulzmann, Liane Carroll and Soweto Kinch; and in addition to celebrated big band mentors Maria Schneider and Vince Mendoza, his drum tutors Jeff Williams and the late Tony Levin are cited as big influencers of his style.

Across a full hour, Jonathan Silk’s expansive canvas is varietally layered-up by impressive forces – a big band of 19 and a string section of 13 (just look at those credits below) – with fellow drummer Andrew Bain conducting and flugelhornist Percy Pursglove in a featured role (both are respected educators at Birmingham Conservatoire). Just as unfamiliar, abstract visual art can require time to develop, meld and be understood, this impressionistic approach has taken a while to reveal an identity; yet it increasingly entices with maturity of arrangement and strong musicianship, seamlessly blending scene after scene of energised drama (Silk on the drum stool) with rivulets of subtlety. In fact, rather than offering up the usual waymarked path of favourite tracks or standout melodies, it becomes an immersive experience in which to progressively savour different illuminations of the composer’s thoughts.

Softly grooving Buchaille (a beloved munro in the Scottish Highlands) luxuriates in close-knit brass and reeds, hitting high trumpet peaks before descending to quiet valleys of improvised trombone – but Silk’s way is to keenly press on as unison strings provide an almost Manhattan-style, bustling backdrop; and First Light‘s sustained serenity (recalling “a winter night spent with whiskey and friends, awaiting the snow reports at 6am”) supports Percy Pursglove’s mellow, watchful flugel, with the composer’s sensitive development fusing strings with a gently rhythmic momentum.

The drummer makes his mark in wildly percussive, brassy Prelude before segueing into South African-inspired Barefeet which fascinates with unpredictable jabbing piano and acoustic guitar – an example of the unlikely hues which Silk fashions. His searching miniature, Reflection, even suggests a route into movie soundtrack, preceding In Thought‘s similarly sublime, piano- and violin-graced journey. The spiky, perilous rock-guitar adventure of title track Fragment is a winner, teeming with electric bass-driven, saxophone-rippling life as guitarist Thomas Seminar Ford’s improvisations encourage bold, brass syncopation and a full-throttle display from Silk; and he is so adept in contrasting fervour with the finely-orchestrated tranquillity to be found in Withdrawal and end piece Last Light.

But it is perhaps Jonathan Silk’s broadest piece – eleven-minute Fool’s Paradise – which singly showcases his solidity and reach as a composer, the episodic variations (including inspired use of Hammond organ voice, and open spaces for extemporisation) providing a clear glimpse of a bright future. Hook up a few, memorable themes and there’ll be no stopping him!

As with most recordings, it’s a privilege to revisit and enjoy these luscious soundscapes at will – but it must certainly be exhilarating to also witness this scale of ardent musicality in a live setting. Good news, then, that 2017 tour dates are to be announced.

Released on Stoney Lane Records, Fragment is available as CD or digital download from Bandcamp.

Andrew Bain conductor
Percy Pursglove flugelhorn

Mike Fletcher alto saxophone, flute
Chris Maddock alto saxophone
John Fleming tenor saxophone
Joe Wright tenor saxophone
Rob Cope baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Tom Walsh trumpet, flugelhorn
Reuben Fowler trumpet, flugelhorn
Mike Adlington trumpet, flugelhorn
Matt Gough trumpet, flugelhorn
Kieran Mcleod trombone
Richard Foote trombone
Yusuf Narcin trombone
Andy Johnson tuba

Emily Tyrell violin (leader)
Katrina Davies violin
Sarah Farmer violin
Ning-ning Li violin
Beth Bellis violin
Kathryn Coleman violin
Zhivko Georgiev violin
Pei Ann Yeoh violin
Victoria Strudwick viola
Eileen Smith viola
Lucy French cello
Katy Nagle cello
Ayse Osman double bass

Thomas Seminar Ford guitar
Andy Bunting piano, Nord
Toby Boalch piano, Nord
Nick Jurd double bass, electric bass
Jonathan Silk drums
Tom Chapman percussion

Original art by David Stanley

jonathansilk.co.uk

Stoney Lane Records – SLR1977 (2016)

‘Burn the Boat’ – Fini Bearman

Fini

“ABANDON THE SHIP, embrace the water, take a leap of faith… don’t think of what could stop you.”

Such a challenge should resonate with all truly creative musicians. And if you ever ruminated on whether the songwriter’s art had mostly degenerated into a three-chord trick – with a middle eight, if you’re lucky – then vocalist and composer/lyricist Fini Bearman traverses vast, colourful oceans to dispel those notions (see what I did there?). 2014’s album of new interpretations from George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess is an especially captivating listen; but now, with Burn the Boat, Bearman presents a collection of mostly self-penned songs, three of which are crafted upon the works of American/Portuguese poets.

The point of difference in Fini Bearman’s melodic, contemporary/folk artistry is that its basis is in contemporary jazz – and from that genre’s sea of accomplished instrumentalists, you could hardly wish for finer collaborators than Matt Robinson (keys), Nick Costley-White (guitar), Conor Chaplin (bass) and Dave Hamblett (drums). Here is a writer who not only vividly communicates her own thoughts and others’, but also wraps the sung words in shifting waves of colour and texture, combining crashing breakers with coruscating pools of heart-on-sleeve emotion. Recorded at residential Giant Wafer Studios, tucked away in rural Mid Wales, there’s a tangible sense of conviviality emanating from these fifty minutes – and familiarity with these nine originals only heightens the attraction.

Sand on Sand‘s airy, exuberant invitation to “Step out of the darkness… and into the light” is layered with vocals as piano, guitar and synth washes perpetuate its positive spirit – and alongside the bubbling, commercial appeal, it is crowned with lush instrumental finesse. Title track Burn the Boat‘s scratchy guitar-rock ascension (Costley-White’s electronics so ‘on it’ here) enhances the suppleness of Bearman’s emphatic delivery as Robinson’s synth lines soar overhead, whilst the catchy, poetic lines of Gone, co-written by Tommy Antonio – “Fell asleep with my clothes on, screensaver waving ’til dawn” – are musically ’70s-reminiscent of Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille; and, again, it’s difficult to emphasise enough the incisive jazz invention.

Deeply-felt You Bring the Sunlight focuses on the strong bonds of relationship (“I’d rather have nothing at all”), the folksy, guitar- and piano-accompanied gracefulness suggesting a touch of ‘talkin’ at me’ Harry Nilsson; and Bearman’s playful miniature I Know, I Alone (based on Richard Zenith’s translation of Fernando Pessoa’s short poem) is carried by Dave Hamblett’s colourful percussive display. Maybe Next Year‘s reluctant acceptance is portrayed through an imaginative, undulating arrangement enhanced by the improvisatory clarity of Robinson and Costley-White, whilst Langton Hughes’ poem The Idea inspires a purposeful touch of soundtrack, or even musical theatre – much of that due to Bearman’s characteristic, acute sense of expression and storytelling.

Say the Words is an album standout to put on loop – buoyed by Conor Chaplin’s aqueous yet mobile electric bass and Matt Robinson’s Latinesque piano highlights, this exquisite, soulful, shuffling groove is so evocative of Stevie Wonder that a vocal duet with Fini is imaginable! Such a Fool closes the album, bathing E E Cummings’ poetry in watercolour atmospherics before its animated conclusion – and he couldn’t have foretold it better: “May my heart always be open to little birds who are the secrets of living.”

Released on Two Rivers Records, Burn the Boat is a ‘must hear’, available as CD or digital download at Bandcamp.

 

Fini Bearman voice, composition
Matt Robinson piano, Rhodes, synths
Nick Costley-White guitar
Conor Chaplin bass
Dave Hamblett drums

Album art by Fini Bearman

finibearman.com

Two Rivers Records – TRR-015 (2016)

‘Christmas With My Friends V’ – Nils Landgren

v_flare_300

IT’S NOW TEN YEARS since Swedish trombonist and vocalist Nils Landgren released the first in a series of albums which have imparted joy and peace in the run-up to and throughout Christmas. The successful recordings (and concerts) have consistently drawn together new interpretations of familiar carols and songs with classical arrangements and lesser-known gems, all presented by vocalists and instrumentalists from the ACT Music roster. And following on from 2015’s offering comes Christmas With My Friends V

Landgren and his musicians researched and made their selections together; and, befittingly, they recorded during the week leading up to last Christmas Day – so this festive feel-good is delivered with an extra air of authenticity. Here, exuberant ‘lollipops’ rub shoulders with soft ballads, original compositions and peaceful, crisp, starlit tradition; and somehow, the whole is so lovingly crafted that it creates a sweet, homely and lasting impression.

Multi-tracked trombone ‘solo ensemble’ Morgenstern and Morgenlicht (recognisable as Epiphany carol How brightly beams the morning star, with harmony by J S Bach) heralds the proceedings to wide-skied, echoing valleys; and Landgren’s tender vocal in Eva Kruse’s Let the Stars Come Out Tonight is sparingly supported by folksy guitar and tenor sax. Familiar hymns and carols such as Joy to the World and Go Tell It on the Mountain are refashioned, the latter in growling, muted trombone gospel (Ida Sand the vocalist), and Hogmanay staple Auld Lang Syne‘s fireside coziness is sensitively weighted.

Baby It’s Cold Outside and Everyday is Christmas pick up the affable, swingin’ holiday vibe; the usual whipcracking orchestration of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride is replaced with a delectable guitar-and-horn-accompanied soft-jazz jaunt featuring the voice of Jessica Pilnäs. Ida Sand presents her emotive Now the Time is Here with delicacy, enhanced by Eva Kruse’s empathetic bass soloing; and inflected, soulful Love is Born is delivered emphatically by Sharon Dyall’s colourful vocal to a slick and eager instrumental arrangement complete with bluesy sax break.

The tingle factor in these recordings so often comes from a sense of stillness. There Is No Rose‘s medieval strains are carried on the late-evening air by Jeanette Köhn’s crystalline annunciation; the clear, midnight-sky trombone melodies of Johan Norberg’s Seven Stains from Christmas Eve are reminiscent of Landgren’s duo album collaborations with pianist Esbjörn Svensson (Swedish Folk Modern and Layers of Light); and Norberg’s intricate kantele timbres are threaded through such fine delicacies as O Heiland, Reiß Die Himmel Auf and his own gossamer solo Kokles Christmas.

Amongst our regular, seasonal fare of choral, orchestral and pop favourites, Landgren’s concept remains a welcome breath of alternative, chilled enjoyment. A number of these eighteen tracks could be tagged #schmalzy, and there’s certainly variety in arrangements. As with all four previous albums, V possesses a special something – including more, rather attractive European folk-tinged discoveries – all presented with warmth and sincerity by accomplished musicians. A charming gift with which to scent the air during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

Christmas With My Friends V can be found at ACT Music, iTunes and other outlets (promo video here). The complete 5CD box set, The Jubilee Collectionis also available.

 

Nils Landgren trombone, vocals
Jonas Knutsson saxophones
Johan Norberg guitars, kantele
Ida Sand vocals, piano, school organ
Jeanette Köhn vocals
Jessica Pilnäs vocals
Sharon Dyall vocals
Eva Kruse bass

nilslandgren.com

ACT Music – ACT 9830-2 (2016)