‘While Looking Up’ – Jimmy Greene

LOVE at first ‘sound’. All it took was the brightly flowing and eddying preview track, April 4th. But that touch of ‘American cool’, with glinting soprano sax, flute and vibraphone, is just one facet of saxophonist and woodwind player Jimmy Greene’s latest release, While Looking Up.

Greene is clearly a man whose faith guides him through the best and certainly the very worst of times (the latter, specifically, an unimaginable family tragedy in 2012). And amidst the turbulence of our world, his pastor‘s words provided inspiration for the title: “If I’m not able to find strength or peace by looking inward, or if I’m not able to do it by looking outward to my immediate surroundings, I have to look upward”.

From a back catalogue including Grammy-nominated Beautiful Life, 2009’s Mission Statement marked a specific musical turning point for Greene and more recently reminded him of those musicians he hadn’t recorded with for some time. So as well as a core trio with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Kendrick Scott, the majority of these ten tracks are also greatly illuminated by Aaron Goldberg (piano, Fender Rhodes) and Lage Lund (guitar), with piquant contributions from Stefon Harris (marimba, vibes). All are established bandleaders in their own right, which explains how assuredly their personal expressions meld in an album of exquisite beauty and positivity.

Arranging Cole Porter’s So In Love, Greene’s soprano displays the kind of playful agility associated with Wayne Shorter, chromatically darting above the joyful sway of its bossa rhythms. But his own compositions can hit a pressing complexity – for example, the smouldering, bluesy Fender Rhodes groove of No Words with discordant guitar and husky tenor and the fever-pitch morse-code pulsations of Always There, accentuated by Harris’s marimba – an outstanding sextet collaboration. In Good Morning Heartache (remember – Billie Holliday), Greene’s deliciously fluid tenor almost sings those ‘might as well get used to you hanging around’ lyrics, though it’s also tinged with a father’s grief; and it’s Goldberg’s piano riff again, on Overreaction, which sparks the breathless Weather Report/Moutin Reunion Quartet-style fervour. The title track, too, shares something of that feel, with lustrous guitar.    

In addition to charming April 4th (a poignant anniversary for Greene), there are other pure, airy moments of reflection such as optimistic Steadfast and the leisurely gospel-soul of Simple Prayer. But perhaps most unlikely is a luscious, balladic reworking of the Whitney Houston hit I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me), full of serene nostalgia and emotion; and, as ever, the gorgeous tenor technique is supported by the spacial sensitivity of this band.

Throughout While Looking Up, Jimmy Greene unequivocally confirms his absolute truth, recognised by empathetic musicians and listeners alike: “At its best, music transforms us and transports us to another place. We lose ourselves in it”. Amen to that.

Released on 3 April 2020 and available from Proper Music, Mack Avenue and Apple Music.

 

Jimmy Greene soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet
Reuben Rogers bass
Kendrick Scott drums
Aaron Goldberg piano, Fender Rhodes
Lage Lund guitar
Stefon Harris marimba, vibraphone

jimmygreene.com

Mack Avenue – MAC1154 (2020)

‘The Letter’ – Shri

IT’S NOT UNCOMMON to be impressed by bass-player albums which aren’t dominated by the leader. But new release The Letter by Shri (Shri Sriram) is unashamedly… about the bass. Both the sound world and the story are fascinating.

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 13 March and available as CD or download at Bandcamp.

 

Shri Sriram electric fretless bass, bowed bass, bass percussion, tabla, bansuri
Bugge Wesseltoft Fender Rhodes, synthesizers
Paolo Vinaccia drum kit
Arild Andersen double bass
Tore Brunborg saxophone
Ben Castle bass clarinet

shri.co.uk

Jazzland Recordings – 3779254 (2020)

‘Dream Feathers’ – Ron Caines / Martin Archer AXIS

THE DEPTH OF ORIGINAL MUSIC, newly created by artists and then fathomed further by our own imagination, remains a never-fading fascination – an opportunity to hear sounds for the very first time, and then continue to appraise and interpret them in relation our own experiences and circumstances. The possibilities are limitless.

Dream Feathers, presented by Ron Caines / Martin Archer AXIS, beautifully exemplifies that fact in a nine-track soundscape led by veteran saxophonist Caines (“composer”) and Sheffield multi-instrumentalist Archer (“studio enabler and magician”) where a multiplicity of melodies, textures, rhythms and field recordings abound. And whilst entirely accessible, both the freedom and blend of scored and improvised music takes this septet’s output far beyond a sequence of ‘jazz tunes’ and into an hour-long realm where the mind might freely roam the unexpected, eliciting visual and even visceral responses on a personal level.

Completing the line-up, pianist Laura Cole, guitarist Anton Hunter, double bassist Gus Garside and drummer Johnny Hunter – also proven masters of invention – paint canvases of acoustic and electronic colour which are enhanced with great effect by Hervé Perez’s field recordings, electronics and processing.

Throughout, Caines’ clear saxophonic tone/vibrato and ‘off-piste’ perambulations are a joy. In memorable, cyclic African Violets, piano and horns create a Coltranesque foundation for him to stretch out across Johnny Hunter’s shimmering cymbals and solid drumming impetus; and his easy alto lyricism in broad Uccello / 1934 (incidentally, a significant year in British classical music) becomes echoed by the most delightfully sparse electronic drones and electric-piano chimes. Free improv is prominent in mischievous, angular Mazeep; in prickly, unpredictable Harmonix; and in darker, mini-maelstrom Nico. But just as effective, and certainly more immersive, are the outer eleven-minute ‘movements’ – Rothko Veil / Dream Feathers and Almazon / 1934 Reprise – whose gently-shifting strata of extemporisation and complementary field captures seep into mind and heart, ultimately carried away through a canopy of woodland birdsong.

Challenging categorisation, Dream Feathers is a three-dimensional, headphones-on exploration of beauty and openness. The grooves may become pleasingly familiar, each time you listen, but the improvisatory spirit also sustains interest to return again and again to discover more.

Released on 13 November 2019 and available as CD or download from Discus Music at Bandcamp.

 

Ron Caines soprano, alto and tenor saxophones
Martin Archer bass clarinet, organ, electronics, horn section
Laura Cole acoustic and electric pianos, harmonium
Hervé Perez field recordings, electronics, sound design/processing
Anton Hunter guitar and electronics
Gus Garside double bass
Johnny Hunter drums

discus-music.co.uk
roncaines.co.uk

Discus Music (Discus 88CD) – 2019

‘The Vampires meet Lionel Loueke’ – The Vampires, Lionel Loueke

The Vampires

AUSTRALIAN quartet The Vampires have a good ear for a vamp… and for a key collaborator in respected US-based guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke.

Headed up by saxophonist Jeremy Rose and trumpeter Nick Garbett, and driven by the heady rhythms of double bassist Jonathan Zwartz and drummer Danny Fischer (with guest percussionist Alex Masso), this fifth release features Loueke’s distinctive guitar palette of synthy octave-enhanced improvisations and chordal sparkiness, combined with the colourful African vocalisations of his Benin homeland. Rose and Garbett have an affinity with strong melody, rising from the groove of each of their ten original numbers with increasing memorability; and their festal dual-horn lead especially imbues the air with mariachi, reggae, funk, European folk and flavours of Cuba and the Balkans.

So a genuine feel-good album which has long been in the pipeline, it’s myriad influences soon draw the attention and don’t let go. Take Freedom Song, for example, where an Ennio Morricone-style tijuana figure announces and infiltrates an irresistible Police-like reggae pulse, pulled in different directions by Loueke’s quirky modal explorations and bleepy improv, with tenor and trumpet acclamations soaring above. Bendalong, too, ripples and darts with dance-like fervour, yet gear-changes alter the landscape to allow space for Loueke’s characterful blend of guitar and ‘vocal percussion’.

The ebb and flow of rhythm and mood, across fifty-five minutes, is well considered; so lazy, grunging Hard Love (like a beautifully sedated ‘Spanish Flea’) contrasts markedly with the picked African guitar rhythms and side-stepped meanderings in Brand New – the jiving bass ground here is a winner, inspiring salsa celebrations. In Torta Salata, Zwartz’s pliant double bass also sets up a playful partnership with Loueke’s wah-wah fun, as trumpet and sax again eke out a melody that might still be in your head by daybreak; and an ease-back acoustic-styled tribute to Al Green – Green Green Green – somehow keeps a lid on its full-blown Latin potential, resisting a double-time step-up despite its varicoloured interest.

A rare moment of repose is delivered in bass-clarinet-hued Ubud Bubble, said to evoke the time-paused magic and mystery of Gamelan echoes in Bali streets, its smokiness suggested by Fischer’s brushed snare. Suck a Seed‘s attractive African sonorities are pounced on by the increasing clamour of frenetic horn improv and wailing, synthesised guitar; and Endings and Beginnings top and tails with intended softly-breathing ‘circle of life’ continuity.

The Vampires’ music feels visual, thanks to its fabulous grooves and differing atmospheres. In the UK, sight and sound can be experienced in Edinburgh on 13 October 2017, and again on 15 October as the album officially launches at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club.

The Vampires meet Lionel Loueke is available as CD or digital download at Bandcamp.

 

Jeremy Rose alto sax, tenor sax, bass clarinet
Nick Garbett trumpet
Jonathan Zwartz double bass
Danny Fischer drums
featuring
Lionel Loueke acoustic guitar, electric guitar, vocals
with
Alex Masso drums, cajon, bongos, pandeiro, wood block, cowbells, shakers (tracks 3, 5)

thevampires.com.au

Earshift Music – EAR017 (2017)

‘Vein plays Ravel’ – Vein

Vein plays Ravel

IF EVER there was a jazz piano trio album whose informed, creative invention deserved the proposition “just buy it”… well, Vein plays Ravel is most certainly a contender.

After more than a decade together, the partnership of pianist Michael Arbenz, drummer Florian Arbenz and bassist Thomas Lähns has spawned numerous recordings; and the Swiss trio’s recent release of originals (The Chamber Music Effect) beautifully reflects the freedom of interpretation to be found in classical chamber works. To approach the output of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) might, then, be seen as a natural progression; though also an audacious step, as it’s a sound world brimming with much-loved melodies and impressionistic piano and orchestral textures. However, Ravel famously listened to early-20th Century jazz (meeting George Gershwin in the States) and embraced it in his writing… so there’s a sense here that, if any of the historical composers were to sit on Vein’s collective shoulders, the Frenchman might well have collaborated with the greatest enthusiasm.

Importantly, the trio are way beyond any idea of simply retouching Ravelian manuscripts with a superficial swing or a cheery, ornamented solo line – on the contrary, it’s their depth of thought which is so compelling, understanding how to substantially deconstruct then sensitively reshape this glorious music without it becoming grotesque. Seemingly a labour of love – and what a triumph!

The recognisably babbling piano Prélude to Le Tombeau de Couperin organically integrates perpetuum-mobile bass and drums, drifting in and out of its formal structure with contemporary abandon, yet always faithful to the romanticism of Ravel. Forlane‘s original 6/8 dance is initially stated with exquisite fluidity before being decorated with fine percussion and lithe bass expressions; and there’s a magical, almost levitational intricacy to the opening of Toccata – the last of Vein’s three interpretations from this six-movement work – and the most dynamic, syncopated transformation, complete with rapid piano-and-bass figures and flamboyant drumming.

Entitled Blues by Ravel himself, the already impudent-sounding middle movement of his second Violin Sonata is the perfect vehicle for Vein’s mysterious, tango-like searching as Lähns’ arco octaves toy vocally with their suspicious accompaniment, whilst similarly playful Five o’Clock Foxtrot (from opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges) is magnificently refashioned as an episodic arrangement full of cat-and-mouse chase, elegant piano sorcery and rock-heavy riffs. Guest saxophonist Andy Sheppard joins the trio to reimagine Movement de Menuet (originally a piano sonatina) in a contemporary jazz setting of undulating tenor-led improvisation; and at first disguised within the charming, musical-box softness of Michael Arbenz’s prepared piano, the familiar motifs of Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte evolve into one of the most limpid, even emotional interpretations imaginable (replay it many times to luxuriate in its otherworldliness).

At the centrepiece of this project is, arguably, Ravel’s most familiar work – the repetitive orchestral progression, Bolero. Though sometimes derided, this is a unique masterpiece of crescendoing orchestral arrangement – and Vein’s octet interpretation (augmented by Sheppard and a quartet of reed and brass players) is extraordinarily imaginative. The constant snare drum motif of the original is cleverly expanded upon by Florian Arbenz, somehow managing to maintain its building momentum through elaborate rhythms whilst lush, rising, almost Zawinul-like harmonies and exuberant improvisations are underpinned by morse-code piano ostinati. Initially quite a jolt to the senses – ultimately an absolute tour de force.

The title Vein plays Ravel doesn’t begin to describe the detailing and the brilliance of this project – and it wouldn’t be surprising if Maurice is right there, in the midst.

Released on 8 September 2017 and available from vein-plays-ravel.com, as well as Amazon, Apple Music, etc.

 

Michael Arbenz piano
Thomas Lähns bass
Florian Arbenz drums
featuring
Andy Sheppard tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone
(on Bolero and Mouvement de Menuet)
and
Martial In Al-bon trumpet, flugelhorn
Florian Weiss trombone
Nils Fischer soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, bass clarinet
Noah Arnold alto saxophone, tenor saxophone
(on Bolero)

vein.ch

Challenge Records – DMCHR 71179 (2017)

‘Unit[e]’ – Alexander Hawkins (2CD)

Alexander Hawkins —Double CD Digipak-v1.3

BEHIND THAT intensely black, nondescript cover… well, perhaps even the initiated might only hazard a guess at the mercurial ninety minutes of original music presented in this double CD – Unit[e] – from Oxford-based pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins.

Previous albums such as Song Singular, Step Wide, Step Deep and Alexander Hawkins Trio have identified a distinctly explorative musician whose avant garde approach to jazz and improvisation is fed by many influences, suggesting the left-field vociferations of Ornette Coleman or Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and most certainly the classic, genteel swing of Duke Ellington (Hawkins describes The Duke as possibly the most basic element of his DNA). The recording is split into two sessions – the sextet of CD1, [C]ALL; the larger ensemble of CD2, HEAR[T] (personnel listed below) – and Hawkins refers to his use of square brackets in each piece’s title as an intentional ‘add or subtract a letter’ couplet device, for example: [W]here (‘here’ is one answer to ‘where’) and [S]how (‘show’ is one answer to ‘how’).

The seven tracks of [C]ALL find Hawkins’ piano in dialogue with violin, guitar, bass clarinet/tenor sax, double bass and drums – and an overarching reference to jazz tradition seems infused throughout, opening with For the People‘s perpetual, blustering, unison riff which invites Tom Skinner’s excited percussion and Shabaka Hutchings’ characteristic tenor squawks, as well as contrastingly mellow electric guitar lines from Otto Fischer. [C]all (parts 1 and 2) stomp proudly to an unusually beautiful, almost naive dance groove (in the right mood, a wonderfully cacophonous seven minutes to get into); and overlapping instrumental voices in [T]each ruminate freely to Hawkins’ sparky, leaping piano before eventually and quietly admitting defeat. The heritage jazz foundation of Hawkins’ work becomes more prominent in [K]now, where ‘MC’ Otto Fischer delivers his calmative, abstract narrative over an oblique lounge ensemble (the Ellington link accentuated by Hawkins’ delicious, semitonal chords). The fiddle and double bass of Dylan Bates and Neil Charles, in [W]here, introduce searching guitar and bass clarinet improvisations over angular piano and drums; and [S]how‘s relative spaciousness seems to beckon the listener inside, to join its subterranean roaming.

With Hawkins directing from the piano, HEAR[T]‘s thirteen-piece ensemble treads a freer, less structural path through five tracks which frequently groan and exclaim with a bewildering mesh of sounds. [Forge[t] is boisterous, irascible and anarchic, whilst the palpable trad swing of fifteen-minute-plus See[k] > Hear[t] includes splendid horn combinations and distressed flute, underpinned by Stephen Davis’ colourful percussion and enhanced by intriguing live electronics (a multifaceted experience worth staying with!). Idea[l]’s pandemonium recalls the cosmic, orchestral colour of David Bedford’s ‘Star’s End’; the awakening of [Sun[g] > Star[k] might summon Aaron Copland’s broad, restful landscapes (and its crescendoing trumpet-led progression perhaps akin to his ‘Rodeo’); and title track Unit[e]‘s nebulous instrumentation, carried on thinly-sustained strings, hints at dark-sky activity, complete with effusive, empyrean swing-band celebration.

Alexander Hawkins’ creativity may be challenging… but his jazz credentials and true, unfettered expression make it one hell of a ride!

Released on 7 July 2017, Unit[e] is available as a double CD from Discovery Records or digital download from Bandcamp.

 

CD1: [C]ALL
Dylan Bates
violin
Neil Charles double bass
Otto Fischer
guitar, voice
Alexander Hawkins
piano
Shabaka Hutchings bass clarinet, tenor saxophone
Tom Skinner drums

CD2: HEAR[T]
James Arben flute, tenor saxophone
Dylan Bates violin
Neil Charles double bass
Stephen Davis drums, percussion
Otto Fischer guitar
Alexander Hawkins piano, conductor
Laura Jurd trumpet
Julie Kjær flute, alto flute, alto saxophone, bass clarinet
Nick Malcolm trumpet, flugelhorn
Hannah Marshall cello
Percy Pursglove trumpet, double bass
Alex Ward clarinet
Matthew Wright live electronics

alexanderhawkinsmusic.com

Self-released – AH1002/3 (2017)