REVIEW: ‘Christmas With My Friends VII’ – Nils Landgren

NO ONE could have imagined, when this project first began in a Swedish medieval church in December 2005, what a poignancy its title would bring some fifteen years later. For alongside the observance and festivity of the Christmas season, this year we may also be remembering those lost to a global pandemic, as well as family and friends with whom we cannot yet get together. But amidst all of this, Nils Landgren and colleagues have chosen to continue their reassuringly familiar and easy-going brand of schmaltz, tenderness, joy and reflection in Christmas With My Friends VII.

Following the previous six volumes (including IV and V), Landgren is again joined by singers Sharon Dyall, Jeanette Köhn and Jessica Pilnäs, while Ida Sand (vocals, piano), Jonas Knutsson (saxophones), Eva Kruse (bass) and Johan Norberg (guitar, mandolin) provide the distinctive ambient glow. At the suggestion of ACT Music label owner Siggi Loch, the trombonist and vocalist has cast the net wider in terms of garnering fourteen songs from around the world, their listed countries of origin connecting us through the best and, indeed, the worst of times.

Credited with shaping the album’s eclectic sequence, Swedish guitarist Johan Norberg provides acapella introduction This Christmas, whose theme of joy and hope is continued in Comin’ Home For Christmas, Jonas Knutsson’s soprano sax embellishing its easy pop/folk groove. Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria is given a balladic, almost 1950s rock‘n’roll lilt through its vocal harmonies and Landgren’s signature trombone smoothness; and traditional Irish carol This Endris Night is bathed in gentle, shimmering light.

The predictable melody and chord sequence of Russian song The Forest Raised A Christmas Tree, in this arrangement, has a whiff of soft American folk/rock; but forgettable US soul/pop tune Just Another Christmas Song feels a touch too shallow for this collection, a ‘cheeseboard’ crammed with as many festive song lines or titles as possible! Back on track, delicate Polish lullaby of the nativity, Gdy süliczna Panna, has far greater charm, particularly for its memorable chorus; and in a swift change of mood, joyful, harmonized South African chant Sizalelwe Indodana (Unto Us A Son Is Born) features a delightful baritone sax and trombone break.

Sweet Was the Song begins a sequence of candlelit intimacy that harks back to the project’s humble but special beginnings – there’s something so wonderfully spatial about the blend of instrumentation and vocalisation in these pieces. For example, Ingibjörg Þorbergs’ simple Icelandic tune Hin fyrstu jól (The First Christmas) is attractively stated then improvised upon by a gallery quartet of mandolin, double bass, soprano sax and trombone; and Benjamin Britten’s processional Hodie Christus (from ‘A Ceremony of Carols’) becomes exalted through an expectant, sky-filled plainchant-and-horn annunciation – a beautiful, crisp atmosphere.

This sense of tradition continues in tender Finnish carol Sylvian Joululaulu – Knutsson’s soft, subtly gruff sax tone is always a pleasure to hear, complementing the clear vocal. En förtvivlad vän offers a similar aura of calm before the concluding ensemble greeting of José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad is extended with gentle, fireside warmth.

Christmas 2020’s celebrations will need some alternative imagination on our part. But the unswerving feel-good of Nils Landgren and friends this yuletide, and in years to come, offers us some semblance of peace and cheer. ‘Gud välsigna oss alla’.

Released on 10 October 2020 and available in CD and vinyl formats at ACT Music.

 

Nils Landgren trombone, vocals
Sharon Dyall vocals
Jonas Knutsson saxophones
Jeanette Köhn vocals
Eva Kruse bass
Jessica Pilnäs vocals
Ida Sand vocals, piano
Johan Norberg guitar, mandolin

nilslandgren.com

ACT Music – ACT 9916-2 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘Configuration’ – John Law’s Congregation

IT’S A PRIVILEGE to track the evolution of a musician’s career over many years, especially when, like pianist John Law’s, it simply goes from strength to strength. I first saw him perform at Brecon Jazz Festival in 2007 (the Art of Sound Trio with Yuri Goloubev and Asaf Sirkis); and, since then, through his solo and various Congregation ensemble albums, there’s been a clear sense of continual experimentation.

Read my full review at LondonJazzNews…

Released on 1 May 2020 on the Ubuntu Music label, Configuration is available directly from John Law’s website, Amazon and Apple Music.

 

John Law piano, keyboards, samples
James Mainwaring saxophones, guitar, electronics
Ashley John Long double bass
Billy Weir drums
with
Jasper Law electronics

johnlaw.org.uk

Ubuntu Music – UBU0036 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘Last Things Last’ – Greg Cordez

Greg Cordez_Last

MUSIC sometimes has the curious approach of making one wait, in a ‘just stay with me, let’s see where this takes us’ kinda way; but after doing exactly that with bassist/composer Greg Cordez’s latest release, Last Things Last, its restrained beauty has gradually unfurled.   

UK-born and New Zealand-raised Cordez’s 2015 album, Paper Crane, is a return-to delight – and with a different instrumental angle and line-up, this follow-up presents a cool, Stateside aura which is perhaps enhanced by its Brooklyn recording location as well as the influence of production associate (and respected US bassist) Ben Allison. The leader describes his original compositions as exploring “themes of coincidence, optimism, and the slow dissolution of a personal relationship” – but, as suggested by its desolate gas-station cover, there’s also the tangibility of contemplative night-time journeying; a fitting soundtrack to endlessly snaking freeway lights ahead.

Alongside guitarist Steve Cardenas and drummer Allison Miller, Cordez pairs cornettist Kirk Knuffke and saxophonist Michael Blake upfront, their unison and contrapuntal horn melodies featuring strongly in eight numbers which don’t overstay their welcome; in fact, they succinctly say what they need to say, yet happily prompt repeat play.

The streetlight shuffle of Chekhov’s Gun is maintained through mobile electric bass groove, Rhodes-like guitar chords and fleeting electronics, with Knuffke and Blake intertwined in attractive, close riffs; and Cherry v Des Moines‘ American-rock bass pulse might easily invite a shouty vocal. But elsewhere, a hazy stillness pervades Cordez’s writing. Figlock‘s beautiful drowsiness is created by echoic horns and thrummed strings before crescendoing to pitch-bent electric guitar heaven; Last Things Last‘s resigned serenity is imbued with frail doubt, its brighter dawn inviting sublime individual guitar, sax and cornet improv; and Low Winter Sun‘s positivity is felt through gently propulsive rhythms and lasting melodies.

Charmingly soporific All That Is, with malleable rubato, allows the softness of Knuffke’s cornet and Blake’s sax to roam as they please, whilst Clementine‘s similar confidence in creating lush, open ground for solo and ensemble creativity provides a balm-like feel-good; and Junebug‘s cheery guitar-and-cornet ‘all is well’ tunefulness might even hint at Herb Alpert.

Cruise into the afterglow with Last Things Last… and see where it takes you.

Released on 18 August 2017 and available as a CD through Greg’s website (the break-up ‘F37 Glaser Street’ font takes an impressive tumble on the inlay tray!) or digitally at Bandcamp.

 

Kirk Knuffke cornet
Michael Blake saxophones
Steve Cardenas guitar
Greg Cordez bass
Allison Miller drums

gregcordez.com

Self-released (2017)

‘All Things’ – Slowly Rolling Camera

src_allthings

SLOWLY ROLLING CAMERA’s eponymous 2014 debut release made a strong impression, garnering an enthusiastic, international fanbase – and follow-up All Things powers to still greater heights with its dynamic blend of soul, electronica, trip hop, jazz and rock.

Fronted by charismatic vocalist, vocal arranger and lyricist Dionne Bennett – whose deep, emotional timbres are the band’s signature – the central quartet completed by Dave Stapleton (keyboards), Deri Roberts (sound design, electronics, percussion) and Elliot Bennett (drums, percussion) calls upon an impressive complement of musicians to assist in realising their ambitious, lush, almost rock-symphonic imaginings. Echoes of The Cinematic Orchestra are authenticated by the presence of guitarist Stuart McCallum; jazz collaborators Ben Waghorn and Laura Jurd provide improvisational flair; and strings enhance the cinemascopic fervour whilst also providing contrasting tranquillity.

Dionne Bennett’s intense, often angsty delivery is perfect for this album’s pervading themes of ‘relationships and the human condition’, and her inflected control, vibrato and sumptuous harmonies feel matchless on the current scene. Scintillation, for example, smoulders over searing strings before erupting into darting rhythms and instrumental soloing over tremulant Fender Rhodes, with tensile “I feel your fire” vocals at snapping point; and McCallum’s reverberant electric guitar paints the sky with incandescent white light. Key to the band’s percussive drive is Elliot Bennett, whose intricacy and energy is always so compelling to watch and hear – opener The Fix is typical of his kaleidoscopic approach, combining weighty, held-back lurching with pin-sharp, cymbal-thrashing accuracy.

It’s difficult to overstate how slick and how layered this production is. Delusive‘s catchy core riff recalls Harold Faltermeyer’s ‘Axel F’; Dave Stapleton’s introduction of the Moog synth, especially in High Praise and Room with a View, is inspired – evocative of ’70s prog, it adds so much to this tumultuous, energising 21st Century landscape; and Deri Roberts’ sound manipulation in Oblivion, supporting Dionne Bennett’s frenetic, shouted choruses of “Leave me alone” confirm that any one of this album’s nine tracks could be the dramatic backdrop to a blockbuster thriller (and equally at home on BBC 6 Music’s playlists).

The transformation of one of Stapleton’s earlier, minimalist, Gorecki-inspired piano works (from his own album Flight) into the soulful vocal outpouring of Unsetting Sun is effective, with string quartet intensifying the heart-wrenched emotion; The Brink is a standout, pulsating, soul/rock episode, with McCallum’s cascading guitar lines enhancing its exciting cacophony; and wind-down end-piece All Things, complete with oscillating synth sirens, wraps up this breathtaking 46-minute visceral explosion.

The ‘difficult second album’? Not… a… chance!

Released on 4 November 2016, All Things is available as LP, CD and digital download from Edition Records at Bandcamp.

 

Dionne Bennett lyrics, vocals, vocal arrangements
Dave Stapleton Fender Rhodes, Moog, string arrangements, piano
Deri Roberts sound design, electronics, production, pandeiro, cuica, berimbau, udu, cabasa, calabash, ghungharu bells, finger cymbals, seed pod shaker
Elliot Bennett drums, tumbadores, bongos, shakers, ribbon crasher, bells
with
Stuart McCallum guitar
Aidan Thorne double bass, electric bass
Ben Waghorn saxophones, bass clarinet
plus
Laura Jurd trumpet
Gareth Roberts trombone
Simon Kodurand violin
Christiana Mavron violin
Katy Rowe violin
Victoria Stapleton violin
Ilona Bondar viola
Niamh Ferris viola
Sarah Davison cello
Abigail Blackman cello
and (on Unsetting Sun)
David Brodowski violin
Catrin Win Morgan violin
Felix Tanner viola
Reinoud Ford cello

slowlyrollingcamera.com

Edition Records – EDN1080 (2016)

‘Let’s Dance’ – Per Oddvar Johansen

LetsDance

IT MAY BE CLICHÉD to describe an album as a ‘musical journey’, yet the progression in Let’s Dance very much suggests passage through the kind of open, atmospheric Scandinavian landscape portrayed on the cover of this new release from Norwegian drummer and multi-instrumentalist Per Oddvar Johansen. 

Although it marks his debut as leader – with longstanding colleagues Helge Lien (piano) and Torben Snekkestad (saxophones, reed trumpet) – Johansen’s established recording career has seen him appear on over eighty albums (ECM, ACT, etc.), collaborating with names such as Adam Baldych, Trygve Seim and Solveig Slettahjell, and collecting six Spellemannprisen (Norwegian Grammys).

This trio’s sound palette is many-hued, whilst maintaining a thread of serene majesty, as in opening title track Let’s Dance – a gentle, misty, Tord Gustavsen-like dawn with an arcing sunrise melody painted by Torben Snekkestad’s wispy, duduk-toned soprano sax. As a drummer, percussionist and composer, Johansen also has other instrumental capabilities up his sleeve on this recording (violins, vibes, guitars, etc.), yet the structural balance of these nine tracks is never in doubt. Forest Flower‘s atmospheric delicacy – with distorted reeds, low-sustained piano strings and fragile percussion respectively evoking bird calls, looming storms and the gradual onset of rainfall – is so beautifully imagined. Flying extends the themes of natural openness and shifting climatic conditions through the spacial rise and fall of electronics, violin and dewdrop vibraphone; and the lyrical, folksong qualities in No. 7 feel reminiscent of the work of Jonas Knutsson.

Helge Lien’s restrained yet exploratory piano style is central to many of these pieces, his authoritative sense of equilibrium shining through in Panorama, a dark, brooding episode suspended by his deeply-plumbed pedal notes and only occasional glimmers of brightness; and Per Oddvar’s brushed subtleties underpin Snekkestad’s lachrymose improvisations with incantational foreboding. In contrast, the lurching slide-guitar folksiness of Uluru (for Anette) suggests arrival at a woodland clearing, complete with the sound of lofty tweets and distant, flowing streams – one of a pair of delightful miniatures (with free, electro-percussive Impromptu) which perpetuate the pervading themes of free-roaming expedition.

The rubato of Families, over a slowly oscillating bass figure, offers both Snekkestad and Johansen a broad canvas to explore, with Lien’s own, single-line piano excursions finely placed; and closing track Song M is coloured by the beautifully richness of tenor sax amidst the tranquillity of brushed snare/cymbals and nebulous piano.

Recorded deep within the forests of Sweden, the tranquillity of Per Oddvar Johansen’s Let’s Dance may be interpreted as a grateful invocation to nature – and it’s not difficult, on close examination, to fall under its spell. Watch the video of the recording of the title track here.

Released on 25 March 2016, the album can be purchased from Edition Records’ Bandcamp store.

 

Per Oddvar Johansen drums, violins, vibraphone, guitars, wood percussion, electronics
Helge Lien piano
Torben Snekkestad saxophones, reed trumpet

peroddvar.no

Edition Records – EDN1068 (2016)

‘Umoya’ – Philip Clouts Quartet

Umoya

IT HAS TO BE the innate South African rhythm of life that Philip Clouts possesses which marks out his quartet albums with such sunshiny zest.

Born in Cape Town, and resident of the generally balmier UK region of West Dorset, the pianist/composer’s approach is typically melodic, straight-ahead and high-spirited. Following up his Hour of Pearl album of 2013, the Umoya title of this latest release is a Zulu word for ‘life force’, confirming that accessible joie de vivre in his performances; and to the rhythm section of Alex Keen (electric bass) and Dave Ingamells (drums), he invites young saxophonist Samuel Eagles – who impressed with his own debut album – to add considerable upfront sparkle.

So, certainly a jazz album, generously filled with memorable hooks and broad improvisation… but these eight tracks are also unquestionably infused with alluring ‘world’ grooves which find their way so readily into Clouts’ compositions, and which are central to their attraction. Title track Umoya is the perfect illustration, its clarity and apparent simplicity actually paving the way for bright, syncopated rhythms which might recall Chris McGregor or Dudu Pukwana, as Samuel Eagles’ elongated phrases intertwine with Clouts’ own lucid solo lines and endearing block chord triplet sequences.

Dreamy Driving catches the imagination – a musically colourful journey taking in contemporary riffs, oases of calm and ear-pricking textural combinations held together by the mobility of Alex Keen’s electric bass; and Taranto‘s world/folk influence is heightened by Eagles’ Italianate inflections and Clouts’ vigorously cascading sequences.

Walking in Starlight‘s cool sidewalk nonchalance is created out of Keen’s unhurried bass and Clouts’ softly-jabbing electric piano, whilst Dave Ingamells’ momentum and crisp detail here are typical of his pervading presence throughout these 50 minutes or so. Perhaps it’s the Joe Sample-style keys here – reminiscent of Street Life – which bring the tantalising realisation that so many of Clouts’ melodically strong compositions cry out for a vocal line (his father was a South African poet); one can only imagine the potential vivacity – not to mention beauty – of such a project!

Direction South pays direct homage to the music of the pianist’s birth land in a joyous, Abdullah Ibrahim-like gambol; Amor possesses a contrasting restlessness, Eagles’ mysterious soprano sax deliciously weaving around Clouts’ ostinato undercurrent, occasionally hitting a hard-driving rock pulse; and the bright, lurching gospel/blues of Meandering is pounced upon by Eagles, his swooning modal explorations especially attractive.

There are certainly grittier, edgier experiences out there – but this is a life-affirming, musically-accomplished album to relax into (and, I dare say – when the sun deigns to reappear – to pop a cork to!). Umoya can be purchased from Philip Clouts’ website, Odradek Records, record stores and online retailers.

 

Philip Clouts piano, composer
Samuel Eagles saxophones
Alex Keen electric bass
Dave Ingamells drums

philipcloutsquartet.co.uk

Odradek Records – ODRCD503 (2015)