‘Via Maris’ – Melange

Melange

MELANGE BY NAME, melange by nature… this jazz-inflected world music release from cellist Shirley Smart’s London-based collective is gloriously difficult to categorise.

Along with Smart, the core line-up in this recording comprises Stefanos Tsourelis (oud), Peter Michaels (guitar) and Demi Garcia Sabat (drums, percussion) – a quartet whose celebration of Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean music is, by turns, joyous, atmospheric and often deeply affecting. But then add in significant contributions from Maurizio Minardi (accordion), Joe Browne (saxophones), Jake Painter (trumpet) and Michele Mintolli (bass), and the creative hues become more broadly pronounced.

In 1989, Shirley Smart swapped the UK for Jerusalem, becoming immersed in its cultural life for a decade. It was there that this eight-piece ensemble was conceived, bringing together musicians from Greece, Spain, Morocco, Iraq, Italy and the UK – and importantly, despite prevailing political and social tensions in areas of conflict, these artists were able to continue to compose and perform together, confirming music’s universal power to transcend and overcome such challenges. Smart’s open and eclectic vision for this group is surely founded on her experiences performing with Palestinian, Israeli and Moroccan bands, as well as tours across Europe, Russia, Jordan and Egypt.

The overriding impression is of live, interactive music, joyfully played – easy to imagine a distant, energised pulse or lyrical phrase caught on the breeze, gradually intensifying with each closer footfall until this impassioned music is seen and heard in all its colourful splendour. And however familiar or unfamiliar this exotic sound world – incorporating Arabic maqam, jazz improvisation and including traditional tunes plus original compositions – the impassioned instrumental textures and rhythms become wholly arresting. Indeed, to more Western ears, the sound of Stefanos Tsourelis’ oud immediately evokes the world of Anouar Brahem, as in spirited opening number Bia Oula Bik (Between Me and You) whose whirling vibrancy is accentuated by trumpet and sax, and also in sultry, percussively fragrant Anosis.

Throughout, the leader’s assured, often vigorous improvisations are integral to the overall palette, her own Marrocai burning brightly in festive folkiness, with Peter Michaels’ guitar and Tsourelis’ oud complementing the rich cello sonority; and Maurizio Minardi’s typically adventurous, evocative accordion in old Iraqi love song Foq El-Nakhal contributes greatly to an irresistible levity. Longa Kismet‘s smouldering mystery confirms just how effective the quartet of cello, oud, guitar and percussion can be, whilst the gentle introduction of Joe Browne’s chromatic soprano sax and Minardi’s subtle accordion in Anouar Brahem’s Halfaouine adds spice.

Certainly a journey into the unknown, this album delights at every turn: Erotokritos sounding fascinatingly medieval, Longa Sha’anaz‘s exotic riffs absolutely charming, Azraq (another of Smart’s originals) hitting a rocky groove as well as treading into dark, oud-improvised alleyways, and Greek- or perhaps Bulgarian-suggested Kiselo Mlkako fizzes with audacious, exuberant mischief (‘has to be heard!). Breathless, anarchic, tenor-screeched Turkish stomper Longa Sakiz, too, is a brilliant showstopper, whilst end piece Sound of the Ground parties on with an almost Mexican radiance.

Melange are a complete delight, and Via Maris an enthralling debut release. Available as CD or download, on Two Rivers Records, at Bandcamp.

 

Shirley Smart cello
Stefanos Tsourelis oud
Peter Michaels guitar
Demi Garcia Sabat drums, percussion
with
Maurizio Minardi accordion (tracks 1, 4, 6, 10, 11, 12)
Joe Browne saxophones (tracks 1, 6 , 11, 12)
Jake Painter trumpet (tracks 1, 7, 12)
Michele Montolli bass (tracks 1, 10, 11, 12)

melangecollective.com

Two Rivers Records – TRR 013 (2016)

‘Piano Ambulance’ – Maurizio Minardi

PianoAmbulance

MAURIZIO Minardi’s The Cook the Clown the Monk and the Accordionist of 2013 showcased the London-based Italian’s brilliance with the accordion in an engaging album of his own jazz compositions characterised by humour, theatre and showmanship.

New release Piano Ambulance shifts the focus of his unequivocal technical expertise to his first instrument, piano, with another fascinating programme of self-penned works – this time for piano quartet (with trio members bassist Nick Pini and drummer Jason Reeve, plus the sustained depth of Shirley Smart’s cello). The instrumental combination of the four is as distinctive as it is effective, capturing Minardi’s penchant for visual music which is so evidently cinematic in its predominance of drama, urgency and storytelling, whilst also contrasted by delightfully delicate interludes.

The siren-suggested piano oscillations of title number Piano Ambulance develop in vigorous Einaudian earnestness, balanced with a trio serenity which indicates the story behind Minardi’s album naming (his positive experiences of the beneficial, cathartic effects of live music that can sometimes be found in English hospitals and nursing homes). April Sun exudes an endearingly spacial, childlike simplicity peppered with the pianist’s improvisations, yet still with unsettled, ambulant overtones; and Goodbye London – its initial fluttering, tricksy moto perpetuo rhythms reminiscent of Penguin Cafe – builds into melodramatic grandeur enhanced by emotionally yearning cello.

Friday Almost paints pictures of both anticipatory joy and rush-hour bustle before relaxing into the most tranquil, electronic-tinged oasis, whilst the menacing impetus of Secret Skin resounds to Shirley Smart’s abrasive, Anja Lechner-like glissando extemporisations and Jason Reeve’s propulsive drum/cymbal accuracy (here, again, the quartet display their deftness in emotively ‘turning on a sixpence’ to sparser territory). There’s a stately, pseudo-Baroque air to Indulgence – and, complete with Minardi’s elegant piano ornamentation and Nick Pini’s delicious bass improvisation, its grazioso melody might easily be sung to words.

A strong sense of narrative defines Dangerous Innocence, Minardi’s characteristic piano ostinati (at times not unlike Michael Nyman or Philip Glass) escalating to a troubled, driven episode until a melancholy cello melody closes; certainly soundtrack material, as is Seven Sisters, a loftier, romantic affair coloured by Pini’s bass and Smart’s cello. In trio finale Francesca’s Gloves, the absence of Minardi’s familiar, repetitious pulse creates a more typically Italian style with subtle Bachian shades redolent of, say, pianists Paolo Paliaga or Michele Di Toro – an exquisite closer with a suppleness informed by the lightness of both Reeve’s percussion and Pini’s bass.

Released on 2 February 2015 and launching at The Vortex, London, on 18 February, Maurizio Minardi is touring Piano Ambulance during March (see dates below) – and, having previously seen this quartet live, I heartily recommend the excitement and entertainment value to be found in their intuitive performances.

 

Maurizio Minardi piano
Nick Pini double bass
Jason Reeve drums
Shirley Smart cello

March 2015 tour dates
4 March: Hull Jazz Club, Hull
5 March: Queens Hall Arts, Hexham
6 March: Pound Arts, Corsham
10 March: Annie’s Jazz, Southend
20 March: Gateway Arts Centre, Shrewsbury
27 March: Key Theatre Studio, Peterborough
29 March: Omnibus Arts Centre, London

mauriziominardi.com

Belfagor Label – MM12 (2014)

‘China Lane’ – Alice Zawadzki

CDWalletCrescent_DW-WithSpineNew.pdf

FROM THE DELICATE opening riff of this debut release, singer, songwriter, violinist and pianist Alice Zawadzki has me enraptured. A number of years in gestation, China Lane offers a unique and pleasantly beguiling approach to jazz, folk (call it what you will) which is enduringly irresistible.

Comprised mostly of originals, this collection can be curious, unpredictable and maybe even eccentric – but it is this bold individuality which sets it apart. And, with the immense musicality of friends such as Kit Downes (Hammond), Alex Roth (guitar), Jon Scott (drums) and Andreas Lang (bass) on board, as well as strings and associate voices, this is a magical journey with a breadth that takes in stories of love, tenderness, desolation, discord and mischief. Zawadzki’s assured vocal delivery – heard also in Moss Freed’s excellent Moss Project (album review here) – is, for me, redolent of the invention of Annette Peacock and Björk, with a touch of the light, new-age folkiness of Sally Oldfield – yet it also possesses a rich and passionate depth which particularly comes to the fore in the two arrangements here of traditional Sephardic tunes.

The breathy, brushed, folksy opening number Ring of Fire, featuring Zawadzki’s clear lead vocal and mysterious violin melodies, is the perfect example of the twists and turns to be found in these entertaining fifty minutes. Kit Downes’ distinctive scratchy Hammond gradually nudges further into the proceedings against the sustained wash of Alex Roth’s guitar until, with rapid gear change, Andreas Lang’s double bass signals the glorious blues-jam conclusion, Downes and Roth underpinning Zawadzki’s playful scat-like vocal improvisations which, in the end, seemingly catch them out (to their audible amusement!). Cat is described by the composer as a modern fairytale in which “the ghost of a murdered feline finds its way into the body of a woman with excellent consequences”, the laboured push-pull rhythm provided by Jon Scott and sinewy effects from Downes and Roth – plus close, soulful harmonies – adding to the fantasy. Again, the mercurial nature of Zawadzki’s writing triumphs, Downes turning in a characteristically showy solo.

Indome Para Marsilia (arranged by Alex Roth) whirls and gyrates to its mesmeric folk melody, led by hard percussion and pulsating bass, giving Zawadzki the opportunity to reach vocal highs (Roth’s guitar a key element). Dicho Me Habían Dicho, the more introspective of these two traditional tunes, burns slowly and mystically, Shirley Smart’s typically gritty, wailing cello against Alex Roth’s harmonics enhancing Zawadzki’s brooding tones. The horizontal string-shimmering effect of Low Sun; Lovely Pink Light – with chromatically-climbing harmonies from Zawadzki, Emilia Mårtensson and Fini Bearman, plus Roth’s chorused guitar against Andreas Lang’s resonant bass – is heartstoppingly gorgeous, its rising, crescendoing impressions recalling a Danish winter sunrise. Emotional in other directions, nine-minute You As A Man reveals a tangible poignancy, Zawadzki’s lyricism perhaps at its height (“It’s like selling your feet to make money for shoes; using blood to wash your wounds”). The constant swell and diminuendo of Downes’ Hammond chords provide intrigue to this spiky and discomforting tale of obsessional love, and the whole band’s interpretation of Alice Zawadzki’s intentions match her dramatic vocal expression.

The urbanity of Manchester, including the buses which pass behind the stage of Matt & Phred’s jazz club, provide the subtle background ambience for the closing title track which reflects Zawadzki’s affection for and association with this northern city. Singing at the piano, accompanied by string sextet, she nostalgically paints images of the red sunset-tinged brick buildings of narrow China Lane in the album’s most commercially anthemic number.

As enchanting to experience ‘live’ as in this fine recording, Alice Zawadzki is most definitely one of contemporary’s jazz’s stars of the present and the future, possessing, as she does, remarkable musical dexterity and personality. A fine solo album debut.

Released on Whirlwind on 16 June 2014, further information and purchasing can be found here.

 

Alice Zawadzki voice, violin, piano
Alex Roth guitar
Andreas Lang double bass
Kit Downes Hammond organ
Jon Scott drums
Shirley Smart cello
Emilia Mårtensson voice
Fini Bearman voice
with
Eva Thorarinsdottir violin
Steve Proctor violin
Lucy Nolan viola
Tanah Stevens viola
Peggy Nolan cello
Rosie Toll cello

alicezmusic.com

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4647 (2014)

‘The Cook the Clown the Monk and the Accordionist’ – Maurizio Minardi


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MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with the music of Maurizio Minardi was as recent as last month, when a solitary character stepped up, with accordion, to set up on one of the free stages at the popular annual Kings Place Festival, London, joined by cellist and double bassist. Excitingly, I had no expectation nor preconception of what this trio were about to offer to their waiting audience.

What ensued was both a charming and enthralling introduction, for me, to a new soundworld where the players shared between them their enthusiasm and joy for their leader’s highly individual compositions, all delivered with gusto and flair. The gathering, appreciative audience (summoned by the lush sounds travelling up through the venue’s open spaces) revelled in the bright melodies – frequently fast-paced, sometimes lyrical, often fun. And, by the close of the set, I felt I wanted to hear more from this London-based Italian who has, I have discovered, an impressive CV – often as sideman to a great array of artists, as well as pursuing his own projects.

So to this, Minardi’s current album, from which the live performance drew a good number of tunes (and clearly stayed in my head, as they were pleasantly familiar on my first CD listen-through). The instrumental grouping – on disc, a quartet, with drums – may at first seem unusual, but I have quickly grown to love this music which retains the same lively interaction that I witnessed live; and, most of all, communicates the joyful vibe they create together.

Boasting a lengthy album title (a parody of Peter Greenaway’s late ’80s romantic crime drama, ‘The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover’ – a “grotesque fresco of eccentric characters in a very elegant restaurant”), Minardi appears to delight in storytelling (perhaps I should watch the Greenaway movie, or Minardi’s own music videos, to connect more with the intriguing track names!). There is considerable energy, passion and pace here, readily conjuring much theatrical or cinematic imagery, sometimes suggesting colour-faded continental movies of the ’60s. However, Maurizio’s music is certainly for the here and now, sounding fresh with its colourful and creative influences of jazz, folk, baroque, opera, dance, burlesque… even music hall. The real essence of this recording is to be found by immersing oneself in the whole experience – but here’s an overview:

Opening number ‘The Cook in Love’ immediately throws us into Minardi’s world with its engaging pulse, supported by the repeated rhythm of Shirley Smart’s cello and Nick Pini’s bass, only pausing briefly for a romantic (maybe melancholy) cello, bass and piano interlude. ‘Penguin’ has such an affable air which, with its easy-going bass, you’d swear was a tune you’ve known all your life… and a quirky video completes the fun of this short and deceptively simple piece – a definite ‘smiler’! The dark, fast-moving tarantella-like ‘Monk’s Escape’ reveals Maurizio’s command of his instrument; and ‘Five is Better than Four’ is another rhythmically strong, instantly likeable and buoyant tune, led by Smart’s beautiful cello tone. Somewhere within ‘The Black Book’ hides a baroque spirit, its gorgeous chord sequences, percussive fills and jazzy bassline making it a winner. Mysterious and mischievious, ‘Marcello’ wonderfully changes the mood again, before the breakneck pace of ‘The Taming of the Shrew‘ hurtles off, vivid chase imagery to the fore! ‘The Gambling Queen’ is decidely sinister, bass and cello creating an almost hurdy-gurdy-type rhythm against Jason Reeve’s hollow beat, but with a serene, sublime harmonium-like central section. Finally, ‘Dirty Clown’ reveals yet another facet of Minardi’s compositional skills, its initial gentle, melodic theme giving way to a freer section where he and drummer Marco Quarantotto begin to break out, suggesting improvisational directions they might yet explore.

Maurizio Minardi is a master in creating different textures and moods within this quartet (‘The Monk’s Escape’ is a great illustration of this) and, with his abilities also as a saxophonist, it is intriguing to imagine how the timbre of a higher-flying solo instrument such as a clarinet or jazz flute might occasionally complement the lower, warm combination of accordion and strings. I continue to be captivated by this discovery – a highly entertaining release from an impassioned and accomplished ensemble!


Maurizio Minardi
 accordion and piano
Shirley Smart cello
Nick Pini double bass
Jason Reeve / Marco Quarantotto drums

Belfagor Label – MM11 (2013)

Website: http://www.mauriziominardi.co.uk
YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/gormac