REVIEW: ‘A Million Conversations’ – Rachel Sutton

“I REMEMBER TIMES… when love was new.” This opening line, delivered with romantic phrasing reminiscent of the late, great Karen Carpenter, was all it took – all it took – to encourage further exploration of A Million Conversations, the debut release from vocalist Rachel Sutton with pianist Roland Perrin, bassist Michael Curtis Ruiz and drummer Paul Robinson.

To fall under the spell of the human voice is by no means automatic but, rather, a distinctly personal experience. In the case of Rachel Sutton, her background as a dramatic actress clearly feeds into the expressive detailing that illuminates the seven songs on this album, the majority of which are, musically and lyrically, self-penned. And it’s no surprise to read that Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Billy Joel and Judy Collins are amongst her long-time inspirations. But it takes more than a copyist to tug at the emotions as effectively (and, personally speaking, as involuntarily) as this.

Balladic When Love Was New possesses a timeless, yearning aura which encompasses both jazz and musical theatre – and, immediately, it’s apparent that this is a vocalist who instinctively paces the progression of a song, with mellow, lower resonances as attractive as her controlled vibrato. A Million Conversations has the classic feel and timbre of 1970s Carly Simon or Don Henley/Glenn Frey (“So won’t you join me as we go back through the years… to a halcyon time?”), with restrained country-rock piano to accompany sung melodies which fix in the mind as well as heart.

There’s also showmanship aplenty, as sassy, Broadway-style Pick Myself Up proves, brimming with chromatic joie de vivre and deliciously mobile fretless bass. The smouldering bossa/swing rhythms and hiatuses of Kiss My Baby Goodbye reveal a swagger to Sutton’s resigned delivery (“Now it’s gone, I have to forget you”); and a dark, theatrical mood akin to Lionel Bart is present in The Space, her emotion playing out well in its forlorn, aching storytelling. 

Alongside these original songs are two classy interpretations. Brother Can You Spare a Dime (Al Jolson, Bing Crosby) can easily be oversung, but Rachel’s discipline is well suited to this 1930s blues of the Great Depression, accentuated here by the trumpet break of guest Stuart Brooks; and Evil Gal Blues (Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin) has a sprightly, impetuous step – the final laugh confirming the joy of the performers!

Rachel Sutton’s voice sparkles, as do her own, memorable compositions. So it’s easy to imagine collaborations with larger ensembles and big bands, as well as maybe venturing into larger-scale compositional projects. Catch those opening words for yourself… and you may well hear why I delight in this discovery.

A Million Conversations released on 19 January 2020 and is available from 33 Jazz Records, Rachel Sutton’s website, Amazon and Apple Music.

 

Rachel Sutton voice
Roland Perrin piano 
Michael Curtis Ruiz
bass
Paul Robinson
drums
with
Stuart Brooks trumpet

rachelsuttonmusic.com

33 Jazz Records – 33JAZZ282 (2019)

REVIEW: ‘Totem’ – Ferdinando Romano feat. Ralph Alessi

AS MUSIC DEVOTEES, we must all have enjoyed the experience of a new recording which ‘follows us around’. Whatever comes and goes, that one album begs to be heard again and again over a period of time, and for good reason. Italian double bassist and composer Ferdinando Romano’s Totem has landed very firmly in this category.

In his first contemporary jazz release as leader, Romano’s core quintet of alto/soprano saxophones, vibraphone/marimba, piano, double bass and drums is frequently augmented to sextet or septet by flugelhornist Tommaso Iacoviello and acclaimed trumpeter Ralph Alessi. Together, they produce some of the most luscious and melodious ensemble performances I’ve heard for some time, the bassist’s eight compositions captured with typically crystalline clarity at Artesuono studio. His overarching theme and album title is described thus:

“A totem is a symbol that represents a natural or spiritual entity which has a particular meaning for a single person or even for a large group of people. In an artistic sense, each of us has [our] own totems, they are our references, our lighthouses and also the people we met and whom we shared musical and artistic experiences with. However, the single totems can give life to a much bigger one, something that is much more than the sum of the parts and that represents the creative synthesis of our musical personality, giving birth to something new.”

There are so many exquisite moments and interactions in this near-hour’s listening that create atmospheres which, arguably, only music can offer; and this ensemble demonstrates faultless intuition in integrating and continuing textures. The Gecko’s apparently straightforward bass-and-marimba groove is clearly approached with relish by each player, with interwoven horns and shimmering vibraphone. Romano’s sleeve notes explain the background to each piece, and stealthy flugel and soprano in Wolf Totem pictorialises its described inspiration with mystery, then triumphant vitality.

The ballads are especially pellucid, with Romano’s expressive bass improvisations in Curly carried on bell-like rivulets of piano and vibes; and Memories Reprise is an emotive stand-out. I understand that sometimes the soprano sax is maligned for being shrill or narrow, but in Simone Allessandrini’s hands, it glides so smoothly (listen to this track at 4:42 where his sustained melody is seamlessly carried forward by Tommaso Iacovelli’s flugel). Longer outings come in the form of eleven-minute Mirrors – a freer, immersive exploration; and Sea Crossing (parts 1 & 2) is a suitably wild, turbulent voyage which benefits from the undoubted mastery of Ralph Alessi’s bright, limitless improvisations, though the whole band basks in the joint ebullience.

The concept of ‘life’s dance’ is never far away in this recording, with Romano referencing Mattisse’s familiar 1910 oil painting ‘The Dance’. There’s certainly an eloquence to these original sounds which, through vibrant rhythm or iridescent calm, speak to our humanity. In that sense, right now, the value of beauty in Totem feels inestimable.

Released on 24 April and available as CD, vinyl or download at Bandcamp.

 

Ralph Alessi trumpet (tracks 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8)

Tommaso Iacoviello flugelhorn (tracks 1, 3, 7)

Simone Alessandrini alto sax, soprano sax

Nazareno Caputo vibraphone, marimba

Manuel Magrini piano
Ferdinando Romano double bass

Giovanni Paolo Liguori drums

ferdinandoromano.com

Losen Records – LOS 242-2 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘Another Kind of Soul’ – Tony Kofi

HEART, SOUL and blazing musicality – the essence of the art of saxophonist Tony Kofi – take centre stage in this new, live recording with his quintet of trumpeter Andy Davies, pianist Alex Webb, bassist Andrew Cleyndert and drummer Alfonso Vitale.

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released on 24 April 2020, in vinyl and digital formats only – available from Proper Music and these links.

 

Tony Kofi alto saxophone
Andy Davies trumpet
Alex Webb piano
Andrew Cleyndert double bass
Alfonso Vitale drums

tonykofimusic.com

The Last Music Company – LMLP217 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘Trio’ – Felix Jay (3CD)

FOLLOWING the singular creative path of Felix Jay has been illuminating, and proves how limitless our discoveries can be. A varied career has seen the multi-instrumentalist collaborate with artists including Hans-Joachim Roedelius, working for NME and striking a friendship with Brian Eno, while his recording acquaintance with jazz trumpeter Byron Wallen is long-standing.

Trio isn’t a ‘jazz piano trio’ recording, as one might surmise, but a three-album work of sessions which cover a double decade, from 1999 to 2019 – two featuring Wallen and guitarist Rob Luft – and much of it recorded at his music room on the River Eye, in the serene rurality of the Cotswolds. It seems Jay has always preferred improvisational collages, yet his music is generally accessible and certainly increasingly absorbing. Personnel details and instrumentation for each album are listed further below.

Riverseyeside Recordings weaves a sinuous route, Calabash and Song for Ch(arli)e featuring muted trumpet (echoes of Miles) over rivulets of Fender Rhodes and wavering, phased electric guitar; and its Jay’s marimba and other percussion which provides mysterious depth in Bush of mists. Electronics are effective in pieces such as Sacred flutes, creating a breathy ostinato for bass clarinet to crawl through; and Shisya’s joyful conversation between scampering guitar runs, bass flute and a clapping rhythm is attractive (one of Jay’s earlier recordings, Cardamom & Coriander, demonstrates his skill with fluttering, harmonic bass flute). Fils de fils de Kilimanjaro taps into Luft’s affection for an African vibe; grooving Where’s Jack? feels like it could run and run; and expansive Must it be? It must be! views the afterglow with steel guitar shooting star trails soaring above delicate soprano sax melodies.

Jay’s connection to Indonesian ensemble music features strongly in second album, Jazz Gamelan, which is mostly his three-way dialogue with Wallen and Luft. In a slendro way quietly chimes, perhaps in reverence to Joe Zawinul; and there are delightfully mesmeric tuned percussion solo episodes such as Jasmine and Kempulus. This hour’s sequence genuinely feels like an exploration in and out of different rooms, the prepared piano and clarinet of Samburan more akin to classical chamber music, then countered by softly bass-funked, trumpet-improvised On what corner? Luft’s sitar impressions against hammered gamelan tones in Ripples (1 & 2) are inspired; and exotic, guiro-scratched Lull leads into another meditative space – In a suling way – becalmed by high, Southeast Asian-suggested soprano recorder.

Third album, Prepared/Unprepared, is a thread of Jay’s spontaneous improvisations at a prepared electric grand piano. Arguably more challenging to take in, these extended experiments seem to combine pianistic and percussive ideas, though maybe the solidity of an acoustic instrument would be more sympathetic.

For an alternative, tributary experience of predominantly improvised music, I recommend pursuing this unique collection (especially for the first and second albums) which reveals new textures every time. It was the enthusiasm of Rob Luft which prompted Jay to resurrect and complete these archive recordings, and it’s right that they have now found the light of day and are also entirely relevant to the current jazz/improvised scene. 

Recently-released Trio isn’t available through the usual channels (burningshed.com is yet to make it available). But it is on sale, directly from Felix Jay, at ebay.

 

RIVEREYESIDE RECORDINGS
Felix Jay all percussion, basses, Rhodes, piano, prepared piano
Rob Luft guitar
Byron Wallen trumpet, ngoni
Nicola Alesini bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
Susan Alcorn, BJ Cole pedal steel guitars

JAZZ GAMELAN
Felix Jay all percussion, bass, piano, prepared piano
Rob Luft guitar
Byron Wallen trumpet
Jan Steele clarinet, soprano recorder

PREPARED/UNPREPARED
Felix Jay prepared Kawai electric grand piano

Hermetic Recordings – HERM 7, 8 & 9 (2019)

REVIEW: ‘Life is the Dancer’ – Rob Luft

THE CONCEPT that ‘you don’t live your life but life lives you’ (quoted from Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now) is behind Rob Luft’s sophomore album as leader, and aptly describes a characteristically joyful and optimistic approach heralded in 2017’s debut, Riser.

At this relatively early stage of his career, Luft is already forging a style all of his own which certainly amounts to more than his simple ‘guitar’ credit – a many-hued sound world and technique with a distinct, bubbling, aqueous attraction. His prowess as leader, composer and prolific sideman has placed him on the current roster of BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists, and a key role in Big Bad Wolf (a real crowd-puller at Manchester Jazz Festival) produced their feel-good release, Pond Life. More recently, he is prominent in the line-up of trumpeter Byron Wallen’s Portrait recording and has shown a natural affinity for improvising over the jazz and gamelan-inspired auras of multi-instrumentalist Felix Jay’s 3CD album Trio.

For Life is the Dancer – a programme of mostly self-penned material – Luft’s quintet again comprises tenorist Joe Wright, organist/pianist Joe Webb, bassist Tom McCredie and drummer Corrie Dick, with Byron Wallen and vocalist Luna Cohen guesting. Heard recently in conversation with Jess Gillam at BBC Radio 3, the guitarist’s warm personality and eclectic musical interests clearly shine through both his playing and interactions with others. Such vibrant, dance-imbued, sun-soaked strains are a welcome tonic in our uncertain times; and he’s unquestionably a groover, as Anders Christensen’s Berlin immediately signals through its pulsating, increasingly rock-driven progression.

It’s easy to fall under the spell of Luft’s writing and his band’s interpretations, the vocal-enhanced title track evoking the balmy, summertime haze of Sergio Mendes and Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays. The album thrives on the rapid, electronic-suggested (though entirely acoustic) rhythms of Corrie Dick and Tom McCredie’s fluent bass – ‘fast city’ fervour in One Day in Romentino is a prime example as Joe Wright’s tenor screeches above Luft’s pointillistic decoration. Co-written with Enzo Zirilli, Synesthesia pulls off audaciously tricky ‘push-pull’ time signatures, enough to raise a smile each time, amidst its rapturous energy; and the countryfied soul-blues of Sad Stars, accentuated by Joe Webb’s Hammond, is beautifully blithesome. Rob Luft’s message that “the past is in your head and the present is in your hands” is captured in the closing, gentle ebb of Expect the Unexpected, elevated by wordless chorus, muted trumpet and the never-failing bliss of those mellifluous guitar improvisations. 

Dance, smile and enjoy, you will.

Life is the Dancer is released on 17 April 2020 and available as CD, vinyl or digital download at Bandcamp.

 

Rob Luft guitar
Joe Wright tenor saxophone
Joe Webb Hammond organ, piano
Tom McCredie bass
Corrie Dick drums
with
Byron Wallen trumpet
Luna Cohen vocals

robluft.co.uk

Edition Records – EDN1152 (2020)

REVIEW: ‘What?’ – What?

FOR AN IMPROVISATORY PROJECT, the title What? perhaps poses the ultimate open-ended question. In earlier recordings on The 52nd imprint – including The Science of Snow, The Lightning Bell and Each Edge of the Field – guitarist/pianist Charlie Beresford and cellist Sonia Hammond proved adept in summoning musical vibrations from the rural landscapes of the Welsh Marches in which they dwell, inviting us, the audience, to creatively interact.

Though again recorded in their familiar surroundings of Hammond’s old schoolhouse in Radnorshire, this time the possibilities are significantly expanded with the trumpet/flugelhorn of Gerry Gold and various instrumentation from Rod Paton – primarily piano and French horn.

There’s a perennial wonder in the way that, across genres, composers painstakingly craft classic works which stay with us all our lives. But fascinating, too, is the ability of improvising musicians to begin and develop a ‘conversation’ which, moments earlier, had not existed. Somehow, too, the freshness of discovery in listening remains, influenced by our environment or mood – interpretation is certainly a personal, sometimes involuntarily emotional experience.

Heard at Eastertide (around the time of the album’s release), What? can tangibly express both torment and hope; in the dead of night, there’s a different feel, with every nuance more sharply focused; under springtime-azure skies, animation and whimsy unfold. Whatever you find, thanks to the perception and musicality within this quartet, there’s a profound connectedness which never falters.

Just five tracks across almost an hour echo the expanses of Stow Hill’s ‘trig point’ location seen in the monochrome sleeve imagery, and the combinations of timbres can be teasingly ambiguous. De-liberation’s cagey chitchat between horns, guitar and cello evolves into a playful, if tentative discussion, while the midway piano entry paints pointillistic splashes as well as providing romantic sustenance and structure. Fragile wooden-flute murmurs and chinking percussion in Hill suggest folkloric mystery, belying the rumbustious dances to follow; and Paton’s piano again brings a more tonal stability. Over twenty minutes or so, Wolf’s winding, sprawling route is waymarked with beauty – howling French horn, jangling ‘prepared’ strings, reeling piano and cello; and here, the quartet’s intuition feels particularly strong. There’s even a charming, homey coda reminiscent of the early output of once (relatively) nearby resident Mike Oldfield – tender and pretty.

Horn yelps, angular melodica and percussive guitar and cello in Is imply inhospitable weather, accentuated by droplet piano and dramatic ostinati before gathering a rhythmic, Kurt Weillian jauntiness (amidst so many other acoustically-achieved effects). To close, Beresford’s elegant guitar improv in Ask Me Now is complemented by shadowy, elongated voice and cello phrases, culminating in ‘symphonic’ torrents as the piano’s precipitation gently ceases.

Improvisation such as this requires a listener’s total participation… which I find endlessly mind-expanding and rewarding. Music of pure imagination to ‘take us outside’, What? feels like this label’s most absorbing collaboration to date.

Released on 31 March 2020 and available as digital download or limited edition CD at Bandcamp.


Charlie Beresford
 acoustic guitar
Gerry Gold trumpet, flugelhorn
Sonia Hammond cello
Rod Paton piano, French horn, melodica, voice

the52nd.com
beresfordhammond.com

The 52nd – 52NDCD007 (2020)