REVIEW: ‘Please Do Not Ignore The Mermaid’ – Tara Minton

WITH AN INVITATION to listen for welcoming selkies, sirens, undines and yawkyawks (the latter, from Northern Australian mythology), harpist/vocalist Tara Minton releases Please Do Not Ignore The Mermaid – a collection of original music and lyrics which communicates themes of fancy, self-identity, climate change and hope.

Tara Minton’s connection to the sea (evidenced in 2017’s The Tides of Love) stems from an oceanside upbringing in Melbourne; and the decision, a decade ago, to relocate her life and career to London says much about her artistic ambition and ebullient personality. In this album, together with pianist Phil Merriman, double bassist Ed Babar, drummer David Ingamells and soprano saxophonist Tommaso Starace, she explores marine tales through a fascinating fusion of jazz and singer/songwriter styles, alongside pleasing glimpses of folkloristic ‘prog’ rock. As well as being a particularly eclectic harpist in both jazz and classical arenas, it’s also clear that Tara might easily have flourished purely as a vocalist, given her fluent, often deftly-harmonised expression; and the recording’s evident narrative thread is something she regards as fundamental to her creativity.

Incisively described as an impressionistic dreamscape, there’s a sense of this seven-track sequence of ‘stories from mermaids around the world’ being accompanied by flowing, animated imagery as the harp’s undercurrents and riptides provide the basis for its lush, sometimes dramatic journeying. Heralded by siren calls, We Sing For Each Other plunges into an iridescent, subaqueous world of mystery, while The Origin Of The Harp (an interpretation of Thomas Moore’s poem) reveals Minton’s beautifully controlled sung phrases which shift in and out of harp-ornamented coral view, creating a meditative jazz soundtrack.

Eugénie’s glissando strings delicately dance with brushed snare and cymbals under its jade-lit canopy, leading to a selkie’s wonderfully soulful intro to teasing, free-spirited, walking-bass number Skin (“I wanna shed my skin… everything is on the menu tonight… sometimes I just wanna be naughty and flirty…”). Here, the ‘piano trio’ of Merriman, Babar and Ingamells combines with Minton’s flourishes to create smilingly retro feel-good; something which continues in the whirlpool freedom of Undine Undying, embellished by the swooning then high-flying shared melodies of soprano sax and voice.

Midway through title track Please Do Not Ignore The Mermaid (an environmental exhortation), Minton propels her writing towards the solid synthesized/drummed rock of Genesis or Yes, its soaring, effected vocals and harp sforzandi also imaginable as a Bond theme, culminating in the mermaids’ impressive choral anthem. And Puerto Rican-tinted Starfish – where harp almost emulates Spanish guitar – concludes with splendid improvisational showings, including communal burlesque/folk voices proclaiming “Come down to the beach, we can change our fate… before it’s too late”.

Tara Minton’s creative route teems and glistens with individuality, while that ‘prog’ side of her personality will be watched and encouraged!

Released on 6 November 2020, Please Do Not Ignore The Mermaid is available as limited-edition vinyl and CD, or digital download, from Bandcamp.

 

Tara Minton vocals, harp, co-producer
Phil Merriman piano, co-producer
Ed Babar double bass
David Ingamells drums
Tommaso Starace soprano saxophone
Tom Nancollas voice on The Origin Of The Harp

Cover art by Blanche Ellis

taraminton.com

Lateralize Records – LR010CD (2020)

REVIEW: ‘High Heart’ – Ben Wendel

A BIG HEART… and a big impact! Saxophonist Ben Wendel’s new sextet release, featuring the superbly adroit voice of Michael Mayo, was an immediate ‘ear grab’ on its first hearing and has since gone on to prove itself as an album which occupies a quite distinct contemporary jazz groove.

Canadian-born, raised in Los Angeles, and now residing in New York, Wendel’s career has seen him work alongside artists including Tigran Hamasyan, Eric Harland, Joshua Redman, Linda May Han Oh, Prince, and is a founding member of Kneebody.



For High Heart, his fifth recording as leader, Shai Maestro and Gerald Clayton interchange piano and Fender Rhodes (a masterstroke), supported by the fiery, industrious rhythm section of double bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Nate Wood. The tenorist’s neat band integration (rather than static, upfront soloing), plus a precise melodic pairing with vocalist Mayo, defines this abundant exploration of his clearly well-crafted music; and what sets it particularly ‘high’ is the almost outrageous technique, synchronicity and rapidity of these players’ performances, delivering frissons of excitement reminiscent of 1970s fusion bands.

This is, however, emphatically a recording for the here and now, described as a statement on society’s ‘increasing complexity, oversaturation and social imbalance’ in an ‘increasingly impersonal time’. The album’s ‘cover heart’ interprets designer Oli Bentley’s son’s simple line drawing, which the five-year-old slipped under the door for him during a digital meeting with Wendel – and as Bentley says, The simplicity and innocence of the symbol, its link to the title we had just been discussing, and the human connection it made through a closed door – I knew there wasn’t anything I could possibly bring to this project that was more personal or contained more humanity than this”.

Eight original numbers draw the attention in, more and more deeply, the pensive title track’s swirling motion introducing Wendel’s and Mayo’s close partnership. Burning Bright (inspired by William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’) unlfurls the band’s wondrously agile interaction as shared vocal-and-sax phrases and keyboard improvisations pull in and out of focus across its constantly skittering rhythm (witness Nate’s Wood’s fabulous composure in the videos, linked below). Wendel’s compositional diversity is impressive, the mechanically angular piano and Rhodes intro of Kindly contrasting well with its legato (even soporific) repeated figure from sax and voice; and lofty hymn, Less, takes Mayo’s gentler, wordless tones up into the firmament, carried on waves of piano and effects.

Up there in the album’s highlights, with hints of Pat Metheny and Weather Report, is positively bustling Drawn Away, complete with bluesy, Latinesque piano break. But more than anything, it’s the busy, combined weave of each individual contribution which elevates it – a real repeat-player, and a true feel-good. A sense of urgency, perhaps reflecting the album’s warning of ‘impersonality’, is heard in disquieted Fearsome, with Wendel’s sprawling tenor the orator. Similarly, the dazed soundtrack vibe of Darling – dedicated to a dear friend – feels ominous, as if to suggest the theme of sleepwalking into dispassion, before Traveler’s effected piano and percussion lead away to vocally harmonized meditation.

In High Heart, Ben Wendel’s music appears to progressively ‘commentate’ on the need for greater societal empathy. Above all, though, it’s the zeal of this band which shines through in gloriously exhilarating fashion.

Released on 30 October 2020 and available as CD, vinyl or digital download at Edition Records and Bandcamp.

Videos: Burning Bright and Drawn Away.

 

Ben Wendel tenor saxophone, EFX, piano, wurlitzer, bassoon
Shai Maestro piano, Fender Rhodes
Gerald Clayton piano, Fender Rhodes
Michael Mayo voice, EFX
Joe Sanders double bass
Nate Wood drums

benwendel.com

Edition Records – EDN1162 (2020)

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: ‘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)

REVIEW: ‘Our New Earth’ – Sirkis/Bialas IQ (2CD)

IN HIS LINER NOTES to Our New Earth, esteemed drummer Bill Bruford references the dual basis of this 2CD release from the Sirkis/Bialas IQ (International Quartet): the challenge of improving our turbulent world, and an exploratory approach to music – “you don’t play what you practiced anymore”.

Read my full review at LondonJazz News…

Released 20 November 2019 and available as CD or digital download at MoonJune Records.

 

Asaf Sirkis drums, crotales, konnakol, manjira, frame drums
Sylwia Bialas voice, waterphone, overtone singing, konnakol, lyrics
Frank Harrison piano, keyboards
Kevin Glasgow six-string electric bass

MoonJune Records – MJR099 (2019)