Tuesday 23 February 2010

New Records

AfroCubism (World Circuit) 

Kouyate-Neerman: Kangaba (No Format) 

If you remember your Buena Vista Social Club lore, the plan was to record an African-Cuban supergroup in Havana, but the African musicians failed to arrive and, rather than waste studio time, the decision was taken to record classic Cuban songs instead. Fourteen years later, the original idea is realised in AfroCubism, a Mali-Cuba exchange featuring Kassy Mady Diabate and Toumani Diabate jamming with Eliades Ochoa (the singer of Chan Chan) and his band, Grupo Patria. The results sometimes turn out pure Cuba (Al Viaven De Mi Carreta) and sometimes pure Mali (Karamo), with the musicians finding common ground on a simmering rumba (Djelimady). Here's proof of the adaptability and eternal charm of the kora, which adds rippling colour to any musical situation. There's lots to enjoy, but it's not quite as genre-busting as Kangaba, a collaboration between Mali balafon-player Lansine Kouyate and French vibraphonist David Neerman. The two instruments have a similar tonal register and a similar mesmerising force, enhanced by some incongruous but highly effective rock beats. The partnership clicks due to the controlled restraint of the players. 

Al Andaluz Project: Al-Maraya (Galileo) 

A reference-point might be Varttina, but instead of Finnish folk music, these trilling femmes are reinventing medieval music from Valencia. This was a period when Muslims, Jews and Christians co-existed in peace and the music reflects the healthy cross-fertilisation: Latin chants co-mingle with Moorish melodies as the music sweeps along with rattling grandeur. It's too sparkling (and too digital) to be authentic, and, moreover, the voices have a whiff of the conservatoire about them. Nevertheless, an essential cornerstone for any collection of medieval Spanish music. But if that's your thing, go for Jordi Savall first.

Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble: The Tide Has Changed (World Village) 

It’s the tenth anniversary of Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble and the familiar elements are in place: the rugged intensity of Atzmon’s saxophone, fully assimilated influences from the Middle-East and the Americas, and political radicalism sublimated into expressive music. The mature Atzmon is more likely to channel his passion into heartwrenching beauty than inchoate rage. With Bolero At Sunrise he opts for  pure grace. London to Gaza racks up the intensity until the mood shifts from delicacy to dread. Similarly, In The Back Seat of a Yellow Cab displays a brooding kind of lyricism and We Lament insists on the redemptive power of pure beauty. Atzmon’s mordant humour is kept in check, and only surfaces on the cabaret-styled Dry Fear, and the bonkers klezmer We Laugh, the bookends of the album. Mainly, Tide is a showcase for Gilad Atzmon the balladeer, as profound as anyone in jazz history, and as serious as life itself.

Avalon Trio: Forlana (Marquetry Records) 

The trouble with Arcadia is that it can be so boring. Avalon Trio incorporate themes from Delius, Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi, yet undercut the bliss with intermittent bursts of anger. Tony Woods is at least as plaintive as Jan Garbarek on soprano saxophone, yet his sweet tone breaks into a harsh rasp in places. The Trio - completed by the lyrical yet driving Pete Churchill on piano and Rob Millett on percussion - rescue beautiful tunes from the dusty museum of English song, and replace stiltedness with spontaneity. The prevailing tone is exultant and melodious - Eclogue (Finzi) is supremely beautiful, and Linden Lea (V. Williams) springs to life - yet real emotional urgency is conveyed by Churchill’s Last Love (the originals are as compelling as the covers) and Brigg Fair swings with some force. Some minor cavils: flute on folksy material raises feyness to dangerous levels (as on the track, Forlana), and there’s too much refined tabla-pattering (Millett is more confident behind a kit). On the whole though, Avalon Trio manage to create freshness from moment to moment in the splendour of the aurian wood. (Aurian means golden.)

Chris Barber: Memories of My Trip (Proper) 

Chris Barber never deviated from his own vision of New Orleans jazz, but he went sideways from time to time, as this two-disc anthology makes clear. His personal commitment and generosity is everywhere apparent, whether giving a hand-up to struggling young musicians (Keith Emerson) or rediscovering former members of the Louis Armstrong All Stars (Edmund Hall). Barber, the godfather of the trad boom, brought blues musicians to the UK at his own expense (Muddy Waters and Brownie McGhee are featured) and, by giving floorspace to his banjo-player Lonnie Donegan, he sired the skiffle revolution and influenced the first generation of rock musicians (there are notable contributions from Rory Gallagher and Van Morrison). Overall, the collection possesses a ragged charm (with live recordings of varying fidelity) and is unabashedly celebratory. Mainstays singer Ottilie Patterson and trumpet player Pat Halcox emerge well. And the pieces that bookend Disc One are genuinely affecting  - Memories of My Trip, a fond tribute from Brownie McGhee, and Another Sad One, the swansong of guitarist John Slaughter. Barber himself is a hearty rather than profound trombonist, but what a fantastic bandleader! 

Alan Barnes & Scott Hamilton: Hi-Ya (Woodville) 

Alan Barnes, Altrincham's most famous jazz son, has done more to restore beauty and swing to contemporary jazz than any other UK saxophonist. Here he gets together with his US counterpart, Scott Hamilton, to celebrate the music of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington's great muse and interpreter. Elegance, stoked by fire, and emotion tempered by cool were Hodges' stock-in-trade. Here, Barnes and Hamilton offer a mainstream masterclass with insouciant ease. Such impeccable swing! Such a delicate way with melody! The lovely ballad Candy, delivered like a smoky rhapsody, oozes romance in the time-honoured Hodges style. Ellington's autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, contains this description of Hodges: "His tonal charisma is difficult to describe, but he always referred to it as 'the kitchen'. If someone else played something in his style, he would say: 'All right, come out of the kitchen.' " Barnes and Hamilton, as master chefs of the first order, are right at home in the kitchen.  

Django Bates: Django Bates' Beloved Bird (Lost Marble) 

The wayward but brilliant pianist Bates maintains his reputation for, ah, waywardness and brilliance with a collection of pieces inspired by Charlie Parker. Bates' interpretation of bebop is not so much straightahead as wide-open. The jaggedly angular Scrapple From The Apple, for example, now comes with free-floating meters and mercurial mood shifts. Star Eyes starts off-centre and veers into complete abstraction, with intermittent moments of clarity when the luminous tune resurfaces. The harmonic structure of Ah-Leu-Cha is probed at great length (nineteen minutes!) with the concentration of a Glenn Gould poring over a Goldberg Variation, while the famous motif of Now's The Time becomes a rhythmic springboard for bracing improvisation. Only the south-of-the-border My Little Suede Shoes resists radical reinvention. Bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun navigate the weather-changes of pace with confidence, skill, empathy and imagination. In fact, all four principals - Parker, Bates, Eldh and Bruun - come out enriched by the exchange.

Eric Bibb: Troubadour Live with Staffan Astner (Telarc) 

Eric Bibb is one of your satisfied-and-tickled-too bluesmen, as opposed to the broke-and-hungry-ragged-and-dirty-too kind. He’s consistent cheerful and gentle, whether proclaiming the benefits of clean running water (Shavin’ Talk) or, a recurrent theme, extolling the love of a good woman (Thanks For The Joy, et al). His wholesomeness and dignity make him an ideal role model and exemplary human being, but do we really need (another) Bibb live album? The answer is a qualified yes. The intimacy of a tiny Swiss venue brings out Bibb’s most sympathetic qualities. If guest gospel group Psalm 4 raise the general level of piety, lead guitarist Staffan Astner counteracts with some gritty hot licks. Two studio tracks are included as a bonus: Put Your Love First, a duet with Troy Cassar Daley, and If You Were Not My Woman. Both tend to the sweet-natured and bland, and give qualms about an entire studio album. 

Chris Biscoe: Profiles of Mingus (Trio Records) 

Profiles - which could reasonably be credited to the Mingus tribute group Mingus Moves - displays complete understanding of the great composer/bassist, and, it follows, total understanding of his successors. The ease and authority of players like Chris Biscoe and Henry Lowther is evident in every note. Biscoe, an unsung hero of the reeds, tempers sensitivity with a simmering inner fire. The musicians, in various combinations from ensemble to solo, capture the indelible tenderness of such tunes as Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (with a piercing Peter Hurt tenor solo) and Self-Portrait in Three Colours. If the music sometimes takes unexpected turns, it is never less than true to the originals, and miraculously achieves an expansive palate with minimal resources. This is classical music in the jazz idiom and similarly open to fresh interpretation and exploration. Sheer genius. 

Carolina Chocolate Drops: Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch)

Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Don Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops are very young to be making such old music. They're also black, and that's highly significant. Interaction between black and white musicians has been a feature of US roots music since the twenties and earlier, but the fact has either been forgotten or suppressed. The Carolina Chocolate Drops set the record straight with great gusto. Fiddle-tunes, jug-band stomps and worksongs come up as fresh as new paint. Their second album - produced by Joe Henry - actually extends their repertoire forwards and backwards: the modern R&B song Hit 'Em Up and Tom Waits' Trampled Rose get the string band treatment, while Giddens sings the ancient folk tune Reynardine in spellbinding style. Old-time music has always had rough charm; the Carolina Chocolate Drops' achievement is to make it seem vital and relevant.

Liane Carroll: Up And Down (Quietmoney) 

More frumpy than slinky, and with a raucous sense of humour, Liane Carroll is not your archetypal jazz vixen. But she has a wonderful way with a ballad and an adventurous spirit that would lead to trouble if she didn’t possess the intrinsic musicality to get out of it. As ever, she finds herself most fully in the songs of Laura Nyro and Tom Waits (represented here by, respectively, Buy And Sell and Take Me Home), and she can raise a storm on a swinger (What Now My Love). Up And Down, however, has higher production values than usual (with Sade and Van Morrison trumpeter James McMillan at the helm). The lush orchestration is entirely new: strings propel Liane towards a state of grace on Some Children See Him. Then, with the relish of a wild woman, she supplants all the tastefulness with reckless flashes of spontaneity (like the intro of Moanin’). And when she really believes in a song - like Turn Out The Stars, the emotional centrepiece of the album, or the heartbreaking I Can Let Go Now - the results are sublime. The former features a beautiful contribution from Kenny Wheeler, and there are also guest appearances from Kirk Whalum and Julian Siegal. There’s no danger of gilding the lily with Carroll, the most self-sufficient of artists. But if the radio-friendly production finds this great lady of British jazz a wider audience, well, it’s a win-win situation. 

Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson: Gift (Topic) 

In which Eliza's waywardness is tempered by Norma's maturity: a happy combination. Of course, the mother and daughter have worked before - on a string of marvellous albums as Waterson:Carthy - but this is the first time the two have shared co-billing on a disc, and it radiates family warmth. Here, Eliza's zest for new challenge is satisfied by old-fashioned means: she sets Longfellow to music! And Norma's commanding presence - so effective on Poor Wayfaring Stranger - is counterbalanced by cross-generational larkiness, notably on the unlikely medley, Ukelele Lady/(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice. The dark side of family life - sibling rivalry turned toxic - is the theme of The Rose And The Lily. Significantly, Gift is dedicated to the memory of Kate McGarrigle, and comes decorated with a picture of little Florence with her proud mum and grandmum. An unabashed celebration of kinship, Gift demonstrates how the tradition is extended with each new generation.

Deirdre Cartwright & Kathy Dyson: Emily Remembered (Blow The Fuse) 

Emily Remler, a jazz guitarist from the USA, died tragically young in 1991. Here she is celebrated by Deirdre Cartwright and Kathy Dyson, still the only two female jazz guitarists in the UK. Recorded at a live date at The Vortex Club in 2010, this duet album proves the dictum (credited to Chopin) that there is only one thing more beautiful than one guitar; two guitars. Typically one guitarist vamps, as the other takes a solo, except for exultant moments of simultaneous soloing. Cartwright is a gently sizzling player, and hits the top register with pristine accuracy and brightness. Dyson is more blue, more in the classic jazz guitar tradition, and more reticent. She essays understated, surprise licks in the middle of the tonal spectrum. Both are brilliant harmonic improvisers. The interplay is too graceful, too empathetic for a cutting contest, and the album unfolds as a series of swinging and soft meditations, as unselfconscious and flowing as only a live session can be. Sarah P joins to sing Remler’s setting of a Pablo Neruda poem, and contributes her own deep-felt elegy, Sonnet For Emily.

The Cookers: Warriors (JLP) 

A delightful latter-day set by important musicians, Warriors represents an Autumnal return of springtime fire. Actually, the album provides a textbook illustration of the way tumultuous experimentation has been absorbed into the jazz tradition. The Cookers are a NY supergroup of ageing radicals, including saxophonist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart, several of whom appear in the jazz novel The Bear Comes Home (my Christmas reading). A heroic, uncompromising generation - the album title is well-deserved - yet there’s a streak of good, old-fashioned entertainment about the music. The accessibility comes from the musicians’ mastery of traditional forms like blues (Ladybugg), balladry (Close To You Alone) and gospel (Priestess). Yet the urgency of The Core (stoked by the mighty Billy Hart), the sheer power of U Phoria and the high drama of Priestess (dig Harper’s transcendent tenor sax), not to mention the general freshness of the playing, all confirm that the finest modern jazz is eternal. 

Sam Crowe Group: Synaesthenia (F-IRE) 

Synaesthenia - where two or more senses are involuntarily joined together - is an apt title for an album which practically transforms sound into colour. It's down to the multi-hued textures - of Will Davies' silvery guitar, Adam Waldmann's delicate, lucid saxophone, Jasper Hoiby's ruddy bass and Dave Smith's active, fluid drumming - and an acute sense of dynamics. There's always something going on and always space to hear it. The tunes, by pianist Sam Crowe, are marked by attention to melody, yet  they develop in ways that constantly surprise, going from the lyrical to the jaunty (Mother Nature's Middle Age) or back again (Maxman). The title track is a gem: restless and disturbed, but with a compensatory exultation. A world away from the head-and-solos of straightahead jazz, Crowe's music reintroduces adventure, quirk, charm, and, yes, colour into modern jazz. Enormously satisfying, it bodes well for the band's live appearance tonight (Friday) at Matt and Phred's.

Kit Downes Trio: Quiet Tiger (Basho) 

For mainstream nominees, the Mercury Music Prize is a pinnacle that inevitably heralds decline, whereas for underground artists (jazz and folk) it’s only a prelude to stronger efforts. Which is to say, Quiet Tiger surpasses Golden, Downes’ 2010 Mercury-shortlisted album (just as Bring Your Own by Led Bib surpasses Sensible Shoes). Downes casts a gentle spell, and his audacity is subtle and understated. It seems that every piano note is a product of focused attention, and Downes’ compositions are luminously beautiful, without a trace of false emotion: Boreal is literally suspended in air. In other places, the music is overtly searching, as in Frizzi Pazzi and the free jazz Wooden Birds, but the dominant spirit is sensuous and attractive. Downes’ trio partners, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer James Maddren, match him for control and precision, and James Allsopp, guesting on saxophone, shifts from whimsy to  something more rough-edged. Established idioms - a yearning blues (Skip James) and a luxuriant modern classical (Fonias) - are given new, enigmatic twists. Less jazz, more sonic ventures into the sublime. Pure genius and great cover-art too. 

Duke Ellington: Original Album Series (Rhino/Warner Brothers)

The Original Album Series - in which five albums from the Atlantic vaults are presented in a five-CD package, with the original sleeves reproduced in miniature - is a Good Thing. Previous releases have been dedicated to Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke, and the roll of distinction continues with this latest batch, comprising five albums apiece from Ray Charles and Duke Ellington. Alas,1962-1968 (otherwise, the Reprise years) wasn't Duke Ellington's best period. Perversely, his best Reprise album (Afro-Bossa) has been passed over in favour of follies. Will Big Bands Ever Come Back - with Ellington visiting the work of his big band rivals - is interesting in a parallel universe kind of way, but it must have seemed very retro in 1965. The material on Ellington '65 is uniformly staid and Ellington '66 conclusively proves that the Duke and the Beatles don't mix. Mary Poppins should be the ultimate embarrassment, except that Johnny Hodges on A Spoonful of Sugar and Jimmy Hamilton on Feed the Birds appeal to the six-year-old Ellingtonian within. Unfortunately, the good tunes run out after Let's Go Fly A Kite, only ten minutes in. Which leaves Jazz Violin Session, a collaboration with Stephane Grappelli, recorded in 1963, and belatedly issued in 1976. It's the pick of the lot. Two saints of thirties sophistication meet in an intimate setting, one with nobility and delight and the other with quivering elegance.   

Fringe Magnetic: Empty Spaces (Loop)

The brainchild of avant trumpeter Rory Simmons, Fringe Magnet offer a very rich concoction of advanced contemporary jazz and twisted, dark song. The bold hues and subtle shades of the orchestration make for a compelling narrative even before the introduction of texts by Elizabeth Nygaard (who sings) and Charles Bukowski (who doesn't). The tonal contrasts (muted trumpet, feather-light flute, sonorous cello) create continually fascinating textures, and the singing is satisfyingly eccentric (Andrew Plummer does a first-rate Phil Minton impersonation/homage). Indeed, the project invites adjectives like 'eccentric', 'quixotic' and 'magical'. Imagine a jazz Efterklang and you're getting close. If complete integration is sometimes elusive, there's committed playing by all hands (most from the Loop Collective), and all the individual parts work very well.

Jan Garbarek & The Hilliard Ensemble: Officium Novum (ECM) 

Jan Garbarek's voice on saxophone is immediately identifiable: plaintive and keening, it transcends its jazz origins to inhabit a spiritual dimension. Hence, the success of Officium, his 1993 collaboration with Gregorian specialists, the Hilliard Ensemble. On their third album together, they move into related areas like Russian Orthodox church music, the 'faith minimalism' of Arvo Part, and even a few Garbarek originals in the idiom of fourteenth century church music. Officium Novum doesn't disappoint, with Garbarek's soaring horn a perfect match for the lustrous voices of the vocal ensemble. In it's way, Officium Novum is perfect - at once lush and austere, as immaculate as the greatest sacred music of history. Unbelievers may try to resist with irreverent thoughts of the King Singers, but, in the end, its beauty disarms any resistance.

Sarah Gillespie with Glad Atzmon: In The Current Climate (Pastiche Records) 

From the title on, everything about this album proclaims a sharp intelligence. Singer/songwriter Gillespie hangs with jazz musicians, but isn’t quite jazz. Her major characteristic is an agitated energy that finds expression in a voice that is alternately blistering and beautiful. It can turn from smouldering croak to snarl without warning, just as her lyrics see-saw between matter-of-fact observation and uneasy ambiguity. Atzmon earns his name on the credits by finding a musical counterpart to the mercurial mood swings, locating the Irish tinge in Lucifer’s High Chair or providing keening, lamenting saxophone to How The West Was Won, or imagining an electro Kurt Weill for Cinematic Nectar. Gillespie herself has some of the eccentric soulfulness of a Victoria Williams, mixed with the passionate edginess of a PJ Harvey. An album of infinite richness, Climate proves that idiosyncrasy isn’t dead yet.

Matthew Halsall: On The Go (Gondwana) 

Here’s a fine example of modal jazz:  very few chords are used, but they’re always beautiful ones, and open up possibilities for melodic development (Miles Davis invented the form with Kind of Blue). The theme of Music For A Dancing Mind resembles Night in Tunisia before Nat Birchall’s dark-hued tenor saxophone lifts the tune to an exalted level. Song For Charlie adds a Spanish tinge. Avoiding the drift into sedateness (an ever-present danger), The End of Dukkha simmers with restrained energy, and Birchall’s’ soprano sax impresses with its fluid movement and purity. Moody chords in Samantha provide a stately framework for Halsall’s plangent trumpet. The Journey Home and The Move maintain the formula: the soloists provide a richly emotive foil to the shifting beats of the rhythm team (the swirling cymbal work comes from Gaz Hughes). Halsall and Birchall have sometimes attracted the label ‘spiritual jazz’. This is to say that the feelings they project are too deep for anything less than the most sublime music.  

HAQ: Walking Walking Falling (Efpi Records) 

HAQ (pronounced ‘hack’) are a Manchester combo gone global: saxophonist Sam Andreae went to Scandinavia to study for his Masters, guitarist Anton Hunter has one foot in Manchester and one in NY, and drummer Finlay Panter divides his time between Manchester and Berlin. Somewhere along the line, they picked up Finnish bassist Eero Tikkanen. HAQ music is free jazz with grunge textures, galvanised by  Hunter, the subversive of the group (responsible for the brooding tour de force Pope) and held together by Tikkanen, who always plays with definiteness of purpose. Andreae tries for elemental power and overcomes his habit of playing harmonically dictated melody with heroic ungainliness. In fact, HAQ show an unusual interest in form, and melody doesn’t limit their freedom. The very attractive White provides an exultant finale.

Edwina Hayes: Good Things Happen Over Coffee (Twirly Music) 

The third album by Dublin-born, Preston-raised, Yorkshire-transplant Hayes makes a virtue of simplicity.  - just a voice (or two) and guitars and eleven heartbreakingly beautiful songs. It makes a good advertisement for coffee, actually. Some of the originals were written in creative bursts fuelled by coffee, and some of the covers were discovered in USA coffeehouses, and once, in a magical, serendipitous moment, Edwina found the subject of Speed of the Sound of Loneliness in a USA cafeteria (she was chef; Edwina was dishwasher). But the carefree tenderness and wistfulness of Hayes’ sweet, pure tones, not to mention the timelessness of the unplugged settings, all make for a natural high. Good Things induces a warm glow: the record is as carefully and lovingly crafted as a handmade gift. 

Billy Jenkins: I Am A Man From Lewisham (VOTP) 

Tony Hancock, Derek Bailey and Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown are combined in the person of Billy Jenkins. It's just bad luck for Jenkins that these three enjoy mutually exclusive fan-bases. Less blues than of late here. Indeed, only the two vocal tunes that bookend the album - both droll, defiant affirmations of pride/wellbeing - fit the blues idiom. For the rest, Jenkins is intent on proving that humour does belong in music: On (Catford) Broadway overloads a jaunty riff with lots of outre free blowing, Francis Drake Bowls Club is bonkers palm court music for scratchy fiddle (x2), tuba and melodica, Church of the Ford Transit Mini Bus captures the authentic spirit of faux-jolly Cockney bluster, whilst Terraced Fast Food is a Prelude a L'Apres-midi d'un Faune for a couch potato. Otherwise serious musicians like Nathaniel Facey, Dylan Bates and Gail Brand add instrumental colour and are frequently magnificent. Imagine Penguin Cafe Orchestra stranded in South London on a wet afternoon.

Kairos 4tet: Statement of Intent (Edition) 

Adam Waldman is one of the most distinctive saxophonists in the UK: keening, sweet-toned ,with some of the transcendent urge of a Coltrane - the trajectory of his lines are always in the ascension, or sometimes spin circular cartwheels in the air. Hs playing is deceptively languid:  the beauty is evidently the product of real ferocity of spirit. The rippling wave-forms of Box Set Anti-Hero demonstrates how  minimalism offers a way out of the head-and-changes cul-de-sac for our more adventurous jazz musicians. On her (two) contributions, singer Emilia Martensson actually matches Waldman’s plangent purity. Maybe Next Year is that rare thing: a sublime pop song hidden on a jazz album. And Waldman’s companions in Kairos suggest a partnership of equals: Ivo Neame is a sensitive accompanist, searching and lyrical, whilst Jasper Hoiby is an uplifting bassist and Jon Scott’s rippling crossrhythms manage to swing simultaneously. The Kairos Statement impresses with its sure sense of artistic purpose. 

Stacey Kent: Raconte-moi (Blue Note) 

The two Paris songs on her last, Breakfast On The Morning Train, anticipated Raconte-moi, an entire album of French songs by the exquisite jazz ballad singer, Stacey Kent. The album relies on a few assumptions: that France is the natural home of romance, style and allure. These are exactly the words that spring to mind when discussing Kent - one might add 'wistfulness', 'charm', 'grace', 'fragrancy' - so the combination works particularly well. If it seems squishy in prospect, the reality is irresistible, so that by It Might As Well Be Spring - or, to be accurate, C'est le printemps - the listener is overwhelmed by enchantment. The restraint and intimacy of Jim Tomlinson's arrangements suit the small-hours mood: his saxophone murmurs as Kent floats, held aloft in a bubble of perfect phrasing. There are nice touches like Stacey whistling in synch with high-octave piano. And her French is impeccable, so far as this non-speaker can tell.

Trudy Kerr & Ingrid James: Reunion (Jazzizit) 

A pair of jazzy (and Australian) chanteuses get together, and do what comes naturally - gossip (Girl Talk), shop for shoes (Soft Shoe), share romantic secrets (Dancing on the Ceiling) and worry about therapy (When My Anger Starts to Cry). Kerr and James blend naturally well, swapping lines, entwining in unison or counterpoint, trading girly ad libs. The material comes from the tradition of vocalese, the art of appending words to jazz solos, which is a direct route to the subconscious, and perhaps explains why so many vocalese songs are about going mad (there are two here). Not that the music is never anything less than charming and swinging, with just-so phrasing and a pleasing lilt. Clearly, Kerr and James are loving and loveable women, if a bit squishy and conventional. A soft, crooning Waltzing Matilda brings it all back home.

Soweto Kinch: The New Emancipation (Soweto Kinch Recordings) 

Soweto Kinch operates in two modes - future soul and bustling post-bop. The former is marked by Soweto's rapping and is fired by the urban rhythms of Birmingham, UK, rather than Chicago, USA. On the latter he displays a compelling saxophone, where cool logic jostles with ebullient edge. And then there's a new form, all Soweto's own: a combination of verbals and hip-hop to comment on the way we live now. His target on The New Emancipation is the modern economic system: slavery in all but name. "The more things change, the more they stay the same," he says, which is apt, because beneath the volatile modernity, echoes of Ellington and Ornette abound in Kinch's work. Desperate celebrity culture, call centres and debt recovery also come under his withering scrutiny. If nothing else, Soweto Kinch demolishes the notion that jazz has no relevance to real life.

Lee Konitz: Live At Birdland (ECM)

If curious music-lovers want to get to the bottom of this thing called jazz, they could do a lot worse than seek out this recent live recording by saxophone legend Konitz. It won’t reveal its mysteries all at once, but it offers the essence of the jazz spirit. Age has given Kontitz’ reflective, searching alto sax a new, desiccated edge, smooth and harsh at once, which is actually very affecting. Charlie Haden, who created the riff that Ian Dury subsequently turned into Sex, Drugs & Rock ’n’ Roll, adds his customary warm, throbbing pulse on bass, and drummer Paul Motian moves in multiple directions with delicate showers of accents. And pianist Brad Mehldau thrives on the kind of logical rigour that Konitz champions. His playing is cool and abstract, and characterised by real concentration of focus. In these hands, jazz standards come up fresh; replenished by a flow of inexhaustible ideas. Like the best jazz, the music is dedicated to timeless beauty.

Led Bib: Bring Your Own (Cuneiform Records) 

If the dread term ‘jazz-rock’ conveys interminable guitar solos and tricky time-signatures, think again. Led Bib derive raw power, a keen appreciation of the riff, a sense of dynamics - the quiet bits invariably serve notice of impending clatter - and transcendental yearning from rock. Yet the experimentalism and the agitated Coltrane saxophones (two of ‘em!) firmly place Led Bib in the jazz camp. And all the frenzy and ferocity can’t disguise a highly developed sense of playfulness, which is the chief Led Bib characteristic. Bring Your Own is actually more brawny, tuneful and varied than its Mercury-nominated predecessor, Sensible Shoes. Bring Your Own might be the first jazz skronk disc to crossover. (It can be done: think how firmly entrenched in the mainstream The Ramones are these days.)  Perhaps, in another decade, Led Bib will be selling sensibly shoes, when we’ve all caught up with their inspired, gleeful and intense lunacy.

Charles Lloyd Quartet: Mirror (ECM) 

Token jazzman of the Love Generation; he gave Keith Jarrett his first gig, and discovered Michel Petrucciani etc. What distinguishes Charles Lloyd today is the pensive beauty of his playing. Mirror contains some of the most plangent melodies in the jazz repertoire (I Fall In Love Too Easily, Ruby My Dear), but the search for a song extends to pop (Caroline No) and to Mexican folk (La Llorona). Best of all, English folk song The Water Is Wide is refreshed by some bluesy, gospel-tinged hard bop, which is in fact an Afro-American folk style. These may be the most gorgeous melodies in the world, or if they're not, Lloyd's exquisite phrasing and attractive tone will convince you otherwise. By dint of age and experience, Lloyd has the authority of a jazz magus (a seeker for truth, like John Coltrane, but more diffident in the search). Indeed, Mirror feels like the summation of a life's work, and the melancholia that pervades the music is the price of wisdom. The rhythm team - Jason Moran on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums - offer sensitive support. 

Cheikh Lo: Jamm (World Circuit)

The dreadlocked singer offers a cornucopia of Africa - Congolese rumba, Senegalese mbalax, highlife surf guitar, Afrobeat - all unified by Cheikh Lo's husky, insinuating voice, surely of one of the best sounds in modern African music. Lo exudes the relaxed confidence of a true master. Listening to Sankara, a tribute to the late Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara, one might suppose that Memphis soul was born in Africa, just like Mississippi blues. 

Monica Mancini: I've Loved These Days (Concord) 

The songs - These Days, God Only Knows, American Tune - formed the soundtrack for the Boomer Generation, and come mostly from the West Coast, with a few NY interlopers (notably Paul Simon). In a musical equivalent of name-dropping, several feature guest turns from their authors (if you count Brian Wilson on a loop). It's all highly pleasant, and Mancini has a distinct Karen Carpenter appeal, for those who like Karen Carpenter. Interestingly, she's the daughter of Henry of that ilk, whose own music was largely supplanted by these self-absorbed sensitive types. Rich material for a session with her therapist, perhaps.

Stuart McCallum: Stuart McCallum (Sam) 

To those who know Stuart McCallum as the amiable guitar mainstay of Manchester jazz, the visionary quality of this album may come as a surprise. His compositions have a dramatic, almost cinematic grandeur, and are broad and spacious in tone, rich in colour and sound. Frequently, he uses the repeated phrases of systems music to invoke a transcendent state. Yet there is variety: when the great, monolithic chords run the risk of becoming too static, McCallum offsets with his trademark funky guitar, as fluid as a Grant Green, or plants a diverting interlude for hornmen Andy Schofield and Iain Dixon. This is a very beautiful album, and reveals a highly original musical mind.

Kirsty McGee: No.5 (Hobopop Recordings) 

The case for Kirsty McGee as the best artist to come out of Manchester's neo-folk scene is strengthened by this live album, which manages the leap from orthodox acoustica to garage orchestra, with twisted electric guitar, malformed banjo, junkyard percussion and plangent reeds. Some of the songs are familiar from her other records, but the assured delivery shows how she now wears them like a second skin. McGee has a genius for removing the soft centre out of love songs and replacing with the hard nut of real feeling - Bliss and Dust Devils are skewed yet achingly vulnerable songs. Yet shape-shifting is no problem: she writes credibly as a scared soldier in Last Orders or as an unashamed Social Darwinist in Bonecrusher (bonus song, with cartoon animation). Her voice, with its crystalline diction and adventurous phrasing, is closer to jazz than folk.

The Magic Hat Ensemble: Made in Gorton (Jellymould)
* * * * *  
(That's five stars, chaps.) 

The Magic Hatters explode the limits of hard bop with daring and mischief. Seven Steps to Heaven, the old Miles Davis tune, is distilled to a single phrase, repeated hypnotically and overlaid with frenetic activity. Just Friends is less an endless cycle of fifths than a mood-piece of rippling beauty. And so it goes on: the rhythms of Blues March expand and contract in unison, moving from New Orleans secondline to hothouse bebop. Modern devices - like loop technology, sharp edits, trance-like harmonic patterns - are transposed to the bop idiom using acoustic instruments in real time. The feat is made possible by the incredible empathy of the players and a complete commitment to collective performance. Even so, some individual contributions stand out: Steve Chadwick’s graceful, stealthy cornet, Tony Ormesher’s blistering fretboard runs and trills, Rob Turner’s vibrant, shapeshifting drums. Most bands express their creativity with the originals and reveal their conventionality with the covers, but with Magic Hat Ensemble it’s exactly the other way around. On the whole, a cause of great civic pride for Gorton. 

Andy McKee: Joyland (Proper). 

Guitar hero from Topeka, Kansas, who, despite all signs to the contrary, only has two hands. Guitar tunings are included, plus a bonus DVD with documentary and guitar lessons. An album designed for the guitar geek, then. The rest of us might wonder how quickly the innovative touchtapping technique of Stanley Jordan has degenerated into cliche. All is soulless slapping, tepid tapping and tiresome twiddling. A version of Everybody Wants To Rule the World in the 'touch wood' style recalls Dr Johnson's comment about the dog walking on hind legs - "you are surprised to find it done at all". On the whole, Preston Reed does this kind of thing better.

Meadow: Blissful Ignorance (Edition) 

European chamber jazz at its most elegant, terse and laconic. The music is conjured out of the air, it feels so fresh (and wintery, it might be added). Meadow are a trio comprising British piano doyen John Taylor, and Norwegians saxophonist Tore Brunborg and drummer Thomas Stronen. The mood is nocturnal and elegiac. There’s a quality of distilled beauty - so understated that Kirstis Tarer and Reven actually become more spacious and spare as they proceed. Brunborg is sometimes plaintive, sometimes brooding: a great foil for Taylor’s prickly plangent piano. No orthodox timekeeper, Stronen is strong on textures and delicately placed accents. Vastly appealing, Blissful Ignorance echoes the pristine ECM sound - it was recorded at Rainbow Studios, the source of so many ECM records  - which is appropriate, because Edition is shaping up to be a homegrown version of Manfred Eicher’s label, and is a similar guarantee of quality. 

Brad Mehldau: Highway Rider (Nonesuch) 

A series of delicate orchestral episodes spread over two CDs, marked by Mehldau's quietly simmering piano, and adorned by Joshua Redman's gliding saxophone, Highway Rider is not so much a fruitful classical/jazz exchange (which it is), but a move into territory all its own. The arrangements are rich and tuneful. The sensibility is gently romantic, occasionally reaching Samuel-Barber-Adagio-For-Strings levels of sublimity. Redman's sax is resolutely non-virtuosic, but has a laconic charm that suits the music to perfection. In it's luminous tunefulness, Highway Rider most resembles the soundtrack to the imaginary movie of your dreams. It's no surprise that Jon Brion, the distinguished film composer (I Love Huckabees, Punch Drunk Love), takes the producer credit.

Pat Metheny: What’s It All About (Nonesuch) 

The technical information: Pat Metheny here uses the basic tuning of A D G C E A , with the third and fourth strings tuned an octave higher than usual. This device lends an eerie feeling to The Sound of Silence: there’s a microtonal moment that causes an involuntary shiver. The programme is entirely made up of popular songs and film themes, and the delivery is as intimate as if the guitarist were in the same room, playing for an audience of one. Strangely, the more sentimental and squishy the tune, the more affecting it becomes. This, surely, is the definitive Cherish (the David Cassidy chestnut) and Metheny uncovers a real guilty pleasure with Carly Simon’s That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be. Garota de Ipanema only gradually comes into view, bathed in a shimmering heat haze, and bittersweetness reaches its apotheosis with Rainy Days and Mondays. No one can break the heart with a drifty major seventh chord like Metheny can. The results are only intermittently soporific, and actually more riveting than his more grandiose efforts like Orchestrion, or the overblown Secret Story. Metheny is undoubtedly a musical schizophrenic, but these wistful, acoustic affairs are a joy. 

Robert Mitchell's Panacea - The Cusp (Edition) 

Esperanza Spalding - Chamber Music Society (Heads Up) 

Both Mitchell and Spalding grapple with the problem of harnessing advanced jazz to make music for the masses. They both miss, but, hey, it was never going to be easy. Robert Mitchell, a pianist given to profound meditation, here composes actual songs and employs singer Deborah Jordan - whose delicate, pure voice is the epitome of tenderness - and rapper HKB Finn to interpret them. The songs aspire to the fragile enchantment of Edward Barton's It's A Fine Day, but Mitchell can't quite shake off his habit of inscrutable intervals and complex time changes. Spalding, a bassist/composer/singer from Oregon, USA, combines classical elegance with jazz angularity, with a major part for her own sweet vocals. Her version of modern chamber music sometimes emulates the strange charm of Joanna Newsom (Apple Blossom; the William Blake setting, Little Fly). It's all very appealing, if ultimately a wee bit precious, with classical propriety scoring over jazz intensity. Nevertheless, both albums are brave and accessible endeavours. Too good for mass consumption, actually.

Sara Mitra: April Song (Impossible Ark)

Sara Mitra is of Irish-Indian stock, married to jazz drummer Tim Giles, and was heavily pregnant during the recording of this, her debut record. These personal details have a bearing on the outcome of April Song. Mitra's voice is light and breathy yet intense, and her own songs are candid and searching. The adventurous arrangements play up the tension and contrast between horns and strings, and the sound is a lot richer than the modest resources might suggest. That unsettling migrant's song The Old Country - as odd and out-of-time as Strange Fruit when Curtis Lee and Nat Adderley wrote it in 1961 - projects the singer's darkest fear: it's only a small step from citizen of the world to total outcast. In reality, Misra makes the most of her dual-heritage, nay multiple-heritage. The intelligence of her songwriting, together with the sensuality of her singing, make for a winnng combination. 

James Morton's Porkchop: Don't You Worry 'Bout That (Fresh Ground Records) 

Porkchop maintain the noble tradition of the organ-combo, the most populist genre in jazz, with real flair. Fresh rather than innovative, the combination of huffing, hustling alto sax with a vocal quality (James Morton), clean, funky guitar (Danny Ilett), groovy, limber Hammond organ (Dan Moore) and no-nonsense drumming (Ian Matthews) is finally irresistible. The tunes are all Morton originals (except for a slinky God Bless The Child, and an Eddie Harris choogler, Cold Duck Time), but so solidly in the vernacular they feel like familiar soul-jazz staples. Potent and exciting stuff.

Corey Mwamba, Dave Kane & Joshua Blackmore with Alex Bonney: In The Vortex 

Free jazz remains the ultimate underground music. In The Vortex, a recording of a performance given by vibraphonist Corey Mwamba, bassist Dave Kane, and drummer Joshua Blackmore at The Vortex in January this year, is a valuable document. The two-CD set is only available on the group's website (above), and is recommended for Mwamba's instinctive originality on vibes: he is an elemental driving force on an instrument that is often used for fey or novelty effect. Kane contributes orchestrally varied sounds on string bass, and Blackmore veers between delicate hues and full-blown ferocity. The spontaneity of group improvisation gives it a wonderful freshness - the excitement of discovery is palpable - and due attention is paid to dynamics (like the quiet delicacy at the beginning of Breathe In). Trumpeter Alex Bonney joins for three of the four pieces on the second disc, and adds his own special brand of desiccated eloquence. The package usefully demonstrates how discipline is needed to truly achieve 'freedom', and how, in this most demanding of forms, group interaction takes priority over individual expression. 

Neon Quartet: Catch Me (Edition) 

Since the first Neon album, pianist Kit Downes has replaced Gwilym Simcock and drummer Tim Giles has been added, with saxophonist Stan Sulzmann and vibes player Jim Hart providing continuity. The chemistry is unaltered, and a nice balance is struck between skittish vitality (from Hart and Giles, mostly) and gruff tenderness (that's elder statesman Sulzmann). The technique of all four is formidable: Tim Giles is astonishing, pushing in lateral directions with crispness and snap, whilst Hart provides streamlined propulsion on that most rhythmic of instruments, the vibes. Kit Downes, an inner-directed pianist, is surprisingly approachable, as he unspools long lines of melody. If the playing is marked by empathy - they sound like a well-established group - the writing is outstanding. Nepapanees (by Sulzmann) is a drama of light and shade with playful accents, and Passwords (by Hart) is a model of passionate lyricism. The ballads (Villiers, by Downes, for example) are exquisite, and just a bit pensive. When they turn up the heat, as in Torino (by Downes), instinctive musicality takes over. Credits are evenly split between Sulzmann, Hart and Downes, and all deserve the highest praise.

Marius Neset: Golden Xplosion (Edition) 

It’s clear that Wayne Shorter has marked Neset’s playing. That’s Shorter the oblique melodist as well as the dazzling colourist of Weather Report (download track 4, Sane, for yearning, Heavy Weather-style lyricism). But then Neset, a virtuoso saxophonist from Norway discovered by Django Bates at Copenhagen Music Conservatory, has absorbed the playing of all the modernist masters. He mimics the astonishingly contrapuntal effects of Roland Kirk on track 1, Introducing: Golden Xplosion, but doesn’t need multi-tracking to sound like a saxophone choir: Old Poison appropriates the circular breathing of Evan Parker to juggle criss-cross rhythms. Neset also impresses as a composer. Angel of the North is an exultant, profound work. Then there’s the sympathetic interplay of Jasper Hoiby on bass and Anton Eger on drums (dig the skipping, slippery detail of Shame Us), while Bates himself adds his distinctive prankster touch on keyboards. There’s no mistaking the pleasure the musicians had in the making of Golden Xplosion. It communicates: a completely satisfying album.

Oddfellows: Oddfellows (Limefield) 

The gooseberry, a popular object of cottage-horticulture in Lancashire, is a bit like the native folk music: wild, hairy on the outside and delicious to taste. Which is to say, there’s no one famous on Oddfellows - erstwhile Oldham Tinker John Howarth is the nearest - but it comes from deep Lancashire, and uncovers a whole world of indigenous folk, with old and new songs in the traditional vernacular. These are studio recordings of the house musicians who gather at the Oddfellows pub in Middleton, famously, on Monday night at nine. They are considerable talents, whatever the public awareness. Here you’ll find the gorgeous voice of Pete Macmillan, as burly and tender as a Lancashire Pavarotti, and salty characters like Andy Kenna and the shamelessly unreconstructed Jack Lee. There are Irish retentions (Vin Short’s Little Bridgid Flynn), affecting testimonies to working-class resilience (Mike Canavan’s Knocker Upper Man), and drollery aplenty (Howarth’s The Funeral Song), shot through with humanity and warmth. The old-timers were shepherded in the studio by jazzman John Ellis and Bill Leader (who is a household name in folk) who preserve the good cheer of the bar-room session. 

Gretchen Parlato: In A Dream (Obliq Sound)

New Yorker Parlato retains the virtues of the bossa nova - that patented mix of fragility and sensuousness, set to shimmering, spare yet perfect accompaniment. Ostensibly, Parlato is just murmuring and cooing in a rhythmic way, but, how she can captivate the listener. Her deceptively simple style is deployed on material as harmonically advanced as Wayne Shorter's ESP and Herbie Hancock's Butterfly, and the assurance of the musicianship reminds why New York is still the centre of the jazz world. The sentiments are dreamy and romantic, in the time-honoured Latin way, yet the note of maternal love in the originals (there's lots of infant gurgling too) is new. In A Dream raises the bar for bossa.

Sid Peacock & Surge: La Féte (Peacock Angell Records) 

Féte is a French word meaning ‘festival’ or ‘party’, and it seems particularly apt for this debut by the 16-piece big band led by Birmingham-based Irish composer Sid Peacock. It’s an album that spills over with exuberance and colour, with a vivid variety of moods, dynamics and tempos. Tunes are full-blooded and often unabashedly romantic: the evanescent Kora, or Bit of Peace, carried along by the wordless vocalising of Ruth Angell. Sometimes proceedings tip into anarchy - the title track juggles different rhythmic metres with élan - or the listener is transported from paradisiacal exotica to clamorous urbanity (Bronze Bling, a real tour de force). La Féte is quite a journey, and if Peacock succeeds in his chief aim to derange the senses, he does so with a lot of charm (the satisfyingly trippy Hallucinogenic Garden), and along the way reveals the wealth of talent of the Birmingham jazz community (drummer John Randall is a marvel). Well worth seeking out. 

Jay Phelps: Jay Walkin’ (Specific) 

More on Jay Phelps below, but the first thing to say is that pianist Jonathan Gee (mathematically precise), bassist Larry Bartley (pure-toned and propulsive) and drummer Gene Calderazzo (crisp, powerful, explosive) are the best rhythm team currently active in the UK: for the way they interact as much as for individual prowess. (Karl Rasheed-Abel, also superb, plays bass on two thirds of the album.) Featured reedsmen Shabaka Hutchings and Brian Edwards offer contrasting styles, by turn brooding and sunny. The material ranges from the Afrocentric intensity of Six Degrees of Separation to a re-imagined Semplice by Tchaikovsky. Jay Phelps? Canadian-born, settled in Britain as a teen, first made his mark as trumpeter with Empirical. He sidesteps the Miles Davis influence and emulates Clifford Brown: graceful, sharp, burnished, lyrical. If he impressed with Empirical, now he’s in complete command of the hard-bop idiom. Vocalist Michael Mwenso, however, steals the show whenever he appears: a charismatic with a Clarence Carter chuckle, Mwenso sings like an inspired add-on to the outstanding rhythm team. A timely release. Just when editors insist on the annual round-up, here comes the year’s best jazz album. 

Phronesis: Alive (Edition) 

This state-of-the-art live recording clearly captures a shining moment for the Anglo-Dutch trio. It's obvious that bassist Jasper Hoiby is the leader. He contributes all the tunes, calibrates the heat with his swoops and surges, and suffuses all with a dark, deep-toned woodiness. Mark Guiliana, who might be playing a continually evolving solo, is a wonderfully polyrhythmic drummer, and pianist Ivo Neame, restless and searching, makes the music his own. Indeed, the set is finely balanced between all three individuals. It hits top gear from the first moments of the first tune, the majestic Blue Inspiration, and, with eight extended work-outs to follow, the musicians never flag for a moment. Abraham's New Gift, with its urgent lift, is outstanding.

Courtney Pine: Europa (Destin-E) 

An ambitious idea - nothing less than a musical interpretation of the (pre-)history of the European continent - is realised in a suitably expansive way. Wide open soundscapes utilise jazz know-how, state-of-the-art technology (without overshadowing flesh-and-blood players), Celtic, Mediterranean and classical retentions and a worldview occasionally reminiscent of Duke Ellington at his most exotic. Like Ellington, Pine writes brilliantly for distinctive personalities: fiery Cuban violinist Omar Puente, graceful pianist Zoe Rahman, nimble reedman Shabaka Hutchins, with the sturdy bassist Alec Dankworth holding it all together. Pine also displays a talent for shape-shifting. On his jousts with Puente (Druid’s Lyre and Greek Fire), he not only translates hot fiddle licks to the saxophone but replicates the timbre of the fiddle with a brassy bass clarinet. The latter is the dominant voice: large and majestic, but also capable of brightness and fun. What strikes most is the juxtaposition of modernity and antiquity. Europa is not so much an evocation of the past, as a promise of a world to come. All musicians might as generous-spirited as Courtney Pine in the twenty-second century.  

Tutu Puoane & Brussels Jazz Orchestra: Mama Africa (Saphrane) 

Belgian-based, South African singer Tutu Puoane remembers the great Miriam Makeba with a fusion of big band jazz and Xhosa folk song. Kwela explodes into multi-hued colour in these imaginative and vigorous arrangements: the saxophone echoes rousing vocals on The House in Midrand (a real tour de force, this), and punchy Basie -style horns adorn the Zulu praise song Mayibuye. Excitement is the common factor. Mama Africa feels like a return, given the big jazz influence on SA music, and, at the same time, this feels fresh and full of possibility. Puoane is astonishing: she exudes warmth and grace, yet holds her own against everything the Brussels Jazz Orchestra throws at her. Beauty is rare at any time. Finding beauty on this scale is incredible. 

Real Book North West: Real Book North West (33 Records)

A genuine source of local pride: RBNW are a jazz supergroup, who focus exclusively on works from indigenous composers. This album suggests that they have struck a rich seam. The Manchester jazz community, on this evidence, is overrun with lyrical, good old-fashioned melodists. Virtually every theme is attractive, and the musicians - Mike Walker, Andy Schofield, Les Chisnall, Steve Berry and Dave Walsh - bring out the full grace of luminous tunes such as Clockmaker (by Walker), The Aviators Ball (by Matt Owens), and People That I Love (by John Ellis). And just when you think they might be a bit too much cool clarity, the bright post-bop of Time To Remember (by Dan Whieldon) proves that RBNW can swing too.

Tim Richards Trio:  Shapeshifting (33 Records) 

A joyous and swinging pianist, Tim Richards is fully at ease with a capable rhythm section. Bass player Dominic Howles and drummer Jeff Lardner maintain a relaxed flow of rhythm, and display muscle when required. Richards himself has absorbed the styles of Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, Cedar Walton and Bobby Timmons, who are all covered here. He rejoices in the old-fashioned jazz virtues of elegance, commitment to swing and clarity of line. But, nestled among the jazz chestnuts are four luminous Richards originals. Tunes such as Eleventh Hour and Seraglio fully match the standard of beauty elsewhere. The former hints at the rhapsodic lyricism of Ellington, while the hypnotic quality of Seraglio points to a later generation of jazz piano masters. Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett are not represented here, but Richards is clearly on their wavelength. 

Matana Roberts: Live in London (Central Control) 

Its the incongruity that startles. Matana Roberts is a young black Chicagoan, indifferent to her physical beauty, who projects her feelings through a saxophone using the vocabulary of free jazz. Live in London documents a concert at The Vortex in 2009. Typically, a Roberts solo consists of short, melodic passages repeated with minimal variation in a hard granite tone, moving from phrase to phrase with the weighty density of an iceberg. Roberts is weak on delicacy but strong on presence, and actually very strong on melody: she could credibly fulfil Albert Ayler’s project of bringing hard-core avant-garde to the masses. By way of contrast, the UK rhythm section - particularly Robert Mitchell on piano - are restless, quicksilver and animated, and winningly suspend the performance between severity and delight. 

Asaf Sirkis Trio: Letting Go (Stonedbird)
The whiplash rolls and shimmering cymbals of Asaf Sirkis strike the perfect balance between power and elegance. Without question, he is one of the best drummers active in UK jazz. Oddly, his own projects have been mostly rock-derived. Inner Noise reached places that have (mercifully) lain undisturbed since Brain Salad Surgery by ELP. This edition of the Asaf Sirkis Trio is a stripped down, post-Hendrix trio, with Tassos Spiliotopoulos in the role of the guitar god. How well matched the two players are, precisely calibrating levels of intensity, or nicely apposite, as when Sirkis surges and ebbs underneath Spiliotopoulos' billowy guitar chords. Bassist Yaron Stavi contents himself with steady time-keeping, and Patrick Bettison contributes pleasingly desiccated harmonica to two tracks. Nothing is external, nothing unnecessary, and, contrary to the title, a mood of restrained emotion is sustained throughout. Good crossover appeal.

Judge Smith: The Climber (Masters of Art)
Judge Smith: Curly's Airships (Masters of Art)

Judge Smith was a founder member of Van Der Graaf Generator (as Chris Smith he appears on the sleeve of 68-71, but nothing was recorded), which makes these albums (The Climber is new; Curly's Airships is a reissue from 2000), of interest to fans of the world's scariest prog-rock band. Smith here attempts a mix of narrative and music he calls the 'Songstory', which, despite his claims of innovation, is practically identical to 'the concept album' or 'rock opera'. He also seems drawn to Boy's Own Adventure stories. The Climber describes the fatal lure of the Italian Alps to a maverick mountaineer, and Curly's Airships tells the story of the doomed R101, the world's biggest airship, through the eyes of aviator Curly. Like the best of VDGG, the music describes a bad trip on the way to revelation, respectively in the mountains and in the sky. But Smith approach from the view of a documentarian, rather than a screaming expressionist like Peter Hammill. Curly's Airships details early aviation and government bureaucracy with documentary accuracy, and its dramatis personae includes Arthur Brown as 'The Chairman' and Hammill as 'Lord Thomson', both stiff-necked representatives of the ruling class. Hugh Banton and David Jackson of VDGG provide musical back-up. Dense, and spread over two CDs, Curly's Airships occasionally resembles a R4 Book of the Week delivered in recitative over elaborate jazz-rock arrangements. It's strong on exposition at the expense, but no worse than, say, Les Miserables or a Michael Tippett opera. The story demands close attention, and rewards with a compelling study of the psychotic tendency behind the British stiff upper lip. The closest it comes to a showstopping tune is The Final Taboo (Theme 16), which gets a reprise at the finale. But oddly, the tune that ends up rattling through your head is Imperial Zeppelin, from Fool's Mate, Peter Hammill's solo debut in 1971. That song is credited to Hammill/Smith, the only co-write on the album, which indicates how long Judge Smith has been fixated on the idea of flying dirigibles. As a piece for solo voice and choir, The Climber is not on the epic scale of Curly's Airships. The intimacy actually makes it more approachable. The tension between the hero, self-deluded and oblivious to danger, and the choir, doubling as voice of reason and implacable force of nature, is brilliantly handled, and as exciting as a good book. But, like a good book, how many times would you want to repeat the experience? Judge Smith, like his Climber, is a rather solitary figure: as quixotic (and English) as Robert Wyatt in his determination to extend the boundaries of rock music. Indeed, his complicated relationship to rock might be explained (or not) on the next 'Songstory', which recasts Orpheus as a Potters Bar-born rock'n'roller, with a great deal (on the evidence of the trailer at the end of The Climber) of weeping guitar freak-outs.

John Surman: Flashpoint - NDR Jazz Workshop (Cuneiform Records) 

The first wave of modern British jazz is only in retrospect a golden age, belatedly honoured with the term Jazz Britannia. So it showed great foresight on the part of German broadcaster NDR to film John Surman’s big band in rehearsal in April 1969, for release some forty-odd years later as a CD and accompanying DVD. The participants are a virtual Who’s Who of Jazz Britannia (Alan Skidmore, Ronnie Scott, Mike Osborne, Kenny Wheeler, Harry Miller), caught in a space between tradition (borrowing inspiration and structures from Duke Ellington) and innovation(the infusion of free jazz, and the South African influence). The footage offers  valuable insights into the nature of communal music-making (an eye-opener for those who only know Surman as the hermit of Rainbow Studios, Oslo). Clearly, on the basis of wistful themes like Once Upon A Time, Surman’s melodic sense was  born full-formed. An essential document. 

Tamco: Don't Think Twice (Edition) 

The trick here - and it's devastatingly effective - is to apply sweet ingenue tones to songs (by such as Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello and Jacques Brel) which probe the dark psychological depths of sexual behaviour. The accompaniment sounds like a punk garage band under the direction of Ennio Morricone (Dan Moore's Hammond organ is a ringer for Ray Manzarek). So emotional cruelty is tossed off with nonchalance (the Bob Dylan title track), and orthodox sentimentality comes tinged with psychosis (Jolene, River Deep Mountain High). Bristol-based singer Tammy Payne's languorous tones are ideal for that extraordinary seduction song, Summer Wine. Most incongruous of all, she applies her fragrant  tones to a blood-thirsty murder ballad, Henry Lee, complete with walking bass and organ drone. But is it jazz? The jury is out on that one; it is, however, undoubtedly the most purely enjoyable release of the year.

Clare Teal: Hey Ho (MUD Records) 

Kurt Elling: The Gate (Concord)

A musical shopholic, Teal goes mad in the boutique of song and mixes styles and idioms with gay abandon. It’s Not Unusual suits the slinky sixties treatment, but Down By The Sally Gardens? She brings the same emotional sweetness to Care of Cell 44 by The Zombies and We’ll Gather Lilacs by Ivor Novello, but it’s a roleplay really. Because Teal is far too twinkly to take herself seriously, the romance never sours: she\s more Jeanette Macdonald than Judy Garland. The odd lapse of taste only happens when she enters the modern world. Which is, sadly, also true of Kurt Elling with The Gate. Blessed with a rich baritone voice, impeccable intonation and sense of time, Elling makes Jamie Cullum seem like the callow pipsqueak he is. But here he extends his repertoire to cover Earth, Wind & Fire (After The Love Has Gone), the Beatles (Norwegian Wood) and Joe Jackson (Steppin’ Out), and the results are more slick than sublime. 

Jon Thorne and Danny Thompson: Watching the Well 

Jon Thorne, Manchester’s foremost jazz bassist, here pays homage to his musical hero Danny Thompson (of Pentangle and John Martyn renown) with a suite written specially for the great bassist. It is a work of beautiful, unabashed romanticism, and Thompson moves through the music with a stately, measured tread, and makes the earth move with every low rumble. His string bass has a deep, rich, earthy sound, and the other soloists delightedly sink into it: singer Jojo Thorne, with a voice of operatic purity (Thompson is not the only object of devotion), guitarist Stuart McCallum, at his most ambient, and Gilad Atzmon, offering weeping clarinet arpeggios. If the music is just too beautiful and too immaculate to attain flight mode, Watching the Well is a remarkable example of an artist wearing his heart on his sleeve. And with Jon Thorne, you get a very big heart.

Christine Tobin & Liam Noble: Tapestry Unravelled (Trail Belle) 

Carole King's  million-selling 1970 album is here faithfully revisited (with the bonus of a Tobin original, Closing Time), and stripped to the bare components of voice and piano. This actually adds to the strengths of the original, characterised by personal intimacy and musical accomplishment. Tobin, never more radiant, sings with intense feeling. The over-familiar You've Got A Friend becomes, once again, an expression of empathy and sympathy. So Far Away is almost unbearably wrenching. The dominant mood, exemplified by Tapestry itself, is one of wistful tenderness. Noble follows her sensitively, with less harmonic adventure and more simplicity and passion than normal. The recording was apparently prompted by the death of Tobin's sister, a great Tapestry fan. It adds a poignant twist: the singer seems more concerned with human loss than lost love. But the album would be immensely moving even without knowledge of the sad background. 

Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate: Ali & Toumani (World Circuit Records)

Sadly the swansong not only of the great Mali musician Ali Farka Toure, a pioneer of the desert blues, but also Orlando 'Cachaito' Lopez, the bass player who graced all those Buena Vista Social Club records. Appropriately, there's an ease and purity about the music. Toure's ringing guitar lays down a lick, evocative of Delta blues perhaps, but really deriving from a more ancient source. Toumani Diabate, the world's greatest kora player, adds a harp-like counter-melody, which, though quicksilver and elaborate, retains the essential quality of simplicity. It's music that soothes and charms away all anxiety. Toure doesn't sing so much as murmur with satisfaction and contentment. Cumulatively, this gentle, homegrown music takes on an indefinable, almost otherworldly quality. At least two of the musicians were in heaven before they died.

Trichotomy: Variations (Naim)

A suitable candidate to fill the large-shaped hole left by est (Esbjorn Svensson Trio to the uninitiated). Melodies are clean and mellifluous; grooves hustle and bustle in split metres and yet somehow swing; the mood is mercurial; attractive pastoralism is likely to be upended by arresting dentist-drill techno tones. It's surprising to learn that pianist Sean Foran, percussionist John Parker and bassist Patrick Marchisella are not acolytes of Euro-jazz, but actually met at Queensland Conservatorium. The sound is nevertheless delicate, controlled and spacious in the best European tradition. For track 4 (Start) the basic piano trio is expanded with a string quartet to great effect.

Helen Watson and Mark Creswell: Fiver (www.helenwatson.net) 

Great jazz singers are primarily interpreters: this side of Watson’s art is displayed with Burden of Paradise, her group with Snake Davis, at Manchester Jazz Festival on Wednesday 27. That some are gifted writers leads to a sense of confusion, as if such excess of talent was distasteful, or careless with the pigeonholes (you can be either a jazz singer or a singer/songwriter, but not both). And so Helen Watson’s recordings are homemade, with spartan production values and limited print runs, chiefly to be sold at gigs, like this 5-track EP (available individually on iTunes etc. and, yes, it retails for £5). And Fiver is wonderful! It channels real experiences - like love and intimacy and desire - in the most profound way, wavering between fragility and strength, and incidentally offers unforgettable images of her old hometown, Manchester (this, from, The Day Before The Day Before: “Victoria sat squat upon her throne…”). Co-writer Mark Creswell contributes sturdy melodies and nice guitar picking. The pair turn the low-key setting to advantage: these songs come from a very private space. Five stars, naturally. 

Tim Whitehead: Colour Beginnings (Home Made) 

JMW Turner, who elevated the sketch and ditched academic painting, was the free jazzman of English Romantic art. Appropriately, Turner is the inspiration for Tim Whitehead, a full-voiced saxophonist with a relish for fresh challenges. The starting point for the pieces were improvisations by Whitehead made directly in front of Turner sketches at Tate Britain. They were then transcribed and interpreted by a team including pianist Liam Noble - a fine colourist himself - and the resourceful Milo Fell on drums, with Patrick Bettison and Oli Hayhurst alternating on bass. It succeeds because Whitehead avoids the obvious: Turner’s hazy colour-tones are not mirrored by nebulous sound-tones. On the contrary, the music is dynamic, urgent and consistently swings, as shown by track nine, Tower On A Hill At Sunrise and track 12, Dancing In The Sky (the relevant Turner pictures are reproduced in a full colour booklet). Melodies are luminous and rhythms are textured, yet there is nary a bit of introspection, with the exception of the atmospheric opener, Night Into Dawn. Indeed, Whitehead might be too extrovert for his own good. His exuberant singing style spills over from saxophone to voice in a couple of places. 

Norma Winstone: Stories Yet To Tell (ECM) 

This exquisite chamber jazz - with the ECM characteristics of high clarity and high refinement - really succeeds in evoking a mood of bitter-sweet remembrance. Klaus Gesing on soprano sax is as plaintive as Jan Garbarek , and Glauco Venier summons memories of John Taylor with his sensitive piano accompaniment. The focus of attention, however, is always on Norma Winstone, that doyenne of modern British jazz, whose voice is rich and well-preserved. Indeed it seems to grow in beauty with the years. Her sense of colour, her superb use of pauses, breathing, phrasing, and rising and falling volume are all placed at the service of songs (her words, other people's music, generally) about passing seasons, lost loves, human frailty, the impermanence of the world. The eternal verities, in fact, yet, couched in that feather-soft yet robust voice, they appear as mysterious as a dream within a dream. 

Jah Wobble & The Nippon Dub Orchestra: Japanese Dub (Hertz)

After Chinese Dub by Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra, the intrepid sonic explorer's trip further east and sideways makes perfect sense. In a steadily shrinking world, one has to look to increasingly far-flung places to emulate the shock that, say, King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown had in the mid-seventies (K Dub 10 here has a family resemblance). The howl of a Kabuki actor (which opens Shinto Dub) is always going to be impenetrably exotic to western ears. And then there's the wide-open spaces that Japanese folk and dub reggae have in common. Wobble's heavy, heavy bass rings like a bell in an empty sky:  an ominous thunder besides the lightness of the shakuhachi flute and plucked koto. The meaning of the sung pieces remains elusive too, but it's fair to say that regret at the fall of a cherry blossom (Silence) is subsequently overtaken by apocalyptic dread (Mishima/Kurosawa). The profound depth of Buddhist gloom is another eye-opener. 

Joe Zawinul & Absolute Ensemble: Absolute Zawinul (Intuition)

So the consummate jazz fusioneer was Viennese. Joe Zawinul was so thoroughly immersed, first, in soul jazz with Cannonball Adderley, and later, in cutting edge fusion with Weather Report, that his personal cultural roots have been overlooked. This posthumous album reaffirms his interest in world music - Bimoya and Sultan are lavish electro-Afro fantasias - and extends the gospel-flavoured funk he pioneered with Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (with Good Day). More surprisingly, extended orchestral works like Peace and The Peasant reveal him as a true descendent of Mahler. The latter adorns a folk-song melody with dazzling symphonic colours. Ballad For Two Musicians, as pretty as A Remark You Made, is a soaring Mahler-esque death-and-resurrection. Yet Zawinul's genius was for synthesis, so that all these diverse elements and influences become inextricably entwined. A fitting swansong for a master.

Also Received:

Pat Metheny: Orchestrion (Nonesuch). The king of fusion guitar pursues his idea of ideal beauty via a scientifically-enhanced version of the nineteenth-century orchestrion, which somehow enables an arsenal of electro-acoustic instruments to play alongside his guitar. The results veer between entrancing grace and vacuous muzak, albeit technically dazzling vacuous muzak.

Woody Pines: Counting Alligators. More good things coming from the North Carolina backwoods. In its relish of both good old-fashioned rustic quaintness, and modern urban sleaze (Cocaine Bill), Alligators invokes the great Michael Hurley, and even the anarchic Cab Calloway (Crazy-Eyed Woman). There are UK dates in March.

1 comment:

  1. You are giving this Jenkins chap the hard sell. There is a distinct air of Spinal Tap which appears to be deliberate. His voice is very similar to Victor Brox on the singing numbers. There is also more than a whiff of Zappa's humour. Oh God! Every guitarist a comedian.


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