Monday, 22 November 2021

 It's coming up that time of the year where I start to think about compiling my Top 10 albums of the year. This year I may have to alter the format. Yes, there are 10 albums that currently fulfil the loosely based criteria that I use each year (strange that my Top 10 seldom co-incides with anybody elses!). However, as well as those new releases it's also been a rather splendid year for re-releases, or releases of material that has either never, or seldom befoe been in the public domain.

   One example will suffice. 

Nina Smone: The Montreux Years.

Recent Nina Simone re-releases have often (in my opinion) beeen rather sub-standard example of what she was about. The album "Fodder on my wings" has always felt rather laboured, as if compiled from material that happened to have remained unreleased fom her less productive periods of work, or one of her periods of crisis.This had come out previously on the French 'Carrere' label, and had not improved with age, particularly as notes for it were sketchy and incomplete.
It therefore came as a huge and delightful suprise to find a double album of material I'd mostly never heard before, played at her consumate best, and with one performance albeit edited) almost in its entirity.
So should I include it in a Top 10 best of the year? As I've got at least 15 albums that are vying for a space in the Top 10 I've decided that year I'm going to add a new category - "Significant re-releases' which as this is the first year will comprise of three albums which will get chosen from the current list of seven.
 In previous years I made the mistake of starting to comile the Top ten at the start of December, but a couple of years running that premise has been shattered by having late releases that disturb my carefully manicured lists. This year I've set aside a date and a time to lock myself into my study and produce the Top 10 and the Top 3 re-releases in one sitting. As ever (and mentioned elsewhere in this short blog) I doubt that my lists will have much to do with the choice of other critics, but it's also fascinating (to me at any rate) to see where there is some overlap.
  Finally, I ought to mention that I have contemplated a short section in 'the awards' for albums that I've dug out of the crates to play, and recognised how good they are. As examples, this year I'd be including albums by Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner and Eddie Harris. Jazz always seems to have something to give!

Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Amongst all the excitement about new (and old) releases;

..I somehow forgot to mention that Phonic FM is part of a group that applied for (and has now been granted) a licence to broadcast on SSBAB+ (small scale digital audio broadcasting plus). Our partners are Radio Exe, Riviera FM ( who broadcast to Torbay), Ashley Jeary (currently the main anchor on Radio Exe) and Lisa England who works out of Liverpool. It's early days, and we're still at the stage of finalising the exact area that we're going to broadcast to, though it should raise the potential audience to somewhere in excess of 300,000. It's an exciting prospect, but that means a lot of hard work by the Board (of which I'm Chair), and lots of decisions to make, as well as fundamental thinks like getting Ofcom (our regulator) to finally agree the fine detail of the area that we're going to cover.
  The stations will be broadcast from a multiplex that should be able to accommodate 25 stations. It's evident from the level of interest that we're already had that not all the stations are going to be broadcasting out of Exeter, but there are three other slots for holders of C-DSP licenses (basically small scale broadcasters which/who fulfil certain criteria) that will provide uniquely local services. The main question that I've had to try and answer so far is "When will you be on-air?". It's probably the most uncertain thing about the whole undertaking, and it may be dangerous to write here a potential launch date, however I'll boldly suggest the start of March  2022 - whilst reserving the write to follow up this blog with an list of excuses as to why we're no longer going to adhere to that date!
 Questions already raised by Phonic listeners include:

1.Will you continue to broadcast on FM?

Put simply the answer is 'yes'. We're aware that a large number of people still listen on FM frequencies, and although all new cars now have DAB radios fitted as standard ( and most have DAB+) we still have a lot of listeners who use FM (and prefer the sound to that of DAB)

2. Will you continue to be a 'no adverts - no playlist staion?'

Again the answer is 'yes'. We will be incurring higher charges broadcasting on DAB+, but we're hoping to offset this by running more events that raise money for the station, and although nothing has been set in stone we shall be looking for possible sponsors for individual shows. More news on this as we move towards 'on-air' time.

3. I live in Thorverton, will I be able to pick up your DAB+ signal?

We're still in discussion with Ofcom, and our chosen installers about aerial sites, so the area we aim to cover isn't set in stone. How far we reach with the signals will be completely dependent on a range of issues that at the moment we're still resolving. Expect a press release from the station as soon as issues like this have been resolved.

In the meantime, and awsre that there will be other questions I'd suggest that you direct them at me at and I'll try to answer them as soon as possible.

Monday, 2 August 2021

It's still a strange year!

Until a couple of weeks ago I was complaining to myself about the lack of new releases that were becoming available. Understandable in as much as most artists rely on working in close proximity to other performers as well as having sessions supervised by a producer, and that hasn't been possible, except in exceptional circumstances. To counter balance this a lot of the large companies have been digging in the crates to find "unreleased material" and that's where I'll start this review of what's been released, before then moving on to some of the new stuff that seems to have appeared in abundance during the last couple of months.

Miles Davis: Merci Miles! Live at Vienne.

NOT the Miles you might expect from his classic period(s)- this is Miles stretching out with a completely new band, that includes Kenny Garrett on Sax and Deron Johnson on keyboards. There are a series of very long tracks ('Human nature' clocks in at 18:02) and a couple of Prince penned songs . Overall on the double CD set there are just 8 tracks. It's a fascinating insight into the ideas that were driving him on in this relatively late period of his career. Whether you like it or not, I guess, depends on the realtionship that you have with his recording with his two classic bands. Overall, after a lot of listening I like this.

Nina Simone: The Montreux Years.

Collected from the private collection of Claude Nobs, the organiser of the festival this 2 CD set contains in CD2 a single performance in full from 1976. It's essential listening, if only to hear a consumate performer win-over an audience that, at the outset seems indifferent. It needs to be listened to in whole, not just parts. CD1 contains a mixture of material from other years (including another couple of tracks from 1976)  in which she mixes her 'hits' with some items from across the rest of her catalogue. . It's a set that anyone vaguely interested in her artistry ought to own, if only to banish any lingering doubts about her ability as a live performer.

Jimmy Smith: Groovin' at Smalls Paradise (Volumes 1&2)

Somewhere along the way I lost both my vinyl copies of these albums, and doubted that they'd ever return. The Spanish label Jazz Images has re-released them (all but 'Imagination' which wouldn't fit onto a CD that runs out at 79 minutes of recorded sound) and it's been worth the wait. It's Smith stretching out in a late night club setting with some amazing support from Eddy Mcfadden on guitar and Donald Bailey on drums. If forced to pick my favourite tracks I'd go for the opener 'After hours' and 'Slightly Monkish'. . The Penguin Guide to jazz rates this as probably the best ever Smith album - some claim for someone so prolific - but it must be up there because of its sheer vitality and drive.

Then there are the new releases!

Julian Lage: Squint.

Prior to this album, I've always thought that Lage has never really fulfilled his undoubted talent on records. A move to Blue Note seems to have rectified that situation. All but two of the tracks are self written and mostly the tracks are in trio settings or Lage playing solo. The result is a wonderully laid back album that has given up more with repeated listenings. Dave King on Drums and Jorge Roeder on bass are unobtrusive but meld well with (largely laid back ) approach that Lage has demonstarted on this album.

Dave McMurray: Grateful Deadication.

Who'd have thought that the Grateful Dead would provide such fertile ground for a jazz album? This rifle through the extensive catalogue of Dead music led me back to the original albums, and to discover that McMurray has realised a whole gamut of sound that was lurking within.My favourite tracks are "Dark Star" - not just because bettye LaVette has added vocals, but also because Bob Weir appears on the track - "Franklin's Tower" has McMurray on baritone, and the longest track "Touch of Grey" is a great reminder of how great composer Jerry Garcia could be. If you're unfamiliar with " The Dead" this ought to lead you back to the originals!

Samara Joy: Samara Joy.

Just once in a while a set of "standards" rises above the average and this is just such an album. Winner of the 2019 Sarah Vaughan vocal prize, Sanara Joy has the kind of voice that stands out from the rest of a very crowded field. The album orginally appears to have been crowd funded, and if that is the case then full marks to the producer (Matt Pierson) for putting together such an empathetic backing group, and especially for commissioning Pasquale Grasso to undertake the guitar work. The album is a mixture of 'obvious' stadards but also a couple that mark out a nod to Sarah Vaughan, but also a memory of the nat King Cole Trio. Not normally my kind of stuff, but I realy like this.

Monday, 17 May 2021

Notes from a wet May

 It's about this time of year that I start noting the albums that have been released during the current year that I've particularly enjoyed. 2021 being what it is it's not been a normal year for releases. Not only has it been a period of lock down, but here in south-west England the weather has been, to say the least haphazard with a very dry April and (so far ) an incredibly wet May. If you look at the release schedules for albums you'll notice that record companies keep on changing the dates of new releases on a regular basis. I've also been playing tracks that were (supposedly) been released during 2020, but have only now reached me. Rather confusing! However these are the starting five, all of which have definitely been released during 2021, and present as diverse an approach to 'jazz' as it would be possible to find.

Emmet Cohen - Future stride.

It's based around a basic trio of drums (Kyle Poole), Bass ( Russel Hall) and Cohen himself on piano. Several of the tracks have trumpet Marquis Hill) and Melissa Aldana (Tenor sax). The tunes are a mixture of old (one from 1919 ) Rogers and hart and Duke Ellington and other are self composed. Stride is a piano style that requires a specific left hand technique, and Cohen finds many ways of adapting the style to the range of music that he's chosen. The album is full of variation and an enormous sense of fun, and his piano playing isn't the only time he occurs on this brief list. Highly recommended.

Nubiyan Twist - Freedom Fables.

A nine or ten pice band that have taken elelments of the jazz styles of the emergent London jazz scene and harnessed it a more afro centric kind of style, with a punchy horn section. They're going to be doing a huge tour later in the year, as well as playing at WOMAD. The album displays a range of facets of their playing from a track with Soweto Kinch together with a wide range of (guest?) vocalists. Actually it's really hard to pigeon hole their style, which is probably why it fits so well into 'The Edge of Jazz'

Shai Maestro - Human.

An Israeli pianist with a distinctive style, and a strong and cohesive Trio. There are a range of styles in his largely self composed album for ECM. The one cover is Duke Ellington's 'In a sentimental mood'. There are a range of tempo's and the recording quality is superb. What makes it even more impressive is the trumpet playing of Philip Dizack. His controlled tone suits the album superbly, and this is certainly the best recording of his work that I've heard. It's not an album to sit down and get into right away, but after many listens it's still giving me an increasing sense of satifaction and enjoyment.

Veronica Swift - This bitter earth.

Her fifth album - although she's only 24, and the second for Mack Avenue. The selection of songs are representative of a feminist view of the world through songs. . There's a basic trio backing her (Emmet Cohen makes his second appearance of this list) with a string quartet on some of the ttracks and a rather wonderful version of cCarole King's " He hit me (and it felt like a kiss)" which has a guitar accompanyment by Armand Hirsch. The choice is, to say the least, eclectic, but her voice is wonderful throughout.Worth seeking out.

Vijay Iyer - Uneasy.

I think this is the third Vijay Iyer album on ECM. I very much liked the lat one 'Far from over' but the trio on this new album is the strongest that he's recorded with. The very much in demand bass player Linda May Han Oh gives the set a very much fulller sound and the drummer Tyshawn Sorey uses the whole of what must be a very large kit to great effect. All but two of the tracks are Iyer originals, with a Cole Porter tune and one by Geri Allen to complete the set. Like the maestro album mentioned above the recording quality is amazing, and if you can afford it, think about splashing out on the vinyl version. Again, not an immediate album, but one that I've been playing more and more.

Friday, 19 March 2021

More jazzy thoughts - from a strange year.

 As everybody else is likely to have said "it's been a strange old year", not that, at the time of writing, we're by any means clear of the restrictions that we've endured for the last year. Nonetheless, after staying at home, and catching up on all the things that 'you always meant to do' (most of mine are still unfinished - though at the time of writing, two of them have been completed, whether to my complete satisfaction remains to be seen!)

Luckily, after several 'home recorded' shows I've finally got back into the studio and it's been a real relief to discover that it's all still working. Actually for my colleagues, when they back to work (hopefully around 29th March) they're going to find that they're on a learning curve because during the lockdown an entirely updated playout system has been installed. Any certainty that they might have had about finding cherished drop-ins or 'tuneage' on the system are going to need review because although a lot of what was on the old system is till there it's all been moved during the change-over. Thus I've been finding favourite things that I use during the shows have been scattered to odd corners of the system. In the most extreme case 11,645 places away from where it used to be. We will, of course be able to give instruction, although in the first place, and probably until late May, it'll have to be on a one-to-one basis. At this point I ought to thank Ian and Tom who worked through the lock-down (remotely!) to make the switch.

So far then, not a lot of jazz! For jazz musicians, and particularly at a local level it's been a really difficult year. One player who made a living from jazz and lives locally told me that his last 'live' gig was March 10th 2020. It's also evident that many tours have had to be re-arranged, often not just once or twice, but up to three times. Let's hope that when those tours take place they are well supported. This also had a strange effect on CD releases which have also in many cases had their release dates moved several times. At the time of writing I'm still waiting for four albums that should have appeared during February - but haven't! There also appears to have been problems with CD manufacture, which for the largest labels is now done, more likely than not, somewhere in Europe. I don't thank the UK's status change has helped with distribution!

Next time I'll write more specifically about some of the albums (old and new) that I've enjoyed, or in some cases rediscovered during 2021.

Stay safe!

Friday, 18 December 2020

 Top 10 of 2020 - five to one ( and one that nearly made it!)

To repeat the preface to ten to six, this list is about what I've enjoyed this year. It's got nothing to do with chart placings, other people's opinions, money paid over in bribes or, indeed to please other people. It clearly doesn't do that, since comments about part one have been about what I  had not included, although there was occasional agreement with at least one of my choices. You'll also discover that I've cheated in order to hide my indecision. Now read on....Never mind - here's the Top 5!

5. Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds: The Jazz Funk Collection.

Robinsongs ( a part of the Cherry Red Organisation) don't release too many albums - but they tend to be crackers when they do. They only released two albums in 2020. This was one of them. It brought together tracks from a whole host of record companies that which charts the changes that took place when Donald Byrd moved from straight ahead jazz to jazz-funk fusion and then onto all the collaborations with the Blackbyrds. Not only are the choices well made, but the compilers also made sure to annotate properly what was happening thanks to an informative and well written set of notes by Charles Waring. It's a three CD set that repays repeated plays and to my ears does exactly what it set out to do. I haven't enjoyed a box set so much since the Hugh Masekela triple set. For 18 quid it's amazing value.

4. Alison Neale: Quietly there.

It's quite possible that choices 4 and 3 could appear here in different order - it was hard to choose between the two. Alison Neale plays beautifully on Alto sax, and the repertoire is incredibly diverse from Horace Silver  through Rogers and Hart and on to Cole Porter and on to the title track written by Johnny Mandel. What makes it extra special is the backing band, Dave Green on Bass and Steve Brown on drums, but especially Peter Bernstein on guitar who is both restrained and melodic, but above all bounces off Neale's sax playing in a most empathetic way. Credit too to Ubuntu Records who have maintained a steady stream of diverse and contrast in styles of music through this most difficult year.

3. Nubya Garcia: Source.

It sounds as though quite a lot of thought was put into the production of this album, and it appeared on a 'major' label, Concord. Garcia herself has been all over the media this year, but she can certainly cut it as a saxophone player, and is supported by a band that contains several of the top players in the emergent (or should that be 'emerged'' London jazz scene). Joe Armon- Jones is a great piano player in his own right, but his playing here is really empathetic throughout. However she's also made extensive used of Sheila Maurice (or Ms Maurice as she appears here) borrowed from Kokoroko, who avid listeners will know are a long time favourite of the presenter. She brings a trumpet/flugelhorn support on several tracks as well as adding vocals. All of this shouldn't detract from the fact that the compositions are excellent, the playing superb and you should certainly take time to listen to the extended title track - which we've played a couple of times on the show in its entirety.

2. Orlando Le Fleming: Romantic Funk; The unfamiliar.

Ignoring the fact that Orlando probably doesn't want to be reminded that he grew up in Exeter, went to school here and played cricket for Devon -or that one of the presenters on Phonic taught him! -this is a belting album. I've seen it described as 'high intensity fusion" but that barely begins to cover what emerges. Firstly he's a great Bass player, and secondly he has gathered around him and empathetic band, which includes Philip Dizak on trumpet and Will Vinson on Alto Sax. It's one of the very few albums that, on receipt, I played right the way through, and then played it again. Since then I've played it numerous times and have come to realise that if this is 'fusion', it has more too with the joining of two traditions, being British and living in America, and also not in the tradition as I saw in another review that it's like Weather Report. No, it's much more than that, and the title says it all. Hope there's another album soon.

Now the indecision that I mentioned in the preface.....
I've chosen two number ones. They are two albums that illustrate how far apart you can be in style and still call it jazz. So no apologies- here they are;

1=. Lionel Loueke: HH.

Don't know how Dave Stapleton of Edition Records managed to pick up on the album, but however it was this is high octane guitar playing in a unique style. All the tracks except two are Herbie Hancock tunes - Loueke currently plays in the Herbie Hancock band- but as an improviser Loueke does magical things on all the tracks. Forget the preconceptions that you may have about guitar albums, because these are virtuoso renditions of songs you might already know from the HH back catalogue. It sounds as though he had fun making it, which in lots of ways is credit enough, but included are noises made by the player, hums and times when it sounds more than just one guitar - I'd like to know more about the production methods. 

1.=. Kandace Springs: The women who raised me.

I've seen some criticism of this album which suggested that it was all too easy to hear the originals of the songs she performs on the album - but  this misses the point that she's interpreting them in the way that she heard them, rather than a copy of them. It's also striking for having a luminary backing band that seldom ever gets to 'stretch out ' Springs piano playing is often featured but it's only Chris Potter, the Sax player. who gets anything like solo time, although David Sanborn plays a lovely Alto Sax break on "I put a spell on you". The songs are from a plethora of sources, from Sade to Billie Holiday, through Duke Ellington to Roberta Flack. The breadth of what is being attempted here augurs well for whatever is to follow but it's an album that's been played constantly since I first received it. It also illustrates my stated dilemma. How can you separate two albums that are sonically far apart but linked by an enduring tradition of jazz? 

The one that got away;

Spanish Harlem Orchestra: The Latin Jazz project.

I was alerted to this by a review in the Financial Times by Mike Hobart. It's not available in shops and is part of the Artist Share label that brought me the latest Patricia Barber album last year. I applaud the endeavour, since the Artists are not seeing their money dissipated by the paying of agents, promoters and record companies. If you go on line and look up Artist Share you can find out more about how it works and how you can support a wide range of schemes. The album is a joyous rampage through big band arrangements by top session musicians or a range of various Latin tunes, and is highly recommended for both the music and the concept.

Finally 2020 has been an awful year for jazz musicians, especially in the area where I live, where gigs have been sparse, and cancellations the most notable feature for much of the year. It seems imperative that wherever you live supporting live jazz in 2021 is an imperative.

Friday, 11 December 2020

2020 Top 10 - ten to six.

Firstly, the annual reminder. These albums have got nothing at all to do with sales, other chart placing or money received as payola. They're the albums that have given me the most pleasure during the course of this very strange year, so it's an esoteric mix, for which I make no apology. It's (if you like) the equivalent of being asked to pick your "Desert Island Discs" on an annual basis. Anyway, there aren't any rules apart from the ones that I make up, so this year it includes an album that was recorded a long time ago, but appeared in public for the first time this year. Five to One will follow!

 10. Michel Benita: Looking at sounds.

As with many ECM releases you get very little information from the sleeve notes. Benita himself is Algerian, and he's based in Paris, so I would guess that the other musicians are French. He's featured in several other albums that I've liked, and recorded with Erik Truffaz and Nguyen Le, whose album I lauded last year. This album is for the main part very reflective, and the Flugelhorn Player Matthieu Michel adds his own style to the whole album. This is not an album which will allow you dance (except perhaps very slowly) but it's a wonderful example of reflective European Jazz in 2020.

9. Various Artists: Blue Note Re-imagined.

Tricky one this! Several of the tracks were pre-released and indeed several of the tracks are essential listening, but over 16 tracks there are only four or five that fall into that category. In the main they (for me) tend to be the artists who have had wider recognition in the proto jazz scene, and there are a couple of tracks that are very pale versions of the originals - for they are all tracks that have been recorded by other Blue Note artists. It's probably best for you to sort out for yourselves the tracks that you like, and then work out which ones I liked! My other disappointment was that there was so little information included within the package about the original tracks. When Blue Note re-released their re-mastered CD's in the late 90's they had an informative look at the original album and then added a more considered view. Pity they didn't do that for this package.

8. Thelonious Monk: Palo Alto.

I only got to see Thelonious Monk play once (yeah, I'm that old!) and it seemed at the time that the Quartet playing live suited Monk much better than in a more formal setting. That's why this album, recorded October 27th 1968 is such a delight because the band stretches out as they did and seldom were allowed to do in the recording studio. Quite why the Janitor recorded the session beggars belief, but the quality, apart from one or two blurs is amazing - and the band and Monk sound as though they really enjoyed it. The story behind the album is worth checking out, but so is the album. Incidentally I got my copies before the Monk Estate threatened legal action which delayed it's eventual release. By then I'd played most of the tracks on the show!

7. Benjamin Boone and the Ghana Jazz Collective: Joy

Can't remember who suggested this to me - but thanks! Strangely, Benjamin Boone was known to me because of his Classical music releases. he's a Professor at UC Fresno, but also went to Ghana as a Fulbright Scholar 2017 to 2018. It's there that he recorded this rather joyous slice of Afro- American jazz. At a guess they went into the studio with only the vaguest idea of what they wanted to produce and spent the time bouncing ideas off the 5 musicians and vocalist that were involved. Boone plays alto and soprano sax, and the rest of the band is tenor sax, keyboards, bass and drums. The titles vary from an excellent version of Herbie Hancock's 'Maiden voyage' through more cerebral stuff to '233 jazz bar' which is a joyous free for all vamp. Highly recommended.

6. Django Bates: Tenacity.

Recorded with his own trio, and the Norbotten Big Band. It's a mixture of self composed material and Charlie Parker tunes. It took me quite a long time to really get into the music that's on the CD, which Bates himself admits in the sleeve notes requires 'Tenacity' hence the title of the album. The Parker tunes present a different sound to the original sound of Parker himself so listeners might like to start with 'Confirmation' which to me is about as far away from the original as its possible to get. There are two commissioned tracks on the album with "We are not lost we are simply finding our way' being for Radio 3 and the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. As ever, Bates is pushing forward the boundaries of what can be described as 'jazz'

Part Two to follow, with choices from five to one, and a couple of tracks that nearly made the cut (but eventually didn't!)