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Anatta
Anatta
Price: £12.89

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This feels like just the beginning… and WHAT a beginning!, 6 Jan. 2016
This review is from: Anatta (Audio CD)
Sometimes it just clicks. That sit-up-and-listen first connection with intelligently-conceived music and performance, prompting a compulsion to become involved and stay with it.

Taking its title from a Buddhist principle which, indeed, references ‘a state of no self, where we are fully immersed in our experience of the present moment’, Anatta is the debut release of young tenor saxophonist Alex Merritt and his fine quartet: pianist John Turville, double bassist Sam Lasserson and distinguished US drummer Jeff Williams. With the majority of the album’s eight compositions coming from Merritt’s pen (plus interpretations of Thelonious Monk and Eubie Blake), the tenorist’s lead exudes both maturity and confidence in an hour-plus outing which brims with exploration and reinvention.

Formed some six years ago, and encouraged by Jeff Williams whilst Alex Merritt was still studying at Birmingham Conservatoire, quartet and leader seek a fascinating duality in their approach – the concept of modelling new work based on the standard chord progressions of existing material (such as Merritt’s originals here based on Jule Styne’s Just in Time and John Coltrane’s Satellite), thereby reflecting the aim of ‘observing the elegance of life’s change’.

Merritt’s warm, dry, Getzian fluency (which, at higher range, even finds refractions of Paul Desmond) is a joy, whether intertwining with Turville’s mysterious, unpredictable chordal shifts in the title track or bubbling with controlled fervour in one of the aforementioned reinterpretations… cringingly-titled Justin Time-berlake (perhaps there’s a back-story!). In fact, for a saxman who rarely screeches or wails, such restrained eloquence shines prominently. For example, in swingin’ For Peter Schat (that Coltrane reworking), his mellifluous, elongated phrases present a ‘pied piper’ kind of magnetism, with a constant stream of fresh improv ideas that don’t need any invitation to follow; and his band’s freer, nine-minute excursion through Pannonica beautifully echoes Monk’s famously capricious, angular approach.

The integration here is key and, throughout, feels like a sound this quartet has taken time to hone, driven along by Jeff Williams’ recognisable percussive solidity as well as Sam Lasserson’s double bass which, even amongst the sublime placidity of For Henri Dutilleux and Blake’s Memories of You, becomes majestic. Thelonius favourite Ugly Beauty is delightfully luxurious in this arrangement, especially when Merritt goes deep; and lively Conn Artist (other brands are available) cements his prowess as a composer with a promising future.


Good Is Good
Good Is Good
Price: £12.94

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Glinting with hypnotic majesty, 28 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Good Is Good (Audio CD)
Melding Ghanaian rhythm, minimalist repetition and improvisatory jazz pizazz, percussionist Bex Burch unveils a debut album which glints with hypnotic majesty, all based around first-hand experience of living and making music with the Dagaare tribe of West Africa.

Burch’s CV is fascinating. A childhood passion for percussion, and her classical studies at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, led to a series of chance encounters which resulted in a gap year travelling around Ghana’s ten regions, learning about and immersing herself in the musical culture of its people. It was there that she was introduced to master xylophonist Thomas Segkura, who invited her to be his apprentice. Across three years, she would buy and farm land, build a house – and, significantly, develop both the craftsmanship and the musicianship to create and master traditional instrument, the Gyil. On completion of her apprenticeship, she was given the name Vula Viel (which translates as ‘Good is Good’), and rewarded with the beautiful words, “All we have given you is yours, and all you have given us is ours. The good you do remains when you die.”

Returning to the UK, Burch decided to develop the richness of the Gyil music she had come to be a part of by forming a band – appropriately named Vula Viel – with some of London’s most progressive jazz and improvisational musicians; the beat-driven line-up consisting of saxophonist George Crowley, keyboardist Dan Nicholls, drummers Dave de Rose and Simon Roth, plus vibraphonist Stephen Burke (and Jim Hart guesting). Under Bex Burch’s direction, her colleagues rehearsed/gigged hard to understand the rhythms and melodies of the Dagaare tradition, respectfully reinterpreting them into this exciting, contemporary, groove-laden experience.

The successful cross-pollination of cultural creativity and instrumentation is what immediately grabs the attention – Nicholls’ electronic atmospheres and Crowley’s jazz-sax sensibility fusing organically with infectious world rhythms which glow to the leader’s bright, xylophonic timbres. Burch studied Steve Reich, and that mesmeric influence (also suggesting Terry Riley, Pierre Moerlen and even Ibiza-like sundown moods amongst its earthy, rustic charm) can clearly be identified in tracks such as Gandayina and Bewa which, with superbly echoic textures of Rhodes and synth, also become redolent of Soft Machine’s Six period. The dance element is key, as Zine Dondone Zine Daa rasps to the physicality of the Gyil, enhanced by sympathetic vibes and electronics (often the lines of definition are wonderfully blurred!) – and resounding to Crowley’s characteristically unfettered tenor, it all builds into magnificent, saturated, Nik Bärtsch-style complexity. There are moments of becalming beauty, too, across these seven tracks, often moving from watery, South African-tinted sunshine to Gamelanese delicacy – all displaying a constantly shifting undercurrent of invention.

Vula Viel’s appearance at this year’s Ronnie Scott’s London Jazz Festival launch confirmed an enthusiastic response to their fizzing, live presence; and this studio account, listening closely to exquisite detail, provides its own thrill. It would seem that there are areas of this vast, African-inspired canvas yet to be coloured – and with such an intuitive personnel, that’s something to very much look forward to.


Pinball - Marius Neset
Pinball - Marius Neset
Price: £15.76

5.0 out of 5 stars Spine-tingling musicianship, 28 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Pinball - Marius Neset (Audio CD)
If the name Marius Neset hasn’t yet entered your vocabulary, or his staggering musical proficiency not already hit your ears… then, with this latest album, Pinball, prepare for a life-changing jazz experience!

The Norwegian saxophonist and composer first erupted onto the wider European scene only four years ago with debut Golden Xplosion, and the ensuing releases – Birds (Edition, 2013) and Lion (ACT, 2014) – each time, left mouths gaping wider at the technical precision and impassioned musicality of the performances and writing. Some say he is the Parker or Coltrane of our time, with clear echoes of Brecker and Garbarek, and it’s unlikely to be an exaggeration that his distinct imprint on the progression and broadening of the jazz genre is creating, for us, the same revelatory tremors (turn out the lights, listen… and the saxophonist surely couldn’t be anyone else).

Mentored by Django Bates, that same sense of perpetual exploration and living on the edge is evident in Neset’s music – but it is also ingrained with atmospheres which reflect the musical folk traditions and awe-inspiring landscapes of his homeland, resulting in a rich combination of raw excitement and deep emotion. And, with every new release, the complexity and beauty of his compositional outpourings become impressively aggrandised.

Early in 2014, and in Mahlerian ‘composing hut’ spirit, Neset tucked himself away in a Norwegian mountain cottage and was inspired “to write almost a whole album”, specifically with his band colleagues (mostly from the Birds album) in mind – Ivo Neame (piano, Hammond), Jim Hart (vibes, marimba), Petter Eldh (bass) and Anton Eger (drums, percussion), plus special guests. Neset’s association with Eger runs deep, both collaborating here on production as well as some of the writing.

Title track Pinball conveys the overarching character of these twelve numbers – meticulously-conceived melodies, yet the varietal moods, audacious polyrhythms and fervid, darting improvisations make it all so entertainingly unpredictable. Mesmerising clapping and flutter-tongued flute herald World Song Pt. 1, a joyous, African-imbued opener filled with chattering folk dance riffs and soaring tenor; Pt. 2 is more ruminative – with distant knell, quivering cello and elegiac violin – until Jim Hart’s eloquent vibes resound up into the skies to summon a sunshiny recapitulation. The album’s effervescence is punctuated by calmer interludes, the subterranean resonance of Petter Eldh’s bass and Eger’s slow drum in Odes of You remarkably soothing, combined with Ivo Neame’s Hammond/piano and Neset’s lyricism.

Police (for silent movie buffs) portrays all the cheeky, madcap clatter of the Keystone Cops; with Marius’s tenor and sister Ingrid’s flute so chirpily yet accurately synched, it’s a real smile-raiser. Evoking thoughts of Neset’s haunting 2012 album with Daniel Herskedal (Neck of the Woods), Music for Cello and Saxophone is a fascinating echoic ‘duologue’ in which both instruments intertwine so convincingly; and the later Music for Drums and Saxophone finds Neset sharing the percussive possibilities of his tenor with Eger’s pin-sharp rhythms in a delicate, trance-like episode.

Never pass up the opportunity to catch this band live (tour dates here), Theatre of Magic offering a glimpse of the divergency of their craft as Marius, here with the illusion of playing both tenor and soprano, leads its glorious vivacity. Swirling Aberhonddu, presumably a nod to Brecon’s much-loved jazz festival, might suggest the capricious climatic conditions up on the Beacons, whilst Jaguar showcases the leader’s forceful soprano rapidity. His sparkling, trademark ‘duotone’ tenor announces Summer Dance, an astonishingly detailed Irish reel-like celebration coloured warmly with Hart’s marimba, before layered sax end-piece Hymn from the World reverently closes.

The spine-tingling musicianship of Pinball makes it an irresistible repeat player!


Faces
Faces
Price: £7.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ingenious – 'ready with that ‘repeat album’ setting?, 28 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Faces (Audio CD)
Bookended by nonchalant sax improvisation from jazz luminary Joe Lovano, the rapped words declare, “Worth your while to take a second listen to” – and it’s a pleasure to concur. Once in a while, a new, unexpected sound world grabs us by the ears and refuses to let go – something leftfield, eclectic and brimming with honest, heartwarming creativity. David Lyttle’s Faces is such an album.

Lyttle has a creditable biography. From his early beginnings in County Armagh as a young drummer with his parents’ Celtic family folk band – The Lyttle Family – he took up scholarships in the USA and Canada, as well as studying for both BMus and PhD in Ulster, achieving a Doctorate in Music. Since then, his seemingly boundless energy has found him performing, launching his own recording label and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Greg Osby, Soweto Kinch, Jason Rebello, Jean Toussaint, Andreas Varady, Pino Palladino……

Any attempt to categorise the Irishman’s musical ingenuity is tricky, as he confidently skips across an array of genres, creating a melange of fresh, attractive new sounds – and such incisive blending is the key to the success of this third solo outing. Inviting musical friends and family to his album personnel… well, in lesser hands, it could have all gone horribly wrong – but there’s an incredible sagacity to Lyttle’s ten tracks of pop, jazz, soul, folk, rap and hip-hop which become both enchanting and irresistible.

The adventure is there to be discovered – but here’s a flavour… announced by romantic cello solo, jaunty retro pop/rap The Second Line grooves to Lyttle’s amiable vocals, soulful keys and perky snare. Like many of the compositions, Houdini bubbles with on-the-tip-of-the-tongue influences, here suggesting Jeff Lynne, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Keane and even a tinge of Alan Price’s (Simon Smith’s) ‘Dancing Bear’ – fascinating! A stand-out is the slow, gospel warmth of Seek, featuring the assured vocals of Anne Lyttle (David’s Mum) sustained by John Leighton’s evocative Hammond and pianist Jason Rebello’s perfect, crystalline sensitivity.

Rhea Lyttle (David’s sister) brings radio-friendly disco-pop to two numbers – Detour (including a sprinkling of Jean Toussaint’s soprano sax) and Game Boy, a Buggles-like teenage tale with rapping from Zane, coloured by Michael Buckley’s floral flute. Title track Faces is announced with mischievous “HAhaHAhaha”s from Cleveland Watkiss, whose characterful three-minute vocal/scat groove is a joy; and soft rap Lullaby For The Lost eases out to David Lyttle’s silky Fender Rhodes. Natalie Oliveri exchanges smooth soul voicings with rapper Homecut in To Be Free; and with the last word, Anne Lyttle presents homey, rocking-chair epilogue Perception to Meilana Gillard’s intimately-fashioned woodwinds.

‘Ready with that ‘repeat album’ setting?


Can of Worms
Can of Worms
Price: £7.08

5.0 out of 5 stars Y’see what 'appens when y’open a Can of Worms!..., 28 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Can of Worms (Audio CD)
Overflowing with writhing, jostling spontaneity, but with sufficient compositional structure to keep a lid on things, London-based saxophonist George Crowley’s new two-tenor quintet recording is a veritable powerhouse of creativity. His debut release, Paper Universe (Whirlwind, 2011), remains long in the memory as a jazz quartet recording of mature, unfettered exploration. Now, together with sparring tenor partner, the ever-chipper Tom Challenger, he constructs the formidable and foreceful front line of an energetic five-piece completed by Dan Nicholls (piano/Wurlitzer), Sam Lasserson (double bass) and Jon Scott (drums).

Crowley reveals that this band came into being for the purposes of a 2013 live gig, leading to the desire to develop and document the project’s clear success in a studio album – a shrewd and worthwhile decision, given the resulting sense of excitement, anarchy and strong musicality on show here. As composer of all seven substantial pieces, the leader never settles for the obvious, nor any half measures – he and his colleagues go all out for unwavering improvisation whilst recognising the strength of tight ensemble playing. And it’s fabulously earthy, ‘unputdownable’ stuff.

The Opener‘s agitated ten-minute expanse bristles to Jon Scott’s trademark clattering-yet-incisive drum rhythms, bolstered by Sam Lasserson’s babbling bass and Dan Nicholls’ typically brash, animated piano; and in amongst all this, tenorists Crowley and Challenger (one in each ear!) breathlessly duel it out – the combination of the written and the abstract quite thrilling. Nicholls’ uneasy ‘music box’ Wurlitzer announces Whirl, a broad, impudent affair featuring Challenger’s gruffness and Crowley’s screeching – yet the precise framework is always apparent.

Ubiquitous Up Tune in 3, with tricksily-timed sax riffs, is certainly ‘up’, and it’s a tribute to the directness of the engineering/mixing that its raw, live feel translates so well into recorded sound. The jarring major/minor blues of Rum Paunch is a joy, the two tenors either in unison (or thereabouts) or otherwise taunting each other, whilst Nicholls’ sneering, rippling piano almost encourages them in their outrageous discord.

Hard-swinging but nevertheless anarchic I’m Not Here To Reinvent The Wheel rolls deliciously to Lasserson and Scott’s fast pace, the reedsmen clearly revelling in its abandon (confirmed by the group cackles that follow its abrupt finish!). Terminal shuffles mysteriously to Scott’s intricacy at the kit and Nicholls’ magnificent Wurlitzer weavings, Lasserson’s relentless bass underpinning the broadness of the tenors’ extemporisations – such a glorious (and at times, cheeky) sound world; and, to close, T-Leaf rumbles particularly freely, though the fractured improvisations finally come together in absolute unanimity… lid well and truly sealed!

A triumph for George Crowley and his team.


Young at Heart
Young at Heart
Price: £17.18

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Impressive, feel-good Neil Young interpretations, 28 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Young at Heart (Audio CD)
Potentially sending seasoned Neil Young fans running for cover, Swedish songstress Ida Sand delves into the prolific songbook of the seminal Canadian singer/songwriter in this collection of thirteen jazz-inflected soft-rock interpretations.

But for those of us with only a vague recollection of Young’s influential early 1970s albums Harvest Moon and After the Gold Rush, or none at all, Sand’s soulful voice and piano celebrate selections from his classic output with attractive, sympathetic poise. Aided by a particularly polished core band – Jesper Nordenström (keyboards), Ola Gustafsson (guitars), Dan Berglund (acoustic bass), Christer Jansson (drums, percussion) – her guests include compatriot mentor (and producer here), trombonist/vocalist Nils Landgren.

Ida Sand explains that she places at least as much importance on lyrics as melodies, and has sought to retain the integrity of each of the chosen songs. That said, the richness and pitch of her voice (influenced by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Etta James), when compared to Young’s high range, colour the sound in a markedly different way; and gone is the prominent acoustic guitar timbre so characteristic of that transitional ’60s/’70s era. But what does remain is the timeless, innate strength of Neil Young’s writing, communicated in fresh, contemporary arrangements.

The album’s rock thread is maintained throughout by Ola Gustafsson’s beautifully sustained/effected electric guitars, as in opener Cinammon Girl – and there are frequent imaginative textures such as Dan Berglund’s crunchy arco bass and the wide tremolo of Jesper Nordenström’s Fender Rhodes (confirming that these are, by no means, insipid covers). Pondering the decades of musical ‘water under the bridge’ since these songs first saw light, there’s distinct post-prog, melancholic grandeur in Sand’s rendition of Hey Hey, My My; and the pop-soul ballad feel of Harvest Moon is a long way down the road from the original’s folksiness, especially with Per Johansson’s silky tenor sax interludes.

Other highlights include Ohio, translating Neil Young’s rawness into a fuller, electronic sound embellished by Nils Landgren’s echoic, Groove Armada-like trombone; and the mellow, organ-sustained simplicity of Helpless evokes the remnants of the golden ’60s. Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock is infectious, with strong backing vocals, flamboyant wah-wah guitar and wailing Hammond; and Crosby Stills Nash & Young number Sea of Madness is carried well by Sand’s impassioned vocal and full band rock-out.

Whether or not you have Young ‘at heart’, this is an unexpectedly fine release, and great fair-weather driving music – so retract the sunroof, turn up the volume… and hit the gas!


Let It Be Told
Let It Be Told
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterly, sunshiny, South African big band grooves, 28 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Let It Be Told (Audio CD)
It may appear an audaciously challenging project to pull off, arranging for big band the vibrant, unrestrained soundscapes of South African jazz. But then, from first-hand experience, saxophonist and composer Julian Argüelles is well placed to reinterpret the music of the townships as translated through the creative hearts and minds of their exiles.

As one who has been greatly influenced by South Africa’s considerable impact on European and British jazz – which had begun back in the ’60s with the Blue Notes’ exodus from the apartheid state – Julian’s early career thrived as a member of expansive, effervescent and much-lauded ’80s collective Loose Tubes (whose reunion debut became a highlight of last year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival). And, along with brother Steve Argüelles and Django Bates (pivotal Loose Tubers who both feature in this recording), his playing and composition became infused with that same joyful abandon and spontaneity, which also included the saxophonist’s five inspiring years with the Brotherhood of Breath big band led by Blue Notes pianist Chris McGregor.

For new release Let It Be Told, drawing on his experiences as both member and collaborator with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, Argüelles was able to write specifically for this line-up. The sumptuous arrangements here include a number of compositions from the original Blue Notes’ personnel, including Dudu Pukwana’s Mra Khali which opens the set in euphoric fashion – crackling with flamboyant percussion, evocative African guitar groove and snappy horn riffs, the leader’s rapid alto improvisations are typically eloquent.

Mama Marimba promenades assuredly, its closely-clustered brass harmonies encouraging adventurous trombone and tenor sax solos. The beautiful simplicity of Miriam Makeba’s Retreat Song ‘takes a left’ midway to produce an attractive syncopated groove featuring Django Bates’ unmistakable pitch-bent synth gyrations; and the lush, restrained orchestration of You Ain’t Gonna Know Me ultimately diverts its modest, folksy tune into an infectious beat which ripples to Bates’ signature ‘steel pan’ keys.

Wide African skies are conjured in a joyous reading of Pukwana’s Diamond Express as its rolls down the tracks to high trumpet (shades of Hugh Masekela) and Argüelles’ marvellously characterful, unpredictable alto (the hypnotic horn ensemble just magnificent). Abdullah Ibrahim’s much-loved The Wedding receives surely one of the most ravishing and emotional arrangements here as Argüelles’ serene, Zawinulesque abstractness precedes its hymn-like wonder; and with the entry of that most memorable of melodies (Bates adding ethereal synth), rapt admiration is the overriding response.

Following Chris McGregor’s Amasi – which, in his own arrangement, dances in glorious celebration – comes a particularly inspired interpretation of Ladysmith Black Mambozo’s Amabutho, which brilliantly captures the idea of cantor and choral response as Argüelles’ alto invites deeply satisfying deep reed harmonies and high brassy declarations – a very firm favourite. And to close, Pukwana’s Come Again parties elatedly to Steve Argüelles’ clattering percussion, ‘smiling’ unison horns, whistles and rocky guitar.

Argüelles says that South African jazz has “always had a wonderful balance between something accessible, melodic and grooving, and something challenging, a little bit crazy.” In his own personal way, he perfectly embodies that spirit in a rich, sunshiny big band recording which is both thrilling and, at times, surprisingly moving.


Time Pieces - Kyle Eastwood
Time Pieces - Kyle Eastwood
Price: £16.04

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars OK... I need to cut to the chase..., 28 Dec. 2015
…this album has me in raptures!

New release Time Pieces, from multi-bassist and composer Kyle Eastwood, fizzes to the joyous hard-bop spirit of the classic 50s/60s Blue Note era. And, interspersed with a couple of vibrant interpretations (Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver), it’s the pacey, original compositions here which beam particularly brightly. Long-term colleagues Andrew McCormack (piano) and Quentin Collins (trumpet, flugelhorn) are joined by Brandon Allen (saxes) and Ernesto Simpson (drums) in a quintet which is slick and intuitive, yet still coruscates excitingly throughout these ten numbers.

The make-up of Kyle’s jazz identity runs deep (as eldest son of legendary actor/director Clint Eastwood, the annual family outing to Monterey Jazz Festival would introduce him early on, and backstage, to greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald), and so his own music is imbued with that same vitality and passion. Take, for example, fast-swinging Caipirinha which opens the set, its Brazilian flavours coloured by Eastwood’s bass extemporisations – walk into a live room with this blazing, and I swear you wouldn’t glance once at your smartphone or contemplate leaving, such is the verve served up equally by all members of the band!

Horace Silver’s Blowin’ the Blues Away rattles along breathlessly to dazzling trumpet and tenor improv, plus typically effervescent piano from the brilliant Andrew McCormack; and a beautifully contemporary reading of Herbie Hancock’s Dolphin Dance (from Maiden Voyage) is illuminated by Eastwood’s melodic fretless bass, with Quentin Collins’ flugelhorn phrasings so pleasingly reminiscent of Freddie Hubbard. Prosecco Smile seems to be Hancock-inspired, rocking out to the tight, zingy fourths of trumpet and tenor, as well as Eastwood’s upright bass dexterity; and McCormack’s Vista burns slowly and mysteriously, its steady, crescendoing expansion allowing space for thoughtful soloing.

A mark of genius comes in the leader’s Peace of Silver, in memory of Horace Silver who passed away at the time of these sessions. Rather than an elegy, it suitably honours the great man’s memory and musical character in sprightly ’60s-feel, 5/8-dominated style (though also with a sensitive solo middle section from pianist McCormack, which seems to pay personal homage) – all in all, with an overriding feeling of ‘jazz standard’, it’s a winner.

Easily imaginable as a Kenny Wheeler big band arrangement, Incantation‘s ominousness is perpetuated by an ostinato piano-and-bass undercurrent, precisely embellished by Ernesto Simpson’s percussion; and, reminded of Eastwood’s accomplishments with big-screen soundtracks, the balm-like oriental solitude of his piano and fretless bass arrangement from movie Letters from Iwo Jima is quietly affecting. Nostalgique reflects wistfully with breathy flugel and sax against delicately picked electric bass and decorative piano before breezy closer Bullet Train swings with all the stature and vigour of a Johnny Dankworth special.

Time Pieces is ‘up there’ with the best.


Westerly
Westerly
Price: £12.51

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars OHHHHHHHHH!..., 28 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Westerly (Audio CD)
… and ohhhhh again…… to an exemplary and eagerly anticipated debut release from six leading lights of British contemporary jazz, collectively known here as The Printmakers.

Imagine the perfect vocal/instrumental sextet, and it might easily comprise Nikki Iles (piano), Norma Winstone (vocals), Mike Walker (electric guitar), Mark Lockheart (saxes), Steve Watts (double bass) and James Maddren (drums). Indeed, with a band name explained as a metaphor for the subtle variances in handmade printmaking, the combined artistry revealed in new album Westerly is as satisfying – in light, shade and hue – as any wander through a gallery of fine impressionism. Recorded amidst the painterly charm of the English Lake District, the compositional palette is beautifully balanced, and includes a trio of numbers by leader Nikki Iles with Norma Winstone as lyricist (a remarkable partnership).

The expansive ten-track sequence opens with a bubbling vocal interpretation of Ralph Towner’s A Breath Away, brought to life through Winstone’s authoritative storytelling – and immediately from this personnel there’s a sense of technical ‘safe hands’ and impassioned musicality. The lovelorn vocal of Under the Canopy (an Iles/Winstone original) delicately sambas to Mark Lockheart’s deeply-coloured bass clarinet and Nikki Iles’ trademark crystalline piano – a reminder of their rich contribution to Kenny Wheeler’s Mirrors; and Paul Simon’s jaunty I Do It For Your Love is whisked away into the most sumptuous of slow ballads, Norma Winstone bringing so much weight to Simon’s poetry (and here, as throughout the album, it’s the exquisite detailing which pleases – Lockheart’s subtle, characterful tenor and then Mike Walker’s illustrative guitar glissando on “the colours ran, the orange bled the blue”).

Impish improvisational colourwash precedes an airy rendition of John Taylor’s ‘O’ – strutting to dazzling, shared vocal and sax lines plus Lockheart’s own wonderfully demonstrative soprano creativity, its sunshiny and exploratory demeanour is irresistible. Nikki Iles’ Westerly is curiously imagined in Norma Winstone’s cryptically dark cowboy lyrics, evocatively portrayed through Iles’ accordion, Mike Walker’s pitch-bent guitar and bassist Steve Swallow’s campfire banjo tailpiece; and Winstone’s effortless vocal delivery confirms why she is one of British jazz’s national treasures. The same compositional duo produce lilting, Jobimesque Tideway, its brooding coastal atmospheres conveyed by woodwind breaths and guitar gull cries – at eight minutes, its easy to luxuriate in the broad guitar and tenor extemporisations and Winstone’s gliding lyricism.

The gems in this 68-minute treasure trove keep on turning up, Ralph Towner’s animated The Glide (as heard on Nikki Iles’ trio album, Hush) dancing to Winstone’s impressive high scat and Iles’ signature piano luminosity; and the obsessional story of Joni Mitchell’s Two Grey Rooms is quietly touching, the band supporting and enhancing its resigned lyric. In direct contrast, the Celtic feel of Nikki Iles’ High Lands tumbles and reels to wordless vocal and soprano sax, as well as soaring, rocky guitar from Walker and James Maddren’s pin-sharp flamboyance at the kit. To close, Steve Swallow’s countryfied The City of Dallas finds Winstone teasingly delivering the writer’s delightfully droll lines (“I hope the evening paper’s got a lot of good stuff-in-it… stuff-in-it”!) amongst a consummate-as-ever instrumental performance led by Mike Walker’s woozy guitar.

This, unquestionably, is chamber jazz whose elegance has to be heard to be believed, such is the shared empathy and depth of musical experience on show, all realised in a musical landscape that feels as magical as it is peerless.


All In
All In
Price: £12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Northern powerhouse!, 28 Dec. 2015
This review is from: All In (Audio CD)
Talk about Northern soul – these guys have it in three-storey-with-a-mezzanine-shed-loads!

Beats & Pieces Big Band have come a long way in seven years. From their tentative beginnings as Manchester students, through to their early EP and local gigs at Band on the Wall and the Royal Northern College of Music, they have developed a keen following which, on the basis of last year’s blazing Manchester Jazz Festival appearance, is swiftly on the rise. Their excellent 2012 debut album, Big Ideas, turned more than jazz heads, brought Jazz FM and Parliamentary awards, and prompted invitations to perform internationally.

Directed by enthusiastic composer, arranger and instrumentalist Ben Cottrell, and drawing big band comparisons such as Loose Tubes and Matthew Herbert (due to their infectious energy, use of electronics and an unorthodox, contemporary approach), 14-strong Beats & Pieces now release their much-anticipated follow-up, All In – a bristling statement of their current stature. Three powerful banks of three (saxes, trumpets and trombones) are completed by guitar, piano/Rhodes, bass and drums; and buried amongst the irrepressibly slick grooves, their quite-likely uniqueness is characterised by the occasional, endearing whiff of no-nonsense Lancashire colliery band (confirmed by the album’s tailpiece).

Collective influences include Gil Evans, Quincy Jones, Radiohead and Björk… so the resultant six originals and one interpretation (recorded essentially live in the studio) are both dynamic and even entertainingly perplexing. Opener Rocky blasts its way through the first three minutes with all the gritty verve of an extreme, full-throttle movie car chase – raucous and wayward, yet somehow together. Pop hits a relentless, rapid, ‘Can’t Hurry Love’ groove, with Nick Walters’ chattering muted trumpet and Anton Hunter’s guitar riding the swelling, crashing then ebbing wall of horns, whilst Patrick Hurley’s ostinato Rhodes impression of Rain is particularly effective, underpinning tight, reverbed, brassy arrangements before soloing freely.

Ten-minute expanse Havmann (‘the man from the sea’, inspired by Antony Gormley’s statue installation in Mo í Rana, Northern Norway) feels like a new departure; its piercing, semitonal, synth rise-and-fall seems redolent of early Genesis or Robert Fripp, with the icy, spiky urgency of the overlapping extemporisations perhaps echoing the Scandinavian fjords experienced by Cottrell. Originally composed for and workshopped by Norwegian band Ensemble Denada, its impressive slowly-building intensity glints to Graham South’s echoic flugel horn and cinemascope unison trumpets.

Hendo is classic B & P – all solid bass drum, swirling baseline, impudent wah-wah guitar, crescendoing blasts and Sam Healey’s typically flamboyant soprano sax. Revealed a few years ago at an RNCM gig, Ben Cottrell’s sultry New York-style reading of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance finds its place here. A great example of the director’s prowess with arrangements of the unexpected, its lazy demeanour erupts into funky Average White Band euphoria, complete with cheeky, rising James Taylor (Starsky & Hutch) quotation courtesy of Sam Healey’s alto. And so to close, the aforementioned miniature of misty, brass band nostalgia, Fairytale – so beautiful in hymn-like simplicity.

Long may this forward-thinking band continue!


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