Ahead of their time


Forty summers ago, the Allman Brothers album “Brothers and Sisters” was top of the charts, with “Ramblin’ Man” a hit single. Proof, surely, that the Seventies was not quite the musical desert many have made it out to be. For, while much of what the Allmans – in various guises – recorded later does not really stand the test of time, this album is a bold amalgam of styles that would still stand out if released today. No wonder, Universal Music wants to honour the anniversary by releasing it in a special boxed set.

The first of the four discs presents the original album, remastered and complete with “Ramblin’ Man”, the wonderful instrumental “Jessica” and various other takes on country and blues courtesy of the pens of organist Gregg Allman and guitar star Richard Betts. The third and fourth discs offer live recordings of the tour undertaken to support the album and supply further evidence of the band’s strengths as a live act, with lengthy jams to rival those of the Grateful Dead.

But it is the second disc that makes this set really worthwhile. At first glance, it is a collection of rehearsals and outtakes largely culled from sessions designed to familiarise the new band members – Chuck Leavell on keyboards and Lamar Williams on bass – with the members surviving the deaths of guitar super hero Duane Allman (during the making of the previous release “Eat A Peach”) and bass player Berry Oakley (in the early stages of the making of this record). But in reality it shows a band coming together almost like a crack jazz unit with each player given the space to perform without threatening the balance of the overall unit. Even now a band featuring only one guitarist but two keyboards and two drummers alongside a bass player would attract frowns; then it would have been almost revolutionary. And yet listening to these sessions, it seems to make perfect sense. The driving dense percussion kept together by a steady bass creates a solid foundation for the contrasting styles of keyboard playing and the soaring guitar solos.

The original record was one of my first purchases (I still recall hurrying home with my booty in a bag flapping from my bicycle handlebars) and has remained a firm favourite ever since. But this package has given it a new lease of life and should be appreciated by anybody fascinated by how blues and country (and a little jazz) can create stunning rock music. 

Still life in an old format

To most lay people, the saxophone is probably the quintessential jazz instrument. And yet, when you really think about it, the piano is at the heart of much of the innovation associated with the idiom. This is not the place for a lengthy history of the jazz piano, but just consider the contributions made by the likes of Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Lennie Tristano, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck and Ahmad Jamal, to name just a few.

Some have worked in solo and/or larger group settings, but many have chosen the trio format. And it is significant that this simple set-up, with the piano accompanied just by bass and drums, continues to inspire today. Even at a time when much of the invention in the music stems from the mashing of its more recognisable aspects with influences from rock and elsewhere. Artists as diverse as the group led by the late Swedish pianist Esbjorn Svensson, the US band The Bad Plus and Brad Mehldau have made some of the most interesting – and biggest-selling-  jazz records of recent years. Some of Mehldau’s recordings have even appeared under the label “The Art of the Trio”. 

The star of the show, though, remains Keith Jarrett. Although he has been hugely successful as a solo performer (his “Koln Concert” from 1975 is one of the biggest-selling jazz albums ever), it is as leader of the Standards Trio that he has really made his mark. Now in its 30th year, the band in which Jarrett is joined by Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums has just released its first album since 2009. In all honesty, “Somewhere” (ECM) cannot be said to break new ground. The band long ago set the standard – as it were – for mixing interpretations of the Great American Songbook with improvisation. But the album still shows the players to be at the peak of their powers, both as individuals and in their ability to play off each other. As such, it comes highly recommended.

Craig Taborn has come up through working with James Carter, Roscoe Mitchell and Tim Berne and is – on the evidence of “Chants” (ECM) – developing into a highly interesting performer in his own right. As with Jarrett, and indeed all great trio leaders, the other members of the trio are there as foils rather than just providers of a strong foundation. In fact, Taborn goes so far as to say that the music was developed with the bassist – Thomas Morgan – and drummer – Gerald Cleaver – very much in mind. The result is music that is less dense and not so loud as that associated with Berne, but still challenging and highly inventive.

Jim Blomfield – dubbed “the best British pianist you have never heard of” by one critic – has to date tended to play in larger bands, particularly those with a Latin bent. But on “Wave Forms and Sea Changes” (Pig Records) it as if he has been leading a trio all his life. Accompanied by Roshan Wijetunge on bass and Mark Whitlam on drums, Blomfield is just brimming with ideas, with driving rhythms juxtaposed with wonderfully lyrical passages. It is a hugely enjoyable recording that promises much.

Talking of promise, the US saxophonist Joshua Redman is often thought of as one of those players who has never really accomplished what was expected of him when he started out. And yet since the early 1990s he has produced a steady stream of varied recordings and performed alongside many of the greats. Indeed, the show with which he recently concluded a season as guest curator at London’s Wigmore Hall saw him joining the charismatic bassist Christian McBride in a staggeringly impressive demonstration of virtuosity combined with what looked like genuine humility and love of the music. 

That same reverence comes out in “Walking Shadows” (Nonesuch). On the face of it an orchestrated ballad album, the record is – thanks to the strengths of the participants (joining a cooking Redman are Brad Mehldau combining producing with playing piano; Larry Grenadier on bass and Brian Blade on drums) – much more than that. Yes, there are interpretations of standards (i.e. “Lush Life”) and – since Mehldau is involved – a little Lennon and McCartney, but there are also originals and takes on more contemporary material. A stunning line-up producing a varied and enjoyable set. Just what you are looking for.

Wise Beyond His Years

The music business has long been full of hype, gimmicks and other distractions. Fortunately, it also has a habit of throwing up special people who – often in the least likely of places – through a combination of instinct and hard work produce something lasting and worthwhile. One such example is Rick Hall, the man who drew such stars as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the Rolling Stones to a little-known corner of America’s rural South to make some of the most enduring records in popular music. Fans of r’n’b and soul are probably familiar with the basics of this store, but even they are likely to be mesmerised by a deceptively simple documentary film about him and the music he played such a key part in creating. Clearly, Hall was a man with great vision and – despite the privations of growing up very poor – not a little self-confidence, as demonstrated by the decision to call his music business FAME – for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises. He was also a stickler for detail – having a clear idea of what would and would not make a record work. All this from a man who still looks like a rather successful local farmer, while the musicians who made the sound look like – in the words of one visiting artist – they should be working in a nearby store rather than a recording studio. It is fascinating stuff and to see what all the fuss was about check out Ace’s typically thorough compilation “The Fame Studios Story 1961-1973”. Not that the story is over yet – the film concludes with Hall and many of his original collaborators in the studio with Alicia Keys, while Hall’s son, Rodney, continues to run a business producing current artists in a variety of genres.

Another case of musical lightning striking twice in the same unlikely spot is Okemah, Oklahoma. This unassuming place is the hometown of Woody Guthrie and of John Fullbright. Without wishing to tempt fate and ruin things for this young man in the way that has happened to so many promising talents in the past, the link is more than one of birth. Fullbright – to whom I was alerted by a discerning friend – sounds like a natural songwriter – one with the ability to come up with little epics that stop you in your tracks and beg to be replayed immediately. The recently-released “From the Ground Up” (Blue Dirt Records) contains at least three like that – “Jericho”, “Satan and St Paul” and “Moving” – and a load of others that are nearly as good. Although still very young, Fullbright – who accompanies himself on guitar, piano and harmonica and has a small band – appears to have soaked up lots of influences while still sounding fresh and original. In sound he is not dissimilar to Jason Isbell (a son of the Muscle Shoals area, incidentally), while there is also something of the young Steve Forbert about him. He recently completed a short tour of the UK, including a  brief appearance on Jools Holland’s “Later”, and – with luck – will return for a proper series of dates soon.

One man who definitely is touring is Chuck Leavell – pianist for the Rolling Stones, currently on their 50th anniversary world trip. Leavell contributed to some of the most memorable Allman Brothers tunes before co-founding the jazz-rock band Sea Level (two of whose long out-of-print albums have just been released) and occasionally released solo records in between session work with the likes of Eric Clapton, John Mayer and, of course, the Stones. As these gigs would suggest, he is steeped in the blues and on “Back To The Woods” (Cross Cut Records) he offers his own versions of tunes associated with some of the idiom’s finest pianists, including Memphis Slim, Otis Spann and Little Brother Montgomery. Although clearly a labour of love, the album is less a historical document and more a celebration of this wonderful form of music.

And despite what some might think, the music is alive and well – as evidenced by the new release from Charles Bradley, “Victim of Love” (Dunham Records). As with its predecessor, “No Time For Dreaming”, it sees Bradley accompanied by those stalwarts of New York’s Daptone scene, Menahan Street Band.  Great as the musicians are, the records, however, simply ooze with the character of Bradley, a man who has found his place comparatively late in life after years of performing as an impersonator of his idol, James Brown. He is clearly loving the experience. Make it worth his while by buying the records.

Late-night blues

It is no exaggeration to say that Madeleine Peyroux is one of the great stylists at work in the roots field today. Over a series of distinctive recordings, she has demonstrated an amazing ability to get to the heart of a song and give it her own unique feel, no matter the genre in which it began. The latest, “The Blue Room” (Universal), takes this skill to entirely new levels. Of course, it helps that she is accompanied by a band that includes such men of the moment as Jay Bellerose and David Piltch on drums and bass, along with Dean Parks on guitar and Larry Goldings on piano and organ. Then, there is longtime producer Larry Klein bringing his usual mix of taste and inventiveness and – to top it all – there are strings arrnaged and conducted by Vince Mendoza.

The material is pretty good, too. The album is said to have been inspired by Ray Charles’s “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music”, an album that outraged critics and sold by the truckload when it appeared in 1962. But “The Blue Room” is much more than a rehash of that seminal record. In an age when we have become used to genre-hopping there would be little point. But Peyroux has used the record as a launching point to explore similar story songs, notably Randy Newman’s “Guilty”, Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” and “Desperadoes Under The Eaves”, by the late great Warren Zevon. One of the finest story songwriters to grace rock music, Zevon used “Desperadoes” to close his near-perfect self-titled gem of a record with a stunning portrait of a despairing artist. But Peyroux finds new depths there. Even more arresting is her slowed-down take on the usually jaunty “Gentle on My Mind”, written by John Hartford and usually associated with Glen Campbell. A record for the ages. Peyroux appears at London’s Ronnie Scott’s at the end of April – unfortunately, not with this band, but she does have Steely Dan associates Jon Herington and James Beard along on guitar and piano respectively.

Guitarist Robben Ford is also not somebody to be easily pigeon-holed. First heard by this reviewer as the youthful guitar star of the LA Express when Tom Scott’s band accompanied Joni Mitchell on her wonderful live album “Miles of Aisles”, he moved apparently effortlessly between playing blues behind harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite and accompanying Miles Davis in his jazz-rock pomp. However, much of his work has been between these extremes, where he has essentially created his own niche in bluesy fusion. The new album, “Bringing It Back Home” (Provogue), despite starting with the Allen Toussaint number “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky”, is hardly a departure from that. However, there is a wonderfully original take on Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way” and, as always, some highly accomplished guitar playing. Moreover, Larry Goldings and David Piltch demonstrate why they are in such demand by appearing here as well as on Peyroux’s latest. Ford is also on tour later this month.

Time was when you could rely on The Fabulous Thunderbirds to “rip it up”. Not any more. The former wildmen of Texas have mellowed out. Well, to be truthful, most of the original members have left, meaning that only Kim Wilson is keeping the flag flying. And he has turned more soulful as he has grown older. “On The Verge” (Severn Records) sees him, flanked by twin guitarists Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller, a solid rhythm section and a whole host of horn players and backing singers, getting all righteous. But it works, most especially on “Too Much Water”.

For the roots of this – and many other southern rock sounds – try a recent compilation from the diligent folks at Ace Records. Released under the Kent Soul imprint, “South Texas Rhythm ‘n’ Soul Revue” collects two dozen sides recorded for the various labels owned by Huey Meaux by the likes of Johnny Adams, Warren Storm, Johnny Copeland and Barbara Lynn early on in their careers in the early and mid-1960s. Many of them sound rather different from how they did when they became better known – demonstrating perhaps that there is nothing new in versatility. As with most things, quality will out. 

Happy listening.

Roger Trapp

Top-class blue-eyed soul

A few months back, Curtis Stigers proved that attempts by pop singers to remake themselves as r’n’b men do not have to be misconceived. Produced by Larry Klein and featuring a host of star sidemen, including drummer of the moment Jay Bellerose, “Let’s Go Out Tonight” (Concord) is simply a wonderful record. Stigers’ vocals are just right, while – as you would expect of a stellar cast of musician assembled by Klein – the playing is superb. But, above all, Stigers demonstrates that when it comes to material, it does not matter where it came from, so long as the quality is there. Kicking off with Dylan’s modern classic “Things Have Changed”  was a real statement of intent and it is not let down by versions of Steve Earle’s “Goodbye”, Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper’s “Oh, How It Rained”, and “Chances Are”, by the rising alt-country singer Hayes Carll. Even a take of “You Are Not Alone”, the song Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy wrote for the the gospel album he produced for Mavis Staples, has a character of its own in Stigers’ and Klein’s skilled hands. 

However, masterful as this record is, it is nevertheless outdone by the latest from Boz Scaggs. The California-based maestro has, of course, enjoyed his own time in the pop limelight, thanks to those slick pop-soul recordings, like “Lido Shuffle” and “Lowdown”, he made in the Seventies. But before that he cut his teeth on blues and r’n’b under his own name and as a member of the Steve Miller Band. And it shows. “Memphis” (429 Records) is the latest in a series of highly-accomplished jazz and blues-tinged recordings that have appeared since he came back in the Nineties from a decade-long break from the business. The releases are sporadic – Scaggs has other activities – including an interest in a leading San Francisco music venue and a Napa Valley vineyard – but always classily soulful. “Memphis”, though, is a cut above. Recorded in the city’s Royal Studio (old stomping ground of the late Willie Mitchell), the record is a brave homage to the great man and those records he made with the likes of Al Green and Ann Peebles. From the moment Charles Hodges fires up the organ on the opening “Gone Baby Gone”, the listener is transported back to the heyday of Memphis soul. With Spooner Oldham also adding authenticity on a number of tracks, Scaggs and producer Steve Jordan are in good shape to make one of the most beguiling records of the year and possibly the most accomplished of Scaggs’s lengthy career. Not bad for a man in his 60s.

Among those adding their talents to the record is blues harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite, who just happens to have his own record out with Ben Harper. “Get Up!” – funnily enough – is released on Stax, a label also synonymous with Memphis. There the the similarities end, though. For, while the recording has some of the gospel stylings favoured by Harper, it is very much a hard blues record. This is perhaps surprising, given that Harper – the more soulful of the two – both produced and had a hand in writing all the material. Unfortunately, much of it is not as instantly memorable as that on Harper’s earlier efforts.

A lesson in how to do something different with the blues format is offered on “My World Is Gone” (Telarc) by Otis Taylor, a bluesman based in – of all places – Boulder, Colorado, For several years now, Taylor has been making records that set socially-aware lyrics against a musical backdrop he has come to term “trance blues”. The vocals are often closer to spoken-word than actual singing, but no less impressive for that. Like Scaggs, Taylor has taken his breaks from the music industry – he has been an antiques dealer and coached a bicycle team – but his music is, if anything, enhanced by the shift of focus.  From the arresting opening track “My World Is Gone”, Taylor will have you hooked.

Still cool after all these years

The weekend before the arrival in London of that phenomenal improviser Keith Jarrett is as good a time as any to revisit the artistry of the saxophonist and flautist Charles Lloyd. For both the star pianist and his long-serving drummer Jack DeJohnette cut their teeth playing in Lloyd’s band in the 1960s. At that time Lloyd rivalled perhaps only Miles Davis for his ability to turn rock fans on to jazz. Then he fell out of favour and was largely forgotten until turning up on the ECM label in 1989. He has been there ever since – making recordings with a variety of personnel that are always intriguing and worthy of repeated listening. Whether interpreting a jazz standard, tackling a folk tune or introducing an original composition, Lloyd always has something interesting to say. Never a full-on swinging hornman, Lloyd nevertheless is still capable of some spell-binding soloing that while not as ethereal as that of label mate Jan Garbarek, can still be somewhat otherwordly. What keeps Lloyd’s playing solidly in the jazz tradition, though, is the blues, which – as a Memphis-raised musician – is there almost by osmosis.

And on the latest recording, Hagar’s Song, this influence is as obvious as on any recent release. Accompanied just by Jason Moran, the prodigiously talented pianist from his current band who clearly has a great feel for the blues, Lloyd prods and probes his way through well-known material by Ellington and Gershwin as well as a tantalising version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and an interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” dedicated to Levon Helm, the recently deceased fellow southerner who was drummer-vocalist with The Band. (The seminal group that served as Dylan’s backing band not only recorded the original version of the song but was associated with Lloyd in his days as a jazzman with a rock audience.) But the centrepiece is the suite dedicated to Lloyd’s great-great grandmother, who was sold into slavery at the age of 10. The whole record is a delight, but this section is astounding – and all the more so when the creator is celebrating his 75th year. Lloyd is due in London in April and on this form should not be missed.

The same Ellington track – “Mood Indigo” – also features on the new album from British saxophonist Mark Lockheart. Indeed, this first album on his own Subtone label is – as its title (Ellington in Anticipation) implies – all about Ellington. Although this is something of a surprise, given Lockheart’s reputation as more of an avant-gardist through his membership of such outfits as Loose Tubes, Perfect Houseplants and Polar Bear, the concept is a great success. Accompanied by Polar Bear bandmates Seb Rochford and Tom Herbert in the rhythm section, pianist Liam Noble and others, Lockheart masterfully breaks down such Ellington classics as the aforementioned “Mood Indigo”, “Take the A Train” and “Creole Love Call” and reassembles them in a way that is both fresh and reverential.

The Ellington theme is also taken up by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who marks the 50th anniversary of the release of a noted collaboration between Duke, Charles Mingus and Max Roach, with Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue (Concord). With Gerald Clayton and Christian McBride taking the places of Ellington and Mingus, Carrington also enlists other well-known names, including veteran trumpeter Clark Terry, saxophonist Antonio Hart and singer Lizz Wright as well as Herbie Hancock (as the voice of Ellington) to make a record that, rather than being a mere tribute record, is a reminder of the timelessness of the themes. At the same time, although it begins with a no-holds-barred spoken word piece on capitalism parts of speeches by Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and others, the record is much more than a polemic. As is to be expected from the performers, there is a great musicality to the project.

Mirrors (Edition Records) does not have an Ellington connection as such. But it is a suite of the sort that he might have produced and it does feature two illustrious veterans – the great flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler and singer Norma Winstone. Wheeler wrote all the music as settings for poems by Stevie Smith, Lewis Carroll and WB Yeats and Winstone belies her years to sing with great verve. Support comes from a 24-piece choir, the London Vocal Project, and leading younger players, including Nikki Iles on piano and the already featured Mark Lockheart on saxophones. It is a wonderful record that is big in ambition and in execution – meriting comparison with some of those gospel-influenced albums of the 1960s produced by the likes of Max Roach and Oliver Nelson while also being entirely original. It is undoubtedly a highlight in the lengthy careers of Winstone and Wheeler, those stalwarts of the Euopean jazz scene.

Until the next time.


A review of Blues, Jazz, Americana and Related Roots Music in the South-east of the UK

January is not generally the best month in which to be assessing new music. But these are changing times in the music business. And so one of the most bankable acts in the Americana field – Buddy Miller (seemingly indefatigable despite his recent health issues) – has popped up with a fresh release. Teaming up with Jim Lauderdale, who must like double billing on account of his series of collaborations with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, he has come up with a hugely entertaining effort that belies the apparently little effort that went into making it. Recorded over three late-summer days in Miller’s home studio using many personnel familiar from the genre, “Buddy and Jim”(New West Records)  has a knockabout hillbilly charm. Whether playing traditional tunes, such as “The Train That Carried My Gal From Town”, blues and soul numbers like Jimmy McCracklin’s “The Wobble” and Joe Tex’s “I Want To Do Everything For You” or originals, Miller and Lauderdale sound like they are having the time of their lives – and so should we when listening.

Another duet recording is Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s sardonically titled “We’re Usually A Lot Better Than This” (Full Light Records). A collection of live recordings made half a decade ago at two benefit concerts for a school where O’Brien and Scott each had a child, the album is – not surprisingly – much better than the title implies. Or if the players really are below par on it, they must be spectacular when on form. Working through an amazingly varied set that ranges from Townes Van Zandt and Gordon Lightfoot to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell with a few of their own compositions thrown in, the two treat listeners to some fantastic picking and expressive singing. Folk music in its truest sense and at its best.

Jenn Bostic, on the other hand, is a new face on the Nashville scene. Brought up listening to Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt (a good a start as any), she is a big-voiced singer in the mould of, say, Martina McBride and so veers towards the poppier end of country. But she has strong songs and performs them with conviction, as demonstrated by a collection of awards and appearances on the BBC Radio 2 playlist. She performs a few UK dates next month before releasing her album “Jealous” the following month.

In the jazz world, one of the more intriguing performances will be by singer Tessa Souter at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club on 9 and 10 February. She will be performing music from her CD “Beyond The Blue”, which has attracted widespread attention, largely because of her interpretation of a Chopin prelude for the title track. She will be joined by a band that includes the always imaginative and tasteful pianist Lynne Arriale.

One of the pianists that Arriale reminds one of is the late Bill Evans. He – or rather an episode in his tragic life immediately following his seminal Village Vanguard recordings – is the subject of a captivating novel, “Intermission” by Owen Martell. I have reviewed it here – http://booksellercrow.typepad.com/the_bedside_crow/.

Until the next time …