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On The Wings of A Song…Siobhan Miller Takes Off On “Flight of Time”

October 19, 2014

10379725_831022046942843_7857338618227321914_oThis is getting ridiculous. I really don’t know what we’ve done to deserve so much wonderful music coming at us from all directions, and seemingly all at once. It must have been something really good, and probably in an unrecorded past life.

Flight of Time by Siobhan Miller is the latest work to soar high above the commonplace, and on this occasion it’s from a superb Scots voice supported by a stellar cast of gifted accomplices. More than that, it rises upon the thermals of some outstanding contemporary song writing, notably by James Grant, Ewan MacPherson and Miller herself.

If you don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of watching a grown man go weak at the knees then skip this review and just go buy the album. I guarantee that the small smidgeon of scepticism you nurture in your bosom will be blown away like cobwebs from a bitter, broken heart.

Flight of Time makes you feel like it was made just for you by sympathetic friends who understand all your cares, worries, anxieties and regrets. It gathers them up and selflessly absorbs them in sweeping melodies, clear-eyed ballads and brooding observations. DSC_6945_alt01Siobhan Miller is singer who has sprung from tradition, but seems able to jump musical fences at will. Her voice is direct and strong, and full of no-nonsense Scots character on the pacey If I Had Known and the syncopated Secrets and Lies. Both are self-penned songs that finely balance distance from the subject with intimate regard for thoughts and responses.

The overarching theme of the album is pretty clearly stated in the title, but the narratives are diverse and managed with startling versatility. Miller is singer’s singer who seems able to turn on a sixpence throughout a range of emotions on the most obviously powerful songs. On Scotland’s Winter, she brings a sense of yearning to Ewan McPherson’s passionate interpretation of Edwin Muir’s poem, which on the page seems more curiously resigned than anything else.

“No one’s really listening, no one really cares,” sings Siobhan Miller on Drowning Out The Sorrows in what must be the most unconsciously ironic couplet of recent times. You couldn’t help but listen with your ears pinned back, offering up your full and undivided attention to Miller’s consistently engaging song.

However, one thing is abundantly clear, and it ought to be a talking point in the coming months. James Grant is a well-established and highly acclaimed songwriter in Scotland. Miller has forged with him the kind of collaboration that produces songs to thrill you to the marrow. It’s a partnership made in heaven and I already want more. DSC_8099_alt01Grant’s Down in the Dandelions is the kind of song likely to produce audible gasps of amazement as it unfolds like a stop-motion film of meadow flowers opening up their faces to the sun. You know this is going to be a great song less than a minute in; the Prague Philharmonic is a big help of course, but to establish such a sense of anticipation from a standing start is the principal achievement.

On You Broke The Law, Grant’s affinity for refined Americana is filtered through Miller’s temperance in a piece of pure country by way of Penicuik. Scotland is truly more country than it cares to admit, but a Scots voice of Miller’s quality brings it out from the back bar and onto the concert platform.

But let’s get on to Sunset Steeples before you start to lose interest in my hyperbolic haverings. I’ve heard so many great songs in the last few years that I have to wonder not only where they’re all coming from, but how long it’s going to last. However, I’m not sure I’m going to be as surprised by my emotional response to a song anytime soon. Grant’s heart-tugging melody is enough to get the tears bubbling under, but the tremendous sense of time and place in the lyric and Siobhan Miller’s special voice will finish you off. I can think of a few songs that have induced such a Pavlovian response, but only a few.

Flight of Time is the kind of album so rich that reviewers will inevitably focus on different things. The orchestrations are deeply immersive, all the songs are excellent and Miller’s performances are often breath-taking. Perhaps someone else will talk about how No Butterflies is a beautifully-arranged, delicately-sung melody that re-positions Scots contemporary song writing in no other world than its own. If they don’t, then I can’t imagine what they get to do with their time.

Michael S. Clark

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The Descendants: Barkhouse claim their inheritance with Wolves at the Wall

October 10, 2014

tumblr_nd4jj8cDrM1ror0ldo1_1280I was dreaming of the past the other day as I listened to John Lennon singing Jealous Guy, and I began to think the unthinkable; that I’d really rather listen to something else. Often when I feel like this, bands like Barkhouse come along with things like Wolves at the Wall and say, “hey man, listen to this thing we made”. It’s always a shock. I can never quite get over how material this good is presented with so much humility.

Barkhouse are the blue-collar rock band from Brooklyn you never thought possible in an age of britches ‘n’ braces and beards ‘n’ banjos. They play full-blooded contemporary rock music and they are among the few genuine descendants of a long gone aspirational rock n roll intelligentsia. I’ve written about them before and they’ve grown so much with each new offering that they’ve since hewn their own sound from the face of rock.

The songs are the work of mature minds that have worked out what makes something demand attention. The arrangements have power, narrative, feel, dynamic and controlled aggression, but the songs are full of soul that steps straight in off the sidewalk and lays it down in the studio. tumblr_mw9knymC9S1ror0ldo1_1280Will de Zengotita always threatened to be an amazing singer. Now he’s made good on that promise with vocals that are every bit as arresting as soul greats like Gary U.S. Bonds or white rock icons like Joe Strummer. People will sue, people will want to kill me, but Will’s voice is one you cannot ignore. On the title track, he’s taken a big hammer to the wall and reduced it to pile of rubble in a breakthrough performance.

Wolves at the Wall is a tense tune that begins with some tentative keyboard punctuation that quickly gets stomped on by a thumping backbeat that makes you smile fondly. It’s because you suddenly remember the Fun Lovin’ Criminals running around robbin’ banks. Throw in some spiced up guitar and red raw, slightly paranoiac vocals and you have an instant jukebox classic.

The keys are evocative once again on the gentle opening stanza of Twice a Day before it bursts out of its introspection into mid-tempo, funked-up slice of dancefloor syncopation. On this tune and Getting Away, Will shows he has the tender to go with the tough, but these are not simplistic, routine ballads. Barkhouse have developed curiously idiosyncratic ideas about arrangements and the surprise twists are delivered with smart timing. maxresdefaultOh No! is a full-throttle thrash fest as if they felt the need to create their own punk/rock split personality, a bit like a no-good brother come home to play with the instruments while they have to work for a living. It has almost suicidal energy (a punk leitmotif), but then again Barkhouse always brought a lot to the table. Now they bring everything…and nothing got left on the cutting-room floor except blood, sweat and tears.

Getting Away is nifty, hooky and infectious with a popular pop narrative about escape – a theme we can all warm to as the planet gets smaller, nastier and a bit more claustrophobic all the time. Yet, the Barkhouse compendium of pop stories also contains completely credible plots and personalities, and lyrically the songs are reassuringly articulate and modern.

Then there’s Stay, which is quite frankly, a little bit special. Those ever so slightly retro electric piano notes are garlanded around another outstanding vocal that combines the passionate man, the tender guy and the tough cookie all in one performance. The song builds round a sophisticated little melody, but it’s interrupted by an interesting response/refrain from an alternative voice that offers memorable synchronicity. As the song reaches its climax Zengotita keeps firm control where the less savvy (or Sinead O’Connor) might have succumbed to melodrama. Barkhouse have moved on from intuition to design and they have produced an exceptional set this time around.

In the rock mansions on the country estates in the quiet shires, it’s the old grey wolves who will surely be running scared that one day their musical descendants will come to claim their inheritance. These new Barkhouse songs are compelling evidence that at least one band can produce DNA that constitutes a credible match.

Michael S. Clark

10.10.14

Wolves at the Wall is released on 18th November 2014

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The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) directed by Tommy Smith with special guest Bob Mintzer: The Music of Yellowjackets at the Caird Hall, Dundee 27.9.14

September 28, 2014

photoIs there such a thing as feelgood jazz? Isn’t jazz an earnest kind of music where everyone sits around deep in reverential thought while musicians arm-wrestle with their own psyche. If it is, then no one’s told the SNJO or Bob Mintzer. Last night they served up a hot dish of highly palatable modern music that was certainly jazz and absolutely made you feel good.

Tommy Smith in the pre-concert talk with Bob Mintzer described the music of Yellowjackets as “optimistic” and it’s a good word to use when describing one of the best-loved and most enduring quartets in world jazz. Bob Mintzer is the Yellowjackets saxophonist with more than thirty years service under his belt, and he remains brightly positive about making music that all too often has to make a case for itself. Mintzer is however at a considerable advantage for his ideas about melody happily square with the common man’s idea of a really good tune.

The first three numbers of the show, all Mintzer melodies, are the kind that embed themselves in the musical part of your brain that usually remains dormant until you find yourself humming them in the car. When The Lady Dances is typically infectious, although it swings rather than sways in this big band arrangement. Aha! is probably the best theme music ever composed for an imaginary spy movie that inexplicably never got made. Mintzer is undoubtedly a populist at heart and his March Majestic is a loose-limbed perambulation through the historic quarter of New Orleans.

Mintzer’s tunes and arrangements are deftly scripted narratives with a distinct story arc, but a lot of the music begins in earnest when the soloists step up to improvise against a richly textured orchestral backdrop. Those first three numbers intriguingly featured trombone solos that were quite different in character and as individual as the player’s respective personalities. It’s also enormous fun to watch Mintzer direct the band. He’s a big band leader in his own right, and his gestures are a bit like those of an unflappable football coach who knows exactly what works and when to turn it up. As a soloist on tenor sax he’s very much the voice of experience and his undoubted dexterity and speed is at every point in touch with the soulful feel that has come to inform much of Yellowjackets finest moments. bob-mintzerThere’s a break in the momentum as pianist Steve Hamilton weaves a wonderful intro into Everything Happens To Me. It’s sweet tune and Calum Gourlay brings a very soft touch to his bass solo in an arrangement that gives him a chance to show great delicacy and legerdemain.

The SNJO rarely closes a first set with anything less than scorching finish. Mintzer’s Runferyerlife, a Yellowjackets crowd-pleaser, was a suitably frantic, fantastic, frenetic, fast n furious barrage of notes blasted into the air. Tommy Smith on tenor was on blistering form, adopting a brusque style that contrasted interestingly with Mintzer’s deceptively easy manner. Tom McNiven on trumpet pushed notes to the edge of human hearing, and no doubt there were dogs going crazy four blocks away. Alyn Cosker on drums seemed to be having a quiet night until he made up up for lost time with a thunderous solo that made the knees tremble and the eyes water.

In the second half Freedomland came with layered emancipation as Tom Walsh broke out on trumpet and saxophonist Martin Kershaw, enjoying a bit of extra elbow-room on the arrangement, found himself free and clear.

Somehow, among all these different voices Mintzer emerges as a something of a leveller with the kind of gentle authority that holds the attention. On a recent tune, Civil War, Mintzer’s undoubted craft and the orchestra’s appreciative understanding shone through. Aside from the funk-fortified Why Is It? and Like Elvin (marked by a playful time signature and super piano and bass solos) it’s seductive melody that remains the king of the hill in the world of Yellowjackets.

Evensong is one of Russell Ferrante’s most bliss-inducing songs and it’s tailor made for the happy couples in the audience who are holding hands and getting to know one another on that third or fourth date. It epitomised Tommy Smith’s earlier observations about the sanguine nature of Yellowjackets music, and the SNJO’s resident soul man Konrad Wiesniwski, with a scintillating tenor solo, was clearly in his element. Moreover, with Steve Hamilton contributing some free running piano there was some soul-stirring vernacular jazz and some Ramsey Lewis chords thrown in for good measure.

The double-quick encore of Go-Go coursed fast and loose and then it was time we all went-went out into an unseasonably warm September night. It was jazz, and by all accounts, it made you feel good.

Michael S. Clark

28 September 2014

Monochrome Photograph by award-winning photographer Derek Clark

 

 

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“Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.”
― Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance

 

“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be…”
― William Wordsworth

 

Time and A Few Words

September 28, 2014

Sense and Sensibility: Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker mark the time on Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour

September 28, 2014

a2054563202_10Earlier this year, I was granted the privilege of an advance hearing of a very fine album in the making. It had all the hallmarks of a daring undertaking that suggested an encouraging appetite for risk. Listening now to Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour a few days before its official release, its credentials as a modern classic seem inescapable. Nothing so carefully thought through or invested with so much consideration could be anything else.

Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour is the third album by Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker whose stepwise progress to this point has been less to do with karma than craft and graft. The result, amongst a beautifully balanced set of polished songs, is a new beginning for sophisticated orchestral folk music and cultivated contemporary song.

Grainger, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Finzi opened our ears to elevated interpretations of English folk music and gave us some of the most evocative music ever made. English folk music on the other hand, has seemed reluctant to take up their offer, until now. banner_jcbwThe singular aim of Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour seems to be to bring the sensibilities of classical music to bear upon the good common sense of English folksong and the modernity of Clarke’s original songwriting. That aspiration is clearly flagged in the opening bars of Silverline as Ben Walker’s string arrangements pluck their way into a formidable curtain raiser to a strong narrative around time’s unswerving arrow.

Walker’s ideas are those of a pattern maker who stencils his adjustments and adornments into the strong imagery created by Clarke’s melodic design. Her songs are now more than assured, they are the product of a crystal clear vision and a firm grasp of structure. But there is something else. On songs like Tangled Tree and Earth, Ash and Dust she brings deep expression in a range of sombre, de-saturated colours. The prevailing mood is one akin to the kind of introspective internal discussion that takes place at the ending of things, like a postscript to an affair or the death of frustrated ambitions.

The pensive fin de siècle thematics are balanced out by the pale sunlight of brighter songs like Moving Speeches which takes an autumnal drive through an Americana-esque landscape somewhere between the Dutch barns of Pennsylvania and leaf-littered Connecticut. Ben Walker is a wonderful guitar player who can conjure up aural pictures with flair and panache. Increasingly, he has chosen to sketch in light and shade rather than slap effect-laden gouache in the spaces between verse and chorus.

His work always serves the song and between them Clarke and Walker have a found a deep well of song. Alongside Josienne Clarke’s original compositions there are old folk gems that are handpicked to shine in the in these newly fashioned settings. Let No Man Steal Your Thyme is as bright eyed and self-aware, as Queen of Hearts is mournful and fatalistic. On the latter Clarke, finds the pit of despair in an arrangement that could readily be described as a folk lachrymae.

The marriage between contemporary songwriting (forged in a smithy near an imaginary village green) and lush, sophisticated orchestration has produced relatively few truly memorable albums. Sandy Denny’s Old Fashioned Waltz is one, but even that lovely memory is spoiled when you listen back to a pretty gauche take on the Inkspots’ Whispering Grass. Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour is in fact the complete article full of intent to dwells on the melancholic remembrance of things past rather than Denny’s disaffection with disappointing humanity. As such the gut level emotion of visceral folk song performance guides ensemble strings, assorted trumpets, recorders and even a saxophone through the uncertainties of the English soul. 9024_CkFFm8Nevertheless, the most important thing that the album signals is Josienne Clarke’s astonishing development as a songwriter. She has grafted lyrical directness to melodic depth and planted both of them in Walker’s rich, fertile arrangements. Mainland is eerily elegiac, A Simple Refrain is superbly to the point, the aphoristic It Would Not Be A Rose is effortlessly engaging while Now You Know is delicate, precise and quite inspired. Along with Water To Wine, these songs represent the flight-path cleared by earlier tunes such as After Me and Anyone But Me form their previous album Fire and Fortune.

These songs easily match and, in some instances, rise above the benchmarks set by others who’ve gone before. However, it really is time to set aside all but the primary sources of English song and revel in the fresh contemporary voices who, without major label support or promotion, are investing artistically, personally, financially and heavily in its future.

Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour is an ambitious and assertive contribution to the English folk stream, while many would rather not risk getting their feet wet. Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker have rather bravely produced an album that is an achingly beautiful, deeply sincere and richly rewarding experience for anyone who believes that English song, far from dying, is in the midst of a new Renaissance.

Michael S. Clark

28 September 2014

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Zoë Wren Lifts the Lid on a Box of Delights

August 22, 2014

252156_173744062699207_2065371_nIt takes an especially strong new voice to rise above the general hubbub of the current English folk song flashmob, but there’s a sort of inevitability about the way that clarity prevails over clamour. I first heard Zoë Wren’s voice in the very early days of Instrumental and I had not forgotten it. On Pandora’s Box, she debuts impressively with a five-song set that showcases a maturing voice and songs that have depth to match their indisputable charm.

If you are already conjuring up a cloudy image of a winsome folkette with wispy tunes and the disposition of a delicate flower, then let me dispel that waking dream of yours. Zoë Wren is, arguably, very young to be treading the boards in the folk dens of London town, but not too young to write songs like those contained in Pandora’s Box. They are indicative of a personality with patience to learn a craft, but one that also has the quick wit to bend it to a purpose. Wren has made these songs as a playwright might construct a play, and it’s this visible architecture that will make people stop, look and listen.

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She accompanies herself ably on guitar with relatively few overdubs and embellishments, but they are always apposite; like the vocal backing adornments on the wry, dry Fever 45, the brooding Pandora’s Box and the assertive A Moment’s Madness. The title track, Pandora’s Box, is a particular treasure that contains nicely measured guitar and a spacious arrangement for the dark lyric and her expressive voice to penetrate.

On Just A Song Away, her singing is framed with the same simplicity that could often be heard in the songs of Jim Groce and Ralph McTell. In many ways, hers is a womanly voice that brings an air of authority to the intelligence of her melodies, and that, I think, is where this conspicuous lucidity comes from. Natalie Merchant had similar qualities when singing for 10,000 Maniacs and they very evident in Wren’s delivery of A Moment’s Madness. For me, these are standout tracks because they are modern folk-like melodies that are as true to themselves as they are mindful of their musical heritage.

Tale of an Oak Tree hugs the English folk tradition close to its heart but there is no danger of suffocating it with sentiment. The tale of a small bird evicted from its home by the destructive arm of progress is sweetly sad without being twee. Like all good folk songs it’s too sincere to be ridiculed and too direct for it’s serious point to be missed.

The songs are melodically convincing and frankly, I expected no less. Wren has been singing so well on stage that her ability transmits above the babble-infested festival footage on You Tube. In the studio, her voice was always going ring out around the room. What is unexpected is the self-evident ambition in these tunes. They way they are built is the difference between a paddle-boat on a municipal pond and something that could easily put to sail on the open sea. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Zoë Wren already has plans for much grander designs in the not too distant future.

Michael S. Clark

August 2014

Pandora’s Box is out on 15th September on Folkstock Records

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Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity. A film by Dorothy Darr and Jeffrey Morse

August 18, 2014

charles_lloydAnyone who remembers the birth pangs of poplar music documentary will know that the slide into cliché is the beartrap of all visual biographies. There are few things more cringeworthy than Dylan the Superbrat in Don’t Look Back, posing and preening like a chain-smoking, beatnik Raymond Chandler in a smoky Chelsea Hotel. This film biography of Charles Lloyd from 2012, now released on DVD in the UK, is about an adult jazz musician who is an inherently interesting subject, and it is he who saves Arrows Into Infinity from its own self-consciousness.

As a loving memoir of an interesting life that has been marked variously by artistic success, considerable fame, self-imposed obscurity and the boundless energy of the creative mind, it’s a good job well done. Lloyd’s wife Dorothy Darr and co-director Jeffrey Morse stick faithfully to the chronology of Lloyd’s robustly continuing life and the trajectory of his musical arrows into the unknown. But the most memorable moments come when Lloyd is speaking for himself. That’s because he is genuinely witty, observant and candidly self-effacing. If you had any questions to ask Charles before the start of this film then be assured that he answers them all without fear or favour.

Lloyd is famous for many things including his startling arrival with Cannonball Adderleys Sextet, his own ground breaking quartet, making the first million selling jazz album with Forest Flower, and for disappearing off the face of the earth at the height of the hoopla. Well, almost.

Lloyd retreated into an almost hermit-like existence when he acquired a property at Big Sur but a string of visitors, collaborators, house guests and friends from actor Burgess Meredith to Michel Petrucciani and drummer Billy Higgins suggest that he wasn’t exactly incommunicado. Neither was he a wholly reclusive personality who shrank from exposure, for there is plenty of film footage that testifies to his strength of character. It seems like pretty clear thinking that led him to decline his record company’s offer to work on a conveyor belt producing jazz gold. Yes, drugs were involved, and that also affected his focus, but he was aware enough to know that he was on the wrong path musically as much as he was off the rails in his personal life.newsLloyd’s move may have shocked many but the California coast offers an idyllic setting and it’s clearly a place to find solace. Lloyd repeatedly says so himself and explains with seemingly endless patience the reason why. If I can articulate it then I guess I would have to play it, says the septuagenarian saxophonist, but he found it impossible to hear himself think in the bedlam of an increasingly pressurized music industry. Like many jazz musicians before and since, Lloyd is a seeker, first and foremost of the sound, and just as importantly for an accord with oneself. In the interview segments he often closes his eyes when he speaks, as if he still needs to shut out the world in order to organize his thoughts. When he does find the words they are laced with an endearingly back-dated hip-speak, and a deeply sincere honesty. He doesn’t sound to me like a man who’s been hiding from life or from himself.charles-lloyd-posterThe film tends to dwell on the important episodes in Charles Lloyd’s musical career, not least his crossover appeal to rock audiences in the mid to late sixties, concerts in the Soviet Union that inadvertently politicized his jazz identity and jamming his way past musical checkpoints with the likes of The Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys and The Band’s Robbie Robertson. It’s strange to say, but the longer the film stays in those places the more Lloyd himself fades from view. This is especially true when the HBO-style testimonials are in full flow. The river of effulgent praise is no doubt deserved, but these talking heads are not the subject, and Lloyd is fascinating enough in himself to carry his own story. He’s like one of those great movie actors who are so compelling that nothing much seems to be happening when they aren’t on the screen.

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The film begins with Lloyd telling the tale of how he was born in a flood as Sam Cooke’s inimitable gospel soars over an image of rising water. Compare that to the iconic image of Lloyd sitting alone on a promontory overlooking an inlet. This tells you all you need to know about a man who swam against the tide, but made it to higher ground and inner peace. Much of that calm comes from spiritual education and meditation, but you sense that it has as much to do with his sense of duty to jazz. He says he felt, “a debt to the tradition” to get himself back together, and the mental strength required to walk away is manifest in the fortitude to return.800px-Charles_Lloyd,_with_Reuben_Rogers_&_Eric_Harland,_Santa_Barbara_9-2006,_Image_by_Scott_WilliamsIn this respect, Lloyd hasn’t just made a comeback. He stormed through the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s like a man very much making up for lost time. A string of seventeen ECM albums testifies to the supportive philosophy of Manfred Eicher’s famous label, but they also speak to Lloyd’s physical strength (“I can blow hard when I want to”), and the quality of his choices and recent collaborations.

Arrows Into Infinity is also worth seeing for the most recent concert footage from the present decade, for it’s the man at work you end up craving to see. In performance, Lloyd shows how jazz can shed its own clichés and refine itself through perpetual reinvention; usually captured in the moment like a prism refracting light in a droplet of water. Perhaps that’s why he chose to live by the ocean.

Michael S. Clark

August 2014

Arrows To Infinity is out now on ECM DVD

 

 

 

 

 

You Know You Want It. The Alarms Give You Real Tough Love.

August 8, 2014

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If you want to hear authentic British Invasion era pop music fortified by refined rock ‘n’ roll born and bred in the USA then wake up. The Alarms are ringing and they demand your attention with Real Tough Love, the band’s debut CD released this week. This is pop for the purists – bristling with urgent guitars, impassioned vocals, densely packed arrangements and harmonic intelligence.

Of course, no amount of YouTube trawling is sufficient to explain the knowingness that threads through these ten short, sharp songs. The Alarms frontman Robert Gay is steeped in pop ‘n’ roll history to the extent that his studies never look likely to ever be completed. We’ve exchanged messages in the past, and his obscure objects of musical desire are sourced from the deepest vaults of pop history. My recollection of sound and vision from the last few decades are sketchy by comparison.

May My Heart Be Cast Into Stone – The Alarms ↑

So, there’s a lot of stuff going on up there in that head of his. But what to do with it? That’s the question. Well, the answer in this case is to draft in some buddies who are on the same wavelength and make an album of smart songs with the spirit of radio very much in mind. That being the case, The Axe makes for a perfect opening track to cut through the BS and get straight to the heart of the matter. The spacey melody may be borne high on a wave of guitar in a world of floating bass and deep drums, but its moptop credentials are semaphored from a discreet distance. However, the challenge being met here is not primarily one of credible tribute. The tone that’s set is one of immediacy, as if these tracks had to be laid down quickly in order to preserve their energy and vitality.

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I am listening to the album as I write, and I like it even better than I did when I first heard some sneak previews back in March. A secret is safe with me, but some are harder to keep than others, and this one wasn’t easy at all. Break It To Me Easy is simply a great live-sounding band performance of a fervent plea pitched with just enough angst to be slightly disturbing. Anything more would be parody and The Alarms show plenty of maturity to go with a wee wild streak. There’s a clash of post-punk guitar marching through Make It Better contrasting quite sharply with devastating pop melody in May My Heart be Cast Into Stone in the cleverest (and sincerest) arrangement I’ve heard in a while.

It’s worth flagging up here that Gay and his alarming friends understand the most profound rudiment of great pop writing and performance that others ignore at their peril. Do not bore the listener. That applies to the arc of the song as much as the balance of the set, and they get top marks for grabbing the attention and keeping a firm hold of an all-too easily distracted audience.

The Alarms hail from Nashville where the diversions are legion and you’d think that even in the city’s much-vaunted, diversified music scene it’s still real tough to be a rock band in a country town. Perhaps that’s why the high impact, head-on rock tunes are offset by some equally powerful balladry. The Only One and The One You Can’t Replace perhaps recall a more romantic MTV era where people still held hands rather than gave each other ultimatums at gun-point. The songs are from a McCartney-esque recipe book and, if they were cakes, they’d come drizzled with Brian Wilson’s slightly detached romanticism.

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Avalon is very much a Robert Gay song in that it comes from a deeper place than mere affection for the form. He has a soulful voice that is sometimes wrapped up in the swirling arrangements, but here he’s able to articulate the abstract through an ether of instrumentation. Along with May My Heart Be Cast Into Stone, it’s one of the strongest songs on a record full of muscle-bound music.

Famous Kids is punchy, but Real Tough Love is the heavyweight song that slugs it out at the end leaving Gay audibly exhausted; much in the manner of Lennon pushing himself to the breaking point on Twist and Shout. The Alarms deserve a pair of golden gloves for this record, having scored on points long before this knockout final track. Most of all they prove that when it comes to full-on rock n roll, there are no passengers and no half-measures.

Michael S. Clark

August 2014

The Alarms are (and have been):

Robert Gay
Anthony Jorissen
Zachary Robinson
Brady Surface (2010-2014)
Stephen Puckett (2010-2013)

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Rosanne Cash with John Leventhal at Perth Concert Hall for Southern Fried 27.7.14

July 29, 2014

IMG_6295One reason why roots music speaks so loudly to so many souls is the way that it calls out to our sense of self. Nothing has real meaning or direction without a point of departure, a place of origin and time-fix that pinpoints the start of life’s journey. Sometimes, quite often in fact, that journey leads right back to place you started from, and you realize that it’s the travelling that matters more then the perceived destination. This is the story that Rosanne Cash shared with a rapt full house at Perth Concert Hall on Sunday night, as she looped her way around the Delta lands with intimate music, and an even more intimate lyrical narrative.

As a seasoned performer, she chose the obvious charm of Modern Blue to get an expectant, on-side audience settled in their seats. It’s a natural sounding songwriters song with an adult grasp of chorus and mature balance in its measured verse. It also gives a country twist to contemporary disaffection that tells us she’s an urbane, witty and observational woman. Relaxed in jeans and sleeveless knitted cardigan, they love her right away. “This is my motherland and I’m very happy to be here.” She announces without irony. We believe her. She’s one of us.

Much of the material she presents is from her most recent album The River and the Thread, but it’s evident early on that this is no promotional showcase. She’s here to relate in narrative and song lines the chapters in a songbook that delves into Cash family history, social change, economic realities and challenging landscapes. On The Sunken Lands, Cash the essayist introduces the song and merges seamlessly with Cash the songwriter as she articulates an absorbing litany of hardship in an unforgiving place. IMG_6215The conversational tone is set, and the evening takes on the feel of a book group discussion as she explores the depth of unspoken understanding on Ettas Tune, a heartfelt memoir of lifelong love. Speaking of which, Cash is accompanied on guitar and piano by husband of nineteen years John Leventhal. He’s a tall lean, grey-haired empath who picks a firm flat top and whispers gently in her ear. They are darlin’ companions, and we are no longer in the concert hall, but in their front room.

Cash, introducing The Feather’s Not a Bird, talks about travelling with Leventhal through the delta lands “going to different places in order to research this album” but its documentary credentials are already established. Still, it’s a pivotal song on the record and central plank for something really quite new; a literate roots-based music with a vocabulary to match expressive ethnicity. More importantly she has the storyteller’s persuasive gift of keeping you listening. She sings about the linear paths of life’s journey and the circularity of experience with authority and, more importantly, credibility.

Away from The River and the Thread she takes time here and there to visit one or two of the hundred songs that father Johnny Cash recommended to her, twenty of which she recorded on 2009’s The List. She and Leventhal breeze through I’m Movin On and Motherless Children where the tall guy’s guitar playing shines particularly brightly. Cash elegantly dons the oft-covered Long Black Veil, a murder ballad that pleads for a good narrator and is rewarded with Cash’s tender treatment of an utterly timeless melody. “That song sounds so Scottish to me…so brooding….like you do so well”, she teases. Then later, there’s Ode to Billie Joe, related as if we’re sitting across the kitchen table from her as she pieces the whole horrible tale together. Leventhal’s accompaniment is spare and lightly punctuates each carefully enunciated sentence. Cash is good; her vocal range is fully exploited and she’s getting better as the show goes on. IMG_6330The songs she chooses from Black Cadillac, to my mind, stand out with greater clarity in arrangements condensed to their point of creation around sparse instrumentation. Leventhal, the easy-going bespectacled rock in her life is guilty of some beautiful guitar, and he follows in her step as she peeks into one of her finest songs The World Unseen. There is also wonderful imagery to behold in Dreams Are Not My Home as she dwells upon “The note that hangs in the gilded hall, the clanging of my empty rooms.”

There are more subtle connections between the songs as she revisits September When It Comes a song from Rules of Travel that featured John Cash, and is here transposed by Leventhal to an engaging parlour piano setting. Returning to The River and the Thread there is the enervated 50000 Watts which refers to WDIA, the Memphis radio station of choice for the Sun artists who shaped contemporary rock n roots music. IMG_6246There are more historic musical connections made as she retells the story visiting Robert Johnson’s grave, in a place where the blues were born and almost a stone’s throw from Gentry’s Tallahatchie Bridge. The song she sings speaks to the shocking smallness of the geography and the intensity of life on Money Road. She is not afraid however to author a re-imagined family history placing antecedents in the context of a civil war ballad on When the Master Calls the Roll. On the record it features a full band and a small crowd choir of famous names. Here it’s stripped down but it’s not completely bare and loses nothing as a folk song rather than a hymnal.

If it all sounds a bit learned then don’t be misled. On Tennessee Flat Top Box she is almost coquettish while Leventhal hams it up on guitar. It comes across as a husband and wife in-joke in a Johnny and June moment of unconscious imitation. On Seven Year Ache and the second encore song Heartaches by the Number the jukebox credentials and rockabilly chops were a timely reminder that southern-born Rosanne Cash may now be a metropolitan woman, but she’s still a country girl in her warm heart and very generous soul.

Michael S. Clark

July 2014

All Photographs by Gavin McLaughlin Photography

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John Fullbright at Southern Fried Perth 27.7.14

July 29, 2014

IMG_6210The programme for Perth’s Southern Fried Festival seemed hesitant to give much away about John Fullbright, who opened in some style for the headlining Rosanne Cash. Describing him as an artist who is “not folk, not Americana and not pop” certainly helps to avoid typecasting them, but it means there is little indication of what precisely is to come, as the concert hall fills to the brim with Americana devotees. As it turns out, anyone unfamiliar with Fulbright and his growing reputation should expect only the unexpected.

He ambles onstage with an acoustic guitar and opens immediately with a very direct and unadorned love letter Until You Were Gone. By the time he’s done, it becomes clear how the mysterious nature of that vague description might arise. Fullbright straddles the fine lines between country, folk and pop, and specialises in stripped back acoustic pieces with emphasis placed mostly on observant, but sometimes trenchant lyrics. His words strike a balance between engagement and detachment somewhat in the style of say, Don McLean or Tom Waits. Nevertheless, when the music stops he exudes a warm personal charm, and strikes a rapport with an already appreciative audience. And of course a bit of self-deprecation goes down well when he describes himself as the “blind date” they had not come to see, but still he hoped it would be “painless” for them.IMG_6190His singing voice at the microphone is a world away from the dry Oklahoma drawl in which he affably converses – his is primarily a contemporary delivery with the merest hint of a country twang, and he emits a smooth, rich croon that adopts a Ray LaMontagne-esque rough edge when straining for heartfelt howls, as heard in songs such as the bewitching Satan and Saint Paul.

Between tunes he continues to build a relationship with the packed crowd, offering expositions of his songs and the ideas behind them, making serious points laced with bone-dry wit as he goes. In the instance of Happy, an infectious piece of whistle-while-you-work nonchalance, he wanted to get away from the notion that you need to be despondent in order to write music – that you have to “throw yourself off a cliff and write about it on the way down”. He follows this with perhaps his best known work Gawd Above, which Fullbright introduces by saying he’s “not sure if it’s a Christian song for atheists, or an atheist song for Christians.” In either case, it’s another accomplished song, this time with a spectacular series of mouth organ refrains complementing his firm handling of acoustic guitar.IMG_6163In fact, his handling is so firm that a major string goes west and he spends the rest of his set at the piano stool. Later in the foyer, he bemoans his luck because, as he explained, “I had just one more guitar song that I really wanted to do”. Nevertheless he’s very much at home at the keyboard as he introduces a romantic storyline through a series of songs charting the nuances of a developing relationship.

First, there are the frustrations of the star-crossed lovers in When You’re Here, which give way to an acquired mutual understanding in She Knows (A Thing Or Two About Me). His chord progressions and melodies possess the simple beauty of late-period Lennon and McCartney, while the lyrics reminded me of the sensuality of Bernie Taupin in his prime, combined with the poignancy of Al Stewart.

The tenderness vanishes with the arrival of Fat Man, an angry, stomping tirade against the machine of war and capitalism that destroy faith, disrupt relationships and “plucks life like a rose.” However, his trademark empathy quickly reappears in the wistful ballad The One That Lives Too Far.

Fullbright’s suggestion that all of his piano pieces are one interlinked narrative is a masterstroke, as it produces an astonishing climax in High Road. With perfect intuition for dynamics and tempo, he develops the couple’s story to its desperate, tragic conclusion, holding the entire theatre in rapt silence through to the last, lingering, heart-rending notes of a very familiar Scottish refrain.

John Fullbright reaches into, and tugs at your emotions like few songwriters can, putting a lump in your throat, fire in your belly, and a smile on your face – all within the space of ten minutes. His reputation is growing and he already stands tall as a songwriter whose work is easily of the same calibre as a young Jimmy Webb. He’s also possessed of musicianship that makes other singing, song writing piano men look small. He deserves to be huge.

Adam Learmonth

July 2014

All Photographs by Gavin McLaughlin Photography

 

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High Voltage Men: The Magic Band Plays the Music of Captain Beefheart

July 28, 2014

The Magic Band (80)

iTunes has autonomously decided that the music of Captain Beefheart, as played by the re-formed, re-constituted Magic Band ain’t nuthin’ but the blues. We beg to differ over this arbitrarily allocated tag. It’s surely obvious to anyone who has ever heard Don Van Vliet’s ideas about contemporary music that any album which bears his name should be filed under “extraordinary”.

This recording is from last year’s London shows featuring a line-up that included Magic Band originals John “Drumbo” French and Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston, along with Denny “Feelers Rebo” Walley, Eric Klerks and Craig Bunch. It has to be said that The Magic Band in all it’s permutations is one of those confusing musical entities shaped by a combination of long standing founders and a subsequently fluid membership. However, this particular incarnation is very much in tune with one particular core value of the Beefheart manifesto, and that is electricity. It ran through everything that Beefheart did musically, and contributed much of the shock value of the music. It’s present here and the wattage is palpable even on a little silver disc.

This magic band crackles on stage and it’s that sheer energy which is captured on an extremely live recording. French prefaces Human Gets Me Blues with something more like a declaration than an introduction, “We are The Magic Band doing the music of Captain Beefheart” he yells, as they launch into a characteristically confrontational storm of dissonance. It’s a pretty uncompromising start as you might expect from such musical anarchists, but it’s not shapeless, for Beefheart had to start with a form in order to stretch it. The Magic Band (63)Low Yo Yo Stuff validates this view by taking all the angular edges in rock-blues and sharpening them up rather than smoothing them out. It’s odd, but only in its hardwired self-knowledge that a bluesman was more often than not a dangerous man. French gets a firm hold of the Beefheart vocal reflexion with its improvisational take on Howlin’ Wolf’s rasping tongue. If there’s one thing he can’t replicate entirely faithfully though, it’s the uncomfortably intimidating tone in the darker part of the lyric. That dubious gift belonged solely to Van Vliet.

It seems strange even now to be talking about Beefheart in terms of tribute especially when he left music long before he left the earth. Yet, it’s somehow gratifying to hear these songs played in celebration of an influential musician who was as deeply admired by his band colleagues as he was adored by fans. You can hear the band smiling as they power up on Diddy Wah Diddy (the blues redefined in three minutes and six seconds flat), grinning wildly on When It Blows It’s Stacks and leering maniacally on Alice in Blunderland.

Musically, Beefheart went beyond the Out There established by the avant-garde movement and no one ever really asked him why, they just seemed grateful that he was the one crazy or brave enough to go. Interviews with him sometimes seem like reportage with an explorer just back from the rim of a volcano. Often, people didn’t like the postcards he sent, but the free form sound paintings he produced such as Golden Birdies and Hair Pie: Bake 1 are unstintingly and respectfully represented in this set. The Magic Band (62)Why were we surprised when Don Van Vliet took off the Beefheart mask and returned to painting, where he was perhaps freer to express himself away from microscopic scrutiny in the world of (largely debased) rock music? A lot of his music sounded like the work of a man not wholly satisfied with the mode, the means and the final outcome.

Yet, the music he left behind has an acknowledged essence located deep in the passive/aggressive psyche of modern America. Beefheart’s music was plugged-in, switched-on and pulsating with ungovernable power. The Magic Band were there, not merely as witnesses, but as participants and they constituted a conduit for that intensity. It’s possible that’s what attracted many gifted musicians to his buzz-feed. Here, they return to re-generate the feeling, not as an addiction to the past but as vindication of Beefheart’s oft misinterpreted ambitions.

YO LO STUFF – The Magic Band ↑

Love it, loathe it, misunderstand it if you want, but no one is ever able to ignore the music of Captain Beefheart. You can play this stuff to young kids today and they won’t necessarily ask who the artist is. They will more probably ask, “What is that?” Perhaps that is all the response that Beefheart ever wanted to provoke.

Michael S. Clark

28th July 2014

Amy Duncan Live at Hospitalfield Arts 19.7.14

July 21, 2014

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Such is the plethora of singer-songwriters mining fresh seams in very contemporary acoustic music you could be forgiven for having overlooked Amy Duncan. However, an extensive Scottish tour now under way would suggest that no one is being denied the opportunity to hear her play. Last Saturday night, at a modest little venue in a modest coastal town on the wind battered, rain splattered east coast of Scotland, she delivered a very generous set to a modest but appreciative crowd.

The evening was made all the more special by the inclusion of brand new songs from an upcoming new album and the presence of a full compliment of ensemble musicians including Fiona Rutherford (harp), Patsy Reid (violin), Emma Peebles (viola), Pete Harvey (cello) and Rick Standley (double bass). It seemed churlish of the general public not to accept such largesse with wholehearted gratitude, but perhaps Scots aren’t such bravehearts when it comes to a wee bit of rain over Arbroath.

In any case, I had a very good seat at the front unspoilt by incidental chatter, fat heads, intrusive coughing or the rustling of crisp packets. This is the way to hear songs from the superb Cycles of Life album in all their instrumental glory with glissando harp, deep bass stirrings and Duncan’s light, but not slight, singing voice.

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That album from last year produced several songs that consolidated Duncan’s place as a representative voice of Scottish modernity; mindful of tradition but with its own very individual song to sing. Crack in the World and When the Dead Are Watching also betray listening habits that have absorbed much from the singer-songwriter ouvre without falling into traps sprung by cliché or third-hand experience.

Cycles of Life and Ivory Tower also showed that she had mastered the art of accessible melody rooted in sophisticated ideas. In this chamber-folk setting, the songs come to life in the most remarkable way in a live performance that has a strange sort of calm at its centre. Wild Animals featuring Duncan on guitar with the accompaniment of viola, cello and bass was particularly spare and bare, yet the song’s slightly eerie charm was somehow amplified.

The early introduction of new songs into the set such as Constant Without Me and The Good Life and Undercurrents were suggestive of picking things up where Cycles of Life left off, while Guardian Angel (which was previewed online last year as a demo) was more refined, but still every bit as haunting as it ought to be. Along with The Truth Never Changes these new songs constituted highlights in their own right alongside those from Cycles of Life that I’ve long been loving these last twelve months.

1185072_10151875248747835_717622190_nHowever, Duncan chose to end a lengthy set that included special guest Andy Spiller warming up, and some bass/harp duets with Rutherford with more new songs that clearly signal another side to Amy Duncan. Perhaps understandably, she took up her position behind the piano with a little hesitancy, but hit her stride singing Running Boy and Clouds; two beautifully spacious songs that created strong melodic and lyrical imagery. These are not the sorts of tunes that you hum in the car on the way home, although Duncan can write those too. Rather, these particular songs are the kind you live with for years to come; like favourite books, familiar keepsakes and comfortable clothes.

Talking of familiarity, the harp/bass pieces, taken mostly from Fiona Ruthford’s Sleepsound album and the Duncan/Rutherford collaboration Quirk, demonstrated how important their relationship has been to the development of Duncan’s idiosyncratic settings. Theirs is an open-minded world-view of composition and arrangement that readily admits adaptation of Kora inspired music on Lines on the Map, and Eastern European folk scales on Dallam. There’s a pleasing contrast between the quietly introspective muse and a gregarious, outward-facing stance that makes the work they’ve done, together and separately, so distinctive.

It all finished a bit late, it was dark outside and it was (still) raining but I, for one, was pleased. It’s always worth coming out for music that is shared this way, like an intimate confidence among old friends, whatever the weather.

Michael S. Clark

July 2014

Midnight Without You – Kevin Mackenzie/Steve Hamilton

July 20, 2014

kev mackenzieSometime in the 1980’s, a strange marriage of convenience took place between the muddling serendipitous tinkerings of pop professors and the properly structured melodies of jazz standards. Most of it was camp mush peddled by the likes of Marc Almond and The Pet Shop Boys. Only The Blue Nile really had the song writing nous to match the quasi-sophisticate stylings. On Midnight Without You, guitarist Kevin Mackenzie and pianist Steve Hamilton strip down Buchanan and Co’s luxurious limousine and instead glide less ostentatiously, but still skilfully, beneath those downtown lights on an even smoother set of wheels.

It shouldn’t really come as any surprise that jazzers have been slow to acknowledge the potential of the famously sweeping nature of The Blue Nile’s urbane melodies. That band (if indeed they could ever be described as such) were themselves notoriously un-prolific with long gaps between releases. That sort of indolence is often contagious, but it’s more likely that jazz players like Mackenzie and Hamilton have been busy with other things. Still, it was matter of time before someone got around to it.

Midnight Without You is a first release as a duo for Mackenzie and Hamilton, who are both significant in Scottish jazz circles as composers, performers and educators of note. Mackenzie’s previous records have featured Donny McCaslin and Julian Arguelles, whilst balancing a portfolio of teaching engagements, not least at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Hamilton spent five years with Bill Bruford’s Earthworks and has played “with ‘em all”, from Freddie Hubbard to Martin Taylor and Van Morrison. Among many other things, Hamilton also tickles the ivories for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and teaches jazz piano – also at the RCS in Glasgow. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat’s more to the point is whether The Blue Nile Songbook is a serious contender for re-evaluation as a set of modern standards, but Midnight Without You makes a strong case for the hitherto slim jazz credentials of Paul Buchanan, Robert Bell and Paul Moore. If I sound a bit sniffy about The Blue Nile then I apologize to diehard fans. I love Hats to bits, and Mid-Air, the most recent solo offering from Buchanan himself, is every bit as sublime as anything that’s gone before.

However, I tend to think of The Blue Nile in terms of atmospherics and ambience rather than a blur of notes. That is perhaps why we need to draft in a duo like Mackenzie and Hamilton to show us just how biddable tunes like Easter Parade and Headlights on the Parade really are. The album starts with a surprise in the shape of Mackenzie stridently strumming an acoustic while overdubbed electric guitar punctuates as Hamilton gently ripples over the surface tension of Mackenzie’s chords. Indeed, throughout this recording they bring out all the delicate grammar of Buchanan’s phrasing on melodies that are full of pauses, commas, full stops, crossed t’s and dotted i’s.

Mackenzie on electric guitar has the kind of soft, rounded sound paired with rapid fire runs that I really like, and he seldom deviates from giving these songs the warmth that has, at times, been ill-served by synthesizers. As a duo, they bring astute musicianship to sit side-by-side with obvious affection for the material. I think this has less to do with recognizing the inherent jazz intonations of O Lolita or Stay, than fondly playing lovely music we’ve all grown up with, and using their own jazz vocabulary to interpret it. Hamilton is wonderfully fluent on Let’s Go Out Tonight and The Downtown Lights, while Mackenzie’s playing is blissfully evocative as it wanders among the parasols and blue bonnet spring of Easter Parade.

EASTER PARADE – Kevin Mackenzie/Steve Hamilton ↑

I have to say that I have, so far, never listened to Midnight Without You at midnight, or at any other hour after the sun goes down. It’s a great album for calming the embittered soul when stuck in traffic, or enhancing a sea-front reverie in the ice-cream sunshine by the beach. Then again, jazz folks tend to be night people, so perhaps they never listened to The Blue Nile much before midnight. Nevertheless, I imagine that Midnight Without You sounds just as good after dark.

Michael S. Clark

July 2014

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Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden: The Perfect Partnership for One Last Dance

July 3, 2014

lastdanceThe seductive symbiosis between pianist Keith Jarrett and bassist Charlie Haden is obvious from the opening statements of Last Dance, and listeners familiar with 2007’s Jasmine will also succumb to a pleasant feeling of déjà vu. That’s because this collection of American jazz standards came from the same recording session, and is released now by ECM, we assume, to offer a complete understanding of their special partnership.

Last Dance is a collection of popular tunes, mostly from the 1930’s and ‘40’s, but it’s neither nostalgic nor exploitative, and no kind of retrospective either. It does however educate the listener about the importance of song in that period, and references the almost insatiable appetite for melody with Broadway appeal and cinematic prospects.

The Jarrett and Haden partnership has not been a continuous one, but it is a relationship unbroken in spirit and friendship. Here, they duet seamlessly on a mix of songbook classics, pure blues and show tunes in long conversations spoken in fluent jazz. On My Old Flame, Jarrett’s extrapolations depart from the comfortable chair of blues melody with Haden playing in between his steps, but even at this generally relaxed tempo there is still swing. It might be gentle but it’s deft, subtle and sensuous. When Haden takes the lead, his bass walks and talks the song beautifully while Jarrett shades with perfectly placed chords and startlingly accurate darting runs. The song, perhaps most famously sung by Billie Holliday, is eighty years old, but it it’s forever young in the hands of musicians who love it deeply enough to spend ten full minutes in its company.keith-jarrett-Dec-2011The tone is therefore set from the start, and the treatment of My Ship, a boat that left for New York sometime in 1941, takes nine minutes to land somewhere near the alluring, downtown lights of 52nd Street. Jarrett brings out the cautious optimism in the melody, but the thread on this album is distinctly blue. When Haden takes his turn again, you realize that you’ve become attuned to his low blues voice, as if the bass had begun to enunciate of its own accord.

On the everlasting Round Midnight, they accept a most appealing invitation to gather round a tune in which musicians frequently like to lose themselves. Jarrett and Haden perfectly capture the feeling of having nothing better to do than just hang out and enjoy playing music. Haden is a little more to the fore, with bass lines that side step in and out of Jarrett rapid runs. Together, they are masters of the subtle dynamic, as Jarrett takes time to peel back the layers of history that sometimes shroud Monk’s 1944 classic. Here, he holds it up so that it can be heard clearly, brightly and unambiguously.

Bud Powell’s Dance of the Infidels from 1940 is just that, a devilish quickstep that perhaps only the twinkle toes of Fred Astaire could choreograph. Swing is king, and the joy of their combined energy, and Jarrett’s sparkling improvisations are imbued with a sense of fun to match the virtuosity. It’s perhaps a glimpse of what genius gets up to on its days off. It Might As Well Be Spring, a tune enjoying a minor renaissance, is eased from its cosseted habitat in the 1945 musical State Fair, to emerge as an incredibly lovely song with an intellect to match. Jarrett takes eleven minutes to meander lovingly through the maze of ideas that it offers up, as Hayden’s bass drifts in and out like distracted thoughts of love. We shouldn’t forget that this music had to be romantic, if it was going to pay the bills. Haden and Jarrett certainly haven’t. 6a00d8341c630a53ef01539127e229970b-piSpeaking of big earners, they include Everything Happens to Me, a widely recorded pop standard from 1940 covered by almost everyone including Sinatra, Chet Baker and Nat King Cole. It morphed into a jazz standard through repeated reworking, but here Jarrett alights on its inherent brightness as a good-natured piece of self-deprecation. If there is humility in the performance then it’s expressed as deep affection for the sweetness of the song.

In contrast, the reading of 1944’s Every Time We Say Goodbye subdues its soaring nature and makes it more contemplative as a song that might be sung to oneself. There’s an unsettling a sense of apprehension that with each parting, the flame of love “dies a little”. In popular versions it tends to be delivered with irony bordering on the melancholy. Haden and Jarrett depart relative short distances from this familiar song, but far enough to show that it is not immune to new interpretation. It also reclaims the song from the legions of mediocre pop singers who sought credibility with it; only to succeed in murdering the thing they love most.

The album closes curiously with Gordon Jenkins’ Goodbye (1934), an alternate take from the 2007 Jasmine sessions and it’s included here with alternate version of Peggy Lee’s Where Can I Go Without You? from the same date. The latter is arguably a better fit because it has a certain familiarity about it, but both are added here to show the full measure of a musical relationship that, like the songs they’re covering, is undiminished by the mere passing of time.

Michael S. Clark

July 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Senses and Sensibilities: Omar Sosa Improvises a Path To Inner Peace

July 2, 2014

fot_clr22Omar Sosa is, without doubt, a citizen of the world. His concert schedule takes him all over the globe, often to exotic locations that you’d like to visit yourself. However, a country of the mind where kindred spirits meet is the place where he communicates his outgoing ideas most effectively. A new CD sees Sosa looking uncharacteristically inwards, with improvised piano pieces that constitute a response to personal crisis.

I absolutely loved Omar Sosa’s previous solo piano release Calma for its comprehension that we all need peace. Sosa seemed to intuit that the panacea for the contemporary malaise of useless information overload could be found in sympathetic, carefully measured music. On Senses, he has created music to soothe his own soul through piano solos that are nevertheless deeply spiritual songs. The position he takes is not religious, but he does seem bound by a faith in the elemental, and hope in the act of creation.

The first track, Sun Shower, opens with the piano almost impersonating a celestial harp. It unfolds like the slow dawning of a long day, yet it’s also a deeply melodic song-setting that develops a theme from one end of the keyboard to the other. Certainly, it evokes the brightness and harshness of natural light with variations of shifting intensity. But before you settle down with a good book as Senses subliminally percolates in the canyons of your mind, be warned: there is a LOT of music on this album. fot_bw01Peaceful Shadow demonstrates that spatial sense is one of Sosa’s strongest skills, and there is never the suggestion of any searching for the notes. If anything, his gift for melodic neatness leaves the notes craving a suitable lyric to compliment and complete them. There is also the feeling of uncovering layers of melody until a song emerges like a bright-winged thing releasing itself from a chrysalis. There is ambiguity too in the title he’s chosen for the album. Some tunes, such as Looking Both Ways and the sprawling Olorun, feel conceptual, and offer a sense of things. There is also a heightening of the senses as he stretches out Despacio and contemplates a fickle season on Two Sides of Autumn. Overall though the music offers a massaging of the senses for minds adrift in a sea of troubles.

This self-cure is heard, I think, most literally on Shadow of the Clouds, where notes are picked out like whispered syllables, and the brooding (there I’ve said it) Dark Tango in the Morning. Of course, the two sides of introspection are the questions asked, and the further questions asked. Interrogation comes easily, while the answers may never reveal themselves. There are several pieces that are strongly suggestive of matters unresolved, but they offer yet another sense – they give an impression of acceptance. Humility contains some of Erik Satie’s brooding, de-saturated colours played out in a cold room of echoing walls. Holy Mary is a short prayer, while At Night contemplates a long, dark nocture of the soul. fot_bw06Elsewhere, La Luna de mi Hija offers up a latin-jazz song slowed down to the pace of a moderato recital piece, giving it both gravitas and humanity. This contrasts markedly with Lament, which furrows its brow like Chopin on valium. If I had to choose a centrepiece on this recording, it would be Olorun, an experiment in space that tests the tension between sound and silence. Yet it still has melodic character. It pulls the gaps between the notes together in a drawstring composition which progresses satisfyingly into tangible song, before stretching out again into silence.

Olorun by Omar Sosa ↑

I started to wonder if there was a single word that could describe what this music was proposing, and for the most part succeeding to say. It made me think of things like passive regret, resigned yearning or pensive recollection. Sosa provides the answer himself on the closing track Pensamientos. It is an epilogue of uncertainty, with spatial choices that make the music hang in the air like an important thought that flew away, and disappeared before it could be considered.

Overall, Senses has the feel of a requiem for lost opportunities and missed chances, and as such it feels meditative rather than disconsolate. The album also leaves you with a strong sense of the song inside us all – almost as much as it reveals the many soulful voices contained in solo piano from a master in his field.

Michael S. Clark

July 2014

Senses-Cover

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