Peter Edwards conducts Nu Civilisation

The music of Duke Ellington has been driving the most progressive and adventurous currents of UK jazz like never before this year. And thank goodness The Rest is Noise is astute enough to recognise the zeitgeist, although the programme is painfully thin of advanced jazz in suitable quantity.

In Hidden Voices, part of the ongoing South Bank Centre festival, the Nu Civilisation Orchestra are to join the BBC Concert Orchestra spotlighting the struggle for civil rights for African Americans before the New Thing was even thought of.

The Concert Orchestra conducted by Keith Lockhart will perform William Grant Still’s Symphony No 1 (Afro-American) and Henry Gilbert’s The Dance Place in Congo at a concert this weekend; and the Nu Civilisation Orchestra conducted by Peter Edwards will enter deep into core Ellingtonia with material to include ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’, ‘The Mooche’, ‘Mood Indigo’, ‘Harlem Airshaft’, and ‘Caravan’.

Nu Civilisation who have also reintroduced ‘The Queen’s Suite’ into the concert hall repertoire will perform the significant tone poem ‘Harlem (A Tone Parallel To Harlem)’ with the BBC Concert Orchestra joining their number. Radio 3 listeners can then hear the concert in an early afternoon slot on Wednesday 17 April. The concert is preceded just ahead of the “magic hour” by a free-entry Front Room performance in the QEH foyer concert space of Jazz FM Award-winning instrumentalist alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey, plus pianist Charlie Stacey and singer Cherise Adams-Burnett, who will accompany a talk by the Parliamentary jazz award-nominated academic Dr Catherine Tackley on the blues and its influence on orchestral and ensemble works providing musical examples. MB

The concert takes place on Sunday 24 March at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk



Kai Hoffman quartet: precious time is slipping away

Tonight in Ronnie’s Bar, the upstairs speakeasy and jammers’ delight at the Soho jazz shrine, Kai Hoffman launches Do It While You Can. With a motto of carpe diem, seize the day, arrangements on this debut album are by Twentysomething-period Jamie Cullum bassist Geoff Gascoyne, and plenty of zip provided along the way by his old Cullum rhythm section partner Seb de Krom on drums, as well as pianist Gunther Kurmayr in finger-snapping tow, Do it While You Can is a collection of predominantly feelgood swing-based songs.


‘Wryly in-the-know’
The familiar ones: ‘Pure Imagination’, ‘Make Someone Happy’, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’, ‘What A Little Moonlight Can Do’, and ‘The Masquerade Is Over’, jostle with the less familiar ones: Fran Landesman and Simon Wallace’s wryly in-the-know ‘Some Boys’, which promisingly opens the album, and ‘History Repeating’ by Alex Gifford of 1990s big beat outfit Propellerheads complete with, what sounds like, a take on the opening riff of Mingus’ ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’.

Hoffman has written the title track with Simon Whiteside, and there’s a fun Dave Frishberg song, ‘Long Daddy Green’, plus another Whiteside number ‘I’ve Never Met a Guy Who’s Perfect’ (recalling Edwyn Collins’ ‘A Girl Like You’), and a very hip choice in Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle’ from the singer/songwriter’s 1972 album You Don’t Mess Around with Jim issued posthumously as a single after Croce’s death in a plane crash the following year. Croce was a big favourite of Hoffman’s father.

There are plenty of double meanings, quite a few nudges and winks along the way from the Keely Smith and Peggy Lee-influenced singer, but also an insatiable joie de vivre rare in these cynical times. It’s an effective approach overall although not everything quite comes off, ‘Moonlight’ drags a bit, but that’s but a small blemish. Precious time may be slipping away, but this album deserves to be heard for more than a day. MB


Aaron Diehl
The Bespoke Man’s Narrative
Mack Avenue ****
It’s uncanny, a prologue that summons the mood music of Ahmad Jamal to this feast of a piano album, and then ushers in a new pianist so assured you might think it’s a cruel illusion. In solo (briefly), trio and quartet formations Diehl, only just out of his mid-twenties, has a suave sense of sophistication which the “bespoke” conceit in the title emphasises. He’s clearly saying “I’m a man of taste”, yet instead of sitting around in a gentleman’s club wearing a deerstalker and tweeds he’s happy in a modern armchair Philippe Starck might have designed, with fashionable book shelves lolling (if shelves could so idle) behind him. It’s a slightly contradictory message, but Diehl is more modern than stuck in the past, even if arch Wyntonite Stanley Crouch crops up in the notes shooting from the hip as ever and stating the case strongly for Diehl who he knew at Julliard. I’m not sure how “bespoke” the band is, although it does sound very slick befitting of one put together by a Cole Porter fellow in jazz composition, an award bestowed on Diehl by the American Pianists Association. Vibist Warren Wolf is as dependable as ever as is drummer Rodney Green with the up-and-coming David Wong nimble on bass. The trio tracks are good hearty fare but it’s slightly paradoxical that the main album highlight is very possibly the convincing solo version of Ellington’s ‘Single Petal of a Rose’ (also covered recently by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra). ‘Bess You Is My Woman Now’ is cleverly approached and very expressive, and the treatment of Ravel’s ‘Le Tombeau de Couperin [III. Forlane]’ weighted very thoughtfully and sequenced well. Diehl has made a statement here that’s much more than a sartorial one, although he might have to keep on changing his musical clothes for a while yet to get really comfortable.
Stephen Graham 

Released on 18 March. Aaron Diehl, above


Rokia Traoré
Beautiful Africa
Nonesuch ***1/2
A jazz sensibility connects with a great deal of world music. Many African artists manage to navigate their music away from too many compromises in reaching out to new audiences but inevitably (if you recall Baaba Maal’s Television) the tunes are memorable but made for a limited ‘pop’ shelf life albeit loaded with much more mass appeal potential than most jazz people could ever dream of. Malian singer Traoré’s latest begins in a very poppy way with the appealing ‘Lalla’ but the album stroked home impressively by Seb Rochford, with PJ Harvey producer John Parish on board recording not in Bamako but Bristol, moves beyond simple radio appeal swiftly enough from ‘Kouma’ on. All the songs were written and composed by Traoré, an important cultural role model for a new generation of musicians in Mali including the acclaimed singer/guitarist Fatoumata Diawara who used to be her backing singer. There’s plenty to savour, although ‘Lalla’ is easily the most accessible song even if the song structures are hardly a stretch throughout. Traoré has a gritty forceful side to her voice and there’s a vitality and a certain edge in her delivery that jazz fans best appreciate and, as her fame widens, genre niceties won’t hold back. Released on 8 April 


Robert Hurst
Bob: a Palindrome
It’s not quite the heavy metal umlaut, more an upside down version of one as you can see on the sleeve above, but Bob: a Palindrome, is Robert Hurst’s latest on his own Bebob records, a stellar septet befitting the company the musician habitually keeps, as the bassist appeared just last year on Macca’s Grammy winning Kisses on the Bottom.

Branford Marsalis, who Hurst made his name with in the Columbia years,  is also on this new septet album, the centrepiece of which is a ‘Middle Passage Suite’ the title referring to the Atlantic slave trade, with individual pieces reflecting survival, death, and the continuum. Robert Glasper plays piano and Rhodes, and it’s interesting to hear Glasper on someone else’s records as well as his own, especially following the success of Black Radio. In some way his playing here recalls the style of one of his earlier records, Canvas. Bennie Maupin, a fellow Detroiter of Hurst’s, makes his presence felt quite early on flute, and another Detroit jazz legend, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who taught Kenny Garrett among others, melds more than well with Marsalis, and Glasper knits in beautifully behind the front line playing Rhodes on ‘Picked From Nick’.

It’s good to hear Tain Watts playing again with Branford (the Marsalis quartet hasn’t been the same without Tain), and the great drummer also has a significant musical rapport with percussionist Adam Rudolph who chops up the rhythms just right.

Highlights? Well the opening of ‘Big Queen’ has a sinuous momentum that recalls the Messengers with that slightly ominous atmosphere that Watts and Rudolph do much to build and push along; and Branford burns on the third part of the ‘Middle Passage’ suite.

The suite, in keeping with the rest of the album composed and arranged by Hurst, is the most important part of the record, the 21 minutes of music containing a unifying chamber music dimension as well as a jazz one; and Rudolph and Watts in Part II unite the separate ‘sections’ of the septet and ably direct the converging musics. UK group Zed-U were one of the first to highlight the Middle Passage as a subject for jazz composition in recent years and Neil Charles’ work on that record stands up well to Hurst’s superlative work here.

Later in Bob: a Palindrome ‘Indiscreet in da Street’ has formidable energy, and that’s a hallmark of this excellent album available for now as an import only.

Finally, with or without the upside down umlaut, this record might win an award for the most number of ‘thank you’ acknowledgements. More than 100 individual entries are printed so Hurst is clearly a grateful person! But we as listeners should be even more thankful for this quite superb album that achieves so much and shows such indomitable spirit throughout. MB



Ivan Lins
Moosicus ***
For the first few bars of Cornucopía it’s like the beginning of a Ladysmith Black Mambazo record. Not surprising really as a South African choir is on hand to inject a sense of vibrant motion to the set. Not typical of the record as a whole, though, these songs speak mainly of the sound of Brazil through and through but with the limber German SWR big band conducted by Ralf Schmid, and the persuasive vocals of Brazilian MPB icon Lins (with a fine spot by Paula Morelenbaum on the evocative ‘Atlantida’), there is plenty of stylistic development. All the songs are Lins’: the tantalising ‘Estrela Guia’ my pick of an appealing set made up of mostly unreleased songs. It’s a slow burner that hints at a separate improvisational dimension that in itself speaks volumes for the musical imagination at play. As the samba-strewn Cornucopía unfolds, the record draws on a Quincy Jones-influenced arranging style to great effect, and the SWR respond with impeccable taste.

Released on Monday 25 March

 Ivan Lins, above



Martin Speake
Always a First Time
Pumpkin Records 2 CDs *** / ****
Recorded over a decade ago Change of Heart was saxophonist Martin Speake’s last big statement but it took a long while to appear, eventually emerging on ECM. Recorded with the late Paul Motian, Mick Hutton, and Bobo Stenson, that album was praised at the time for its Lee Konitz-type clarity and “unhurried” playing. Always a First Time, this new double album released on Speake’s own label, an imprint that two years ago released a quartet album called Live at Riverhouse, retains that palpable sense of patience, beginning at an almost stately pace. The Konitz connection is retained, not just in Speake’s sound but in the presence of former Konitz drummer Jeff Williams returning from the quartet. Speake also dedicates ‘Ramshackle’ to Konitz.

Williams appears in an up-front role throughout the 20 songs just like the other two musicians, with guitarist’s guitarist Mike Outram also performing a crucial function, colouring the sound especially on the Puccini aria ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ (dedicated to Speake’s father, appropriately). Oddly you don’t miss the bass, but Outram’s skill has a lot to do with this as well as Williams’ ability to make the drums sing.

From the heart: Jeff Williams, above left,
Martin Speake and Mike Outram

The trio covers a great deal of ground only partially explained by the extra canvas the two CDs provide. With songs dedicated to friends, mentors and inspirations Always a First Time is predominantly ballad-driven, but it’s not particularly brooding. More philosophical, and on tracks such as ‘Twister’, on the second CD, there is also a sense of abandon that a quick first listen might not straight away fix on to but is definitely there.

In the notes the author of Love and Will, the existential psychologist Rollo May is quoted to the effect that the creative artist, poet and saint, must fight the gods of conformism, apathy, material success and exploitative power: formidable foes one and all yet May despairs that “These are the ‘idols’ of our society that are worshipped by multitudes of people.” Further quotes within the artwork contribute a sense of aphorism to Speake’s outlook as does his typically thoughtful, but skilfully non-conformist playing.

Recorded in the same room, unseparated, without headphones, the way records used to be made Speake says “we all played from the heart”. And you can tell this when a song like ‘Meditation’, which crops up on both discs with two different dedicatees one of whom includes Fidel Castro, dissolves (on the second disc) into a ‘listening silence’, when you just know the players like what they’re hearing and do not need to push the tune on any more than is strictly necessary in case the mood is spoiled. The second of the CDs has the edge, as it’s a bit more open, but the more orthodox ballad-and- cool school bop approach on the first disc, with songs that include Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ and many fine Speake originals, have an integrity that is a hallmark of Always a First Time. As is its sense of the bigger picture.

Released on 25 March


Circular Dreaming
Enja ****
It’s a Charles Lloyd kind of day today as the great man celebrates his 75th birthday. Love in bassist Ron McClure, who’s a pillar of Quest, must have some extraordinary memories from those far-off quartet days with Charles, Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette.

And Quest, too, is about memories, their own as a longstanding group with 10 albums now released, but also of the 1960s. A repertory band featuring a sprinkling of new compositions with a pair here by sax icon Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach, Quest, (with McClure, pianist Beirach, drummer Billy Hart, and Liebman) look and you can make out in the typography within the circle of the ‘Q’ on the cover text that proclaims the band “plays the music of Miles 60s”. It’s a message amplified by Michael Cuscuna in a preface to the notes inside who boldly states Quest is “devoted to interdependent group music rather than the soloist with rhythm aesthetic.”


On a mission: Ron McClure (above, left),
Dave Liebman, Billy Hart and Richie Beirach

Beautifully presented with attractive artwork, clear notes and photographs Circular Dreaming begins with Wayne Shorter’s ‘Pinocchio’, and other tunes include five other Wayne compositions, including a throaty Liebman-led ‘Footprints’ and album standout ‘Vonetta’. Shame about the spelling of ‘Nefertiti’ though, you can never have too many ts… except here. The album title track is a tune of Beirach’s, a homage to Miles. Beirach says: “I wanted the circular feeling of no beginning and no end with the harmony definitely moulded to the melody”. Maths jazz today strips away that connection, a fault Circular Dreaming avoids entirely. Fine playing throughout with gutsy blowing and a desire to make the music exist as part of a continuum without putting the music behind a glass case in a museum. Circular Dreaming also shines the spotlight on a significant amount, yet still represents just a small sample, of Wayne Shorter’s best work as a composer, timely as his latest great extended piece ‘Pegasus’ has just been released on Without a Net.

The cover of Circular Dreaming, top, and Quest above


George Shearing
At Home
Beginning like a foxtrot, when was the last time that happened?, ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ has a twinkling style, full of the chirpiness Nat King Cole managed to endow old Broadway songs with when he himself played piano. Shearing turns on his significant charm though after about a minute in, and these living room songs recorded in the great pianist’s New York home in 1983 draw out Don Thompson’s role as a confidant to Shearing’s left hand. Thompson played with Shearing for some 20 years in all, and you feel as if he knows Shearing’s every move on the tracks they play together. Now 73, he accompanied Barney Kessel early in his career in Vancouver clubs, and appears on the John Handy Quintet classic live album Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival recorded in 1965.


Don Thompson: hearth of the matter

Thompson began playing concerts with Shearing decades later, from 1982 onwards, the year before the newly discovered At Home was recorded. And just under the three-minute mark he and the recording engineer (in fact one and the same), draw out the woodiness of the bass a skilled carpenter would find hard to locate.

A sprightly start then to this remarkable Jazzknight records album, Lady Shearing’s label, with the backing of discerning jazz distributor Proper Note, there’s an elegant fade at the end of the opener; and then, like some sort of mirage Johnny Mandel’s ‘A Time For Love’ emerges after the silence. Well what can you say? It’s beautiful. You just want to be there, even though the track’s very short. Thompson comes in on the arc of the Shearing line here time and again, at the emotional tug of the note. 


Thompson’s own tune ‘Ghoti’ (apparently Shearing dubbed it: “up at the crack of Don”), leads into a riot in swing, and you could hear this being played with a vibes quintet, Shearing’s preferred stomping ground in his heyday. This one’s got bebop written all over it. After two minutes Shearing changes the goalposts, and there’s a rhythmic murmur that’s the very essence of bop syncopation.

The sound quality is fine throughout At Home: you can really hear the piano and bass and the instruments together. The album was mastered much later in Toronto, the city where Ellie Shearing first heard the tapes played before pressing green for go to start the process towards release after an ice age of 30 years in the obscurity of a drawer.

‘The Things We Did Last Summer’, the Jule Style/Sammy Cahn song begins jauntily, as if the duo are feeling completely at ease, and that’s a defining feature of this wonderful album. Apparently Lady Shearing provided cups of tea in breaks over the few days the album took to make. No producer was present, and there is a comfortable feel to all these tracks recorded around the time of a run of club dates in New York.

‘Laura’ is the first big talking point and really the test of the album. Opening expansively the theme is stated quite simply with a few ornate touches, but Shearing seems more interested in building the darkness in his left hand at which he more than succeeds. The tempo slows right down and there are some lovely washes after the 150-second mark moving towards some high-end tinkling that ends even more seriously than it began. With Thompson back ‘The Skye Boat Song’ I could have done without, although it’s a pretty enough melody and close to the bassist’s heart. But Shearing and Thompson are on more satisfying territory with Bird’s ‘Confirmation’ joyously foot tapping, but not fast at all. Remaining tracks are a winningly shy take on ‘The Girl Next Door’ with its hesitant opening; a swayingly optimistic ‘Can’t We Be Friends?’; the more mundane ‘I Cover the Waterfront’; and ‘Out of Nowhere’. Although ‘That Old Devil Called Love’ opens things up, ‘SubconsciousLee’ allows lots of bass space, and little detours here and there. Victor Young’s ‘Beautiful Love’ is simply a display of Shearing genius at the end.
At Home is released on 15 April

Sir George Shearing top, Don Thompson above; and the album cover  


There must be a dream factory somewhere, a place where crooners are manufactured. Well there definitely is a crooner style and sound among new Britjazz singers, and it usually involves a suit, a sharp haircut and a knowing look. Alexander Stewart and Theo Jackson are just two of the latest to emerge, and ex-West End theatre singer Anthony Strong follows quickly on from these Manchester and London jazz stars in the making. A crooner and piano player, he has the suit of course, and the hair. With the trace of his own shadow on the wall Strong stands almost but not quite the rebel on a sofa on the cover of Stepping Out (Naïve **1/2). There’s a strong cast of players on this album with bass duties shared by Tom Farmer and Calum Gourlay; and former Jamie Cullum drummer Sebastiaan de Krom and Matt Skelton the sticksmen involved, on a selection of the 14 tracks here. Guitarist Chris Allard completes the core band, with guests Aussie trumpeter James Morrison, saxophonists Brandon Allen and Nigel Hitchcock, with still more players in the horn section and strings as well. I really didn’t warm to the rinky-dinky way the horns have been recorded (it’s just the audio style incidentally not the playing which is perfectly fine), but more than this Strong really doesn’t make his presence felt. The song choices are good, although you can’t really go wrong with ‘Witchcraft’, ‘Too Darn Hot’ and ‘My Ship’, yet the album sounds as if it’s going through the motions. Strong’s voice is like a younger, more bashful, Jamie Cullum and owes a debt to Harry Connick Jr; and it’s clearly too early to talk about an individual sound. Dream factories are all very well, but no one can create raw excitement on demand, and that’s an element Stepping Out could do with. MB
Stephen Graham 

Anthony Strong above