Zhenya Strigalev, as magnetic a bopper live as you will go a long way to hear, returns yes playing on a recording made in a few live settings. Above the sax ace on soprano with ‘Not Upset’ from Blues for Maggie (Whirlwind, album to be released in March) recorded in jazz clubs last year in Vienna and Tilburg, the deftly percolating bass guitar beat courtesy of Linley Marthe and reggae hinting just a little at a Carlton Barrett style conjured by Eric Harland dissecting the metre, and there is a Sco flow of a guitar solo from Federico Dannemann kicking in after the woozy sax’n’synth-ish effects around the three-minute mark.
The latest Version Compare was as, so many of the series’ subjects, inspired by hearing someone special play the song in question live... not so much as a matter of the melody lingering long but the mood too as part of the totality of the experience.
That someone was Keith Jarrett. Later curious to know more having been blown away by his poignantly bittersweet melancholic version of the song once known before the English lyrics were added as ‘Mütterlein’ and a hit in the 1950s, it seemed that Joni Mitchell’s version was the one Keith liked. Let us not pass over the Jug either, with a version I had not heard until today. Gene Ammons is someone I want to listen to more. (Brandon Allen has kept the Ammons flame alive in recent years) As for the Joni version itself by contrast I have lived with it for a while and it is slower and thoughtful in an analogous way to the consummately still Standards trio instrumental version. In other words time and silence are treated in a different way.
I have always loved Nat King Cole and remember while browsing disconsolately given the choice through the cassettes in a wet and dank Warsaw subway market stall near the Forum Hotel a certain delight at finding a much cherished compilation tape back in the 1990s. His version does not disappoint (we will draw a discreet veil over Frankie Laine’s overwrought rendition however: one for Frankie’s fans only of whom there were many and not relevant here).
This week I have been listening to a lot of Etta Jones so cannot resist her version and it is you will hopefully find and agree wonderfully laid back and full of feeling and it is that latter quality all the versions above share. The artists feel the song like superbeings and they are living it via their unique qualities as performers and which partly defines their ability added to their musicianship and skill communicating the sense of the song to us to send us away with something that we never knew we had inside us. And that also goes for the warmth of the Aga too, a Polish singer too little known alas beyond eastern Europe. Words or melody? I prefer the Gerhard Winkler and Fred Rauch melody to the Carl Sigman lyrics I must confess but togetherness, the way lyrics and tune invade each other is what counts and Sigman reinvented the song and deserves our undying gratitude to inspire all the above and many other treatments.
On extraordinary form once more trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire with his longstanding quintet here extended on a perplexingly-titled album by a string quartet, plus The Vigil guitarist Charles Altura, and singers Becca Stevens, Theo Bleckmann (who features on the new Michael Wollny record Weltentraum) and the startling Canadian singer/songwriter Cold Specks.
Apocalyptic in mood, with a strong socially conscious side to it, the album opens with ‘Marie Christie’, pianist Sam Harris’ babbling brook-like accompaniment behind Akinmusire’s moody flurry of an exposition. Harris sets up ‘As We Fight (Willie Penrose)’ in a different, more narratively-inclined way, placed against snare drum patterns, and Altura’s guitar fits in snugly behind the horns, Justin Brown’s martial beat urgent and vital.
‘Our Basement’ next brings in the voice and lyrics of Becca Stevens and it’s a dramatic moment at this stage of the album, the voice very moody and engagingly strained, the OSSO String Quartet, who have already worked with Jay-Z, Ravi Coltrane, and The National among others, adding a new dimension that expand the range and ambition of the music.
‘Vartha’ has a guitar opening from Altura with a lovely Harish Raghavan bass figure the response and fleeting tambourine rhythm and then a very different aspect to Akinmusire’s tone, a little Thad Jones-like, as the melody of the ballad snakes around a ‘Footprints’-like sequence of notes momentarily to open out.
‘Memo (G. Learson)’ begun by a sinewy Brown drum solo leaning into a finely honed arrangement that blends Walter Smith III’s tenor with Akinmusire’s trumpet a little like the way Terence Blanchard and Brice Winston work together and Smith’s solo draws out the band, its open spirit enabling Harris to find a new space and then Akinmusire flies, the fluttery rapid fire almost Dizzy-like flavour to his style here quite striking.
The violins opening ‘The Beauty of Dissolving Portraits’ catch you off balance transporting you back in time to an historic long-gone America momentarily, then the flute and a plangent wash of textures develop as Akinmusire joins. Akinmusire’s writing is very original throughout and I think it’s a more confident album than 2011’s highly acclaimed album When The Heart Emerges Glistening and more experimental then both that record and the earlier Prelude: to Cora.
Bleckmann’s velvety opening to ‘Asiam (Joan)’ is the male vocal match to the earlier Stevens track, a fine balancing touch, and this song is more impressionistic as it turns out regardless of the classic balladic opening verse with the singer and the ensemble closely united experimentally as the song unfolds.
The highly rhythmic ‘Bubbles (John William Sublett)’ dedicated to the tap dancer and entertainer who played Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, gives bassist Raghavan plenty of room to manoeuvre in a composition that builds on repetitive devices, while ‘Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child (Cyntoia Brown)’ has an achingly tender beginning and an unforgettable vocal on this modern day spiritual from Cold Specks singing her own words on a song whose dedicatee is a tragic 16-year-old who killed.
‘Rollcall For Those Absent’ with the voice of a little child reciting a list of names familiar from news reports including Timothy Stansbury, Amadou Diallo, and Trayvon Martin’s, victims of racism in America, builds on the social commentary while the liturgical aspect of Akinmusire’s work beyond the oblique reference in the album’s title surfaces explicitly and in a spirit of humility on the increasingly free-form ‘J E Nilmah (Ecclesiastes 6:10)’, the biblical text referred to in the tune's title, ‘Whatever exists has already been named, and what humanity is has been known; no one can contend with someone who is stronger.’
‘Inflatedbyspinning’ has an almost 18th century-like chamber dimension to it led off by the strings, while ‘Richard (Conduit)’ has a rolling free anarchic energy where Walter Smith III excels to complete an absorbing and rewarding album that strengthens further Akinmusire’s reputation as an improviser and composer of considerable clout. Stephen Graham
Released on 11 March 2014
From March 2013 It’s always a sense of occasion when Courtney Pine plays Ronnie Scott’s. Like that time in the Soho jazz spot five years ago that the saxophonist took the Jazz Warriors Afropeans to the Frith Street club for the first time. The Courtney Pine band has been back regularly since.
If the Ronnie’s two-nighter next week is anything like his performance on the stage above the superb sprung dance floor of the Assembly Hall in Islington last autumn then it should be quite a couple of nights. In Islington Pine launched House of Legends, this latest album marking a return to the Caribbean in spirit, although very different to earlier albums such as the underrated reggae-based gem Closer To Home.
Courtney tackled merengue, ska, mento and calypso on House of Legends and in the north London venue that night, the superb Mario Canonge, the pianist from the record, appeared, the Martiniquan who came over specially from France for a one-off. He’s not expected though for the Soho dates. But look out for newcomer Chris ‘Santo’ Cobbson on guitar, an addition to the regular band. Pine is a notable nurturer of new jazz talent in his bands over the years. No details of the band setlist for Thursday, the first London jazz club shows since the first ever Hideaway nights in December, are available at this early stage, but such stirring numbers from the album as ‘Kingstonian Swing’, and ‘Liamuiga (Cook Up)’ could well be included, the latter a tune St Kitts and Nevis citizen Wallis Wilin titled after a radio call-out. Hopefully, Pine will also reprise ‘Ça c’est bon ça’, the Dominican part of the album, a style the French call zouk love. If you like lovers rock you may well enjoy the waltzier zouk dimension. ‘From the Father to the Son’ was a highlight at the Islington gig, but the saxophonist didn’t play the highly infectious choro ‘Tico Tico’, which perhaps he will slip in at Ronnie’s. The club’s website lists the band line-up as: Courtney Pine, soprano saxophone; Robert Fordjour, drums; Cameron Pierre, guitar; Chris Cobbson (from singer Shireen Francis’ trio), guitar; Darren Taylor (aka Vidal Montgomery) double bass; and Samuel Dubois, steel pan. SG
Courtney Pine above is at Ronnie Scott’s, London on 7-8 March. www.ronniescotts.co.uk