BLAKE AARON; Soul Stories (Innervision)

Friday, 27 March 2015 22:08 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

BA'Soul Stories' is US jazz guitarist Blake Aaron's fifth solo album and it's an accomplished collection of smooth jazz rather than the soul set that's implied in the album title. In fairness it all begins with a great soul instrumental. 'Groove-O-Matic' features some tight beats and rides a great groove but I can't help thinking that it could have been so much better with a vocal or some real horn input from, say, the Tower of Power people.... but ,hey, I know all about recording budgets.

There are two vocal tracks on the set. 'You're My Miracle' – with vocals from Derek Bordeaux – is adult pop with just a nod to the Jeffery Osborne soul school; 'You're The One For Me' features Spencer Day but it won't trouble jazz or soul heads... file under AOR-lite.

The LP's standout track is Aaron's tribute to Wes Montgomery... 'Wes Side Story'. With a Latin-lilt, this is smooth jazz as it should be. Elsewhere, 'Sol Amor' is an Earl Klugh style acoustic affair; 'Europa' is as spaced out as any ode to a planetary moon should be; 'Story Of My Life' is a lite bossa; and 'Encantadara' is an intricate jazz tune with Najee on flute. You also get a decent if uninspired version of Hall and Oates' 'Sara Smile'. Always a great tune, ("emotional and passionate" says Blake), this reading is fairly straight forward.

Find out more @

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Friday, 27 March 2015 22:21


SHAYNA STEELE: Rise (Ropeadope)

Thursday, 26 March 2015 19:30 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

shayna-steele-rise-lp-leadThe daughter of a military family, Shayna Steele has led something of an itinerant existence. Born in California, she's lived in (amongst other places) Germany, Oklahoma, Missouri and Mississippi but now resides in New York where she's a valuable and valued member of that city's vibrant music coterie. Her credits include work with Snarky Puppy, Moby and Bette Midler and those experiences along with her varied addresses go a long way to explaining why the music on her new LP, 'Rise' is so varied, eclectic and adventurous.

There are all kinds of everything on the 11 tracker but the unity comes from Ms. Steele's ever expressive vocals and the quality of the material – all the lady's own creations are proper "song-led" tunes – not sketches, skits or simple grooves - while the selected covers offer the same level of quality.

The album begins with a lugubrious and moody ballad, 'I Got You' - a brave choice for an opener and you'd be forgiven for thinking that you were about to be hit with 40 odd minutes worth of introspection. The mood changes quickly though with the jaunty, jazzy 'Sunshine Girl' and that's the measure of the collection – swift changes of mood and direction. Interestingly the piano vamps on 'Sunshine Girl' might recall (for some) the best of Mose Allison and guess what? Shayna covers one of good 'ole Mose's tunes. It's his wonderful 'Everybody's Crying Mercy' and here Ms S gives it a rocky treatment with plenty of choppy guitar from Robin Macatangay.

Other noteworthy tracks are the cover of Bill Wither's 'Grandma's Hands' and the soulful 'Gone Under' which features rumbling guitar textures in the fashion of the Marvin Gaye version of 'Grapevine'. Standout however is the ultra elegant 'Hyde Park' – a kind of folksy/soul/jazz sound which illustrates perfectly what I mean by song-led material.

Incidentally 'Rise' features some top session players/guests – notably Marcus Miller, Christian McBride and Robert Randolph and you can find out more @

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Friday, 27 March 2015 16:22


CASSANDRA WILSON: ‘Coming Forth By Day’ (Columbia/Legacy)

Wednesday, 25 March 2015 09:20 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

Cassandra_coverRegarded as one of the most accomplished jazz singers of her generation, Mississippi-born Cassandra Wilson returns to the fray with her nineteenth album in a recording career that began almost thirty years ago back in 1986. In that time 59-year-old Wilson has won two Grammys but more importantly established herself as a unique, sui generis artist who has redefined what it is to be a jazz singer. Indeed, Wilson, herself, while undoubtedly being part of the lineage and tradition established by her forbears Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln, has never fitted comfortably into the orthodox jazz singer mould. This new album - her debut on Columbia's Legacy imprint - is a case in point: intended as a homage to Billie Holiday (whose centenary it is this year), 'Coming Forth By Day' is anything but a conventional collection of jazz standards. Wilson takes eleven songs associated with Holiday - including 'Good Morning Heartache,' 'Don't Explain' and the chilling 'Strange Fruit,' a song about lynching - and while preserving the essence of the originals transforms them into something complete unrecognisable from Holiday's own interpretations.

This is achieved by Wilson surrounding herself with several non-jazz musicians (in this case members of Nick Cave's band, The Bad Seeds) and using producer, Nick Launay, whose CV includes production credits for rock acts Arcade Fire, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and ...Nick Cave. The end result is something truly mesmerising and transcendent. Wilson's sultry, majestic voice is a thing of dark yet luminous beauty, gliding over raw, brooding, almost ramshackle blues-inflected retoolings of key Holiday songs.  Her voice is also exquisitely framed by some telling string arrangements by veteran Van Dyke Parks - especially on the album's standout cut, 'You Go To My Head,' whose opulent string coda recalls the orchestral work of Hitchcock film composer, Bernard Hermann. An original Wilson tune, 'Last Song,' closes the album and finds the singer imagining Holiday's final words to her good friend, saxophonist Lester Young, whose funeral she was unable to attend. It's a fitting end to an album that highlights the fact that 100 years after her birth - and fifty-six years after her death - Billie Holiday's music is still valid and continues to resonate with us in the 21st century.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 27 March 2015 16:05


KIRK WHALUM; The Gospel According To Jazz Chapter IV (Rendezvous)

Tuesday, 24 March 2015 22:10 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

KirkSax man Kirk Whalum enjoys a deep Christian conviction and has always used his remarkable musicality to help spread the word with an unshakeable zeal. To that end, back in 1998 he launched the initial 'Gospel According To Jazz' album – an honest attempt to share what he saw as the gospel truth through his music. Each subsequent release enlarged the scope of the project and now with 'Chapter IV', Kirk offers a 2 CD, 19 song set which is both provocative and inspirational and, if you want to discover more, there's also a feature length DVD.

The whole album was recorded live at the Christian Cultural Centre in Brooklyn and to help him spread his message Kirk assembled a stellar cast.... featured on the album are people like Rick Braun, Norman Brown, John Stoddart and brother Kevin. Kevin is the featured vocalist on one of the album's highlights – a version of Paul McCartney's 'Let 'Em In'. Cleverly, the Whalum's re-write the lyric, taking phrases from the Book Of Revelations...the message being "let's all do a better job of letting people in without judging". Hope and empowerment are the themes of another of the set's highlights – a version of the Impressions' 'Keep On Pushing' and as President Obama was quick to point out at the recent Selma anniversary ceremonies, Mayfield's words are as relevant now as they ever were. No coincidence either that one of the tracks, 'My Hero', is dedicated to Obama.

The album's main focal point however is a lengthy Latin-flavoured tribute/homage to John Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme' while elsewhere there are sermons on gun violence ('Triage'), homelessness ('I See You'), a tribute to the city of Memphis ('Can't Stay Blue') ,a paean to Nelson Mandela ('Madiba') and a tune for mothers ('Beauty In Strength, Strength In Weakness'). 'Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child' has added poignancy in the context of this album while Todd Rundgren's 'Love Is The Answer'' speaks for itself. Forget the England Dan/John Ford Coley hit version; this is the real deal and a great ending to an album that, by the way, is dedicated to the memory of George Duke who played on the first three Jazz Gospel sets.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 March 2015 09:26


Van Morrison: ‘Duets’ (RCA)

Sunday, 22 March 2015 15:07 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

Van_newSubtitled 'Re-working The Catalogue,' Van Morrison's latest project - mostly co-produced with Don Was - finds the mystical Irish savant/auteur exploring his own back pages in the company of a stellar line up of guests: ranging from the late Bobby Womack and volcanic-voiced Mavis Staples to jazz cats and kittens, Gregory Porter, Michael Bublé, Natalie Cole and the UK's Clare Teal. Indeed, UK artists are well-represented on this heavyweight assemblage, which also features veteran singers/musicians Mick Hucknall, Georgie Fame, Chris Farlowe, Steve Winwood and Mark Knopfler as well as relative newbie, Joss Stone. With all this talent on board, you'd think that success was guaranteed but that's not always the case with such star-studded affairs, which often flatter to deceive and can sometimes just be marketing exercises whose principal aim is widening the main artist's demographic net (as with the Sinatra and Tony Bennett duets albums). Thankfully, 'Duets' ticks none of the above. It's an enjoyable affair that finds some of the key songs in Van Morrison's canon re-imagined as impassioned dialogues.

Bobby Womack joins forces with Van for an energetic revamp of 'Some Peace Of Mind' and another soul legend, Mavis Staples, brings new gravitas to the imploring ballad, 'If I Ever Needed Someone.' George Benson's presence on vocals as well as his trademark guitar sound injects some smooth jazz tropes to the uptempo 'Higher Than The World.' Another distinguished jazzer, rising star Gregory Porter, brings a pleading gospel intensity to a reading of 'The Eternal Kansas City' which includes a finger-clicking, jazz-swing-style middle eight. Yorkshire's queen of jazz, Clare Teal, shows another side to musical personality with her plangent interpretation of the slow ballad, 'Carrying A Torch,' where her interchanges with Morrison achieve a heart-wrenching poignancy. Canadian lounge maestro, Michael Bublé, is also out of his perceived comfort zone, contributing to the stomping, Motown-esque 'Real Real Gone.'

Comprising 16 tracks, there's a lot to digest here but because of plenty of musical light and shade as well as strong performances, the listener's interest is easily maintained. As you'd expect, veteran Brits Georgie Fame, Chris Farlow, and Steve Winwood - all old pros - acquit themselves admirably. Joss Stone impresses opposite Van on 'Wild Honey' while veteran Texas singer, P.J. Proby, emerges from obscurity to show that he's still got what it takes on 'Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby.' Two other notable cameos, from blues man Taj Mahal (on 'How Can A Poor Boy?') and Van's daughter, Shana Morrison, add further spice to what is a well-seasoned and delectable confection.

(CW) 4/5


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