JULIA BIEL; Julia Biel (Rokit Records)

Thursday, 25 January 2018 14:45 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altFor the past several years Julia Biel has been making quite a name for herself on the London club and jazz circuit. Brought up in the capital but of South African heritage, young Julia mastered the piano and after graduating from Oxford with a languages degree she became a fixture on the London scene with her musical and life partner, bassist Idris Rahman. Her first album was the low key 'Not Alone' which won Ms B a "Rising Star" at the 2006 BBC Jazz Awards. It took nine years for a follow up to materialize but 'Love Letters And Other Missiles' brought a MOBO nomination, an Urban Jazz Award and plaudits from taste makers like Jamie Cullum.

Maintaining the momentum, Julia is all set to release her third album at the start of February. The long player was prefaced by the single 'Wasting Breath'. The broody jazz/pop tune was played out on some of the more sophisticated jazz stations where listeners expect and appreciate elegance, artistry and commitment. Indeed those are the dominant traits of the album. Hardly surprising when you learn that Julia's heroes and influences number icons like Billie Holliday and Nina Simone. No surprise too to read that commentators have made comparison between Julia and Amy Winehouse; those same influences were dominant in the tragic North Londoner's formative years.

The musical soundscape and vocal styling of this eponymous 12 tracker recalls much of dear old Amy's work (I'd suggest a similarity to Corinne Bailey Rae too); the difference, however, is that though Ms Winehouse could "do bleak" she could also work up a head of optimistic steam... think 'Valerie' or even 'Rehab'. At this stage though Ms Biel is happy (not quite the right word) to stick with the bleak. Song titles like 'Critical Condition', 'The Wilderness', 'Dead Slept Rough' and, especially 'You Could Turn A Rainbow Grey' sound like their titles... melancholic, introspective and yes, bleak. An elegant and intriguing kind of bleak, but it would have been more intriguing to hear some optimism and joie de vivre. 'Emily' is as about as "up" as this album gets, but, hey, maybe the music reflects exactly where Julia Biel is right now.

BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 January 2018 21:02


JAMISON ROSS: 'All For One' (Concord)

Wednesday, 24 January 2018 14:50 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

                           altA contemporary equivalent, perhaps, of the late Grady Tate - a jazz drummer who also made his mark as a distinguished vocalist - singer/sticks man Jamison Ross garnered a Grammy nomination for his 2015 debut album, 'Jamison,' and looks set to build on that success with this, his second LP for Concord. Though not yet 30, Ross - whose voice with its smoky timbre and gospel inflections brings to mind Donny Hathaway - seems older than his years in musical terms, showing the kind of maturity associated with a well-seasoned veteran. Though Ross can do straight ahead jazz with aplomb - as evidenced by a fine performance of the Etta Jones-associated jazz standard, 'Don't Go To Strangers' - his signature style is a seamless meld of jazz and soul music. He contributes to seven of the album's thirteen songs (either as a writer or co-writer), blending his own well-crafted tunes with material gleaned from the songbooks of Mose Allison ('Everybody's Cryin' Mercy'), Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin ('My Ship,' which is given a  gorgeous reading), Allen Toussaint ('A Mellow Good Time,' inspired by Lee Dorsey's version), and Fats Waller ('Let's Sing Again'). The unifying factor that brings cohesion to the album's disparate elements is Ross's super-soulful voice, transfiguring everything he sings into a joyful expression that plumbs the deep emotional reservoir of his own psyche. Of his own songs, 'Keep On' is a bright anthem of perseverance and 'Call Me' boasts an uplifting, gospel-infused chorus while 'Safe In The Arms Of Love' is a succulent ballad with a delicate bossa nova undertow. Also listen out for an engaging version of New Orleans funk meister Willie Tee's cult rare groove, 'All For One,' which is spiced up with Cory Irwin's Hammond B3 organ asides and rides an infectious swing beat. Unlike his first album, which was divided into instrumentals and vocal cuts, here Jamison Ross focuses more on his voice and the results are much more satisfying. There's nothing truly mind-blowing here but it's a solid, pleasing and worthwhile album and will certainly help to establish the young Floridian as an upcoming soul-jazz vocalist of note.  

(CW) 3/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 January 2018 20:58


BETTE SMITH: 'Jetlagger' (Big Legal Mess)

Monday, 22 January 2018 19:38 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF


Bette Smith has a voice that is the sonic equivalent of an exploding volcano. And that's putting it mildly. Perhaps that's because it has a deep, intense, pent-up quality and pours forth from the singer's throat in a deluge of cathartic emotional release. It's got a rough, sandpapery texture, too, and even though the singer is in her early thirties, it's a weathered, lived-in voice that sounds like she's not had the easiest of lives. The nearest equivalent I can think of to Smith's cavernous contralto tone is gospel-soul veteran Mavis Staples (interestingly, the younger singer covers the Staple Singers' 'City In The Sky' here on her debut album) but one listen to 'Jetlagger' will tell you that Bette's got her own distinctive 'thang' going on.

Though Bette Smith was born and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, the album evinces a decidedly old school, southern soul sound.  Appropriately enough, she recorded it in Memphis, with Jimbo Mathus, who's played with Buddy Guy, and more recently, Valerie June, at the helm. While their collaboration has resulted in a retro-hued album that could squeeze into the soul revivalist category alongside  the likes of the late Sharon Jones & The Dap-tones, it's not a totally comfortable fit. That's because there are some heavy blues-rock overtones to Smith's work. There's also an epic, psych-rock dimension on the incredible opener, 'I Will Feed You,'  where Smith's  craggy voice is framed by haunting Mellotron-style strings.

The album's energised title song is another memorable tune though it comes across like a fusion of the Stax sound (with its heavy horn blasts) and the '60s psych-band, Love. Stylistically, then, 'Jetlagger' seem to occupy the space occupied by 1971 Stax album, 'Down The Earth,' which was an attempt at soul-rock by Eddie Floyd. The next track, a wild rave-up called 'I Found Love,' is even more rock-oriented with its slashing guitar power chords, though there's a palpable tinge of gospel and R&B in its DNA (it's actually a cover of a Lone Justice song from 1986). The uplifting 'Flying Sweet Angel' (written by Famous L. Renfroe) is slightly more sedate by comparison, featuring a gospel choir and channelling  the spirit of Al Green and Hi Records, while both 'Shackles & Chains' and 'Moanin' Bench' are imbued with a Stax/Atlantic '60s soul feel. Different again is 'Man Child,'  a slice of strutting blues-rock  and the excellent 'Durty Hustlin','  a softer slice of '70s-style  cinematic soul, again spotlighting Smith's magnetic, once-heard-never-forgotten voice.  The album's rounded off with a couple of strong covers - Isaac Hayes' evergreen Shaft-era groover, 'Do Your Thing,' and The Staples Singers' 'City In The Sky,' both of which are reconfigured to reflect Bette Smith's voice and personality, though are respectful to the originals.

So much contemporary soul today is plastic, passionless, and pre-programmed, but this is the real deal. It won't be everyone's cup of with its blues-rock colourations, perhaps, but on this evidence, there's no doubt that Bette Smith is a new and exciting soulful vocal force to be reckoned with.  

 (CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 January 2018 15:03


SIR WICK: A Tale of Two Fools: Novical Soundtrack (Sir Wick Music)

Tuesday, 16 January 2018 21:39 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altSir Wick's 'A Tale of Two Fools' has been winning rave reviews from the more savvy soul media since its release in December. Checking it out, we can understand why. The long player is a monumental, genre crossing piece of work (25 tracks) that offers all kinds of everything and, in short, it's every bit as good as the early reviews have made it out to be!

First a little biography. Sir Wick is the musical alter ego of Detroit trombonist / keyboardist / percussionist/ composer Chad Hughes. "Sir Wick", we're told, was his schoolboy nickname. A music graduate of the University of Michigan, Chad's first proper band was Sir Wick and the Odyssey, but it was under his Sir Wick moniker that he released his first album, the acclaimed 'An Interpretation Of A Universal Language'.

Now some ten years later, Sir Wick is back with a mightier opus 'A Tale of Two Fools' which he describes as the soundtrack to a "novical" – a cross between a novel and a musical. We're not told if it exists or whether it's still a concept but the story focuses on perfectionist trumpeter Eli Brooks whose desire to be the best turns him into a sort of social hermit. However he unexpectedly falls in love with Alexandra an ambitious MBA student with offers of a big salaried marketing job. She realises she loves Eli but doubts if he can ever deliver the material luxuries that another boy friend can. We're not told the denouement, but over 25 cuts Sir Wick musically tracks the relationship and its high and lows. Genre-wise he offers light classical, jazz, hip-hop, gospel, neo-soul, soulful house and , of course, lashings of proper old-fashioned soul music.

The story's main protagonists are voiced by Anthony Saunders and Angela Birchett. Both possess classic soul voices and, though, we're not told, it's clear that Ms Birchett's roots are in gospel. She fronts a number of modern gospel tunes – notably 'What A Mighty God We Serve' and an inspired version of the traditional gospel song. 'Down By The Riverside'. Mr Saunders has a fine set of pipes too – comfortable and convincing on both the soul and jazz numbers that Sir Wick puts his way. 'I Love You' – a Philly style ballad – is one of his standouts.

However, with an album of such consistent quality, it would be churlish to cherry pick. Right now, though, we're loving the lazy 'Give My Love' (redolent of Take 6), the Friends Of Distinction flavoured 'Antoinette' and the meandering modern soul groove that is 'You Are My World' complete with some crazy trombone from Sir Wick himself. Dancers will love the self-explanatory 'Dance Tonight' while romantics everywhere will cherish the sweet ballads and the classical interludes.

We did say that we wouldn't cherry pick... so let's leave it there. Just to say that Sir Wick and his team have crafted each and every track here with maximum care and an overload of love... it shows!

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 17 January 2018 19:30


THE JAMES HUNTER SIX: Whatever It Takes (Daptone)

Wednesday, 10 January 2018 20:46 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

altFor an ex-railway worker Neil Huntsman's not done too badly for himself. A colleague on the railway turned a young Neil onto blues and soul; then mastering the guitar and with a trio in tow, the newly dubbed Howlin' Wilf and the Vee Jays hit the London circuit. A further name change to James Hunter, gigs with Van Morrison and a series of superbly crafted LPs that melded 60s soul sensitivities with a contemporary indie vibe turned the ex-signal man into a cult figure. (Oh, and we've forgotten to mention his GRAMMY nomination). Quietly pleased to be known as UK soul's best kept secret, James Hunter enjoyed the devotion of a coterie of fans who embraced his quirky and quite unique take on classic soul.

Last January though, the landscape began to change. Signed to the legendary Daptone label, James' 'Hold On' album was a huge success and brought our man to a much wider audience – his profile boosted by glowing praise from outlets as diverse as Mojo, Rolling Stone and The Wall Street Journal.

James' upward and onward trajectory is set to continue as he releases the official follow-up to 'Hold On'. The new collection, 'Whatever It Takes', is out in February and it continues Hunter's liaison with Daptone and its enthusiastic head honcho, Bosco Mann.

Musically, 'Whatever It Takes' is the logical extension to 'Hold On'. The set's first single set out the stall. 'I Don't Wanna Be Without You' is typically Hunter; typically Daptone.... lazy, laconic, sweet and soulful. We're told that the song was inspired by Mrs Hunter and indeed she's the muse behind much else of what's on offer. The ultra domestically content Mr H has put together a collection that speaks of true love and loyalty rather than the staple R&B/soul stories of lust, shallow seduction and cheating in the next room.

Highlights? Well every one of the ten cuts has considerable merit; all delivered with passion from a man and band - Damian Hand (tenor saxophone) Lee Badau (baritone saxophone) Jonathan Lee (drums) Jason Wilson (bass) and Andy Kingslow (keyboards, percussion)- who clearly relish what they're doing. Try 'Show Her' to hear what I mean.... redolent of early Motown (think 'You Beat Me To The Punch'), it's a joy in this digitally airbrushed musical era. And we could say the same for the other 9 cuts –even the driving instrumental that is 'Blisters'.

'Whatever It Takes' is released on Daptone Records on February 2nd and it's shaping up to be one of 2017's first BIG albums.

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 January 2018 20:58


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