26 July 2021: Latin classics, Miles live and new music from Europe

Cosmic Jazz this week begins and ends with contrasting Latin music, but sandwiched between is some contemporary European music, including new releases from the UK Edition and Brownswood labels. As if this wasn’t enough, there’s Miles and Bheki Mseleku live and more. Many contrasts, many styles, much to enjoy!

  1.  Ana Mazzotti – Agora Ou Nunca Mais from Ana Mazzotti

Ana Mazzotti was described as a “super-musician” by the legendary Brazilian artist Hermeto Pascoal. Born in 1950, in the southern Brazilian city of Caxias do Sul, she was a musical prodigy playing accordion by the age of five before moving to piano and conducting her local choir, but this promising career was cut short by premature death from cancer while still in her thirties. Mazzotti was also hampered by financial restraints and suffered from prejudice as a female songwriter in a fundamentally sexist society.  Luckily, her music has been re-released by the British label Far Out Records. Agora Ou Nunca provides a lively, easy body-swaying opening to the show. Co-written with Jose Roberto Bertrami from Azymuth with Romildo Santos on drums – her husband and the person who introduced Mazzotti to jazz. If you want to buy Mazzotti’s self-titled album it’s worth checking out which version you’ll go for: the two Far Out releases are essentially the same record, but in 1977 Mazzotti took her original 1974 debut album back to the studio, releasing the album with a new running order and new cover art to bid once more for commercial success. There are re-recorded vocals, and the bonus of some great new horn arrangements, together with a new track: the carnivalesque Eta, Samba Bom replacing Roberta Flack’s Feel Like Making Love. We think this version is the one to go for and you can find it here on the Far Out website.

2. James Brandon Lewis and the Red Lily Quintet – Arachis from Jesup Wagon

Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has released a mightily powerful record. It is powerful both in its music but also in its context. Arachis is his elegy to arachis hypogaea – the scientific name for the peanut. Lewis has studied the life and work of Dr. George Washington Carver (1864-1943), a man whose inventions and achievements were numerous, and whose travelling work on his Jesup Wagon assisted many Southern farmers, but someone who is most remembered for his contribution to finding many, many uses for peanuts. But Lewis wants to reclaim Carver into a wider context: in addition to being a botanist, educator and symbol of Black pride, Carver was an accomplished musician and painter. He insisted that art and science, as processes of discovery, were never in opposition. And he was a pioneer of sustainable agriculture, whose findings sometimes put him at odds with private industry. Our CJ choice for this show is Arachis, which tracks the journey of the peanut from slow beginnings to rising from the underground to blooming freely. Lewis first deployed bass legend William Parker on his breakthrough Divine Travels album and he’s back alongside Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Chris Hollman on cello and Chad Taylor on drums. With mbira (Taylor) and guimbri (Parker) added into the mix, this is earthy, percussive music that also includes some of the best, most melodic writing of Lewis’ career to date. And the Jesup Wagon? This was the name of the carriage that Carver drove across the South during his Tuskegee Institute years, conducting demonstrations for poor farmers on how to cultivate their land more sustainably.

3.  Alfa Mist – Coasting  from Bring Backs

Alfa Mist is a UK-based artist whose route to jazz has been via hip-hop. Described as an exploration of his upbringing through music, Bring Backs takes a sonic trip back to his beat-making past in east London, through the depth and musicality discovered composing and playing jazz. This journey is exemplified on Mist’s new fourth album Bring Backs, which follows a 2020 project with drummer Richard Spaven (see below) as 44th Move – their self-titled EP delving into the fertile space between the dance floor and headphone-based introspection – take a listen to Fly, for example. On Bring Backs, Alfa Mist is joined by a number of collaborators including Jamie Leeming (guitar), Kaya Thomas-Dyke (bass and vocals), Jamie Houghton (drums), and Johnny Woodham (trumpet) who create a kind of suite with each composition rolling into the next and linked by sections of a Hilary Thomas poem expressing the realities of building community in a new country. Coasting, the tune selected for this show has a gentle. lilting, atmospheric, sonic feel with Alfa Mist’s electric piano weaving its way through the tune,  Woodham’s trumpet sounds optimistic and encouraging and Houghton provides firm, but restrained drumming.

4.  STR4TA – Aspects from Aspects

When was this recorded you might ask – 1981? Because this is pure Brit-funk – a wholly successful attempt to recreate the classic sounds of such bands as Light of the World, Incognito and Freeez. Aspects led the way – a first single that appeared at the end of 2020 and much played on Worldwide FM and other UK radio shows. So who’s behind the intriguingly -named STR4TA? The answer is DJ Gilles Peterson and Jean-Paul (Bluey) Maunick from Incognito. The album appeared in March 2021 and the recreation of that pioneering British sound is faultless. There’s some concessions to the spacey synth melodies of groups like Atmosfear and Hi-Tension but this album stands on its own as the essence of the era with a more contemporary twist. With the exception of some inane lyrics on a few tracks, this is a jazz dance must. For the session itself, Peterson and Maunick wanted to approach the music-making from the starting point that led to those early classic Brit-funk records like Freeez’s Southern Freeez or Atmosfear’s Dancing in Outer Space, capturing the raw energy and sound of the moment. Recalling his role in the process, Peterson says he was the one making sure things didn’t get too polished. “I was there at the back, telling them, no, leave it like that, cut it there, or just use that first take.” Also featured on the record are Francis Hylton on bass and Matt Cooper on both keyboards and drums.

5.  Miles Davis – Ife from Tokyo 1973 (Live)

Early to mid-1970s saw the most radical and creative period in Miles Davis’ career with the trumpeter drawing influence from the soul and funk groups of the time, including Sly and the Family Stone and George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic axis. Added to this, Miles was playing more rock oriented venues and opening for groups such as the Steve Miller Band, the Grateful Dead and Santana. The outcome was a slew of albums that showed the transformation of his music beyond even the radicalism of Bitches Brew (1970). On the Corner, released in 1972, exemplified this: on board were six percussionists (including Badal Roy on tabla) and Colin Walcott and Khalil Balakrishna on electric sitars. The resulting music was all over the place – and it’s meant to be. Michael Henderson’s bass keeps some kind of pulse but everything else weaves in and out of the mix. As if this wasn’t enough, producer Teo Macero deploys his cut and paste technique more savagely than on Bitches Brew, which is why this impenetrable and almost tuneless concoction of avant-garde classical, free jazz, African, Indian and acid funk bombed spectacularly, leading to decades in the wilderness. This from writer Paul Tingen, author of Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 in his Guardian review of The Complete On the Corner Sessions from 2007.

So where does this leave us with our electric Miles choice on this edition of Cosmic Jazz? In the three years following the release of On the Corner, Davis took more steps in the same direction – but this time live. By June 1973 he had trimmed his band down to seven players, fronted it with guitarist Pete Cosey, who had spent time with noted blues performers as well as playing with Chicago jazz artists Phil Cohran and the Pharaohs. His fearsome guitar style is at the heart of these performances with this take on Ife, a tune which first appeared on the Big Fun compilation and was recorded just after the On the Corner sessions. In this live Tokyo version, Michael Henderson’s bass anchors the tune for nearly 20 minutes as Dave Liebman solos on soprano sax and flute while Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas mesh together on guitars. Al Foster on drums and Mtume on congas provide the beats and Davis cues them in from his electric organ. The percussion effects you hear throughout come from Cosey and Mtume and you either love or hate the outcome: Davis uses his wah-wah pedal almost continuously and the music is both focused and loose. To get a visual idea of this band live, this version of Ife from the same tour’s Vienna concert gives some idea of how ‘out there’ this music really is. There has been nothing like it since.

6.  Bheki Mseleku – Cosmic Dance from Beyond the Stars

We featured this posthumous release back in May and it’s time to check it out again. The late Bheki Mseleku was something of a phenomenon. An entirely self-taught pianist, saxophonist, guitarist and composer who grew up in Johannesburg, Mseleku moved to London in the late 1970s where, in 1987 – and cradling a tenor saxophone at his piano stool – he made his debut at Ronnie Scott’s club. His 1991 album Celebration was nominated for  Mercury Music Prize (but, of course, it didn’t win). Meditations and Timelessness appeared on major label Verve in subsequent years but by 2008 Mseleku was dead from diabetes at just 53. Now comes a newly-discovered solo piano recording, overseen by long time friend and supporter Eugene Skeef who had helped Mseleku return to London in 2003. Beyond The Stars is the result: a solo piano suite which condenses Mseleku’s vision of the diversity of South African musical forms into a statement in six parts. There are references to Mseleku’s Zulu heritage and the song forms of marabi, amahubo, maskanda and nguni create a kind of musical summary of his life.

7.  Tommy Smith – Song of the Martyrs from SOLOW

Neil owes this one to Scots music promoter Rob Adams who introduced Neil to this remarkable EP from Edinburgh-born saxophonist Tommy Smith. Recording his first album Giant Strides at the age of sixteen, Smith has gone on to carve an international jazz career recording with Blue Note and Scottish audiophile label Linn Records in the 1990s. He founded the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in the same decade and went on to record classical works and his own compositions with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and other large ensembles. In contrast, SOLOW is a very small scale work – an EP of solo tenor sax tunes directly inspired by experiencing psalm singing live on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Hebrides. The music which has a ‘call and response’ element is unique and powerful. In Gaelic unaccompanied psalm singing, a precentor leads with the first line, and from here the congregation responds, some faster than others, but with each one remains discernible. The form is influenced by the pibroch style of free ornamentation – improvisation, if you like – and reflects the ebb and flow of wind and waves. Neil has also experienced this music in the Free Presbyterian churches of the far north west of Scotland and it’s a remarkable sound. You can hear it here in an extract from a BBC programme on the Presbyterian tradition in Scotland and the EP can be found on Tommy Smith’s Bandcamp site where you’ll also find more of his music.

8.  Harold Budd –  Arabesque 3 from Avalon Sutra

That ebb and flow can be heard in Harold Budd’s music too. Budd, who died at 84 last year from Covid-19 complications was a minimalist composer who found inspiration in the music of the Medieval and Renaissance eras. He himself described his music as “so sweet and pretty and decorative that it would positively upset and revolt the avant-garde, whose ugly sounds had by now become a new orthodoxy.” It was a far cry from his start in music – playing drums in a regimental band alongside Albert Ayler – but Budd would go on to collaborate with Brian Eno, the Cocteau Twins and others. His work is ostensibly secular but, through the use of his ‘soft pedal’ piano technique sounds rather beatific. 2005’s Avalon Sutra/As Long As I Can Hold My Breath is one of his best and Arabesque 3 (with sopranino saxophone by Jon Gibson) is a delight, with the sax breaking through Budd’s softly whispering piano. For more Budd listen to The Pearl, his collaboration with Eno and this track Late October.

9.  Daniel Herskedal – The Lighthouse on the Horizon from Harbour

Atmospheric is a term that has already been used above but it applies in an even stronger sense to the music of Norwegian composer and tuba and bass trumpet player Daniel Herskedal. His sixth album Harbour was released earlier this month on the British label Edition Records. It is beautifully lyrical, rhythmically charged music. The Norwegian landscape has been an important influence on Herskedal, and you can feel the landscape where this album was produced in his music. The album was recorded in December 2020 at Ocean Sound Recordings, perched on an island on the rugged Norwegian coastline.  The Lighthouse on the Horizon must have been a welcoming reassurance in this setting and at a time of year when the daylight hours in Norway are very short.

10. Petter Eldh feat. Erik Harland – Hawk Mountain from Projekt Drums Vol 1

“I’m obsessed with the drums” said Swedish producer and bassist Petter Eldh. He has been able to practise that obsession by making an album (Volume 1) with six diverse tracks that involve six different exciting drummers on the scene today. They are Richard Spaven (who can be found on one of the tracks on Alfa Mist’s album), Savannah Harris, Nate Wood, James Maddren, Gard Nilsson and on Hawk Mountain American drummer Eric Harland, whose credits include working with  Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland and Joshua Redman. The music is complex and tough and the arrangements include a total of sixteen instrumental collaborators comprising harpists, French horn, marimba players, keyboards and synths. This  music demands careful listening that will bring considerable rewards.

11. Kasia Pietrzko Trio – Passiac Avenue from Forthright Stories

The young 27 year old Polish pianist Kasia Pietrzko has become a regular on Cosmic Jazz and someone whose music we have liked to champion after coming across her through the excellent Steve’s Jazz Sounds. Her music is challenging, original and complex. Pietrzko studied jazz piano at the Krakow Music Academy and later in New York with, among others, Aaron Parks. She now has two albums released, Ephemeral Pleasures 2020 but Passiac Avenue can be found on her first album Forthright Stories, a title which almost sums up her approach to the music. Check her out on her Facebook page where you can find live solo and group performances.

12. The Awakening – Glory to the Sun from Mirage

More from Black Jazz Records to celebrate the re-release of the complete label catalogue from Real Gone Music. With only twenty records issued during the short life of the label, there’s a very high hit rate, with some essential jazz classics to look out for. This is one of them. The Awakening were the only group on the Black Jazz roster, and should have been heralded as one of the great bands in early 70s jazz. That they’re not is largely the result of the Black Jazz label’s distribution woes – if you can find an original copy of this record today you’ll be paying handsomely for it. Mirage was their second (1973) album and the last one they made together. The lineup is the same Chicago-based, AACM-centric musicians as on the first album, with the notable addition of bassist Rufus Reid on a couple of tracks. Spiritual jazz, free jazz, soul jazz, fusion jazz? It’s pretty much all represented here. This is the first vinyl re-release of this record – remastered at Sonic Vision and with new liner notes by Pat Thomas, it’s a keeper. Neil picked up his vinyl album from the excellent Analog Vault in Singapore but you may need to move fast for your own copy.  We say, music to inspire, to lift the spirits and to soothe mind, body and soul.

13. Jane Bunnett – Spirits of Havana from Spirits of Havana/Chamalonga Disc 1

The show ends with another artist that we keep turning back to – namely Jane Bunnett, Canadian soprano sax and flute player whose love of Cuban music has informed her playing over many years. Spirits of Havana was first released in 1992 and then reappeared as an expanded 25th anniversary CD in 2016. Bunnett and her husband, trumpet and flugelhorn Larry Cramer, travelled to Cuba in 1990 where they  assembled a collection of great Cuban musicians, including vocalist Merceditas Valdes and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The recorded outcome was a perfect, polished, precise feast of music that presents authentic Afro-Cuban, folk and jazz rhythms. This title tune has it all: blaring horns, tight percussion and crystal-clear vocals with spiritual choral responses. There is no feeling of the outsider going in and merging musical styles. This music feels and sounds natural and authentic. Bunnett brought together top musicians who simply gave their best. Highly recommended.

Neil is listening to…

It’s a Neil is listening to…  special for this Cosmic Jazz show with a chance for you to share the June Record Store Week edition of The Analog Vault’s Analog Club – tracks played and mixed by Leon and Nick from TAV.  This edition kicks off with a track from Khan’s Jamal’s 1984 Infinity album and doesn’t look back. Music also includes Gary Bartz, Cymande, the remarkable reissue EP from Ben Tankard and more treasures including a track from the new Brownswood South African compilation Indaba Is. For more from The Analog Vault, check out their 2020 top 20 – a jazz-heavy selection of great music.

2 thoughts on “26 July 2021: Latin classics, Miles live and new music from Europe”

  1. Hi Stewart – thanks for your comment. Wikipedia states that Edinburgh was Tommy Smith’s birthplace but you might have more detail on this! Whatever, I hope you enjoyed the music in the show – keep listening!

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