12 September 2021: starting out/stripped back/early gems/late vintage

The show this week starts with some tunes where the music is stripped back to essentials, moves on  to contemporary British sounds and then later includes some classic British jazz. There’s a slot for one of Miles Davis’ last recordings from a live concert in Vienne, France and we end with an interesting Cuban/US musical merger.

 1.  Samara Joy – Stardust from Samara Joy    

Eighteen year old US vocalist Samara Joy has her debut album released on the London-based indie label Whirlwind Records. The Bronx-born singer graduated this year from Purchase College in New York State but – more importantly for us – won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal competition for 2019. Previous winners have included Cosmic Jazz favourite Jazzmeia Horn so it made good sense to check out Samara Joy. That win opened the jazz door for Joy and she recorded her self-titled album earlier this year with guitarist Pasquale Grasso, double  bass player Ari Roland and drummer Kenny Washington. They provide intricate but delicate and subtle backing on this album of classics from the American songbook and this trio alongside the emotional power of Samara Joy’s voice provide interesting interpretations – as can be heard on the Hoagy Carmichael/Mitchell Parish standard Stardust, recorded by Nat King Cole and a host of others. It’s a difficult tune to play or sing but among Neil’s favourite versions would be this superb one from John Coltrane and Willie Nelson’s 1978 take that demonstrated he was much more than just a country singer. Joy gives this classic tune a kind of candid simplicity that feels like the jazz equivalent of bedroom folk – a young woman reflecting on her future life. It’s an affecting combination and, whilst the record has few surprises, this is an engaging debut from a singer with huge promise.

2.  Cassandra Wilson – Blue Light Til Dawn from Blue Light Til Dawn

The gentle use of electric instrumentation on Samara Joy prompted the selection of a tune from an album where the vocalist made minimal use of electric sounds – namely Cassandra Wilson’s superb Blue Note debut Blue Light Til Dawn. Released back in 1993 this album has truly stood the test of time, still sounding cool and contemporary. In 2014 Blue Note re-released the record to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Wilson’s European tour based on the album, with three additional live recordings. The album has a strong blues element with two Robert Johnson tunes, classic soul from Ann Peebles tune and two sublime takes on Joni Mitchell’s Black Crow and Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey. The album also has three of Cassandra Wilson’s own compositions, including the title track we featured on the show.

3.   William Parker – Happiness from Painter’s Winter   

Bass player William Parker is a jazz man of the moment. There seems to be a stream of releases from him of which Painters Winter is one of the most recent. William Parker plays trombonium and shakuhachi as well as bass, Daniel Carter is on trumpet, alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet and flute and Hamid Drake on drums – a trio who first played together in the early 1970s and have kept in touch. The music takes the show further along in an acoustic vein, but the music  sound heavy, deep and intensive. William Parker describes the journey in his sleeve notes Daniel Carter, Hamid Drake and William Parker are on the road called ‘Happiness’ looking for rare flowers. Flowers without preset chords yet changing moods tempos and colors according to the story they are telling.

4.  Emma-Jean Thackray – Venus from Yellow   

Meanwhile, Emma-Jean Thackray is a jazz trumpeter of the moment and Yellow is her first full length release. Initial reviews suggested a mix of Sun Ra, Flying Lotus, Funkadelic and Alice Coltrane but on listening this is simply an album that works. Thackray may have said that she approached the record “by trying to simulate a life-changing psychedelic experience” – which explains something of the overall sound of this great new record – but mixing disco and New Orleans brass, soaring string arrangements and a vocal choir has resulted in an album that easily earns our recommendation. For an insight into Thackray’s thinking about Yellow, check out her recent interview with New York’s Jazz Vinyl Lover Ken Micallef.

5.  GoGo Penguin – Signal in the Noise from GoGo Penguin    

We’ve championed GoGo Penguin since their first record Fanfares which appeared in 2012, and the self-titled GoGo Penguin is their fifth full length album. Emerging from Manchester, this trio – pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka, and drummer Rob Turner – are located in that hinterland between EST, Aphex Twin and Phillip Glass – minimalism, trip hop, electronica and, of course, jazz. In 2015 they signed to Blue Note with the powerful A Humdrum Star appearing in 2018. It was at this time Neil saw the trio at the Singapore Jazz Festival (see photo) and was hugely impressed by their performance. Now in their mid-30s, GoGo Penguin make crisp, confident trio music that’s beautifully recorded – especially Nick Blacka’s bass on tracks like Atomised – here in an excellent live version – and also one of the tracks that was remixed on a follow up release, GGP/RMX.

6.  Bernard Maseli Septet – Jerks at the Audience from Good Vibes of Milian 

Jerzy Milian played vibraphone in Krzysztof Komeda’s band in the late 1950s before becoming a composer, arranger, leader and conductor of numerous bands and orchestras in Poland. He was a long-time leader of the Polish Radio and Television Entertainment Orchestra in Katowice writing pop music, jazz and ballet, film, symphonic and opera scores. Remarkably, in the 1980s the night-time UK BBC2 test pattern – which was accompanied by background music – included pieces by Jerzy Milian and this led to the formation of a cult group of fans who would gather together to play their off-screen recordings of the music.  For this tribute to Milian’s compositions, four Polish vibraphonists got together and recorded Good Vibes of Milian live at a Polish music festival in  2017. The band was led by Bernard Maseli on vibes and marimba accompanied by vibists Bartosz Pieszka, Dominik Bukowski and Karol Szymanowski with Bogusław Kaczmar on piano, Michał Kapczuk on double bass and Marcin Jahr on drums. The album is available here on Bandcamp. For more music from Jerzy Milian himself, you could start with the rare album Ashkabad Girl which was re-released in 2003 on Obuh Records. There were only 350 hand numbered copies, so good luck finding one –  but check out this original version of Mloty na widwni (Jerks at the Audience) for a taste of Milian’s music. If you like this (and Neil does!) there’s a mint copy on Discogs for £300…

7.  Miles Davis – Human Nature from Merci Miles! Live at Vienne   

In July 1991, just two months before he died, Miles Davis played an electrifying set at one of his favourite live venues in Vienne, south eastern France and now – 30 years later – this previously unreleased performance has been released as Merci, Miles! Live At Vienne in a 2CD/2LP set. There are two compositions by Prince (Jailbait and Penetration) but far more interesting is this extended take on Michael Jackson’s Human Nature, first recorded by Miles on his You’re Under Arrest album from 1985. Human Nature and Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time were to become concert staples in these last years and this version of the Steve Porcaro tune features an extended, impassioned alto sax solo from Kenny Garrett. Musically, Davis had cut down his touring band to just five musicians: gone were the multiple keyboardists, guitarists, and percussionists. The result is that the band members play less, but they play tighter. This almost final take on Human Nature is stretched out to 18 minutes but there’s no flab here. Indeed, Davis something of a revelation: his Harmon mute playing is full of flexibility and style, with those famous silences separating the short phrases that bring the band down to a whisper. There are echoes of the flamenco sounds of Sketches of Spain and Siesta, some classic bebop lines and those childlike melodies that first surfaced in Jean Pierre. Garrett gives it everything (as was typical of the live London performances that Neil witnessed at this time) and at the end of Garret’s screaming solo there’s no restatement fo the melody – indeed, Davis is already into the chords of Time After Time. It’s a great performance. [Thanks to writer Allan Mitchie for some inspiration here.]

8.  The Alan Skidmore Quintet – Old San Juan from Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain   

Alan Skidmore may be the UK’s homegrown John Coltrane. Indeed, he’s recorded five albums of largely Coltrane music, including an excellent live album at one of our favourite small venues, the Fleece pub in the Suffolk village of Boxford, called Impressions of John Coltrane (on ITM Records). Along with the others – Tribute to ‘Trane (on Miles Music), After the Rain (also Miles Music), Berlin (on ITM) and Naima (also ITM) – this live recording is well worth seeking out. We’ve featured tracks from this album previously on Cosmic Jazz (see our Coltrane tribute show on 19 July 2017) and here’s Skidmore’s take on Impressions from that superb live album. As a teenager Skidmore witnessed at first hand the 1961 appearance of the John Coltrane Quintet at the legendary Walthamstow Granada Theatre concert – even gaining access to the green room after the show and sitting just feet away from Coltrane himself. This was a really significant performance, recorded just a week after Coltrane’s celebrated appearance at the Village Vanguard. His quintet of the time included Eric Dolphy as well as McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman and Elvin Jones. There’s an excellent personal reminiscence of saxophonist Evan Parker’s teenage visit to the show here on the London Jazz News blog.  An occasional drummer himself, Skidmore has worked with both of Coltrane’s regular 1960s kitmen – Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali – and has performed with a host of British jazz artists including Alexis Korner (1964), John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (1964), Ronnie Scott (1965), Georgie Fame And The Blue Flames (1970), Mike Westbrook (1970-71), Mike Gibbs (1970-71), and Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood Of Breath (1971). In 1969, he formed his own quintet with Kenny Wheeler, Tony Oxley, John Taylor and Harry Miller), with which he won the best soloist and best band awards at the Montreux International Jazz Festival and gained a scholarship to Berklee College Of Music. In 1973, he co-founded S.O.S., probably one of the first all-saxophone bands, with Mike Osborne and John Surman. He has subsequently formed various small groups of his own, including El Skid (co-led with Elton Dean), SOH (with Ali Haurand and Tony Oxley), and Tenor Tonic (with Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers and Tony Levin), and has worked with the George Gruntz Concert Band, the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, the Charlie Watts Orchestra, Stan Tracey, Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Georgie Fame again, and with the West German Radio Band. In the 1970s and beyond, Skidmore increasingly worked in Europe where – as he acknowledged – jazz was properly supported: “They’ve got this thing in Germany and other European countries where you turn up to do a gig and, nine times out of ten, it’s recorded by local or national radio… Jazz musicians in Germany are well treated. Your music is art.” Without doubt, Skidmore is one of the finest saxophonists the UK has produced and Tony Higgins’ superb new compilation Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain recognises this through the selection of an inspirational track from the album Once Upon a Time (1970). The comprehensive booklet that accompanies this essential 2LP/2CD set makes clear the excellence of this performance: As Skidmore told Alyn Shipton “If you listen to it today, it’s a fresh as paint. It sounds like it was recorded last week.” (Jazz Library, BBC R3 – March 2012). The extended John Warren composition Old San Juan comes from that 1970s quintet with Wheeler, Oxley, Taylor and Warren and is a fine example of Skidmore’s superb tenor playing. Again – if you can find it – the album is a total recommendation, but this new 2021 compilation from Tony Higgins (follow him on Twitter @TheJazzDad) is a a real gem: buy on vinyl to get two superbly remastered discs (from Gearbox Records in London) and Higgins’ comprehensive 20,000 word essay – check out the album trailer here. It’s worth noting here that Tony Higgins was also responsible for the excellent annotations that accompanied the two editions of the Impressed collection that Gilles Peterson curated for Universal. They’re still available on either CD or vinyl. Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain is an essential compilation and will be supplemented by an upcoming reissue programme of British jazz albums with all vinyl pressed at Gearbox in London. Don’t miss out on this collection though – it’s a truly superb assemblage of British jazz talent.

9.  Dick Morrissey Quartet – Storm Warning from Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain

Our second choice from this new compilation is a hard bop bossa workout from tenor saxophonist Dick Morrissey’s 1960s quartet. Morrissey emerged in the early 1960s in the wake of Tubby Hayes, Britain’s pre-eminent sax player at the time. Morrissey made his name as a hard bop player, appearing regularly at the Marquee Club from 1960 and, with his quartet, made regular appearances at the celebrated Bull’s Head in Barnes. In the 1970s, Morrissey met up with Glaswegian guitarist Jim Mullen and the pair went on to form a partnership that lasted over 16 years with Morrissey-Mullen becoming Britain’s foremost jazz-fusion band. Morrissey was a session saxophonist for many pop artists too, and his is the saxophone solo you hear on the Vangelis theme from the film Blade Runner. He died in 2000, with Steve Voce writing in The Independent newspaper that Morrissey had the “… ability to get through to an audience. He was one of the great communicators of jazz and… able to communicate with his listeners and quickly to establish a bond with them… Like Charlie Parker before him, he was somehow able to lift audiences that knew little or nothing about his music”.

10. Orquesta Akokan – 16 Rayos from 16 Rayos  

Orquesta Akokan are a Grammy nominated Cuban/New York based ensemble – and this album is the result of a dialogue between artists living in the United States and Cuba. 16 Rayos was recorded at the legendary Egrem Studios in Havana and will be released in October on Daptone Records. The band is the brainchild of its three leaders – lead vocalist and composer José ‘Pepito’ Gómez, Chulo Record’s Jacob Plasse and arranger Michael Eckroth, with each bringing their experience working with Latin powerhouses to the table. Following the success of their debut album, Orquesta Akokán returned to Cuba, drawing inspiration from folklore and religious tradition to stretch the boundaries of mambo conventions. The second album expands their sound with the addition of strings and there’s a traditional Cuban feel merging the folkloric congo rhythm from Santiago de Cuba with the power of the mambo horns and some strong, forceful vocals. Drawing on the deep spiritual traditions rooted in West Africa but expressed  through Cuban music , this is real uplift for the soul and release for the body.  Akokan, by the way, is the Yoruba word used by Cubans to mean ‘from the heart’ – or simply ‘soul’. It’s a fitting way to end this show – look out for more deep Cosmic Jazz sounds soon.

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