All posts by Neil

28 April 2022: live at the Analog Vault!

This is a Cosmic Jazz special, recorded live at The Analog Vault store in Singapore. Thanks to Leon and Hannah for making it happen. We were celebrating International Jazz Day, so there’s the usual Cosmic Jazz eclectic mix of tunes. The text is an extended version of Neil’s mic comments on the show. Enjoy!

Technics 1210s and Condesa mixer in full force at Analog Vault!
  1. Lalo Schifrin – Shifting Gears from Bullitt film score (1968)

One of the funkiest soundtracks ever – if you’ve not seen the film, this is the beginning of the San Francisco car chase sequence with Steve McQueen (after whom the brilliant Singapore group the Steve McQueens are named) in a Ford Mustang Mach 1. The build-up in the three minutes of music is so good. This doesn’t sound dated at all – just as good in 2022 as in 1968. Lalo Schifrin was from Argentina and recorded loads of film music – the Mission, Impossible theme is his and so are the Rush Hour films with Jackie Chan. But this is his best one. Trivia fact – keys are played by Mike Melvoin, father of Lisa Melvoin who was half of Wendy and Lisa in Prince’s band The Revolution. There’s a great version of Shifting Gears on Youtube where the horns have been looped to extend the track to 11 minutes – brilliant! Find it here – and here’s the original  film sequence for Shifting Gears:

2. A Tribe Called Quest – Jazz (We’ve Got It) – from The Low End Theory (1991)

Everyone will know these guys – A Tribe Called Quest were really the very best, along with Gang Starr, at using jazz samples in their beats. The samples here come from Jimmy McGriff – Green Dolphin Street (the horns), the Five Stairsteps – Don’t Change Your Love (that’s the drums) and The Doors – Light My Fire is also there in the lyrics – “wallow in the mire”. Genius! Like pretty much all of their music this is everything you’d want rap to be – great samples and loops, with witty and conscious lyrics. ATCQ were at their musical and lyrical peak here – thanks to Q-Tip and the late Phife Dawg for all those beats and rhymes…

3. Emma-Jean Thackray – Venus from Yellow (2021)

And now up to date – this is trumpeter Emma-Jean Thackray and she’s on tour in the UK next month. This is from her first full length album, Yellow – and every track is really strong. The whole thing’s got forward-sounding beats and bass, but it also goes back to cosmic jazz sounds from the 70s. Great to hear lots of Fender Rhodes and analog synths coming back so strong these days! It definitely reflects her philosophy – “move the body, move the mind, move the soul”. There’s a kind of Roy Ayers vibe in all of this too – which is why some of the tracks work well as remixes – speaking of which, there’s a great new Theo Kottis remix of Spectre from the album on Bandcamp – check it out here.

4. Khan Jamal – The Known Unknown from Infinity (1984)

Now we’re going to go really chilled and modal. This album is one I’d been looking for in the wild for quite a while – and then, I got the reissue here at Analog Vault! It’s a reissue on the Jazz Room label and well worth getting hold of. Khan Jamal is a vibes player who died earlier this year. He’s not very well known at all, but this track might convert you. The brilliant drummer Sunny Murray is on this record (just listen to him!) and Byard Lancaster is on sax and flute. It’s mesmerising music and just builds over and over in the way that modal music can do. There are very few Khan Jamal records around but you can also find him playing vibes in a very different context on albums by Ronald Shannon Jackson’s group The Decoding Society. The music is wild – like Ornette Coleman’s electric Prime Time group but even more crazy/funky.

5. Dexter Gordon – Tanya from One Flight Up (1964)

Ok – so we’re into the Tone Poets from Blue Note. What can I say about these records that hasn’t already been said? Basically, the story is that in 2021 Don Was – the new President of Blue Note Records – announced the creation of the Tone Poet series of vinyl reissues. All only on vinyl and in editions remastered by the tone poet himself, producer Joe Harley, who was given that nickname by saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Harley co-founded the Music Matters reissues, focusing on both classic and more obscure titles from Blue Note. There are about a hundred reissues, and they’re all now rare collectors’ items – if you can find them. When Don Was saw and heard these records he asked Harley to do the same thing for Blue Note. Some of these are now hard to find but get them when they first come out. You won’t be disappointed. So, One Flight Up and Dexter Gordon. This is worth it just for the side-long Donald Byrd composition, Tanya, but Gordon’s huge tenor sound, the utter brilliance of the then-teenage bass player Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and rock-steady drummer Art Taylor have never sounded better. And check out the gatefold as well with the coolest photo of Dexter Gordon inside. It’s all beautifully produced too.

6. Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes – Nightrider from What Kinda Music (2020)

Staying with Blue Note but a new(ish) release from 2020. It’s singer/songwriter Tom Misch and drummer Yussef Dayes with a bunch of the best of the south London jazz massive. Nightrider is basically a night-time version of Be Thankful for What You Got – remember:Though you may not drive/A great big Cadillac/Gangster whitewalls/TV antennas in the back… It’s the same laidback mid-tempo groove. Be Thankful… was recorded by William DeVaughn and then famously recorded by Massive Attack on their album Blue Lines. What Kinda Music is an album that catches up with you. I had it on DL for ages before I bought the vinyl – and it’s so good on disc. I’ve listened to it over and over – and you will too. For more Tom Misch check out his Beat Tapes as well and the earlier album Geography – all on Bandcamp. Here’s the great video for Nightrider.

7. Marcos Valle – Bar Ingles from Nova Bossa Nova (1998)

Now the backstory with this one. On 08 July 2005 I was in London for a meeting with a publisher. It was the day after the notorious London bombings in which 52 people of eighteen different nationalities were killed in a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks. So, I was travelling on the tube/MRT with everyone around me nervous and quiet. But as I came up the escalator and into the sunshine, over my headphones came the opening bars of Bar Ingles (English Bar). It begins with this great fade in and then Valle sets up the Fender melody and we’re off on one of his jazz fusion classics. After the shock of these bombings, I truly felt that music is the healing force of the universe, as Albert Ayler said. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see Valle reprise this tune when I saw him at the Jazz Cafe, London – and there were tears in my eyes.

8. Kahil El’Zabar – In My House from Spiritgroove (2020)

Back to a release on a new label called Spiritgroove. This record sounds a bit like something Pharoah Sanders might have done in the 1970s, but it’s just a couple of years old. El’Zabar is a Chicago drummer who has been recording for ages, but he’s been producing some great albums in recent years – and they look and sound fantastic on vinyl too. We edited this a bit (the full track is over 20 minutes long) but you’ll get the idea. The tenor sax is by the legendary David Murray – wild! In the sleeve notes, El’Zabar says The Bebop music masters all expressed to me that in the beginning of Bebop, people everywhere danced with Spirit to the music of Charlie Parker! This is the moment to rekindle the motion of social relevance within the legacy of jazz as an improvised people’s movement for social change!

9. Herbie Hancock – The Traitor from Manchild (1975)

Back to the funk! I bought this record at a London market when it first came out in 1975 and this is my third copy (a reissue on Speakers Corner). There are two bass players on this – both of them total masters of funk bass. Paul Jackson Jnr. is so under-rated but the other player is maybe more well known – Louis Johnson from the Johnson Brothers. I always wanted to play electric bass and I never did learn. But when I was younger I knew this guy called Job Ndela who – like me – was training to be a teacher. He was from Nigeria and a bass player and even when teaching kids he wore these crazy clothes – I remember him in a pair of snakeskin thigh length boots! Herbie’s first synth solo on this track is just wild and then his piano riff kicks in too. Awesome!

10. Tony Allen & Jeff Mills – The Seed from Tomorrow Comes the Harvest (2018)

Ok – we’re almost there. This is a pairing of two masters from different kinds of music – Tony Allen (once called the best drummer in the world by Brian Eno) was the creator of afrobeat – the Fela Kuti sound – and Jeff Mills is a Detroit techno pioneer. I was again lucky enough to see them at the Field Day Festival in London when this record was released and it was just such a great combination – the totally unique afrobeat of Tony Allen and the synth pads, Roland drum machines and CD decks of Jeff Mills (he doesn’t use Technics turntables!). But the music has a somehow old-fashioned sound as well – there’s a Hammond organ sound in here too. You might be lucky enough to find the 10in EP of this record…

11. Les McCann – The Dunbar High School Marching Band from Layers (1973)

And so we end this show with a return to another record I bought soon after it came out in 1973. I sold that copy to buy more records, but really missed it and had to try and get another one – not easy, because until it was reissued a couple of years ago you could only find it on CD. I finally found it here in Singapore early last year. In his high school, Les McCann played in the school’s marching band – and he’s remembering that in this track – a really groundbreaking synth jazz record. Apart from a three-man percussion section and electric bassist Jimmy Rowser, Layers is all electronic – pretty much the first jazz record recorded in this way.

That’s it! And now it’s time to give a shout out to the Singapore record stores that provided this wonderful music – The Analog Vault, The Jazz Loft at Retrocrates and Choice Cuts. They’re all dedicated to keeping the music alive in the Little Red Dot (Singapore). Hope you enjoyed the music everyone.

20 December 2021: the vinyl revival and jazz reissues

In 2021 Don Was, the new President of Blue Note Records, announced the creation of the Tone Poet series of vinyl reissues. Yes, all these records were to be issued only on vinyl and in editions remastered by the tone poet himself, Joe Harley. To understand what this means we need to go back a little…

Joe Harley is a key figure in the growth of jazz vinyl reissues. He co-founded the Music Matters reissues, focusing on both classic and more obscure titles from the Blue Note canon. The result was over a hundred reissues, almost all of which are now rare collectors items attracting premium prices on buying and selling websites like Discogs. Music Matters committed very early on to make buying one of their records something of an event – so they focused on gatefold packaging with often previously unseen studio photos inside. The jackets were all substantial glossy recreations and the high quality vinyl was always heavyweight 180 gram discs. The cost was high compared with your typical record store secondhand buy – but the quality was unimpeachable. As Harley acknowledged, “It was evident from the minute you pick up the record that it was special.” Notably, every single one of the 33rpm issues on the Music Matters website is out of stock. When Don Was saw and heard these records he approached Harley and asked him to apply the same high standards to a new series that would be issued by Blue Note Records itself. Harley agreed, and the result was the first series of Tone Poet titles in 2020. Many of these are now relatively hard to come by but the programme has continued and new titles emerge every month. This excellent insheepsclothinghifi interview gives us an insight into what Harley wanted to achieve and includes a link to the Youtube interview between Was and Harley that gives further details of both the background to the project and Harley’s approach to remastering.

We have provided links before to both the Blue Note Tone Poet series and now their cheaper – but equally carefully produced – Classic reissue series, but here they are again for newbies. And the Tone Poet name? Well, we can thank saxophonist icon Charles Lloyd for that one – he named Harley ‘the Tone Poet’ and went on to title his most recent Jazzwise-poll topping release Tone Poet in Harley’s honour. The result is – unexpectedly – a superb sounding record with Lloyd at the top of his mature game. Of course, it’s a Cosmic Jazz recommendation too – and for those who have left the vinyl world – it is available as a CD and download (although the latter is only for US markets).

We could have expected that the other record majors would follow suit – and this is exactly what has happened. Enter the huge Universal catalogue with access to the Verve, Impulse!, Phillips and Decca labels and more. Of course, there has always been a clutch of audiophile reissue labels with MoFi (Mobile Fidelity) being perhaps the most well known. But to this growing roster we can now add Impex, Craft, Sam, Pure Pleasure and many more – and the result is that jazz record fans have never had it so good. Neil has been crate digging for years but that now includes checking out all the new vinyl titles and reissues that have emerged over the last few years. What is fuelling this seemingly unstoppable trend?

Long before Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, vinyl records were the physical music format – in the 1970s, vinyl sales peaked at 530 million units a year and accounted for 66% of all music format revenues, but by the 1990s this had dropped to less than 10 million units and a mere 0.1% of the market share. What happened? The arrival of CDs in 1982 signalled the virtual end of the vinyl record – cheap to produce and marketed with the tag “perfect sound, forever”, there wasn’t much hope for the seemingly outdated black wax format. And the introduction of mp3 files via iTunes was the final nail in the coffin. But – as we all know – vinyl has made an impressive comeback. For each of the past 15 years, sales of new vinyl have gradually increased. In the first half of 2021 alone, 17 million albums were sold — an 86% jump from 2020. The remaining 40 or so pressing plants around the world simply can’t keep up with a demand that is being fuelled by new generations of record buyers. But why? After all, vinyl is much more expensive to produce, is far less portable and requires relatively expensive equipment to sound good. The answer is with the buyers. 70 percent of these new collectors are the millennial generation, or those under 35. They have the purchasing power and – more importantly – the desire for some kind of tangibility after years of listening to poor quality invisible mp3s via their iPhones. A wholly passive experience is turned into an active one – from crate digging in your local record store (and coffee shop), to opening the record sleeve, dropping the stylus and reading the album cover notes. More than this, a culture has been created around vinyl – without the ubiquity of being the only recorded music format, it becomes an elected choice with tangible benefits: records can be collected, traded and displayed. And – as the trading sites like Discogs demonstrate – vinyl is becoming increasingly valuable. Whether new limited editions on coloured vinyl or original pressings from vinyl’s golden age, records are an investment. In the world of jazz, a (possible) first pressing of Hank Mobley’s Blue Note 1568 (released in 1957) was sold on eBay in 2015 for £7300 – double the previous highest price paid for any other jazz record, ever.

And so, back to Blue Note’s Tone Poets/Classics and Universal’s Acoustic Sounds jazz reissues. Let’s check out five of Neil’s favourites from these back catalogues and give some guidance on what to buy – if you can find them. First up is a recent release and so still readily available – Charles Mingus and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse! – 1963). This repressing isn’t cheap (SGD50 /£35) but is a revelation soundwise. Housed in a beautiful glossy gatefold sleeve, with the original liner notes by Mingus and his psychologist, this record belongs in every jazz collection. A six-part suite with dramatic shifts in mood and tempo, the music features a three-way brass dialogue of trumpets, trombone and tuba, swooping reeds and awe-inspiring rhythm section. Balancing delicate Spanish modes and Ellingtonian themes, the overall effect is simply breathtaking. Next up is Dexter Gordon’s One Flight Up (Blue Note – 1964). This is worth it just for the side-long Donald Byrd composition, Tanya, but Gordon’s huge tenor sound, the utter brilliance of the then-teenaged bass player Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson and rock-steady drummer Art Taylor have never sounded better. This one should come in a little less in price than the Acoustic Sounds/Impulse! records). It’s another gatefold of course and beautifully produced. Blue Note also had access to other labels too and Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Solid State – 1968) was one of the first of these reissues Neil bought. Is it Corea’s best ever record? Maybe. It’s certainly an album you’ll come back to over and again, just as Neil has. A classic piano trio with Miroslav Vitous on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, Corea moves between his own kind of hard bop and music that is much freer and ‘out there’. The sound is spectacularly good and slightly better than Neil’s excellent Japanese import version bought a few years ago. It’s back to Blue Note with McCoy Tyner’s last record for the label. Expansions was released in 1968 with Tyner fronting a remarkable band including trumpeter Woody Shaw, Shorter on tenor and Gary Bartz on alto. The opening track is appropriately titled Vision and is indeed a vision of where Tyner was heading at this time. Stunning music that pushes and pulls against the boundaries of mainstream modern jazz. Neil’s final choice takes us back to tenor legend Charles Lloyd whose new 2021 album (appropriately called Tone Poet) is an all-analogue production mastered by Joe Harley’s right-hand man Kevin Gray and includes Bill Frisell on guitar and Eric Harland on drums. It sounds fabulous and includes spirited takes on Ornette Coleman’s Rambling and Gabor Szabo’s Lady Gabor. So, there’s never been a better time to listen to vinyl. With more and more retailers opening – here in Singapore, I can walk to two great stores in ten minutes – and with new turntables regularly appearing on the market there’s an unlimited opportunity to get into music on vinyl. As Charlie Parker said, Now’s The Time.

21 February 2021: the mourning of a star…

Welcome to a reflective Cosmic Jazz. This week we are mourning the loss of three music legends – Chick Corea,  Janet Lawson and Johnny  Pacheco. Our title is taken from Keith Jarrett’s album of the same name which includes the reflective The Mourning of a Star. We begin with Chick Corea and three tunes that reflect his prolific output over five decades. Corea was born in 1941 and – despite the compositional link with Spain – was of Italian descent. Composer, keyboardist, bandleader and – with 500 Miles High, La Fiesta, Windows, Spain and more – the creator of modern jazz standards, Corea had a long and distinguished career in music.

As a member of Miles Davis’ band in the late 1960s (along with luminaries Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland and Tony Williams) he was there at the birth of what is often called jazz fusion – but is really just jazz stretching out to encompass other musical genres, as it has always done.  Among the most influential jazz pianists along with Hancock, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett, Corea had a unmistakable style that was influenced by his Mediterranean roots and those pianists he most admired – particularly Bill Evans and Bud Powell. The early trio masterpiece Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968) was re-released in the Blue Note Tone Poets series (see this Cosmic Jazz post) and is highly recommended as a starting point for CJers new to Corea’s music. This is the superb title track which – in the first minute alone – includes many musical motifs that surfaced again and again in Corea’s writing. There is a joyousness in his piano playing that clearly reflected his sunny personality. Aware of his late cancer diagnosis, a Facebook message was posted by Corea on 12 February:

“I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright. It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It’s not only that the world needs more artists, it’s also just a lot of fun.

“And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I’ve known you: It has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly—this has been the richness of my life.”

1. Miles Davis – In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time from In A Silent Way

So where do we start with our tribute to this keyboard master? It has to be that most influential of Miles Davis records, In A Silent Way. Released in 1969, this music was revolutionary for a number of key reasons. It took Davis on a journey away from the technical mastery of his second quintet and into completely new territory. In January 1969 Corea was already a core member of the new Davis group. with his ring modulated Hohner keyboard at the centre of the new sound. You can clearly hear its use on the Isle of Wight concert video from 1970 (Keith Jarrett is on the other keyboard). In A Silent Way simply transformed thinking about what jazz could be and also introduced Teo Macero’s studio manipulations into the music. The result was an album that will never date. It sounds timeless. As Rolling Stone writer Lester Bangs noted “It is part of a transcendental new music which flushes categories away and, while using musical devices from all styles and cultures, is defined mainly by its deep emotion and unaffected originality.” We featured the Joe Zawinul composition In A Silent Way that bookends the second side of the record, with It’s About That Time sandwiched in between. This is one of Zawinul’s most beautiful pieces and has influenced all genres of contemporary music from ambient through to dance. The ethereal beauty of the music carries all before it. To listen to In A Silent Way for the first time is to experience an epiphany.

2. John McLaughlin – Waltz for Bill Evans from My Goals Beyond

McLaughlin’s guitar contributes much of the atmosphere of In a Silent Way and he included a short Corea tune on his My Goal’s Beyond record from 1971. Both musicians would count Bill Evans as a musical influence and so we featured Waltz for Bill Evans, itself a nod to the classic Evans tune Waltz for Debby, itself now a jazz standard like Corea’s Spain. My Goals’s Beyond is something of a lost album. Although it has been reissued several times, it remains little known against McLaughlin’s more electric output, and was something of a forerunner to his long running Shakti project. Both have strong Indian influences, with McLaughlin being heavily in thrall to Sri Chinmoy, the guru de nos jours for some jazz musicians in the early 1970s.

3. Chick Corea and Return to Forever – Spain from Light As A Feather

Wikipedia counts over 30 different interpretations of Spain and Corea himself recorded the tune a number of times in different formats. We featured the original version on the second Return to Forever group’s album Light As a Feather, recorded in London in 1973. The tune may sound familiar because it opens with a melody from Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and then continues to use Rodrigo’s chord progressions in Corea’s improvisation. This first version of the Return to Forever group  included Stanley Clarke on bass, Airto Moreira on percussion, Flora Purim on vocals and the under-rated Joe Farrell on flute. A 2CD set from 1998 included a second disc of alternative takes and the track Matrix which first appeared on the aforementioned Now He Sings, Now He Sobs album. It’s not an essential version to have – but the original belongs in everyone’s record collection.

4. Chick Corea – 500 Miles High (Live) from Trilogy 2 (Disc 1)

Return to Forever became more electric as the 1970s counted down. The album Romantic Warrior (1976) was the final recording in this format and Corea experimented with different groups and styles – his piano duet records with Herbie Hancock perhaps the most celebrated of this period. If you can avoid a copy with the bizarre Smurfs cover (a Japanese pressing, for example) the album Friends is worth a look. It’s Joe Farrell again on saxes and flute too. This is Samba Song, featuring the propulsive drumming of Steve Gadd. Corea returned to a more fusion sound with his Elektric Band which, in turn, was complemented by the Akoustic Band of the same era –  a trio that included jazz standards in their repertoire.  The trio format remained a constant with its finest invocation in the ECM Trio records playing once again with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes. Our final tribute track is from yet another trio performance, but this time a much more recent release, 2020’s Trilogy 2, with Corea on acoustic piano, Christian McBride on bass and drummer Brian Blades. This 2CD set featured tracks recorded during trio’s world tour and includes American songbook standards, jazz classics and a reach back into Corea’s own catalogue. By the time of this recording the trio had been together for ten years – and it shows. Like the first live Trilogy release from 2013, this record is a summation of Corea’s jazz journey. Beautifully engineered with a superb sound, Chick Corea’s joy at performing in the classic jazz trio brings us right back to that earlier trio record from 1968 with which we began this post.

5. The Janet Lawson Quintet – You Promised from The Janet Lawson Quintet

6. The Janet Lawson Quintet – So High  from  The Janet Lawson Quintet

7. The Janet Lawson Quintet – Sunday Afternoon – The Janet Lawson Quintet

Our next artist to remember is vocalist Janet Lawson, who actually collaborated with Chick Corea and other artists such as Ron Carter, Duke Ellington, Sheila Jordan, Dave Liebman, Cedar Walton, Duke Pearson and Eddie Jefferson – among others.  Born in Baltimore, but NYC based, Lawson really used her voice as another instrument. The British label BBE Records re-released her first self-titled album in 2014 with sleeve notes citing John S. Wilson’s New York Times review which notes that she “places her voice as an element of the instrument ensemble in almost all of her numbers rather than as a singer with instrumental accompaniment.” More than that, “when she takes her solos, Miss Lawson improvises – with or without words – as an instrumentalist would.” He added that Lawson “has the kind of voice that most jazz singers probably wish they had. It is a full, well‐developed, remarkably pliant voice with a lower range whose dark sonorities compare favorably with the deep power of Sarah Vaughan.” High praise indeed. So what happened to Janet Lawson and why is she not more well known?

She travelled the US, and to Latin America and Jamaica, but most of her work was in New York clubs and from 1968-69 was a regular guest on Steve Allen’s New York TV show. Lawson was also involved in improvisational acting, teaching master classes in vocal improvisation and was a founder member of Women In Music, a group of six musicians. Gilles Peterson has recently commented that she was a staple at the legendary Sunday afternoon sessions at Dingwalls in London and  the title of one of the tunes we chose suggests it may well have been a firm favourite there. Janet Lawson’s voice is supported by some fine musicians on our three tunes from that first album, originally released in 1981 – Ratzo Harris on bass, Roger Rosenberg on baritone sax, Jimmy Madison on drums and Bill O’Connell on piano. Lawson died aged 80 in January 2020 with just two records to her name. Both are worth looking out for. You can still download her 1981 debut here on Bandcamp, but her follow up album Dreams Can Be from 1984 will be more difficult to track down. Here’s the title track featuring the same excellent band and some lovely scat singing from Lawson herself.

8. Johnny Pacheco – Azuquita Mami from Fania All Stars Live/Salsa Caliente

Both Chick Corea and Janet Lawson drew upon and played music with Latin influences. The final artist we remember, Johnny Pacheco, who died aged 85 earlier this month, was a seminal Latin artist – you could say Latin through and through – but jazz remained a key element. Pacheco and his fellow musicians were responsible for fusing jazz, rhythm and blues, funk and other styles into traditional African-Cuban music to create salsa – literally, ‘sauce’, and implying a mix of many different Latin styles.

Johnny Pacheco was born in the Dominican Republic but his family moved to New York when Pacheco was 11 and it was here that he became a major figure as a musician, bandleader and co-founder of the essential Latin music label Fania Records, a joint venture with lawyer and Latin music fan Jerry Masucci. From its humble beginnings in Harlem and the Bronx, Fania brought a new sensibility to the music. Many of the lyrics to the new songs were about racism, cultural pride and the incendiary politics of the New York streets.The tune Azuquita Mami has appeared on many Latin compilations (including Super Salsa Hits released by Charly Records in the UK), but this version is from the French compilation Salsa Caliente released on Universal and bought in Paris. It features several other classic Latin artists, including an excellent band from Japan! If you’re new to music from this inspirational label, it’s worth searching out a superb 4CD Fania compilation called Ponte Duro: the Fania All Stars Story, released in 2012. It captures the All Stars live in New York, around the world and in the studio. You can hear Pacheco (and ‘Symphony’ Sid) introduce the band here live from Spanish Harlem in NYC.

9. Johnny Pacheco – Alto Songo from Introducing Johnny Pacheco

In Pacheco’s home in Dominican Republic, the local merengue music is part of the fabric of everyday life. Among the several instruments he learned to play were the flute and the accordion, both essential to merengue. In New York his flute-playing became handy for playing the Cuban charanga music and he was hired by Charlie Palmieri to play in a charanga band before forming his own Pacheco Y Su Charanga in 1960. But it was that first meeting with Masucci three years later that was to change Pacheco’s fortunes. Pacheco became Fania’s creative director and musical producer, as well as performing his own music and recording with the Fania All Stars and many other artists. The tune Alto Songo was released originally on Introducing Johnny Pacheco on Fania (1989), although it’s available elsewhere including another Charly Records release of 1989. Sue Steward’s sleeve notes to this album inform us that Manny Oquendo was on timbales and that the tune has “growing subtlety out of Rene Hernandez’ whimsical few bars of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto.” It’s a classic Fania tune. Oquendo has been featured on earlier Cosmic Jazz shows (check out here and here) via his band Libre.

10. Hector Lavoe – Mi Gente from La Voz/I Like It Like That

Johnny Pacheco’s influence began to spread widely. In the early 1970s he was greeted by a crowd of 5,000 as he arrived at Dakar airport. His music was a great influence on Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab and other West African groups who took back the Latin rhythms that were themselves often derived from traditional African rhythms.  Pacheco went on to release hundreds of records, often in collaboration with other Latin artists like Cuban singer Celia Cruz. His songwriting provided material for other Latin musicians, including one of the greatest Latin vocalists Hector Lavoe, whom Pacheco was to portray in El Cantante, the 2007 biopic of the singer. Mi Gente (translated as ‘my people’) is a Johnny Pacheco composition that was most famously recorded by Lavoe and is considered one of his finest recordings. There are numerous versions, but one of the most popular was recorded with the Fania All Stars in 1974 in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) while Lavoe was there to perform at the celebrated Zaire 74 festival prior to the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ –  Mohammed Ali’s title fight against George Foreman. You can see Lavoe’s performance here – and, yes, that’s Pacheco conducting and stage managing the whole performance. The orchestrations, the brass and the big band feel provide ample evidence of the links to jazz. This version is available on a great Fania compilation which include a set of originals together with more contemporary remixes – here’s Louie Vega’s EOL remix of Mi Gente.

Pacheco was to record with a number of jazz musicians including George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Les McCann and McCoy Tyner. He’s featured on this version of Duke Ellington’s Duke’s Place from Tyner’s tribute to the great bandleader, McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington (1965). For many years he spearheaded the Johnny Pacheco Latin Music and Jazz Festival at Lehman College in the Bronx, an annual event in collaboration with the college (streamed live in recent years) that provides a stage for hundreds of talented young musicians studying music in New York City schools. His legacy lives on.

Cosmic Jazz: 20 for 20 – the best of 2020

It’s not been easy. Cosmic Jazz pays tribute to all those worldwide first response heroes who have saved  the lives of others with little thought of their own; we mourn all those many Covid-19 deaths in the jazz world; we feel the loss of the jazz venues forced to close this year; and we celebrate the amazing jazz on record and online that has sustained us through these dark months. It’s the last of these that we want to single out in our 20 for 20 feature. We’ll write at length about our ten favourite releases from this year and list ten others that we’ve both really enjoyed listening to. As always, we urge you to listen to the music on the show and then support the musicians by buying in your chosen format – preferably through a site that pays a decent rate. We continue to recommend the journey of discovery that is Bandcamp along with the constant inspiration from Steve’s Jazz Sounds along with independent record stores – like our UK local Soundclash Records and Vinyl Hunter and the Singapore havens of The Jazz Loft, the Analog Vault and Hear Records. Check them all out via the links and support and other these essential independent outlets.

Whittling down a long shortlist hasn’t been easy for for either of us, but we have each finally settled on five top choices each – four new releases and one reissue. For Neil, the year has been dominated by the arrival of two vinyl audiophile series from Universal – the new Tone Poets from Joe Harley/Don Was on Blue Note and the more recent parallel series from from Chad Kassem on Verve and associated labels. The vinyl revival does indeed continue apace with all major labels reissuing great jazz recordings on on high quality pressings. Yes, there are opportunist companies out there who churn out very poor digital CD transfers that should be avoided – but the best of the rest (Blue Note, Verve, Sam, Gearbox and others) – are giving us the best opportunity to hear the magic of vinyl. It’s all backed up by a revitalised turntable industry that has seen the launch of a number of new brands and models as well as the return of some established favourites.

Let’s begin Neil’s list with five essential purchases – starting with Nubya Garcia and her first full length album, Pace. We reviewed this record on its release in and it still stands up as one of the best from the wave of new British jazz artists. Alongside the excellent (if quirkily titled) 2019 album from saxophonist Binker Golding – Abstractions of Reality Past and Incredible Feathers – Pace has real variety, great solos, deep studio production and some thumping, dub-sounding bass throughout from UK player Daniel Casimir. The production on this album is very much a step up from Garcia’s first EPs: recorded with producer Kwes, whose credits include Solange and Bobby Womack, Garcia is pushed into new territory that really demonstrates her diversity.  It all remains firmly rooted in jazz but there’s a range of other influences here too – from the afore-mentioned dub to cumbia and Ethio-jazz. Here’s the title track. It all works and the album is highly recommended. Garcia’s strongest influence is tenor player Joe Henderson but she has her own distinctive sound too. This one won’t disappoint.

Over the course of a career spanning six decades, veteran drummer Jerry Granelli has worked with many jazz artists – most notably with Vince Guaraldi (appearing on the landmark A Charlie Brown Christmas album in 1965) and with blues vocalist Mose Allison. Now Granelli has revisited these two collaborations from the vantage point of a more exploratory ‘now’ perspective. Never one to dwell on the past, Granelli has never revisited earlier music in this way but the opportunity to try a modern urgency with collaborators Jamie Saft and Brad Jones was clearly too good to ignore. Both Saft and Jones have worked across a broad range of musical genres, with their musical orbit including saxophonists John Zorn, Ornette Coleman and Dave Liebman, trumpeters Dave Douglas, Cuong Vu and Wadada Leo Smith, bassist Steve Swallow, drummer Bobby Previte, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams as well as collaborations with rock artists such as Elvis Costello and Iggy Pop. Granelli notes “You’re letting go of the past, you’re letting go of the present, and you’re just in the music. That’s the place you want to play from at all times. Then your whole vast experience is available to you and you can discover something new you’ve never played before. This record is a wonderful celebration of that coming together of now”. So, no room for nostalgia here as the take on Cast Your Fate to the Wind exemplifies. Mose Allison’s Your Mind is On Vacation receives a similarly free treatment with Saft coming across as the missing link between Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor.  Highly recommended. You can buy this RareNoise label album here on Bandcamp – listen and then go for the vinyl – stunning packaging and terrific sound.

Up next is Chicagoan percussionist Kahil El’Zabar who has been rather prolific with releases over the last year. We’ve featured two albums from him in recent months on Cosmic Jazz but it’s the timely and ironically titled America the Beautiful that makes the cut into Neil’s top five. It’s a relatively large ensemble joining El’Zabar this time with Corey Wilkes on trumpet and the late Hamiet Bluiett on baritone saxophone. There are two versions of the title tune, Charles Wright’s Express Yourself and a twist on Afro Blue but we’ve selected the hypnotic Jump and Shout (For Those Now Gone)There’s no doubt about the focus for this music – “Now’s the time for us to collectively invoke a confluence of trust and imagination that will enlighten a future path towards ethical humanity,” El’Zabar writes in the album’s statement of purpose.  The album is on the new UK Spiritmuse label and, not surprisingly, our recommendation is to get it on vinyl. It’s beautifully produced and a joy to look at too with great cover art from Nep Sidhu.

The Grammy Award-winning big band of Maria Schneider has produced several superb records in recent years, all emerging exclusively on the ArtistShare label, and this year’s 2CD Data Lords is another master work. Schneider started out as an assistant to noted arranger Gil Evans – and it shows. Her music has a similar depth of arrangement and an intensity that is all her own. Her long-standing opposition to big data companies and digital streaming has been well documented in articles, interviews, and congressional testimony and, since 2003, she has relied on the original crowdfunding label ArtistShare to finance her 18-piece orchestra recordings. Data Lords is the fifth of these. The first record offers warnings of the power and influence of the digital world through track titles like Don’t Be Evil (a reference to Google’s original motto) while the second record is in sharp contrast and features more of the harmonic depth of previous Schneider releases. Sanzen is named after a Japanese Buddhist temple and Look Up includes the beautiful piano of the late Frank Kimbrough who died suddenly earlier this month. Check out this Jazziz magazine streamed interview feature with Maria Schneider.

Neil’s final choice is a reissue – a record first bought on vinyl many years ago but released in 2020 as part of Blue Note’s superb Tone Poet series. Blue Note label boss Don Was has recruited analogue remastering guru Joe Harley (the Tone Poet) and engineer accomplice Kevin Gray to oversee a new series of titles, all re-engineered, remastered and repressed with extreme care. Find out more here and then check out the current titles here. The result is some awesome music, much of which has either not been previously obtainable or can only be found at extortionate prices on sites like Discogs. There are no easy recommendations here as all of the titles have something special to offer but (if you can find them) start with Chick Corea’s superb Now He Sings, Now He Sobs or Jackie McLean’s It’s Time! – but, truth be told, you won’t go wrong with any of them. So choosing just one of the new Tone Poets wasn’t easy as any of them could have been included in a Best of… list but the super-trio of Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach is really something special. Money Jungle (1962) was their only recording together and it’s stunning. Apparently, there were personal tensions in the studio and perhaps this contributed to the fireworks on disc. Whatever, the music from this session is tremendous throughout. Ellington wrote some tunes especially for this date and revisited other pieces, like the beautiful Fleurette Africaine and Warm Valley. The title track is a thunderous opener and there’s a wild take of Ellington’s much-recorded Caravan. This new version is the copy to have – the original pressing is too muddy by half.

These Tone Poet records may be more expensive than your standard vinyl issue, but with a decent turntable you’ll hear the difference immediately. BTW, if you’re looking for a new deck simply avoid any briefcase or console style packages and the cheaper offerings from Pioneer, Marantz and Denon as these companies have just leased their name to some very poor products that could actually damage your precious platters. Instead, start with the trusted Rega or Pro-ject ranges or, if you fancy a bit of Djing on the side, then the better offerings from Audio Technica and Technics are your starting points.

So what didn’t make this final list from Neil? Well, here’s the best of the rest of this year’s new albums – four new releases and one reissue:
  • Charles Lloyd – 8: Kindred Spirits (Blue Note)
  • Aaron Parks – Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man (Ropeadope)
  • Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Axiom (Stretch Music/Ropeadope)
  • Sun Ra Arkestra – Swirling, Swirling (Strut)
  • Art Taylor – A T’s Delight (Blue Note)

And so on to Derek’s best of the year. It’s four new releases and one reissue here too. Let’s start with young Polish pianist Kasia Pietrzko and her trio’s superb Ephemeral Pleasures album. This new record and her previous release Forthright Stories are both essential listening: the music is expressed with deep emotion, communicated with considerable intensity and is organic, honest and endlessly rewarding. Pietrzko studied at the Academy of Music in Krakow and spent time in New York, learning from Kenny Garrett and Aaron Parks among others. In 2018 she played in Krakow with the great Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and the plan was for a European tour. Sadly, Stanko died later that year and after this it was not until 2020 that she was able to release Ephemeral Pleasures with the track For T. S dedicated to Stanko.

We like to think that female jazz musicians are an essential and integral part of the jazz scene, and tdraw attention to them is to highlight the exception that in sad reality it so often is. But for this Best of 2020 fix it is interesting to note that five of our ten are groups of/led by women. It’s a really encouraging trend and one we shall see more of in 2021. Second up on Derek’s turntable is a female-led quintet, again from that jazz powerhouse that is Poland. We have marvelled before at the amount of excellent new music that emerges from this east European country but it’s really a reflection of a long jazz tradition. The O.N.E. Quintet are a group of young musicians with a debut album called – unsurprisingly – OneThere are seven tunes on this release: three by sax player Monica Muc, two by pianist Paulina Almanska, one traditional tune and one composition by Krzysztof Komeda – one of the founding fathers of jazz in Poland. The quintet includes violinist Dominika Rusinowski, who is prominent on the up-tempo number Drozina. So often, Polish jazz appears to attract a melancholy tag – in much the same way as music on the German label ECM. But this is very much not the case with O.N.E Quintet – the sounds are warm and embracing, but there is still the opportunity for soloists to take off. Checkout, for example, sax player Monica Muc here on As Close As Light.

Pianist Renee Rosnes leads a new band as producer, pianist and composer in the Blue Note septet Artemis. This is something of an all star band with Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Melissa Aldana on tenor sax, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Norika Ueda on bass, Allison Miller on drums. Members of the band come from the US, Canada, France, Chile, Israel and Japan. Two of the tracks on the self- titled album add in vocals from Cecile McLorin Salvant.  If It’s Magic is, of course, a Stevie Wonder composition from Songs in the Key of Life but there’s also a take on Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder and Lennon and McCartney’s Fool on the Hill. Check out the interview with band members and Blue Note CEO Don Was right here.

We have followed the course of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire since his arrival on the scene in 2007. on the tender spot of every calloused moment (yes, it’s all in lower case) Akinmusire features his regular quartet of Justin Brown on drums, Sam Harris on piano and Harish Raghavan on bass. This band have been playing and recording for over a decade – and it shows. Akinmusire writes and performs what may well be a cerebral take on jazz but the music never lacks emotional intensity, with the occasional vocals from Jesus Diaz only adding to the experience. This is music with depth and meaning and comes highly recommended. Our selection is roy – a heartfelt tribute to fellow trumpeter Roy Hargrove, a similarly eclectic performer with a wonderful tone, who sadly died in 2018.

Saxophonist John Coltrane will never be far from our thoughts and ears here on Cosmic Jazz: he continues to provides us with music that touches heart, soul and mind – and there are times – like now – when we need just that. His instantly recognisable tenor sound is simply life affirming and this ability to provide musical transcendence is epitomised by a tune like Lonnie’s Lament from the Crescent album. Beginning in 2019, the Impulse! label embarked on a ‘vital vinyl’ reissue programme and included Coltrane’s classic 1964 recording Crescent as one of the titles. This reissue retains the original gatefold cover with liner notes by Nat Hentoff. The music was recorded in April and June 1964, produced by Bob Thiele and engineered by Rudy van Gelder. The personnel on the album is the classic Impulse! quartet: Coltrane is supported by McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. While familiar with some of the key tunes on the album, Derek did not own the record – until now. If you don’t have Crescent, then now is the time to get a reissue copy that truly reflects the deep intensity of the music. Lonnie’s Lament is the longest track on the album and includes a bass solo from Jimmy Garrison as well as some beautiful quartet playing.

So what didn’t make Derek’s final list? Here’s the best of the rest of his 2020 album choice – again, four new releases and one reissue:

  • Hermes Experiment – Here We Are
  • Jarrod Lawson – Be the Change
  • Piotr Damasiewicz & Power of the Horns Ensemble – Polska
  • Chanda Rule + Sweet Emma Band – Hold On
  • Ana Mazotti – Ana Mazotti

Look out for a brand new 2021 show coming soon…

What is it about spiritual jazz?

Following on from the Tony Allen feature with a similar title, this CJ post takes a long hard look at spiritual jazz. As we have noted in a previous CJ, this blanket term seems to be applied to almost any reissue which features a dashiki-wearing tenor saxophonist who recorded in the 1970s for a private press label and has just had his album reissued on Soul Jazz Records, Jazzman or similar labels.

Well – and mentioning no names here – that may or may not be bonafide spiritual jazz. So what are we talking about? We were probably not using the term ‘spiritual jazz’ in 1965 but that’s as good a starting date as any and, of course, we’re talking John Coltrane and A Love Supreme – an album of deliberate transcendence, an entry into the world of musical mysticism and a record that has been lauded as one of the greatest jazz records ever. The thing is, it’s true. A Love Supreme is a work that has been both enjoyed and analysed for over 50 years and the more we investigate, the more there is to explore. For the deepest understanding of this truly awesome record, check out Ashley Kahn’s authoritative study at the book’s website here and for a superb investigation of Coltrane’s sound, read Ben Ratliff’s absorbing book Coltrane: the story of a sound.

In his final years Coltrane was moving forward at a dazzling pace, fusing the intensity of free jazz on such records as Ascension (1966) and Eastern-influenced experimentations like Om (recorded 1965, released 1968). A new world of exploration was opening up in jazz: the African heritage was being explored, Indian time signatures revealed new possibilities. Sound and space was now as important as music. Like-minded artists like Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, and Philip Cohran were each in their different ways exploring music both meditative and primal.

So what is spiritual jazz today? You’ve been crate digging for Don Cherry et al and you’ve come up with some great music – some celebrating the ‘trane tradition, and some not. But what of contemporary musicians? This post looks at three artists, each with a debt to Coltrane but with their own unique voices too. We’ll start with UK tenor saxophonist Nat Birchall who has been quietly releasing his own albums over the last few years and gathering acclaim from the jazz press. Best start with the 2011 album Sacred Dimension which superficially creates a Coltrane sound world (that’s Alice and John) with the use of bells, shakers and harp in addition to the more conventional quartet instrumentation. There’s Corey Mwamba on vibes too – and so the result is very definitely influenced by Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner and more. Of course, there are modal bass grooves, rolling drum figures and tenor sax solos that are Coltrane influenced but what come across with all of Birchall’s releases is the sheer confidence of his sound. As reviewer Daniel Spicer noted in his online BBC music review It’s a deeply sincere homage to a master, presented with an open heart, full of passion and love. The lead track is Ancient World – presented here in this alternative take from the Live at Larissa album, recorded in Greece in 2013. Available on a double vinyl release, this album is also a must. In fact, any Birchall album from this point is recommended as are Birchall’s recent excursions into dub reggae – a long held passion that’s fully explained on Birchall’s own website, Sound Soul and Spirit where some of his favourite records includes a list of dub classics, like the glorious Java Plus from Prince Buster. Birchall has now achieved what must have been a long held ambition of recording with reggae masters Al Breadwinner and Vin Gordon on two dub recordings, Sounds Almighty (2018) and the soon to be released Upright Living. You need vinyl copies of both – head to Birchall’s Bandcamp site for more information. And – by the way – Birchall’s new jazz release, Mysticism of Sound, is a lockdown solo recording that’s as much Sun Ra space jazz as Coltrane’s Interstellar Space. All instruments – tenor and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, Korg Minilogue synth, bass, drums, hand drums, bells, shakers – are played by Birchall. It’s essential listening!

Up next is Vancouver-born pianist Cat Toren, now resident in New York (rather than the UK’s northwest) and soon to release her new album Scintillating Beauty. We’ve championed Toren’s music here before on Cosmic Jazz and with advance notice of the new release here on Bandcamp it’s time to check out her take on the spiritual jazz tradition. Toren’s music is influenced by the free-form, socially conscious jazz of the late 60s but she’s also a passionate advocate of the current (and much needed) civil rights agenda. Indeed, inspiration for the music came from two quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. that Toren includes in the liner notes. The first, from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, gave the album its title as well as a pointed social imperative: Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. The second quote, from the sermon Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, begins We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality and that thought provided the title for the second track on the new album, Garment of Destiny.

Toren’s previous album, released in 2017, was an inspirational one for us here at CJ and cuts featured on several shows. Human Kind was the debut of Toren’s band of that name, and the same lineup has recovened for the new album. Toren on keys, saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, oud player Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor. Buy here from Toren’s site and the proceeds will go to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). You can check out all tracks before you buy, including the superb Legacy (for A.C.) and right here listen to an excellent live version from the Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Cat Toren’s music is highly recommended and the new album is highly recommended. Cat assures me that there will be a CD version as well as the download – both available in September from her own site or the ever-reliable Bandcamp.

Finally, we come to Muriel Grossmann, a tenor player now based in Ibiza, but born in Paris and a long time resident in Vienna. Her current quartet is very much international with Radomir Milojkovic (Belgrade) on guitar, Gina Schwarz (Vienna) on double bass and Uros Stamenkovic (Belgrade) on drums and is recently augmented by Llorens Barcelo (Mallorca) on Hammond organ. Grossmann’s quartet/quintet is very much influenced by Coltrane but – as with Toren – the bands have their own sound. You can hear just how different that is when you compare Grossmann’s take on Coltrane’s Traneing In, a track he first recorded with the Red Garland Trio in 1958. The Coltrane original is right here – and Grossmann’s soprano sax take is here on her Bandcamp site. This is intense music and – whatever we want to call it – has a spiritual deepness that truly does inherit the questing, yearning qualities of Coltrane’s unique sound. Traneing In comes from her album Golden Rule and is available from Bandcamp in all three formats – vinyl, CD and download.

The new album Reverence takes a different direction. The African influence is stronger and as Grossmann says, What jazz and African music have in common and what makes it so unique is that at its very core, as the strongest part of its foundation, each musician is dealing with a particular rhythm that contributes to the whole, therefore generating multidirectional rhythms also known as polyrhythms. The addition of Llorens Barcelo allows interplay between guitar and organ and the churning percussion maintains the kinds of locked groove over which Grossmann’s solos twist and turn. Check out this live take on Light, the final reflective track from Golden Rule.

So that’s three exploratory musicians and their bands: firmly embedded in a jazz tradition, but consciously searching for new sounds and influences from around the world to extend and develop their sound. Please support each of these artists by listening to and buying their music in whatever format you choose. Our preference remains vinyl: that symbiotic relationship in which the medium influences how the message is perceived (McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’) is never more true than when the disc is on the turntable, visibly in contact with the stylus and the listener is checking out the gatefold images or liner notes while listening to the music. As always, we promote Bandcamp whose heritage of supporting and paying artists is exemplary. It’s a service that values ownership, connects listeners directly to the artists and even rewards you with a message if someone buys music after finding it through you. Make lockdown more bearable and support those jazz musicians creatively enhancing your life.

Music is the healing force of the universe…

Five from five: CJ favourites 02

Inspired by Derek, it made sense for Neil to select out five of his CJ favourites. If you know the show well, then some tracks will not be a surprise. First up was very much a first for Neil and, arguably, the start of his lifelong obsession with jazz. No – not So What or A Love Supreme but a track from one of John McLaughlin’s more obscure releases, My Goals Beyond, which offers up the astonishing Peace One. This album was released in 1971 – just before the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra – and was originally issued on Douglas Records. It’s now available (if you can find it) on a Rykodisc or Knitting Factory reissue.

I first heard it in 1972 as a teenager novitiate in jazz. With no internet and little to listen to on the radio, record shops were my introduction to the music. Icons like Charlie Parker were part of my understanding of the mythology of the music, so I knew that I really wanted to like jazz. I’d just not listened to much of it. I bought My Goal’s Beyond because of the album cover: a benign looking McLaughlin gazing serenely into the middle distance while a framed photo of a shaven headed guru (Sri Chinmoy) looks out impassively alongside him. It wasn’t like most of the jazz covers I’ve seen and it drew me in immediately. The track listing on the back confirmed things – a Charles Mingus tune, something from A Kind of Blue and a Chick Corea composition among them. But the real delight didn’t begin until I got the record home and played side B. The big surprise was right there. Peace One begins with a tanpura drone, and then Charlie Haden’s insidiously cool bass line waltzes its way through McLaughlin’s tune. Even violinist Jerry Goodman and drummer Billy Cobham (who would later appear in McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra) tame their natural excesses to complement the leader’s open soloing on acoustic guitar. Dave Liebman is in fine voice on soprano and Badal Roy’s tablas along with Airto’s minimal percussion fills fit perfectly. This track has entranced me ever since I first listened to it that summer evening over forty years ago and I come back to it every year with the same sense of wide-eyed wonder.

Here’s the thing. Lester Bowie was a trumpet revolutionary. Whether with the Art Ensemble of Chicago or in his solo work he blazed a trail that – uniquely – looked backwards as well as forwards. Back to Bubber Miley and the Cotton Club and into the future of jazz in the 21st century. So where can you hear this? Try The Great Pretender on ECM and, rather than the title track (itself a powerful deconstruction of the Platters classic), go straight to Rios Negros. Heard once, my guess is you’ll want to play it again immediately – and perhaps then, like me, you’ll want it play it again – and again – for the rest of your life.

I think I’ve only just worked out why this is. In just over seven minutes the trumpeter takes a first solo that tears the history of jazz apart. Then he creates a second coda solo that stretches out all the components of the first one and relocates them in back in the tradition – but in reverse order. The result is that we hear the history of jazz trumpet backwards so the track ends with the ghost of those early pioneers filtered through Bowie’s slurs and smears, crackles and blares. Bowie was a southerner born in St Louis, and right from the start his sound looked to jazz history and a range of other influences. Early in his career he played with blues and R and B artists including Little Milton and Rufus Thomas and in 1977 he recorded No Agreement with Fela Anikulapo Kuti – so I’ve thrown that one into to my 5 from 5 too. Of course, it’s Fela’s record rather than Bowie’s, but his contribution – which begins six minutes into the 13 minute track absolutely fits. Just listen to how he solos over the horn riffs – it’s magical!

It’s worth noting that on The Great Pretender, Bowie is backed by the most sympathetic band he ever had. Phillip Wilson on drums is perfect and Donald Smith’s solo on Rios Negros is a delight. Hamiett Bluett provides some lovely bottom end baritone and Fred Williams is a wonderfully supportive bass player. Both Rios Negros and No Agreement are very approachable. This is not complex music – but one track encompasses the history of jazz in just seven minutes while the other tells you all you need to know about the enduring power of Afrobeat. Just two months before he died from liver cancer in 1999, Bowie was interviewed by journalist Jay Babcock. He was asked about the conversations he had with Fela during the time he was in Nigeria in 1977:

“So most of the time, we talked about the music. Music and its ramifications. What it implied. What is it. What can it be used for. It’s about… Basically, I always believed art is functional. It’s not just something you put in museums, it’s better for it to be used for something functional: educational usage, therapeutic usage. But it should be USED. Music should be used, not just as entertainment. I’m not saying it’s NOT entertainment. It’s EVERYTHING. It’s entertainment, it’s religion, it’s a lot of things. That’s what most of what our conversations would be about: the spiritual aspect to the music, what binds all these different types of musics together.”

I can remember the exact moment. 08 July 2005 and I was in London for a meeting with a publisher. It was the day after the notorious London bombings in which 52 people of eighteen different nationalities were killed in a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks on the capital. I had arrived in the city around 10:30am and the sun was shining as I exited the Underground station. I could walk to the publishers’ offices and I set out – but, probably like most people travelling in London that day, rather nervously. Over my headphones came the opening bars of one of the instrumental tracks on Marcos Valle’s comeback 1998 Far Out recording, Nova Bossa Nova. Bar Ingles begins with a fade in and then Valle sets up the Fender melody and we’re off on one of his jazz fusion classics. Suddenly, I felt that, whatever evil is sent our way, music truly is the healing force of the universe. The music had became a metaphor for the way we choose to see the world. Valle was to reprise this tune when I saw him a few years ago at the Jazz Cafe, London.

Lord Echo (or Michael John August) is the much in-demand New Zealand multi-instrumentalist and producer. Originally released in 2013, his album Curiosities features a delightful summery take on The Creator Has a Master Plan with vocals by Lisa Tomlins. It’s my fifth and final Cosmic Jazz tune and – whilst it isn’t a classic cut in the way that the other four clearly are – it represents music I often return to for an inhouse daytime DJ set or simply to chill out to. The album features a typical Lord Echo mix of jazz with disco-tinged neo-soul, reggae and classic afro-beat, all in a pretty effortless way. Curiosities was preceded by the more down-tempo Melodies and followed by the excellent, more electronic and club-ready sound of third album Harmonies. All have a surfeit of cool vibes and are well worth investigating. Almost much everything is played by Lord Echo, with contributions from Lucien Johnson on tenor sax, Toby Laing on trumpet, Daniel Yeabsley on baritone sax, Will Ricketts on vibes and Julien Dyne taking care of some drum loops. Check out all three albums via the ever-reliable Bandcamp here.

So, we started in the UK, crossed over to the USA via Nigeria and Brazil and ended up way down in New Zealand. Global beats, healing sounds – truly, as Lester Bowie said, “the spiritual aspect to the music, what binds all these different types of musics together.” Stay safe.

Jazz photos No.3 – Miles Davis 1970

Miles Davis, lounging on a bed of skins with an unidentified woman, wearing suede-patched, zip-front vest from Hernando’s New York, and canvas built-up-heel, slip-on shoes by Franco Pachetti.

This photo heads an excellent feature on the interesting Burning Ambulance website. It dates from a few back – in fact, 2014 when the Complete Live at the Fillmore box set was released – but it’s a good introduction to this most fertile of periods in the vast Davis chronology. You can read the whole thing right here – and if you’re new to the music of Miles in the 1970s then this is one place to start. The sheer volume of music from that first year of the decade is now staggering. Thanks to box sets, official reissues, lost concert recordings and a bunch of bootlegs you could listen to music from this most fertile period for hours. And you should. We should now recognise that 1970 was a creative peak for Miles – but where to start with this music?

Let’s begin with the albums released in the two years before – 1968 and 1969. July 1968 gave us Miles in the Sky, a stepping stone into a new era for for the trumpeter. There’s a new interest in electric instruments and the two recording dates take us from the twisted modality of Paraphernalia to Stuff, recorded five months later. The former track includes a guest slot from guitarist George Benson who sets the tone of the track with a defining riff right at the start. It sound like bebop but it’s been turned inside out. Drummer Tony Williams (then just 23) is all over this track and the elliptical Wayne Shorter (writer of this piece) even references his own Footprints at one point. The remaining three tracks are more typical of this quintet’s zenith of collective improvisation – perhaps some of the most ‘together’ music ever recorded. This is rightly regarded as an epitome of small group jazz: often termed the Second Great Quintet, the interplay between this group over six studio albums and one live box set (The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel) is extraordinary. The music is always about the group and never just Miles. There’s a telepathic fluidity about this music – and never more so than on the Plugged Nickel sets – that is unique in jazz. Perhaps paradoxically, you should start with the last of these records – the aforementioned Filles de Kilimanjaro. The new Mrs Davis, Betty Mabry, appears on the cover and Miles apparently titled the record after his recent investment in the Kilimanjaro African Coffee company. All track titles are in French and the music forms a kind of organic suite in the key of F. It’s an album to listen to as one continuous piece: some of the music is more chilled with Ron Carter on electric bass and Herbie Hancock’s Fender Rhodes being responsible for some of this, but it’s also that Miles’s trumpet is also more restrained throughout. Less well known is that Miles’ old collaborator Gil Evans had a hand in two of the tracks – Petit Machins is his composition and the introduction to Madamoiselle Mabry owes something to Jimi Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary which had been recorded the previous year. Perhaps it was all an indication of what was to come on the truly ground breaking It’s a Silent Way album from the following year.

This is as essential as Kind of Blue: it’s a record that anyone interested in contemporary music of whatever genre needs to hear – again and again. But the reason isn’t Miles Davis – it’s Teo Macero, Miles’ longtime producer who here creates an indefinable magic from a pile of studio recordings from one day – 18 February 1969. Macero created a kind of electric sonata from hours of tape, splicing together music from one three hour long session. The result was entirely unique at the time – two long tracks, each with three ‘movements’ containing repeated musical elements synthesised into something magnificent. Rolling Stone writer Lester Bangs described In A Silent Way as “the kind of album that gives you faith in the future of music. It is not rock and roll, but it’s nothing stereotyped as jazz either. All at once, it owes almost as much to the techniques developed by rock improvisors in the last four years as to Davis’ jazz background. It is part of a transcendental new music which flushes categories away and, while using musical devices from all styles and cultures, is defined mainly by its deep emotion and unaffected originality”. Listen to the groove on It’s About That Time around nine minutes into the track – a sound that will stay with you long after the music has ended. This version is from the Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, one of the Legacy box sets that are now so collectable.

So what could possibly follow that? The answer this time is Bitches Brew, the 1970 double album – and the very first Miles record I bought. Davis assembled an even bigger group of musicians than on It’s A Silent Way and Teo Macero spliced and edited with yet more aplomb than before. Recorded across three days in September 1969, the music takes giant steps towards a rock idiom without ever becoming rock. The core band of Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette was augmented by Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, Larry Young, Lenny White, Juma Santos and Bennie Maupin. Miles had written simple chord charts but he told the musicians to play anything that came to mind as long as they used his chosen chord. The musicians were confused – but this very loose structure certainly inspired Davis: his trumpet playing is aggressive and explosive across much of the double album and the closing solo on Miles Runs the Voodoo Down is simply breathtaking.

In his superb book Miles Beyond, the Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991, Paul Tingen paved the way for a critical re-assessment of the prolific 1970-75 era prior to Miles’ five year retirement from music. Tingen notes that “Bitches Brew also pioneered the application of the studio as a musical instrument, featuring stacks of edits and studio effects that were an integral part of the music.” Tape loops, delays, reverb and echo were all used along with intensive tape editing, Pharaoh’s Dance, for example, contains 19 edits – its famous stop-start opening is entirely constructed in the studio, using repeat loops of certain sections. As Tingen notes, the editing is amazingly precise – “a one-second-long fragment that first appears at 8:39 is repeated five times between 8:54 and 8:59… Bitches Brew not only became a controversial classic of musical innovation, it also became renowned for its pioneering use of studio technology.” It’s a gateway to the increasingly challenging music that Miles Davis was to make over the next five years – there’s always more to explore…

Jazz photos No.2 – Sun Ra

Sun Ra and the Arkestra at South Street Seaport, New York – probably 1972

You can just see him. He’s to the right of this of this photo in the centre of the group of circling musicians. Yes, this is Sun Ra and the Arkestra circa 1972 at the South Street Seaport, New York. The photo heads an excellent recent feature from Marcus J Moore in the New York Times on Fifteen Essential Black Liberation tracks – including an excellent live version of Sun Ra’s Space is the Place. There are other delights to be found in this list too: Mtume’s Baba Hengates from the the Strata East album Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks (1972) and Malika from the Ensemble Al-Salaam’s 1974 album, The Sojourner. Follow the links and discover some great music that may be new to you. If Mtume means Juicy Fruit, then have a listen to the whole of his Strata East album – now reissued on vinyl – and hear something very different. Mtume continued with his Umoja Ensemble on the Rebirth Cycle album from 1977 – but you will be lucky to find an original pressing in good condition for less than £150. For a taste of this excellent record, which gives an indication of the direction Mtume would be travelling in, try Yebo. I’ve recently been enjoying the music of Buddy Terry and there is a fine, extended version of Baba Hengates to be heard on his Pure Dynamite album for Mainstream Records (1972). Read the NYT Marcus J Moore feature and check out much more black liberation music.

Jazz photos No.1 – Reggie Workman

Former Coltrane bassist Reggie Workman, New York – 2020

Bass player Reggie Workman is now 83 and living in Harlem, New York. In an interview for the Vulture online magazine he reminisced about his time with John Coltrane, the recent deaths of some jazz greats (and his friends) and what he thinks about life right now. Through all of this, and while stuck at home, Workman has tried to maintain his cosmic outlook. “Our bodies are on the planet for a longer time or a shorter time depending on how we live, what things that we’ve done through our life,” he says. “Whatever that is, whatever time that is, our contributions are significant, their contributions are significant. And we have to be thankful for what they give.”  And here’s one of Workman’s stellar contributions to the Complete Live at the Village Vanguard set – John Coltrane’s classic Spiritual with John Coltrane on soprano and tenor sax, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, McCoy Tyner on piano, Garvin Bushell on contrabass bassoon, Workman on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. This twenty one minute take on Spiritual was recorded on the last of four nights on 05 November 1961.

Week ending 06 June 2020: Time Out With Bandcamp

The worldwide lockdown has given many of us more time out. That’s time to reflect at greater length – on all those we love, on Black Lives Matter, on the management of Covid-19, on our personal priorities and whatever else is important to us. For many, we can add to the list time out listening to more music – revisiting old favourites, discovering new artists and checking out new sources for our listening pleasure.

So, this week’s Cosmic Jazz is a special feature on one of those sources – Bandcamp. Founded 11 years ago in Oakland, California, Bandcamp offered a different kind of business model: artists and labels upload music to the site but control how they sell it – setting their own prices and offering the opportunity for buyers to pay more if they wish. Readers may remember the band Radiohead experimenting with a similar approach on the release of the In Rainbows album in 2007. Unlike Spotify and other streaming sites where the majority of artists receive paltry sums for their musical labours, Bandcamp offers both control and a genuine revenue. The contrasts are stark – for a musician to earn 1US$ takes 229 Spotify streams. Youtube, incidentally, is even worse – 1449 streams are required there. [Source: visualcapitalist.com].

Uploading music to the site is free, with Bandcamp taking a 15% cut of the sales (which drops to 10% if the artist’s sales surpass $5000). There are no format restrictions and downloaders can choose from lossy MP3 all the way up to lossless formats like FLAC and WAV. In addition, physical media formats are also available – vinyl and CD (with sometimes cassette too). Moreover, viewers can usually listen to a full album of music before committing to purchase. In 2016 they extended the opportunities for deeper exploration with Bandcamp Daily, an online music publication that was soon followed by Bandcamp Radio. The result is almost overwhelming – but invigorating and exciting as a huge range of new musical horizons stretch out before you.

A makeshift memorial for George Floyd includes mural, cards and flowers near the spot where he died while in police custody in Minneapolis.

The site first experimented with a charity initiative in March this year. In the mist of the coronavirus pandemic and with record stores around the world closed, Bandcamp announced a waiving of their revenue on all sales – artists would receive 100% from any sales. Following the success of this initial event, the one day initiative has been repeated each subsequent month and then – in response to the protest following the death of George Floyd and the many other African Americans killed by police violence – Bandcamp announced a 24 hour 100% donation to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on 19 June 2020.

So what’s been the focus of my time out with Bandcamp this week? Well, with more labels and artists donating to black charities, here was a chance to check out some new jazz and jazz related music. This week’s Cosmic Jazz includes just a selection of the music I downloaded. Links are to the Bandcamp pages – no Youtube clips this week (except in our usual listening choices)!

First up is a Cosmic Jazz favourite, British-Bahraini saxophonist Yaz Ahmed. She’s released two extended live performances this week on the release When We Were Live – you can check it out right here. Only available to download for one weekend (05-07 June), When We Were Live is very much a limited edition recording and features five tracks from Ahmed’s quintet that were captured on tour in France during 2018. Ahmed writes “These last few months spent at home have made me realise just how much I love performing. I’m desperately missing sharing my music, the personal contact with my audience and the thrill of playing live with my band. I know many people had been hoping to catch one of my live shows in Europe or North America this summer, and so I thought I’d share this recording with you.” The tracks come from the La Saboteuse and Polyhymnia albums – both still available on Ahmed’s Bandcamp site.

Next is London based flautist Tenderlonious, aka Ed Cawthorne. In recent years, we’ve featured and played much of Cawthorne’s music and out this week on his 22a label is the result of a visit to Lahore where he got to play with Pakistani musicians – a long held ambition that links to his father’s experience as a Gurkha officer seconded to Asia. A chance meeting in a London pub with the Polish-based group Pakistani group Jaubi led to this new project. After the challenge of obtaining visas, Tenderlonious and his band finally arrived in Lahore in April 2109: “Lahore is something special; full of positivity, care and hope. It was, thankfully, all a stark contrast to the negativity we heard about Pakistan before arriving. It was not long into the first day and that first studio session that we realised this trip would be a real awakening. Nothing whatsoever was written down during the recording sessions – no sheet music, no song titles. It was sincere. All egos were left behind and hearts and souls were open and poured into the music.” You can find this and other Tenderlonious releases on his Bandcamp site here and there will be more music from Tenderlonious and Jaubi later in the year.

Third up is a new selection of tracks from Joe Davis’s Far Out Recordings. We’ve long been a champion of the largely Brazilian music that emanates from this long running UK-based label – whether it’s Marcos Valle or Milton Nascimento; Ana Mazzotti or Azymuth – and their latest is a Saudade-influenced collection, available via their Bandcamp site.

Saudade is a word with no direct English translation. In the Portuguese language it describes a sense of nostalgia for something that may never return. But in longing for that certain something, whether it’s a person, a place or a time gone by, saudade holds the thing you miss close, and keeps it present despite its absence. Portuguese author Manuel de Mello calls it “A pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” As a nation steeped in slavery, the vibrance of African culture in Brazil amplified saudade, and it became something even more painful, but at the same time a little more rhythmic, perhaps even upbeat. This new collection, O Aperto da Saudade (the grip of saudade), attempts to translate the word through the music itself. Reaching deep into the Far Out back catalogue, the music ranges from 1965 to the present day, and spans psychedelic folk, samba jazz, bossa nova and MPB, featuring some of the nation’s musical icons alongside archival releases from lesser known artists, as well as some of the label’s more contemporary output. As the press release notes: “In times of loss and loneliness, recorded music has a magical power to lift the spirits, soothe the soul and serves as a great reminder that you are not alone.”

We’d certainly second that here at Cosmic Jazz. Enjoy the music – and stay safe.

Neil is listening to…

Derek is listening to…

Derek notes: I have chosen two tracks by Don Weller, the British tenor sax player, in remembrance as he died recently after a long illness. There is nothing like seeing jazz live for getting you into the music and many years ago I often saw Weller playing at the Bull’s Head in Barnes Bridge, South-West London. He was a big man, and made a big presence on stage; when he blew that saxophone it was intense, moving and soulful. He never said a lot, but often what he said revealed a very dry Croydon-style sense of humour. Weller was never highly fashionable, either in appearance or possibly even in terms of the recognition he received. Yet he was chosen to stand in for Michael Brecker in a Gil Evans tour of the UK. Weller was a stalwart of the British scene for many years and he never disappointed – you always left his gigs feeling totally uplifted and enthused. Respect is due.