Archive for Album reviews

Album review – Never Stop II, The Bad Plus

Never Stop II is the 13th studio album released by The Bad Plus and their second album featuring all of their own material; the first being, you guessed it, Never Stop.  The title seems appropriate for another reason.  It’s the first album featuring Orrin Evans in the piano chair, recently vacated by Ethan Iverson, one of the band’s co-founders.  So perhaps, the title reflects the fact that the band continues despite one of the original trio leaving.  And if you suspect that the reference to a piano suggests that we’re not talking a rock band here, you’d be right.  TBP are a jazz trio but not a jazz piano trio in the classic sense.  The bass (Reid Anderson) and drums (Dave King) aren’t just there to support the pianist; it’s a far more democratic affair than that.  TBP are also a little different from the typical jazz trio.  They’re well known for their cover versions, including Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit, Aphex Twin’s Flim, and the Pixies’ Velouria.

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Whether the band plays their own material or cover versions, it’s always clear that it’s TBP.  So I guess there are two questions that need to be answered:  is the album any good; and has the band lost its distinctive sound now that Orrin Evans has arrived?

The answer is yes and no (to coin a Wayne Shorter tune!), respectively.  From the first few seconds you know that this is a Bad Plus album and that remains the case for the rest of the album.  I mentioned earlier that this is a democratic affair and that’s the case with the writing.  Each band member has always contributed tunes and looking back over the band’s output over the last 18 years, I can see that some of my favourites have been penned by bassist Reid Anderson (including Physical Cities, and Seven Minute Mind).  So the loss of Iverson, at least in writing terms, hasn’t dented the band’s capacity to knock out a great tune.

Like Iverson, Evans is no slouch on the piano.  His 2015 album, The Evolution of Oneself was one of my favourites of that year and you can hear from that album alone that he’d have no problem joining TBP.  Evans and Iverson have their own styles but it’s clear that there’s someone else at the keyboard.  Evans has the same sense of anarchic abandon that Iverson possesses but has, it seems to me anyway, a more slippery sense of time, something which I appreciated on his aforementioned album.  The tracks on Soundcloud are three of the ten (if you include the two bonus tracks) and are representative of what you’ll be getting yourself into.

Never Stop II isn’t available for streaming, at least at the moment.  Nevertheless, it’s an investment well worth making, whether or not you know TBP.  I’ve seen the band a couple of times and hope they’ll be making a visit to these shores sometime soon.  They’re a great live band, so, like Pokemon, you should try and catch ‘em if you can.

Album review – Small Town, Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan

I’ve been a fan of Bill Frisell, who ranks as one of my favourite guitarists, for over twenty years now (see the signed CD at the bottom of the blog).  Unlike many guitarists, Frisell doesn’t sound like a clone of anybody.  You know exactly who’s playing from the off.  Frisell has made a career out of not being pigeonholed; he’s authentic playing whatever style of music he plays, which is largely jazz or country-based music though can find him on drum and bass records.  You may well have heard him yourself and not realised it.  For example, Frisell provided the music for Gary Larson’s animated Far Side movie.

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Frisell’s latest album Small Town (2017) released on the ECM label sees him partnered with Thomas Morgan, a bass player who moves in high circles within the jazz community.  Small Town is a live recording from 2016 at New York’s hallowed Village Vanguard.  Unlike some ‘live’ jazz recordings the sound of the band doesn’t have to compete with the sound of clanking cutlery and glasses or annoying whoops from the audience.  The audience here is respectful of the music, not wanting to encroach on the intimacy of the proceedings but showing their appreciation at the end of each tune.

There’s quite a mix on offer including classic bebop – in the form of Lee Konitz’s Subconcious Lee; country – Wildwood Flower; and cinema – John Barry’s theme from Goldfinger.  The title track, like two others on the album, are Frisell’s (though one of these is co-penned with Morgan) and hold their own against the others, especially Small Town, which sounds exactly like it should.  See the video below for proof!

The album also goes through various moods, kicking off with a rendition of the late Paul Motian’s It Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago (which Frisell played on back in 1985), which builds to a glorious contrapuntal section.  The Motian tune is a dark one but there’s plenty of light.  If Wildflower doesn’t put a smile on your face I don’t know what will!

I highly recommend Small Town and if you like the sound of it you can check out each of the tracks on the ECM website.

Before I leave you, here’s the promised picture of my signed Bill Frisell CD.

Album review – Lust for Life, Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey’s latest album, her fifth, was released this summer and is one of those albums that I keep returning to.  So I obviously think it’s good.

It’s exactly what you’d expect from an LDR album, cinematic, noirish and soul-revealing.  The album kicks off with Love, which, for me, is the strongest track on the album and is redolent of those traits listed above.  Check it out and tell me you don’t agree.

The album continues in a similar vein, and the first half of the album appears to me to be the stronger one, with Lust for Life (featuring The Weeknd), 13 Beaches, White Mustang and Summer Bummer being notable tracks.  The second half is still strong, with songs like Coachella and God Bless America keeping the standard flying.  I’m just not keen on either of the tracks featuring Stevie Nicks or Sean Lennon.  They’re not bad tracks in and of themselves, I’d just prefer they weren’t on the album.  At around 72 minutes the album seems too long (despite our being in the post-CD era): Marvin Gayes’s What’s Going On is slightly shorter than half the length of this album.  Still, no one’s forcing you to listen to all of it on one go, for better or for worse.

Album review – The Chase, Leo Richardson Quartet

Full disclosure.  I bought this album as my piano teacher is a member of the quartet.  Before you think this is an act of charity, listen to the album.  It’s worth every penny and more.  A lot of people are agreeing, including The Guardian who gave it a rare five stars.

I’d never heard Leo Richardson’s band before and wasn’t sure what to expect. What they deliver and what you get is an album which wouldn’t sound out of place played alongside those classic Blue Note albums of the 50s and 60s.  This is a complement of the highest order and, as far as I understand it, what the band was aiming for.  The band have really captured that sound, which is greater than the sum of its parts.  Check out the tracks on Richardson’s website.

The album kicks off at tempo with the bebop inspired Blues for Joe.  Richardson has a rich, gutsy tenor sound which I don’t hear nearly often enough these days (alto players seem to be in abundance!) and rips into this and most other tunes on the album.  It’s not until track two – Demon E – when you really realise that the Blue Note sound is there.  This owes much to Quentin Collins guesting on trumpet on this and two other tracks including the title track.  The Chase is an apt title track and sounds like something off a Wayne Shorter album, with Rick Simpson playing the McCoy Tyner role (at least in his ‘comping’ during the main tune).  Simpson delivers a fiery, note perfect solo driven by a hot rhythm section biting at his heels (Mark Lewandowski on bass and Ed Richardson on drums).

The album cools its heels with Elisha’s Song but returns to its fiery proceedings with the Night in Tunisia-inspired Mambo, which gives Simpson the welcome space to stretch out and play in a more modern way.  The album concludes with Mr. Skid, so named due to the presence of Alan Skidmore on the track.  Skidmore, like Richardson, is a tenor saxophonist who has played with many jazz greats and household names including Kate Bush and Van Morrison.  Skidmore, a veteran of the British jazz scene, is (so Wikipedia informs me) strongly influenced by John Coltrane and this is apparent, adding another dimension to the album.

It’s rare that I hear a new jazz release like this.  I think this is partly due to artists wanting to produce far more contemporary sounding albums.  That’s fine but it’s refreshing to hear great new tunes, featuring top class and inventive playing, in a Blue Note vein.

I can’t recommend this highly enough.  Do yourself a favour and check it out.

Album review – December Avenue, Tomasz Stanko

Most of the music I pay for these days (if you don’t include Spotify) is that released on the German record label ECM.  ECM – Edition of Contemporary Music – is one of the most important labels in jazz and contemporary music.  To the best of my knowledge you won’t find any of their music on Spotify or other streaming services.  I’m unsure whether this is for commercial reasons  – to ensure their artists receive an appropriate level of income – or for that of quality, but it has had the effect of me being compelled to purchase their output.

Some of the finest jazz pianists around record exclusively for the label, including Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stenson, David Virelles, and Craig Taborn, while other notables including Jason Moran and Ethan Iverson feature on the label on a fairly regular basis.  So if you’re a jazz pianist, like myself, you’re likely to have come across ECM.

I think it’s fair to say that if you pay for an album, rather than have access to it via a streaming service, you are more likely to listen to that album, and more than once.  That’s certainly my experience.  It’s just as well with material released on ECM.  While there are exceptions to the rule, there is a certain ECM aesthetic.  Google ‘ECM album covers’ and you’ll see what I mean.  The album covers gives a strong hit at the music inside: spacious, ethereal, serene, edgy, etc.  You get the picture.  It’s music that needs or demands repeated listening.  That’s certainly the case with the subject of this review.

Tomasz Stanko, a polish, New York-based trumpeter has been releasing material on ECM for years.  December Avenue (2017) is his second release with his New York band:  David Virelles (piano), Reuben Rogers (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums).  These are some of the best players around and the quality shines through on the record.  The album fits the ECM mould.  This is regrettable in some sense.  For my money, the band really starts cooking on the more up-tempo tracks, which are in the minority.

Burning Hot (in the background of the video above) is reminiscent of Miles Davis’s so-called ‘second great quintet’, especially the Miles Smiles album.  David Virelles’ solo is burning and malevolent and one of the best piano solos I’ve heard in a while.  In fact, every time he touches the piano magic seems to happen.  December Avenue, a bluesey number, features another standout Virelles moment.  Of course, the bass and drums provide the foundation for this and for Stanko’s own blowing.  But it’s Virelles who is the man of the match here and for that alone the album is worth getting.

I saw Virelles play last year at London’s Kings Place and left feeling disappointed.  He was playing his own music on that occasion.  I’m seeing Stanko’s band in November – during the London Jazz Festival and am hoping that the previous disappointment was a one off.