Monthly Archives: March 2014

Heart of Memphis: Robin McKelle

Heart of Memphis

In February I saw Fred Wesley and PeeWee Ellis perform at Ronnie Scott’s and wrote about their performance here. I’m not a great lover of jazz vocals, especially those delivered by a certain type of supper club vocalist but I do my best not to write any musician off too early. After all, if you handed me a tenor sax and said ‘entertain us’, I’m confident you would be making your excuses pretty sharpish. Robin McKelle, who they introduced on vocals, confirmed the old saying that there are rubies to be found amongst the dust- and the world of jazz vocals really needs a good rub over with the Mr Sheen. Gifted with one of those voices that can be both raunchy and subtle, Robin McKelle has a world-class talent.

Regular readers may recall that I’ve made a commitment to write about one new recording by a contemporary artist every month. Kevin Flanagan and RipRap were first up and April’s recording is Heart of Memphis by Robin McKelle and The Flytones.

Robin has already released four albums but I’m not familiar with these. Heart of Memphis took her down the Mississippi to Scott Bomar’s Electraphonic Studio to record an album steeped in a classic 60’s Stax and Muscle Shoals sauce. Purists may feel I’m stretching the jazz angle a bit here but I’m sure many of you will be interested to hear about her.

About To Be Your Baby gets things off to a good start with an exclamation from a strong woman, well capable of giving as good as she gets in love and knowing which way the world was turning when a lover ‘…went and started actin’ shady’.

Good Time is a medium paced dancer, which could probably cut it as a slower number on a Northern Soul dance floor. Robin’s vocals are a husky treat on this one. Next up is the classic, Please Don’t Let Me Misunderstood which she punches on the nose and knocks out with one mighty effort. Control Yourself has a 80’s flavoured sould ballad feel to it. Forgetting You is a country song- not a genre that I’m wild about but this song smoulders and then burns. If I’d been producing this one, the horns would have been crisper and more to the fore- but what do I know?

Heart of Memphis just makes me want to go there- perhaps one day soon? A fine song, written by Robin and perhaps the standout track for me.

Like A River offers you the opportunity to take a look and see what you think, courtesy of YouTube

http://youtube.com/watch?v=0xhVvjOU_Wk

To watch and listen, click or touch the arrow.

Easier That Way has a lighter musical air to it, although it’s message is one of nostalgia for better and simpler past days. Once again Robin captures a feeling and takes us there. What You Want puts a lover on the spot and sorts them out with a direct question. Well put and well delivered!

Good & Plenty is another song about a woman standing up for herself and ending a relationship where she got ‘…herself good and plenty of nothing’. It’s an energetic band workout and is likely be a highlight of a live set from The Flytones.

Baby You’re The Best is presented in an 80’s style and in this context is a breather between two strong tracks, because Down With The Ship is another potential anthem- a big soul ballad that should be heard and appreciated widely. It’s Over This Time is as described, a closer in which the singer points to a line in the sand and makes it clear that the subject is stating that a bad relationship is over with a big full stop.

So that’s Heart of Memphis. I’ve resisted the temptation to mention and compare any of the pantheon of great female vocalists, because Robin McKelle has her own distinctive style and can stand up in her own right. I really enjoyed her live with Fred and PeeWee doing the funky material and will be on the case when she plays her next London dates. If you want to know more about Robin McKelle you can read here about this Rochester, NY State born performer, who herself taught vocals at Boston’s revered Berklee School of Music. Catch her fast in the small venues because I feel that the big stages beckon. While we wait, you are unlikely to be disappointed by Heart of Memphis, or The Flytones whose musicianship complements their vocalist with performances that confirm their own talents.

The band etc: Robin McKelle (vocals, percussion); Ben Stivers (organ, piano); Derek Nievergelt (bass); Adrian Harpham (drums); Al Street (guitars); Mark Franklin (trumpet); Kirk Smothers (tenor & baritone saxophone); Danielle Hill & Susanne Marshall (background vocals). Production: Scott Bomar, Electaphonic Studios, Memphis Tennessee. Sony Music, OKeh. 2014

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Grant’s First Stand: Grant Green

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A quick count indicates that I’ve written about 24 individual recordings on downwithit. However, I’ve not looked at any of Grant Green’s sessions as leader yet, although he played guitar on Don Wilkerson’s Preach Brother, which I posted on in September 2013 here. I currently have at least 20 of his named recording sessions in my collection. There’s no doubting, Grant Green is a particular favourite of mine, so it seems fitting to write about one of his very early LP’s as my 25th review posting.

Sleeve notes and biographies inform us that Grant Green was born in 1935 and raised in St Louis. He started to play guitar at school and jammed with Elvin Jones and John Coltrane, amongst numerous great visiting musicians. His talent was scouted by Lou Donaldson and Green was recommended to Alfred Lion at Blue Note, where his promise as a session lead was instantly recognised. Grant Green’s soloing is typified by picked single notes, rather than chords, which is closely related to his greatest influences being saxophonists, with Charlie Parker foremost amongst them.

Grant’s First Stand was not his first as a leader; that session was put together with the top team of Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones and Wynton Kelly but it remained in the can and was only released as First Session in 2001.

Miss Ann’s Tempo opens matters here, offering a brisk, no- nonsense bebop flavoured statement, which you can listen to on YouTube.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOfVSBNCtoA

Press or click on the arrow to listen to the track

Lullaby of The Leaves is next up. ‘Baby Face’ Willette gets a long solo, which builds and features a single note held for no less than 14 bars (forgive my poor personal musicianship if I have miscounted this). The track discloses Grant Green’s attention to Charlie Parker recordings but also harks back in one section to Django Reinhardt’s Gypsy guitar sound.

Blues For Willarene, penned by Green, is a real foot shuffler. It is a call and response rocking blues which shows how well versed Green and Willette are in RnB. Baby’s Minor Lope was written by the organist and features a sanctified but funked-up church organ sound on a brisk blues tempo.

‘Tain’t Noboby’s Business If I Do is the worldly wise number strongly associated with Billie Holiday, while A Wee Bit O’ Green is the last track and has a lazy Sunday morning blues feel about it.

Grant’s First Stand is a good set in its own right, although interested newcomers may want to purchase later and more celebrated recordings such as Matador or Idle Moments (not to mention the beautiful sessions featuring Green’s quartet work with Sonny Clark on piano). I’ll return to all of these and more in due course, having finally got round to my first posting centring on this fantastic guitarist.

The band etc: Grant Green (guitar); ‘Baby Face’ Willette (Hammond organ); Ben Dixon (drums). Recorded: 28 January 1961. Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Produced: Alfred Lion. Recording: Rudy Van Gelder. Cover photos: Francis Wolff. Cover Design: Reid Miles. Sleeve notes: Robert Levin. Originally issued as Blue Note BST 84064.

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The Cats: Tommy Flanagan, John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell, Idrees Sulieman

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“The cats? Which cats?”
“John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan, Idrees Sulieman, Louis Hayes and Doug Watkins.”
“Oh, those cats. Any good?”

This is another of the recordings that was on my list to write about when I was initially planning downwithit

This set recorded in April 1957 brings together John Coltrane, Kenny Burrell and Tommy Flanagan. Essentially, this was Flanagan’s session and four of the five compositions were written by the pianist. The resulting release is an engaging listen, without breaking through into new territories.

Minor Mishap opens matters. Whilst it sounds conventional and straightforward it survives as an opportunity to hear John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell playing together. It is a foot-tapper that you can hear on the following YouTube clip:

Next up, How Long Has This been Going On is a delightful piano centred version of the George and Ira Gershwin ballad (with sax, trumpet and guitar sitting out). Flanagan shows a real delicacy of touch and the accompaniment from drums and bass has a suitably light feel to it.

Eclypso combines a 5/4 introduction, followed by a longer 4/4 main section. Idrees Sulieman sounds somewhat brash and abrasive and his trumpet style throughout the album is not one that I particularly like. However, matters are redeemed by some sunny sounding guitar from Kenny Burrell, which brought a smile to my 92 year old aunt’s face, although she said that she does not think she will ever match KB’s playing, due to a wrist injury. She joked that maybe she would have to settle for the trumpet. There’s not too much to say about Solacium, other than it allows space for the playing of Coltrane and Burrell, while Tommy’s Time gives Flanagan nearly 12 minutes to show off his talents and include a good bass solo from Doug Watkins.

Four of the band are from. Detroit and provide evidence of a strong cohort of musicians who travelled from Motown to New York City to ply their trade. There’s more from Watkins and Hayes to be heard on fellow Detroit man Yusef Lateef’s Jazz Mood, an account of which follows below.

Tommy Flanagan spent 20 years as Ella Fitzgerald’s Musical Director, a testament to the silky elegance of his piano playing. He also contributed to two of the all time greatest sessions led by saxophonists, Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. The genius of of those ground breakers is not matched by The Cats, but it is an enjoyable session nonetheless. The New York Times obituary of Tommy Flanagan is to be found here.

The band etc: Tommy Flanagan (piano); John Coltrane (tenor saxophone); Idrees Sulieman (trumpet); Kenny Burrell (guitar); Louis Hayes (drums); Dough Watkins (bass). Recorded: 18 April 1957. Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey. Produced: Bob Weinstock. Recording Engineer: Rudy Van Gelder. Cover photos & design: Don Schlitten. Cover notes: Ira Gitler. Issued as Prestige 8217. Released 1959.

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Jazz Mood: Yusef Lateef

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One of the wisest, smartest moves that anybody can make when they want to get ahead with something is to get themselves a mentor. Dr Yusef Lateef passed away, aged 93, in December 2013. Amongst the many tributes and accolades, I noted one from a mentee who praised Dr Lateef as the person who he took inspiration from. It was none less than the great Sonny Rollins. Recommendations and endorsements probably don’t come any higher in this neck of the woods!

Yusef Lateef was on my list of artists to write about when I began to think about downwithit last summer. My dilemma has centred on where to start. My own introduction was via The Blue Lateef, an extraordinary set from the great man’s Atlantic years which began in the late 1960’s. I’ve already touched on that set here and I’ll be back again in due course.

Another entry point may have been to look at the series of sets from the early to mid 1960’s that came out on Impulse I’ll be going there later too.

Eastern Sounds is another magisterial performance that I’ll be back to. But as those of you who are still with me will already know, there’s only one real start- back at the start-line itself.

Jazz Mood was Yusef Lateef’s first set as a leader. Recorded in April 1957 with fellow Detroit musicians it features Curtis Fuller on trombone. In an amazing 39 minutes, Yusef offers a route map for his future development.

Metaphor opens matters and Yusef plays an opening phrase on what sounds like bag pipe drones (I assume to be the arghul referred to on the sleeve). The tune has a vaguely unsettling feel about it: perhaps the sort of thing that could accompany the scene setting opening of a film noir set in the Middle East. The scenario currently in my head would definitely be filmed in monochrome. The track features YL on flute. It follows (from YouTube). What do you think?

To play, click or touch the arrow.

Yusef’s Mood starts out by harking back to the 1940’s. The tune really swings but has a rhythm and blues edge which carries us into a fine bluesy tenor solo and some wonderful trombone from Curtis Fuller. There’s great interplay between the two soloists and, once again YouTube allows you to take a listen.

To play, click or touch the arrow.

There’s another particularly enjoyable version from the 1974 set Ten Years Hence, which was recorded live at Keystone Corner in San Francisco.

The Beginning is cool and enticing but is a little in the shadow of the other four tracks.

Morning is an exquisite performance featuring beautiful full-toned tenor saxophone played with great expression. I’m unsure whether the performer is reflecting on a long night or is contemplating a new morning full of expectation. I’ve not linked to it here but there are plenty of renditions currently on YouTube. The set closes with Blues In Space, which has a quirky sort of head (by which I mean tune). It’s 1957 and the composer is looking forward over the horizon to New York City in the 60’s perhaps? In 2014 that part sounds very dated but then an extended tenor saxophone solo saves matters. The piano is not massively to the fore on this set but Hugh Lawson is given the space for a fine short solo here.

So there we have it. Yusef Lateef’s first album as a leader. I have to admit that my copy is neither original vinyl, nor latter day CD, but one of 6 Classic Albums packaged together and available from your favourite online retailer for £14.99. Please forgive my transgression- but some sets are too good not to write about.

Dr Yusef Lateef’s informative website is here. There are links to obituaries where you can read about YL. While you are there, don’t miss the link to a couple of YL’s own essays, which offer a great insight into the ‘Gentle Giant’s’ own thoughts.

Deadline met, train to catch, post now, see you soon, downwithit

The Band: Yusef Lateef (Tenor saxophone, flute, arghul, scraper); Curtis Fuller (trombone, tambourine); Louis Hayes (drums); Hugh Lawson(piano); Doug Watkins (finger cymbals, percussion). Recorded: 9 April 1957. Produced: Ozzie Cadena. Released as Savoy MG 12103.

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Snow Blue Night: RipRap Quartet

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It’s spring, the bulbs and daffodils are with us, lambs are gamboling and it is time to tell you about some new music that you may enjoy. At the end of January, I wrote about Groove Merchant by The Tommy Chase Quartet here. Kevin Flanagan played sax on that album and when I emailed to let him know about my piece, I decided that I would try to write about his current musical endeavours. It’s great to be able to write about a musician, so obviously adept in playing the hard bop changes, who has moved into different, more contemporary territory and also to tell you about a new recording that has recently been released. Riprap have played together for over 8 years and the four members have played alongside many of the great and the good of British jazz, as well as with stellar rock and soul stars.

I’ve had Snow Blue Night for just over a week and I’ve probably played it through about a dozen times. Initially, I struggled to find the words and means to write about it. First impressions included observations that the music was melodic, complex, engaging and that Riprap have the great virtue of knowing how to listen to each other as well as being able to play their individual instruments with great skill.

There is none of the head, solo, solo, solo, reprise of head predictability found in the average hard bop set. What I did hear was a very listenable set of 10 tracks. Starting with an energetic and melodic Snow Blue Night, Kevin Flanagan introduces the theme on soprano saxophone before giving way to the piano of Dave Gordon who enters a dialogue with Russ Morgan on restrained and complimentary percussion, followed by a soaring soprano sax led section. I’m aware that Kevin Flanagan worked with Bristol trip-hop band, Portishead, and the next track up, Old Year, has Andrew Brown playing a bass line that reminds me very much of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines- but maybe that’s just these old ears of mine. The Beck is a delightful piece of music that demands attention despite being played with great subtlety and restraint. As noted above, Riprap really know how to listen to each other.

Cuba Cafe, as the name suggests has something of the Caribbean about it- a bit of mambo cha cha perhaps is this poor attempt to describe the feel. Song is a complex piece played in distinct movements, with a second section which offers plenty of space for the interplay between the bass, percussion and piano. English Isobars has a sense of sophistication that the piano and soprano saxophone deliver before Andrew Brown produces a short bass solo and more exquisite piano. Newk is a tribute to Sonny Rollins. I’m not sure if it echoes any of The Colossus’s compositions in particular but it lends itself to some playful interplay between the four musicians. Saying The Names starts with a repeated looped phrase (played on the bass, I think) which runs like a pulse through a first section before Dave Gordon plays some amazing piano. A third section re-introduces Kevin Flanagan with another repeated phrase on bass to take us out. Our Lady of Guadeloupe starts with a bass led phase, which creates a sense of tension and mystery. Finally, Helicon melds another mixture of light, shade and great sensitivity.

The album sounded great over a Naim/ Spendor system. It has been a pleasure to discover a very fine contemporary set which downwithit can recommend to you without any reservation or hesitation. The great thing is that Riprap are a working quartet with at least four gigs coming up between now and September 2014 (Cambridge, Watford, Ipswich area). The album can be bought as a CD for £10 including postage and packaging direct from Kevin Flanagan’s website, which you can link to from here. You can also buy downloads from there. If you only buy one new British jazz album in the coming months, treat yourself to this one. There’s also lots more information about the band and forthcoming gigs there too.

The band:- Riprap are: Kevin Flanagan (reeds); Dave Gordon (piano); Russ Morgan (percussion); Andrew Brown (bass). January 2012. Recorded at Anglia Ruskin Recital Room, Cambridge. Produced by Kevin Flanagan, Bill Campbell and John Ward; Recording Engineer: Bill Campbell, assisted by Jamie Currie and David Kuratsu. Cover photo: Jane Perryman; Art & Design: Crosstown Traffic. Riprap (own label).

I’ve said my bit and now you can hear from Kevin Flanagan, himself, courtesy of YouTube. Naturally, he tells us about the music of Riprap in a far better way than a reviewer could hope to and there are several extracts from Snow Blue Night to be heard there too:-

To watch, click or press the button.

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Marching on

Spring has arrived here in the UK. It is a time for looking forward and I have been thinking about how to improve downwithit for you.

I’ll continue to look back at classic recording sessions and bring you reviews and tasters of music that I am listening to. There are so many recordings I want to have my tuppence worth about.

Lots of artists are making great music directly traceable to the same DNA pool that the great jazz of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s emerged from (and trying to catch your attention while trying to make a living). Current music needs our support, so I will also try to take a look at one current artist every month (the first CD has already arrived and I will be listening closely during the coming week so I can tell you about it).

Live performances will also be reviewed from time to time as I aim to try to see more live jazz in 2014. Certainly the post about last Thursday’s Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis gig has attracted loads of visits. I will probably be writing about Robin McKelle’s new album before Easter.

The search for more information about Freddie Roach resulted in a guest article from Pete Fallico. I am hopeful that he will be kind enough to agree to allow me to bring you a further piece very shortly.

downwithit has now been visited by close to 900 individual visitors and I hope that you are enjoying what you find here.

A quick look at other review-centred blogs suggests that communication tends to be one-way- but comments are very welcome here at downwithit and would add another dimension. Don’t be shy. It doesn’t matter if you have been listening to the music for years or if it is new to you- please feel free to contribute, correct, criticise or congratulate (subject matter starting with any of the 25 letters of the alphabet other than ‘c’ can also be sent). A brand new, just out of the box lets you to add a simple thumbs up or thumbs down to each and every post from now on (2/3/14).

Blue Note Records are celebrating their 75th anniversary later this month and as a part of that they have announced a major reissue programme. Five albums from their catalogue will be released each month for the foreseeable future (the first 100 have been selected already). I will be really keen to find out if the vinyl LPs sound as good as the original first pressings and I’m keeping my fingers crossed on that score.

So, come back here to downwithit often, let me know what you think, listen to more music, see more live performances and perhaps even start your own blog.

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