Posts Tagged ‘ Jazz ’

Album of the Week 29-2017: The Meters – Rejuvenation


Within the funk idiom, The Meters are the prime representatives of the New Orleans sound. Not as angrily defiant as James Brown, not as dirty as the Ohio Players and not as crazy as Parliament-Funkadelic, the band focused on swinging, relatively relaxed grooves, which landed them a job as the backing band of New Orleans greats like Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. Their own material is worth hearing as well though. ‘Rejuvenation’ is their first album without any instrumentals, which were part of their charm, but the record is so full of inspired grooves and memorable melodies that it hardly matters.

On their first three albums, The Meters specialized in laid-back funk grooves, often making their songs sound like they belong on the soundtracks of one of the Blaxploitation films that were so popular at the time. The shift to predominantly vocal tracks on this album’s predecessor ‘Cabbage Alley’ may have raised some eyebrows at the time, but it is a fact that ‘Rejuvenation’ is full of excellent songs, some of which – most prominently the typical New Orleans rhythm of ‘Hey Pocky A-Way’ – sound like they could have been on one of their earliest records, except that these songs feature singing.

At other times, ‘Rejuvenation’ features the band leaning heavily towards more contemporary funk. Opening track ‘People Say’ has a suprisingly propulsive, stomping beat that nods strongly towards the harder funk that was gaining popularity at the time, while ‘Just Kissed My Baby’ is as close as The Meters ever came to the slinky, sexy grooves of the Ohio Players. ‘Jungle Man’ and the excellent closing track ‘Africa’ are great examples of the band adapting the sparse, prominent grooves of Sly & The Family Stone to their New Orleans background and bridging the gap between several types of funk in the process.

The album’s centerpiece, however, is the massive, 12 minute track ‘It Ain’t No Use’. This masterpiece of a song starts out like a blues track with some excellent stinging guitar fills by Leo Nocentelli, which are strongly reminiscent of Clapton during his best days in Cream. Art Neville’s passionate vocals are incredible as well. After the more song-oriented part is out of the way, a long, inspired funk jam starts, during which every member gets a chance to shine. Especially the rhythm section of drummer Ziggy Modeliste and bassist extraordinaire George Porter Jr. is beyond incredible here. Its jamtastic nature makes it stand out from the relatively concise material on ‘Rejuvenation’, but that’s not a problem.

‘Rejuvenation’ is the ultimate proof that The Meters could handle any kind of funk. As such, it is one of the most versatile and varied funk records released to date, as its styles range from the highly poppy ‘Loving You Is On My Mind’ all the way to the hard driving ‘Africa’. And The Meters tackle all of these styles with equal enthusiasm and inspiration. The album is definitely where the musicianship and the songcraft of The Meters is in perfect balance. Which is great, because as much as I love their contributions to the records of all these New Orleans legends, making their own music is really what The Meters do best.

Recommended tracks: ‘It Ain’t No Use’, ‘Africa’, ‘Jungle Man’

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Album of the Week 27-2017: Jeangu Macrooy – High On You


Initially, it was Jeangu Macrooy’s voice that drew me towards his music. It strongly reminded me of Bill Withers in terms of timbre, power and intimacy. But a great voice only gets you so far. Luckily, Macrooy is an excellent songwriter as well. He mixes up many different genres, but instead of incoherent genre-hopping, Macrooy creates a smooth, listenable blend of soul, jazz, rock, pop and some Carribean influences. Last year, his ‘Brave Enough’ EP was an excellent introduction to what Macrooy was able to do, but his debut album ‘High On You’ really shows the full scope of his musical ambitions.

On ‘High On You’, it is possible to listen to three different songs and hear five different genres. However, things never get disjointed. It is quite clear that a lot of effort went into the arrangements, but it also helps that Macrooy has an excellent band behind him, consisting of musicians who are simply looking to upstage the songs rather than themselves, displaying an impressive amount of versatility. Macrooy himself does some nice work on the acoustic guitar as well. The fact that all the songs have a similar approach sonically positively influences the listenability of the album’s multi-genre approach.

Macrooy’s voice is on full display on the spiritual sounding opening track ‘Aisa’, but he also takes center stage in the folky ‘Circles’ and soulful ballads like ‘Antidote’, ‘Sleep You Off’ and the title track. But even the singer/songwriter himself has no problem taking a back seat to the generally relaxed, shimmering grooves of songs like ‘Tell Me Father’ and ‘Crazy Kids’. The vocals find a comfortable place within the mix, but Macrooy’s lyrics come across really well. On the EP, there were some interesting references to the history of his native country of Suriname, but he seems to have gone for words that are highly personal, openhearted and honest this time around.

While ‘High On You’ is consitently amazing, there are some standout moments. I personally think the seamless blend of light funk and dark, somewhat psychedelic rock that occurs in songs like ‘Fire Raging’, ‘Head Over Heels’ and the somewhat more subdued ‘One Way Ticket’ is an extremely interesting approach that has not been attempted very often since the days of psychedelic soul in the early seventies. The rhythms of these songs are not exceptionally propulsive, but have a very pleasand drive to them. But the true highlight is ‘Step Into The Water’. The song sort of ties together all the influences on the album into a concise, amazing song with a highly memorable chorus. Truly this year’s best single out of the Netherlands.

Every once in a while, an exceptional talent appears who proves that contemporary music is not as stuck in a predictable pattern as much as I sometimes say it is. If it is done this way, I do not mind being proven wrong. Jeangu Macrooy and his band have made an excellent album that manages to be a pleasant listen and a musically challenging piece of art simultaneously. It has been a pretty good year for Dutch music already, but ‘High On You’ might just top everything else. This record deserves to be appreciated internationally.

Recommended tracks: ‘Step Into The Water’, ‘Fire Raging’, ‘Head Over Heels’

In Memoriam Leon Russell 1942-2016


Why the media haven’t quite gotten to this sad death of another musical icon is beyond me. Leon Russell was a presence to be reckoned with. When he sat down behind the piano with his long white hair and beard, often with a hat, you just felt there was someone there. His broad musical output, which touches on folk, country, blues, rock, soul and jazz, speaks for itself. His woeful tale of heartache known as ‘A Song For You’ has been covered by over 100 artists, but even so, he was more known as a studio musician for the likes of Joe Cocker, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones.

Leon Russell was – along with Dr. John – my favorite white piano player. The Oklahoma born pianist had a way of combining styles from a young age; his early band The Starlighters, which also included J.J. Cale, was one of the creators of what would became known as the Tulsa Sound, which combined elements of country, blues, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll. As a result, Russell was often invited to studio sessions by people looking for that sound, even after he moved to Los Angeles. Not just on piano, by the way; he was a proficient guitarist as well.

During this time, Russell had also proven himself as a highly successful songwriter. It was in this capacity that he was introduced to Joe Cocker, who recorded his song ‘Delta Lady’. Russell eventually became the band leader for Cocker’s ‘Mad Dogs & Englishmen’ tour, of which a popular concert film was made. Meanwhile, Russell was already working on a solo career. His self-titled debut was released in 1970 and included classics like ‘Shootout On The Plantation’, ‘Hummingbird’ and his own version of ‘Delta Lady’. And ‘A Song For You’, on which Russell’s performance may not be technically perfect, but it’s an intense emotional experience.

His contribution to George Harrison’s ‘The Concert For Bangladesh’ in 1971 is likely what brought him to public attention. Besides playing the piano and bass, he also sang the Rolling Stones classic ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and The Coasters’ ‘Young Blood’. During the rest of the seventies, he would keep steadily releasing albums either under his own name or his country alter ego Hank Wilson. I personally consider the dreamy, jazzy and occasionally bizarre ‘Carney’ to be his best solo studio album. ‘Magic Mirror’, ‘Tight Rope’, ‘This Masquerade’, ‘Roller Derby’ and ‘Manhattan Island Serenade’ are all masterpieces. Dutch listeners may recognize the latter as the basis for the 1981 Amazing Stroopwafels hit ‘Oude Maasweg’.

After the seventies, Leon Russell slowly faded into obscurity. He would continue releasing albums and playing live solo or backing artists, but it would take until 2010 before the duet album ‘The Union’ he recorded with ardent admirer Elton John brought him back to the public eye. The album is a masterclass in both piano playing and songwriting and shines with an unbridled joy for making music. Both Russell and John simply hadn’t sounded that great in years. Russell’s last studio album ‘Life Journey’ was released in 2014.

Even though he kept on playing live right until the end of his life and was even talking about tour dates in 2017, the many health issues that plagued Russell in recent years have ultimately prevented him from doing so. He was recovering from heart surgery when he died in his sleep at age 74 yesterday. And so, the in memoriam I had hoped not to write in a while is a fact. I will miss Russell’s adventurous musical spirit and urge everyone to dig into his sizable discography as a tribute to this musical mastermind who may not have gotten the public praise he deserved, but could count on undivided admiration from his fellow musicians.

Album of the Week 27-2016: Hiromi – Spark


So much girl power at the North Sea Jazz festival this year! Esperanza Spalding especially blew me away with her music meets performance art presentation of her excellent ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ album, but Hiromi wasn’t far behind. It wasn’t just her crazily accurate and sometimes warp-speed piano playing; her whole trio was on fire. Of course, she has enlisted the help of two cross-genre giants in the shape of drummer Simon Phillips and bassist – excuse me, contrabass guitarist – Anthony Jackson, but music history has proven time and time again that putting great musicians together doesn’t necessarily result in a great record. In the case of ‘Spark’, it does though.

Japanese Jazz – or Japanese music in general really – has a tendency to be excessively polished. And while I like my music a little on the clean side, the soul sometimes gets washed out in the process. Whether it’s the fact that she lives in America these days, I don’t know, but Hiromi’s found the balance between polish and structure on one side and wild abandon on the other. The former is quite clear in the very strongly composed melodic themes on this album, the latter in the improvisations by all three musicians involved.

Melodically, ‘Spark’ has a very dreamy, almost fairytale-like atmosphere. As band leader, Hiromi seems to make sure that the virtuosity of the entire trio doesn’t get in the way of those main melodies. Of course, Phillips’ powerhouse drumming and remarkable control over the strength of his hits plays a pivotal role in the album’s rhythmic strength – though I think his carefully crafted sound is the main merit of his presence here – but it never gets too busy. Jackson especially has no problem taking backseat to the composition, but then again: he’s a master of the groove, so why not use him as such?

In a way, the opening title track sums up the album quite well. After a slow fade-in, there’s an upbeat melody carrying the song before moving into more visceral improvisations that never go out of line. The rest of the record moves back and forth between relaxed (the almost Bluesy ‘Indulgence’, the seventies Herbie Hancock-esque ‘What Will Be, Will Be’) and propulsive (the choppy ‘Wonderland’, closing track ‘All’s Well’), sometimes even within the same song (the dramatic ‘Dilemma’). ‘Wake Up And Dream’ feels like a classical piano piece, while ‘Take Me Away’ is a special track; Jackson uses his instrument in an almost guitar-like fashion, after which the song moves through multiple hypnotizing climaxes.

Through several years of experience as a music journalist, I’ve grown a little suspicious of artists that are hyped. In case of Hiromi, it is fully justified. She can obviously play her heart out, but what made the attention last for the decade and a half that she’s been profesionally active now is that she’s able to channel that virtuosity into tunes that are crafted so well that you can call them songs. And that isn’t necessarily the case for Jazz artists. Also, she’s found the perfect people to accompany her in Jackson and Phillips. ‘Spark’ is easily Hiromi’s crowning achievement thus far and leaves a promising path open for the future.

Recommended tracks: ‘Spark’, ‘Dilemma’, ‘Take Me Away’

Album of the Week 17-2016: Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two


Not much more than a week after the sad, unexpected death of Prince, there’s the general release of his 39th studio album ‘Hit n Run Phase Two’. It’s not entirely new; it already appeared on several streaming media, but the CD is still pretty much my favored method of listening to music. And my favored side of Prince is strongly highlighted on this release. Where ‘Phase One’ was much too electronic for my tastes, this album is full of Jazzy Pop brilliance and light, shimmering Funk grooves. Though it misses the urgency of his best work, it’s a final testament to the genius of Prince’s musicianship.

Essentially, the album compiles a handful of tracks that were released in one form or another, but since The Purple One’s preference for musical media had the tendency to change faster than the weather, it’s good to finally have them all in one place. Especially considering the strong thematic nature of the record; though it doesn’t exactly shy away from modern production techniques, ‘Hit n Run Phase Two’ is strongly focused on performances and stripped down arrangements. Even the less Funky tracks are highly rhythmic and generally sparsely instrumentated, a couple of bombastic climaxes notwithstanding.

Personally, I had only heard ‘Stare’ before the release of the album and that track made me hopeful. It’s the bare bones Funk base of – I suspect, the credits aren’t very hepful – bassist Ida Nielsen and drummer John Blackwell that drives this track forward, while the horns and Prince’s guitar and vocals add some cool accents. ‘2 Y. 2 D.’ is equally Funky, but has more of a Motown-like arrangement. The rhythm is irresistible and the horns are explosive. ‘Black Muse’ and the upbeat, Stevie Wonder-esque closing track ‘Big City’ are less urgent, but still delightful Funk-Lite, and ‘Xtraloveable’ sounds so much like Chic, that it surprised me Nile Rodgers wasn’t involved.

A lot has been said about the socially conscious lyrics of opening track ‘Baltimore’, but I’d still like to highlight the musical side of it all, because the song is as close to Pop perfection as it gets. Despite the heavy lyrics, the song’s light, breezy feel and excellent string arrangement are goosebumps material. ‘RocknRoll LoveAffair’ is equally light and well arranged, though with a slightly more eighties light Rock feel. The actual Rock factor is turned up a notch for the cheesy, but highly enjoyable ‘Screwdriver’, while ‘Look At Me, Look At U’ and ‘Revelation’ are excellent, seductive Jazz exercises, both featuring some mindblowing saxophone work. ‘Groovy Potential’ deserves a special mention; it’s not necessarily the album’s best track, but its fusion of early Disco and contemporary R&B is unlike anything I have ever heard.

Opinions on ‘Hit n Run Phase Two’ are divided, but while I wouldn’t quite name it the best Prince record since ‘Musicology’ – ‘Lotusflow3r’ and ‘PlectrumElectrum’ are too close to my heart for that – it is definitely Prince as I like to hear him best: with a strong focus on rhythmically engaging musicianship. It wasn’t meant as such, but ultimately, the album is an excellent closing statement to a musical output that is practically unbeatable in ambition and scope. And in the end, that’s the only true downside to the album: knowing there won’t be any more like this.

Recommended tracks: ‘Baltimore’, ‘2 Y. 2 D.’, ‘Stare’

In Memoriam Prince 1958-2016


Call him weird. Call him an enigma. Call him a show-off. You’re probably right. But let’s never forget that Prince was first and foremost a musical genius who consistently refused to aknowledge the presence of genre boundaries in music. The announcement of his death came as a shock to me. Not only because have been a big fan of his work for ages, but also because I had no idea his health issues were so bad. He was rushed to the hospital in the middle of a tour last week, but he was back home and everything seemed to be alright. However, it was that home – Paisley Park, of course – where he was found dead at age 57.

I had the pleasure of seeing “the purple one” live when he closed the second night of the North Sea Jazz festival in 2011. It was an extremely hectic night as I was still fronting Chaos Asylum at the time and we had a gig before the show, but I’m still so glad I went. The Prince I saw there wasn’t Prince the Pop phenomenon or Prince the hit machine, but the musician Prince. Exactly the side of him that I admire so much. With a passion, he and his excellent band worked through a set of Jazz, Funk, Soul and even a little Hardrock. And whatever amazing song I missed that night – ‘Controversy’ first and foremost – I had a chance to see two weeks later at the same venue.

There’s so much to admire about Prince that I don’t even know where to start. Maybe his guitar playing, because I still think he doesn’t get enough credit for his amazing skills. He blends Hendrix’ intuitive Blues feel with Santana’s sultry tone and soulful melodicism, while adding his own awesome choppy, syncopated funk and the occasional shred moment to the mix. There’s not one player in the world who sounds like him sonically or stylistically and that to me is the mark of a great guitarist.

But he’s a fantastic composer as well. He’s made futuristic Funk (‘Controversy’), psychedelic Bluesrock (‘Colonized Mind’), relaxed Jazz (most of ‘The Rainbow Children’), excellent power ballads (‘Gold’), Hardrock (‘Peach’), his trademark light Funk (‘Dear Mr. Man’), T-Rex-ish Rock ‘n’ Roll (‘Cream’) and the perfect Pop song (‘Little Red Corvette’). And I’m probably forgetting a whole lot more here, but so much of his work is simply uncategorizable. What, for instance, is ‘When Doves Cry’? I wouldn’t know either, but it’s excellent without any shade of a doubt.

While Prince’s work is never too far away from my CD player – litterally actually; it’s right above it – I think this is a good time to pay tribute by playing even more of his work. There’s so much great material that he has made through the years. From the heavily bootlegged, yet never officially released Funk Bible that is ‘The Black Album’ to the Hardrock splendor of ‘PlectrumElectrum’ that he recorded with his all-female backing group 3rdEyeGirl… This stuff needs to be heard. It’s just a pity that nothing more will ever be made. I will be looking forward to the release of ‘HitnRun Phase Two’ next week though…

Prince Rogers Nelson, I’ve stood up to defend your musical qualities numerous times through the years and I will continue to do so. Your contributions to Pop music will be sorely missed.

Album of the Week 11-2016: Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution


Contemporary Jazz generally doesn’t appeal to me. Except when it does. That sounds a bit trivial and it probably is, but some artists just connect with me. Like Trombone Shorty. And Esperanza Spalding. Her unique musical vision and relatively song oriented approach has already resulted in a couple of good albums – I quite enjoyed 2012’s ‘Radio Music Society’ – but with ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’, Spalding obviously had an approach in mind that required a tight-knit band. The result is a highly dynamic and surprisingly guitar heavy album that combines equal parts of Jazz, R&B and Rock, as well as hints of Pop.

Esperanza Spalding’s work on the bass – both acoustic and electric – is second to none, but in the past, her voice has sometimes rubbed me the wrong way. She’s obviously a very skilled singer, but when she breaks away from her standard alto range, she somehow reached a frequency that I personally didn’t enjoy listening to. She still does that on ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’, but for whatever reason, it works a lot better for me this time. At times, it feels like I’m listening to a 21st century R&B version of Kate Bush, with whom she shares an eccentricity, but not a style.

Apparently, Spalding put together the band especially for this album. The drums are handled quite proficiently by either Justin Tyson or Karriem Riggins, but the true revelation of the record – besides Spalding herself, obviously – is guitarist Matthew Stevens, whose seamless transitions between restrained riffing and distorted madness is largely responsible for the Fusion-like feel of the majority of ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’. Whether he and Spalding collaborate on a crazy riff in unison (‘Funk The Fear’), goes wild with a solo (the alternate version of ‘Unconditional Love’) or sets the mood with a Hendrix and Zeppelin meet jazzy dissonance riff (opening track ‘Good Lava’), it makes for a truly pleasant listening experience.

Because the number of musicians per track is relatively limited – four of the album’s tracks were even recorded solely by Spalding, Stevens and Riggins – these songs really get the room they need to breathe. With the number of styles covered on the album, it could easily have become a bloated mess of virtuosos, but in this composition it just works. The rhythms can be funky if they need to, the chords can hit hard when the song asks for it and there’s plenty of room for Spalding’s trademark dreamy contemplations.

The eclectic, but still smooth and song oriented appraoch of the album makes ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ a genre transcending masterpiece that could easily work as a gateway record for R&B or Rock enthusiasts who consider delving deeper into Jazz. And with Spalding being in her early thirties, it makes me hopeful about what the future will bring. I’m hoping for more works of the same brilliance, but even if ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’ turns out to be too good to equal, it can still be seen as a crowning achievement for her. As a bass player, as a singer, as a band leader and as a songwriter. An absolute must.

Recommended tracks: ‘Good Lava’, ‘Funk The Fear’, ‘Change Us’, ‘Judas’