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Sunset in the Blue | Regional News

Sunset in the Blue

Melody Gardot

UMG

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t and we reviewers and critics are to blame. It all boils down to this. If an artist keeps making the same-ish album time after time, then they are lumbered with a ubiquitous attitude. It’s here that I invoke the names Josh Groban, Michael Bublé, and too many others to mention. If you change tack every few albums, and I’m thinking of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Costello here, then you are forever smeared with the label of not thinking about your fans. Yes, you can’t win. And yes, we have your names!

Melody Gardot falls into the former category. Her warm, velvet-glove voice envelops you. It strokes your arm and goose-pimples rise. It’s a shiver looking for a spine. Toes tingle and the sound of your heartbeat is the loudest thing in the room.

It’s not her fault that her albums follow a familiar path. Her voice, as wonderful as it is – and nobody has a voice with as flawless a microphone technique as hers – is simply incapable of branching out into a big band arrangement or incorporating a rock beat.

At first, I thought this must be an older album resurfacing, as the arrangements shimmer with the sound of the late great Claus Ogerman (1930-2016), who arranged strings for Antônio Carlos Jobim, Frank Sinatra, and Diana Krall. As it is, it’s Vince Mendoza, whose work has adorned the albums of Joni Mitchell, Sting, and Elvis. Along the way, he has won six Grammy Awards.

The opening, the self-composed If you Love Me, is just lovely. “If you love me let me know / Tell my heart which way to go / Come in close but come in slowly, now / If you love me let me know”.

Whilst a version of Moon River adds nothing to the original, the standard I Fall in Love too Easily is a cracker. An absolute delight is the duet C’est Magnifique, sung in Portuguese with António Zambujo. Being true to her roots, Gardot proves that less is more.

More From the Levee | Regional News

More From the Levee

Chris Smither

Southbound

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Smither might not be a bluesman, but he does approach his songs with a southern Delta, languid, laidback storytelling style that reminds me of Mississippi John Hurt.

On the surface, this would look like an apple-crate bunch of songs leftover from his 2014 album Still on the Levee. As it was, there were 24 songs on that album so my approach to listening here was purely softly, softly, not wanting to be disappointed.

Well, apart from a couple of tracks that could have been missed out – like the badly mixed Drive you Home where the drummer seems to have been recorded inside a biscuit tin, and I Am the Ride, which like the last take of the night is just plain tired – the rest is an absolute blinder.

Smither’s voice is a curious blend of Grandpa-on-the-porch and the bittersweetness of a weary road traveller. The wry humour of Let it Go is pure John Prine. Having his car stolen he pretends he doesn’t care, then spends the rest of the song missing his “three thousand pounds of wheels and sounds”. He beats himself up for not paying the $16.50 to use a car park, then looks at the empty space in the street and beats himself up some more. He imagines “some little bum with a button in his tongue” looking at the picture of his girlfriend he left on the dashboard.

In Father’s Day, Smither’s role is one of a man reminiscing and getting older, with quiet thoughts such as “‘There’ is what we call it when we won’t recall just what we’re headed for”. Few do it better.

Looking at the various instruments you’ll find plenty of humour. These include whisky agogo bells, feet, random events, and ambience. I wonder if they are for sale?

Some folk never seem to move on from the Gordon Lightfoot or Tom Rushes of the world. Just one play of Lonely Time will convince even the most hardened of listeners to spend some time with this genius.

Gareth Farr | Edward Elgar: Cello Concertos | Regional News

Gareth Farr | Edward Elgar: Cello Concertos

Sébastien Hurtaud and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Rubicon

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

It’s a clever idea to juxtapose Elgar’s Cello Concerto alongside this new work by composer Gareth Farr, for now, we can compare pieces written a century apart but both framed by the horrors of World War I.

Knowing the Elgar Cello Concerto well made me turn to Farr’s interpretation first, and I confess to having a book of war poems at hand as a guide. Owen, Sassoon, and Graves all wrote works that reflected not only the horror of war but also the peace when artillery stopped for the day. No birds sang in that leaden silence. Farr’s inspiration for the work came from knowing that three of his uncles had died in the Great War. Then there is substantial evidence that Elgar’s Cello Concerto was inspired by the loss of Elgar’s first love Helen Weaver’s son in WWI.

Farr has captured this aspect superbly. This was a time when German composers were given short shrift by the BBC and concert halls. In its place rose a British patriotic style of music incorporating the folk art movement of William Morris.

Known as the English Nationalist School or the English Pastoral School, it’s a theme that I hear throughout, even though Elgar was not of that discipline. Still, the scholarship argument remains for this reviewer.

Farr’s work is called Chemin des Dames (Pathway of the Women), a romantic notion of a road between two palaces that was also the site of a horrific battle during the war. That one can write music that turns very subtly from an idyllic impression of verdant fields and farm workers toiling under the noon sun (and it’s about here I think of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto in A Minor), to that of a vision of carnage and suffering is remarkable to this listener.

In the hands of French cellist Sébastien Hurtaud and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Benjamin Northey, the work is rendered noteworthy. One hopes that other cellists will add this piece to their repertoire.

Kaleidoscope | Regional News

Kaleidoscope

Julie Bevan

Bandcamp

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Brazilian music has always been about constant change, saudade (yearning songs), música popular brasileira (Brazilian popular music, or MPB for short), and lambada, yet it is the school of bossa nova and samba that we return to time and time again. It is the music we think about in summer most often. No wonder it’s still an essential part of many artists’ repertoire.

As is my mode of reviewing, I try to listen to a record without reading the liner notes first. I don’t want to be distracted by false promises. But, halfway through the first track, I reached for an overview as to Julie Bevan’s history. Wellington born Bevan studied at The New Zealand School of Music – Te Kōkī, founded the Brazilian music group Zamba Flam, and is a founding member of Wellington’s Batucada. Wellingtonians are super proud of this group. They make you sit up, then get up and shake your booty regardless of age.

Kaleidoscope (my favourite with guitar and accordion in the style of Astor Piazzolla) is an outstanding track. The album is absolutely steeped in the sounds of Brazil. The delicate Spanish guitar nylon string plucking mixed with bass, drums, trumpet, sax, and accordion all fused seamlessly together gives us a sound redolent of João Gilberto, Antônio Carlos Jobim, and Luiz Bonfa. But it’s more than a homage. There are some serious compositions on display here. None more so than the electrifying picking by Marcelo Nami and Bevan on Stone Eaters or the non-Brazilian track Show Us Your Bole-R-Us, which incorporates some fiery flamenco. The very next track Dervish and the muted trumpet of Altair Martins made me think of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. It’s a catch-me-if-you-can kind of a track between guitar and trumpet before expanding into a drum solo. Technically it’s the most satisfying on the disc. It comes as no surprise that all the music was composed and arranged by Julie Bevan.

For sheer listening pleasure, Danca Dos Gnomos, a seemingly improvised jazz track, works best. This wonderful disc will knock your socks off. Oh, to see this album released in Brazil.

All Rise | Regional News

All Rise

Gregory Porter

Universal Music Group

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Just recently I came across a cartoon in which two small children were seated at the feet of an older man (a pipe, smoking jacket, armchair, you get the picture) as they ask, “Tell us grandad about the time you used to have to buy an album just for one song”. Yes, I roared with laughter as I saw myself not only then, but now. This came to mind as I was listening to Gregory Porter’s new album that I’ve been looking forward to. And yes, it’s worth buying it for one track, If Love is Overrated, but to say that would be disingenuous – the album is simply one of the best of the year.

Porter has a strikingly original soulful voice, a voice that conjures up the church and soul of Al Green, the seductiveness of Marvin Gaye, and the intimate warm baritone of Billy Eckstine.

There is nary a song on this album that doesn’t drip with sincerity. Porter’s articulation is another outstanding element, but more than ever, he has created a body of compositions that others can cover for years to come.

There is a myriad of emotions deployed here. Mr Holland is one example, with a rollicking Hammond organ and swinging brass. At the end of this song, which is about a Black youngster wanting to play with Mr Holland’s white daughter, the youth discovers that Mr Holland doesn’t discriminate. Given the times we live in, it’s very timely. Towards the end of the song, Porter speeds up his delivery, I suspect without telling the band, which catches them unawares. It’s a glorious unscripted moment.

With the COVID-19 outbreak, Porter has cut back on touring and retreated, with his wife and six-year-old son, to his home in Bakersfield, California, a city best known for the country sound of Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam, and Merle Haggard. In the song Thank You, he pays homage to his Pentecostal church upbringing in the city of his early youth. Another sublime slice of Gregory Porter.

100 Years of the Blues | Regional News

100 Years of the Blues

Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite

Southbound

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

How wonderful to see two stalwarts of the blues checking in their egos at the door and having a rambunctious time. Elvin Bishop started with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and then went on to a solo career and had a hit with Fooled Around and Fell in Love (1976). Later he played with John Lee Hooker, Clifton Chenier, and Bo Diddley. So, no slouch then.

Likewise, Charlie Musselwhite, reportedly the inspiration for Elwood Blues (the character played by Dan Aykroyd in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers), has been on the blues scene for decades.

For two musicians from the South, both who made their careers in Chicago and have played together over the last 50 years, it’s remarkable they have never recorded together before.

Musselwhite brings his growly fat harp sound, just like he did on my blues album of the year Sanctuary (2004). It’s an album that included The Blind Boys of Alabama, Charlie Sexton, and Ben Harper. Bishop with his skewed, often funny take on life is still a delight. Okay, he is never going to trouble the charts again, apart from the blues best sellers, but chances are if you stepped into a juke joint on a Saturday night in the Deep South, they would probably have to roll you out sometime on a Sunday morning. But you would have a big smile on your face just from the experience.

Mixing up the playlist, which includes Roosevelt Sykes’ West Helena Blues, Leroy Carr’s Midnight Hour Blues, and a go-to favourite Help Me, penned by Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, and Ralph Bass, there are also nine originals.

Years ago, I read that The Animals played a gig in Newcastle then took the train to London, recorded their first album in just a few hours, caught the train back to Newcastle, and played a gig the same night. Bishop and Musselwhite took two days. I love albums that have that spontaneity.

I won’t pretend this is a great album, it is what it is – two old friends just having a good time with good music.

This Dream of You | Regional News

This Dream of You

Diana Krall

Universal Music Group

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

If there is one thing that I have noticed in this COVID-19 pandemic, it is the number of artists not being able to tour, or in some cases even record. To remedy that, the creatives within the industry have taken to reissuing many older albums with bonus tracks and remastering. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Fleetwood Mac are just some artists benefiting by having a higher profile during this quiet period. In the jazz field, it seems barely a couple of weeks go by without some lost recording being discovered in the vaults. Recently we had Miles Davis with Rubberband, John Coltrane’s Blue World, Stan Getz’s Live at the Village Gate, and Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes. All make for great listening.

But then there are the artists who record plenty of material and discard it for one reason or another: it didn’t suit the artist’s mood in playback, it was the wrong material for the album at the time, or lengthwise, it just didn’t fit in.

Diana Krall lost her mentor and producer Tommy Li Puma (1936-2017), but her last recording with him has resulted in some leftover tracks for the album This Dream of You. And, if Krall continues with the soft, light jazz approach, then many fans will be happy. In fact, it is the perfect bookend to the Turn Up the Quiet album. But it might not suit others, myself included, who think that it’s time for a serious jazz album.

I’ve played one track over and over again from this disc: Just You, Just Me, which features a fiddle and is an absolute gas. Stuart Duncan has featured on dozens of country albums, yet here he plays with the ghost of Joe Venuti sitting on his shoulder. Duncan reappears on the album’s namesake, Krall’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s This Dream of You. It’s a sensitive reading with the inclusion of an accordion.

New Zealander Alan Broadbent, never far away from a Krall album, resurfaces here playing the piano on the track More Than You Know, and has a hand in arranging several other tracks. Music for a summer’s night then.

Chasing the Sun | Regional News

Chasing the Sun

Sola Rosa

Way Up Records

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Knowing that I was into old school soul, a friend gave me a copy of Sola Rosa’s 2005 album Moves On. To say that I have devoured all their albums since would be an understatement. This wildly eclectic group, led by Aucklander Andrew Spraggon, has continued to redefine soul as we know it by incorporating electronics, jazz beats, neo-soul, dub, loops, and reggae, so much so that Sola Rosa’s mantlepiece is chock full of nominations for Best Electronica Album, Best Independent Release, Best Producer, and Best Dance/Electronic Album.

Best not to call this an Andrew Spraggon album, but rather a cumulation of like-minded artists intent on getting a groove on from track one and never taking the foot off the pedal. Included are regular collaborator and Streets singer Kevin Mark Trail, Basement Jaxx’ Sharlene Hector, and UK reggae star Kiko Bun. Others include Londoners singer-songwriter Josh Barry and eclectic neo-soul singer Jerome Thomas. British reggae and dub MC vocalist Eva Lazarus, plus up-and-coming Australian artist Thandi Phoenix are in the mix also. Closer to home, expat Kiwi vocalist Wallace Gollan and Aotearoa’s Troy Kingi add their talents to the mix.

No wonder then it took five years to make this album. Mind you, it doesn’t surprise me as Spraggon, in an interview with NZ Musician, reveals an artist not content to rest on his laurels. Many tracks started off in one direction but changed midstream. For example, on the track For the Mighty Dollar, Julien Dyne’s drums replace Spraggon’s programmed beats and, by a twist of fate one day when a singer couldn’t make the London session, Spraggon was given the name of Josh Barry. The magic happened and he can be heard on You Don’t Know.

If your tastes run from Earth, Wind and Fire meets Snap, or Mtume’s Juicy Fruit to M People, you will fall in love with this disc. It takes all of these elements and adds a fresh take with layer upon layer of hip-hop and dub beats.

Getting Sober for the End of the World | Regional News

Getting Sober for the End of the World

Darren Watson

Bandcamp

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

More than anything, the blues is about the human condition and it’s a responsibility that Darren Watson is happy to carry on his shoulders. No track demonstrates this more than the outstanding Ernie Abbott. Abbott was a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. As late as July 2019, the police revealed they probably knew who the bomb that took Abbott’s life some 35 years prior was intended for, even though they could not tell us who planted the bomb.

As somebody who lived through those times of Prime Minister v The Unions, I can attest it was an uncomfortable and unsettling time, yet the bombing of the Trades Union Hall seemed to become a catalyst for a wider view of what unions wanted. I’ve been part of dozens of radio programmes when Access Radio had an office next door, and I never passed the Trade Union Hall without thinking about the incident.

Blues music has always been a rich vein to mine when it comes to individual names. Consider Mr Crump Don’t Like It, John Henry, and Frankie and Johnnie. Though he doesn’t mention his name, we all know that Watson’s One Evil Man is about President Trump with lines like “He takes babies from their mothers” (the Mexican border fiasco) and the plodding (in a nice way) of the music bed that was Spoonful.

After a couple of decades where Watson had concentrated on his love of electric blues, particularly from Chicago, here is a change to the guttural feel of the steel-bodied guitar in the Delta playing with friends on a porch.

I particularly like the introduction to Broken with its echoes of Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain, but best of all is Love That I Had and its redolent border town and Tex-Mex accordion playing. Think Ry Cooder with Flaco Jimenez.

Personally, I’m amazed that Watson hasn’t been picked up by a major label, or maybe he prefers not to be. Of course, this is a romantic vision which goes along with the image of the blues.

Django-shift | Regional News

Django-shift

Rez Abbasi

Southbound

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

I think the reviewer of this fine album in the Downbeat Jazz magazine needs to get out more. Oh! That’s right, we have that COVID thingy so he can’t get out presently. In his review, he states there are very few groups playing Django Reinhardt’s music today. Which is nonsense. A cursory search with Mr Google will reveal the Hot Club of Cowtown. They remain a favourite with this reviewer for their take on Django meets Nashville. Hot Club Sandwich is a big hit on the retro-swingers club scene. Then there are the 30 odd Django-inspired festivals in Europe every year. Even pop guitarist and singer Peter Frampton has collaborated on an album celebrating his music. The Selmer-Maccaferri, Django’s guitar of choice, is still manufactured today.

Now it’s the turn of guitarist Rez Abbasi with a trio made up of Neil Alexander on keyboards and electronica as well as drummer Michael Sarin.

But this is not a Reinhardt album in the usual way, as Abbasi concentrates on the compositions rather than the performance. It’s deconstructed in a manner that has little to do with the accepted format of Django’s group Quintette du Hot Club de France.

What struck me the most was the influences of Pat Metheny, the late Lyle Mays, and Joe Zawinul, which might not suit the purist’s ears. Dare I say that I heard a touch of Frank Zappa here as well.

In Heavy Artillery, Alexander seems to be playing one of those cheap Farfisa organs and he lets it, on purpose, go off-key. It’s very charming and cute all at the same time.

Django’s Castle, easily the most accessible tune, is a delightful play between the musicians. Drummer Sarin is almost a bystander as the interplay between guitar and keyboards flows throughout. It’s a beautiful rendition.

I spent hours with this album trying to figure out what other tunes Abbasi had appropriated, or as the jargon of the day would have it, sampled without success.

Only with repeated playing will you untangle the puzzling musical menagerie.

We Get By | Regional News

We Get By

Mavis Staples

RM

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

Mavis Staples is a protest singer and, as such, is a spokeswoman for the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements. She has remained relevant by becoming a shining beacon for other artists to follow in raising awareness of social issues.

There are plenty of dissenting voices on the music scene today, those that eschew chart positions in favour of an honest discussion of what it means to be human by displaying humanistic qualities. That Staples has persisted with this stance is testament to a long-held belief that we can all do better.

In recent times Staples has surrounded herself with whiz-kid producers and songwriters: Ry Cooder (We’ll Never Turn Back), M. Ward (Livin’ On a High Note), and a couple of albums with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Staples has also sung on various tracks with Gorillaz, Arcade Fire, and Bob Dylan, who once proposed marriage.

Now it’s Ben Harper’s turn at the tiller as producer and writer, and what a cracker of an album it is. We Get By contains the fiery sermon style of the Old South with roughhewn bluesy vocals and an aggressive guitar-led band, which should tear down the walls of the old argument that the church and the devil should never be on the same page.

The album starts on the best note ever, Harper’s grunge element, a sort of updated fuzz guitar sound that was a staple (sorry for the pun) of Pop Staples, Mavis’ father’s, fabulous tremolo guitar sound. Staples’ primal scream but remarkable vocals, considering she is 81 years old, are testament to a career that started in 1950. She is, in turn, feisty, dramatic, defiant (especially in those songs that ask Americans to change their way of thinking when it comes to racial discrimination), and always that righteous spirit.

Then there is the most understated track of her career, the beautiful Never Needed Anyone. It slowly unfolds, every note dripping with authenticity, the scratchy nature of her impassioned vocals an absolute delight.

One hopes that the collaboration between Staples and Harper continues.

Rejoice | Regional News

Rejoice

Tony Allen & Hugh Masekela

World Circuit

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

The retail sector was, like so many, affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The music industry was no different. But invention being the mother of adversity, the recorded music industry started to look around when artists continued to cancel release dates of their latest product.

One of the unusual aspects of this problem was that the record companies had started to discover unreleased product in their vaults. Two come to mind, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk sessions long lost or forgotten. Tom Petty, Prince, and Fleetwood Mac have all benefited by having older albums re-issued with bonus tracks. Now add to this an album by drummer Tony Allen and South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, long in exile due to apartheid.

But this was no lost album, merely one delayed several years due to the untimely death of Masekela.

The meeting came about many years ago when Masekela attended a concert by the great, and I do mean great, Fela Kuti, the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer. His percussionist Allen struck such a chord with Masekela that almost immediately, they talked about working together. Well, that was 25 years later but eventually, a date was set in 2010 in which many tracks were laid down and then shelved due to the musicians having different work schedules. Cut to 2018 when Masekela died suddenly. Allen then realised he would, as a tribute to his late friend, complete the album.

Rejoice is a joyful mix with a few added musicians, but basically it is just the two of them jamming. Allen’s unique style, all four limbs playing out of kilter, is wonderful to hear. Masekela’s trumpet brings back to mind his big hit Grazing in the Grass.

Starting with Robbers, Thugs and Muggers (O’Galajani), the spirit of Fela Kuti is evoked as it is in Never (Lagos Never Gonna be the Same). The album never lets up from this joyous path.

Sadly, Allen died in April 2020, but what a legacy for the percussionist Brian Eno once described as the best in the world.