Lockdown Jazz Reviews

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Deputy Editor and jazz specialist Kevin Le Gendre casts an eye over four recent releases for your pleasure.

BYRON WALLEN
PORTRAIT: REFLECTIONS ON BELONGING [TWILIGHT JAGUAR] Although active in a number of projects, Wallen has not released an album under his own name for some 13 years – 2007’s excellent Meeting Ground – hence this return to the studio is welcome, not least because it unveils a new band featuring the articulate young British guitarist Rob Luft and go-to US expatriate drummer Rod Youngs. Interestingly, an electric small group vaguely takes the trumpeter back to his first steps as a leader with Sound Advice, and the African, Brazilian and Spanish flavours that permeate some of the material reflect the widescreen stylistic approach that made Wallen an exciting prospect when he emerged in the mid-‘90s.
His soloing is consistently impressive, the highlight being the deeply poignant ballad Fundamental where his tone is misty and his melodic phrases left to breathe and blend sensually into Luft’s finely shaded harmonies. However, Wallen has always been more than a brass player. His imaginative use of shells and percussion to create distinctly ancestral ambiances also nods to his own underrated Earth Roots album, while the appearance of a school choir brings an additional emotional layer that reinforces the underlying message of fraternity in the music which draws inspiration from Woolwich in east London, the hub of a vibrant multi-cultural community. It is a timely political statement in a prevailing divisive climate, but first and foremost this work offers a sharp new focus on Wallen, an artist who has come emphatically to full maturity.
****

VARIOUS
SPIRITUAL JAZZ VOLUME 11: STEEPLECHASE [JAZZMAN] Hot on the heels of the Prestige edition comes another instalment of the Spiritual Jazz series that is perhaps even more significant insofar as it celebrates a label that is perhaps less recognized, even in jazz, than the aforesaid. Danish imprint Steeplechase has been going since 1972 and its founder-producer Nils Winther has built a wholly formidable catalogue in its near four decades of existence. His masterstroke was to document the work of the legends who came out of the bebop and avant-garde schools – Mary Lou Williams, Jackie McClean, Ken McIntyre – alongside emerging artists of the post-Trane era such as Billy Gault, Jim McNeeley and Khan Jamal. This sumptuous double-album presents a discerning cross-section of the label’s output including tracks by the aforementioned as well as gems that reflect the presence of African musicians in Europe – Johnny Dyani, John Tchicai and Dudu Pukwana. Their soulfully rhapsodic low-slung groove Magwaza is an absolute masterpiece.
*****

EDIKANFO
THE PACE SETTERS [GLITTERBEAT] We still lament the recent loss of the trailblazing Manu Dibango, but this timely reissue is a reminder of the immense influence he exerted on African musicians of his own and subsequent generations. Edikanfo hailed from Ghana rather than Dibango’s homeland Cameroon, but in 1981 they showed how they had fully absorbed his irresistible energy when it came to mashing up heavy duty percussion, light touch guitar lines, bustling horns, and the boing-boing embellishments of disco-era syndrums. Lovers of Manu’s Sun Explosion and Big Blow will find polyrhythm and melody locked into one danceable joyful noise. Bassist-composer Gilbert Amartey Amara holds everything together and Brian Eno proves a switched-on producer.
****

DANIEL HAAKSMAN
BLACK ATLANTIC EDITS [BBE] German DJ-producer Haaksman has been a renowned champion of a wide range of Black Diasporan music since the early millennium, taking a particular interest in Afro-Brazilian and Latin sounds, hipping European audiences to the magic of ‘Rio baile funk’ among other things. His remix work has also earned him considerable international acclaim and this overview of his extensive output justifies the hype.
Geographically and stylistically, the net is cast very wide, moving from the pulsating Afro-Peruvian stomp of Victoria Santa Cruz’s Me Gritaron Negra to the sizzling groove of Dissan Na M’bera courtesy of Guinea Bissau’s Super Mama Djombo via Franco-Cameroonian sensation Francis Bebey’s Sunny Crypt, a track with energy to burn. In each case there is a relentless percussive drive and electric charge vocals that would make any floor explode into life. On some of the 10 cuts Haaksman leans a bit too heavily on a bulky house-stamped kick, but he’s mostly spot on with his bridge building between those with hands on the drum and those with fingers on the mouse.
*** 1/2