Album Review - Al Di Meola - Elegant Gypsy & More LIVE 

When the experiment of combining rock and jazz music originally took place, the two genres were placed in the test tube, given a stir and a violent explosion took place. One of the by-products of this controversial chemistry was the formation of harmonically advanced virtuoso guitarists who weren't afraid to stomp on the distortion pedal. Of course, there had been many technically outstanding guitarists before this point in jazz, rock, classical and other musical styles. But now the world had musicians pushing the limits of technical and harmonic capability while reaching a large audience with powerhouse riffing. One of these guitarists is Al Di Meola. 

As time has moved on, jazz has fused with new styles such as hip-hop and electronica. However, it is hard to match the visceral excitement caused by a guitarist bending, tapping, sliding and infusing our DNA with electricity. Not many guitarists on the planet can do this like Al Di Meola. 

The album kicks straight in with a driving rock riff, propelled along by the rolling snare drum. Di Meola winds fluid lines over the relaxed feel of the bass and piano. The band execute tight ensemble passages and instantly display their rhythmic confidence. Subtle details in the compositions really stand out in this live setting, such as call and response figures between the keyboard and guitar. 

Señor Mouse begins with muted funk guitar dancing playfully over a rock solid drum rhythm. Two minutes in and the band have seamlessly stitched three genres of music together. The guitar and keyboard enter a musical dialogue that, combined with the Latin feel, evokes images of a heated but amiable coffee shop debate. As the debate reaches its climax, the two musicians steam off together, still as friends but with raised blood pressure. 

Di Meola plays a sentimental melody on Adour, flowered with hints of darkness in the piano counter lines. Switching between clean and distorted sounds, Di Meola builds his solos to frantic climaxes before letting them dissolve back into moments of reflection. 

Babylon opens with atmospheric and evocative Eastern improvisations before breaking into an odd-time groove. There is increasing tension resulting from the busyness of the rhythm section. Things takes a light hearted turn when the bass takes a chordal break with the audience cheering along. The bass continues to use chords underneath Meola’s lightning fast picking and elegantly melodic legato phrases. 

On Chiquilín De Bachín, Di Meola responds to percussive hits with a thinking time that would impress a fighter pilot. The James Bond-esque chord sequence proceeds to take on a heroic metalicism that would make a rousing superhero soundtrack. 

Up to this point, each composition has contained unfathomable amounts of composed material, so it’s all the more relaxing when the band sit on a groove. Flight Over Rio is played half time by the drums until it is doubled up for the bright, restless melody line. Such is the unbridled joy of the technical virtuosity on show, we can even forgive the short Careless Whisper quote. There is a chance for the percussion to shine in a short break but frankly, the performance of the rhythm section is astounding through the album. 

Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog is given a brief outing with the vocal lines taken by the violin. However, it is often Di Meola’s guitar that uses manipulated notes to produce a singing quality. The use of extreme dynamics are a big part of the ensemble sound. Midnight Tango reduces to a whisper before landing a hammer blow to the head with an unexpected ensemble hit. 

The album concludes with the devastating riffage of Race With Devil On Spanish Highway. Semiquavers scuttle over the massive sounding rhythm section like a shoal of fish toying with a blue whale. 

Al Di Meola is a master of the guitar but he is much more than this. He is a sophisticated composer, an exciting performer and this album should not just be listened to by devoted students of the guitar. It is should be heard by anyone who wants to experience unbridled joy in audible form. 

John Marley

John Coltrane - Both Directions At Once  

The release of previously unissued John Coltrane studio recordings is met with a frenzied enthusiasm which few events in the jazz world could match. One of the great musical innovators of the twentieth century, Coltrane pushed the limits of harmonic exploration and subsequently tested the limits of his instrument, his musicians and his audience. 

On March 6th 1963, Coltrane took his most famous ensemble to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey to record before heading on to a live engagement at Birdland. The performances that resulted from the session remained in obscurity until a copy was found in the collection of Coltrane’s first wife Naima. 

The first of Coltrane’s compositions on the album Untitled Original 11383 is a variation on the standard 12-bar blues. An angular melody makes way for the band leader to launch into a soprano solo full of exploratory thematic development. McCoy Tyner chooses to lay out of the music on many occasions, loosening Coltrane’s harmonic shackles without completely taking them off. Jimmy Garrison uses his bow to build a structure of uptempo quaver lines. Occasionally playing chords, he defiantly produces his own harmonic context. Striking the strings with his fingers as he sets aside his bow, he leads back to the melody with a chorus of commanding walking bass. 

Nature boy is the first of two jazz standards on the album. Played as a mid-tempo swing, Coltrane dispenses with the recognised chord sequence. Instead, he elaborates on the melody over static harmony. Garrison plays a hypnotic 6/8 groove under Elvin Jones’ swing. The drummer shows us the blossoming American flower which grows from fertile African soil. 

Untitled Original 11386 produces one of the most memorable melodies on the album, one which reappears as an interlude between solos. The rhythm section switch from a bright latin to a hard driving swing with perceived effortlessness. Listening to Jones play is like hearing two drummers at once. The big beats are the bricks and mortar while the little beats are the fine furnishings. The independence between Tyner’s hands is breathtaking. His off-beat stabs in the left hand are a lesson in propulsion which aspiring jazz pianists should not ignore. Garrison and Jones enter a soloistic dialogue which is sharp and angular. They are like two boxers, throwing jabs while the other pauses for breath. 

Where many tracks on the album are modal in nature, Vilia moves through a series of bright harmonic pathways. This has a noticeable effect on Coltrane’s playing. He sounds perfectly happy to find the sweet melodies which float comfortably over the bubbling rhythm section. The solo’s are kept short and the whole performance nods back to the quartet’s recent past. 

On Coltrane’s most recognisable modal melody, Tyner sits out again. Coltrane was known for playing extended solos on Impressions but this one is kept relatively short. The solo has moments of melodic repetition which non-musicians can associate with, yet he flexes his muscles. He is like an escape artist becoming increasingly intense as he focuses on freeing himself. Yet it is not steel that binds him but the limitations of harmony and his own instrument. 

The appropriately titled Slow Blues has no recognisable theme. Coltrane desperately tries to extend the range available to him at the top of his tenor. Some of the soloistic devices are mathematical in nature but not in a purely academic sense. As ideas enter his consciousness, you can sense a duty to inspect them further before the moment has gone. One example of this is when he creates a melodic answer phrase to himself. The top line moves in one direction and the bottom goes the opposite way. Interestingly, Tyner waits until the end of Coltrane’s solo before he plays a note. His improvisational approach is a contrast to Coltrane’s. He lies comfortably on a bed of blues-isms and sounds content to observe Coltrane’s experiment, while keeping one hand on the fire alarm. 

One Up, One Down allows Coltrane and Jones to engage in three fierce bouts of trading where Jones’s power and fearlessness matches Coltrane’s blow for blow. Garrison keeps a driving walking line through his solo, as bass players so often do in up-tempo compositions. The amount of skips, strings pulls and accents are increased to keep the piece moving at full throttle. 

Both Directions at Once is a title which perfectly illustrates the content of the music. As Coltrane looked into expanding the limits of jazz improvisation, he was still content to produce beautiful renditions of ageing standards. This album is not only an important historical document, it is an album that demonstrates the musical empathy which a jazz ensemble is capable of. 

John Marley

Mark Wade - Moving Day  

 

New York City has long been a magnet for the world’s most capable and creative improvising musicians. The embryonic stages of jazz may have taken place in New Orleans but the music quickly migrated North East as musicians looked to find work and escape persecution. In a city bursting at the seems with outstanding musical talent, performance levels are turbo charged by an atmosphere of creativity and friendly competition. Bassist Mark Wade has already placed himself firmly on the radar with his debut album Event Horizon. Now signed by Berlin based label Edition 46 Records, Moving Day may well move him towards international recognition.  

The title track begins with the piano laying down the rhythmic groove of the piece while the double bass plays expressive melodic lines. Wade’s bass is recorded with a warm and full sound which allows the listener to see into the soul of the instrument. An incredibly capable technician on the bass, Wade’s playing covers the range of the instrument and he does not have to sacrifice tone while playing faster lines. Tim Harrison’s piano solo playfully skates over the 6/8 time signature and his lines display a heartfelt melodicism. 

It is not easy to play complicated time signatures and make them seem natural. If the musicians are stressed, this translates to the listener. On Wide Open, the trio manipulate the changing rhythmic groupings with a commanding spirit. The performance has a forceful energy but you get the sense that the musicians are revelling in the complexity rather than clinging on for dear life.  

Contrasting sections run through The Bells. Rhythmic energy is still there in abundance, but it is counterbalanced with rippling piano arpeggios and unobtrusive bowed double bass. What is so impressive about Wade’s soloing is that he avoids falling into a pit of double bass-isms. Throughout the album he solos with a horn-like agility.  

Another Night In Tunisia is an arrangement of the Dizzy Gillespie standard where phrases are expanded and contracted. The initial listen is a disorienting experience as the original is so embedded in the collective jazz psyche. When the trio move into a hard driving 4/4 swing, there is a noticeable change from cerebral pleasure to a visceral one. It is a striking example of how much has changed in jazz, yet so much remains the same.  The harmonic and melodic material has remained fairly static for 60 years, yet the rhythmic aspect of the music has developed dramatically.  

Autumn Leaves is recognisable, aside from a few subtle re-harmonisations. However, maybe ‘Autumn Voyage’ would be a more suitable title as Wade has cleverly used the chord sequence of Herbie Hancock’s modal piece Maiden Voyage in the bridge section of the arrangement. Harrison demonstrates a great level of subtlety in his solo. He uses winding enclosures and grace notes that allow the piano to sing.  

There is a calming atmosphere throughout Midnight In The Cathedral which is tastefully tested by the pent up energy of Scott Neumann’s sizzling ride cymbal. Wade’s solo could be heard as a double time walking line in the upper register. If it is Midnight In The Cathedral then the bass solo is the energetic mouse, exploring every corner of the building while no one else is around.  

Many contemporary jazz albums can lose a connection to the listening audience when the performers become too lost in their own musical ability. The Mark Wade Trio are musicians who command an advanced technical, harmonic and rhythmic capability but they keep the listener engaged through their musical maturity. This is particularly evident on the album’s closing composition In The Fading Rays Of Sunlight. There is still an abundance of instrumental virtuosity but it paints an interesting abstract picture, placed in a relatable harmonic frame.   

The core strength of the Mark Wade Trio is their ability to dive deep in the sea of jazz history and salvage great treasures. Rather than presenting their findings as museum pieces, they rearrange and redecorate, giving the artefacts a relevance in the modern world.  

John Marley 

Album Review - Al Di Meola - Opus  

Al Di Meola is unquestionably one of the great guitar innovators of his generation. His formidable technique and fluency in a number of styles has placed his name indelibly in the history of jazz and improvised music. However capable he may be at the guitar, it would be a mistake to place his music in the category of garish guitar based exoticism. Di Meola has a compositional maturity that combines his advanced knowledge with a traditional harmonic palette. 

The album begins with cascading acoustic guitar arpeggios. Textures swell underneath as string lines flow in and out, accentuating melodic lines. A conversation takes place between the guitars which is a reflection of the performers humanity. Mainly peaceful, the guitarists occasionally raise their voices as things get heated. Di Meola demonstrates his dexterity during the composition but the emphasis remains on the sharing of dialogue rather than any vulgar displays of virtuosic shouting. 

Built upon an infectious 6/8 groove, Di Meola contrasts the movement in the main riff of Broken Heart with long notes on the electric guitar. The music is like an ocean... seemingly calm while an abundance of activity is taking place below the surface. The beauty within Ava's Dream Sequence Lullaby comes from its connection to traditional harmony, the spaciousness of the instrumentation and the melodic improvised lines. When the music resolves unexpectedly to a major chord, it is a heartwarming experience. The music climaxes with a change of rhythmic feel where gentle percussion work, along with the lack of a bass instrument, produces a delicate lightness. You could almost consume the music with one deep breath. 

Di Meola talks about a Led Zeppelin influence creeping in to Notorious. There are no thundering Bonham beats or deliciously chaotic pentatonic guitar runs. The inspiration comes in the form of Led Zep’s combination of funk grooves, blues tinged harmony and Eastern scalic investigations. It becomes complicated, and unnecessary, to separate Di Meola’s improvisations from the composed melodies. Lines are constructed, which you think are spontaneous, then suddenly they sync up with another instrument. All credit to the compositional detail on the album. 

Escapado has a danceable rhythm which is a strong contrast with much of the music heard thus far. The descending chromatic line that underpins the harmony brings a sense of explosive expectation which releases as the drums switch to a half time feel. A cut of the wires before the strain becomes too much to bear. 

Rhani Krija duets with Di Meola on Pomp. The string sounds are in such subtle synchronicity with the guitar that it must be assumed they are being trigged by the instrument. It is compositional detail like this that gives the album its depth. Sophisticated and complex lines weave and dance like two intellectuals trying to outwit one another on Insieme. When chords appear they are played with flamenco-like gusto. The introduction of bass brings a textural change and gives weight to aspects of the discussion. 

The album closes with the fluid electric guitar lines which Di Meola was so celebrated for while playing with Return To Forever. Beginning as a hard driving jazz rock powerhouse, an unexpected turn is taken into a Cuban piano montuno. This links in with a bass riff which wouldn’t sound out of place on a heavy metal album. 

Di Meola presents us with one final, understated music lesson. The point of which is that music from across the world is inextricably linked. Of course each genre has its intricacies and its unique elements but perhaps a blind dedication to these traditions prevents a great deal of exciting and innovative music from being created. Di Meola is in no danger of falling in to that trap. 

John Marley 

Album Review - Tom Syson - Green  

In a jazz scene littered with creative talent, British trumpet players appear to be few and far between when compared with their woodwind playing colleagues. That is why it is all the more refreshing to hear a musician of Tom Green’s calibre release such a powerful debut album.   

Green eases in with the leader improvising lonesome lines, answered by atmospheric crashes from the rhythm section. The piece segues in to Bamberg which has an emotional melody line that manages to contain a subtle rhythmic intensity. The piano solo builds with help from the sizzling drum groove that underpins it. Taking over the lead while the intensity is peaking, Syson keeps the composition developing. The guitar and tenor sax play a subtle role, filling out textures and helping to give the piece its dynamic range.   

The band make an effective use of instrumental pairings throughout the album. Wary Warrior sees Syson and bassist Pete Hutchinson bring pastoral images to the minds eye. Hutchinson fills out the sound with chordal work while Syson utilises a Kenny Wheeler like tone.   

Far From Boundaries New has a menacing undercurrent which builds tension and releases in to a joyous melody. The guitar is integral to the dark atmospherics, using effects and extended techniques. Vittorio Mura’s sax solo moves like a bird in flight, switching between manic flutters and long bending notes. The trumpet solo settles in to a groove while the sax plays an effective counter melody underneath.   

On the title track, a beautifully light piano sequence opens proceedings and plays accompaniment to a breathy melody from the band leader. The bass rumbles underneath before creating countermelodies of his own. The whole piece is like an improvisational dialogue but one deeply rooted in tonality and melody. Each instrument appears like an animal going to investigate a loud noise. Leroy the Tiger is a wild improvisational stand off between trumpet and drums.  

Vocals are introduced on Raindrops courtesy of Lauren Kinsella. She first uses vocal sounds in a rhythmic manner before taking on a more traditional role, leading the piece with a folkish melody. Although the music on this album is anything but simplistic, it always maintains a harmonic accessibility which will be attractive to lovers of many musical genres.   

Farewell To Paradise drives along with a hypnotic bass line while the drums and tenor play staccato hits over the top. Things open up when the sax plays longer lines before the listener is returned to their state of hypnosis. The rhythmic feel evokes images of a beast lumbering along with heavy feet as the insects dance around it.   

Bluebells is a more gentle and atmospheric affair where the bass takes a lyrical solo. The sound of the instrument being captured beautifully. So often recorded double bass loses its acoustic charm but not here. The guitar takes a standout solo and is an integral part of the ensemble. Ben Lee’s playing uses a whole host of sounds and techniques without ever being intrusive.  

The album moves in a different direction on the final track. The electric keyboard and horn riff take the band towards the sound of 70’s Miles Davis. The straight groove is packed full of rhythmic interplay with the keys stabbing away under the solo. The duo between distorted guitar and drums is particularly energising.  

Green is a compositional and improvisational tour de force and it would be a crime if this young band do not receive the attention they deserve.   

John Marley 

 

Album Review - Nicolas Kummert - La Diversité - Edition Records  

Edition Records have developed an impressive roster of European jazz musicians. Hailing from Belgium, Nicolas Kummert is a powerful tenor saxophonist whose sound is full of subtlety and character.  

The album opens with Rainbow People, which features an emphatic melody over a purposefully wonky groove. Lionel Loueke uses a modern guitar sound similar to Kurt Rosenwinkel, complete with a hint of vocal in the background. The drumming of Karl Jannuska is driving and propulsive in the way Elvin Jones used to ignite the John Coltrane Quartet. The tenor sax sound is littered with subtle inflections. Kummert flows effortlessly up and down the register of the instrument in his melodically engaging solo.  

Le Vent Se Leve has a backdrop of crystal like guitar harmonics with brief forays in to percussive chordal work. Kummert weaves webs of lyrical improvisations over the top. There is a collision of old and new on Harmattan. The sax, bass and drums play an aggressive straight improvisation while the effected guitar sound brings a modern, otherworldly atmosphere to the piece. The drums maintain the groove but improvise heavily. Emphasis is more on the soundscape and textures created than on individual expression.  

On Lighthouse, Kummert improvises around spoken vocal lines. The sax is breathy and subdued yet quietly intense. The vocal sound coming through the instrument has an animal quality, inspired by traditional African music. The groove behind the improvisation is gentle and calming and the drum mallets create a constantly shimmering textural backdrop. Loueke's solo creeps in and out of tonality, creating tension without resorting to aggression. When the guitar and sax play together, the composition takes a mournful turn before concluding with a simple and soothing chord sequence. 

The African theme is continued on Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah where the bass takes the lead over simple, muted guitar chords. Nicolas Thys' solo shows technical capability but remains melodic, using quick runs and textural double stops. The melody of the piece doesn’t become obvious until the end when Kummert introduces it, following a rousing improvisation. 

Eric Satie’s Gnossienne is performed in two parts. The first in a gentle and lurking way where melodies creep in and out of the foreground. The reverberant, bent notes of the guitar give the performance a sinister atmosphere. On the second part, the acoustic guitar plays a series of light arpeggiated chords. Just a duo between guitar and sax, the musicians show an advanced understanding of each others playing, displaying an impressive rhythmic freedom.  

On Liberté, the bass plays a quiet ostinato and the drums bubble underneath on the ride cymbal. Layers of sax and guitar sound swell over the top. This develops into a unison melody between the two, as the rhythm section introduce the harmonic structure of the piece. Kummert & Loueke engage in a conversational improvisation. The synth guitar sound is both modern, with a hint of 80’s nostalgia.  

Le People De L’arc-en-ciel is a short composition. The dancing nature of the melody combined with the mournful acoustic guitar gives the piece a Spanish feel. Returning to an African sound on La Terre Ne Meant Pas, the band incorporate gentle percussion and single lines on the modified guitar.  

A rock influence enters the album on Diversity Over Purity and continues on to We’ll Be Alright where the guitar fills the sound with distorted chords. 

La Diversité is full of compositional riches and textural variety. The willingness of the musicians to adopt a variety of sounds, along with their improvisational prowess makes the album an engaging listen.  

John Marley.