Archives for category: Music Reviews

Concert Review: Herbie Hancock, Toronto, June 29 2018, Sony Centre for the Performing Arts

L to R: Herbie Hancock, Lionel Loueke, Trevor Lawrence Jr., James Genus (photo by author)

What’s constantly impressive about Herbie Hancock is his ability to innovate. A full 6 decades into his career, his forward momentum has never dragged. His June 29 show in Toronto was no exception.

Hancock opened with not so much a tune as a sonic sculpture. Layering, bending, crescendoing, Hancock reminded the audience that he is a pioneer of synthesized music. He had told the audience he would take us on “a journey.” By the end of his opener, we had taken flight.

Lionel Loueke was on guitar that night in his inimitable way, crafting sounds with his effects pedals that blurred the lines between keyboard, guitar, and horns. It reminded me of a passage I read in Hancock’s autobiography wherein he chose a clavinet for his Headhunters ensemble, partly to avoid the need for a guitar. With Loueke’s innovations, Hancock has come full circle, electing to play the acoustic piano while Loueke rocked the spacier effects of the evening. The flipside to Loueke’s presence was the conspicuous absence of Terrace Martin, who had been touring with Hancock until his recent departure for a European tour for one of his other projects. Although I would have liked to see Martin on keys and saxophone, I would not change anything about the show that ultimately materialized.

The performance was deep with delight. Hancock enchanted everyone in the place with his music, his virtuosity, and his disarming affability. Seeing Hancock for the first time qualified as a bucket list checkmark for me. Now that I’ve experienced him live, I realize one doesn’t satisfy a jonesing for Herbie Hancock’s performances. One can only relish them in the moment because they will never be the same again.

 

Setlist (from Setlist.fm)

  • Overture
  • Actual Proof
  • Come Running to Me
  • Secret Source
  • (unknown)
  • Cantaloupe Island
  • Encore: Chamaeleon

 

The Players: Herbie Hancock (piano, keyboard, keytar), James Genus (bass guitar), Trevor Lawrence Jr. (drums), Lionel Loueke (guitar)

 

Further Reading:

Playlist Review of Hancock’s autobiography, Possibilities (Viking, 2014)

Best of 2017, including Trevor Lawrence’s solo album, Relationships (Ropeadope, 2017)

Review of Terrace Martin’s last album, Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1 (Ropeadope, 2017)

 

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Album Review: High Life, Detroit Swindle (Heist Recordings, June 2018)


Detroit Swindle is an electronic music duo comprised of Dutch producers Lars Dales and Maarten Smeets. Their last LP, Boxed Out (Dirt Crew Recordings, 2014) was one of my favourites from that year in any genre, particularly because of the uplifting closing track, “You, Me, Here, Now,” a re-edit of The Floaters’ “Float On” (ABC, 1977).

I always hold a little more anticipation for full-length albums from producers like these who are prolific in releasing singles but not so in long play recordings. The wait is usually worth it and High Life rises to the occasion.

Dales and Smeets have a knack for creating great dance music but also for creating tracks you can listen to more deeply because of how rich they are in melody, rhythm, and arrangement. The title track is a perfect example: 7 minutes of entrancing synth and beats but with a compositional variation not often found in straight-ahead house tracks.

The duo’s collaboration with singer/songwriter Tom Misch, “Yes, No, Maybe” is a standout hit. “Ketama Gold” and “The Girl from Shiraz” are soulful instrumentals, the latter adeptly using the synthesizer to create an immersive mood piece sans a drum track.

High Life is proof that electronic, dance, and house music can be nuanced, dynamic, and interesting to listen to. You might say Dales and Smeets possess a jazz sensibility. I really like the album cover too – it looks like a jazz record. Just saying.

Further Listening:

My favourite track from their last LP, Boxed Out

And the original, by The Floaters

Album Review: The Return, Kamaal Williams (Black Focus, 2018)

Kamaal Williams (a.k.a. Henry Wu) and half of Yussef Kamaal just dropped a killer jazz album withThe Return.

I’ve been listening to this record repeatedly for 2 weeks Now that it has soaked in, I can honestly say it is one of the most pure jazz albums in recent years. Williams’ keyboard, Joshua McKenzie’s drums, and Pete Martin’s bass produce an immersive soundscape, evoking mood and movement.

The album’s purity is oddly tied to how casual it appears to be. The tracks are easy-going, simply constructed, but at the same time, positively gripping.

There are strong influences of Herbie Hancock and other 70’s synth funk pioneers but Williams also injects a dose of contemporary electronic, ambient, and broken beat.

The Return is a complement to the Yussef Kamaal Black Focus (Brownswood, 2016) project Williams did with drummer Yussef Dayes. Although the two records have a similar style, The Return is more sparse in its arrangements, with nary a guitar or horn. In that sense too, it is pure: a beguiling crucible of keys, drums, and bass.

Related:

Yussef Kamaal’s brilliant performance in the Brownswood Basement, Dec 29, 2016

 

Album Review: Starting Today, Joe Armon-Jones (Brownswood Recordings, May 2018)

Joe Armon-Jones is a keyboardist and songwriter from the London jazz scene. He plays keys for Ezra Collective and has just released his debut solo album, Starting Today.

With just 6 tracks, Armon-Jones offers a wide range of style. The title track has a spiritual jazz vibe, helped by Ras Asheber’s trippy vocals. “Almost Went Too Far” is more groovy with a seventies softness. “London’s Face” switches gears again with a more Latin influence. “Mollison Dub” has a reggae dub backbone that leaves plenty of space overtop for Armon-Jones and his collaborators to improvise.

It’s an eclectic mix of styles but remains unified by Armon-Jones’ keyboard chops. I can’t help but make comparisons to the late George Duke because of how naturalistic Armon-Jones’ playing is and how bold his arrangements and range are, even just on this record.

Starting Today is an apt title for this project. Although Armon-Jones has been around for some time, the strength and promise of his solo debut whets the appetite for what’s to come.

Related:

Superb performance of “Go See” from the We Out Here collection (Brownswood, 2018)

Nice track from saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s EP, When We Are (Nayasha Records, 2018) featuring Joe Armon-Jones on keys. Garcia is also featured on Starting Today.

Album Review: Murmuration, The Expansions (Albert’s Favourites Ltd, March 2018)

The Expansions are James O’Keefe (Guitar), Dave Koor (Keys and Synths), Jonny Drop (Drums), and Matt Summerfield (Bass). Their recent 6-track album, Murmuration, features jazz and synth funk in the tradition of Herbie Hancock, Azymuth, Weather Report, and other 70’s influencers.

The Expansions are not particularly unique in an already crowded field of jazz/funk outfits. Badbadnotgood, Vels Trio, and Yussef Kamaal, to name a few, are putting out progressive jazz in tight ensembles with a contemporary sound. The Expansions are doing the same but what compels me to write about them is the consistency of this album. It is wall-to-wall jazz/funk, original enough to be fresh but authentic too in its homage to the form. I’ve heard other attempts at rekindling a Herbie Hancock Headhunters vibe but they sometimes fall flat, resorting to mimicry rather than offering something new.

I think another appeal of this album is the variety of tempo and arrangements. “Cannonball” evokes a Bob James and Azymuth vibe. “Dragonfly” features a lengthy distorted guitar solo. “Pocket Vibe” is more trancy and synth centric.

In a way, Murmuration is remarkable for how conventionally good it is. That’s one of the great things about jazz music. When it is done well, it stands up without having to stand out.

Related:

Live Rehearsal of “Ivory Mountain,” a nice showcase of the band’s musicianship

The Expansions’ Bandcamp Page

My 2012 post on Azymuth and Badbadnotgood

Album Review: Shape the Future, Nightmares on Wax (Warp Records, Jan 2018)

George Evelyn is a U.K. based DJ and producer whose stage name is Nightmares on Wax. Shape the Future is his 8th studio album in a recording career that spans over 25 years.

It is a truly eclectic album, touching on dub, soul, and the electronic and trancey vibes that characterize most of his body of work. “On It Maestro” is a particularly luxurious electronic selection.

“Deep Shadows” featuring Sadie Walker and “Tomorrow” featuring Lsk are distinctly dub and remind me of Thievery Corporation’s recent release, The Temple of I & I (ESL Music, 2017).

What got me hooked however was the outstanding guest spot from Jordan Rakei on “Typical” and the driving beats and almost spiritual chorus on “Citizen Kane” featuring Mozez. The opening track, “Back To Nature” featuring Kuauhtli Vasquez & Wixarika Tribe is the most unique and perhaps the most lasting. It features a Rhodes riff similar to Bob James’ “Angela” (Columbia, 1978) and tribal vocalizations from the Wixarika people of Mexico.

The beauty of albums like these is the way your listening gravitates to different tracks at different times through its life in your collection. Crafty, you might say.

Concert Review: Jordan Rakei, Toronto, February 28 2018, Lee’s Palace

Jordan Rakei is 5-years deep into a recording career that launched with his self-published debut EP, Franklin’s Room (Jordan Rakei, 2013). In that time, the multi-instrumentalist and neo soul vocalist has amassed a loyal following, many of whom were on hand at Lee’s Palace last Wednesday for Rakei’s first Canadian appearance.

Left to right: Sheldon Agwu, Jordan Rakei, Eric Whatley

Rakei delivered an hour+ set characterized by single-minded focus. He’s a performer that gets lost in his own music, drawing his audience deep into his sound. His keyboard work on “A Tribe Called Government” from the Groove Curse EP (Soul Has No Tempo, 2014) was particularly immersive for the performer and his audience.

I’m sure I’m not the first to draw comparisons to D’Angelo given Rakei’s soundscape and rhythm choices. “Add the Basseline” from Groove Curse sounds like an ode to D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie.” Rakei’s vocal style is quite original but I am reminded of David Sylvian in his more woeful moments. From a songwriting perspective, Rakei appears to have more reach than other neo soul acts. For example, “Eye to Eye,” which opens his latest album, Wallflower (Ninja Tune, 2017), has a distinctly acoustic vibe.

Rakei’s Bandcamp page reveals “his own struggles with introversion and anxiety” as inspiration for Wallflower. Let’s hope this album and tour give him the therapy he needs. Rakei’s songwriting and musicianship draw the spotlight, despite his affinity for the shadows.

Setlist

  1. Eye to Eye
  2. May
  3. Nerve
  4. Goodbyes
  5. Alright
  6. Chemical Coincidence
  7. A Tribe Called Government
  8. Midnight Mischief
  9. Selfish
  10. Sorceress (encore)

The Players: Jordan Rakei (vocals, keyboards, guitar); Sheldon Agwu (rhythm guitar); Eric Whatley (bass guitar, keyboards); Jim Mcrae (drums)

 

 

 

 

Album Review: About Time, Sabrina Claudio (SC Entertainment, Oct 2017)

Sabrina Claudio uploaded some songs on Soundcloud in 2016. About a year later, she had completed a full-length album and was chosen as Apple Music’s ‘Up Next’ featured artist. About Time has 12 original tracks, all with Claudio having first writing credit.

Beats, lush electronic arrangements, and Claudio’s vocals characterize the album’s sound. There are similarities to more balladic outings from Corinne Bailey Rae and Lianne La Havas but Claudio definitely stakes her own musical ground in the realm of R&B/Soul.

“Frozen,” a classic slo-jam at its heart, is at the same time sultry, thanks to Claudio’s wispy vocals and sparse production. “Wait” is one of my favourites right now. Distinct from most other tracks on the record, it is interspersed with bossa and almost junglist beats. “Used to” resembles Drake’s “Get it together” from his More Life mixtape (Ovo Sound, 2017), mostly because of the same basic drum track but also because of the vocal production overtop.

One might gloss over Claudio as just another ingenue in an already crowded field. In fact, what sets her apart is her songwriting and musical sensibility, well beyond her 21 years.

Concert Review: Kamasi Washington, Toronto, November 16 2017, Danforth Music Hall (Late Show)

Kamasi Washington delivered a solid performance last Thursday night in Toronto. “Solid” is apt in so many ways for this show. Washington and his sidemen are musicians’ musicians. The set was a packed 90 minutes. And the vibe was one of clenched-fist solid(arity).

Washington’s live sound is crisp but loose enough for the musicians to have some fun. All the soloists are virtuosos on their instruments. Vocalist Patrice Quinn was flawless, just as she is on Washington’s album, The Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015). The setlist featured selections from The Epic and the recently released Harmony of Difference (Young Turks, 2017). The great thing about Washington’s live show is that it can draw from a recorded body of work with great depth in each composition.

Perhaps the most distinctive element of the live show was Brandon Coleman’s keyboard sound choices –  quite different from the studio arrangements, adding a dose of funk to the night’s soundscape. In particular, the opening of “Truth” is changed up with a haunting organ sound. The staccato opening of “The Rhythm Changes,” delivered in duet by Washington and long-time collaborator Ryan Porter, was another departure that teased the audience before Quinn revealed the selection with her first verse.

Washington himself is a humble and utterly likeable persona on stage. For someone under 40 who has just recently been vaulted into a global spotlight, Washington presents a maturity both in his rapport with the audience and his mastery of jazz.

In many ways, Washington made Harmony of Difference come to life that night. Introducing “Truth,” he explained, the interplay of 5 melodies within the composition are a metaphor for how humanity’s differences are actually a unifying strength. Through his music, Washington makes his point brilliantly.

Setlist (setlist.fm)

  1. Change of Guard
  2. Leroy and Lanisha
  3. Little Boy Blue (Ryan Porter)
  4. Miss Understanding
  5. Humility
  6. Truth
  7. The Rhythm Changes

The Players: Kamasi Washington, tenor sax; Ryan Porter, trombone; Rickey Washington, soprano sax & flute; Ronald Bruner Jr., drums; Patrice Quinn, vocals; Brandon Coleman keyboards; Joshua Crumbly, bass; unnamed, piano.

 

Album Review: Crackazat, Rainbow Fantasia (Local Talk Records, 2017)

I came to know of Crackazat (a.k.a. Sweden-based producer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Jacobs) because of “What You’re Feeling,” a single released on Joey Negro’s Z Records label last year. It had a driving old school house vibe, kind of like Inner City and also reminded me of Lone’s excellent 2014 album, Reality Testing (R&S Records).

Jacob’s new album, Rainbow Fantasia, is more synth-centric than the Z Records single and, being a full length record, offers a range of mood and sound. On most cuts, Jacobs serves up synth melodies, vocalizations and driving dance rhythms.

On constant repeat for me since I discovered this album is the opening track, “Welcome Speech.” It has multiple hooks and showcases the most freewheeling keyboard work on the record. The opening vocal sample evokes ‘a timid emcee at a meagrely attended yoga gathering’ and gives the track kitsch, which makes it all the more addictive.

Among the uptempo tracks like “Sundial” and the title track, Jacobs includes some variety in the trance-like vibe of “The Only One” and the vocals on “Holding You Close.”

I have to admit, the magic of electronic music fades a little as I learn more about the tools that make it easier and easier to produce. This tutorial in particular, by Incognito collaborator and celebrated producer, Ski Oakenfull, is very revealing for a non-musician like me. Oakenfull is a highly talented keyboardist in his own right and this video was produced as a demonstration of the technology, rather than a glimpse into his creative process. Still, the technology makes one wonder if some producers will favour it over musicianship.

With this peak behind the curtain, it is tempting to judge Crackazat as machine music without soul. But that is ultimately up to the listener. For me, Jacobs brings the melody, the beats, and perhaps most distinctively, a dose of fun to Rainbow Fantasia.

 

Related Listening:

I Can See the Future” – Incognito, No Time Like the Future (Mercury Records, 1999): One of my many favourite Incognito tracks, featuring Ski Oakenfull on drum programming and keyboards