Chiaroscuro not only represents an accomplished and crucial album in terms of its contribution to jazz – and, it should be added, that other nebulous genre: ambient – it also demonstrates how culture can flourish as a shared, public good.
ARTIST: WOJTEK MAZOLEWSKI QUINTET
LABEL (YEAR): AGORA SA (2014)
FOR FANS OF: UNITED VIBRATIONS, BILL EVANS, MAMMAL HANDS, GOGO PENGUIN
Words by Lexy Morvaridi
What makes an album great is the narrative that’s constructed as you listen to it – the ups, the downs and the in-betweens that create the overall flow. What makes an album even greater is the way in which the narrative nurtures diversity yet fits together as a whole. Polka is one of these greater albums.
Throughout this tapestry of jazz numbers the varied range of influences behind Wojtek Mazolewski is clear, from opening ambient piano-led ‘Roma I’ to the afro-tinged swing of ‘Punk-T Gdansk’; the reggae backbeat of ‘Get Free’ to the house driven bounce of ‘Sunday’.
Several tracks are named after cities across the world and the chief concept behind the record is to recreate the sounds of each city through Wojtek’s sentimental lens and he most definitely has his finger on the money with each composition.
‘Berlin’ is a carefully constructed electronic influenced minimalist track that has an equally dark music video to accompany it - conceptualised and directed by Jessica Comis, Michal Andrysiak and Shira Kela.
‘Paris’, meanwhile, sees a delicate floating melody throughout, which conjures images of walking the winding streets of the French capital as the sun sets on a summer’s evening.
To top it all off, the album squeezes in jazz covers of Rage Against the Machine and Nirvana (who’d have thought they would lend themselves so nicely to jazz?) Wojtek thought and delivered.
"A journey of self-discovery, transformation and liberation. Berlin is a city that allows people to explore hidden layers of their existence. In a city where desire manifests itself in myriad ways, we are confronted with an array of possibilities as to how we choose to lead our lives."
ARTIST: YASUAKI SHIMIZU
LABEL (YEAR): BETTER DAYS (1982)
FOR FANS OF: GOGO PENGUIN, DAWN OF MIDI, TALKING HEADS
Words by Lexy Morvaridi
Not often do I discover a record that I then put on repeat four times through after the first listen. 1982’s Kakashi, by experimental saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu, is one of those albums.
Opening track ‘Suiren’ is a funky no-wave inspired pop song, decorated with infectious lead sax and vocals that are so upbeat if it doesn’t make you smile I can only assume you’re a Death Eater. While on the other end of the record, album-closer ‘Utsukushiki Tennen’ recalls dubby Ethiopian jazz with cryptic Middle Eastern vocals - ending this eclectic record on a high.
The sheer diversity of this record is what makes it so bloody great. We’re taken from dub inspired jazz and electronic percussion to minimalist experimental instrumentals with ominous organs and delicate piano. The manner in which Yasuaki plays sax throughout is both refreshing and strange, often using his instrument percussively and in combination with the synth lines. Trippy breaks and electronic beats make the whole thing sound like it could have been written and released today.
This is an album that challenges the listener without putting them off by being too out there. Plug in and listen (more than once) to this hidden Japanese gem.
ARTIST: ROBERT GLASPER EXPERIMENT
ALBUM: BLACK RADIO
LABEL (YEAR): BLUE NOTE RECORDS (2011)
FOR FANS OF: ERYKAH BADU, MOS DEF, D'ANGELO, JILL SCOTT
Words by Milo Craig
Welcome to the Robert Glasper Experiment. You won’t regret this.
First question: Can this record, one that uses tried and tested genres, truly be called ‘experimental’? A thousand times yes. With Black Radio, The Robert Glasper Experiment smashed all goals and hypotheses to deliver unto us a eureka moment of jazz/hip-hop/r’n’b perfection. Black Radio is a precise fusion record, at times transcendent, always beautiful. It pushes the boundaries of just how perfect an album can be and the best part is that it’s refreshingly approachable and un-elitist. You are in safe but ambitious hands when listening to Robert Glasper.
Second question: How the hell did this guy not buckle under the pressure? Just look at the roll-call of Mobo talent; we have Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Badu(!), a pre-retirement Yasiin Bey, Lalah Hathaway and so many more (bonus: it’s not totally exclusive, don’t sleep on the David Bowie and Nirvana covers). What’s striking is that there is perfect balance – no single voice jostles for space over the others. Each is afforded their own place to shine freely and equally, probably due to the sheer consistency of brilliant songwriting. It sounds like the music could only have ever been vocalised by each performer and nobody else.
Black Radio is an album that caresses, that communicates, that lovingly invigorates the listener and, like a smug dog that rolls onto its back to be stroked, I only want more. It’s an album to get stoned to and feel sonic textures but also to have moments of absolute clarity. It’s an album to make love to, it’s an album to be alone to in the middle of a rainy night, tenth glass of rum in hand, realising that all your previous days were shite and grey and life should be more beautiful. Hendrix had his Experience, Prince had his Revolution, thank god that Glasper has his perfect Experiment.
ARTIST: MAMMAL HANDS
LABEL (YEAR): GONDWANA RECORDS (2014)
FOR FANS OF: GOGO PENGUIN, SONS OF KEMET, POLAR BEAR
Words by Aidan Daly
Matthew Halsall’s decision to snap up Mammal Hands to the seemingly exclusive Gondwana Records was not, one can assume, made hastily (there are now only two other artists on the books since GoGo Penguin signed to Blue Note last year). Either way, the result was Animalia, Mammal Hands’ intricately crafted debut album.
Like GoGo Penguin, Mammal Hands’ compositions delicately balance elements of acoustic jazz with diverse and eccentric influences. In their case, this sees the band tapping into the traditions of North Indian and African percussion, while also taking cues from the technicalities of minimalist and electronic music. The end product is a distinctive, melodic, and accessible take on jazz.
Washes of elegant harmony permeate the album, as on ‘Kandaiki’ and ‘Spinning the Wheel’ – both relaxed affairs built around mournful, repeating piano and sax melodies. The self-proclaimed influence of minimalist pioneer Steve Reich is evident in the stylistic appropriation of hypnotic, recurring phrases, especially on ‘Bustle’, which dance over the precise arrangements of drummer Jesse Barrett. Like Reich, the trio playfully exploit the listener’s rhythmic assumptions through subtle manipulation of time signature and groove.
Throughout the LP, the interplay between brothers Nick and Jordan Smart, on piano and sax, is effortlessly clean. As their instruments meld beautifully, the lack of a double bass – so often a staple of jazz outfits – is rendered unproblematic. Drummer Barrett punctuates the harmonic side of the outfit with finesse, either assembling complex and powerful patterns, or reining it in with ambient dustings of brushed snares and cymbals.
One to listen to while doing a cryptic crossword.
ARTIST: BUGGE WESSELTOFTE, HENRIK SCHWARZ AND DAN BERGLUND
LABEL (YEAR): Sunday Music (2014)
FOR FANS OF: Bohren & Der Club of Gore, Burial, Squarepusher
Words by Gummo Clare
Following their successful collaboration on the 2012 release Duo, Norwegian jazz pianist Wesseltoft and German electronics maven and composer Schwarz, incorporated former Esbjorn Svenson bassist Dan Berglund into some of their live shows. After the end of their tour, the three recorded Trialogue; a more rigorously arranged piece than the intense real-time improvisation that they produced onstage.
Unlike Duo, which was underpinned by the four-to-the-floor kick of Schwarz’s house roots, this record feels a lot harder to pin down. A number of tracks are undoubtedly groove-driven. None more so than the brooding, industrial-jazz of ‘Headbanger’s Polka’, which also features some tasteful soloing by Wesseltoft. The following track, ‘Movement Eleven’ feels almost like some of the instrumental techno released by The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble, and the latter half of ‘Take a Quick Break’ features a shimmering breakbeat drum pattern alongside Berglund’s rhythmic bassline.
Other tracks feel more like the work of a dark ambient producer. Atmospheric, glitchy signal processing on ‘Valiant', for example, sounds like something that Big Loada-era Squarepusher might produce - if someone had introduced him to subtlety. Berglund’s bowed double bass on this track is particularly compelling. His playing is excellent throughout, and amazingly varied - sometimes using layering to create the feel of a string ensemble and at other points employing the distorted, effects-laden bass growl heard in the solo on ‘Movement Eleven’.
Throughout, the trio successfully bridge the gap between their many musical influences without the album ever coming across as just a patchwork of different genres. Instead, Wesseltoft and Berglund’s jazz prowess, combined with Schwarz’s deft use of electronics and sampling, creates a unique and engaging album that benefits relistening.
This mini-documentary about the album provides some insights into composing and recording process behind Trialogue.
Artist: Chet Baker
Album: Chet Baker Sings
Label (Year): Pacific Jazz Records (1954)
For Fans of: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon
Words by Lexy Morvaridi
It’s hard to tell whether Chet Baker was a singer who played trumpet or a trumpet player who sang. Either way, the natural calm of both his talents are deftly showcased on Chet Baker Sings. Originally released in 1954 as a 7 track record, it was reissued two years later with an additional 6 songs recorded in 1956. It is this collection of songs that, at the tender age of 24, would set the precedent for a romantic, yet tragic, career.
The soft beauty and sincere sadness of Chet’s voice carries you through an innocent journey of the harsh truths of young love. On ‘I Fall In Love Too Easily’ the elegant melancholy of his delivery is layered with delicate trumpet playing, picking out the melody with touching sentiment and ease. The stripped back arrangements, of trumpet, piano, bass, and drums allow the melodies to hauntingly float throughout the record. It is his soft vocal delivery, which truly resonates.
Chet brings his own style to the recordings: a style that adds a whole new meaning to songs you may well know. Classics such as ‘Like Someone In Love’, of Bing Crosby and Bjork fame, and ‘My Funny Valentine’, of Ella Fitzgerald and Chaka Khan fame, are certainly worth noting.
This record espouses the effortless cool of Chet Baker, a cultural and jazz icon of the 1950’s. Check out ‘Let’s Get Lost’, a documentary about his life filmed shortly before his untimely death in 1988.
DISCLAIMER: This record is best recommended with a cheap bottle of red wine or whiskey... and a broken heart.
Artist: Hank Mobley
Album: No Room For Squares
Label (Year): Blue Note (1963)
For Fans of: Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard
Words by Gummo Clare
Coming from an era stuffed with incredible jazz releases from some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, this is an album that rarely gets a look-in on ‘best of’ lists, both in terms of jazz generally and hard bop in particular – it’s not normally even seen as one of Mobley’s best albums.
But a quick look at the personnel on the album shows why it’s worthy of attention, even in amongst the host of similar, and more famous albums of the period: everyone featured on the record are renowned jazz musicians. In fact, Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and of course Herbie Hancock would go on to be far more well-known in the years following this album as frontmen. As a result of the stellar musicianship, this album is well worth a listen. The presence on drums of Philly Joe Jones makes it worthwhile alone: he was notoriously difficult to work with, and recorded comparatively rarely. His drumming on this is interesting throughout.
Stylistically, the album is straight-up hard bop, but the ballad ‘Carolyn’ and the wonky blues ‘Me ‘N You’, both by Morgan provide variations in tempo and feel. One appealing feature of the album is that it manages to combine virtuosity and improvisation with genuinely great tunes, particularly the theme on the title track. This track, as well as the opener ‘Three Way Split’ are examples of hard bop at its best – particularly the short solos in the breaks on both tracks, where Morgan’s incursions are incendiary.
In the context of jazz and hard bop around the time of the album’s release, No Room For Squares is rarely seen as remotely stand-out. Hank Mobley himself isn’t considered in the same league as some of the other tenor sax players who were at their prime in this period, such as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Despite this, it’s both well-crafted and well-arranged with catchy tunes and great musicianship, and is especially worth listening to if you’re looking for accessible jazz from this period.
Hank Mobley: Tenor Sax
Lee Morgan: Trumpet (except tracks 3 and 6)
Donald Byrd: Trumpet (3,6)
Andrew Hill: Piano (except 3 and 6)
Herbie Hancock: Piano (3,6)
John Ore: Bass (except 3 and 6)
Butch Warren: Bass (3,6)
Philly Joe Jones: Drums
Artist: Todd Rundgren
Label (Year): Bearsville (1972)
For Fans of: Big Star, Carole King, Steely Dan, Laura Nyro
Words by Eddie Swales
Todd Rundgren’s (de facto) third solo album was his most successful and accessible effort of a prolific career. An ambitious double album, the music is entirely performed and produced by Rundgren himself, save for the final side. Having begun his career in the cult psychedelic band Nazz a few years earlier and later veering towards progressive rock, Something/Anything? represents a period in Rundgren’s career characterised by well-crafted and richly produced pop songs.
Rundgren’s songwriting prowess on breezy pop tracks like the opening ‘I Saw the Light’, led some to dub him the male Carole King, whilst the concise, guitar-driven ‘Couldn’t I Just Tell You’ has been cited as an early example of power pop. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the album is the rich, layered production, particularly evident in the more melancholy tracks, such as ‘Cold Morning Light’ and ‘Sweeter Memories’. The 23-year old Rundgren had already established a reputation as an accomplished music producer, having produced albums for The Band, Badfinger, and Sparks. He would later work with acts as diverse as the New York Dolls and Hall & Oates.
Something/Anything? is that rare double album that doesn’t leave you wishing the artist had been a little less self-indulgent and whittled it down to 40 minutes of gold. The listener may wonder whether certain tracks might have been left out, perhaps the goofy ‘Piss Aaron’, or a short interlude in which Rundgren introduces us to “sounds of the studio”, but even these somewhat throwaway tracks contribute to the album’s eclectic and good-humoured vibe.
Artist: Dawn of Midi
Label: Thirsty Ear (2013) // Erased Tapes (2015)
For Fans of: Steve Reich, Squarepusher, GoGo Penguin, Nils Frahm
Words by Jasper Morvaridi
With rhythm at its core, Dawn of Midi’s Dysnomia pushes towards a minimalist electronic sound despite being comprised of only acoustic instruments. The Brooklyn-based trio, made up of Qasim Naqvi on drums, Aakaash Israni on double bass and Amino Belyamani on piano, originally started as a free-jazz improv outfit that used to rehearse in pitch-black darkness. Dysnomia moves away from their free-jazz debut, ‘First’, with its precise and meticulously planned score that took some two years to perfect. Though the album was originally released in the US only in 2013, Dysnomia recently saw a worldwide re-release on the ever-present Erased Tapes records.
Listened to in its entirety, Dysnomia sounds as though it could be one complete piece or a mix that progresses from each song. ‘Nix’, for example, has been compared to a DJ tool: a means of transitioning from one section to the next. In this sense, the pulsating rhythms that subtly build throughout the record situate the sound somewhere between Steve Reich and Squarepusher. There are times where the trio seem to drift apart only to perfectly realign, such as in ‘Ymir’. Belyamani’s use of the piano as a percussive instrument, dampening and plucking the strings, is central to the album’s attention to rhythm over melody.
One could sit and decode the intricate changes in time signature and tempo for hours. Yet the beauty of the album is that while the unpredictable rhythms are simple, they amount to subtly detailed and different permutations that make you want to dance, or at the very least nod your head.