February 28, 2008

Huong Thanh & Nguyên Lê

Fragile Beauty
Born in what was then Saigon, but resident in France for more than 20 years, Huong Thanh is one of the great female interpreters of traditional Vietnamese song, and an impressive composer. This is the fourth album on which she has collaborated with Nguyen Le, her guitarist, producer and engineer. It's another reminder of the duo's remarkable ability to mix ancient Asian themes and unexpected contemporary influence, all with an exhilarating, cool confidence. Huong Thanh's voice is clear and thoughtful, but still robust enough to match Nguyen Le's delicate and sensitive settings. As a rock and then jazz guitarist, he has played with the likes of Gil Evans and Ornette Coleman, but here his jazz influences are mixed with other global styles and sounds - from African talking drums to the Japanese koto, or from the Vietnamese zither to the muted trumpet work of Paolo Fresu or piano harmonies of Dominique Borker. Many of the songs start acoustic, but then the global experiments and jazz influences subtly begin to emerge, in what becomes an increasingly intriguing set.(Guardian)

Huong Thanh - vocals
Nguyên Lê - electric & acoustic guitar, synthesizer, computer
Mieko Miyazaki - koto
Hao Nhiên Pham - monocorde (dàn bau), 16-strings zither (dàn tranh), sao, meo bamboo flutes
Nguyên Van-Hong - backing vocals
Paolo Fresu - trumpet, fluegelhorn
Stéphane Guillaume - soprano sax, flutes
Renaud Garcia-Fons - pizz & arco acoustic 5-string bass
Etienne Mbappé - fretless bass
Alex Tran - percussions
Francis Lassus - percussions
Illya Amar - bamboo balafon (trung)
Dominique Borker - piano


This is evocative world music, produced and performed on by the Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Le. At times, though, it strays into his territory of western jazzy electronics and funk, infused with the sound effects and melodic associations of Vietnamese music. Huong Thanh is a vocalist rooted in the glottal manipulations, high, trilling sounds and soft mid-range intonations of the region's traditional techniques, and this is a project that imports her remarkable sound into a mix of contemporary global and indigenous contexts. Dix Raisons D'Aimer finds Huong gliding delicately through an undergrowth of Vietnamese flutes and zithers, before Nguyen's echoing samples and stealthily advancing tabla grooves modernise its atmosphere. The title track mingles the Vietnamese with the African, as Richard Bona's vocal chant intertwines with the leader's feline phrasing, and Ce Que Dit l'Oiseau, full of rustling percussion, finds Huong more mellow, sonorous and playful. Only marginally jazz-affiliated, but the textures are wonderful. Guardian - John Fordham Nov 2001
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February 22, 2008

Sickoakes - Seawards

Having had a flawless string of releases last year, Type Records is beginning their 2006 schedule with a bang, quite literally. A project several years in the making, Swedish sextet Sickoakes� Seawards is a startling, lovely documentation of the place where Mercury Rev, Explosions in the Sky, and Henryk Gorecki meet, with plenty of their own flourishes in place. Opening with the brief overture �Driftwood�, the album reaches its first stride on �Taking the Stairs Instead of the Elevator�, whose panoramic guitar vistas loom over precise, minimal drums as the approach of a simply chilling brass section turns the song down an entirely different path evoking a muted, though triumphant melancholy. �Oceans On Hold� slowly expands into a desert from a single grain of sand, with weathered drum patterns and spiraling whirlwinds of ascending melodies, while �Wedding Rings & Bullets In The Same Golden Shrine� swallows half the album over the course of its two parts, intently developing through Stravinsky-esque string themes and endless layers of guitar. This is truly music that seems larger than life and, at the risk of sounding trite, somewhere close to heaven-sent. At least we won�t have to worry about finding a proper score for the day the world ends, though � Sickoakes have done a stellar job with it already, and you�d do well to have yourself a listen."Tom Meluch, ATMSPHR"

Sickoakes are:
Mats - Guitar
Simon - Guitar
David - Bass
Jonas - Saxophone
Jacob - Saxophone
Joel - Trumpets and Trombones
Erik - Drums
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February 18, 2008

Stefano Di Battista - Round About Roma

Italian saxophonist Stefano Di Battista could spill a can of paint onto a canvas, only to find he has made a beautiful picture. In other words, every breath that passes through his horn is attractive.
His latest project Round About Roma creates an imaginary cinema score, with strings by the Symphonic Orchestra of Paris, that could have been a 1960s romantic film centered in Rome. Together with composer/arranger Vince Mendoza, Di Battista weaves jazz elements into these well-tempered tracks. Mendoza has created orchestral arrangements for jazz and pop music from John Scofield to Bjork. His most accomplished work being two discs for Joni Mitchell, including last years Travelogue with his string arrangements for Mitchell s re-interpretation of her beloved hits.
Two saxophonists, Art Pepper and Cannonball Adderley, have influenced Stefano di Battista s career. Both of these players incorporate an emotional approach in their playing. Where Pepper would reach for a clarinet, di Battista favors a soprano saxophone. His tone is more luscious than his two heroes, as is evident throughout this disc. Where the prior self-titled Stefano Di Battista (2000) with Elvin Jones and pianist Jackie Terrasson threatened to speak bebop throughout, this albums concept is pure amour. This isn t as much a jazz quartet with string accents as it is a small orchestra that includes piano/bass/drums/saxophone. Mendoza and Di Battista refrain from overlapping music, they intertwine and prudently have either the quartet or the strings drop out for an agreeable mix.
It is a stretch to call this jazz. Let s call it beautiful cinema orchestrations in the tradition of Nina Rota. If there is such a category, this is a near perfect album.

Stefano di Battista: Alto Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone;
Eric Legnini: Piano;
Rosario Bonaccorco: Bass;
Andre Cecarrelli: Drums;
Vince Mendoza: Conductor, Arrangements;
Symphonic Orchestra of Radio France Les Archets De Paris.

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February 15, 2008

Brian Eno and Peter Schwalm

Drawn From Life

The first album in four years (since 1997's 'The Drop') for Brian Eno finds the legendary musician/producer paired for the first time with German DJ/percussionist J. Peter Schwalm. Longtime Eno friend Laurie Anderson provides vocals on one song, although most of the thirteen tracks are atmospheric, soundtrack-like instrumentals (some with strings). Believe it or not, Eno will be performing live in support of the album, with at least one scheduled date (at the Fuji Rock Festival on 29 July 2001).
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February 11, 2008

John Surman & Trans4mation

A new chapter opens in the work of one of Europe's most consistently adventurous musicians. "Coruscating" features finely crafted and richly-melodic music for strings by John Surman, with the composer and his long-time associate Chris Laurence deployed as primary soloists and improvisers. The music heard on "Coruscating" was, in live performance, one of the big successes of ECM's 30th Anniversary Festival in Brighton and was also hailed as one of the highlights of the Bath Festival. Reviewing the material, The Times of London compared its sonorities to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. Jazz, though, remains a crucial component of the material. Tracks such as "Stone Flower" reveal Surman's love of Duke Ellington. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Ellington's great baritone saxophone, Harry Carney, one of Surman's primary influences and a player to whom John has often been compared by the press.

The Spaces In Between

This is a total joy. If you thought Surman’s previous album Coruscating with this same line-up was good, this is even better. … The sound of the instruments and the way they combine is truly amazing. The throaty, guttural baritone finds an echo in the bass and cello and the soprano in the higher tones of the violins. The harmonies are fabulous, deep and rich, and evoke, for me at least, the English countryside through the seasons. As for the performances, they are quite perfect with Rita Manning’s solo violin on the title track an absolute highlight. This is simply the best record I’ve heard this year.
Duncan Heining, Jazzwise
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February 7, 2008

Solveig Slettahjell

Slow Motion Quintet
Cool Norway seems to be the most efficient hothouse for new talents in Europe in recent years. Vocalist Solveig Slettahjell is by no means a new talent, but only now is her third solo disc, with her Slow Motion Quintet, being distributed outside of Norway. Slettahjell was a student of renowned Norwegian vocalist Sidsel Endresen, with whom she collaborated recently in Jon Balke's Batagraf ensemble (Statements, ECM, 2005). She recorded with the experimental all-female vocal quartet Kvitretten, with jazz singers Eldbjørg Raknes, Kristin Asbjörnsen and Tone Åse, and teaches jazz singing at the Norwegian Academy of Music.
Her quintet members accompanied her through her two previous discs, Slow Motion Orchestra and Silver (Curling Legs, 2001 and 2004); the latter won the Spellemannspris, the Norwegian Grammy, in 2004. They are experienced players and leaders of their own ensembles. Pianist Morten Qvenild is a key member of In The Country, Shining and Susanah, and the Magical Orchestra, all outfits which released their music through Rune Grammofon. Bassist Mats Eilertsen leads his own quartet and is a member of the English-Norwegian quartet Food and percussionist Thomas Strønen’s Parish, as well as sax player Håkon Kornstad and pianist Håvard Wiik's trios. Trumpeter Sjur Miljeteig is a member of the popular electro-jazz outfit Jaga Jazzist. Drummer Per Oddvar Johansen has recorded with reed player and composer Trygve Seim, guitarist Jacob Young, pianist Christian Wallumrød, and even a quartet led by ECM's Rainbow studio master sound engineer, Jan Erik Kongshaug.
The maturity of the quintet's members and the restrained and subtle approach of Sletttahjell contribute to the success of this release. Slettahjell and her songwriter collaborator, Peder Kjellsby, collected eleven songs that deal with hope, faith, imagination and dreams. As Slettahjell sings in “Starpillow,” “to dream is to believe.”
The disc opens with a beautiful arrangement of the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope is the thing with feathers,” performed with a haunting autoharp intro by Qvenild, and it concludes with a leisurely electronic version of the Walt Disney classic “When You Wish Upon A Star,” done here as if Slettahjell is casting a promising spell upon her listeners. Of course, the pixiedust refers to the fairy in the Peter Pan story, Tinkerbelle, and that pixiedust, along with faith and trust, are the ingredients for the domestic fantasy that is drawn so beautifully in Slettahjell's lyrics on “Faith, trust and pixiedust.” Her cover of John Hiatt's “Have a Little Faith in Me” is no longer the desperate plea it was in Hiatt's original version, but a comforting promise. Her version of Billy Holiday's classic “Don't Explain” carries a more reconciling message than Holliday's own sober version.
Qvenild adds detailed electronic ornamentations that highlight the delicacy of the arrangements. Miljeteig's breathy tone, Johansen's caress of the cymbals, and Eilertsen's assured and economic playing, along with the fragile yet warm vocals of Slettahjell and her cohesive vision of Pixiedust, create a really magical listening experience. You may be convinced by her pledge that “anything your heart desires will come to you.”
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February 4, 2008

Susumu Yokota

Beautiful and brilliantly-executed ambient electronic music. It has just enough variety and subtle shifts of texture and timing to make this interesting to listen to, not just to send you to sleep like a lot of other ambient. The soft harp-like synths bubble away gently in the background, while splashes of sounds are woven subtly around with great timing, without becoming over-produced. It feels pedantic to describe the individual tracks of such a smoothly-flowing work, but I'll mention a few. "Hagoromo" shows off Yokota's skill for subtly off-beat loops. "Hisen" has an electric piano noise that could have come from Radiohead's "OK Computer". The slinky vocal samples of "Kodomotachi" and the jazz-tinged "Naminote" give the album extra dabs of colour, before it floats away with the ethereal "Kirakiraboshi".

Skintone Collection

For over 20 years Susumu Yokota has been creating a diverse body of work which, since 1998, he has released on his own Skintone label. While this work is lazily categorised as ‘ambient’, that name really is a disservice. Yokota’s music is rarely happy to find space in the background and tracks have much more movement of ideas within them than ambient music strictly uses.
Being a compilation is possibly the only fault of this disc as a listening experience, and it is a minor fault at that. The diverse nature of Yokota’s music means that the tracks jump about stylistically a little. ‘Card Nation’ from 2001’s Grinning Cat is ominous atmospherics under piano, violin and vocal snatches punctuated by heavily reverberated clangs and hisses. ‘Illusion River’ from 2001’s Will is pretty Rhodes glissandos and opera swoons under a raw, harshly cut drum loop, the tension between the two aesthetics continually shifting the focus of the track and providing considerable forward momentum. Traditional Japanese instrumentation finds its place in tracks such as ‘Live Echo’ (from 2002’s The Boy And The Tree) and ‘Sentiero’ (from 2005’s Distant Sounds Of Summer collaboration with Rothko). These are seamlessly blended with classical western instrumentation and contemporary electronics to great effect throughout. Whether creating a contemplative mood in ‘Kawano Hotorino Kinoshitade 1998′ (from 1998’s Image 1983-1998) or splicing samples into abstract shards to be recomposed in ‘A Heart-warming And Beautiful Flower Will Eventually Wither And Become Dirt’ (from 2007’s Love Or Die), Yokota avoids cliches and keeps every detail serving the whole exquisitely.
Every piece on this collection is musically noteworthy in some way. Compiler Ben Eshmade, of the program ‘Chiller Cabinet’ on Britain’s Classic FM has done a good job of creating a reasonable flow across the tracks. As mentioned, though, it is hard to listen to the entire disc and not notice the joins between disparate works. However, the strength of the material means that this leads to a desire to hear the original works in their entirety, where the flow and continuity that is core to this music can be heard and fully appreciated. As a compilation which opens up Yokota’s work to new audiences, sending them in search of his back catalogue, this is a great success.

Blog archive
Susumu Yokota & Rothko- Distant sounds of summer

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