BBC – Music – Review of Day

Palm Springs DJ/producer Damien Beebe – here trading as Day after dropping the “DJ” prefix – is sonically rooted in a sun-kissed past throughout his second album.

These instrumentals, each throwing forward to mellow summertime socialising, recall those moments when hip hop successfully got down with jazz, down-tempo grooves the prevailing constituent. There are shades of The Private Press-period DJ Shadow, samples blending with live arrangements. 

Many tracks represent the kind of cut that a Mos Def or Q-Tip could triumphantly spill a few rhymes over. They would lend themselves to chilled, consciously flowed prose. Land of 1000 Chances is, simply, an excellent exercise in nostalgia.

Which means that its place in 2013’s hip hop landscape is resolutely beneath the radar.

Day doesn’t have the arsenal for hype-rappers to rock to. His approach is distinct due to an assembly that might’ve previously been branded homogenised. Today it’s refreshing, but at odds with mainstream trends.

The remixes across Day’s career – which began in the mid-90s – tell a story of sorts, which can be interpreted to outline the man’s appeal. Aloe Blacc, Alice Russell and People Under the Stairs have all commissioned Day reworks; and fans of those artists’ oeuvres will find much to enjoy here.

And “enjoy” is the right word. Land of 1000 Chances isn’t a challenge at any turn. Melodies are mellifluous and percussion tight and snappy, soulful vocal samples embellishing proceedings with rewarding richness.

The title track is a standout, laidback of wandering guitar but skipping onwards on sprightly beats. Mama Shelter locks into a groove that’d be described as robotic if it didn’t eventually shift to gentle woodwind-like tones and luxurious vocal harmonies.

Certain tracks – Sushi in Fresno, Ode to a Fiend – are too interlude-like to leave a lasting impression, but they’re pleasant nonetheless. Partir has something oddly ELO-like about it, nothing but blue skies on its horizon.

The album’s leisurely pace means it’s one for when warm nights stretch out and good company comprises the key accompaniment. But even when undersold as background fare, rap fans with more grey hairs than the Bible’s got psalms are guaranteed satisfaction from Day’s latest.

BBC – Music – Review of Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite

If a case needs to be made for blues music in the mainstream – and really, given the story of Adele, it shouldn’t – this meeting of crack talents from two generations fits the brief.

Ben Harper has been exploring the rootsy end of the pop spectrum for more than 20 years without ever identifying himself with a genre. He has mixed vintage jazz with beatboxing and even covered Strawberry Fields Forever.

But it has been in dialogue that his gifts have flourished, and the passing years have found him an increasingly productive collaborator.

Maybe it’s something to do with the pliant lightness of his voice, or the way his musical interests can wander, but these collaborations have added heft to an always-engaging career. Harper’s 2004 release with The Blind Boys of Alabama, There Will Be a Light, may have been the most satisfying record by either of them – and it’s well trumped by this terrific two-hander.

“I only know one tune,” has been Charlie Musselwhite’s confession – but what a tune. This is the veteran whose third wedding featured John Lee Hooker as best man, and since his sensational debut in the 60s blues boomhe has earned an unequalled reputation as a harmonica man.

Now sweet, now rasping, and always chorusing and counterpointing with the keenest ears around, Musselwhite’s dialogue with Harper’s soulful tenor and punchy guitar is pure Astaire and Rogers.

Fans of the harmonica player might think him too much the straight man here, but the presence of living history has Harper at the top of his game.

There are wide, colourful horizons to Get Up!’s “one tune”, from the clapping gospel chorus of We Can’t End This Way to the bubbling bass riff of the title track, or in the way the stripped-down slow burn of Don’t Look Twice gives way to the blast of the full band.

All the way through, Musselwhite’s subtle, rich-toned commentary maintains a focus. So you’ll hear echoes of Jimi Hendrix, the Blind Boys and even the laidback groove of Jack Johnson here, but make no mistake: this is the blues.

BBC – Music – Review of Pat Metheny

Pat Metheny has been working with the Orchestrion for some while now, along with a team of technicians, instrument makers and programmers. It’s an automated orchestra, controllable from Metheny’s guitar, allowing him a degree of autocracy he probably couldn’t get otherwise.

The Orchestrion is comprised of custom-made or modified instruments played by an assortment of computer-controlled hammers, magnets, beaters, bellows and so on. It’s like a giant player piano, or a fairground organ.

This live set was recorded without an audience during a world tour. It contains the suite of five pieces Metheny wrote for the Orchestrion studio album, plus some old favourites from his back catalogue.

The specially written pieces are superficially similar to much of his output from the last decade. They are complex, intricately constructed but somehow undemanding fusions of Brazilian music, rock, jazz and minimalism.

While there’s plenty to tickle the ear, there’s inevitably quite a mechanistic if not synthetic flavour to the proceedings. This can become increasingly wearing, something the constantly shifting textures can’t mask.

However, the lack of heart in the backing does serve to highlight the warmth and expressiveness of Metheny’s guitar work, which is predictably flawless throughout.

The “Orchestrionised” versions of the older pieces are a mixed bag. The otherwise lovely Unity Village is blighted by an intrusively metronomic percussion part.

But the stripped-back Sueño con Mexico and the mournful Tell Her You Saw Me are much more effective, bringing out some of the guitarist’s most lyrical playing.

The slightly chaotic medley of 80/81 and Ornette Coleman’s Broadway Blues hints at where things might have gone had Metheny been a bit more adventurous and explored the particular qualities of the Orchestrion rather than using it as a glorified karaoke machine.

The two improvisations feel like demonstration recordings rather than genuine explorations, though it’s there that the instrument probably has most potential.

The Orchestrion is impressive when seen in action. But Metheny’s use of it here delivers a pale, expensive shadow of what a real band can achieve. The project doesn’t feel like it has longevity, and this release is for the hardcore only.

BBC – Music – Review of Glenn Lewis

Recorded with production team of Dre and Vidal (A Touch of Jazz alumni Andre Lewis and Vidal Davis), World Outside My Window was Glenn Lewis’ soulful, slow-burning debut album.

Although he initially set out to be an animator, Lewis followed his ambition (and his father’s footsteps) to sing, and broke through via series of guest appearances and singles in his native Canada. Signing with Epic, he created this sensual album of tender, emotional ballads and mid-paced RnB jams.

With strings arranged by Philadelphia production legend Larry Gold and emerging out of a vinyl crackle, the album sets its stall out early – this is sumptuous neo-soul with its feet in the past and its eyes on the future.

On Don’t You Forget It, Lewis couldn’t have paraded his influences more blatantly. In its video, Lewis lies in a vinyl-strewn flat amid Sly Stone, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye albums; this was an artist determined to show, to quote his hero Stevie Wonder, where he was coming from.

In fact, Wonder loved the record so much that he invited Lewis to guest on a radio show with him, singing his song back to him.

World Outside My Window rarely rises above a languorous pace, but that is no bad thing. Something To See is a pretty love song with all the hallmarks of classic soul, and Never Too Late is full of the drama of a man on the verge of losing his lover. One More Day is a rare up-tempo moment, all 70s RnB electric piano and heavy bass.

The album was a huge success in the US, buoyed by a support slot on the Alicia Keys tour. But Lewis didn’t cross over commercially to the UK.

At the time of writing, World Outside My Window remains Glenn Lewis’ only album release. Follow-ups were planned, largely recorded and then abandoned. He has recently linked up again with Dre and Vidal, and a new album is promised.

But until then, World Outside My Window remains a polished, heartfelt collection of sincerely delivered RnB.

BBC – Music – Review of Miles Davis Quintet

The first volume of this bootleg series of Miles Davis sessions featured the 1967 quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. And it was, of course, good to have further examples of this band in action.

But that set’s importance pales into insignificance beside volume 2 – a 3-CD (plus DVD) package of the 1969 quintet. Here, the rhythm section has completely changed to include Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette.

This line-up is barely represented in Davis’ studio recordings, being heavily augmented for the Bitches Brew sessions and with Airto Moreira added on percussion for the 1970 Fillmore concert.

Later, a DVD of a 1969 Copenhagen concert surfaced on the 40th anniversary Bitches Brew package. But otherwise this is the great, largely undocumented stage in Miles’ development.

So this treasure trove of well-recorded European broadcasts from ORTF and Swedish Radio represents the first official CD set tracking Miles in transition from acoustic quintet to all-out fusion.

There are still sensitive standards, such as a leisurely ‘Round Midnight that explodes into a high-energy workout. Before that, a revisiting of Milestones threatens to unravel but somehow retains the shape of the 1958 original.

There’s an introspective reading of I Fall in Love Too Easily. Then there are explorations of the 1966-67 repertoire, Footprints and Nefertiti, as well as expositions of work-in-progress music from Bitches Brew.

The most startling revelation is Miles himself. He plays with power, range and passion, goading the rhythm section into epic battles. He enjoys savage exchanges with DeJohnette’s drums, underpins harmonic excursions by Corea’s electric piano, and encourages the roaming basslines and free exploration of Holland.

Shorter is full of fiery invention: a searing soprano solo on the second of two versions of Miles Runs the Voodoo Down is one of his finest on record. Corea’s solo that follows lurches off into free jazz territory – random tones, electronic noise, and diverse effects from drums and bass.

The latter passage is an eerie foreshadowing of Corea’s subsequent work in Circle. It’s also a fascinating glimpse of how close Miles strayed into completely free jazz territory before setting his course firmly towards fusion.

BBC – Music – Review of Modestep

The late 00s saw everyone – clued-up, layman or otherwise – form an opinion on dubstep. A genre turned gimmick, many said, replicated by everyone from Britney Spears to what’s left of the Sugababes.

Such mainstream focus often heralds the winding-down of a genre, but Modestep are ready to test that theory. The London quartet is stood with fists clenched, brandishing a brave new approach that not only breathes life into the concept, but carries an element of auteurship: a Modestep song always and only sounds like a Modestep song.

The live facet that Modestep pride themselves on isn’t consigned to just the stage itself. From the outset, instrumentation and performance plays a crucial role in debut album Evolution Theory.

Dubstep doesn’t even feel like the foundation of their sound – it’s almost a by-product of such intensive experimentation. Somehow, if an element of every genre is thrown into the mix, its presence is an inevitability.

For those looking for it, the fundamental chestnuts of the genre are present. But the discordant, hiccupping squelch thankfully isn’t left to its own devices too often – for the most part, it plays bed to a selection of gritty riffs, engrossing vocal melodies, or quirky synth runs.

And it’s a pretty effective mix. The emergent, adventurous Another Day proves the point nicely. The title track begins as a sparse, piano-led pseudo-ballad, before swelling into atmospheric RnB, overtaken by a metal crunch and ending life as a rapid, industrial thumper.

Such tracks are testament to Modestep’s unique give-away-the-farm approach – why stick with one idea when 11 will do? But even within that, there’s a remarkable restraint. They allow tracks to gather momentum organically, each song carving out a journey all of its own.

The broad, stuttering beats do fatigue the listening experience eventually, but music this animated and unrelenting demands a very specific ear in a very specific setting. And the vivacious musicality of Evolution Theory points towards that setting being the live arena.

The stage is where Modestep come to life, and Evolution Theory sets them up to do that with some considerable aptitude.

BBC – Music – Review of The Creole Choir of Cuba

This 10-piece vocal group has the potential to become one of the best-known choirs in the world, a Caribbean answer to South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  And they have an intriguing history, explaining their versatile and often unexpected approach.   

They may be based in the old Cuban colonial town of Camagüey, but their name is misleading – their roots are not Cuban, but Haitian.

Back in Cuba they are known as Desandann (“The Descendants”), a reminder that they are the descendants of African slaves who were transported to Haiti but then moved or escaped to Cuba.

Like all good choirs, they are best experienced live, especially as the six women and four men in the group are remarkable for their rousing stagecraft and ability to display their thrilling harmony work on anything from African-influenced dance pieces to songs with Western and Caribbean influences.

Here, on their second album, the emphasis is different. The choir stresses its Haitian roots, but also the subtlety and sophistication of their singing. The producer is John Metcalf, who has worked with Blur and John Cale and provided most of the arrangements for Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back. He was clearly eager to show that these singers are as remarkable for their thoughtful, painful laments as much as the party songs.

The album starts with a series of songs written by the choir’s leader Emilia Díaz Chávez, based on the writings of a Haitian politician.

Preludo is a duet between two women singers that sounds as pure and clear as great church music. But then the male voices join in, with percussion backing, as the full choir demonstrates complex, rousing harmonies.

From then on the album constantly changes  direction, from the swinging, Cuban-influenced Camina Como Chencha to the cheerful but stately Haitian history lesson Panama Mwen Tonbe.

The pained and then exuberant Pou Ki Ayiti Kriye (“Why Does Haiti Cry?”) starts as an exquisite lament but speeds up to an exhilarating climax.

Metcalf’s production involves the occasional use of jazzy piano, trumpet, flute and the sound of wind or birds. But a choir this good doesn’t really need additional help.

BBC – Music – Review of Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach Collegium Japan’s deservedly acclaimed project to record all of Bach’s cantatas has reached volume 51, which turns out to be an especially vibrant and generously filled collection of sacred occasional works.

These sit outside the bulk of Bach’s sacred cantatas, not part of the cycles for Sundays and feast days of the church year. But, though little is known about the circumstances of their original performances other than that they were privately commissioned by wealthy patrons, conductor Masaaki Suzuki and his well-honed forces lavish at least as much loving attention on them as usual.

Fluently stylish and idiomatic, the performers live and breathe Bach’s music with as much immediacy as if it had been composed yesterday.

The first cantata on the album, BWV 195, is a joyous trumpet-and-drums affair, written in the last years of Bach’s life for what must have been particularly sumptuous wedding celebrations. The orchestra is one of Bach’s biggest, including pairs of flutes and oboes as well as three trombones.

Suzuki and company revel in the grand forces – the opening and closing movements brim with festive ebullience – while retaining their customary crispness and buoyancy and clean, unfussy choral singing.

BWV 195 is also notable for a bass aria that is remarkably forward-looking in style. With rich, oboe d’amore-infused scoring and jovial scotch-snap rhythms, the late-1740s musical language sounds uncannily like that of Bach’s sons. Listen out, too, for the wonderful effect of cascading flutes in a soprano recitative.

At the other end of the scale, the gently meditative funeral cantata BWV 157 is scored for modest chamber forces with one-to-a-part quartet of singers – a subtle and delicate combination realised by the Japan players with radiant beauty.

There are no standout stars among the vocal soloists – soprano Hana Blazikova, counter-tenor Damien Guillon, tenor Christoph Genz and veteran bass Peter Kooij – but neither are there any weak links. Each delivers solid performances, taking solos with aplomb and working well as a team.

The accounts of the two other cantatas here, BWV 192 and 120a, are equally delightful, making this latest volume one of the very best and most joyful in the series so far.

BBC – Music – Review of Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson is one of the few songwriters who can still invest the most pessimistic sentiments with a streak of bitter humour.

Some of the songs on this amplified band set have been road-tested during the English bard’s solo acoustic travels. These two aspects of his career share unavoidable similarities, but Thompson in an electrified state attains a very different level of intensity when contrasted with his unplugged wandering minstrel persona.

The sessions were recorded in Nashville, with guitarist Buddy Miller in the producer’s chair. Unusually, Thompson decided to limit his line-up to a trio, with bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome.

Stony Ground begins as if it’s already been in progress long before we arrived, stomping and clapping into another tale of small-town scandal. It’s a sneering, caustic critique, and Thompson is the village gossip.

The singer often insists that his characters are imaginary, but it’s difficult to avoid the temptation of believing that these are truthful tales from Thompson’s own sordid life.

Thompson’s classic folk rock formula is revived once more, and his frequent guitar solos are as sour as his lyrical wit. There’s often an atonal extremity to these searing outbursts that would make many of them equally welcome on the battlefront of the avant-garde.

Salford Sunday is a more relaxed, mournfully jazzy amble, with mandolin and a big bass drum boom, its guitar solo almost replete with a country twang.

Most of these songs are concerned with doomed romance, bitter and sweet in turns.

Sally B’s verses alternate with guitar solos, each equally eloquent, then Stuck on the Treadmill shifts subjects to the grind of working life. Sadness consumes My Enemy, a ballad with its love/hate sentiments reaching to the extremes.

There’s a dip during the middle of the album, but Straight and Narrow slams back in with a perky garage soul ditty, then The Snow Goose is another morose ballad.

Alison Krauss sings a duet, and Siobhan Maher Kennedy elsewhere contributes harmony vocals, both guests unavoidably recalling the character of Linda Thompson.

Closer Saving the Good Stuff for You is borderline cheery, but do we believe Thompson? Could this just be a pre-doom love song, before the decay infests this particular relationship?

BBC – Music – Review of Buddy Guy

The first track on Buddy Guy’s new album consists of an excited MC introducing the great bluesman on stage at his own club in Chicago back in January 2010. Guy was making his final appearance at Legends, which has since closed.

“It’s show time…!” he yells. “And it’s time for the legend himself, the multi-Grammy award-winner, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-r, the baddest muthaf**** in town…”

At the time, Guy was 73. But the intro sums up the man’s continuing appeal.

He’s one of the greatest living bluesmen, and also a hero to rock audiences thanks to his furious and passionate guitar playing and vocal style. He delivers no-nonsense energy and enthusiasm, as well as expertise, and his talents have not faded over the years.

His aim on this particular evening was to mix his own songs with reminders of how the blues were transformed by British artists like Eric Clapton.

He opens with an energetic treatment of his own Best Damn Fool, taken from 2008’s Skin Deep album. And right from the start his rousing, rough and ready, wailing guitar style is as distinctive as ever.

So too is his vocal work – and his ability to switch from full-tilt passages to quiet, thoughtful vocals. He demonstrates this superbly on the soulful title track from Skin Deep.

The real surprises come with his exploration of blues styles that influenced the British blues boom of the 60s and 70s.

There’s a stomping version of the Muddy Waters favourite Mannish Boy, which is constructed around one of the all-time classic blues-rock riffs, and an enthusiastic treatment of Willie Dixon’s I Just Want To Make Love To You, famously covered by both Waters and The Rolling Stones.

Then there’s a sequence in which John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom segues into Cream’s Strange Brew, with the audience joining in. This is followed by a treatment of Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile that eases into another Cream classic, Sunshine of Your Love.

Surprisingly, there are only seven live tracks – the final three are previously unreleased studio recordings from the acclaimed Living Proof sessions, recorded later in 2010.

They provide further proof of Guy’s ageless appeal.