Monday, 29 September 2008

Gordon Beck...

Other than to take a swipe at the parsimonious folks at the pretentiously titled 'Art of Life' records, I don't know why I'm giving this disc the oxygen of publicity for the second time. As you'll see I gave it a fair review, but when I tried to reduce my mountain of unwanted CDs by selling it on eBay, the record label reported me to the organisation and pulled the plug on the listing.

It's about time they learned the twin arts of appreciation and gratitude in times when the market for CDs is shrinking every day. Anybody want a free copy of this 'recommended' CD?

Seven Steps To Heaven
Art Of Life Records (AL1018-2)

Backwards Bop; Gone With The Wind; JuJu; Isotope; Quiet Now; Solar; Seven Steps To Heaven

Pierrick Pedron (as); Gordon Beck (p); Bruno Rousselet (b); Philippe Soirat (d)
Recorded February 2005.

From Tubby Hayes to Phil Woods, Allan Holdsworth to Lena Horne, Gordon Beck’s 40-plus years in top-flight music are connected by a consistently propulsive style and unwavering faith in the core values of jazz. Whilst Stan Tracey may be better known and Howard Riley push more boundaries, Beck is surely Britain’s greatest pianist in the modern mainstream. A career spent largely as a freelance is testament to that, his CV showing a player coveted by many high profile employers.

Seven Steps To Heaven, recorded live in Paris in February 2005, sees Beck as leader, and his employees all are comfortably above par. The pianist has worked on many occasions with the bass/drums team of Rousselet and Soirat, even recording with them previously, but it is the four tracks with guest saxophonist Pierrick Pedron that really grab the attention here. Pedron fits perfectly into Beck’s post-bop agenda, playing with a wispy tone that sometimes recalls Art Pepper (‘Gone With The Wind’), though more often Bird via the swagger of Jackie McLean.

The material, including Wayne Shorter’s ‘JuJu’ and Joe Henderson’s ‘Isotope’ neatly matches the quartet’s ambitions, and is read with great reverence and a large amount of literalism. The quartet’s raison d’etre is to precisely to operate within this idiom, and they stick to the brief with considerable aplomb. Listening to the opener, Billy Childs’ ‘Backward Bop’, it is true to say that it could have been recorded at any time from 1960 to date. Pedron sits out on both this piece and Isotope’, whilst Denny Zeitlin’s ‘Quiet Now’, a Beck solo not recorded at these sessions, serves as a fitting interlude in a largely high octane gig. With the four quartet pieces pushing or exceeding the 10-minute mark, there’s both room to stretch out and insufficient time to waste. Beck and Pedron are always the principle soloists, but Rousselet and Soirat get their space, and ‘trading fours’ is another tradition that the quartet observes.

Just as Beck’s richly deserved reputation has been garnered by working with established figures, it is hoped Pedron’s bright talent gets a similar shin-up from this engagement. The way in which the pair burn through ‘Solar’ suggests that as long as the public has an appetite for this music, belying time and place, the saxophonist’s place is assured. Recommended.

Fred Grand

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Branford Marsalis...

Time to go back to posting some CD reviews on a more regular basis. Things are still busy here, but after taking some time out because of a bad back/sciatica I'm getting back into the swing of things. I've even done my first bike ride in almost three weeks this morning, and it was incredibly hard work. Almost as hard as painting a house from top to bottom, which is what Louise is doing as I write this. Have I no shame?

Anyway, let's start this mini re-launch with a big one - a Branford Marsalis compilation. The Marsalis family tend to divide opinion, but most can agree that Branford is different to his pious and over-zealous siblings. Developing over the last two decades into a fine and forthright player with an open-minded outlook, he's now pushing the boundaries into late 'trane territory, and he's a damn sight more interesting than many of vaunted today's tenors.

Those collaborations with Sting are long in the past, and if you think Branford is tainted by them (from a purist's perspective) listen to some of his more recent quartet discs - Braggtown would be as good as any.

Easy to take for granted simply because he's so famous, I nevertheless like him...

The Steep Anthology
Columbia Legacy (512913-2)

Doctone; Maria; Royal Garden Blues; Evidence; Cain & Abel; Spartacus; No Backstage Pass; Sidney In Da Haus; The Dark Keys; Three Little Words.

Branford Marsalis (ss, ts) with various groups including Kenny Kirkland, Wynton Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Larry Willis and Milt Hinton.
Recorded 1983 to 1996.

It’s easy to take Branford Marsalis for granted, easier still to overlook just how unique and commanding a voice he has on any of his chosen horns. Before I was even sent this new Columbia anthology I’d started to revisit his back catalogue and reappraise his work. His long flowing lines, deft rhythmic gymnastics, speed of thought, keen awareness of history, warm rounded tone and unerring ability to swing have put him at the top of his profession.

The ten selections on ‘The Steep Anthology’ (Steepy is a frequently self-referenced nickname) cheekily include a previously unissued live track, ‘Evidence’, presumably to entice completists to buy it. A ploy that would surely work for a Coltrane anthology, in Marsalis’ case it reeks of commercial opportunism, Columbia cashing in on a former star who has since flown the nest. Yet with a career spanning 15 years at the label, it’s hard to argue against the need for this type of release. It’s also hard to argue with the choices of music, though just as easy to pick alternative tracks from his consistently fine albums.

Limitations on playing time presumably de-selected his most free-flowing work with the piano-less trio that cut ‘Bloomington’ and ‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’, and the sublime but lengthy reading of ‘The Peacocks’ from ‘Renaissance’ doesn’t make it either. With an emphasis on acoustic jazz we’re also denied ‘The Blackwidow Blues’ from ‘Buckshot LeFonque’, but for a fully rounded view we may have had to suffer some of his work with Sting, so let’s not complain.

Time may yet prove that Branford has taken the music in a more sustainable direction than his younger trumpet playing brother, and I certainly wish he were as influential on saxophonists as the all pervasive Michael Brecker. It’s time we all reappraised Branford, and this anthology is the ideal excuse. If you already have the albums on your shelves, simply dust off those scratched ‘80s jewel boxes, sit down with open ears, and appreciate his awesome talent.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, May 2004)