Thursday, 28 March 2013

Howarth's Chiltern A900 Alto Saxophone

    The first thing that people comment on about this sax is the way it looks. And that’s before they hear the way it sounds. The matte, dark lacquered body with green mother-of-pearl keywork means that this saxophone really turns heads.
Having played this horn exclusively for the past four years, gigging it regularly and playing a wide variety of styles: classical, jazz, rock, funk, strange experimental fusion… I can say this sax can handle it all. The tone is clear as a bell, allowing for piercing high-register sounds and growling lows. Each note which comes out of the instrument is distinctive, allowing fast passages to sound like a series of individual notes, rather than a wash of sound. The action is incredibly light, so little or no effort is needed to press down the keys, and makes playing faster passages all the easier. Tonally, this horn is extremely flexible, giving off a warm, rounded sound, suitable for flowing, slow classical passages as easily as a rawer, raunchy sound, perfect for funk and rock styles. There can be a few issues with control over large leaps and longer low notes, leading to occasional unwanted harmonics.
The vintage finish on this horn is surprisingly robust and, despite four years of hard service, shows little in the way of every day dings and scratches which other instruments collect in day to day use.
This sax is incredibly light-weight, making for very comfortable playing, and meaning that carrying the horn around is a lot less effort with many other, similar quality horns, which is fantastic for touring and gigging musicians. The horn comes in a snazzy zip-up, hard shell case, moulded closely to the body of the sax. This closeness does mean that there is no room for any of the extras which anybody keeps in their cases- spare reeds have to be kept to a minimum, and your sling has to be kept inside the bell of the saxophone. The case itself, whilst strong enough for standard use, does scratch and graze with any unusually heavy duty use. The hard shell is quite thin which means that some deeper grazes feel like they have cut quite close to the inside of the case.
Overall, I love this horn. It has everything that the modern player really needs. An easy playing instrument which can handle any genre and survives the rough and tumble of heavy use and being thrown into the backs of vans and cars, this is a professional standard horn which is very competitive in its pricing.
(Played using a Mayer Rubber Mouthpiece, Rovner “light” leather ligature and Vandoren Jazz 3 ½ reeds)


Friday, 22 March 2013

CrashDiet- The Savage Playground

This fourth release from Swedish Melodic Sleaze Metallers writhes with the spirit of LA’s Sunset Strip circa 1989, adds a healthy extra dose of punk and a hefty coating of melodic, arena-filling sounds to create a positive soup of good-ole’ rock n roll energy. (I apologise for the half-hearted food analogy, but it got the point across I think)

This latest album, The Savage Playground definitely shows off a much more melodic side of CrashDiet’s sound, without losing any of that hard edged pedigree that people expect of this hard working group. Almost constantly on the road since the release of their previous 2010 album Generation Wild, this album has a more live feel to it, and keeps the edges rough and the sound raw.

The band’s hard rock edge can be seen with sleaze-filled tracks like “Cocaine Cowboys” and “Drinkin’ Without You”, a firm nod to the types of larger-than-life bands who influenced CrashDiet. However, on tracks such as “California” you can hear a much more melodic approach to song-writing (although no less rockin’), complete with catchy choruses and multiple guitar tracks which make the song sound huge and creates a sense that the band has musically matured- not just throwing out heavy riffs- but also writing melodic songs.

Overall, this is a great album, especially if you are looking for something which sounds new, yet would equally fit in with the heyday of 80s melodic rock and metal.


Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Godsized- Time

Mixing heavy riffs, old-school hooks and a certain traditionalist approach to recording- live, full band takes as much as possible- this debut album from the heavy metal beast that is Godsized serves up exactly what their fans have been waiting for. No nonsense, balls-to-the-wall, old fashioned, no frills heavy metal.

As a result of the nature of the recording process, the album has a powerful, raw, live feel to it. However there are places where it feels like the lower frequencies of the album have been slightly muffled.

The album shows a variety of songs, ballads and more up-tempo rockers. All of which are heavy and groove-laden. Full of huge guitar sounds, pounding drums, an ever-present bass line and powerful vocals, the album offers nothing but pure, simple, rock and roll, complete with duelling guitar solos.

Listening to the album, it is easy to hear how they were picked up to tour with Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society, the powerful riffs, screaming solos and loud vocals reminiscent of many classic metal acts through the ages.

The 12 tracks offered up here clearly show the band’s roots in classic rock and metal, steeped in the lineage of the groups who influenced them, creating an album of truly classic sounding metal, yet managing to remain up to date.

Whilst a head-banging, fist-pumping rollercoaster ride from start to finish, Godsized have not managed to make a hugely innovative album here. However, what there is a definite sign of promise to come, and a taste of their high-energy live shows.


Robert Mitchell- The Glimpse

This latest album from UK Jazz and classical music star Robert Mitchell shows an experimental side to his playing. Not in the way that most “experimental” music is experimental, but because this album was recorded with Mitchell using only his left hand for the whole album. This “limitation” which he has placed upon himself gives the left hand the ability to be more creative and means that the player has to find new ways of filling the sound.

This gives the music a much more sparse texture and a lighter feel to it. The pieces, which draw on a range of classical and Jazz influences, from  Leopold Godowsky’s arrangements of Chopin’s etudes to Bill Evans who played left hand only for a time due to injury.

The music on The Glimpse is largely improvisational, which gives it a very free, relaxed feel. Opening with the light improvisation “Amino”, which slowly builds from a few sparse chords to a series of rippling single note passages one can sense the feel of the rest of the album, swinging gently between calm classical Preludes, Nocturnes and Lullabies to complete improvisational pieces.

This album highlights the creative possibilities thrown open when limitations are placed on the performer, giving it a unique feel and a minimalistic feel.


Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Wayne Shorter- Without A Net

As far as elder statesmen of Jazz go, you can’t get much higher than Wayne Shorter, an alumnus of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ groups for years in the 1960s, as a member of fusion band Weather Report in the 70s and 80s as well as leader of his own successful quartets and bands alongside those, there are few in the world who deserve the term “living legend” as much as Wayne Shorter. This new release sees him return to the renowned Jazz Blue Note label after a 43 year absence, and his first full album since 2005’s Beyond The Sound Barrier Now 80 years old, Shorter’s playing is as inventive and exciting as it ever has been.

This album returns to the post bebop style that Shorter was associated with in the 1960s, a quartet, all playing loose arrangements with plenty of space for improvisation across extended passages. This album sees Shorter playing predominantly Soprano Saxophone with a beautiful, warm tone, flying around the horn with a dexterity that few can match.

Many of these recordings are taken from his 2010 and 2011 live shows, and therefore show the great man at his best- in front of an appreciative audience, baring his soul in a way that only a true improvisational genius can.
It can be said that this music is very self-indulgent and ostentatious and flashy, with long periods of time where the individual musicians are given free rein to play how and what they want (in the context of the improvisation of course, but an article on Jazz theory could go on forever)  at the expense of longer, memorable melodic passages. However the style of post bebop, which is here shown to great effect has rarely been about long melodies. Although, the on “Pegasus”, the quartet is joined by The Imani Winds, giving the track a long, classical feel, almost like an extended piece of chamber music.

This album is absolutely wonderful. A form of Jazz which was close to being consigned to the history books, has made a welcome return. Back to the abstraction and imaginative freedom which years playing with greats like Miles et al has allowed him to practice, Shorter continues to be a truly inspirational player and still shows that what made this music so timeless in the 1950s and 60s is still alive and strong today; it just needed to have the fire rekindled underneath it, which has been done here with great success. Welcome back Wayne Shorter.


King Tut's Revenge- Finally

This Somerset ska group have Finally released their first album. A collection of summery, reggae and rock influenced numbers. This album is consistently upbeat and lively, keeping the horn riffs and punk-y guitar parts pounding along.

Each track on this album, whilst quite similar, in the way that they are all very heavily punk based ska tracks, including punchy saxophone lines, rhythms that will, in a live situation (or sat in a bedroom) cause any audience to be skanking in no time, the occasional simple yet tasteful solo from any of the members. The opening number, “Not Content” shows exactly how the album pans out, opening with a line that could only come from a ska band, and can only conjure images of summer parties on long, warm nights (exactly the sort of time that British weather rarely offers up). The album allows for all the members to stretch their song-writing wings even, as is proudly advertised in the song title, the drummer, in the great number “Sketch’s Song” (Sketch being the band’s drummer, and drummers often being very much side-lined when it comes to writing songs in many bands).

The highlight of the album is the Anthemic “South Coast Girls”, a ditty singing the praises and virtues of the band’s chosen favourite group of women: Those from the South coast of England (As opposed to The Beach Boys or Katy Perry, all of whom who preferred “California Girls”).

From time to time, there could be those who claim that the tracks can be fairly repetitive, with some of the riffs and tunes being reasonably interchangeable. However, this is as much the nature of the genre of the music; light-hearted ska-punk has never been particularly innovative.

Overall, this is a great first full-length album. The songs are all belters, with great melodies, fantastic riffs, and the whole thing just screams of the summer. Get ready to dance.


Friday, 8 March 2013

Lazy Habits- Lazy Habits

Mixing Hip-hop beats with New Orleans Dixieland Jazz, Lazy Habits’ sound definitely keeps a mixture of the old and new well and alive.
Opening with an instrumental, New Orleans style funeral march “Processional”, Lazy Habits opens in a calm, sombre style, which is immediately revoked with the first full number, “Ashes”, showing how the group mixes rapped lyrics and brass jazz licks and riffs which creates a hard hitting style and enables the group to get a range of textures, fusing funky bass riffs, and piano melodies with the horns.
“Surface Dirt”, shows a more mellow side of the band, opening with a lilting piano solo before coming in with the rest of the band.
Lyrically, Lazy Habits retain just the hip-hop, rap style of vocals and tend to write about diverse subjects such as modern life, drug problems, and broken families.
The album is, at 16 tracks, a bit long, which means that there are some tracks that feel a bit like fillers, which could be taken out to still leave a fill length album. The tracks follow largely the same pattern, other than the opening and closing instrumental numbers (“Processional” and “Ghosts (On My Way/Small Screen)”- which closes the album in a lonely, melancholic style).

Overall, the album is very well written, and the quality of musicianship good too. But it could have done with a few fewer tracks in order to retain a high quality and more contrast between the songs.


Thursday, 7 March 2013

Steve Reich- A lecture from the legendary modern classical composer

As far as guest lecturers go, Steve Reich, a legend of contemporary composition, and “The greatest living composer of our time” (New York Times) is up there with the best of them.

Reich, who, from the late 1960s, was key in the moving classical music into the 21st century, pioneering the use of electronics, minimalist and experimental styles, came to Sussex University to talk about his work WTC 9/11. Written in 2009 in memorial to the World Trade Centre bombings, the piece uses a mixture of a string quartet with samples of documentary audio taken from the day of the World Trade Centre attack and interviews he conducted in the years afterwards.

The talk was conducted in the style of a mock interview between him and Andrew Burke, Chief Executive of the London Sinfonietta. Questions asked gave a fascinating insight into the processes that Steve Reich goes through when composing his music: what he does to treat vocal samples so that they can work with a musical ensemble; how he treats historic events that he composes about, and if he treats more recent events (such as 9/11) any differently to the way in which he approaches ones further in the past.

Steve Reich’s talk comes ahead of a concert at the Dome Theatre in which he, along with the London Sinfonietta, are performing a series of his seminal works, such as Clapping Music and Double Sextet along with a performance of a new work, Radio Rewrite, a new major work which takes its inspiration from the music of Radiohead.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

José James- No Beginning, No End

Laid back, groovy and soulful, this latest release from José James shows the continuation of the musical journey begun on his previous albums Black Magic and The Dreamer. The opening track, “It’s All Over (Your Body)” starts the album in exactly the way it goes on, with an unusual off beat rhythm and an overall laid back grooviness.

Other stand-out tracks include the much more pop-influenced “Heaven On The Ground”, which features the vocal and acoustic guitar stylings of Emily King, the addition of her to the group creates an interesting, more accessible take on José James’ music.

Being attached to the Blue Note Record Label means that José James is affiliating himself with the long line of Jazz classics which were released them, whilst simultaneously keeping one foot in the modern camp. This music mixes soulful Jazz melodies, allusions to hip hop influences, and a completely groovy feel.

Much of the music on the album is immensely relaxed. Creating a sophisticated mood; infusing Jazz beats with soulful melodies.

The music manages to retain the feel of classic Jazz acts who's influences can be heard throughout the album, with a large dose of soul and gospel thrown in for good measure. James is definitely an act who keeps one eye on the past, whilst remaining up to date with his more urban vocal style. 

The overall album is a great, “Cool” album, remaining current without being obtrusive, stylish and sophisticated, José James knows how to pen a soulful groove, and how to keep them coming.


FM- Rockville

Having recorded over a dozen albums in their nearly 30 year career, this latest offering from British Melodic, Arena and Album Oriented Rock veterans FM shows that, no matter what people say, the 80s are not ready to give up the ghost quite yet. This album holds many of the things that made that decade of gloriously over the top music great: Loud guitars, massive keyboards, highly sing-able melodies, power ballads that require the waving of a lighter, and Anthemic numbers which, if played on a car stereo, tend to render speed limits obsolete. This album definitely holds up to recent work of similar artists who they have shared billings with, and surpasses many.

With a good mix of huge stadium anthems obviously penned for huge audiences to get going to (The album opener “Tough Love” is a fantastic example of this), this album also includes tracks that would be equally at home played in a smaller, club gig, such as “Wake Up The World”, which shows off a more blues-based, Hard Rock edge to the band’s sound. “Show Me The Way” then goes a long way to show that FM can play a Power Ballad to rival anybody around.

The major downside of the album is the fact that it does seem to try to remain firmly in the 80s, with minimal looking forward, which, at times, makes this seem like a bit of a nostalgia album, pining for “the glory days.”
Overall, however, the album is made up of a range of meat and potatoes classic rock, exactly what you’d expect from a band as classic and long-running as this. Definitely one for those with an old-school bent to their music taste.


Monday, 4 March 2013

Jimi Hendrix- People, Hell and Angels

This posthumous release is the latest in a long line of albums comprised of what were unfinished, partially recorded songs, and lengthy jams captured before the legendary guitarist’s death in 1970. Unlike many of the others, however, this is the most complete “album” released since the 1990s. Made up from cuts of various musical experiments and line-ups which never made it onto full length albums, this collection includes interesting snapshots and insights into the working process of Jimi Hendrix’s various bands.

The tracks on People, Hell and Angels offer a snapshot into the various directions that Hendrix was moving toward, with either his later trio- Band of Gypsies, or expanded groups to include extra percussion, horns and secondary guitarists. This album comprises of a mix of hard, rock epics, showing Jimi playing at his best, soulful-jazz drenched, funky numbers and driving electric blues tracks. Despite the fact that some of the tracks on this album have been released on earlier posthumous albums, this is the first time that many of those have been released to the public at large without any extra overdubs or too much electronic alteration to remove the spirit and essence of Jimi’s playing from the takes.

Highlights include the wonderful Somewhere: A slow, acidic ballad, which is reminiscent of Little Wing, with slower verses and ample space for the fiery guitar work Jimi is famous for to shine through. Also, the funky, soulful Let Me Move You, which features Lonnie Youngblood on saxophone and vocals, showing off the roots of all the musicians involved on the recording, backing up Rhythm & Blues and Soul acts in the 1960s. The addition here of an organ as well as the sax shows how well Jimi could perform with a much fuller sounding line-up.

Whilst still nothing compared to the fully complete albums that were released during Jimi Hendrix’s lifetime, People, Hell and Angels represents a respectful look at the unpublished work which was unreleased until now, showing off the best of what could have been.


Friday, 1 March 2013

London Philharmonic 23/02/13- American Night

An evening of American classics was on offer last weekend in the latest of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s current series of concerts at the Brighton Dome Theatre.
The Orchestra, conducted by Marian Alsop, treated the audience to captivating performances of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”, Joan Tower’s “Fanfare For The Uncommon Woman”, Copland’s “Piano Concerto”, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 From The New World”.
This eclectic and exciting program not only showed off the talents of a full orchestra, but enabled the talents of other musicians to be drafted into the fold for the evening- including up to three saxophonists and a banjo player.

The Piano Concerto, expertly played by Garrick Ohlsson showed off the simplicity of Copland’s writing, whilst allowing the soloist to show a laid back style of virtuosity often overlooked for technical prowess and speed.

The performance of Rhapsody in Blue was enjoyed by all, and allowed various instrumentalists the scope to show their worth- such as the iconic clarinet glissando that opens the piece.
The acoustic of the Brighton Dome gave the concert an added charm as normally indistinct parts leapt out into the foreground. Hearing the banjo part clearly for the first time was a refreshing change.

Overall, the evening was brilliantly performed by all, with a fantastic program choice, showing a different side of the orchestra and contrasted well with the rest of their concert series, performing pieces which are often overlooked.


Portico Quartet- Portico Quartet

Ethereal electronic soundscapes, weird harmonies. Jazz flavoured melodies, rhythms which have been borrowed from dozens of different world musics, and the inventive use of the Hang, a drum-like instrument not invented until the 2000s. This innovative instrument gives the group a distinctive sound and unique feel.

The tracks on this album show off the wide ranging influences, and skill of writing in the band- the majority of which are instrumental pieces, as opposed to songs. However “Sleepless”, which features the lyrical stylings of Cornelia, shows that this group can also pen a highly melodic song, as opposed to the more experimental soundscapes of “Window Seat”, or the ethereal groove of “Ruins”, which shows off the band’s take on melodic lines and harmonies from traditional East Asian music, whilst mixing them with a chilled-out 21st Century feel, mixing in an additional modern jazz element. Spinner shows off the band’s Jazz influences to great effect; opening with a swinging bass riff which is covered by a Jan Garbarek-esque Soprano Saxophone melody.
The biggest selling point of this group is the atmospheric nature of their writing style. The music can just wash over you and all of a sudden you’re at the end of the album without realising that you’ve listened to a full 10 tracks. This spacey grooviness is definitely one to put on and relax to.