Al Andaluz Project: Al-Maraya (Galileo)
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch)
Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Don Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops are very young to be making such old music. They're also black, and that's highly significant. Interaction between black and white musicians has been a feature of US roots music since the twenties and earlier, but the fact has either been forgotten or suppressed. The Carolina Chocolate Drops set the record straight with great gusto. Fiddle-tunes, jug-band stomps and worksongs come up as fresh as new paint. Their second album - produced by Joe Henry - actually extends their repertoire forwards and backwards: the modern R&B song Hit 'Em Up and Tom Waits' Trampled Rose get the string band treatment, while Giddens sings the ancient folk tune Reynardine in spellbinding style. Old-time music has always had rough charm; the Carolina Chocolate Drops' achievement is to make it seem vital and relevant.
Duke Ellington: Original Album Series (Rhino/Warner Brothers)
Fringe Magnetic: Empty Spaces (Loop)
The brainchild of avant trumpeter Rory Simmons, Fringe Magnet offer a very rich concoction of advanced contemporary jazz and twisted, dark song. The bold hues and subtle shades of the orchestration make for a compelling narrative even before the introduction of texts by Elizabeth Nygaard (who sings) and Charles Bukowski (who doesn't). The tonal contrasts (muted trumpet, feather-light flute, sonorous cello) create continually fascinating textures, and the singing is satisfyingly eccentric (Andrew Plummer does a first-rate Phil Minton impersonation/homage). Indeed, the project invites adjectives like 'eccentric', 'quixotic' and 'magical'. Imagine a jazz Efterklang and you're getting close. If complete integration is sometimes elusive, there's committed playing by all hands (most from the Loop Collective), and all the individual parts work very well.
Kirsty McGee: No.5 (Hobopop Recordings)
Gretchen Parlato: In A Dream (Obliq Sound)
New Yorker Parlato retains the virtues of the bossa nova - that patented mix of fragility and sensuousness, set to shimmering, spare yet perfect accompaniment. Ostensibly, Parlato is just murmuring and cooing in a rhythmic way, but, how she can captivate the listener. Her deceptively simple style is deployed on material as harmonically advanced as Wayne Shorter's ESP and Herbie Hancock's Butterfly, and the assurance of the musicianship reminds why New York is still the centre of the jazz world. The sentiments are dreamy and romantic, in the time-honoured Latin way, yet the note of maternal love in the originals (there's lots of infant gurgling too) is new. In A Dream raises the bar for bossa.
Real Book North West: Real Book North West (33 Records)
Judge Smith: The Climber (Masters of Art)
Judge Smith: Curly's Airships (Masters of Art)
Judge Smith was a founder member of Van Der Graaf Generator (as Chris Smith he appears on the sleeve of 68-71, but nothing was recorded), which makes these albums (The Climber is new; Curly's Airships is a reissue from 2000), of interest to fans of the world's scariest prog-rock band. Smith here attempts a mix of narrative and music he calls the 'Songstory', which, despite his claims of innovation, is practically identical to 'the concept album' or 'rock opera'. He also seems drawn to Boy's Own Adventure stories. The Climber describes the fatal lure of the Italian Alps to a maverick mountaineer, and Curly's Airships tells the story of the doomed R101, the world's biggest airship, through the eyes of aviator Curly. Like the best of VDGG, the music describes a bad trip on the way to revelation, respectively in the mountains and in the sky. But Smith approach from the view of a documentarian, rather than a screaming expressionist like Peter Hammill. Curly's Airships details early aviation and government bureaucracy with documentary accuracy, and its dramatis personae includes Arthur Brown as 'The Chairman' and Hammill as 'Lord Thomson', both stiff-necked representatives of the ruling class. Hugh Banton and David Jackson of VDGG provide musical back-up. Dense, and spread over two CDs, Curly's Airships occasionally resembles a R4 Book of the Week delivered in recitative over elaborate jazz-rock arrangements. It's strong on exposition at the expense, but no worse than, say, Les Miserables or a Michael Tippett opera. The story demands close attention, and rewards with a compelling study of the psychotic tendency behind the British stiff upper lip. The closest it comes to a showstopping tune is The Final Taboo (Theme 16), which gets a reprise at the finale. But oddly, the tune that ends up rattling through your head is Imperial Zeppelin, from Fool's Mate, Peter Hammill's solo debut in 1971. That song is credited to Hammill/Smith, the only co-write on the album, which indicates how long Judge Smith has been fixated on the idea of flying dirigibles. As a piece for solo voice and choir, The Climber is not on the epic scale of Curly's Airships. The intimacy actually makes it more approachable. The tension between the hero, self-deluded and oblivious to danger, and the choir, doubling as voice of reason and implacable force of nature, is brilliantly handled, and as exciting as a good book. But, like a good book, how many times would you want to repeat the experience? Judge Smith, like his Climber, is a rather solitary figure: as quixotic (and English) as Robert Wyatt in his determination to extend the boundaries of rock music. Indeed, his complicated relationship to rock might be explained (or not) on the next 'Songstory', which recasts Orpheus as a Potters Bar-born rock'n'roller, with a great deal (on the evidence of the trailer at the end of The Climber) of weeping guitar freak-outs.
Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate: Ali & Toumani (World Circuit Records)
Sadly the swansong not only of the great Mali musician Ali Farka Toure, a pioneer of the desert blues, but also Orlando 'Cachaito' Lopez, the bass player who graced all those Buena Vista Social Club records. Appropriately, there's an ease and purity about the music. Toure's ringing guitar lays down a lick, evocative of Delta blues perhaps, but really deriving from a more ancient source. Toumani Diabate, the world's greatest kora player, adds a harp-like counter-melody, which, though quicksilver and elaborate, retains the essential quality of simplicity. It's music that soothes and charms away all anxiety. Toure doesn't sing so much as murmur with satisfaction and contentment. Cumulatively, this gentle, homegrown music takes on an indefinable, almost otherworldly quality. At least two of the musicians were in heaven before they died.
Trichotomy: Variations (Naim)
A suitable candidate to fill the large-shaped hole left by est (Esbjorn Svensson Trio to the uninitiated). Melodies are clean and mellifluous; grooves hustle and bustle in split metres and yet somehow swing; the mood is mercurial; attractive pastoralism is likely to be upended by arresting dentist-drill techno tones. It's surprising to learn that pianist Sean Foran, percussionist John Parker and bassist Patrick Marchisella are not acolytes of Euro-jazz, but actually met at Queensland Conservatorium. The sound is nevertheless delicate, controlled and spacious in the best European tradition. For track 4 (Start) the basic piano trio is expanded with a string quartet to great effect.
Joe Zawinul & Absolute Ensemble: Absolute Zawinul (Intuition)
So the consummate jazz fusioneer was Viennese. Joe Zawinul was so thoroughly immersed, first, in soul jazz with Cannonball Adderley, and later, in cutting edge fusion with Weather Report, that his personal cultural roots have been overlooked. This posthumous album reaffirms his interest in world music - Bimoya and Sultan are lavish electro-Afro fantasias - and extends the gospel-flavoured funk he pioneered with Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (with Good Day). More surprisingly, extended orchestral works like Peace and The Peasant reveal him as a true descendent of Mahler. The latter adorns a folk-song melody with dazzling symphonic colours. Ballad For Two Musicians, as pretty as A Remark You Made, is a soaring Mahler-esque death-and-resurrection. Yet Zawinul's genius was for synthesis, so that all these diverse elements and influences become inextricably entwined. A fitting swansong for a master.
Pat Metheny: Orchestrion (Nonesuch). The king of fusion guitar pursues his idea of ideal beauty via a scientifically-enhanced version of the nineteenth-century orchestrion, which somehow enables an arsenal of electro-acoustic instruments to play alongside his guitar. The results veer between entrancing grace and vacuous muzak, albeit technically dazzling vacuous muzak.
Woody Pines: Counting Alligators. More good things coming from the North Carolina backwoods. In its relish of both good old-fashioned rustic quaintness, and modern urban sleaze (Cocaine Bill), Alligators invokes the great Michael Hurley, and even the anarchic Cab Calloway (Crazy-Eyed Woman). There are UK dates in March.