Tracks of the month (February 2015) – the reinvention of traditions

By Martin Smith | 1 March 2015
When Ol Blue Eyes met Robert Allen Zimmerman (pic credit Columbia Records)

When Ol Blue Eyes met Robert Allen Zimmerman (pic credit Columbia Records)

February marked the 50th anniversary of the release of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. It’s an album that I often turn to for inspiration and serenity; it purifies my soul.

To mark the anniversary, the library at the Lincoln Jazz Centre asked a number of Coltrane aficionados their opinions on the importance of the album today. At the end of my brief interview I was asked did I ever think an album of its stature would ever be recorded again?

In this globalised world of entertainment it’s easy to believe that popular music is having its heart torn out. On the surface it may appear that way, but burrow away and you will find some truly inspirational and original music.

I hope as I have, you will find something deep and moving in this month’s selection.

Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night (Columbia 2015) CD

Bob Dylan has released a collection of standards from the Great American Songbook and after all who hasn’t in the last ten years? But this is no ordinary covers album, no exercise in making huge amounts of money for a fading artist or record company.

First of all Dylan’s choice of songs is impeccable; he follows in the footsteps of Frank Sinatra who has recorded versions of each and every one. Then there is the beauty in Dylan’s unique interpretations.

Sinatra’s big orchestra sound has gone and has been replaced by Dylan’s five-piece band. The lush steel guitar and earthy double bass take you back to a music style rooted in US country and folk styles. The lush melodies have been replaced by Dylan’s rasping melancholic voice and the bands understated playing.

More importantly Dylan has discovered the pain contained in these songs lyrics.

When Sinatra recorded these songs in the early 1940s – people’s lives had turned upside down, hundreds of thousands of young men had gone off to fight in the war. Absent fathers, husbands and boyfriends left a deep vacuum in people’s lives. Sinatra’s interpretations of these songs expressed beautifully their feelings of love, loneliness and longing.

Aged 73, Dylan isn’t singing songs for bobbysoxers, he is singing about old loves lost, regrets and pain and the contentment found in relationships that have survived decades.

What appears on the surface as a very safe album; is in fact a very deep, personal and haunting recording.

Ghost Culture – Ghost Culture (Phantasy; 2015) CD/LP

It was Donny and Marie Osmond who sang the immortal lines “I’m a little bit Country and I’m a little bit Rock ‘n’ Roll”. If James Greenwood, alias Ghost Culture, were to sing that song today he would have to change the lyrics to “I’m a little bit post-punk and a little bit techno”.

Ghost Culture is the latest addition to Erol Alkan’s Phantasy label. It was the release of three EPs leading up to the album that created a buzz. Each EP offered an instrumental track and a vocal cut. The instrumental Red Smoke was and remains a dance floor classic.

This debut album carefully continues in the same vein fusing a variety of dance and music styles. Mouth and Giudecca are tasty slabs of bass and percussive synths and the track Glass offers more than a nod towards New Order. There is a complete change of style on the track Glaciers, it sounds like a cross between 60s psychedelia and Robert Wyatt.

If I had a criticism of the album, it is that it is a bit flat in places, but there is enough musical gold here to make it an essential purchase.

Romare – Projections (Ninja Tune 2015) CD/LP

Romare Bearden was an artist who chronicled African-American life and culture during the jazz age. Romare is a DJ who treads a similar path to Bearden, but instead of painting, he takes a musical approach.

Projections is an album full of beauty and depth: it brings together garage and house, soul and jazz, African loops and roots music and if that isn’t enough, samples of Malcolm X speaking. This is music that works both on the dance floor and when you are sitting in your armchair.

Duke Ellington – Far Eastern Suit (Bluebird 2015 reissue) CD/LP

After thirteen different shots and vaccinations, we leave New York on 6 September 1963, for one of the most adventurous trips we have ever undertaken.

This was the entry in Duke’s diary the day before his band set off on their 14-week tour of the Middle and Far East. The tour was sponsored by the US State Department was part PR exercise for the US state and part acknowledgement that jazz was a true art form.

In an era before globalization this was a path breaking tour, Ellington’s band performed in a number of countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, India, Syria, Japan and Jordon. Both Ellington and his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn hoped to use the trip to inspire new music.

This album is the result.

Ethiopian Quintet – Afro Latin Soul (Worthy Records) LP

I like to throw a ‘left field’ album out with my tracks of the month. This time it’s Mulatu Astatke & His Ethiopian Quintet. Astatke is known by many as the father of Ethiopian Jazz. He is without doubt the country’s most influential and legendary musicians.

During the 1960s, he studied music in London and New York. He then returned home to Ethiopia, there he blended Ethiopian traditional music with the Latin-jazz. The result was a unique musical hybrid he called “Ethio-jazz”.

Astatke is a composer and a multi-instrumentalist, playing the vibraphone, keyboards and organs. He is further credited as having established congas and bongos, instruments normally central to Latin styles, in Ethiopian music. However, as Ethiopian songs traditionally focused on vocals his greatest contribution to the music was introducing a new focus on instrumentation

This album was recorded in Brooklyn in 1966 and is more commercial than his later recording. It leans more towards a Latin Jazz, R&B-informed boogaloo sound of the mid-’60s. But there are real insights into what was to come later. Look out for his later recordings – a true musical genius.


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