Tag Archives: jazz

Tarun Balani – Dharma

27 Jul

The first thing to strike you about Dharma is how good an ear for sound this band has. Track after track has something clean and sharp enough to make you sit up. There’s a surprising and clear horn in “Planet Hunter” that’s citrus-like in feel. It’s an album with the confidence to take things at the pace it wants and the skill to make fantastic music on its own terms.

However, this point also makes for the major flaw of the album. There’s just not enough here in terms of thought. Particularly egregious is the album’s habit of repeating a phrase multiple times to make sure that we’ve got it. It comes off as almost a tic and adds an unfortunate drag to the album. “Brooklyn Bound”, which should have started the album strong, ends up slightly tiring as a result.

With “Here We Go”, this flaw even makes for a light contrast with the title. The song keeps building up and makes promises for what is to come, but then pulls back to places that we’ve already understood. Right before the end of the track, it moves forward very cleverly, but retreats for the finish and the whole song ends up deflated as a result.

Despite that though, it’s a very jazzy piece with an excellent piano solo midway through. There are some very unexpected flourishes there that make for little jolts of brightness and the track is very pleasant to listen to.

Similarly, “Samsara” is beautiful every time and I do always love jazz that’s able to pull off a laid-back look. “Impermanence”, which precedes it, has a little more pace to it, but is no less skilled and is a stand-out worth paying attention to. Tarun Balani’s drums do a fantastic job underpinning this album and sets grooves that are effortless to sink into.

The highlight of the album is clearly “Malala’s Dream” though. The guitar and trumpet solos are fantastic and the bass work is quite noteworthy as well. I unfortunately still have to quibble a little with the time spent on essentially reiteration and there are a couple of small miscommunications, but those are minor, minor issues in a very strong jazz track.

This skill and nose for clever sounds leave a lot to recommend in this album. It’s a shame then that the result is just too predictable for my liking. Had Dharma had more imagination and a little more tightness, it could have been a masterpiece. As is, it’s still a worthy listen and an instant recommendation – for people seeking some accessibility in their jazz or for people interested in the exciting new things coming out of the Indian jazz scene.

Jamie Cullum – Taller

14 Jun

When I first discovered Jamie Cullum in the late 2000s, he had already recorded five studio albums, and was playing in jazz festivals around the world. And while he was the kind of musician who brought his grandmother’s carpet to lay out on the stage at Blenheim Palace, he was also full of irreverent energy: stomping his feet on the keys of the piano, slapping his palms all over and underneath it, jumping on top of it and leaping off. His vigour was electrifying, and even deeply moving for a reserved person such as myself.

The Pursuit (2009) marks a neat halfway point between the start of his career and now, and it was in the album that followed in 2013 that I first began to hear creeping hints of self-doubt and insecurity:

As I sit and wait for some answers
The questions go round like a kamikaze pilot
Enlightenment’s just a romancer
I wish it were here burning brightly through the skylight .

Family life seemed to bring a new introspective quality to Cullum’s music. It’s not easy to slow down and take stock, to critically examine the costs and rewards of a glamorous profession in the arts, and to confront the fear of failure.

“Innocence is nice, but the world offers us more and it’s wrong not to take it.” As we grow older, so many of us feel that we have irrevocably lost our access to uninhibited creativity and joy. But the complications of being an adult unlock an unfamiliar kind of happiness, and an emotional depth we could never have imagined in innocence. The chords behind the crescendo of “Drink” conjure up with great accuracy the vertiginous relief and fear that accompany the first sensation of joy after a long unhappiness.

But the cheeky musician we’ve known is still around, and he announces it in the title of his latest album. Taller marks a milestone in a twenty-year-long career in jazz music. A bold, effervescent, and unceasingly fun artist now stands at the sobering brink of his forties; and the music inspired at this juncture is nothing short of a gift to everyone who has followed his work over the years.

Jamie Cullum is a small, if dynamic, man, and there has been no dearth of leg-pulling in the tabloids and on the internet about his height, and about his marriage to a substantially taller woman. The fact that he addresses this perceived deficiency head-on indicates that he hasn’t lost his sense of humour, and also that the discontent that has been simmering in the previous two albums will be explored more fully in this one.

“Usher”, the fourth track on the album, is a full-blown sonic party reminiscent in the best way of James Brown and the golden age of Soul. It’s crunchy and granular in a way that is profoundly satisfying (especially if you, like me, have been unable to avoid Trap and American R&B, the slickness of which, though often soothing, can quickly lose your interest). But the lyrics are not quite as cheerful as the music. And it’s a similar story with “You Can’t Hide Away From Love”, another favourite from the album: its lush orchestral arrangement recalls Audrey Hepburn movies, but with menace.

It’ll give you two black eyes
And discolour all your skies

It’ll have you on your back
And break into your flat

So reel me in
Till I’m gasping for air;
There’s no love without despair

It’ll shake you to your core
And leave you crying on the floor
But I’m telling you you can’t hide away from love.

This album examines not only personal demons, but also shared anxieties. Volume 2 of The Eighty-Eight, “an adventurous magazine for the occasional thinker” (or “an occasional magazine for the adventurous thinker”), which Cullum puts together with his friends and family, features a poignant essay about his Indian and Burmese heritage. More than one song on Taller references Brexit, the refugee crisis, British imperialism, and perhaps even the Me Too movement.

Cullum dwells on the unease of living in these times. There’s a stripped down version of “Mankind” on his YouTube channel well worth a listen. The irony of this composition is that it combines gospel music with lyrics that say “so long to sacred,” but there is a refusal to give up on people and the idea that love will conquer all. As Kristin Scott Thomas’ character in Fleabag puts it, “people are all we’ve got.”

This album is an exploration of fundamentals, and Cullum sings repeatedly of digging and searching deep within the earth. One cannot help but think of Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging, and the hope and doubt it expresses about writing and creative work as activities that productively uncover and reveal. “The Age of Anxiety” quotes WH Auden (“only love is what survives of us”), and imbues the song with its apprehension of mortality.

Age of Anxiety, Live from Craxton Studios

Cullum’s interest literature and great works of poetry (his favourite writers are Virginia Woolf and Paul Auster) is perhaps what gives his lyrics their unusual and beguiling quality.

The fact that he has always been an expressive vocalist only makes this better; and speaking of vocals, “Monster” showcases a falsetto range we’ve never heard from him before.

Literary inspirations aside, Cullum draws from an eclectic range of musical sources. For a few years now he has been reverse-engineering pop music on his YouTube playlist The Song Society, and curating more challenging compositions for his program “The Jazz Show” on BBC Radio 2. It’s fascinating to see these influences coming together to form an album that sounds — fittingly for a crossover artist — unique, and one that does not sit comfortably in either the pop or the jazz genre.

The great thing about the songs on this album is that they’re more than just tunes. Each song develops; it meanders into different moods and colours and tones. If you were to leave a song midway, you’d probably miss the best part, and definitely miss the whole story. The album requires, and rewards, patience. This is the kind of art I find myself most grateful for these days.

Taller is an invitation to revisit Jamie Cullum’s oeuvre; because the seeds of inventiveness and thoughtfulness were always there. I’ve been rediscovering the deluxe version of Catching Tales, for instance, with its cover of “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”, which is a youthful, groovier expression of “Drink”, the backbone of the new album. I am so excited to dip back in to this amazing body of work. There is no doubt about it: Jamie Cullum is a peerless and towering talent.

By Eesha Kumar

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall

5 May

Ancestral Recall is fearless. Like a python, its mouth seems to have opened impossibly wide and swallowed influences larger than the album should be able to hold. And again, like the python, these influences may distend the album, but they are consumed, feeding the snake, but never overpowering its own nature.

This is an album that can be heavily industrial in “Prophesy” and then run a saxophone against it for a fascinating juxtaposition. It can be both punishing and fascinating in “Double Consciousness” which has a backbeat that latches onto your spine.

“Diviner” however is just beautiful. It’s complex and sends your mind spinning with a wonderful, delicate counterpoint that wanders through it. “Songs She Never Heard” is similarly surprisingly gentle and almost ambient at points. It does sometimes verge on repetitive, but is a very pleasing listen. “Before” is beautiful and dreamlike and yet fervent in its desire to communicate. There’s a fire underpinning even the softest moments of this album.

This is far from traditional jazz. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah has melded an astonishing array of influences into this album. And he has done it with such consummate skill and imagination that, despite a couple few burrs in the tapestry, the result is magnificent.

Joey DeFrancesco – In the Key of the Universe

14 Apr

There’s a lot to recommend in In The Key of the Universe. The musicians are all clearly highly skilled and it’s a very pleasant album to listen to. Unfortunately though, it lacks the spark that the best jazz albums all possess.

The album never quite falls into easy listening. It is traditional jazz, but just a little too familiar with resolutions that are a little too predictable.  Pieces like “Easier To Be” and “Inner Being” in particular are guilty of this. The entire album functions well in the background while you try some taxing work, but I want to see more from an album like this.

That is not to dismiss the entire album. The opening of “Vibrations In Blue” has a lot going on in a way that reminds me of some of my favorite Herbie Hancock compositions. The sax work in “The Creator Has A Master Plan” is similarly engaging (and surprisingly provided by the great Pharoah Sanders), even if the vocals in that song substantially jar. The tranquility of “A Path Through the Noise” wholly justifies the name. There’s so much undeniable virtuosity in this recording, but it just never stretches itself.

There’s a strong clarity to this album that makes it distinctly approachable and it’s a charming listen no matter your experience with jazz. It skews too far to the traditional though and lacks the fire and inspiration that would truly let it distinguish itself in a world already full of this strain of jazz.

Top Five Jazz Records From 2018 That We Want You To Listen To

28 Jan

5. Ambrose Akinmusire – Origami Harvest

Origami Harvest is an interesting, if inconsistent, album. There’s some really compelling jazz here. “the lingering velocity of the dead’s ambitions” is pleasingly jagged, which is where the album is at its best, but drags a few moments out for too long. The interplay between Kool AD and Ambrose Akinmusire in “blooming bloodfruit in a hoodie” is excellent, but the ad-libs drag the sound down. “miracle and streetfight” has an excellent conversation between the strings and the brass and the space in “Americana / the garden waits for you to match her wilderness” is very strong. The political tinge adds a little depth but needed more development if it were to add another dimension to the album.

Overall, this is an album that rewards a listen and one that stands out for the uniqueness of the pairing, but is nonetheless deficient in fairly significant ways.

4. Moses Boyd – Displaced Diaspora

This album is a fascinating view into London, not the London of Dickens and smog, but that of the many people that have through one means or another found their way there. It’s an album that does more than just talk about London’s history as a global city. Naturally then, it fuses a lot into the base sounds with Afro-bass in a few songs, including the energetic “Frontline” and rap in “Waiting on the Night Bus”, which has a nice traditional jazz feel, but is sadly weighed down a little by that same “City Nocturne” however stays traditional but is elevated by the fantastic vocal work of Zara McFarlane.

It’s an album with undeniable grooves. Moses Boyd’s drumming and production are rightly acclaimed and this album showcases that well. Unfortunately though, the album does still pall on repeated listens. There’s plenty of cleverness in it and the diaspora adds some welcome challenge, but as a whole, it feels a little lacking. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating and under-explored angle into a city often evoked and a strong musical piece to boot.

3. Esperanza Spalding – 12 Little Spells

This is a highly challenging album rife with atonalities, genre bending and odd meters, but somehow charming despite that and undeniably clever. It’s a gorgeous puzzle box of an album that pushes at you again and again. There’s more than enough here to reward you for the considerable effort that the album asks for and the album makes that effort fun to spend. You should definitely give it a listen and then give it a bunch more so as to fully appreciate what it does.

2. Joey Alexander – Eclipse

It’s hard not to be excited about Joey Alexander. His debut was fantastic and he goes from strength to strength. It’s not just that he is a prodigy, it’s that his skill is prodigious. He has a great flair for the unexpected, which shows up well in “Space” and an ear for the gentle and beautiful as in “Time Remembered” and “Bali.” Additionally, his guest Joshua Redman does fantastic work in his solos in “Fourteen” and “The Very Thought of You” which are then matched wonderfully Joey Alexander’s piano work. It’s even very approachable and his version of “Blackbird” is worth checking out no matter your comfort level with Jazz. My only complaint is that the album as a whole could have used a little more challenge, but the album is so charming and cheerful and refreshing to listen to that the complaint seems almost misdirected. Eclipse is just something that you are glad to have listened to.

1. Ezra Collective – Juan Pablo: The Philosopher

This is an excellent album and another that’s just a pleasure to listen to. It’s underpinned by good, traditional jazz but layers on fascinating world influences from Africa to South America and the Caribbean. “Juan Pablo” in particular benefits from this openness and then again in the drums of “The Philosopher.” These are upbeat songs that energize while still fully engaging the mind. The highlight though is the final song, an unorthodox and wonderful take on “Space Is The Place”, the famous Sun Ra piece. There’s even space in this album for the more drawn out sounds of “People In Trouble.” This is a very, very strong sophomore effort and an album that I cannot recommend highly enough, both for people deep into jazz and for people looking to try some out. You should definitely listen to it.

Taking a Ride with Ladies Compartment: An Interview

15 Jan
Image by Blankfound Creative

Ladies Compartment is a Mumbai four-piece comprising of Ramya Pothuri (acoustic & vocals), Aarifah Rebello (drums & vocals), Aditi Ramesh (keys & vocals) and Nandita V (bass & vocals).

The band’s sound is a refreshing mix of jazz, soul and blues, with the occasional, intriguing addition of Carnatic classical music. Beyond their sonic palette, the band’s mastery of vocal harmonization really sets them apart. For a taste, have a look at their version of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”. A lone guitar forms a tentpole for the ladies’ four perfectly harmonized vocals in a haunting, stripped-down rendition: a truly unique cover of a timeless classic.

Video by Ladies Compartment via YouTube

If you’re just getting to know the band, let us assure you that these women are not newbies to the scene. Aditi and Ramya are singer-songwriters with a debut EP each; Aarifah, a singer-songwriter in her own right, drums for several other acts, and Nandita is an up-and-coming bassist in the indie music industry. The strength of their individual musical talent creates an easy-going camaraderie that’s highly listenable – and repeatable, too.

We sat down with the ladies earlier this week for a quick chat about their influences, experiences, and plans for the coming year. Read on:

Top Five Records: There’s a great mix of genres in your music – soul, funk, and glimpses of many others, too. What are your key musical influences as a band and as individuals?

Ladies Compartment: Individually, we are four musicians with very different tastes and styles, and we bring our individual influences together to create the sound of Ladies Compartment. If one were to consolidate all of our interests and influences, the list would include Soul, R&B, Funk, Folk, Indian Classical, Jazz, Alternative Rock, Dream Pop, Progressive Rock, Western Classical and Blues music. But these are just influences – we don’t like to label our music because we find this limiting, and one can always go beyond these labels and boundaries when creating music.

TFR: Some of your tunes are well-harmonized ditties while others are much more jazzy and freeform. Give us a little detail into your songwriting process. How do you go about it?

LC: There is no one process we follow. With our earlier songs, Aditi would come up with chords and a rough melody. The band would add instrumentation together, while Ramya and Aditi worked on lyrics and Aarifah and Nandita sealed the piece with smooth transitions and rhythmic patterns. With one of our newer songs, Nandita wrote the lyrics, melody, bassline and backing vocal parts, and the band fleshed it out by adding instruments and modifying the chord structures in certain bits. In our newest song, Aarifah created a rhythmic pattern which the whole band then sat together in one space. Each of us have written our own verse over the same music and you can see how different we are as individuals by the varied ways in which we all have interpreted the music. There is no one process we follow, and we are continuously experimenting with different methods.

TFR: What has been your experience so far as an all-female project in the Indian indie music industry?

LC: We have been well-received and supported by multiple platforms and performance spaces. We have pushed forward by focusing on our music, but the truth remains that people love to overuse and push the ‘all-female’ aspect for branding and this sometimes shifts focus away from the music. We’re trying to move away from this type of branding.

TFR: With the indie scene still being at a somewhat nascent stage, what changes would you like to see for artists to really succeed and cross over into larger audiences?

LC: Monetary returns for artists in the indie scene need to go up. There needs to be more respect for artists, and the careers of artists need to be more sustainable for artists to grow and reach larger audiences. There is an attitude with many venues that if they can get the same act for a lower cost they’ll take the opportunity and pay them less. As a result, many artists are scrambling for survival, and this often stunts their artistic development and ability to reach more people.

TFR: You are hot off a performance at Weekender’s Pune edition this year. How was that experience?

LC: We had a lovely, supportive audience and it was the first time we performed on such a large stage.

TFR: What’s on the radar for Ladies Compartment in 2019?

LC: We are finally going to be recording our original music and releasing it this year. We are also in the process of writing more songs and arranging new covers, so you can expect new material at our live performances this year as well!

TFR: If you had to recommend one or two songs of yours for our first-time listeners, what would they be?

LC: “General Specific” and “Don’t Waste Your Time”.

Ladies Compartment performing “Don’t Waste Your Time” on the talk-show Son of Abish

TFR: Thank you, ladies. Before we wrap up, let’s do a short quick-fire round!

TFR: What would be your dream collaboration (any artist, alive or not)?

LC: Jorja Smith.

TFR: What’s a tune or album that’s been on constant rotation?

LC: “If I Get High” by Nothing But Thieves.

TFR: What’s been your favorite gig so far?

LC: When we were told that our gig at a prominent venue in Bangalore was cancelled upon reaching the venue and we put together a house gig instead, within an hour, with the help of our friends from Bangalore Recording Company and LVNG!

TFR: Who’s an Indian musician / band that you really admire?

LC: Sandunes.

Check out Ladies Compartment’s music on Facebook, Youtube and Soundcloud.

Miles Davis & John Coltrane – The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 6

26 Oct

This tour came at a pivotal time for both the people named above and jazz as a whole. Miles’ magnum opus Kind of Blue was still fresh, but Coltrane had also just released his blueprint for the future, Giant Steps. Trane was already bucking to leave the first great Miles Davis quintet and further explore the new strain of jazz that he pioneered. Soon, Miles would also reinvent himself to fully incorporate this new sound, but this tour found him still firmly in the thinking of Kind of Blue and the tension between the two artists makes for a fascinating listen.

Coltrane is clearly just not in the same headspace as the rest of the quintet and his solos are fiery and bursting with ideas. You can see the early sheets of sound that would later be his calling card. His pace of new ideas is inhumanly fast and yet somehow still seems slower than he would have liked. He was accelerating into the future and it just could not come quickly enough for him.

Miles on the other hand was still in the present. His solos were much more traditional. They seem to be exactly of the style that Coltrane was trying to upend. That in no way diminishes their brilliance though. He runs a slower, purer sound than Trane, and hits the most unexpected notes and pulls them out wonderfully.

On top of that, the rest of the quintet does really great work. It wasn’t a great quintet just because of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, the whole group was amazingly talented. In particular, I really like the piano solos in Copenhagen. They’re nice and understated and yet so clever.

Seeing the contrast between Trane and the rest of the quintet is fascinating in itself. It’s almost fusion in how the two forms of jazz but highly individualistic in sound and approach.

This album would be worth the listen just for its historical value as a transitional piece, but it is also just excellent jazz from an all-time great group of musicians at the height of their powers.

@murthynikhil
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