CD reviews in brief: Halsall, Zohar’s Nigun, Griffith, Eubanks, Haffner

Matthew Halsall
Fletcher Moss Park

A lot of young people rate Matthew Halsall, so I must declare at the outset that while he must undoubtedly have struck a chord, I can’t quite hear it.

This album of gentle melodic jazz features Alice Coltraneish piano or harp introductions which are then supplanted by double bass and drums grooves over which trumpeter Halsall and sometimes saxophonist Nat Birchall play graceful horn lines, and Halsall improvises prettily but without particularly engaging the listener – or, rather, this listener.

This music has a certain fashionable cool to it – I imagine it sums up what the young indie-chic, coffee bar set think 21st-century jazz should sound like – but to these older ears it remains rather unmemorable. Sorry!

Zohar’s Nigun
The Four Questions
(Rectify Records)

This is described as “experimental Jazz/Jewish music”. I don’t know quite what to make of the description but I like how the CD sounds.

It’s an Australian quartet of violin, piano, double bass and drums, and the title is a reference to the way in which the four musicians are questioning themselves and their Jewishness in sound. The tunes vary from old traditional ones to originals, the moods vary from the delicately despairing to the urgently ecstatic.

There is lots of space in the music, and it all has a quiet intensity. It also has all the depth the Halsall lacks.

The Frank Griffith Big Band
Holland Park Non-stop
(Hep Jazz)

Frank Griffith is from Oregon and since 1996 has been living in the UK. He is a saxophonist, clarinettist, arranger and band leader; he is also an academic, Director of Performance in the School of Arts at Brunel University, to be precise.

With that background, and with access to a lot of strong big band players in the south of England, it would be surprising if Griffith made an incompetent big band album. And so it is no surprise that there are no surprises here.

But that is also the problem – there are no surprises here. If you were a scholar of big band music from the last 50 years, you would be able to pick out the subtle differences between the bands, and easily identify what makes this band different and strongly individual. I am not that scholar so to me it sounds like a very skilled bunch of craftsmen making something in the style of – who? Thad Jones/Mel Lewis (whom he has played for), Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin (ditto), the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, the New Art Orchestra?

There is nothing wrong with writing “textbook” big band arrangements, but maybe in textbooks as guidance for students is where they’re most effective.

Kevin Eubanks
The Messenger
(Mack Avenue)

The guitarist of the family and leader of The Tonight Show Band for Jay Leno, Kevin has pitched both his instrumental sound and his music in the vortex where jazz meets blues meets rock meets funk. And he holds that ground pretty well.

The title track, which opens the album has an easy rolling gait, with some punchy interludes. He hits a false stride a couple of times – the vocally enhanced versions of Coltrane’s Resolution and a tune associated with Jeff Beck, Led Boots, don’t reach the heights I expected – but for the rest it’s a pleasing and satisfyingly varied set.

Marvin “Smitty” Smith is the drummer, and Take 6’s Alvin Chea the singer; Kevin calls on the family in the form of Robin on trombone and Duane on trumpet for a couple of tracks.

Wolfgang Haffner
Heart Of The Matter

Gosh, this is pretty! And it fits my shameless stereotype of drummer leaders as softies at heart. It’s all very nicely organised, and full of very pleasant textures, but it also rolls through the speakers and through the ears without really leaving much of a mark.

Haffner has Dominic Miller on guitar, and also calls on the services of trumpeter Till Bronner for one track, which gives you an idea of the musical landscape we’re in.

The synth cushions are lush, the drums beautifully recorded and the mix of a lot of different snippets, from acoustic guitar to electronic percussion, to wordless vocals, to tightly voiced, mellow horn lines, gives it the illusion that there is more here than there really is.

Would go down well to relax you in the dentist’s waiting room.

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