Album reviews: Bill Wells & Friends | The Wainwright Sisters

OUR music critics review the latest releases, including new albums by Bill Wells & Friends, Archie Fisher and The Wainwright Sisters

Bill Wells
Bill Wells

Bill Wells & Friends: Nursery Rhymes | Rating: *** | Karaoke Kalk

Bill Wells, the Falkirk-born, Glasgow-based jazz composer and arranger, has lots of friends. A wanton collaborator, he has been particularly embraced over the past two decades by Glasgow’s indie fraternity, making music with members of The Pastels, Teenage Fanclub, Belle & Sebastian and, to Scottish Album of the Year Award-winning effect, Aidan Moffat, formerly of Arab Strap.

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He expands his circle of friends considerably on this novel yet oddly universal album which tackles the greatest hits of the nursery rhyme world in the company of some of New York’s most respected jazz musicians.

Singer/composer Karen Mantler, the daughter of modern jazz giants Carla Bley and Michael Mantler, was key to proceedings. Wells is a long-time fan and secured Creative Scotland funding to record with her in New York. Given that Mantler released no less than four albums themed around her cat from the late 1980s through the 1990s, the notion of jazz nursery rhymes was possibly not that hard a sell, and through her participation, Wells secured an extended family of players – although one wonders what experimental composer Annette Peacock made of the offer to interpret Hey Diddle Diddle.

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Wells’ understated arrangements are intended to zero in on the dark matter of the words. The offbeat interpretation of Oranges and Lemons, as breathily sung by Syd Straw, underlines its kitchen sink fatalism, while English folk veteran Bridget St John mines the pet melodrama of Ding Dong Bell and Yo La Tengo turn Lavender’s Blue into a gently propulsive and hypnotic Velvet Underground-style jam.

Other renditions are so wispy they are at risk of blowing away, such as Isobel Campbell’s gossamer vocals over delicate jazz piano on Rock a Bye Baby and in dainty dialogue with Amy Allison’s childlike tone on Polly Put the Kettle On.

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Satomi Matsuzaki of Deerhoof sings a Japanese language version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. At least, one presumes it’s her native Japanese – it could be the language of the magical land of the fey fairies for the naïve web of wonder it spins.

A minor key version of Bobby Shaftoe, sung by Aby Vulliamy of the National Jazz Trio of Scotland, is lifted by Charlie Burnham’s folky violin, while Norman Blake’s take on Ride A Cock Horse is similarly slow, dreamy and downbeat, a soothing lullaby for children of all ages.

By their very nature, these are short and sometimes sketchy songs so, if you don’t like one rendition, another will be along in a minute. Hot Cross Buns is dispatched in about a New York minute by Broadway actor Michael Cerveris, but the Mantler-led version of Ring Around The Rosie breaches the three-minute mark, while her telling of Three Blind Mice, with more brooding psychedelic guitar action from Yo La Tengo, is a positive epic at four minutes long. Fiona Shepherd

WORLD: Shye Ben Tzur, Johnny Greenwood and the Rajasthan Express: Junun | Rating: **** | Nonesuch

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Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, already a respected composer of off-piste film music, broadens his musical palette here in collaboration with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur who combines his love of sufi music with his native Hebrew traditions. This they execute in the mesmeric company of the qawwali musicians of the Rajasthan Express, who set an unhurried, almost meditative pace, then gradually, teasingly accelerate their rhythms and devotions to a trance-like clip. The title track is vigorous and vibrant, with some almost ska-like horn breaks. Elsewhere, on Roked, there are club-ready vocal and percussion rhythms with Pied Piper potency. FS

CLASSICAL: Schubert Lieder: Nacht und Träume | Rating: **** | Delphian

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Schubert’s portrayal of women in his Lieder is as far-reaching in mood and colour as in its soulful emotional insights.There’s passion, tenderness, innocence and burning intensity: all, and more, expressed in an art form he made his own.

In this fresh new disc, soprano Aylish Tynan and pianist Iain Burnside delve deep into these “womanly” songs. Tynan captures the essence of each one – from the troubled nun in Die judge Nonne and the noble heroism of Schiller’s Amalia, to the cinematic fluidity of Gretchen am Spinnrade – with wondrous maturity of tone and unwavering intonational precision. Burnside’s pianism is ever-sympathetic, ever-empathetic. Together they are a joy to listen to. Ken Walton

JAZZ: Brad Mehldau: 10 Years Solo Live | Rating: **** | Nonesuch

A delight in melody and just how far you can take it suffuses this at times overwhelming but rarely dull compilation from a decade of solo live performances by the acclaimed American pianist.

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Available as an eight-LP vinyl boxed set, four-CD package or download, it captures his delicate deliberations and picaresque adventuring (listen to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit), in which the live aspect is vital – as Mehldau writes in his sleeve notes: “Without those audiences, this music would not exist in the way it does.”

The tracks contrast intriguingly from the hypnotic flow and intense development of Jeff Buckley’s Dream Brother, exquisite treatment of numbers such as Blackbird, the feverish cascading of Coltrane’s Countdown or the expansive chording on the likes of Radiohead’s Jigsaw Falling into Place and Knives Out.

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This is a collector’s piece for Mehldau fans, but also a revelatory illustration of what happens when a jazz musician of his stature settles himself at a piano and starts playing tunes. Jim Gilchrist

FOLK: Archie Fisher: A Silent Song | Rating: **** | Greentrax

An album from Archie Fisher, one of the original and still unmistakable voices of the Scottish folk revival, is something of an event. As befits a singer and guitarist whose career has spanned the best part of 50 years, this collection of largely contemporary songs – recorded in the Catskills and mixed in Minneapolis –is shot through with a strong sense of passing time, not least in his lovely Waltz into Winter, an affectionate salute to the house martins that come and go from his eaves.

His voice has weathered, but retains its trademark dying fall while, as ever, his guitar ripples mellifluously throughout, carrying an old fashioned-sounding melody like his own Song or a Friend or chiming ominously under the unfolding grimness of the traditional Lord of the May, while the melancholy yet melodious Lass from the Low Country is complemented nicely by Luna Skye’s cello.

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Elsewhere there is the warm remembrance of You Took the Day, while Richard Berman’s The Gift comes over as classic Fisher – bittersweet and timeless sounding. Jim Gilchrist

FOLK: The Wainwright Sisters: Songs in the Dark | Rating: **** | Pias

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Based on this selection of pitch black lullabies, bedtime in the Wainwright household must be interesting – Martha Wainwright softly singing her bairns to sleep with such sentiments as “shut up and go to bed…you’re a late night faucet that’s gotta drip” while sister Lucy Wainwright Roche hums heavenly harmonies in the doorway. Their voices blend so beguilingly over bare, intimate arrangements that the often creepy lyrical content – much of it passed on by their parents Kate McGarrigle, Suzzy Roche and Loudon Wainwright – packs a greater surprise punch. Don’t waste this droll delight of an album on the young. FS