Plan B: Heaven Before All Hell Breaks Loose (Atlantic Records) ***
Willie Nelson: Last Man Standing (Legacy) ****
The Sheepdogs: Changing Colours (Dine Alone Records) ****
Various Artists: Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (Sony Music Masterworks) ****
It has been six years since Ben Drew, aka Plan B, last released an album, Ill Manors, which just so happened to have a feature film attached to it too. In the interim, there has been talk of an identity crisis (though fatherhood and running his own music therapy charity, Each One Teach One, has sorted him out there) and young pretenders such as Rag’n’Bone Man jockeying for position as top white soul boy with hip-hop credentials.
But this geezer rapper-turned-soul crooner pop conceptualist is not short of creative ambition so it’s hardly surprising that he should go big on his return. Heaven Before All Hell Breaks Loose is a hefty album with the kind of keen global perspective which often comes into sharper focus when kids enter the picture.
Drew’s tenor sounds as sweet as ever on opening number Grateful but this time round his tone is tinged with anger and frustration, and there’s even a touch of gospel testifying on Stranger and Heartbeat, the latter a particularly commercial number with an anachronistic funky drummer shuffle but a strong storytelling impetus.
He delves into the musical melting pot of his native London with the tooled-up pop reggae of It’s A War. The pacey, plasticky soca-infused Wait So Long is a bit of a misfire but there is compensating quality in the album’s sole hip-hop track Guess Again, the distorted dub jazz of Flesh & Bone, soulful house track Pushin’ and woozy R&B of Sepia.
Happy Birthday to the magnificent Willie Nelson – 85 years young and as prolific and pithy as ever on his umpteenth album, co-written with compadre Buddy Cannon and littered with comedy couplets such as “she made my day but it ruined my life” and “bad breath is better than no breath at all”.
Conscious of the loss of fellow country outlaws such as Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, he dithers “I don’t want to be the last man standing…wait a minute, maybe I do” on the wry title track, which is as good an advert for his seamless stew of jazz, blues and country as any in his career.
As delightful as it is to hear Nelson in such sprightly, impish form, it is the ballads which truly shine, particularly the plaintive country MOR of Something You Get Through and the contrasting bitter, burnished blues of Very Far To Crawl on which Nelson digs deep but never labours.
Canadian roots quintet The Sheepdogs are a band out of time. Their sixth album, Changing Colours, begins with the undeniable 70s power rock feel of Nobody and ends with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young pastiche Run Baby Run but along the way they branch out with the laidback southern soul of I Ain’t Cool, summon the spirit of Santana in the acid Latin rhythms of The Big Nowhere and Kiss the Brass Ring and even nod to our own Bay City Rollers with a “s-s-s-Saturday night” refrain. Though derivative, the music is so well conceived that if you have any affection for the likes of The Band or The Allman Brothers, you will find something to dig here.
For viewers not in the US, Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert is the album record of the huge Easter TV production of the classic Lloyd Webber/Rice rock opera. R&B star John Legend cannot help but add a softer soul side to the role of Jesus than the rock screamers of old but he can rage when required, while Sarah Bareilles lends a richness to the role of Mary and Alice Cooper has a whale of a time as Herod.
Ravel/Gershwin: Piano Concertos (Pentatone) ****
There’s natural affinity between the piano concertos of Ravel and Gershwin. The backgrounds of these composers may have been entirely different, but the common jazz elements of the Ravel G major Concerto and Gershwin’s F major Concerto make them obvious bedfellows. Soloist Denis Kozhukhin finds delicious warmth and subtlety in the Ravel G major, and an expansiveness that is full-toned and lyrically sumptuous. The unaccompanied opening to the slow movement is poetry in motion; the bustling finale a virtuoso tour de force. There is abundant poise, too, in the beautifully-tempered playing of the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande under Kazuki Yamada. The Gershwin concerto is a vehicle for greater showiness, which this performance provides in abundance. Kozhukhin finishes with Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, colouring its mood swings with solidity and flamboyance.
Alyn Cosker: KPF (NYLA Recordings) ****
Nine years on from his first own-name album, drummer Alyn Cosker, powerhouse of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, makes up for lost time. The opening, deceptively titled Serenity, stirs up a perfect fusion storm, with Paul Towndrow’s alto sax voicing lustily alongside Davie Dunsmuir’s electric guitar. Fiddle and accordion churning somewhere in there are a reminder of Cosker’s eclectic credentials, but the pervading tenor is that of powerful jazz fusion, with a core band of Dunsmuir, Steve Hamilton on keyboards, percussionist Marcio Doctor and electric bassist Colin Cunningham. Notable guests include vibraphonist Joe Locke, ringing out on Purely Intertwined, or Tommy Smith’s tenor sax leading eloquently from Rachel Lightbody’s soulful vocals in Dragons or in the muscular sparring of Shoogly Paw, although two other songs, featuring Eddi Reader and Fraser Anderson, seem stylistically digressive.