Album reviews: Kamasi Washington | Nine Inch Nails | Swing Out Sister | The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices

Kamasi Washington
Kamasi Washington
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Wondrous sax player Kamasi Washington confirms his crossover success with a release that’s out of this world

Kamasi Washington: Heaven and Earth (Young Turks) ****

Nine Inch Nails: Bad Witch (The Null Corporation) ***

Swing Out Sister: Almost Persuaded (Miso Music/Absolute) ****

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices feat. Lisa Gerrard: BooCheeMish (Prophecy Productions) ****

LA saxophonist and all-round cosmic cat Kamasi Washington has enjoyed considerable crossover success since guesting on Kendrick Lamar’s recent work, with his own brilliant triple album debut The Epic hailed as a modern milestone in astral jazz.

Washington joins an accessible lineage of fellow fusioneers from Miles Davis to Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra to Donald Byrd and he draws explicitly on similar streetwise 1970s iconography by covering the theme to the Bruce Lee film, Fist of Fury, as the opening track of his latest opus.

Heaven and Earth is a mighty double-CD, quadruple-album clocking in at well over two hours, but worth every minute of your time. In this collection, Earth comes before Heaven, experience before imagination, with the Latin rhythms, psychedelic soul and easy listening exotica influences of Fists of Fury setting the tone before Washington makes his attention-grabbing entrance with the cracked, desperate tone of his first solo.

His band, meanwhile, display the tight-but-loose intuition of a well-drilled unit where everyone gets their opportunity to shine, whether the athletic drumming on Hub Tones, the acid guitar of Connections, Patrice Quinn’s silky vocals on Journey or the testifying fervency of Brandon Coleman’s electric piano in shrieking pitch on Can You Hear Him.

This absorbing odyssey takes an ethereal turn on Heaven with celestial strings and cosmic choir in full voice on The Space Traveller’s Lullaby before the reverie is interrupted by Thundercat’s signature synthetic bass burps and curt blasts of sax on Street Fighter. Even the noodling solos on Song For The Fallen are more of a loose conversation than an indulgence. Washington has captured the music of the spheres.

In contrast, Nine Inch Nails’ Bad Witch rounds off a trilogy of EPs with a pithy six tracks in 30 minutes (though mainman Trent Reznor has indulged in some crazy experimentalism in ticketing his US tour by physical sales only – what kind of madness is this?)

God Break Down the Door is a tasty taster, featuring the mournful wail of a saxophone, and Reznor riding the skittering jazzy drum patterns and springy bassline with a mellow croon, all reminiscent of the progressive palette on Bowie’s Blackstar album.

While it is intriguing to hear Reznor pushing in new directions, the rest of the record features compelling soundscapes rather than songs, from the distorted headlong thrash of S**t Mirror to the muffled industrial punk of Ahead of Ourselves via the PIL-like foreboding dub funk of Over and Out.

Swing Out Sister, best known for their hit Breakout, were part of a British soul movement in the mid-80s which blended sharp style, smooth pop and jazz funk with political chops. Thirty years on, Almost Persuaded is a sumptuous string-soaked set which draws equally on the sultry soul of Dusty Springfield and the same dreamy space jazz territory as Kamasi Washington, with Corinne Drewery’s buttery vocals mixed relatively low in the comfort blanket of sound.

The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices became accidental cult icons of the 80s when 4AD Records re-issued a French compilation of music by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir, influencing the cathartic open-throated ululations of Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. She now guests on the choir’s first album in over two decades, which is another intoxicating showcase of East European vocal traditions, from hypnotic devotional drones to strident ululation, from the rhythmic punch of Yove to the haunting legato of Mani Yanni, sparingly paired with Middle Eastern and gypsy instrumentation to produce the blithe swing of Tropanitsa.

CLASSICAL

Out of the Silence: Orchestral Music by John McLeod (Delphian) ****

Now in his 80s, a remarkably sprightly John McLeod has been writing music of immense character and craftsmanship of late. The most recent piece on this disc dedicated entirely to the Edinburgh-based composer is the title track, Out of the Silence, which in turn celebrates the macho, maverick style of Carl Nielsen. Laced with quotes from the Danish composer, it is a feverish outpouring of hungry ideas, all knitted together in a framework that speaks with spontaneous logic. It is performed here by the RSNO, not always with the unanimous warmth it deserves, but in a way that allows its energy and colour to explode naturally into life.

Holly Mathieson conducts and McLeod himself conducts the remaining works, which include the Bartók-inspired Percussion Concerto, the dramatically engaging The Shostakovich Connection, and the whimsical Hebridean Dances, where gorgeous lyrical moments meet McLeod’s tangible zest for life.

Ken Walton

JAZZ

Stefano Bollani: Que Bom (Alobar) ****

As vividly tropical as the botanical fantasia adorning its sleeve, Que Bom sees Italian pianist Stefano Bollani return to the Latin-American rhythms and textures which informed his Carioca album of 2008. As drummer Jurim Moreira and percussionists Armando Marçal and Thiago da Serrinha lay down irresistibly sashaying bossa rhythms, Bollani’s playing flits with panache between the easeful and the capricious. Sbucata da una Nuvola strolls in animated conversation with quirkily squeaking percussion, Criatura Dourada is delicately spelled out solo before a hiss of cymbals ushers it through rich melodic development, while darting keyboard forays cascade through Accettare Tutto and intertwine with bright runs from the Brazilian bandolim virtuoso Hamilton de Holanda in the vivacious Ho Perduto Il Mio Pappagallino. Occasional vocal interludes include Caetano Veloso bringing warmth to La Nebbia a Napoli, while Frida Magoni Bollani’s vocalising locks into a brass trio in Uomini e Polli. n

Jim Gilchrist