Album reviews: ZZ Top | Bob Marley & the Chineke! Orchestra | Nicole Cassandra Smit | Gordon McIntyre

Honouring their late bassist Dusty Hill, ZZ Top keep the beat with more visceral, primitive blues, writes Fiona Shepherd
ZZ Top PIC: Ross HalfinnZZ Top PIC: Ross Halfinn
ZZ Top PIC: Ross Halfinn

ZZ Top: RAW (Shelter Records/BMG) ***

Bob Marley: Bob Marley & the Chineke! Orchestra (Island Records) ****

Nicole Cassandra Smit: Third In Line (Liljekonvalj Records) ****

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Gordon McIntyre: Even With the Support of Others (Lost Map) ***

After 50 years as a tight trio, mighty blues warriors ZZ Top are a man down, following the death of bassist Dusty Hill last year. Material for a new album was completed before his passing but right now surviving members Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard are paying tribute by releasing the soundtrack to their 2019 documentary ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas in which they revisited landmark tracks from their back catalogue, recording new versions over the course of one day in an old honky tonk dancehall.

The setlist mostly focuses on their Seventies creative peak but makes room for later MTV hits Legs and Gimme All Your Lovin’, here executed with more grit than gloss.

They head right back to their 1971 debut, the inventively titled ZZ Top’s First Album, to excavate Brown Sugar – not to be confused with The Rolling Stones song, which was actually released a few months later - and rev up old favourite La Grange, inspired by the brothel which in turn inspired the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

With the exception of the slow and soulful Blue Jeans Blues and the more expansive jam of I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide, these are visceral primitive blues dispatches exhibiting simple yet crucial concerns, often of a priapic nature, from the rocking swagger of Tush to their party standard Tube Snake Boogie.

The nasty fuzz riffola of Just Got Paid celebrates the emancipation of payday (“stick my hand in my pocket, everything’s alright”) while pacey rhythm’n’blues boogie Heard It On the X is their tribute to the Mexican “Border Blaster” pirate radio stations which provided them with their illicit musical schooling. More than half a century on, that education holds firm.

The evergreen roots reggae anthems of Bob Marley also hold up well in the company of the Chineke! Orchestra, a UK ensemble founded in 2015 to represent classical musicians of colour. Their string embellishment adds urgent melodrama to Get Up Stand Up and supplementary swoon to Turn Your Lights Down Low, while Top Rankin’ showcases the brass section in lithe, sassy form and on a funky I Shot the Sheriff. But equally the players know when to defer to the meaty extended jam of Exodus.

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Indonesian-Swedish singer Nicole Cassandra Smit is a regular on the Edinburgh live circuit, interpreting jazz and blues standards. However, during lockdown she made the leap todevelop her debut album of symphonic soul originals with singer/producer Joseph Malik and Chris Grieve.

The Chineke! OrchestraThe Chineke! Orchestra
The Chineke! Orchestra

Third In Line is inspired by the female lineage of her family, specifically the trauma and sacrifices of her grandmother and mother as well as her own formative experiences, while also looking forward with hope and thoughtfulness.

The arrangements are cohesive but not predictable – Smit’s strong raspy vocals and some rock drumming add heft to Wolves, while the softer, plaintive Wedding Gown is garlanded with tremulous strings and gentle percussion, Lily of the Valley with mellifluous jazz trumpet, Dragonheart with trippy horns and Something Borrowed, Something Blue with beefy, bassy brass notes.

Malik guests on the laidback, funky Intonation, while Philly rapper Kameelah Waheed makes a couple of enigmatic appearances on this impressive soul jazz calling card.

Gordon McIntyre is well known and loved in Edinburgh as the frontman of proverbial Peel favourites ballboy, as well as the composer behind the internationally successful “play with songs”Midsummer. His first album under his own name is in that witty and whimsical tradition, from the wistful shimmer of I Crave Rivers I Crave Seas via the delicate, downbeat I Watch the Owls Play to the unbeliever’s indie gospel of Measure the Days.

Gordon McIntyre PIC: Andy CatlinGordon McIntyre PIC: Andy Catlin
Gordon McIntyre PIC: Andy Catlin


Florence Price: Piano Music (Guild) ****

As a pioneering African-American woman composing through the first half of the 20th century, it’s right that we’re seeing belated interest in the music of Florence Price. Her skilfullyconceived orchestral compositions have emerged favourably as programmers delve into neglected areas. Now American-born Kirsteen Johnson, in a two-CD package, reveals Price’s often whimsical piano canon, with pieces dating from 1921 to 1953, the year she died aged 66. What distinguishes many of these works – from cakewalk-style dances and myriad character pieces to fullblown sonata – is Price’s undisguised sense of fun, her fusion of “deep south” populism and progressive, impressionistic imagery. The titles are as charming as the music – Ticklin’ Toes, A Day in the Life of a Washerwoman, Cherry Blossoms in her Hair – and Johnson captures their nostalgic levity. Even, with a passion befitting Rachmaninov, in the hotlyargued Sonata in E minor. Ken Walton


Avishai Cohen Trio: Shifting Sands (naïve/believe) ****

Following the orchestral adventures of Two Roses, Israeli bassist and composer Avishai Cohen returns with a superbly tight, empathetic and lyrical trio with Azerbaijani pianist Elchin Shirinov and the remarkable young Israeli drummer Roni Kaspi. Cohen’s compositions flow elegantly, yet with plenty of scope for impressive breakouts by all three individuals. The spinning opening patterns of Joy, for instance, see arco bass riffing in tight unison with piano and Caspi ultimately cutting loose with energetic delight while her drums tick steadily through the stately hymn-like progression of Dvash, with Cohen taking a springily expansive solo. The song-like Hitragut strolls easefully to Kaspi’s brushes, while the title track further showcases all three, Shirinov’s characteristically warm piano giving way to an almost vocally eloquent bass solo and a gently rolling minimalist conclusion. Jim Gilchrist

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