Sunday, 8 November 2020

A Flock Of Seagulls ‎– A Flock Of Seagulls (1982)

Style: New Wave, Synth-pop
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Cherry Pop, Jive, RCA

01.   Modern Love Is Automatic
02.   Messages
03.   I Ran
04.   Space Age Love Song
05.   You Can Run
06.   Telecommunication
07.   Standing In The Doorway
08.   Don't Ask Me
09.   D.N.A.
10.   Tokyo
11.   Man Made
Bonus Tracks
12.   Pick Me Up
13.   Windows
14.   Tanglimara
15.   Intro

Bass, Vocals – F. Maudsley
Drums – A. Score
Lead Guitar – P. Reynolds
Lead Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards – M. Score
Producer – Mike Howlett 

Even with the revival of all things ‘80s that started in the early 2000s and still seems to be going on, most would probably only regard A Flock of Seagulls as a joke involving weird haircuts. Even now, with critical re-evaluation reaching some of the acts of the era that previously seemed destined to be remembered as one-hit novelties, the Seagulls are still either a punchline, cultural shorthand for the most anachronistically ‘80s things one could conceive of. Yet, beneath the garish image, there was–for a little while, at least–some substance to the band that bears itself out on their debut. While calling A Flock of Seagulls a masterpiece would be overselling it, the album is a stunning example of pop songcraft and proof that the group’s brief dominance of MTV and the pop charts wasn’t entirely a fluke.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the reputation of A Flock of Seagulls (both the band and the album) is how they’re held up as the example of synth-pop from the era. While the band made use of synthesizers more often than their contemporaries in the early ‘80s music scene in Liverpool did, the guitar work of Paul Reynolds is easily the most distinct thing about the band. In both his technical skill and his use of effects to pair his guitar alongside the synths, Reynolds is the man responsible for elevating A Flock of Seagulls beyond mere pleasant synth-pop, turning singles “I Ran (So Far Away)” and “Space Age Love Song” into futuristic-sounding, heart-on-sleeve epics (even if Mike Score’s lyrics didn’t necessarily match the outsized emotions of the music). Reynolds further asserts himself as the star of the band on the instrumental “D.N.A.,” on which his guitar and the band’s synths combine to create something truly cosmic. The connection between the Seagulls and the likes of U2 (as well as fellow Liverpudlians OMD) is arguably there to be drawn, even if people don’t necessarily make the connection anymore these days.

Furthermore, the deep cuts on A Flock of Seagulls show a band that was very willing to explore some interesting ideas, even if they were ideas their contemporaries were also delving into at the time. The usual timely tropes of the increasing encroachment of technology on modern life (expressed through music made on machines, no less) pops up on the likes of “Modern Love Is Automatic” and “Telecommunication,” but both are lively songs that admirably tackle their subject matter as well as anyone else from the period. Nothing quite outshines the singles, but each song leaves its own distinct impression, and when your singles are as good as “I Ran (So Far Away)” and “Space Age Love Song” are, saying that the album tracks don’t shine just as brightly isn’t as damning an indictment as it seems.

If there are cracks to be found on A Flock of Seagulls, they come, unfortunately, from the man who started the band in the first place. Try as he might, Mike Score doesn’t really assert himself as a lyricist. His words provide ideas and concepts, but they lack any real depth more often than not. This isn’t necessarily a problem, given that pop music has never been short on shallow lyricists, but it can take one out of the moment of enjoying, say, “You Can Run” when the question of what Score is actually saying pops into one’s head. Moreover, anyone approaching the album for the first time (and anyone who only knows the band from the singles) will likely infer that Score wasn’t really the best singer in the world. The better songs survive his occasionally wan vocal performances, but some of the later ballads on the album, particularly closer “Manmade,” fail to really take off as a result of Score’s voice keeping them perpetually earth-bound. Even so, that isn’t enough to keep A Flock of Seagulls from being occasionally brilliant.

Sadly, A Flock of Seagulls burned out way too quickly after their debut. Aside from the “Wishing” single that came out shortly after this album, they never approached the same sort of chart success or made an artistic statement as comprehensive as this debut. Today, Mike Score seems to have leaned into the “one-hit wonder” label, touring on nostalgia circuits and barely attempting to make any new, interesting music anymore. It’s likely that the band only ever had enough to make this one cohesive album. Even so, it’s an album that deserves to be cherished by people fond of this era of music. For one album, A Flock of Seagulls were more than a punchline.
Kevin Korber / Spectrum Culture

Makaya McCraven ‎– Universal Beings E&F Sides (2020)

Style: Nu Jazz, Jazz Fusion
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: International Anthem Recording Company

01.   Everybody Cool
02.   Half Steppin'
03.   Mak Attack
04.   The Hunt
05.   Beat Science
06.   Dadada
07.   Isms
08.   Travelling Space
09.   Kings And Queens
10.   The Loneliness
11.   Her Name
12.   Universal Beings Pt 2
13.   Butterss Fly
14.   The Way Home

Guitar – Jeff Parker
Harp – Brandee Younger
Electric Piano – Ashley Henry
Vibraphone – Joel Ross
Keyboards – Kamaal Williams
Saxophone – Soweto Kinch
Alto Saxophone – Josh Johnson
Guitar – Jeff Parker
Percussion – Carlos Niño
Violin – Miguel Atwood-Ferguson
Cello – Tomeka Reid
Double Bass, Percussion – Junius Paul
Tenor Saxophone – Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia
Double Bass – Anna Butterss, Dezron Douglas, Daniel Casimir
Drums, Producer– Makaya McCraven

From August 2017 to January 2018, Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven recorded four sessions in four cities which were collected together to become the album Universal Beings, where each side of the vinyl edition was devoted to the city where the recording took place – in turn: New York, Chicago, London and Los Angeles. If the sides can be called A, B, C and D, then the album Universal Beings E&F Sides can be considered as a continuation of this first album and, indeed, McCraven describes it as an ‘addendum’ to the original project. This relationship is shown visually on the album cover which shows a blown-up inset of Damon Locks’ illustration from the first album’s cover. Nevertheless, there is much more to this album than just a collection of off-cuts from the original sessions and should be evaluated on quite different merits.

The first album was an opportunity to hear Makaya McCraven perform with pretty much the aristocracy of new talent from what can justifiably be described as the four international poles of the most exciting and compelling jazz of our time. Amongst the stars performing with McCraven are Londoners Nubya Garcia (tenor sax), Ashley Henry (Rhodes piano), Daniel Casimir (double bass) and, on the Chicago side of the album, Shabaka Hutchings (tenor sax). There is an intimidating line-up of American musicians from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, of which special note must be made of Jeff Parker (guitar), whose recent album Suite for Max Brown is a modern classic and in whose house the Los Angeles side was recorded.

These were not the traditional jazz sessions where four or five musicians gather together to record a few tunes by the band leader interspersed with standards. The approach McCraven used is more like that made famous by producer Teo Macero on the sessions he recorded with Miles Davis in the 1970s such as Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way. The musicians improvise relatively freely and the raw material is later distilled into individual tracks through McCraven’s postproduction process. In this way, the tracks on the released album retain the excitement and creativity of a masterclass in improvisation whilst also benefiting from a producer’s focus and vision. Indeed, McCraven describes himself as a ‘sonic collagist’, a set of skills he displayed recently on We’re New Again: his reimagination of Gil Scott-Heron’s 2010 masterpiece.

McCraven also describes himself as a ‘beat scientist’ and the listener should approach Universal Beings E&F Sides as the work of a drummer with a profound understanding of beats. It is described as unreleased ‘organic beat music’ cut from the original Universal Beings sessions revisited and produced by McCraven and used on the soundtrack of a documentary film, also called Universal Beings, directed by Chicago-based Mark Pallman. Unlike the first album, the two sides are not organised by when and where the tracks were recorded but rather by how they should best be sequenced. In fact, there are some artists who didn’t appear on the first album, such as Soweto Kinch (sax) and Kamaal Williams (keyboards) on Half Steppin’ and the final track The Way Home.

The album has fourteen short tracks, mostly about three minutes long, which are best characterised as percussive in nature. Drums are essentially the lead instrument around which the music is arranged. The album could be summed up as a collection of beats in much the same way as J Dilla’s album Donuts is a collection of loops; and like Dilla’s album it almost openly invites other musicians to sample the music for their own compositions. However, nobody could mistake this album for a hip-hop soundtrack. The music is very much within the jazz idiom even while clearly influenced by music from outside. The eloquently entitled Mak Attack is the single taken off the album, but another track that would be just as good a choice is Kings and Queens which has a feel reminiscent of the late great Tony Allen.

Although the album is a product of the studio as much as it is the original live performance, many tracks still feature the spontaneous shouts and cheers of the band and audience to preserve the excitement of a live event. The instruments used on the album include not just the familiar saxophone, keyboards and double bass of the small jazz band, but also harp played by Brandee Younger from the sessions recorded in New York and violin played by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson in the sessions from California.

This album makes a lot more sense when placed in the context of the original,  but it is also a fundamentally different project, with much more of a foreground focus on  the rhythm section. The album is released on the Chicago label International Anthem which is greatly informed by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) – the wellspring of so much creative music since the 1960s – and now the source of so many essential recordings by African American musicians such as Jeff Parker, Angel Bat Dawid and Irreversible Entanglements. In this year of Black Lives Matters, International Anthem has become one of the world’s most significant jazz-aligned record labels and the Universal Beings project is typical of the challenging but still eminently listenable music that the label champions.
Graham Spry / London Jazz News

Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge / Azymuth ‎– Jazz Is Dead 4 (2020)

Genre: Jazz, Latin
Format: CD, Vinyl, FLAC
Label: Jazz Is Dead

1.   Ao Redor Do Samba
2.   Sumaré
3.   Cat Jump
4.   Fall Afternoon
5.   Friendship Samba
6.   Apocalyptíco
7.   Pulando Corda
8.   Quiet Storm

Mastered By – Dave Cooley
Mixed By – Adrian Younge, Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Producer – Adrian Younge, Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Recorded By – Adrian Younge, Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Written-By – Adrian Younge, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Azymuth

The instrumental trio Azymuth modernized the sound and style of Brazilian jazz with their electronic instruments, angular arrangements and ingenious synthesis of jazz, funk, rock and samba. After the passing of founding keyboard player José Roberto Bertrami in 2012, Alex Malheiros (bass) and Ivan “Mamão” Conti (drums) recruited synthesizer samurai Kiko Continentinho to the trio as it continued to build on their sound, now in their fifth decade of pushing the boundaries of their beloved samba.

Between 1969 and 1973, these musicians all born the same year in 1946, started playing together as in-demand session players, sometimes just two of them and often all three of them on larger sessions. They quickly found that their musical chemistry produced a sound that was greater than the sum of their respective parts. At the root of their collaboration were their shared influences, namely American jazz and a mutual appreciation for the foundations of Brazilian music. As session musicians the trio’s telepathic tightness, subtle funk lines and melodic mastery elevated Erasmo Carlos’ classic Sonhos E Memórias 1941-1972 (1972) and helped Marcos Valle deliver his finest album, Previsão Do Tempo (1973).

In 2020, the iconic trio partners with LA-based collective Jazz Is Dead for Azymuth JID004. “This album is one of the most interesting rides I’ve ever been a part of,” says Younge. “In the ‘70s, Azymuth took psychedelic rock, soul, and jazz and made it authentically Brazilian. Together, we’ve pushed this concept even further for a new generation of record collectors.”

As a trio, Azymuth hit their stride in the eighties pioneering a modern, adventurous fusion of jazz, rock and funk all the while never losing the scent of samba. By the mid-nineties, just when it seemed like the band had lost their momentum, they received a much needed boost and acknowledgement from DJs, musicians and dancers in London as favorites of the thriving Acid Jazz scene that also helped to resuscitate the careers of fellow Brazilian musicians Marcos Valle and Joyce. Meanwhile, adventurous DJs and beatmakers, such as MF Doom, Flying Lotus and Roni Size found inspiration and novel sounds to repurpose from the trio’s classic recordings. In 2008, Ivan Conti joined forces with L.A. underground hip-hop royalty, Madlib for a collaborative album credited to Jackson Conti called Sujinho.

“Saying it was an honor and pleasure to make an album with Azymuth is a huge understatement. To the crate diggers of the Jazz & Hip-Hop kind Azymuth’s music is very important. They are the soulful jazz side of Brazil with a dash of psychedelic blended in and a whole lot more. They are incredibly talented giants walking amongst us and they are very humble,” says Shaheed Muhammad. “I feel as if Adrian and I barely scratched the surface of what’s possible with Mamão, Alex and Kiko. The 004 album came together with ease. Watching them play the songs with so much vigor and delight taught me the importance of loving what you do. We hope that people will make this album a part of their regular rotation and I look forward to when we can kick it with Azymuth again.”

“A Redor do Samba” is augmented by Younge and Shaheed Muhammad, while the legendary trio of Ivan “Mamåo” Conti, Alex Malheiros and Kiko Contentinho dance around the rhythm—as the song title suggests—with one foot in jazz-funk and the other in their native musical language of samba. Saxophones, wah-wah guitar and synthesizers trade runs over the trio’s bedrock groove as the group moves in unison from the meditative outer orbit of the samba to its frenetic and propulsive core.

The Jazz Is Dead team also wondered, What if the Mizell brothers and Gary Bartz teamed up with the Brazilian giants of jazz-funk in São Paulo in the mid-seventies? That notion is portrayed here on this album with “Sumaré.” Anchored by Alex Malheiros’ buoyant bass, this slinky sermon is named after the verdant and altitudinous neighborhood of São Paulo, likely a great place to take in a sunrise. A standout track from the historic collaboration between the iconic trio, Younge, and Shaheed Muhammad, The song is reminiscent of the dreamy instrumentals Azymuth recorded early in their career (when they were named Azimüth) using their musical instruments to draw outside the lines with colors called: Funk, Jazz and Polyrhythm.

Jettisoning his synthesizers for acoustic piano on “Pulando Corda,” Kiko Continentinho kicks off this skipping samba-jazz tune, dancing along to the syncopated samba beat of Ivan “Mamão” Conti’s drums and Alex Malheiros’ bass line. If Marcos Valle hadn’t already laid claim to recording the soundtrack to Brazil’s version of Sesame Street, Vila Sesamo, this song, which translates to “skipping rope”, could have been the theme song. Adrian Young & Ali Shaheed Muhammad color the joyous melody with dancing marimba, pulsing Hammond B-3 organ, stacatto wah-wah guitar and pertinent percussion.

On this unique Jazz Is Dead recording with Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the trio once again demonstrates their ability to elevate their collaborators while also showcasing their distinctive sound, continuing to redraw the boundaries of Brazilian jazz, futuristic funk and their beloved samba.