Junkyard Ball an Eclectic Delight

Junkyard Ball
Lusti Music and Arts 009

It’s a Celtic music ensemble? No, wait, it’s a small jazz combo. Or is it a Finnish traditional music? I’m sorry; I meant to say this is an album of experimental music. If there’s an award for truth in musical advertising, wrap it and ship to Finland’s Tero Hyvälouma–the music contained on this CD’s eight peripatetic tracks covers so much musical turf that junkyard is as good a classification as any. Pretty fancy junk, though. Hyvälouma is the latest innovative musician to emerge from the Sibelius Academy, where he concentrated on violin. Let’s just say that the academy didn’t sidetrack Hyvälouma’s eclecticism. He is clearly in command of the fiddle, but he also showcases his talents on bouzouki, harmonium, and glockenspiel. (Glockenspiel! Who plays that any more? Glad he does.) Hyvälouma fronts a five-piece band that’s supplemented with 11 guest musicians, so you can add occasional forays into symphonic sounds to the list of influences you’ll hear on this CD. But I pity any retail clerk that has to pick a category into which to stock this CD. The record company calls it “Finnish folk music,” but the album’s sole traditional song, “Läksin mina kesäyonä,” welcomes three female singers into a arrangement that has the feel of ancient music backed by jazz piano. The title track opens with loud accordion and fiddle soaked in enough funk to evoke stride jazz, sans the piano. And when the piano does emerge in the mix, we’re decidedly into progressive jazz territory, complete with Nika Votkin’s bridging drum solo. A bit of scat and double bass and, before you know it, you’re in a place where meaty blues licks intersect with discordance. How about if we just label it eight tracks of intrigue and skillful musicianship? 
Rob Weir


A Trio of World Jazz Recordings

African Americans invented jazz, but it’s been a global phenomenon since its earliest days. Three new recordings sample current jazz trends in South Africa and Brazil.

The most exciting of the three by far is Kheswa & Her Martians, whose Meadowlands, Stolen Jazz (Xippi Phonorecords 32740) is a four-star delight. Nonhlanhla Kheswa hails from Soweto and is a worthy heiress to the legendary Miriam Makeba. Like the latter she possesses a powerful and supple voice that is anything but a classical jazz set of pipes. She can growl and grunt, but her voice naturally gravitates to upper palette  higher tones usually associated with pop singers. All of this is to say that if you like your jazz sultry and smoky, steer clear–Kheswa favors bright, bold, muscular, and sassy. The album’s name is a triple pun in that the music presented was once forbidden and played on the sly in South Africa’s black townships, some of the music has been “stolen” in the sense that it’s been recorded before (including the 1955 title track song), and that which hasn’t been borrowed has been lifted from its original context. Kheswa fronts a seven-piece band that contains two killer saxophonists (Jovan Alexandre and Karim Rome) and a pianist (Taber Gable) who doesn’t merely back the songs, he shapes and orchestrates them. At times Kheswa is swingy, at others as hep as Ella Fitzgerald, and at still others a jazzy version of Angélique Kidjo. I would yield to purists that insist that Kheswa is more of a popularizer than a classic jazz singer, but that’s why I like her so much!

And it’s probably why I found two new offerings from Brazil rather tepid. Of the two, Mario Adnet’s Villa Lobos (Boranda 0020 **) is the more interesting and the more eclectic offering. It also benefits from the addition from really topnotch musicians. This is a theme album dedicated to the songs of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1897-1959), an important Brazilian modernist composer. The repertoire is a plus and a minus. Like many modernists, Villa-Lobos borrowed freely from other sources (chamber music, movie scores, tango, even some faintly Celtic material). As is also the case, some of the Stravinsky-influenced experimental flights are more impressive than riveting.

Too much introspection bored me when listening to Antonio Loureiro’s (Boranda 0015 *). This is piano-based jazz that veers into soundscaping by breaking melodies, drifting into improv, and descending into shapelessness. It feels soulful in its own way, but I often wondered if Loureiro had any audience in mind other than himself and the musicians on stage. In Portuguese só means “under” or “who,” but I often found myself leaving off the accent and reacting in English with a simple interrogative: so?


James Connolly Gets Rebellious Treatment

Songs of Freedom
PM Press A-017-2

Until World War One, the labor movement, Irish nationalism, and socialism knew no national boundaries and a figure such as politician/rebel/songwriter James Connolly (1868-1916) was as famous in North America as in Ireland or the British Isles. His death at the hands of a British firing squad in the wake of the failed Easter Uprising was mourned across the globe. A new recording and accompanying songbook takes us inside of Connolly’s life, causes, and the protest songs he and others penned and cherished. It’s more than a nostalgia piece, although it evokes the sort of movement songs that dominated the pages of Sing Out! during its early years. The project is the brainchild of Mat Callahan, a San Francisco-based activist and musician who honed his teeth on political rock. This album, for the most part, has a folksier feel. It features nine songs written by Connolly, including “Human Freedom,” “When Labor Calls,” and “Watchword of Labor,” which were known to North American members of the Industrial Workers of the World. (Connolly joined the IWW when lived in America.) The remaining four songs are three in Connolly’s honor, including Irish poet Patrick Galvin’s moving “Where is James Connolly?” and Jim Connell’s internationally famous “The Red Flag.” The last is one of the few tracks that doesn’t quite work, as it is given an agit-rock treatment in which the music overwhelms the lyrics–the latter being the point of social protest music. Aside from this slip, the 13 musicians of the Songs of Freedom Band evoke the community exuberance of comrades singing in support of unions, socialism, and Irish freedom. Callahan’s edited edition of the 1907 The James Connolly Songbook is the sort of historical artifact that’s didactic, but which also makes you think that modern movements could learn a few lessons by delving into it. In Connolly’s spirit, both the CD and the book are borders-defying projects assembled and funded in Ireland, Switzerland, and the United States. 

Rob Weir