Foy Vance – From Muscle Shoals

Foy Vance (image via Irish Mirror)

This set is like time travel – today’s gritty, soulful vocalist playing alongside studio legends in the studio that produced soul classics. It is a fine match.

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High Noon – Is it Really a Western?

High Noon‘s Blu-ray release is a great chance to revisit this work. It is not only a classic movie that every film-lover should see at least once, but also one with a timeless warning about coming together to stand up against evil.

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Neal Morse: Jesus Christ, The Exorcist

Neal Morse, via Brave Words.com

A rock opera?! There’s something we haven’t seen for decades – and this one is worth exploring.

Morse’s last three albums have been so good that two have been among the best releases of their years. But how would this compare, being a progressive rock opera, rather than a collection of songs?

Morse is plainly no stranger to concept albums – his past releases have included a work about God’s glory, Morse’s own story (twice), Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (twice again, as if a double album isn’t long enough!). But this is different, as it includes a rock choir and a lot more characters in conversation to tell the story. And isn’t the concept of a rock opera a bit 1970s?

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The Badly Behaved Bible

Nick Page via http://nickpage.co.uk

I wish Nick Page taught me history at school. The self-described “unlicensed historian, applied ranter and general information-monger” is like a mate who nudges you in the ribs and asks mischievously, “Hey, did you know…?”

In a tongue-in-cheek one-man mission to ban bible study, he argues that we find the bible difficult because we have been misinformed about both what it is and how to read it. It is badly-behaved because it will not fit neatly into our expectations (and more literally, because Page has a section on its rude bits).

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Bruce Cockburn: Crowing Ignites (Crowing Ignites??)

This album is a real surprise. Cockburn named his last release Bone on Bone, because he was suffering from arthritis to such an extent that it was affecting his guitar playing.

One might expect his response to major on singing, where arthritis has no effect, covering over any guitar-playing deficiencies, but no. Maybe he thought it his last chance to feature his guitar work before the fingers do give up.

Cockburn’s recent albums have generally been better for instrumental tracks and here he does the whole disc wordlessly. In some players’ hands that might mean a lot of similar sounding music, but this album revels in variety. Yes, there are plenty of his cascading compositions, but the style differs from track to track.

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An Activist the Press can’t Pigeonhole

Today is the first day of Extinction Rebellion’s fortnight of disruption across major cities in Europe.

The BBC covered the story from many angles: protesters dressed up as Red Rebels, people chaining and glueing themselves to immovable objects, celebrities moving about among those blocking bridges.

Christians turned Lambeth Bridge into a ‘faith bridge’, while on Westminster Bridge someone was getting married. I wasn’t surprised to see it was Tamsin Omond. It is almost ten years ago to the day that my interview with her was published in the Church of England Newspaper. It seemed worth putting an edit of it here.

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ECM’s Touchstones Series is a Jazz-lover’s Playground

Image result for ecm touchstones

Regular readers will have noticed my love of music from the prestigious, award-winning ECM label – which is essentially one man’s high quality, long-term project.

For 50 years, German bassist Manfred Eicher has been recording over one thousand jazz and classical albums with a pristine sound quality. He has struck up an excellent trusting relationship with Arvo Pärt, arguably the world’s leading living classical composer, and cross-fertilised many of the world’s best jazz musicians, such as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea and Pat Metheny.

To celebrate this half-century, ECM have re-issued 50 classic albums. Deciding which to review has involved pleasurable hours of research, but the album that most grabbed me (twice) and led to ecstatic rambles through his live works on YouTube was Eberhard Weber’s The Following Morning.

Image result for weber following morning

Weber plays a resonant fretless, upright electric bass and does so in a distinctive style with real lyrical flair. This album consists of only four tracks averaging ten minutes each, which means that they have time to naturally go where they need to.

Rich as it is in tone, there are no drums here, which helps to create a fluid, atmospheric beauty in this music. The sound is hard to capture in words, as it is unlike anything else I know. A warmer, more relaxed, instrumental version of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden might come close. While Weber is generally much more fluent and accessible than the Talk Talk work, he does have the fragmented album closer “Moana II,” where (aided by an occasional unaccredited synth) he tantalisingly teases an earlier theme (from surprise, surprise, “Moana I”) which he then spells out right at the end.

Weber’s main colleague here is pianist Rainer Brüninghaus, with whom he played in saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s band, but while the bass and piano do trade licks, this rarely feels like a standard jazz album with piano taking the traditional jazz role. Weber treats his bass like a lead guitar, double- (or triple-) tracking where necessary to play more normal bass lines against it. He leaves a lot of space around it, which the piano isn’t obliged to fill.

Instead, many of the spaces are occupied quietly by the soft celli, French horns and oboe of the Philharmonic Orchestra, Oslo. So at times – such as in the title track – it can feel like a version of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, but with bass taking the place of trumpet.

The blend is gorgeous – as is that title track, with a melody line that will stay with you long after the piece is finished.

Image result for abercrombie night

Touchstones is a music lover’s playground and likely to provide new excitement for anyone interested in jazz. A runner up for review album from this series was John Abercrombie’s delicious Night, featuring an all-star cast with Jan Hammer, Jack DeJohnette and Mike Brecker. On Hammer’s “Ethereggae,” they manage to combine jazz, rock and reggae in one gloriously original – and successful – eight minute piece.

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The Triangle, a more conventional piano trio consisting of bandleader bassist Arild Andersen, pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and drummer John Marshall, comprises nine largely languid tracks that have a healthy balance of improvisation and distinctive themes.

Tsabropoulos, who has a classical background, has written most tracks and arranged a beautifully wistful version of Ravel’s “Pavane,” in which Arildsen’s double bass plays sensitively off him. It may be this background that adds some precision to the pianist’s style and form to his composition, but his classical history never dilutes the freedom of his playing.

“Simple Thoughts” is a contemplative piano-based piece, beautiful and serene, a mood continued by its successor, “Prism.”

For all the disc’s gentleness, there is a brief upbeat burst with “Lines,” which has a touch of the Keith Jarretts to the piano, but nothing at all messy or angular.

The nearest this 2003 album gets to that is the group composition “European Triangle,” which starts with a prowling piano left hand and develops into a more skittering piece. By contrast, it’s followed up by the very dreamy “Cinderella Song.”

The three players balance well; while the composers generally feature more fully in their own pieces, Andersen refuses to hog the centre and this is a true team effort.

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Another piano-based work is Red Lanta, a 51-minute duet from Art Lande and Jan Garbarek. As you might expect, once you spot that the title is an anagram of Lande’s name, the pianist composed each track and piano takes the brunt of the workload here, with Jan Garbarek largely filling in and echoing for emphasis.

Garbarek is undoubtedly one of the label’s most popular artists – not least due to his Officium collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble, blending his sax with their choral work, which was one of ECM’s best-selling albums ever. He features on half a dozen albums across the Touchstones collection.

While he is mainly known for his saxophone work, on this release he unusually spends more time playing flute – although to these ears, some of the best tracks across the album are those where he does pick up the saxes (soprano and bass) such as “Velvet,” with its call-and-response lines, and “Meanwhile.”

When he plays flute, there is an almost classical tone to some tracks, including the opener in 5/4 time “Quintennaissance” and “Waltz for A,” one of several where flute hints at a bird-call at times. It is only the freer, more improvised mood that takes it in a jazzier direction.

Towards the end, Lande takes a solo piano medley that nicely simplifies the sound before Garbarek returns on saxes and expresses tones verging on the oriental, before taking the lead in the final piece, the lyrical “Cherifen Dream of Renate.”

The drum-free disc, recorded in 1973, moves between sprightly and sauntering pace, but by and large feels casually relaxed. It catches Garbarek at a point where he has turned his back on earlier, more dissonant, projects in favour of this more mellow approach.

Image result for juni erskine

Also worth investigating is Juni by the Peter Erskine Trio. It is part of a set I reviewed here

While The Following Morning is superb, other ECM releases beat several of the Touchstones. Albums like Anouar Brahem’s minimalist Souvenance and rounded Blue Maqams are just two of his works that deserve wide recognition. Investigating the label’s hugely impressive catalogue can be a fascinating and fun occupation.

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Mostly Autumn – White Rainbow

Mostly Autumn’s last release Sight of Day was superb. Now they’re back – and this time it’s personal. Very personal.

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The Unthanks – Lines

Photos via The Unthanks

I get the feeling that you’ll always learn something with an Unthanks project, and this one is an English teacher’s dream.

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Stopping the Loss

Sumptuous. That was my initial reaction at handling this release, a CD tucked safely inside the cover of a 112-page hardback book, inspired by another book, itself inspired by yet another book.

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Tim Farron Pt. 1: Past, Present and Future

Tim Farron via christiansinpolitics.org.uk

In July 2015, Tim Farron became leader of the Liberal Democrat party, a role he resigned from in July 2017. So July 2019, when a new leader has replaced Vince Cable, seemed a good time to catch up with him and find out whether he wakes up in the morning, wishing that he were going for the role now, with the party surging in the polls, rather than in the post-coalition years, when the party was risking extinction. Our conversation took place a few days before Jo Swinson was elected as the new leader.

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Tim Farron Pt. 2: When is a Liberal Not a Liberal?

In Tim Farron’s almost evangelistic resignation speech from the Liberal Democrats – which ended by quoting Isaac Watts – he said with feeling, “I seem to be a figure of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in… We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.”

It is a theme he eloquently expounded in a Theos Lecture and Guardian article later that year, at a depth that contrasted strongly with the shallow media hunt for a quick news soundbite that largely lost him the party leadership. Whereas the media seemed keen to grab a piece of drama, Farron wanted to set the party’s approach straight – something that could only happen with a bit of self-examination.

The fact that he felt pressured to resign, because of his faith, from a party that espouses the values of diversity and freedom suggested that something was dangerously wrong. In his lecture, he accused liberalism of “eating itself.”

In this part of my interview with him, he covered the pressures on Christian politicians, religious illiteracy and whether liberalism really is eating itself.

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Molly Tuttle – When You’re Ready

There aren’t too many singers who could keep me very happy just by singing a privacy policy. Dusty Springfield and Cara Dillon probably could, and Dusty would probably even find some emotion in there somehow. Molly Tuttle might just be good enough to join them.

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Phil Keaggy and Rex Paul – Illumination

There is surely no doubt that Phil Keaggy is one of the world’s greatest – if lesser known – guitarists. The more I listen to his work and his way of working, the more I get the impression that on one hand he is an introvert – shying away from press interviews, and working from the comfort of his home studio – but on the other, he is always keen musically to work with others, maybe because it stretches him and keeps his sounds fresh.

Already this year we have had the sometimes rough-and-ready, jazz-tinged instrumental jams of Bucket List with heavyweight secular session musicians (Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta are Peter Gabriel’s rhythm section and have both played with ex-Beatles), and Cappadocia, another exquisitely delicate instrumental work with Jeff Johnson.

The very fine Illumination is different again; Rex Paul Schnelle calls it prog-rock, while I’d go for AOR/pop-rock, as the structures are very conventional and the eleven songs only average four minutes each.

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November

When the movie begins with a rusty, three-legged creature with a cattle skull at its hub and sharp blades for feet wheeling its way across a field, capturing a cow and turning its limbs into rotor blades to carry the cow back to its owner’s hovel, you know that you are in for an unpredictable ride.

When it turns out that a peasant family have built this thing (a kratt), and then they make it explode by confusing it, Star Trek-like, by telling it to “make a ladder with bread,” then you get a taste of the film’s ever-present surrealism and dark humour.

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Martin Smith – Iron Lung

At last – after a few years of treading water since his years of success with Delirious? – Smith has found his mojo again. This rocks.

It’s not just a collection of standalone songs. There are definite lyrical themes in this release – bones and breath – that wrap it up and make it an album in the traditional sense.

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Over the Rhine – Love and Revelation

Love & Revelation

Poetry, grief, hope, emotional exposure and delectable sound – it’s all there in a collection that is as definitive of their work as any Over the Rhine release.

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Yancey’s Risky Strategy: Giving Faith the Tabletop Test

Photo of Philip Yancey

In November 2008 terrorists launched a four-day attack in Mumbai that left over 170 people dead.

A bomb exploded at Chhatrapati Shivaji railway station, a hospital was hit and a backpacker bar was sprayed with bullets, while gunmen occupied a Jewish centre and the Taj Mahal Palace and Trident-Oberoi hotels.

Witnesses told of bodies, blood and glass everywhere, as gunmen sought out British and American passport holders.

It was an intricately planned terrorist attack, which has become known as India’s 9/11.

As news networks worldwide were reporting on the dramas, author Philip Yancey was taking an early morning jog around a lake just twenty miles from the centre of Mumbai. He was due to speak on ‘Grace’ in the city that evening and would have been staying in a city centre hotel, had he not been invited out of town to see a hospital and AIDS clinic built by Dr. Stephen Alfred, who was hosting him.

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Philip Yancey – What Good is God? (Brief version)

philipyancey

When Philip Yancey was promoting his book What Good is God? I caught up with him to ask questions about testing the validity of faith.

Before we had a more relaxed interview for the written press, we spent 12 minutes recording a briefer session that I planned to offer to BBC Oxford’s Sunday Breakfast show, where I had a monthly music review slot.

I never did that (probably due to messing up my opening question). I have now cleaned up the ends of the audio, only to find that WordPress won’t support mp3 or 4ma files, so here is the transcript instead.

DW: In November 2008, gunmen carried out a series of coordinated attacks across the Indian city of Mumbai, killing 172 people and injuring hundreds more. At least seven high-profile locations were hit in India’s financial capital, including two luxury hotels where dozens of hostages were held. According to the BBC, “The attackers singled out British and American passport holders.”

I am talking to best-selling author Philip Yancey, an American who happened to be in Mumbai that day. He was due to speak in the city centre that evening and would have stayed in a city hotel, had he not detoured to see an HIV clinic in Mumbai’s suburbs.

Philip, how close do you feel you came to death that day?

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How to buy Renaissance

Renaissance live

Back in January 1976, Renaissance’s gig at Friars Aylesbury, supported by Gryphon, was the best show I had ever seen.

I vividly remember leaning against the balcony rail with my eyes closed during the Rickenbacker bass solo near the end of the 20-something minute encore “Ashes are Burning.” When I opened my eyes for the climax, a mirror ball was flinging shards of light around the hall. Sound and vision conspired to create a magical mood.

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