Esso Afrojam Funkbeat, World Trade, Tomi Malm + others: Five for the Road

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Five for the Road is an occasional look at the compact discs and / or downloads that have been in my car recently – some new, some old …

TOMI MALM – WALKIN’ ON AIR (2017): Tomi Malm delivers one of the year’s AOR/West coast delights with this album. The Finnish producer/songwriter calls on the talents of studio big shots like John “JR” Robinson and James Harrah, as well as former Chicago bassist Jason Scheff and current Toto bassist/vocalist Shem Von Schroeck. For some artists, all that star power would easily overwhelm the songs. Not in this case, as Malm’s writing and arranging are more than up to the task. From the opening instrumental “Kuwakaribisha,” it’s unmistakable Tomi Malm is an artist whose craft is well honed. The horn arrangements hint of Jerry Hey, while the rhythm section moves with precision and power. With the ballad “When You’re Gone,” Walkin’ on Air shifts focus, dialing the power back – but not the acumen. Drummer extraordinaire Simon Phillips provides his handiwork in support of vocalist Frank Adahl on the song “Favor.” “Show Me a Sign,” written by Hank Easton, showcases a touching turn by the late singer Warren Wiebe. Malm deftly builds the track around that vocal; he’s joined by Poland’s ZoSia to produce unmistakable magic. Additional stand out tracks include the title song (featuring the welcome return of Jason Scheff on bass and lead vocals) and “A Reason to Smile.” Tomi Malm’s Walkin’ on Air should not be missed.

HAZELRIGG BROTHERS – SONGS WE LIKE (2017): This piano, bass and drum trio (featuring John O’Reilly Jr. on drums) have created an engaging collection of pop/rock covers. While the selections are usually familiar, the brothers whip up interesting arrangements backed by their high level of musicianship. The result is an recording that appeals to the jazz purist and the causal jazz/pop music listener alike. Songs like Steely Dan’s “King of the World” and the Police’s “Sprits in the Material World” hint at the originals, yet are powered by George Hazelrigg’s high-powered piano attack, sibling Geoff’s liberating acoustic bass playing and O’Reilly’s powerful yet sympathetic drumming. Sure, many jazz artists have forged albums out of pop/rock classics – or in this case, some near classics – yet not many have been as bold as the Hazelrigg Brothers in their song selection, or as forward leaning in their playing. Each track feels live and expertly executed. Songs We Like is guaranteed to be an album you’ll love.

KIKI EBSEN – COOL SONGS VOL. 2: THE MUSIC OF JONI MITCHELL (2017): Kiki Ebsen has been on a roll as of late with live tributes to rock, jazz, folk legend Joni Mitchell. She’s no stranger to covers, having released a stunning album dedicated to her father Buddy Ebsen (2014’s Scarecrow Sessions), but Kiki takes a different tact here. Cool Songs Vol. 2 is a solo album, with Ebsen – a very accomplished player – handling the piano duties. Additionally, Ebsen’s voice soars over Joni Mitchell’s 1970s-era material, adding a different palette of color to the original recordings while staying close to most of the original arrangements. My only disappointment is that Kiki Ebsen has not released live recordings of these Joni-focused shows. Cool Songs Vol. 2 makes a fine substitute, however. “Two Grey Rooms” and “Blonde in the Bleachers” are bold and powerful tributes to Joni Mitchell’s talent as a writer and Ebsen’s skill as an arranger and vocalist.

WORLD TRADE – UNITY (2017): Billy Sherwood must not believe in getting sleep. Before his tours with both Asia and Yes, Sherwood’s band World Trade released their third album. Unlike Sherwood’s other band Circa, who released a prog-rock classic last year, World Trade has more of an AOR feel – but that doesn’t mean the songs are any less well-crafted or well written. Billy Sherwood composed a majority of the songs with L.A vet and drummer extraordinaire Mark T. Williams. The results are hook filled and moving, allowing former Doobie Brothers keyboardist Guy Allison and guitarist Bruce Gowdy the room to infuse their own stamp. Sherwood’s vocals are less processed and compressed than last year’s Circa album, and his production is as tight as Williams’ drum head. Songs like “Where We’re Going” and “Unify” demonstrate a songcraft seldom heard on rock radio today.

ESSO AFROJAM FUNKBEAT – JUNTOS (2017): Esso Afrojam Funkbeat returns with a rousing set of Afro/Latin-based songs which not only are guaranteed to get you to move but also to think. The nine-person Chicago-based ensemble pulls no punches, with the touching “Baila” to start the album. The song builds on the vocals of Diana Mosquera and Jasmine Malika, while incorporating elements of rap, jazz and dance. Though Juntos is only Esso Afrojam Funkbeat’s second full-length release, it demonstrates a road-tested formula which includes infectious grooves twangy guitars and Chicago blues elements. Another element which may be initially overlooked is their activist spirit: Esso Afrojam Funkbeat consistently work to raise awareness about immigration issues, music appreciation and literacy. Check out the song “Mariposa Negra” and “Cumbia Del Encanto” for some musical healing.

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Preston Frazier
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