Keith Jarrett says farewell, Björk has a romantic reawakening – the week’s best albums

American jazz titan Keith Jarrett - Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images
American jazz titan Keith Jarrett - Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Keith Jarrett, Bordeaux Concert  ★★★★☆

Since suffering two strokes in early 2018, the great American titan of jazz piano has fallen silent. It’s almost certain that we will never again see that hunched figure at the piano, always razor-thin, conjuring one extraordinary improvisation after another in immense 90-minute performances which paused only when he flung some withering remark at a hapless cougher, scolding that it was “just a matter of concentration”.

Concentration was certainly something Jarrett, now 77, had in abundance. He had to, because as he liked to remind us his concerts were never pre-planned. Quite a few jazz pianists like to boast they have no clue what they’re going to play when they walk on stage, but it soon becomes clear they have a few jazz standards or compositions of their own up their sleeve. With Jarrett, it really was creation in the moment – and in numerous different styles, from furiously intense atonal flurries to strange flights of harmonic fancy not far from the mystical Russian composer Scriabin. In amongst these Jarrett would unexpectedly evoke a gentle vision of pastoral America, leading sometimes to a full-hearted hymn-like apotheosis, or one of his trademark hard-hitting blues.

All these appear on his latest album, which was recorded at a concert he gave in 2016 as part of a European tour. It’s hard not to be a little sceptical that this is a significant addition to the Jarrett oeuvre, since ECM has already released two other albums recorded at concerts during the same tour, including one recording of the Budapest concert which Jarrett has declared was the best of the bunch. He felt a spiritual affinity to the city, partly because he loves the fierce irregular motor rhythms of Hungary’s greatest composer Béla Bartók (which left their mark on his own music) but also because his maternal grandmother was Hungarian.

In fact the new album, consisting of 13 improvisations and austerely titled “Parts I to XIII”, is notably distinct from the other two, and has some wonderful things clearly invented at white heat. Jarrett likes to launch off with a simple idea which then accretes complication and energy, such as Part IV, which begins with two trills divided by an octave which eventually skitter apart. Or Part V, which has an insistent rocking figure in the right hand placed against restless harmonies in the left. Part X begins with unexpected and welcome lightness in tinkling rain-drop patterns which soon acquire heft and direction.

These severely abstract inventions require so much brain power and digital dexterity that Jarrett often groans and growls like a tennis player returning a difficult shot.

Fortunately, in amongst them are reflective lyrical numbers which radiate a moving sense of solitude, in which you can sense him relax. Just occasionally one feels the warmth of collective emotions, as in the expansive hymn-like numbers, and one terrifically earthy blues piece. Nothing outstays its welcome – in fact one or two movements, such as the radiant Part III, seem to end too soon.

Where is the jazz in all this, you might be thinking? In truth it’s hardly evident on this album, except for the odd fleeting jazz harmony. It would have been a welcome relief to encounter a jazz standard or two, but on the other hand that would have spoiled the purity of Jarrett’s scheme. In the final numbers the expressive heat cools and the textures become simpler in ways that earlier on would have seemed thin. But placed here, where the music is moving towards its quiescence, they feel exactly right. If this album turns out to be Jarrett’s farewell, it will be a more than worthy one. Ivan Hewett

Björk, Fossora ★★★★☆

The title of Björk’s 11th solo album is a made-up word, feminising the Latin fossore, which means digger or delver. The typically striking cover depicts the Icelandic enchantress in the guise of a woodland sprite presiding over a twisty convergence of psychedelic digital fungi, which barely hints at the weird multitudes of the album itself. The title track features six clarinets and an oboe in a lively argument with some apparently random percussion whilst Björk trills about “fossorial claws” and “hyphae roots” and a multitracked choir strikes up a militaristic chant of “Fossora!!!” before it all erupts in a hardcore techno free for all concocted with Indonesian electronic duo Gabber Modus Operandi. The impression is of an army of Björks concocting an anthem for when mushrooms will rule the earth.

Like her musical heroine, Kate Bush, Björk creates unique and incredible sonic and conceptual worlds for her music to exist in. Unlike Bush, she doesn’t seem to care whether her songs are accessible to anyone else. To say this is up there with the strangest albums of her career is not really to say much, because all Björk albums are deeply strange. Fossora though certainly requires some commitment on behalf of the listener. The sound is rich and full, resonant with bass tones lifted giddily aloft with perkily arranged woodwind then smashed together with challenging electro percussion. But the songs rise and fall, start and stop, twist and change, shrink and erupt with the organic amorphousness of the mycelial networks she is currently obsessed with.

Björk’s lyrics are arresting and fascinating, poetically delving between grief and exultation, emotional introspection and physical celebration, as she shifts between mourning the death of her mother (in 2018) and celebrating her post-divorce sexual and romantic reawakening. The hyperventilating sadness of Sorrowful Soil contrasts strikingly with such frothily uplifting excursions as Ovule, Atopos and the noisy Allow. Linking disparate elements are short pieces with titles like Mycelia and Trolla Gabba that chop up Björk’s arresting vocals into playful instrumentals, whilst Fungal City finds Bjork twisting around experimental soul singer Joshua Wise (aka Serpentwithfeet) to equate conjugal bliss with, um, mushroom gathering.

There is very little to hold onto in terms of verses, choruses, hooks, grooves or steady rhythms. Björk’s enunciation is almost comically exaggerated, extending syllables and rolling her r’s with the exaggerated relish of a Björk impersonator. The percussive elements often sound like somebody’ bashing things together in an adjoining studio and hoping for the best. Yet there is a depth of feeling and imagination on display that is mysterious and beguiling if you can check your scepticism at the entrance to Björk’s primordial cavern. The lushly orchestral Victimhood and Freefall display Björk at her most introspective, following melodic and lyrical paths into the undergrowth of her own fertile mind, as if feminised Scott Walker had been reincarnated as an Icelandic spirit.

Conjuring her mother on the raw and haunting Ancestress (subtitled an epitaph for Hilda Runa), Björk notes her “idiosyncratic sense of rhythm” and “dyslexia, the ultimate freeform / she invents words and adds syllables” in “a language all her own,” all of which remain core to Björk’s own approach to creativity, on full display throughout Fossora. Contributions from Björk’s adult musical children, Sindri Eldon on Sorrowful Soil and Ísadóra Bjarkardóttir Barney on gorgeously sensuous closing piece A Mother’s House may affirm a notion of the album as a private prayer for familial love and nurturing. The listener can only stand aside and gawp in bemused amazement.

Somehow, Björk has located a global audience for her fantastical imagination, granted license to create music unlike anyone else on earth, which has to be a cause for celebration, even as she confounds and exasperates. If I may make up a word of my own, it is utterly bjorkers, and all you can do is dig it. Neil McCormick

Craig David's 22 is no Born To Do It
Craig David's 22 is no Born To Do It

Craig David, 22 ★★★☆☆

If you were to play bingo with Craig David’s new album, 22, you’d soon have a full house: acoustic guitar, R&B vocals, skittish garage beats, a melismatic “yeaahh-yeah” or two, song titles ripe for the quipping, paeans to women, and the British artist’s famous manicured beard present and correct on the album’s cover.

All of which is not to say that 22 is a novelty act. True, its name acknowledges the length of David’s career so far, which began with his 2000 debut album Born To Do It. Now heralded as a classic, that record soared to No 1, sold eight million copies worldwide, earned him six Brit nominations, and continues to influence R&B today.

But 22’s only nostalgic indulgence arrives via a sample of Robin S’s 1990 club hit Show Me Love on generic dancefloor-ready track My Heart’s Been Waiting For You, a nod to Craig’s success as a longstanding Ibiza DJ. And despite a crowded guestlist – collaborators include electronic producers Galantis and young British artists MNEK and Gracey – the new album isn’t addled by trends, unlike its 2018 predecessor, which caught David toying with autotune and EDM drops.

“Let’s take it back to basics,” he suggests instead, and does just that, from the guitar and garage beats on opener Teardrops, to piano-led G Love and confessional ballad Maybe. 21 Questions echoes the catchy refrain of his biggest hit, 7 Days, while Gold finds David back in the bedroom, with an ode to tantric sex thrown off by a peculiar vocal effect.

Mainstream culture may have been determined to chuck him in the bargain bin during the Bo’ Selecta! years of the 2000s, when Avid Merrion’s insulting TV caricature did little to help David’s flagging career. But a fresh generation of ears have given him a fairer hearing and comeback success. 22 is no Born To Do It, but it at least reminds us of that album’s deserved prestige. Kate French-Morris

Gabriels ‘defies categorisation’
Gabriels ‘defies categorisation’

Gabriels, Angels & Queens Part I ★★★★☆

The music of Los Angeles trio Gabriels defies categorisation. They weave gospel, funk, jazz, soul and disco into a sort of sonic comfort blanket, beautifully overlaid by the velvet falsetto of singer Jacob Lusk. Angels & Queens Part 1 is the first part of their two-part debut album (Part II comes next March). Produced by Kendrick Lamar’s longstanding producer Sounwave, Angels & Queens is intricately arranged and replete with daring orchestrations. It somehow manages to comprise mid-paced music you can dance to and dance rhythms you can chill to.

Lusk grew up singing in gospel choirs. His delivery – subtle when required, punchy at other times, dynamic throughout – is the sort that can only come from a place of innate inner confidence and experience. A stint in American Idol in 2011 taught Lusk what he didn’t want to be: a pop cliché. He was far more sure-footed breaking into a version of Strange Fruit through a megaphone at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2020, bringing protesters to a stunned silence. There are indeed elements of Billie Holiday to his voice, Marvin Gaye and Prince too. The track Taboo is a slow jazz shuffle in a weird time signature, while To The Moon is delicate and mesmerising. Bandmates Ryan Hope and Ari Balouzian bring depth and nuance to every track.

As a package, Angels & Queens Part I is a soothing and soulful antidote to life’s slings and arrows, of which there are many right now. The coda of final track Mama sees Lusk singing “It’s gonna be alright” over and over again. Given the omniclusterf––– of the world in 2022, listeners are likely to greet his statement in hope rather than in expectation. But, for a few moments, it does the trick. Gabriels are the kind of band we all need right now. I can’t wait for Part II. James Hall

Slipknot, The End, So Far ★★★★☆

Though not quite the first, Slipknot were one of the most important bands to give metal a kick up the behind around the turn of the millennium. Nine madmen in masks and boiler suits whose gigs were known to erupt into violence among their own ranks (for which percussionist and leader Shawn ‘Clown’ Crahan would prepare by huffing on a jar containing a dead crow), even among the anger and angst of nu-metal, they were a dangerous, thrilling beast.

Hitting the Billboard Top 5 with 2001’s scorching Iowa – an album euphoric in its sense of wanton hate, punching back at fame in the same way as Nirvana’s wilfully difficult In Utero – it was often wondered how long such an incendiary outfit could keep running in the red. The answer in their later years is that they haven’t.

On The End, So Far, the nihilistic furnace still glows hot, but amongst the fuming metal riffs, Slipknot also fume in a more creative way.

Languid opener Adderall with its Queens Of The Stone Age-ish vibe is a strange curveball that’s better the second time, but the atmosphere on the slower Medicine For The Dead evokes a crawling  dread, as does the stressed-out, grungy Acidic. It’s darkly satisfying, especially given how good Corey Taylor’s voice sounds in both singing and screaming.

When they do open fire on the heavy The Dying Song (Time To Sing) and The Chapeltown Rag (about Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe), the rage is as deadly as that of old. The enormous Hivemind, meanwhile, is the best thing they’ve done in years.

Slipknot aren’t the band they once were – not least because of the deaths of bassist Paul Gray in 2010 and founding ex-drummer Joey Jordison last year, as well as the acrimonious departure of percussionist Chris Fehn. But as they grow old (somewhat) gracefully, it’s gratifying to find them still able to explode so effectively with nihilism when they choose to. Nick Ruskell

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Cool it Down ★★★★☆

The message at the core of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ fifth album Cool it Down is time: how much we have of it and what we do with it. Essentially, how modern anxieties manifest when we speak about mortality, layered over garage rock, syncopated beats and dance floor ready treats.

The heavy synths and Karen O’s foreboding voice in Spitting At The Edge of The World feel anthemic (a bit like Gold Lion from third album Show Your Bones), though lyrically it’s framed through a climate crisis conversation she has with her young son about his future. Burning grapples with the 2020 LA wildfires. “Into the sea, out of the fire”, she sings. Both tracks feel like rallying cries, imploring you to dance and scream but with purpose and in the spirit of non-compliance.

Their signature, antithetical acerbic tenderness – most notable in the unrelenting intimacy of their hit 2003 song Maps – is there too, on songs Blacktop and Mars. On the former, O’s sweet, sentimental voice sounds like a lullaby, while Mars marks her first foray into spoken word.

The album has so much range and scope (typical of Dave Sitek produced albums) that you often have to recalibrate as you listen. It can feel jarring, until you settle into the ordered chaos of it all.

On Cool It Down, Yeah Yeah Yeahs once again avoid the tropes of what some of their career-long contemporaries have fallen into, which might be the key to the band’s decades-long success. They evolve without being beholden to the zeitgeist, all the while retaining their sonic core. This certainly isn’t an indie-sleaze revivalist album, nor is it an effort to prove their relevance. Cool It Down puts words and music to fears and concerns while shaking you into feelings of some radical hope. Michelle Kambasha 

Snarky Puppy are near impossible to categorise
Snarky Puppy are near impossible to categorise

Snarky Puppy, Empire Central ★★★★☆

Multi Grammy award-winning Snarky Puppy return to where their story began with Empire Central. Much like their debut record and many since, the album was recorded in front of a live audience, this time across eight nights at Dallas’ Deep Ellum Art Company.

The city is recognised for its diversity of music movements, from early blues to punk-rock and country music, so it makes perfect sense that Snarky Puppy – a band near impossible to categorise – have been causing record store owners to scratch their heads since the release of their debut album, Live at Uncommon Ground, in 2005. They will continue to do so, endearingly, with Empire Central.

There’s several highlights on the record, such as the rootsy, Americana-style bop of Broken Arrow, or the sultry, nu-soul tinged Cliroy from trumpeter Jay Jennings. Take It! is a throwback funk-romp that defies you to stay still.

In fact, “throwback” could describe a great deal of the tracks. Bet sounds relatively old fashioned with its smoother-than-butter sax, and Free Fall’s old-skool synth and wailing guitar solos are a time-hop. And the musicians: the band is known for having an ever-evolving list of personnel, but the all male line-up of 20 feels like a page taken from a dusty book.

Snarky Puppy aren’t too likely to win a legion of new fans with Empire Central, which feels like a collection of singles rather than a chronological record. It will however be treasured by fans of the gone-too-soon Bernard Wright, as the keyboardist’s last recording.

Will loyal Snarky Puppy fans be disappointed? Not likely. They’ll be delighted by the band’s continued scale and grandeur; for its music that is as unclassifiable as it is virtuosic. Tina Edwards

Freddie Gibb creates a blockbuster rap record
Freddie Gibb creates a blockbuster rap record

Freddie Gibbs, Soul Sold Separately ★★★★☆

The fact gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs is releasing his major label solo debut, Soul Sold Separately, at the ripe old age of 40 is a clear sign of the rough roads he has travelled. Many thought Gibbs – a former heroin dealer from Gary, Indiana, who has astonishing rapid-fire raps that weave in and out of snare drums like machine gun slugs fired by a sharpshooter – would blow up back in 2012, when he signed to Atlanta trap legend Young Jeezy’s Atlantic-affiliated CTE label.

The relationship with Jeezy quickly soured and a blackballed Gibbs was forced to slowly carve out a cult fan base on the independent rap circuit, releasing a series of classic albums with more artsy, surrealist rap producers like Madlib and The Alchemist. During this come-up, he’s been in the headlines just as much for controversy as music, beating a sexual assault allegation in Europe and dangerously feuding with an endless list of rival rappers.

Yet the long-awaited SSS proves patience is ultimately a virtue, with Gibbs creating a blockbuster rap record that expertly tows the line between feeling like you’re king of the world, unwinding in a presidential suite, and being so paranoid of jealous enemies that you’re forced to clutch an M1 Carbine in your living room like Malcolm X.

“The saddest thing about success is the hate that comes with it,” spits an anguished Gibbs on Grandma’s Stove, a song that serves as both an outpouring of bullets and pain. On Lobster Omelette, he recalls selling dope out of his toddler daughter’s diaper bag, displaying a hustler mentality worlds apart from the moneyed boasts from his mainstream peers.

But like all great gangster rappers (see 2Pac or Biggie), Freddie Gibbs also feels like a walking contradiction. When he isn’t giving you an insight into the bravery of drug dealers or PTSD flashbacks of being thrown in solitary confinement for refusing to rap for a prison guard, he’s comparing his murderous instincts to infamous Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight and even joking about shooting up nightclubs for fun (Zipper Bags). These moments can grate and feel like Gibbs has forgotten why people fell in love with him in the first place: not for being the bully, but the witty underdog who stands up to the bullies.

Technically Gibbs is a flawless emcee and it’s great to see more of his melodic range on SSS, something that will deservedly bring in new fans. But for his next album, it would be interesting to see Gibbs explore the roots of his “hustler mentality” even further, and start to subvert some of gangster rap’s more impish clichés. Thomas Hobbs 

Shygirl, Nymph ★★★★☆

Blane Muise (aka Shygirl) has been one of the most exciting voices in experimental club music ever since she aired her debut single Want More in 2016. Since then the London singer-songwriter and rapper has released a steady stream of EPs (2018’s Cruel Practice and her 2020 breakthrough, Alias) alongside deconstructed dance singles. Often, her songs spotlight her sultry sprechgesang that explicitly details her sexual desires, as house, hip-hop, bassline rhythms and more are given moody industrial treatment.

Muise, 29, has undoubtedly landed her strongest collection of songs in debut album Nymph. She remains fixated on sex – be it about empowerment, power dynamics or just plain lust – and in some instances ups the ante of her typically libidinous lyrics. On pulsating Nymph cut Missing U she echoes the lyrics of her 2021 single BDE and, focussing on the male anatomy, flips the male gaze with ease. On hyperpop lullaby Coochie (a Bedtime Story), Muise appears to widen that gaze to celebrate queer lust.

Throughout, you can hear the stamps of Shygirl’s co-writers/producers such as Arca’s deft ability to dismantle sonics on Come For Me. Sparse, militant drum patterns sound like they’ve been swallowed by broken subwoofers. A disconcerting listen that belongs to a dystopian landscape.

Firefly and Wildfire channel UK garage with fluid two-step beats, while Honey drips in liquid drum ’n’ bass as Muise wishes for a gentler intimacy in wanting “kisses” to “rain on me”. Nike, a skeletal hip-hop number that hears Shygirl compare the joy of a fling to ordering a Big Mac, is one of a few dud moments. Otherwise, Nymph is a distinctive, sensual and striking debut. Charlotte Krol