This 1994 British studio cast recording of Lionel Bart's musical Oliver! features a strong cast led by character actor Victor Spinetti, who has a long series of West End credits and a Tony Award, but who remains best-known to American audiences for his supporting roles in the Beatles movies A Hard Day's Night and Help! Spinetti's Fagin is a good, detailed portrayal, and it's matched by Bonnie Langford's Nancy. The score, of course, remains tuneful, and the West End Concert Orchestra conducted by Matthew Freeman plays lively arrangements, even if the chorus often sounds a bit too properly British to be believable as a bunch of poverty-stricken boys. Originally recorded for the U.K. Carlton Shows Collection, this version was reissued as a low-priced disc available in the U.S. starting in the spring of 2001. It is not in the same league as the original London cast album, the original Broadway cast album, the original soundtrack, or the 1994 London revival cast album, but it is a pleasant enough recording, especially at a discount price.
Ottawa, Canada's Souljazz Orchestra have been around since 2002, releasing three albums of Afro-beat-inspired jazz before Rising Sun, their fourth. But despite a name that's unfortunately similar to jazz-fusion and jam band favorite Soulive, the Canadian sextet manages to make music that stays relatively true and honest to its inspirations without sounding either derivative or exploitative. This is especially true of the songs that stay closer to the jazz realm, which makes sense: Souljazz's members were trained in, and started in, jazz, and they seem most comfortable here. This means even when the African and Latin influences are added in, as in "Mamaya" (the name of a Guinean dance from the '40s) or the lovely "Consecration" -- which starts with a riff off the first section of Miles Davis' version of "Concierto de Aranjuez" (albeit with saxophone instead of trumpet) before moving into something more upbeat, a swinging modal jazz piece with plenty of room for exploratory solos -- there's an understanding in the listener that the music comes from a sincere and well-kept place. It's not that the songs that move away from this direction -- the Afro-beaty "Agbara" and Mulata Astatke-inspired "Negus Negast" are the two prominent examples -- sound insincere, there's just something a little bit off, the drums in "Negus Negast" mixed just a little too loud, the background vocals in "Agbara" a little too pretty (something, that needs to be noted, contemporaries like Antibalas and Budos Band have been able to avoid), something that hints just slightly of the "world music made palatable" phenomenon. Fortunately, these moments are few and distant enough that after all is said and done, Rising Sun still feels like a victory.
It's very easy to dismiss Rhythmscape: The New Sound of Melody and Rhythm as new age meandering. After all there's plenty of rain sticks and gongs, and you'll find plenty of blathering in the sleeve notes. And don't forget the faux jazz that makes up "Zinc." But if you can take the time to get beyond all the clichés, there's actually some tasty musicianship on this album. Bikram Ghosh is an extremely talented tabla player, albeit one who's working very much outside the box on this release, accommodating Indian ideas, voices, and instruments (along with Western percussion and instruments) to Western mores. All too often that's a bad thing, and brings out the worst from both cultures in the name of fusion.
But on pieces like "Gangotri" there's some depth to the thought and the playing. Granted, it's not going to be to everyone's taste. Those who favor Indian classical music will likely see it as heresy, and the new age crowd might find it somewhat busy. So while it falls betwixt and between, there's still plenty of good to be found -- you just have to search for it.