Hannah TitleWell, that’s another one for the bucket list. It’s taken a long time but I’ve finally had a conversation with someone who began a sentence with ‘Y’all…’, so thank you very much Hannah Aldridge from Muscle Shoals, Alabama for finally putting that one right for me. I was at Green Note to see Don Gallardo and Hannah on the last night of the UK tour to promote their respective current albums, Don’s “Hickory” and Hannah’s “Razor Wire”. Don’s band for the tour has been Travis Stock (playing bass, mandolin and guitar) and two musicians from the UK on keyboards and pedal steel, while Hannah has been delivering a stripped-back solo acoustic set of songs from her debut album, plus a bit of new material as well.

As always, the Green Note audience on this sold-out night was attentive and appreciative giving both artists a warm response. Don Gallardo played a set featuring songs from his new album including “Diamonds and Gold”, “Carousel”, “Ophelia, We Cry (Ode to Levon Helm)”, “The North Dakota Blues” and the superb “Down in the Valley”. Don’s easy geniality between songs created a warm atmosphere that was perfectly suited to the intimacy of the venue and the set came to a perfect close with Hannah joining the band on a cover of the Neil Young/CSNY song “Helpless”; it was one of many spine-tingling moments on the night.

Hannah Aldridge’s songs on her debut album “Razor Wire” are intensely personal and confessional; at times they’re brutally honest and even harrowing. The band arrangements on the album aren’t obtrusive, so it’s relatively easy to see how the songs would work as unplugged versions in a live setting, but Hannah also has a few curve-balls to throw, which is impressive under the circumstances; she’s been ill throughout the tour and has just started to recover and get her voice back to full power.

From the start of the set, Hannah pitched her between-song delivery somewhere between the real Hannah and the more strident, harder Hannah who appears on the cover of the album; you think it’s mostly a stage persona, but you probably wouldn’t push your luck to find out. She had a setlist prepared but after the opener “You Ain’t Worth the Fight”, all bets were off as the audience had their say and Hannah adjusted the dynamics of the set accordingly. “Rails to Ride” (from 2013) and the superb new song, “Gold Rush” were the only songs in the set not featured on “Razor Wire”.

The entire set was absolutely spellbinding as Hannah poured her soul into “Old Ghost”, “Razor Wire” and “Black and White”, but two songs stood out, for different reasons, from the rest of the set. “Parchman”, unlike most of Hannah’s songs, was inspired by something outside her personal experience; it’s about a female prisoner waiting to be executed at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (known colloquially as Parchman Farm) for the murder of her abusive husband. The song pulls no punches, and had the audience enthralled throughout. For the final song of the set, “Howlin’ Bones”, Hannah left the security of the stage, and amplified vocals, to take the song direct to the audience, moving around the room to deliver a raw and genuinely unplugged version of a powerful song. You couldn’t call it easy listening, but it was raw and compulsive.

Although the entire evening was packed with lovely moments, Hannah Aldridge’s set confirmed my suspicion that she not only has a gift for turning life into art, but she’s also a hugely gifted and empathic performer who can project the emotional power of her songs. We may have missed out on the Jackson Browne cover “These Days” on the night, but this was a stunning solo performance of songs of the highest quality.

Watch out for her next UK tour, but check out “Razor Wire” in the meantime.

NYHIt’s relatively easy to record an album these days; you can do it at home or maybe in a studio and it won’t cost you the earth. You can organise your own distribution online or at live shows; you won’t get rich but you will get some return for your creativity. Not everything released by this route is good; there are way too many vanity projects, but occasionally something really worthwhile emerges. Sometimes a group of talented and like-minded musicians get together and just play the tunes they really want to play. If it makes a few dollars, that’s fine, but that’s not really the point because the musicians are playing the music they want to play and having a bit of fun with their own original material and a few covers.  Very, very occasionally the result is an album packed with, superb performances and arrangements that you want to listen to again and again. “New York Horns” is one of those.

So, who are the New York Horns? Well the horn players are Chris Anderson (trumpet and flugelhorn), John Isley (tenor and baritone sax and bass clarinet) and Neal Pawley (trombone and vocals) and they’re better known as the horn section of Southside Johnny the Asbury Jukes. Here they’re aided and abetted by fellow-Jukes Jeff Kazee (piano, Hammond B3, keys and vocals) and Glenn Alexander(guitars, dobro, mandolin and vocals) and a rhythm section of Shawn Pelton (drums and percussion) and Tony Tino (electric bass).

The album opens with a very different instrumental take on KT Tunstall’s breakthrough song “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree”. Where the original builds gradually by using a loop pedal for instrumental and vocal parts, the NYH version comes in, after a quick guitar intro, at full strength with Latin American percussion (courtesy of Marc Quinones) and perhaps a hint of early Santana. Chris Anderson’s tone poem “Morningside at Midnight” is next, taken at a walking tempo, and evoking the spirit of Morningside Heights with electric piano, wah-wah guitar and unison sax and trumpet. The Hank Williams classic “Hey Good Lookin’” is the first vocal piece, driven along by a guitar riff and horn fills before the sax, guitar and Hammond solos kick in. “Song for Levon”, a Chris Anderson and John isley co-write is a tribute to Levon Helm. It’s stately and mournful in classic New Orleans tradition and features Southside Johnny as guest harmonica player.

The uptempo jazz-funk of John Isley’s “Little Miss Thing” wouldn’t sound out of place on either of Donald Fagen’s first two solo albums and features the first trombone solo on the album from Neal Pawley; it’s great fun. “Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, written and sung by Jeff Kazee, is a powerful soul song with a superb plaintive vocal and an arrangement that Allen Toussaint would be proud of while “Strollin’ With Sean” is a fairly straightforward blues driven along by a horn riff and it’s another chance for the guys to solo for all they’re worth and have a great time. The final cover on the album is John Hiatt’s “Little Head” which retains the feel of the original while adding punch with horn fills.

John Isley’s “78 Below” opens with an uptempo Nile Rodgers –style lead/rhythm riff which, with the punchy bass, drives the piece along underneath a staccato muted trumpet melody before the mood mellows again with Chris Anderson’s “More Than Tears”.  Opening with a restrained combination of piano, acoustic guitar and mandolin, this moody and melancholic piece is perfect for the flugelhorn which Chris uses to carry the main melody. John Isley’s “Under the Hood” is an atmospheric piece using Hammond and the horn ensemble to create the mood and features a muted trumpet solo from Chris Anderson. The album’s closing song, “Nothing Left to Say”, opens slowly in New Orleans jazz funeral style, with a guest vocal by Christine Ohlman before erupting just before the halfway mark into uptempo New Orleans jazz with trumpet and sax counterpoint. There’s also a lyrical message here which underpins the whole album; however bad things get, there’s always music to pull you back, whether you play it or listen to it. It’s a perfect way to close the album.

The beauty of this album is that it was made because the musicians involved really wanted to make it. They had a lot of ideas and they wanted to get those ideas out there to people who might want to hear them. It’s not about focus groups or marketing teams; it’s about strong, sometimes very personal, material arranged well and played superbly. If you need to label it, I suppose it’s jazz, but it also pushes out in other directions as well, towards funk and old school soul; there’s certainly plenty of variety on display. Check out some of the song links here and think seriously about buying yourself a copy, if only to let a bunch of great musicians know that some people out there are actually getting the message.

Available now from Amazon and iTunes.