The fender Rhodes piano is the king of electric keyboards, bar none. Its distinctive old-school sound is the result of a satisfyingly olde-worlde technology closer to cutlery than to Korg: when a key is pressed, a hammer hits a metallic tine-bar which vibrates like a tuning fork. The note is then amplified via a pick-up microphone above the tine-bar, and given added volume and reverb through the Rhodes' in-built equivalent to the Hammond organ's Leslie speaker cabinet. It's such an individual sound that sampling doesn't even get close.
Rhodes Ahead (Jazzateria, JZZ 20303-2) by the American keyboard player Marc Cary, is a sort of funky love poem to the joys of the Fender Rhodes. The album is even dedicated to the instrument's inventor, Harold B Rhodes, who after pioneering a series of electric keyboards from the Forties onwards, sold the name to Leo Fender in the late Fifties. In 1997, after numerous court cases, Mr Rhodes - now in his late eighties - won back the name, which by then had been sold on to the Japanese keyboard manufacturer Roland.
It's by no means a demonstration record, but Cary offers a fairly comprehensive display of the instrument's capabilities, from slow and dreamy, echo-laden, chords to frantic, tine-bar twisting solos. It's all done to funky dance music beats that are most effective, although it has to be said that the Americans' belated enthusiasm for drum'n'bass is beginning to sound rather lame. Cary also uses a lot of Moog synth textures that sometimes threaten to turn the whole thing into an unconscious homage to Dr Who and Ron Grainer's Radiophonic Workshop, but overall the album is good.
By a striking coincidence, Rhodes Ahead is released at exactly the same time as the re-release of Layers (32 Groove, 32138), by the soul-jazz pianist Les McCann. This is more or less exactly the same thing, only done at a time when the Fender Rhodes was new. Recorded in 1972, when it was the first ever 32-track recording, Layers is a monster of an album.
Like Cary, McCann plays almost everything himself, layering (thus the title) Fender Rhodes and Arp synth textures over each other, set against the beautifully subtle percussion grooves of Ralph MacDonald, Donal Dean, Buck Clarke and Jimmy Rowser. It's a shamefully neglected work, and anyone who likes, say, Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man or I Want You albums will immediately recognise its appeal. On the quieter tracks, the Fender Rhodes textures shimmer like highlights. On the louder ones, the synths quack like ducks. Rhodes Ahead is good, but this is better.
There's more old-school keyboard sounds on Outro Lado by Zuco 103 (Ziriguiboom). The group is a model of that very contemporary aggregation: the Brazilian band from Belgium. Lilian Vieira's suitably tropical vocals are complemented by Low Countries keyboard and percussion programming courtesy of Stefan Schmid and Stefan Kruger, and despite the implicit cultural discrepancy, the resulting Euro-samba is mostly very good. Compared to the real thing of authentic bossa-nova maestro JoÃ£o Gilberto, however, it doesn't stand a chance.
Gilberto's JoÃ£o voz e violao (Verve), is a genuine late masterpiece. Nearly 40 years after he helped to invent bossa-nova jazz, together with his wife Astrud and the American saxophonist Stan Getz, Gilberto's new solo album demonstrates an apparently effortless brilliance. Using only his incomparably sexy voice and the plucked nylon strings of his guitar, Gilberto has managed to refine his art down to one long, glorious swoon.