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Originally published on May 24, 2020.
It’s a given that African musical influences are deeply embedded in the DNA of jazz and its related musical languages. A handful of new releases bears witness to the richness of jazz-related music coming out of Africa via her historical legacies and contemporary currents.
Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, of British and Barbadian descent, has been headlining festivals and concerts in Europe with his group of South African musicians The Ancestors. We Are Sent Here by History (Impulse!), their sophomore release, may earn them devotees in the United States, as well. Hutchings’ fresh-yet-roots-conscious brand of Afro-jazz is in full ensemble swing, lined with themes concerning cultural-racial alienation and global peril. With a loose and unfussy collective sound, Hutchings and company summon a winning group identity on the shambling groove of “Run, the Darkness Will Pass,” the roiling rhythmic undulance of “We Will Work (on Redefining Manhood)” and the graceful benediction of the sax-piano closer, “Teach Me How To Be Vulnerable.”
Cross-cultural accord is at the heart of Joy (Origin), a collaboration between American saxophonist Benjamin Boone and the Ghana Jazz Collective. Boone was on a Fulbright to study the music of Ghana when he found a jazz-informed coterie of Ghanaian musicians, with whom he conspires on this seven-track album brimming with funk, jazz and West African spirits. Funk-fusion informs “The 233 Jazz Bar” (a hopping venue in Accra, Ghana), “Curtain of Light” spotlights bassist Bright Osei, and the lovely R&B-laced “Without You” showcases vocalist Sandra Huson. The fittingly named title track boasts strong soloing from Boone on soprano sax and Victor Dey Jr. on piano.
Nimble guitarist Lionel Loueke has been a prominent African jazzer for years, playing alongside Herbie Hancock and lending his limber electro-acoustic stylings and sophisticated touch to many situations. Among his more personal projects is the intriguing multicultural trio Gilfema, with Hungarian drummer Ferenc Nemeth and Swedish-Italian bassist Massimo Biolcati. Three (Sounderscore), the group’s third album, deftly blends influences from West Africa with other global and contemporary influences. Loueke mixes acoustic and synth sonorities, and works naturally in odd-meter landscapes. His roots are evident in the buoyant West African feel of “Brio” (in 5/4) and “Fleuve Congo,” before the trio slides into the snaky, funky stuff of “Algorhythm and Blues.”
A very different trio configuration arrives with the meeting of famed Ivory Coast-born balafon (African xylophone) player Aly Keïta, woodwind player Jan Galega Brönnimann and percussionist Lucas Niggli. Their second album, Kalan Teban (Intakt), delivers a lean, evocative textural mix with African overtones and undertones. Of Malinke Griot lineage, Keïta — who’s played with Joe Zawinul and Jan Garbarek — is at once foundation and centerpiece. Brönnimann’s bass clarinet and Niggli’s subtle, supple percussion also seduce the ear, from the lyricism of “Bafut” to the playful kinetic joy of “Riddim” to the sweetly simmering “Mogo-Sobe,” replete with Keïta’s gentle vocal chant.
From the unburied treasure annals comes Rejoice (World Circuit), a fascinating confabulation of African masters — drummer and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, one of Africa’s best-known musicians, who died in 2018. In 2010, producer Nick Gold facilitated a long-dreamed-of studio collaboration, fruits of which have only now been released with contributions from young London-based musicians. Allen’s Nigeria meets Masekela’s South Africa via the latter’s innately melodic horn and the former’s delicate and detailed yet preternaturally funky drums. The pair dialogue on a deep level on tracks such as “Obama Shuffle Strut Blues,” the funk-salted “Slow Bones” and “Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same).” It’s a grand, intimate and now immortal Afro-jazz summit. - Josef Woodard