It is easy to admire Will Calhoun.
He has, of course, distinguished himself for the last quarter-century with Living Colour. Anyone who has followed this band beyond what gets played on the radio knows he is one of the premier rock drummers.
What many people might not know is that Calhoun is restless as he is talented. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, Calhoun was comfortable playing with jazz musicians years before he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. During Living Colour’s first hiatus, in the mid-‘90s, Calhoun took several extended trips to Africa, studying his instrument and absorbing the culture.
In 2000 Calhoun boasted his jazz chops on Live at the Blue Note, an intriguing collection of standards and originals. In 2005 he released Native Lands, a remarkable achievement that fully—and finally—integrated his myriad influences. The result is a melting pot of styles, shifting convincingly from jazz to ambient to a more Eastern-oriented world music. This type of experimentation, from lesser musicians, is often a recipe for indulgence or straight-up embarrassment. Calhoun managed to successfully cultivate a unique sound, and the assembled musicians (including Pharaoh Sanders, Orrin Evans and Marcus Miller) satisfied any questions about the talent Calhoun could attract.
Considering how active Living Colour has been of late (their stunning return to form, 2009’s The Chair in the Doorway and subsequent tour, as well as this year’s road show to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Vivid), it’s surprising but impressive to see Calhoun release a third solo album. Life in This World mixes the best elements of his previous two efforts, and its high-points qualify as some of the best work he’s yet done, with anyone.
Once again he is surrounded by a significant cast of characters, such as Wallace Roney (trumpet), Charnett Moffett (bass); special appearances are made by Living Colour bandmate Doug Wimbish and uber-legend Ron Carter. The album once again combines original compositions and standards. This time, Calhoun sets his sights on some of the best-loved classics in the jazz canon, including John Coltrane’s “Naima”, Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence” and Wayne Shorter’s “Etcetera”. This is serious business and the band is very much up to the challenge.
The interpretations are respectful but never safe or overly-starched. “Naima”, for instance, gets an up-tempo reworking, featuring classy accompaniment from John Benitez (bass) and Donald Harrison (alto sax). Calhoun brings some African flavor to “Evidence”, which proves—once more—that Monk is endlessly amenable to outside-the-box alterations. That the band even attempts to tread on the sacred, and much-covered, ground of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” speaks volumes about their audacity and ability.
Yet as genuinely impressive and engaging as the new takes on old gems are, the handful of original compositions are the highlights. Moffett’s tribute “Brother Will” kicks things off and features some propulsive drum fills from Calhoun. It also encapsulates the atmosphere of the entire album: fresh contemporary workouts from a collective that sounds like they’ve been playing together for decades. In an interesting move, Calhoun includes another rendition of his tune “Dorita”, which has appeared on each of his previous albums, in quite different contexts. The band swings the hell out of “King Tut Strut”, offering definitive proof that Calhoun is equally comfortable playing rock or jazz. Finally, the standout track has to be “Afrique Kan’e”, which features Brehima Diakite on kamelan n’goni (a six-string harp). This update of a traditional Malian tune recalls the best work from Native Lands, but is possibly Calhoun’s finest moment to date. Wallace Roney, impeccable throughout these proceedings, lends his understated yet urgent muted trumpet to addictive effect.
In the liner notes Calhoun indicates that every track was captured on the first take, in classic jazz style. While this is no doubt due to the caliber of these players, it also indicates the authentic feeling Calhoun is seeking. It does not hurt that the production, by veteran Ron St. Germain, is first-rate, resulting in a set of songs that feel fresh and never forced.
We live in a peculiar time, where industries are imploding and traditional opportunities are shrinking. Whether it’s movies, books or music, the increasingly antiquated view is that an artist should find one thing, do it well, and repeat as often as possible. That limited—and limiting—approach could never apply to a creative force as itinerant and gifted as Will Calhoun. Living life and making music on his own terms has made him the antithesis of our attention deficit generation, and an artist worthy of our consideration and gratitude. It seems certain he will continue doing inspired work that will remain engaging many years from today.