NOMO performs a style of Afrobeat heavier on the jazz influences (without neglecting the funk or African musics) and lightly touching on electronic play. The group could be a dissection specimen for a look at the confluence of various sounds in a new setting, but what you really need to know is that its new album will get you moving, even if (perhaps especially if), you’re more used to sitting and nodding your head to post-bop sax solos.
Bandleader Elliot Bergman has a day job playing sax for retro pop group Saturday Looks Good to Me, but this band gives him the opportunity to stretch out in a way that classic-sound act doesn’t. Within this freedom, Bergman and his eight-piece ensemble resist the temptation to head out into chaos. The group acknowledges its free jazz influences, but rather than retread that ground, it sounds fresh by taking melodic horn lines and improvisations through a funk gauntlet. Battered by locked-in percussion on all sides, soloists use their instruments to cut through and make concise statements. And for the record, mixed metaphors fit right in with this group.
The band also knows how to turn less into more, breaking down “New Song” into nothing but a solo trumpet and handclaps. That moment, arriving a little before the album’s halfway point, manages to alter the preceding 20 minutes of sound without affecting the flow. It’s a negative of only-child behavior, the band stops itself and lets someone mumble, not shout, “Look at me” in order to return attention to the sound of the group as a whole, which, considering the extreme tightness of NOMO, is a good choice.
The most obvious sounds on New Tones are the sharp horns and the interlocking percussion, but the bass playing maintains a hard funk from start to finish that centers the rest of NOMO. “Divisions” and “We Do We Go” provide just two examples of bass work that knows its job and does it confidently, fitting funk and soul rhythms with a full tone. While the bass never asserts itself, it never slacks off. The disc’s electronics work in a similar way, although they’re promoted by the band. The keys and effects work more to add atmosphere and fullness than they do to provide novelty, or even to be heard. NOMO plays essentially as a live piece of regulated energy.
The only thing troubling about this disc is its finish. The first nine tracks maintain a consistent feel, mixing up time signatures and varying grooves enough that it never drags. The tenth track, a cover of Joanna Newsom’s “Book of Right On”, drops to a weaker jazz feel, with more of an electronic sensibility. As an individual piece, it’s nearly as strong as the rest of the album, but it makes an odd change in mood coming as the album’s penultimate moment. Placed near the middle of the disc, it could have served as a change of pace and emphasizing a talented group’s flexibility. The last track on New Tones, “Sarvodaya”, moves into spacey atmospherics. As with “Book of Right On”, the piece itself holds up, but it changes a tight Afrobeat/jazz pronouncement into a hazy wandering. Bergman’s sax playing here sounds slightly out of place; he’s a little too aggressive for the sound the rest of the band puts together. NOMO wisely gives this song the place of exit music, but rather than accompanying your come-down, it just adds a feeling of uncertainty to the experience.
Even so, New Tones holds up as a memorable album, with performers that could convincingly play any of a number of musical styles. For our benefit, they do their own, even as they stay away from the esoteria that descriptions of the group might suggest. Stay simple: throw it on and shake it.