[23 October 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Not to be confused with the disco-era Salsoul Orchestra, the Souljazz Orchestra is one of those horny dance bands that are springing up around the world, paying tribute to crate-dug genres like salsa, reggae, and Afrobeat by replicating them faithfully or mixing them all together. They’re based in Ottawa, though Brooklyn would probably give them tax breaks and a ticker tape parade if they decided to immigrate.
The first thing you notice about their fifth album Solidarity is its sound: warm and dark, musty and fusty. A loud and deliberate walking bass plays counterpoint with staccato horn tuttis that feel stuck between your teeth. It sounds like an old record because they recorded it on old equipment, eight track tape; according to leader Pierre Chrétien, they “also decided to do the whole thing in mono”; presumably he means recorded and mixed. This was a nostalgic move and you’re right to be wary, but their engineering choices serve their songs in ways that a flatter digital sound wouldn’t. The instruments and voices seem to interact within physical space; all these weird little snarls and exclamations of “huh!” lurk in the background. Simply listening to this sound is a pleasurable experience, sort of like staring at a Fania album cover, never mind what’s inside.
The sound renders their genre exercises pleasant, but their genre exercises are also really good songs. Chrétien wrote or co-wrote most of them, and you can imagine an actual reggae band, Culture or somebody, covering his rootsy tune “Jericho”, its melody reminiscent of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier”. (There’s a great echoing horn stab when the walls tumble down.) They continue the Rasta imagery into the title of “Conquering Lion”, only the instrumental isn’t reggae, it’s a funky minor-key strut whose melody could easily be stolen by some Gypsy brass band. Flashy solos, too, from a band whose last album Rising Sun was an acoustic jazz set.
The Orchestra races through genres with confidence: “Serve & Protect” is Afrobeat thick with organ; the samba “Cartão Postal” and the salsa “Ya Basta” blend complex percussion parts, call and response vocals, and punchy horn lines into nonstop grooves. The versatile Senegalese-Canadian singer Elage M’baye leads four tunes, including covers of Orchestra Baobab’s straightforward funk “Kelen Ati Leen” (sounds like M’baye’s singing “killin’ it”) and the Amadou Mboup number “Nijaay” (sounds like M’baye is channeling Youssou N’Dour).
Despite the retrophilia and specialism in all styles, the Souljazz Orchestra never seems to spin its musical wheels. They attack each genre like it’s never been heard before. The album’s longest song and highlight, “Serve & Protect”, speeds along relentlessly like a cop car with its lights on, but it also goes through different levels of intensity, building and backing off, wave on wave of escalation, packing a Fela-style epic into six and a half minutes. Their simple but effective melodies use different note lengths and timbres to their advantage, as though Chrétien, his cowriters, and bandmates experimented to see how many effects and techniques they could incorporate into these genres. The ten songs of Solidarity draw from a huge variety of old music, but the Souljazz Orchestra always knows how to make a simple staccato speak with immediacy.