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The Souljazz Orchestra: Rising Sun

The Souljazz Orchestra
Rising Sun

The Souljazz Orchestra is one of a number of musical groups who, having been struck by the immortal sounds of Fania’s salsa, James Brown’s funk, Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, and John Coltrane’s spiritual jazz, have combined various aspects of these musics into an intoxicating brew of contemporary cosmopolitan funkiness. Like New York’s Antibalas, Montpellier’s Fanga, and Montreal’s Afrodizz, the Souljazz Orchestra — who hail from Ottawa — have concocted their sound far from the obvious musical centers represented by their influences. Theirs is a globalized music, arising from the mass-mediated sonic network of the Black Atlantic, changing color and language as it travels, but showing a keen fidelity to previous hybridizers. The Orchestra is made up of Pierre Chrétien (keyboards), Steve Patterson (tenor saxophone), Ray Murray (baritone saxophone), Zakari Frantz (alto saxophone and flute), Philippe Lafrenière (drums), and Marielle Rivard (percussion, vocals). All members contribute vocals and percussions, adding to the sense of musical collectivity.

Rising Sun is the group’s fourth album. Uprooted, the debut album, came out in 2005 on the Funk Manchu label. It’s worth remembering this hard-to-come-by debut both because of its general excellence and because it shows the fact that the Souljazz Orchestra had defined their signature sound early on with their mix of Afrobeat, Afrocuban music, funk, and jazz. Second album Freedom No Go Die placed the focus more on what the group calls “militant Afrobeat”. Its influential single “Mista President” showed the spirit of Fela Kuti to be very much alive and well, while the title cut was just as hot. 2008’s Manifesto locked into more or less the same groove and marked the group as one to watch.

Although groove has always been the main focus for the Souljazz Orchestra, their previous albums have contained songs with lyrics, often — as with “Mista President” — given a socio-political edge. Rising Sun is without lyrics in the conventional sense, opting in places for non-lexical vocables, but mainly eschewing singing in favor of other instruments. The album also sees the group making its most explicit connection yet to the jazz tradition. While the group is versed in a variety of jazz styles, it has shown a particular taste for the mid- to late 1960s sound of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. That focus is continued here, with nods towards Coltrane, Sanders, Miles Davis, and Strut labelmate Mulatu Astatke.

In contrast to the beat-heavy openings of previous albums, Rising Sun stays true to its title and begins with the Coltrane-esque “Awakening”, a reflective piece that apparently came to Chrétien in a dream. There is certainly a dreamlike flow to the track, albeit one that is rudely interrupted by the more upbeat “Agbara”. However, even this piece takes a little while to come fully awake. It gets into a confident stride full of horn stabs and infectious polyrhythm, then coasts for a while on wordless vocals that evoke 1960s and 1970s easy listening styles. At around two and a half minutes, a saxophone adds some raucousness to the proceedings and the track takes off, coming back relentlessly to its horny refrain.

“Negus Negast” takes its title from the Ethiopian king of kings and its inspiration from the work of Mulatu Astatke, whose “ethio-jazz” provided the focus for Volume 4 of Buda Musique’s now-legendary Ethiopiques series in 1998 and, more recently, for a set of retrospective and new collaborative projects issued by Strut. The Souljazz Orchestra’s variant of the ethio-jazz sound is no slavish copy — Astatke’s work is too diverse to be copied slavishly — but there are enough hints for it to work as both homage and extension. Excellent use is made of flute, baritone sax, and the crucial vibes and, most importantly, the group never loses sight of Astatke’s sense of funk.

Zakari Frantz’s flute comes to the fore again on the meditative “Serenity”, a track that has a strong sense of identification with the Africa-referencing work of Coltrane, Sanders, and McCoy Tyner. There is a stealthy organicism to this piece that serves as a reminder that this is the group’s first all-acoustic album, and clearly one steeped in the pre-electric period of globally exploratory jazz. Allmusic’s Marisa Brown has noted a reference at the outset to Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s arrangement of “Concierto de Aranjuez”, though the main point of reference for the piece as a whole would probably be Live at the Village Vanguard-era Coltrane.

To seal the deal, the Souljazz Orchestra closes the album with a two-part reading of Pharoah Sanders’s “Rejoice”, originally from the 1981 album of the same name. The group has visited Sanders’s repertoire before, providing a very credible reading of “The Creator Has a Masterplan” on their second album. “Rejoice” is an excellent choice, as it originates on an album that saw Sanders making his own attempts at Nigerian juju and highlife music. Souljazz starts out well on their version, using piano and lightly brushed percussion on Part 1 to set up a meditative mode before letting go with the funkier Part 2, the group passing the riff around from instrument to instrument while various members take brief solos. None of the horn breaks reach the raucousness of Sanders, and the track rather runs out of steam with the introduction of more wordless vocals, which lead the piece into a too-early fade. Given the spiritually intense reading that Sanders’s group had given “Rejoice”, one can’t help but feel that more might have been done here to round the album off more completely. On the other hand, the template the group establishes is more than enough to serve as the basis for some more intense exploration if and when the piece is played live; the fade could therefore be read as an invitation to either replay the album or go in search of more of the band’s work.

Despite the gestures towards Coltrane, Sanders, and Astatke, Rising Sun is much more than an era-referencing exercise. Showing an equal fidelity to the ongoing project of Afrobeat and to the creation of contemporary grooves, the Souljazz Orchestra can confidently take their place alongside the other globally dispersed proponents of Afro-modern music mentioned earlier. Rising Sun may lack the ferocity of their previous work, but its ability to balance undeniably danceable and hummable cuts with really very beautiful introspection and restraint mark it as the group’s most sophisticated, and arguably best, release to date.

RATING 8 / 10