Photo: Govert Driessen

Aziza: Aziza

Aziza, a jazz supergroup featuring Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke, and Eric Harland, mostly avoids supergroup pitfalls and plays strong on its eponymous new LP.

Aziza is the name of another jazz supergroup, a format of which I am wary. However, bassist Dave Holland sits at the center of these tunes, their mixes, and even the label of which the recording graces, so we’re in solid hands. I’m not sure that it’s still justified to accuse jazz musicians of making records that are “gimmicks” or “sellouts” in a world in which the chance of actually selling lots of jazz is slim-to-none. Therefore, it’s fair to go into this listening exercise with the most charitable assumption: these are four musicians who very much like playing together (even though this is not a working band).

And who wouldn’t like playing with these guys? Holland, of course, may be the most esteemed bassist of his generation who is still composing, recording, and touring at the height of his powers. What made him so appealing, tuneful, and creative when he recorded Conference of the Birds in 1972—and through his time in several astonishing bands over the last 30 years—remains unchecked here. Every line that Holland plays, composes or improvises has a limber grace and musical authority. Paired with drummer Eric Harland (as he was on his 2013 fusion record, Prism), Holland is part of an A+ rhythm section that wraps every moment in elastic propulsion.

The voices out front are those of saxophonist Chris Potter and guitarist Lionel Loueke, both of whom would probably brand the sound of Aziza even if Holland and Harland were the engine room. Potter’s sparkling tone always gleams, but his record of exploration and risk-taking is also considerable. He’s the George Clooney of jazz saxophonists: as substantive as he is handsome. Meanwhile, Loueke is something of a jazz singularity—a guitarist from Benin, Africa who blends Berklee College of Music training with a unique sensibility. Years of hearing him with Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, other stars, and his own groups often left me confused about his identity within “jazz” outfits. Did he make them unique and quirky, or was he a strange fit?

In Aziza, all the pieces fit. The band feels balanced and even, with each musician carrying a big load without dominating. Inevitably, Loueke focuses the sound on guitar, as he takes care of all the chordal playing in the absence of a piano. But his work here is varied in style and sound. “Summer 15”, a tune by Potter, is a chattering calypso tune with soprano sax up top, and Loueke blends his kalimba-esque playing with Holland’s bass to get a snapping island feeling. He locks in for unisons with Potter as required, unfurls pretty waves of electric chording too, and plays hide and seek with Harland’s snare rim clicks on his lead-off solo. On Harland’s “Aquila”, he plays tasteful jazz in waltz time, and he is straight-up funky on his own “Aziza Dance”. Clearly, Loueke is nicely set into the groove of this band.

In fact, each band member contributes two songs. “Walkin’ the Walk” is by Holland, and it features his usual strong bass line and wandering melody that bursts into a sweet sunshine moment. It has a tasty backbeat even though it’s in an odd time signature and features the most low-key of Potter’s solos—a moment in which we can hear the way that Joe Henderson was likely an influence because the solo seems always reaching for the next interesting moment or logical development. “Finding the Light”, also Holland’s, is a tricky theme that cycles around in a loop, relieved by the bridge, a dose of klezmer (especially in Potter’s soprano sax improvisation) and a dose of Latin feel. Harland takes a thrilling solo on this one, surrounding you with astonishing rolls across his toms that are just tasteful enough.

Harland is a fine composer, and his “Friends” is an irresistible theme with a surging eight-note motif with which Loueke sings along, wordlessly, as the tune closes. This is the kind of gentle, tuneful instrumental that folks like Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, and others were making back in the 1970s, before “smooth jazz” came along and screwed up the idea that jazz could have a sensual appeal. Not that it is too smooth; for instance, the Potter solo, which never strays that far from melody, still heats things up with genuine fire. Really, little on Aziza is a manufactured thing.

Still, there are some ways in which the supergroup impulse limits this recording, such as how the band colors inside the lines a shade too much. Every player has made much more daring records, and the sound here is perhaps sanitized rather than smooth. On the closer by Loueke, a funky track with an Afro-pop head (with more singing by the guitarist), the main body of the performance consists of Potter’s tenor and Loueke’s distorted electric guitar trading licks in high-powered fashion. Yet, truth be told, this loud section is the least daring and thrilling thing on Aziza. It feels forced, like: “Hey, man, let’s turn it UP!” When this kind of tuneful jazz reaches for its “rock” moment, it just leaves behind what really gives it energy.

I’d rather bounce and sway with something like Potter’s “Blue Sufi”, which starts as a contemplative conversation between tenor and bass and then revs up into a long melodic statement that moves across several feels, gets hot, allows Harland to play his butt off, and even locks Loueke into some of his best electric playing on a long solo that is almost entirely chordal, avoiding every cliche in the book. Potter’s solo is even better, a decathlon of incredible playing that begins with a rhythmic conversation with guitar and develops into 15-round telepathy bout with Harland as the two musicians seem to know each other’s every move.

In the balance between cliche and astonishment, Aziza overwhelmingly stays on the correct side of the law. Supergroup pitfalls are avoided, mostly, but fun is definitely had. You can imagine the band smiling as they left the studio. Indeed, these guys like playing together.

RATING 6 / 10