Twelve-piece group Nubiyan Twist came together at Leeds College of Music in 2015, a fact that is a little surprising. On new album Jungle Run, the band gives the distinct impression of having been together for at least a decade. Their sounds are tight, their production clean, and their guest artists particularly impressive, including Afrobeat’s founding drummer Tony Allen and Ethiojazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke, among others. Genre-wise, they lean toward neo-soul on this latest album, a style that tends to be a free-flowing mélange of jazz, soul, hip-hop, and electronics, among other things. Here, those other things come from across the globe, with a focus on elements pulled from various parts of Africa and Latin America.
Those are the basics of Jungle Run. The experience is a little more complex because it’s hard to get a handle on exactly what this album is. That ends up being a little bit of a double-edged sword, mostly good, but occasionally puzzling. Nubiyan Twist draws from a substantial sonic palette and is not afraid to leap from track to track. Does this lead to a cohesive album? Not always. Jungle Run comes across more as a sampler of highlights, the collective trying to show as many colors as possible.
It’s hard to hold that against the group. The colors are bold, and Nubiyan Twist’s chameleonic tendencies are impressive. They spend a full two tracks as an ultra-modern London jazz ensemble, all shades of brass and neon, before morphing fully into West African dance-pop stars on “Basa Basa”, featuring versatile Ghanaian artist K.O.G., unmistakably Afropop-influenced guitar lines, and hypnotic syncopation.
Suddenly, the group is swinging again on “Brother”, a slick number that gives way to the Mulatu Astatke feature on “Addis to London”. Here, the band imitates East African scales and, after half an album of dense compositions, embraces a little open space. Instrumental except for a spoken sample of Dr. Mulatu himself at the beginning, it makes for one of the album’s highlights. So does “Borders”, the next track, a modern bossa nova track that could fit just as well in the MPB scene as in London, where Nubiyan Twist is now based. Percussionist Pilo Adami ably injects sweet samba beats into the composition, lightening the tone of the album for a moment.
A heavy hit of reality comes back to Jungle Run immediately after, “Permission” dropping sharp beats and raps against racism. The lyrics are conscious and timely, even if the backing instrumentation feels a little like an afterthought — fair enough, as the focus belongs on the text in this case. That all changes on “Ghosts”, where Tony Allen’s signature rhythms drive the song forward in conjunction with a jazzy melody that has a complex structure, an arc that sees it hit moments of speed and moments of release, always sounding thoughtful.
K.O.G. returns for “They Talk”, a track that bridges two sides of the African continent: the song is split perfectly between Ethiojazz and West African hip-hop. Usually, the sounds come together in a way that sounds organic, and when they do is when Nubiyan Twist hits some of its greatest highs on the album. Finally, the album glides to a finish on the strength of lead singer Nubiya Brandon’s vocals with slow, sensual “Sugar Cane”.
There are a lot of sterling moments on Jungle Run, even if they sometimes fail to make sense as a unit. But while parts of the album may not always work together as a whole, the band does, and that bodes well for Nubiyan Twist’s genre-bending future.