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Various Artists: Africa Straight Ahead

Robert R. Calder

Various Artists

Africa Straight Ahead

Label: Heads Up
US Release Date: 2004-02-24
UK Release Date: 2004-03-29

Excluding Fela Sowande, a subsequently important African philosopher who played organ on a 1930s recording date with the singer Adelaide Hall in London -- his name was once suggested as having been a pseudonym of Fats Waller, also in England at the time! -- the earliest case of African jazz I know of in Britain was Go Ghana. This still remarkable set was led by half-Indian half-Scottish Sandy Brown on a clarinet. One of the originals on his instrument, his whole manner of performance was modelled a lot on Johnny Dodds, an impassioned blues style out of New Orleans. It didn't transfer into the harmonic complexities of Charlie Parker jazz, but had more in common with some Mingus and thrived in the brilliant development of the African element by his Scottish-English ensemble. I wonder whether any American professor of jazz in Africa has thought to bring it to the attention of his students.

Chris McGregor may, for all I know, have been half-Scottish, a white South African who arrived in London leading a wild ensemble -- on the margins of free jazz in its African uptake. The pocket trumpet of Mongezi Feza and the alto saxophone of Dudu Pukwana are worth looking up, with McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath ensemble.

I have not mentioned Dollar Brand, the name under which Abdullah Ibrahim first became known, a musician capable of gloom and a kind of almost cowboy-lilting gospel sort of music in piano solo -- but also of marvels like Ekaya, a stupendous group I hope somebody recorded live -- Carlos Ward's alto-playing was once a highlight of some Ibrahim Brand groups, but Ekaya's saxophone ensemble was led by Ricky Ford's swooping falsetto tenor saxophone. There is a wonderful CD, but live they were sheer excitement, if not on the roaring screaming level of Brotherhood of Breath.

These original developments aren't emulated here, though in his quartet called Afro-Cool Concept Darius Brubeck, Professor of jazz in Durban, has in Barney Rachabane an alto-player a little like Carlos Ward, with a lyricism slightly akin to his father Dave's sorely missed partner Paul Desmond. Himself named after the French composer Milhaud, Brubeck is like the other and native African pianists here (most nearly famous among them Beki Mseleku) in working territory staked out long ago by Dollar Brand and modern American jazz together. By and large there's nothing greatly distinctive in any way which listeners to a lot of contemporary jazz will find new. Like Brand an Ellington protégé, but American, Randy Weston was heading for African music before he started going around with North African traditional percussionists. Elsewhere, some African elements unfolded with simply the working out of more implications of jazz. A few Africans have turned up with Americans North, South, and Central I have reviewed for this page over the past year, and by and large this is conventional jazz of the last couple of decades.

One curiosity worth note, but not praise, is the absolute precision of playing, especially and least laudably in the bass department. Ekaya, as mentioned above, were supremely rehearsed on CD, and entirely precise even in the ecstatic performance I heard (their sound filled a huge European concert hall rather more efficiently than the Lincoln Center Orchestra did a year ago). This was not, however, precision at a price. They had dealt with or digested the matter of precision, and there was high-level spontaneity. Spontaneity is missing in some performances here.

The hornmen were all seasoned American jazzmen (Charles Davis on baritone, Dick Griffin, trombone, complete the list). That can't be said of anybody here, though McCoy Mrubata is worth singling out, and the title under his leadership, with a rough tenor saxophone sound with no tap root in jazz tradition. He modifies, however, a basic uncultured sound, with a startling sensitivity to tonal expressiveness, as when Bennie Wallace in a wilder flight comes out Ben Websterish. Mrubata's an individual performer, without the head-start on individuality use of a what sounds like a steel drum ("steel pan", it says) grants Andy Narell -- recorded in Paris. Narell can focus the sound of an instrument associated with the Caribbean (and made by hammering the head of an oil-drum into concave panels) into a capacity for passionate utterance. He can swing and he can bite and he's another interesting jazzman.

The Sheer All-Stars (Sheer is not, I assume, an adverb or adjective, the name not a good-natured joke like "The World's Greatest Jazzband" -- though that was a decent ensemble) perform "Langery" rather in the vein of a recent CD by Monty Alexander/ Ernest Ranglin -- on which the performers' jazz capacities remain in abeyance and the genre is Jamaican ska. There's nothing dreadfully novel on the present CD, other than the saxophonist and the steel drummer above mentioned, but any amateur on any instrument featured would swallow a little at the prospect of matching the technical accomplishment you can take for granted here. On the opener, the trumpeter Marcus Wyatt's trumpet tenor quintet could be playing a night at the Village Vanguard sometime in McCoy Tyner's career, though Lulu Gontsana does interesting things down the bottom end of his kit. Wyatt and Mrubata are with Paul Hanmer in another quintet performance Hanmer's piano dominates with an ostinato left hand and an apparent ability to vary accentuation and timing, while the horns use a wide range of resources alike in solos and ensemble passages. Moses Kumalo's alto has a nice rough edge and a more African sort of dance theme, with lyrical piano from Sylvester Manzinyane. Zim Ngqama has such an unusual vibrato that his flute sounds uncomfortably like a synthesizer. Ekaya made similar use of flute (Carlos Ward) for theme statements, but there would be solos. Zim, alas, repeats and repeats a lengthy theme.

I can see what the reviewer meant who described this CD not so accurately as declining into Sm**th J*zz, a phrase which crops up on titles of other CDs in the Heads Up Africa series this one belongs to. There's more to it than that, but I would recommend this selection by a range of different groups -- with variously overlapping personnels -- wholeheartedly only to listeners with some affection for slighter more restful things on jazz's margin. With acute and duly exclusive concentration on some of the people I've mentioned, a CD might be produced that I would be seriously enthusiastic about. The wild artwork in the foldout card CD holder is fun, but though I'm grateful for one of the most thorough reviewing packs to come from any company, surely the buyer deserves to know a bit more about some of these musicians. Reviews can include only so much, and if you don't find more on these men on the websites listed, do mail them and ask.

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