As writer Amiri Baraka once said: “Blues playing is the closest imitation of the human voice of any music I’ve heard”. By the same token Richard Bona’s new release, tracing a vestige of the genre in different world cultures, reiterates the same concept: wherever there is humanity, there is the blues.
This album is not some philological essay on the blues scale as its title might suggest, rather a journey revolving around the blues perceived as ‘a feeling’. Under such auspices he gathers worldwide musicians to help shape his signature fusion of musical heritages: this time from India, his native Cameroon and adoptive US.
The geography of Bona’s inspiration is not new. John Coltrane looked to Africa and India to build a vocabulary beyond the western notational discourse, closer to his need for vocalised expression – which makes jazz so deeply indebted to blues. Joe Zawinul (with whom Bona collaborated during the Syndicate years, and to whom this project is in part indebted) played a pioneering role in fusing elements of jazz and worldwide music.
Each tune breeds a carnival of musical quotations. Gluing it all together is Bona’s silky, deeply intense voice – centre stage from the start in the a cappella opener Take One – and his talent as bassist and multi instrumentalist.
Shiva Mantra, an Indian born and bred track, is lightly infused with African and bluesy insertions. Kurumalete is perhaps the tune that owes most to Zawinul, both timbre wise and through its hectic rollercoaster of cultural quotations, while with African Cowboy Bona is back to a closer offspring of the pentatonic scale, country music. It’s an African rendition, Bona singing in Duala, perhaps to remind us that the banjo, after all, comes from the ngoni lute. The only traditionally recognisable blues number on the whole album is Yara’s Blues.
Above all, the Motherland is still the real protagonist, as a direct influence (Souleymane, Sona Moyo, Camer Secrets) and in Bona’s native Duala. Like with Bona’s previous releases Tiki and Munia: The Tale, The Ten Shades of Blues is a boundary-crashing work, perfectly packaged and enormously enjoyable.
‘Beyond the Wall’ is an attempt to investigate Chinese music from a jazz perspective. It comes from a boundary-crossing saxophonist who’s always shown a keen interest in Asian cultures and thrives on the conviction that all music worldwide shares common elements.
Garrett’s journey east takes a form that was codified back in the Sixties by those who embarked on similar journeys. The album is in some ways a voyage back to the music of his mentors, and particularly to the spiritual and musical openness of John Coltrane. This is reflected in the choice of personnel; Garrett takes on board vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, and the album is dedicated to pianist McCoy Tyner.
The music returns to hard-bopping territories and experimental openness (after his collaboration with Marcus Miller on ‘Happy People’), without detracting from Garrett’s signature sound and style.
Garrett is not afraid to explore the entire range of the alto (no soprano here) and to allow his fellow musicians free rein (Mulgrew Miller on piano, Robert Hurst on bass and the indefatigable Brian Blade on drums). Quotations from Chinese music are twisted and reinvented into improvisational atmospherics (at times ‘A Love Supreme’ springs to mind). This, together with tunes of more recognizable Chinese origin (the evocative ‘Tsunami Song’, with Garrett playing piano accompanied by traditional Chinese violin; the Tibetan choir in ‘Realization’) give the album its charm.
‘Beyond The Wall’ embraces jazz in its original connotation, as a form so flexible and unrestricted that is both able to embrace the world and not be afraid to question its own foundations in the process.
Saxophonist Tony Kofi’s follow-up album to his award winning All is Know takes a more personal stand: all compositions are Kofi originals (as opposed to the previous Monk homage).
Future Passed is built around Anders Olinder’s feel for the Hammond B3 Organ, and owes its groove to Kofi’s inventive absorption of soul-jazz vocabulary (Lou Donaldson,Lonnie Smith; obliquely, Larry Young’s Unity also comes to mind).
Kofi leads the extended trio (guests include Byron Wallen and Cameron Pierre) with eloquence; he has a recognizable, highly vocalized and articulate tone, whether on alto, soprano or baritone. To (loosely) quote John Coltrane, the best testimony to Kofi’s artistic maturity here is the unique quality of his sound.
In this limited edition double CD (produced by singer/bassist Meshell Ndegeocello), saxophonist Ron Blake’s borrowing from other genres doesn’t detract from his ability to play some solidly improvised and original jazz. Even when falling for the ‘nu’ jazz trend of hooking up with DJs, he keeps things separate. He makes a jazz album first (disc 1), and then allows separate ground for the turntablists to remix five of the original tracks (disc 2).
Blake immediately steps on the accelerator (aided by Chris Dave’s solid drumming and Christian McBride’s bass line) with the Coltranean “Invocation”.The sudden shift from tenor to soprano is somehow reminiscent of Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer. A rearranged version of the same track closes the album (“Invocation - Dance of Fire”), but by favouring flute over soprano, Blake returns a less intense, yet far dreamier catch.
It’s hard not to be captivated by the way Blake renders the Ellingtonian “Dance of Passion” (the original by Johnny Griffin is nicely adorned with African quotations); or by his own, Caribbean flavoured “Tom Blake (Revisited)”.
If with “Shades of Brown” one perhaps hears distant echoes of the writing of early Joshua Redman or Roy Hargrove, the way Blake delivers the soulful pearl “Pure Imagination” brings John Coltrane back into the picture. “Pissarro’s Floor” immediately follows and smoothly does it; with shivering, unbounded drumming and spot-on Fender Rhodes piano (from the wise hands of Michael Cain) a perfect carpet to Blake’s robustly expressive tenor monologue.
Those are just few bites from Blake’s articulate writing (most of the pieces carry his signature). Sonic Tonic is a preciously talented child, a restless creature whose vitality is by far its special quality. Unquestionably a lot is owed to a priceless ensemble. Blake’s superb tone is a refined, expressive, muscular voice; an indispensable part of a captivating musical tale. Brilliant.