Conventional wisdom has it that Africa is the home of the drum, and over the years many an American musician has looked to the Dark Continent for rhythmic inspiration. But this particular collaboration turns the tables on that assumption, so to speak, by placing veteran jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette in the company of a kora (21-stringed West African harp/lute) player from the Gambia. Foday Musa Suso is no stranger to this sort of joint effort, having worked closely with Herbie Hancock and Philip Glass, among others, over the years. It was, in fact, his Hancock collaboration Village Life (Columbia, 1984) which first got DeJohnette interested in his music. The kora has a distinctively warm, resonant, and gently pulsating sound that lends it versatility in many musical settings.
Any time two players this experienced from such vastly different backgrounds get together, they test your expectations. Will DeJohnette introduce his own powerful swinging aura into the decidedly non-swinging music of the Senegambia? Will Suso steer events toward the time-tested traditions of Manding music? (He is, after all, a griot, having inherited his position in a family of musicians, storytellers, and historians that stretches back hundreds of years.)
Both expectations are realized to some extent on Music from the Hearts of the Masters. Look no further than the fifth track, "Kaira ("peace ), which has become an essential part of the kora canon ever since Sidiki Diabate popularized it back in the '40s. Suso repeats the gently rolling melody and its constantly interlaced string counterpoint, gradually establishing a trance-like state and providing space for DeJohnette to expand and contract time. Yes, some of those cymbal triplets are definitely swinging. You might not notice it because the kora playing is so direct and regular, but Suso also plays with time in subtle and clever ways as he delivers each cascade of notes.
Other than "Kaira and the closing "Sunjatta Keita (a traditional piece named after the founder of the ancient Empire of Mali), the rest of these tunes are credited to Suso and/or DeJohnette (mostly both). Their hybrid music can't be easily labeled, since it's a product of both two separate cultures and two distinct individuals, but it's remarkably consistent.
The musicians wisely choose to occupy a middle zone of trance-like repetition where Suso can freely explore theme and variation, call and response, melody and counterpoint while DeJohnette does the same in his own polyrhythmic way on the drums. This is lyrical, flowing, hypnotic music that's best appreciated from a distance, lest you lose the forest for the trees and thus also sacrifice the golden opportunity to expand your mindspace in these rolling grooves.
Note: this is one of two inaugural releases on DeJohnette's brand new Golden Beams label. To learn more, visit Jack DeJohnette on the web.
Personnel: Jack DeJohnette: drums; Foday Musa Suso: kora and dousinguni.