Hong Kong International Jazz Festival, Days 7-8, October 1-2, 2011
The nine-piece, Amsterdam-based band Mdungu kicked up its own storm on stage, with a potent Afro-jazz whose groove-centric rhythms conjured the funk ofJames Brown and the textures of saxophonist Manu Debango's bands. Ghanan Ebou Gaya Mada's powerful baritone voice roared as he belted out rhythms on his sabar, though after the opening couple of numbers he retreated to the back of the stage for most of the performance. A three-piece saxophone front line backed by two guitars, drum, bass and percussion made for a strong group sound, though there were plenty of subtle Afrobeat, ska and jazz undercurrents running through the music.
Main vocal duties were performed by tenor saxophonist David Beukers, who brought the crowd to life with his cajoling stage presence as much as his fine chops. Most of the songs came from the group's debut recording, Afro What!? (Zimbraz, 2009) and dancing was the order of the day. This recording was produced by producer/guitarist Justin Adams and it is no coincidence that the band's music shares the same energy and driving rhythms as other African music projects involving Adams, such as Tinariwen or Adams' collaborations with ritti player Juldeh Camara.
The brass unison playing was a delight and the soloing strong. The best solo of a pulsating set was by baritone saxophonist Koen Caldeway. In spite of the fact that Mdungu can boast only one African, there was still a convincing roots appeal about the music and effervescence in the playing that was irresistible. A great festival band.
Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkelone of jazz's great modern story tellershas spent a lot of his time these last couple of years playing standards, since the release of Reflections (Wonmusic, 2009). Bassist Eric Revis has been a fairly constant companion on this journey, but the drumming chair has revolved a little. Eric Harland and Kendrick Scott have both supplied rhythmic support, and Hong Kong was treated to the appearance of twenty-year-old Justin Faulkner, a prodigious talent who is surely a star in the making.
Whether on slower numbers like "Darn that Dream" or faster paced tunes like "Nica's Dream," Rosenwinkel endlessly fertile mind burrowed deep inside the material, exploiting and exploring the melodic and harmonic possibilities with obvious relish. Pianist Thelonious Monk has been a repeated source of inspiration for Rosenwinkel, and the athletic, 15-minute interpretation of "Ruby My Dear" was an exercise in constant inventionthe guitarist swung from chord to chord with singing, blues-tinged lines and gave the impression that he could get lost inside these tunes forever. Discipline went hand-in-hand with improvisation, however, and Rosenwinkel captured the rhythmic and melodic essence of each song, framing their inherent beauty.
The rhythm section provided compelling support. Revis, with his unhurried, singing voice contrasted with the incendiary approach of Faulkner, though for all the free thinking at play, the trio was tight and swung tremendously. Aside from this trio, Revis has continued to make a name for himself through his work in the quartet of saxophonist Charles Lloyd, but Faulkner is a relative newcomer. The 20-year-old drummer replaced Jeff "Tain" Watts in saxophonist Branford Marsalis' quartet while just 18, which speaks volumes for his talent and maturity. Comparisons with Watts are inevitable, but his busy, powerful drumming brought to mind the great Elvin Jonesa comparison not made lightly. Faulkner's mighty sound is tempered by a subtlety which saw him make multiple changes between sticks, traditional brushes and light, bamboo brushes, depending on the voice he sought in a performance that was exhilarating and endlessly absorbing.
Though Rosenwinkel continues to pursue other projects, and leads his own quartet, he clearly has something special here with this trio. Let's hope it gets the chance to strut its stuff in a studio and to continue to grow in live performance too.