One name is just not enough, and neither is one culture. The full performance credits for Spirit! reflect this record's international cast and bode well for its outcome. Jazz piano icon and longtime African music devotee Randy Weston may formally lead the date (recorded live in September 1999), but his African Rhythms Quartet plays more than a supporting role. Each of these artists takes the stage in a forward fashion in both duet and group settings.
Two separate trios of Gnawa master musicians from Morocco also take part, one from Tanger and one from Marrakech. For listeners not familiar with Gnawa music, it's a percussive, trance-inducing spiritual form which serves roles in ritual and healing. And for this record those roles are critical, since it documents an evening devoted to sharing spirit.
The mixed up program starts out with Weston first soloing on piano and then playing duet alongside bandmates Talib Kibwe (flute) and Benny Powell (trombone). Three phases of "Receiving the Spirit" set the stage for what's to come: first, Weston rumbling in the lower register of his instrument, alternating thick pedalled phrases and crisply punctuated commentary. He develops a simple minor theme without heavy-handedness or pretense. Four minutes along, Kibwe steps in for a fluttering conversation that turns fiery with overblown, ripply strokes. The last third of the 15 minute piece is shared with Benny Powell's textured, bluesy trombone improvisation. Be warned: there's no swing in here, at least not unless you pull it out with a fine-toothed comb.
The second track provides a wonderful juxtaposition of low-end timbres, Alex Blake playing his intimate, richly-resonant bass (with slaps and pinches) alongside Abdellah El Gourd's higher-edged hag'houge, a three-stringed bass lute whose pitch and repetitive rhythmic emphasis complements the Panamanian's voice nicely. Carrying on the continuum, the separate Gnawa groups from Marrakech and Tanger take the stage alone and together, soaring though intimate call-and-response vocal phrases accompanied by karkaba (a metallic castanet) and hag'houge. "Who Knew Them?" (the only modern composition, by El Gourd) has that characteristic repetitive trance element alongside an uplifting melody.
The denouement of all this activity comes in the form of massively entangled group improvisations which dwell squarely in trance territory but take advantage of a richness of both human and instrumental voices. It's remarkable to hear how adeptly the African Rhythms Quartet moves into shared territory (and how well the Gnawa musicians respect their space).
While Spirit! tends to be an involving recording, it works on many levels. As spiritual fuel, it facilitates travel through time and space. As a vehicle for multi-cultural improvisation, it succeeds in bringing Africa and its diaspora in close juxtaposition. But most of all, it reflects pure joy and celebration.