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Spirit of Life Ensemble: A Little Oasis

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Describing itself as "a multicultural collective, the Jersey City-based Spirit of Life Ensemble has been active since 1977 with a shifting cast of musicians. The group was an early pioneer in jazz and world music fusion; it has always included hand percussionists in addition to a drummer, and has always featured vocalists. It also has a large educational component, performing and giving classes in libraries and schools. In more recent decades, it has been a pioneering American band at jazz festivals in the Baltic area (Finland, Estonia and Lithuania).

The lineup on A Little Oasis features three brass, two reeds and five rhythm players. Percussionist Daoud-David Williams continues as the band's leader/business manager, but trombonist Bob Ferrel is the musical director now, after a long tenure by reedman T.K. Blue. The band's world music tendencies are proudly displayed on the opening "124th & Ruiz, a jaunty piece reminiscent of Chuck Mangione's Children of Sanchez (A&M, 1978), with spirited solos from Ferrel, trumpeter Rob Henke and long-time veteran pianist Michael Cochrane, all playing over fomenting rhythm and horn figures.

Variations on that world/Afro-Latin theme reappear in two other tracks. There's also a Ferrel tune, "Sue's Summit, strongly redolent of funky Benny Golson compositions; a catchy riff tune in two tempos, "Dance for a New Day, by alternate bassist Mike Logan; and a fetchingly arranged waltz, "Baku & Bismarck, by Henke, which builds from and recedes to Harmon-muted trumpet and bass.

Spirit of Life has showcased artists from the decade before its inception, notably trumpeter Ted Curson and, on this CD, vocalist Joe Lee Wilson, whose galvanizing, stentorian baritone graced landmark albums by Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. Wilson's still-powerful voice brings an incantatory flavor to "It's Raining and his own heraldic "One. Mina Agossi, who also sings two songs, has a voice that reveals the influences of both Billie Holiday and Astrud Gilberto.

Track Listing: 124th & Ruiz; Sue's Summit; It's Raining; Baku & Bismark; Without You; Baila Plena (Plena Funk); One; Pine Brook Paradigm

Personnel: Daoud-David Williams: multipercussions; Bob Ferrel: trombone; Joe Ford: alto saxophone; Ray Blue: tenor saxophone; Vinnie Cutro: trumpet; Rob Henke: trumpet; Michael Cochrane: piano; Guilherme Franco percussion; Calvin Hill: bass guitar; Victor Jones: drums; Michael Logan: bass guitar; Cornell McGee: trombone; Joe Lee Wilson, Mina Agossi: vocals.

Title: A Little Oasis | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Cristal Records

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