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Various Artists: Africa Straight Ahead

AAJ Staff By

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Africa Straight Ahead is the latest curve ball tossed by Heads Up since label head Dave Love visited Cape Town in 1998 and fell in love with South African jazz. Normally devoted to jazz on the softer side, the label's Africa Series put out two volumes of Smooth Africa in 2000 and 2003.

Tapping the smooth side of South African jazz made sense given the generally placid nature of that country's music. However, we now have Africa Straight Ahead, which is exactly what it says, a collection of twelve diverse tracks which find themselves firmly entrenched in the tradition.

But not afraid to stretch it here and there. What's interesting about this compilation is that it makes virtually no mention that these artists all come from the very Southern tip of the continent, and there's no hint that almost every track originated on South Africa's own Sheer Sound label.

Those may sound like quibbles, but the jazz tradition in South Africa runs back seventy years (by far the most distinctive and deep such sound of any country on the Dark Continent). And Sheer Sound, for what it's worth, has brought scores of artists to the spotlight, putting such luminaries as saxophonist Zim Ngqawana and pianist Hotep Idris Galeta prominently on the map. So salute both the nation and its musical leaders.

Zim appears on an extremely mellow "Beautiful Love," playing lovely floating flute melodies from his record Zimphonic Suites (2001), true to the tune's title in every way. Galeta closes out the disc with "Shawn's Uhadi Samba," a paced, upbeat jam with a catchy theme and bouncy groove. Trumpeter Marcus Wyatt , perhaps the straightest ahead of the artists here, digs deep into the simmering energy of post bop on the opening "Owed To Bishop" and returns in softer ballad mode with the quintet called Voice for "Sweet Anathi."

This is the best opportunity you can find if you want a sweeping overview of the happening players in South African jazz today. Like most compilations, it should serve as a jumping off point toward individual artists with flair and style. You need to feed it into your ears to see what works for you, but there's no bum steer here. South African jazz is one of the sweetest sounds on the planet, ironic enough given its trials and tribulations during the apartheid era. Listen to these players to hear where the music is headed.

Visit Heads Up on the web.


Track Listing: Owed To Bishop

Title: Africa Straight Ahead | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Heads Up International


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