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Ajoyo: Ajoyo

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Multi-reed player Yacine Boulares has picked up, and left behind, musical footprints literally all around the world. He was born in North Africa (Tunisia) but grew up in Paris, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and jazz performance at the National Conservatory and New School for Jazz. As a Fulbright scholar, Boulares continued his musical studies and began his professional career in New York City, where he deeply connected with Cameroonian native JoJo Kuo & The Afrobeat Collective, Fela Kuti's drummer.

After a few groove-oriented jam sessions together, Boulares became a full-time member of Kuo's band. "There's a pocket to this music that is natural to Cameroonian players," Boulares once explained. "When you're playing with them, it's like sitting on the nose of a jet. There is drive that can push the whole band. That's the magic. When they play, everyone locks."

Boulares has since moved on but didn't leave Kuo's groove from Cameroon completely behind: It inspired him to form Ajoyo and compose this joyous, eponymous debut. Ajoyo builds around Boulares a truly global village: Bassist Fred Doumbe (Cameroon), guitarist Alon Albagli (Israel), percussionist Foluso Mimy (Barbados), saxophonist and co-producer Jacques Schwarz-Bart and drummers Guilhem Flouzat and Thierry Arpino (all from France), keyboardist Can Olgun (Germany), trumpeter Linton Smith (New Orleans), and Manhattan-based vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles.

Ajoyo makes clear that the organic whole of this music sounds greater than the sum of its still very enjoyable parts. While Boulares' saxophone flows as free and soft as water throughout his compositions, these songs are just as strongly blessed by Charles' immediately welcoming, soothing and comforting voice, and by the serpentine contributions of drummers Flouzat and Arpino. Boulares' saxophone blows "Chocot" hard and hot: It floats lightly, then turns to parry the percussion and rhythm sections (especially the splashing cymbals), then turns again to harmonize with other horns in an Afro-Cuban big band sound. Albagli's guitar solo pulls pan-global electric blues from "Idanwo," which weaves in another horn chart that sounds like the Earth, Wind & Fire horns out on safari.

"Sokeijo" throws down a riotous and multicolored African rhythmic party: Its ensemble horns blow the sparks from the snare drum and hot rhythm guitar into a raging instrumental fire, while saxophonists Boulares and Schwarz-Bart oddly suggest Sonny Rollins, angular where you'd expect them to curve and turning in when you expect them to go out.

"Houb Ouna" tranquilly rises from Charles' warm and sunny vocal like mist from the wet grass after a summer morning sun shower, repeating the beautiful last line of its chorus ("I will live for you, this is my vow") until it fades. "Benskin" evokes powerful emotions and images with African music that also reflects Boulares' jazz experiences, as bassist Doumbe grabs the entire ensemble and leads it back into the groove to greet Smith's trumpet solo in swing time. After Charles' voice returns to majestically oversee this tune's fading into sunset, it finally dawns who Ajoyo sounds like: Flora Purim and Airto Moreira if they came from Cameroon and not Brazil.

"This album tells the stories of resilience I have experienced in my personal life and around me," Boulares shares in his liner notes. "It is the fruit of a lifelong process that has led me to transform my deepest emotions into joy."

Track Listing: Jekoro; Chocot; Idanwo; Benskin; The Pearl; Soke Ijo; Tashikere; Houb Ouna.

Personnel: Sarah Elizabeth Charles: lead vocals; Linton Smith: trumpet, vocals; Alon Albagli: guitar, vocals; Can Olgun: piano, Fender Rhodes, C3 organ; Foluso Mimy: percussion, vocals; Fred Doumbe: bass, vocals; Guilhem Flouzat: drums: (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7); Thierry Arpino: drums (3, 5, 6) udu (8); Yacine Boulares:: sax, clarinet, percussion, vocals; Jacques Schwarz-Bart: tenor sax (6).

Title: Ajoyo | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Ropeadope

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