Jazz: Out of Africa

AAJ Staff By

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These two jazz-oriented recordings explore unexpected multicultural fusions with African music. The first, one of two inaugural releases on American drummer Jack DeJohnette's own Golden Beams label, delves into West African trance music in a duo with Gambia's Foday Musa Suso. The second, a 2003 recording on the Jazzbank label, finds Congolese pianist and percussionist B.B. Mo-Franck in the company of several Japanese musicians. The blending of jazz with other global styles results in dramatically different outcomes in each case.

Jack DeJohnette and Foday Musa Suso
Music from the Hearts of the Masters
Golden Beams

Conventional wisdom has it that Africa is the home of the drum, and over the years many an American musician has looked to the Dark Continent for rhythmic inspiration. But this particular collaboration turns the tables on that assumption, so to speak, by placing veteran jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette in the company of a kora (21-stringed West African harp/lute) player from the Gambia. Foday Musa Suso is no stranger to this sort of joint effort, having worked closely with Herbie Hancock and Philip Glass, among others, over the years. It was, in fact, his Hancock collaboration Village Life (Columbia, 1984) which first got DeJohnette interested in his music. The kora has a distinctively warm, resonant, and gently pulsating sound that lends it versatility in many musical settings.

Any time two players this experienced from such vastly different backgrounds get together, they test your expectations. Will DeJohnette introduce his own powerful swinging aura into the decidedly non-swinging music of the Senegambia? Will Suso steer events toward the time-tested traditions of Manding music? (He is, after all, a griot, having inherited his position in a family of musicians, storytellers, and historians that stretches back hundreds of years.)

Both expectations are realized to some extent on Music from the Hearts of the Masters. Look no further than the fifth track, "Kaira ("peace ), which has become an essential part of the kora canon ever since Sidiki Diabate popularized it back in the '40s. Suso repeats the gently rolling melody and its constantly interlaced string counterpoint, gradually establishing a trance-like state and providing space for DeJohnette to expand and contract time. Yes, some of those cymbal triplets are definitely swinging. You might not notice it because the kora playing is so direct and regular, but Suso also plays with time in subtle and clever ways as he delivers each cascade of notes.

Other than "Kaira and the closing "Sunjatta Keita (a traditional piece named after the founder of the ancient Empire of Mali), the rest of these tunes are credited to Suso and/or DeJohnette (mostly both). Their hybrid music can't be easily labeled, since it's a product of both two separate cultures and two distinct individuals, but it's remarkably consistent.

The musicians wisely choose to occupy a middle zone of trance-like repetition where Suso can freely explore theme and variation, call and response, melody and counterpoint while DeJohnette does the same in his own polyrhythmic way on the drums. This is lyrical, flowing, hypnotic music that's best appreciated from a distance, lest you lose the forest for the trees and thus also sacrifice the golden opportunity to expand your mindspace in these rolling grooves.

Visit Jack DeJohnette on the web.

B.B. Mo-Franck and Bitasika
Polystar Jazz Library/Jazzbank

You don't often hear about African musicians making it in Japan, but B.B. Mo-Franck has always been more the exception than the rule. The Congolese pianist and percussionist grew up in Kinshasa and later spent some time in Kenya (where he composed the soundtrack for Bushstrikers, reputedly the first Kenyan film). When a group of Japanese cultural ambassadors came to recruit performers for a 1983 peace concert in memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mo-Franck won the contest and went to Japan. The rest is history. He's released four records there, including three with his Bitasika group, which is mostly comprised of Japanese musicians. He's also made it a priority to communicate his love of music to young people, visiting some 900 Japanese schools over the course of six years.

Muyu, the latest effort by Bitasika, is a wonderful mixture of different African styles with jazz, funk, Caribbean music, and even (perhaps not unexpectedly) Japanese sounds. B.B. Mo-Franck plays piano, keyboards, and percussion, but he's not one to grab the spotlight, so you're more likely to hear guitarist Isao Itai or saxophonist Go Kumamura, for example, when it comes time for solos or front-line action.

The disc starts off with a relatively brief and thoroughly Eastern-sounding introduction on tsugaru shamisen (three-string Japanese guitar). The polyrhythms kick in at full strength on "3-5-2-2, a highlife-flavored celebration with a memorably joyful theme punctuated by chant-like vocals and a long improvised instrumental jam featuring horns, bass, guitars, bass, and percussion. The brief Japanese rap at the end will catch you by surprise, but it fits. "Balabala #2 bears some resemblance to Nigerian Afro-beat in its insistently funky and riff-driven approach, though the edges are smoothed out and thickened up by additional layers of texture.

The spiritual center of the record comes with the aptly titled "Dream Island, a lyrical, folky soprano sax-led homecoming. (The melody is more Northern European than African or Japanese, curiously enough, but it works quite well.) The naive simplicity of the piece feels warm and welcoming, though it suffers from entirely dispensable cheesy keyboard textures. There's a whiff of Southern Africa in the criss-crossing guitar lines and highlife horns of "Twende Tukufe, which is solidly anchored in the backbeat, though not without plenty of flex along the way.

While most of these songs have a peppy beat and lots of happy energy, B.B. Mo-Franck also has a soft spot for fusiony jazz—manifested by electric instruments, soft textures, and an overall smooth vibe—which tends to mellow things out.

Visit B.B. Mo-Franck on the web.

Music from the Hearts of the Masters

Personnel: Jack DeJohnette: drums; Foday Musa Suso: kora and dousinguni.

Tracks: Ocean Wave; Ancient Techno; Rose Garden; Worldwide Funk; Kaira; Mountain Love Dance; Party; Voice of the Kudrus; Sunjatta Keita.


Personnel: B.B. Mo-Franck: piano, keyboards, percussion, chorus; Mukuna Tshiakatumba: guitar, percussion, chorus; Tatsuya Ikeda: bass; Isao Itai: guitar; Go Kumamura: tenor and soprano saxophone; Jun Watanabe: drums; Kayo Tanaka: chorus. Guest artists: Tetsuya Iwama: tsugaru shamisen; Jin Hashimoto: rap, chorus; Tak Yamazaki: trumpet; Hidenori Midorikawa: alto saxophone; Yoshio Kishida: drums. Recorded at Wonder Station, Tokyo, 2/2003.

Tracks: Adlib I.B.; 3-5-2-2; Balabala #2; Tantine Eboka; Dream Island; Loketo; Muyu; Twende Tukufe; Moto Ye Nani?; Adlib I.B. #2; Chuu.

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