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West African Manden music is no stranger to Western ears, and much has been made of its close similarity to American blues. On Malicool, Roswell Rudd transports his singular trombone to West Africa for an adventurous session with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, who is among the world’s best on the instrument. The kora is a 21-stringed instrument that can be fingerpicked in a blues-like manner and can be used to harmonize, play chords and/or produce incredibly fast runs. Think Leo Kottke with a 21-string guitar and you are almost there. This is Diabate’s second collaboration with an American musician, after Kalanjan, a very successful 1999 recording with country bluesman Taj Mahal.
Moments on Malicool delight, as on Kalanjan, and fans of both musicians will find this CD intriguing. At times Malian instrumental elegance melds suprisingly well with the trombone’s naturally thick texture. Two Diabate pieces, “Hank” and “Johanna,” stand out in this respect. Lassana Diabate’s balafon (xylophone) is a pleasure throughout, especially on Monk’s “Jackie-ing” and on the Diabate-penned compositions; he of all appears to be able to move easiest between Roswell’s jazz and Diabate’s Manden Jaliya. Rudd’s “For Toumani” allows enough room for both musicians to build through intricate trombone/bass-kora/ngoni (lute) interplay and fulminate in a full-blown electric bass driven kora finale.
These transgenre collaborations are risky, and as nearly 800 year old Manden Jaliya meets upstart jazz, some mutual hesitation/respect creeps in. Shattering wall-of-sound kora runs are subdued and Rudd’s trademark inventive trombone eccentricities are not always allowed to reach their full potential. While Mahal's steel guitar was easily able to replace its ancient predecessor (the ngoni) within the traditional instrumentation, Rudd’s trombone on Malicool has the more difficult task of blending in with instruments of very different timbre. Despite Rudd’s self-cautionary statements in the liner notes, trombone density does at times muddy the more graceful Malian nuances. But other times, as on "Bamako," trombone picks up for griot vocalist and eerily substitutes as the band’s voice.
That said, with Malicool, Roswell Rudd has written yet another inventive chapter for the trombone and produced a CD that effectively introduces his instrument and its unique coloration to the Manden Jaliya. He has made a bold musical statement without changing the overall sensibility of the West African idiom. Such sensitivity is rare in world-jazz projects. Welcome back, Roswell.