Pianist Andrew Oliver formed The Kora Band in 2008 following a tour in West Africa and a chance meeting with a kora player, leading him to track down Kane Mathis, whom he recruited and whose presence naturally gave birth to the group's name and its idiosyncratic sound. Mathis is one of the foremost kora players in America and brings to the band a completely different dimension. The kora is a kind of traditional harp, originally played by musicians of the Mandinka ethnic group of West Africa, and the effect of the sound it produces, can edge towards the mesmeric.
Kicking off this set "The Contract" might give the listener the idea that this is "world music," which in a sense it is since Mathis' expertise on the kora evokes a variety of moods often sounding at times, and to the untutored listener, like a rapidly oscillating cross between Mexican mariachi and Greek rebetiko. Combined with its African roots, this kora-led music effortlessly crosses continents with dizzying alacrity.
Chad McCullough's trumpet hook on "Bière La Gazelle" sounds tantalisingly close to the first bar of Bach's "Jesu Joy Of Man's Desiring," this lively number soon evolving into a latin-esque outing. The twin horns configuration (trumpet and clarinet) and tricky timing on "5 Ans D'Effort" give this track a more distinctly jazzy feel, all underpinned by Oliver's exploratory, rapid-fire piano work.
A fleeting burst of kora leads into the slow-paced "Teriyaa" where Mathis sings his own plaintively impassioned West African lyrics on the only vocal track on the album. When Mathis is at full pelt on the kora, the sound he produces is uncannily similar to the electric harpsichord flourishes on Terry Riley's masterpiece A Rainbow In Curved Air. Chad McCullough overshadows all on "Specialists in Some Styles" with Mark DiFlorio plays calabash here rather than drum kit, thus offering-up some very apposite percussive subtlety.
"Slip Coach (for Chet)" again features Lee Elderton with a lithe clarinet solo. The title track is the longest at just over ten minutes with Chad McCullough leading the serpentine melody and Andrew Oliver introducing some brilliant piano skirmishes. The ballad, "Old Countries" concludes this intriguing set.
It would be tempting to introduce all sorts of comparisons to others playing either West African music or jazz, but in truth The Kora Band doesn't really sound like any other group. This is an amazing feat, in a century supersaturated with music of every hue, and a convincing testament to the innovative sound of a jazz band successfully incorporating non-Western traditional instruments.
The Contract; Bière La Gazelle; 5 Ans D'Effort; Teriyaa; Specialists in Some Styles; Slip Coach (for Chet); New Cities; Old Countries
Andrew Oliver: piano; Kane Mathis: kora and vocals; Chad McCullough: trumpet, flugelhorn; Brady Millard-Kish: acoustic and electric bass; Mark DiFlorio: drums, calabash; plus Lee Elderton: clarinet (tracks 3 and 6).