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When one examines the role rhythm plays in jazz, it's a complicated affair. The early introduction of European instruments, which essentially make up the modern jazz drummer's kit, brought with it the legacy of the marching band: timekeeping, accents, and (eventually) swing. But the sphere of African rhythm, as it has been maintained in traditions throughout the African diaspora, encompasses a far greater range of texture and color. Many of these instruments are played with hands, not sticks. American jazz artists began to reach out to the African sound in the '60s, when the avant-garde crossed over to build new relationships with the African part of the Afro-American tradition. (Witness efforts by the AACM, for example.)
The closest New World relatives of West African ritual drumming reside in Haiti (Voodoo) and Cuba (Santeria). On this remarkable record of Haitian voodoo drumming recorded in Port au Prince, no other voices dilute the power of the drums. Head drummer Harold Laurenceau leads an ensemble of players who work the full range of pitches available from animal skins stretched over resonant wooden frames. High crackling detail runs alongside stuttering mid-range counterpoint and the heavy warmth of deep tuned drums. (Both the full tonal range and the stereo image come across wonderfully on this recording.)
Compared to the drummers of West Africa, this ensemble interprets texture at a much more dynamic level. The rhythms rest upon an underpinning of structure unique to each piece, dedicated to bringing individual spirits to the physical world. But within these loose constraints, the drummers take maximum liberties to add, subtract, and alter notes. Repetition falls prey to improvisation, resulting in a potent sense of collective intercommunication. (And that's exactly the spirit that evolved out of the Chicago and New York free jazz movements during their explosion in the '60s.) If you listen to this music with an open heart and an free spirit, you'll feel the higher energies gathering with each successive hit. If Voodoo is about spiritual transport, this record will take you into vast, unimagined territory.
Jazz is a continuing revelation. The best show I ever attended was the
Roots Picnic at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia, or was it Robert
Glasper's Experiment at Lincoln Center, or was it Chick Corea with
Brian Blade at Oberlin College? Most of all I enjoy playing guitar and
composing beats with my Brooklyn-based group Space Captain.