Ghanaian multi-instrumentalist Blay Ambolley has accomplished the difficult task of holding onto his roots despite leaving home to live in the United States fourteen years ago. At this point, those roots sink equally deep into the American jazz tradition and West African musical styles known as highlife and Afro-beat. To his credit, he's managed to recruit like-minded players in the Los Angeles music community, in the form of his Afrikan Hi-Life Band, now eight years old. At the same time, he makes the journey to Ghana on a regular basis to perform and reabsorb culture.
Highlife was born decades ago in Ghana as a Caribbean-American-African hybrid arranged for typical jazz instrumentation plus drums, evolving over the years into a guitar-driven form in the hands of performers like King Sunny Ade. Afro-beat, a '70s invention of Nigerian star Fela Kuti, relies heavily on long funk-driven vamps and extended vocal and instrumental passages. Ambolley displays obvious literacy in both styles of music.
This review covers Ambolley's latest two discs, released in 2001 and 2003, respectively for his Simigwa Records label. He has made a total of seventeen recordings to date.
The recording sessions that gave rise to AfriKan JaaZZ came about mostly in Los Angeles (tracks 1-5) and Ghana (6-11), though overdubs were used to round out the latter six tracks. This hour of music starts out with a couple of familiar standards, Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" and Miles Davis's "All Blues." The added percussion puts an immediate African stamp on things, but otherwise the group could be a traditional jazz ensemble. Saxophonist Michael Kobena Session and trumpeter Steven Smith step forward with sober solos, but bassist Al Kojo Threats stretches the fabric a little on "Footprints" with a generally funky groove and a blues-tinged solo.
Most of the record, however, would be categorized as highlife if you had to stamp a name on it. Rex Lawson's "Adure" pops its head up a couple of times, riding a Caribbean lilt of arranged horns and criss-crossing guitar lines. There's plenty of room for the instrumentalists to stretch out, and they do so eagerly, Session using overblown harmonics to beef up a solo peak. Ambolley's electric piano mainly serves a supporting role; the triple-threat drums and percussion provide the spice that marks highlife as a thoroughly African idiom. The first version is an "instrumental" with some warm vocal scatting, but the second (a highlight) is mainly driven by peppy singing of the more usual kind.
As befits Fela Kuti's own elongated approach to the music, "Afrikan Woman" comes in a hefty nine-minute stretch. Guitars and horns alike riff along a constant funky groove. Ambolley's own tunes, which dominate the second half of the record, are generally happy, upbeat affairs, "Blue Moon" being a particularly lush and romantic example. Monk's "Round Midnight" comes as a live track that doesn't measure up to the sound quality of the rest of the record, which is generally well-produced.
Ambolley does his influences justice on this thoroughly personal disc, a positive statement of mixed identity.
Jaazz Meets Hi-Life
This live record comes from a performance at Santa Monica's Temple Bar, without the studio tweaking that characterizes the previous record. Its sound quality is reasonable but not exceptional; in any case, it doesn't detract from the effectiveness of the inspired performance. The group (formed eight years ago) features a full complement of two drummers (congas and trap drums), trumpet, two saxophones, keyboards, and bass, which is about right for its highlife emphasis, and they're as tight as one could possibly expect.
The first two minutes are tracked as a spoken introduction, and while they serve an important role of establishing the live setting, the words are sort of an impediment to the music that follows. Of important note, however, is Ambolley's exhortation to "be happy, and share the time that we have, and make the most out of it," and that's as good a characterization of the music to come as any. The rest of the record consists of extended tracks averaging over nine minutes in length, allowing more than adequate time for instrumental exploration.
Things finally get underway with a bouncy groove on Ambolley's "Abrentsie," a free-flying hunk of joy. John Rangel gets in a zippy extended keyboard solo which bridges the changes but still manages to complement the rich percussion that develops underneath. It's difficult to identify whether the saxophone solo that followsas well as sax playing throughout the recordis coming from Ambolley or Michael Kobena Session's horn, but it's solid. The passionate blowing that follows on Ambolley's "Akoko Ba," in contrast, earns generous applause from the audience for its emotional emphasis.
Three tracks from the performance will be familiar to listeners who have heard AfriKan JaaZZ : Miles Davis's "All Blues," Fela Kuti's "Afrikan Woman," and Rex Lawson's "Adure." They close out the record with upbeat, extended grooves, well-arranged and executed with sophistication. Ambolley's tenor vocals here, as elsewhere, have an earthy substance and lack pretense. His scatting on "All Blues" comes across as a natural extension of his regular singing voice, which serves the thickly funky Fela Kuti-esque jam that follows quite well. (Credit bassist Al Kojo Threats for more than his share of the elbow grease here.)
JaaZZ Meets Hi-Life is an effective complement to the production of AfriKan JaaZZ , a demonstration that Ambolley's vision belongs on the stage just as well as in the studio. In the end it's a preferred medium, that is if you like your music peppy.
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Tracks and Personnel:
Tracks: Footprints (Shorter); All Blues (Davis); Love Adure-Instrumental (Lawson); 'Round Midnight (Monk); Afrikan Woman (Ambolley/Kuti); Asante Kotoko (Ambolley); Odo Ye Wu (Ambolley); Adure (Lawson); Whose Chicken (Ambolley); Blue Moon (Ambolley); Mother Afrika (Ambolley). Recorded at Simigwa Studios (Ghana); Newzone Studio, Drew University, Dino Hermann Productions (Los Angeles); and Funky Slice Studios (Brooklyn)
Personnel: Blay Ambolley: vocals, electric piano, drums, programming, percussion; Michael Kobena Session: saxophones; Steven Smith: flugelhorn, trumpet; John Rangel: piano; Kweku Dickson: Hammond organ, piano; Jean Koh-Elong: guitar; Al Kojo Threats: 5 & 6-string bass; Josman Mbela: drums; Marcel Adjibi: congas, clave; Malikah Salaam: background vocals. Nate Mrafu Morgan: piano; Al Kojo Threats: bass; Paul Tshunga: drums; Blay Ambolley: vocals (4). Osei Tutu: trumpet (6). Michael Harris: trumpet; Michael Kobena Session: tenor saxophone (7,10). Jim Jedeikin: alto saxophone (9,11).
JaaZZ Meets Hi-Life
Tracks: Malika (Intro); Abrentsie (Ambolley); Akoko Ba (Ambolley); Ejuma (BAKM/Issa); San Bra-All Blues (Davis); Afrikan Woman (Ambolley/Kuti); Adure (Ambolley/Lawson). Recorded live at Temple Bar, Santa Monica, CA 4/9/03.
Personnel: Blay Ambolley: vocals, sax, percussion; Steven Smith: trumpet, vocals; Michael Kobena Session: sax, vocals; John Rangel: keyboards; Munyungo Jackson: congas; Al Kojo Threats: bass, vocals; Giovanni Nickens: drums.