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The Boston Phoenix Africa Calling

The World Saxophone Quartet, and more

By Ed Hazell

AUGUST 31, 1998:  There's almost always more at stake than simple musical novelty whenever an American musician incorporates elements of music from another country or culture into jazz -- issues of cultural identity and politics. Three new releases by the World Saxophone Quartet and two of its members, Hamiet Bluiett and David Murray, on Justin Time, fuse African musics with contemporary jazz. The African elements transform the jazz, of course, but they also add undercurrents of cultural pride that are just as important as the purely musical power of the percussion.

On Selim Sivad, the World Saxophone Quartet is joined by drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionists Chief Bey, Okyerema Asante, and Titos Sompa. A tribute to Miles Davis, the album reworks familiar tunes associated with several periods of the late trumpeter's career. African percussion reshapes the melody of "Seven Steps to Heaven" in a Murray arrangement that emphasizes collective improvisation. "Freddie Freeloader" rocks gently in an arrangement driven by kalimba, an African thumb piano. Founding WSQ members Murray, Bluiett, and Oliver Lake are joined by John Purcell, who fits right into the band's lustrous ensemble arrangements and sure-handed improvisations. There's solid blowing from everyone, with "All Blues" sporting especially good solos from Lake and Bluiett, a robust Hawkins-meets-Ayler tenor solo from Murray on "Freddie Freeloader," and a feature for Purcell on "Blue in Green." WSQ works as a jazz band because every member plays like a drum, and here the presence of percussionists makes the rhythmic roots of even the most abstract moments doubly clear.

Still, there's little on Selim Sivad that these players haven't done better elsewhere. Baritone-saxophonist Bluiett has released a flood of albums lately, and his new Same Space, recorded last year, is one of the best. This is the debut disc of his Same Space trio -- Bluiett with pianist D.D. Jackson and percussionist Mor Thiam. Less gimmicky than Bluiett's all-baritone band, Same Space is also more African-influenced than his Concept quintet, which recorded three Live at Carlos 1 CDs in 1987 (these have also recently been released by Justin Time). And despite Same Space's share of altissimo wailing, piano tone clusters, and other advanced techniques, it's actually one of Bluiett's more accessible discs (it isn't nearly as dark and forbidding as yet another recent Bluiett Justin Time release, Saying Something for All, an outstanding 1977 duet with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams). Tracks like "Aseeko," "Peace Song," and "Jamm'd" balance Thiam's djembe (a Senegalese goblet-shaped hand drum) with Jackson's potent gospel-blues jazz piano and Bluiett's jazz-soul vamps. The progressive jazz elements push the traditional African ones; the African melodies and rhythms keep the jazz elements anchored in community and tradition.

David Murray's Creole, a collaboration with musicians from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, is similarly celebratory. Murray, an '80s firebrand turned itinerant tenor gladiator in the classic mold of Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster, makes a lot of albums, and inevitably some of them sound mailed in, but not this one. The singers and percussionists from the French-speaking island play gwo-ka, a rural form that's the root of zouk, the worldbeat dance sensation popularized by bands like Kassav. Like Cuban rhumba or Brazilian samba, it is both great music and a source of cultural pride to the predominately poor and black people who make it.

Murray cites the historical, political, and social analogies to jazz in his liner notes, and the affinities create a feeling of solidarity among these musicians from two very different cultures in the African diaspora. On "Gansavn'n" and Murray's "Mona," three percussionists and drummer Billy Hart form a deep-toned rumble of interlocking layers of rhythm that is lighter and more fluid than Cuban rhumba but just as densely layered and multitextured. Propelled by the drumming, Murray's longer lines sail easily along with the flow of percussion, and his stepwise, choppy riffs hit with the sharp impact of hand-drum beats.

Two duets with guitarist Gérard Lockel are especially memorable, with Lockel's steely counterlines and strummed chords goading Murray to some of his best playing here. The presence of Guadeloupan flute legend Max Cilla and jazz flutist James Newton makes the calypso "Soma Tour" a real flute summit. But as on all these albums, it's the sense of historical continuity and shared culture that lifts the music above the ordinary.

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