The global jazz movement takes a step forward with Africa Straight Ahead, a collection of music from South Africa that gathers the best and the brightest jazz players from the tip of the motherland, and may represent just the tip of the iceberg as far as the conflux of world music and what has been called "America's classical music" is concerned. It's a great concept, one that suggests a blending of the high musical standards of jazz with the expressive tribal culture of the Zulu, and evokes images of Nelson Mandela hanging out with Archie Shepp in Harlem, or perhaps John Coltrane and Steve Biko kicking back in Soweto.
Such inspired moments occasionally happen on Africa Straight Ahead. Paul Hanmer's "Naivisha," for example, begins as a rather conventional jazz tune, before breaking out into a wild explosion of township jive rhythms. Similarly, the Sheer Allstars' "Langery" adapts the melodic sensibility of mbalax into a modern jazz context. And McCoy Mrubata's "Amasabekwelanggeni" adds lively congos and bongos to what would otherwise be a by-the-book smooth jazz number.
But while the playing on Africa Straight Ahead is excellent by any standard, there are times when one wishes the music was more cutting-edge. A reliance on convention is the comp's biggest weakness -- there's nothing in the opening track, Marcus Wyatt's "Owed to Bishop," that sounds particularly African. Indeed, in the course of the album's twelve songs, there are a few moments when you could just as easily be listening to a KKSF sampler. And when guys like Joe Zawinul have built entire careers off importing the exotic textures of ethnic music into jazz, it wouldn't have hurt to feature more traditional instruments on this album, which would have gone a long way toward making this collection more of a groundbreaking fusion of Afro-American and African culture and less a case of technically solid jazz that just happens to be from South Africa.
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