After the success of their last record, the all-acoustic, instrumental outing, Rising Sun, the Orchestra returns to electric, vocal-driven compositions on Solidarity, inviting in a selection of singers with whom they have collaborated at different times over the last decade. Hailing from diverse musical backgrounds, the guests were the catalyst for memorable artistic exchange, allowing each party to feed off the other and venture beyond their usual realm of experience into fresh musical territory.
The album’s cast includes singer, percussionist and songwriter El Hadji “Élage” M’baye, originally from Saint-Louis off the coast of Sénégal, now resident in Gatineau, Québec, a descendant of a long line of griot minstrels, acknowledged for his fusions of traditional Wolof sounds with modern popular music; singer, songwriter and guitarist Rômmel Teixeira Ribeiro, hailing from São Luís in North-Eastern Brazil, now living in downtown Ottawa, recognised for his unusual mix of native Brazilian styles with North American, West African and Caribbean influences; vocalist and songwriter Slim Moore, born in Overbrook, Ontario to Jamaican parents, better known for his soul-oriented work with the Mar-Kays but exploring here reggae-tinged original Patois material; brilliant jazz trumpeter Nicholas Dyson; versatile singer Amelia Leclair on backing vocals; and the full Souljazz Orchestra core complete the line-up, with vocal contributions by drummer / conguero Philippe Lafrenière and baritone saxophonist Ray Murray.
The compositions that arose from the sessions are in a variety of Afro, Latin and Caribbean styles, all connected by a consistent thread of North American soul and jazz sensibilities. Featuring lyrics sung in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Wolof (with borrowings from French and Arabic), the songs touch on subjects ranging from social and political issues to relationships and traditional folk tales.
The plugged-in direction of the new album also provided the band with an excuse to dig out some of their dusty, forgotten electric instruments from the attic: an ancient vibrato-heavy transistor organ, pawn shop hollow-body electric guitars, a warbling psychedelic tape-echo machine, a cavernous surf-guitar spring reverb unit, even an old Italian-made Elka electric piano rescued from a garbage can. The album was recorded onto a temperamental Tascam 8-track tape machine inherited from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at a surplus sale. The resultant sound is gritty, low-budget and analogue and the musicianship is, as always, vice-tight.
Now celebrating their 10th year, The Souljazz Orchestra continue their unrivalled run of fine albums. Breaking through on Toronto label Do Right!, Freedom No Go Die (2006, featuring their huge single “Mista President”) and Manifesto (2008) set the bar high. 2010′s Rising Sun, their first for Strut, was recognised as a landmark in deep, spiritual Afro jazz. Meanwhile, as a live unit, the Orchestra have become an in-demand fixture at venues and festivals worldwide and successfully toured the US for the first time during 2012.
“Bibinay” a medium tempo track featuring Senegalese-Canadian singer, percussionist and songwriter Élage Mbaye and a Gato Barbieri style tenor solo along with an Afro chant call and response, is serious, and should be most appreciated on the world stage. Now, one thing to note about the Souljazz Orchestra is that they have a spectacular horn section that is best illustrated by the cut “Ya Basta” which also includes some salsa as a nice touch. Keyboards and flute are especially strong on this track, and the lead vocalist is solid with good background vocals as well. “Solidarity” goes reggae with the tracks “Kingpin” and “Jericho” which have great arrangements and mixing. On the uptempo side are “Serve And Protect” on which the organ player got a chance to shine along with the percussion, “Conquering Lion” which is funky to the core, and the Latin cut “Tambou Lou”, which has one of the best guitar performances on the CD.
So, after showcasing their skills at mid to uptempo numbers, Souljazz Orchestra does what any great band or artist does. They slow it down just a bit with the track “Nijaay” which is a little too fast to be considered slow, but it’s definitely a bit more mellow with a reggae feel to it as well.
I was particularly impressed by “Solidarity” because it’s like taking a trip into so many different worlds at once: The 70s, Latin, reggae, Afro jazz, and many others. There’s a lot of variety and spice here, which always keeps things interesting, particularly when the band really has command of the music, regardless of which style is dominating at the time, and Souljazz Orchestra does that very well. “Solidarity” is one of those albums whose CDs should be eagerly anticipated because it’s, and I guess I’m showing my age here just a bit, “All that and a bag of chips.” These guys are solid.