Oct 19, 2012

From Australia: The Shaolin Afronauts - Quest Under Capricorn


Carrying on from the success of their debut album, The Shaolin Afronauts once again charter their rather unique path with this cracking follow up entitled "Quest Under Capricorn." Think 1970's West Africa, Ethiopia and the pioneering and progressive avant-garde jazz artists of that same period.

Opening track "Brooklyn" sees the band in a sprightly setting with a rock steady bass groove, signature big horns and the growliest baritone ever committed to record, engrossing stuff right from the off! Afrobeat deep jazz is next with "Gayanamede Prelude," highlighting the beautiful production and arranging skills of main man Ross McHenry. Some rather choice improvising soprano sax from his jazziness Andrew Crago, over some dense arrangements which can include anything up to a nine piece horn section!!

"Winds Of Gayanamede" is up next, jacking up the highly emotional intensity of this compelling album. There's a real downtempo feel to the first part of the album and it will no doubt draw you in to their secret arcane world, especially track 5, the killer title track "Quest Under Capricorn." Yes it's 'Enter The Dragon Time' with this moody modal piece of mellifluous and majesterial magic! This is jazz music all filtered through a free jazz approach that is quite stunning - a landmark session. One of those recordings seeping through with so much power and an emotional, deep connection is felt emphatically too. This outfit ascend right here, right now on a higher plane of existence. The combustible influences that shape this album are still relevant today and SA do it with such class and panache.


Afro Jazz hasn’t reached the level of popularity that it deserves to be at, yet its style has more years behind it than smooth jazz. The sound of African jazz and retro 70s soul are the inspiration behind “Shaolin Afronauts”, an amazing Australian band founded in 2009. Their new CD, “Quest Under Capricorn”, released July 16th on the Freestyle Records label, is good soul seasoned with just the right touch of musical spices and influences. Now, please bear in mind that no matter what else I say about a specific track from this point on, this phrase still applies: “It has lots of soul and 70s flavor.”

John Shaft (shut your mouth!!) could’ve shown his very cool swagger to the intro record “Brooklyn” which exudes funk, and I do mean the good kind. “Brooklyn” starts like the beginning of an action movie, and its overlapping horns and harmonies blend tightly with the band. The middle section features a blistering baritone sax solo. Just before track 3, there’s a riveting prelude with wind blowing sound effects, an echo pedal electric piano, and horns playing softly with classic Gil Evans style jazz harmony.

The track “Los Angeles” is a serious piece of music, beginning with flute and electric keys to set up the horn section and band. Kevin Van Der Zwaag pushes a strong funk beat on the drums, while the soprano sax attacks the solo with lines reminiscent of 70’s horn man Bennie Maupin of the Headhunters. The arrangement builds in intensity as the horns break into an all-out brawl of notes, and then break back down to the reflective tones of the solo electric fender Rhodes piano. The title track, “Quest Under Capricorn” really shows the band’s range with nice unison flutes and low brass answering back.

The Shaolin Afronauts are more than just a band with a cool name. They are exceptional players with a dynamic style who are creating great music that is just too hard to find, unless you go to a vintage record store. They blend well, the cuts are never sloppy, and the mix sounds great on my stereo and even better with headphones. Jazz aficionados and music lovers of all genres who are seeking soul with an order of something special on the side will find “Quest Under Capricorn” to be the crème de la crème. Don’t walk, run and pick up your copy today. You’ll thank me later.



Originally conceived as a side project for members of Adelaide soul outfit the Transatlantics, as an outlet to sate a developing appetite for various African and jazz styles, Shaolin Afronauts have rapidly developed into one of the country's most sophisticated young big bands.
If their debut album of first takes, Flight of the Ancients, constituted a promising if somewhat raw entree to their recording career, Quest Under Capricorn sees them sink their collective teeth into something altogether more substantial and satisfying.

Expanding to an 18-piece line-up that contains no fewer than 10 horns could easily have proven a case of biting off more than they could chew. Fortunately, the acumen of the band's musical director, bass player, producer and primary composer, Ross McHenry, and the influence of an American mentor, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who has worked with leviathans such as Wayne Shorter, Brad Mehldau and Quincy Jones, have ensured that the sophomore album is expertly arranged, even if the intros and outros might have been more variable.

There's certainly no lack of imagination, brilliance of chops or abatement in intensity. Indeed, the wild free-form inhibition displayed in sections of Saturn's Dance and End of a Sun references the anarchy and experimentation of vintage Sun Ra recordings.

In the latter, the Afronauts' trombones, trumpets and saxophones buzz like angry hornets.
Elsewhere, the brass billows over solid Afro rhythms. Winds Across Gayanamede and Amhara evince Ethio-jazz and that genre's champion, Mulatu Astatke, while exhibiting Kuti-esque afrobeat foundations. Los Angeles, on the other hand, hits a groove more reminiscent of US keyboard king Herbie Hancock's 70s workouts with the Headhunters.


Shaolin Afronauts - Winds across Gayanamede from Ross McHenry on Vimeo.

The most talented, interesting and challenging of all Adelaide musicians is the collective that feeds the bands The Transatlantics, The Atlantic Street Band, Max Savage and the False Idols (plus many more groups popping up almost every other month). This talent, intrigue and experimentation are deftly represented on Quest Under Capricorn, the second album from The Shaolin Afronauts (to date the highlight group of the collective). Originally an Afro-beat ensemble infamous for their energetic and mystical live shows, which would see up to 13 members don cloaks on a small stage to bust out Afro jazz seemingly direct from 70s Nigeria, the second album finds the Afronauts evolving. They are no longer limited to the Afro genre. 

Bandleader Ross McHenry travelled to Los Angeles under the tutelage of composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. The compositions from that pilgrimage base this album, which resulted in a live show at the Festival Centre with 18 players, followed by a quick recording session. The result is a mature, eclectic set of Afro influenced jazz rhythms, which can only be described as raw jazz. This spirited, rough edge drives beasts such as the schizophrenic End of a Sun, which sounds like a jazz apocalypse one moment before being rescued by a beautiful gathering of horns riding an angelic groove the next. While the magnificent Amhara switches from Afro lounge to a Middle Eastern groove with ease. Quest Under Capricorn is a major step forward for the Afronauts and with more albums coming from many of the collective’s other bands this year, 2012 should be the year that one of Adelaide’s finest gathering of artists will be celebrated across the land and hopefully the globe.


The Shaolin Afronauts are a jazz/afrobeat collective based in Adelaide, Australia. Quest Under Capricorn, recorded in January this year with an expanded 18-piece band, is the follow up to last year’s debut album Flight of the Ancients, an infectious record that stuck so rigidly to its afrobeat template you could easily mistake it for Fela Kuti on first listen. For the uninitiated, Fela Kuti played a kind of music that he named “Afrobeat”, a combination of American jazz and funk blended with West African highlife music, traditional Yoruba music and chanted vocals.

On first listen Quest Under Capricorn feels like a continuation of their first album. Winds Across Gayanamede opens with a funky guitar riff, before breaking into a classic Afrobeat sounding groove where free-flowing horns are accompanied by some quite brilliant drumming. However there is evidence that the Afronauts are expanding their sound into new directions. There are some distinctly Avant-garde jazz moments – witness the wild horn section wig-outs on End of a Sun and Saturn’s Dance. While album highlight Quest Under Capricorn would not sound out of place on a Ennio Morricone film score, its moody horns lending it a bristling intensity. Certainly this record seems more serious than their first, with a greater emphasis on song structure and variation, but you feel that some of the carefree fun of their more groove-based debut has been lost too.

It has been said that there are no original ideas in art. Listening to this album may provoke the question; Is it possible to recreate a sound from the past whist still making music that sounds fresh and vital? The Cinematic Orchestra cleverly achieved this on Everyday by fusing their live jazz improvisation with turntable trickery, electronica, and the emotive vocals of Fontella Bass and Roots Manuva. The Afronauts seem less willing to experiment in this way and you can’t help but feel they are being somewhat straightjacketed by their musical influences. Amhara is a case in point. It’s a brilliantly realised piece of Ethio-jazz, no doubt inspired by the work of Mulatu Astatke, but it somehow leaves you cold because it sounds so much like its source material.

The Shaolin Afronauts are clearly a very talented bunch of musicians, and Quest Under Capricorn is a sophisticatedalbum that builds on the promise of its predecessor, but it fails to stir your emotions. Fela Kuti’s powerful, often politically motivated vocals were an integral part of his music that gave his work an emotional intensity that The Afronauts cannot match. Ultimately, Quest Under Capricorn is an easy album to like, but a hard one to love.

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