Mar 9, 2018

Tony Allen - The Source

Tony Allen: The Source – drummer's Blue Note debut reframes jazz in his own image

Classic Blue Note releases of the 1960s are filled with tracks that exoticise Africa, with names such as Afro Blue, Afrodisia, Ghana, Niger Mambo, Mr Kenyatta, The Man from Tanganyika and so on. Five decades later, Blue Note’s latest signing Tony Allen – the Nigerian drummer who powered Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat – is turning the tables and exoticising Blue Note’s hard-bop. The Source builds on Allen’s recent mini-LP of Art Blakey covers, but this time he and musical director Yann Jankielewicz invoke other jazz legends. Ewajo recalls Miles Davis’s angular modal jazz; On Fire is based around a Dizzy Gillespie-style chromatic trumpet riff; Cruising evokes Duke Ellington’s tone poems; Push and Pull sounds like an ecstatic New Orleans marching band. Each is set to one of Allen’s herky-jerky drum patterns and a restrictive ostinato bassline, but Allen’s Parisian band explore each theme in detail, with some garrulous, impressive solos from the likes of saxophonist Rémi Sciuto and trumpeter Nicolas Giraud.

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On this hybrid album of jazz and Afrobeat, long-time Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen makes the complex sound effortless. Rarely has percussive innovation sounded this downright satisfying.

Making your way through the formidable back catalog of long-time Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen—one that spans nearly half a century—is a revelatory, sometimes head-spinning journey. Allen’s work has traversed styles that on the surface have little in common beyond his unique rhythmic presence. In the past 10 years, for example, Allen has tackled everything from Afrobeat (on solo album Film of Life), dreamy French pop (with Charlotte Gainsbourg), downbeat indie rock (with The Good, the Bad & the Queen), and techno (with the Moritz Von Oswald Trio). This range is a testament to both Allen’s redoubtable drumming skills and his ability to rein in his percussive ego in support of the job at hand. 

Curiously, though, for a drummer who absorbed so much of his percussive knowledge from the work of Max Roach and Art Blakey, there was little place in Allen’s catalog for actual jazz until 2017. In May of this year, he released a tribute to Blakey and his Jazz Messengers on legendary jazz label Blue Note. That EP, which saw Allen filter Blakey’s hard swing through his own Afrobeat elasticity, serves as a brilliant precursor to The Source, with which it shares label, musicians, and influences. More importantly, The Source shares a fascinating musical hybridity with the Blakey EP. It’s a continuation of the cultural back-and-forth between African music and jazz that, decades ago, saw Blakey absorb West African musical influences on albums such as 1962’s The African Beat, and Allen mold the influence of jazz into the Afrobeat sound.

But The Source isn’t a jazz album, per se: Allen’s drums don’t typically swing so much as jitter and jiggle, with boundless syncopated rhythms that sound like a giant squid menacing a drum kit. Nor is it an Afrobeat album, with Allen’s band comprised largely of Parisian jazz musicians plus Cameroonian guitarist Indy Dibongue; Damon Albarn makes a low-key contribution to “Cool Cats.” Rather, this is an album that straddles jazz and Afrobeat in an elegant push-and-pull that sometimes edges closer to the former, sometimes wanders closer to the latter, and often sits joyfully in the middle.

On “Wolf Eats Wolf,” for example, a scratchy Afrobeat groove—all sputtering, percussive organ and ecstatic brass riffs—gives way to a wandering trombone solo. Album opener “Moody Boy” goes in the other direction: a scattered, jazzy introduction that sounds semi-improvised, dissolving into chicken-scratch guitar rhythm and tough funk drums. The hybrid tone of the band is hugely important to this mix, with the Afrobeat licks of Dibongue’s choppy guitar style balanced by the more classically jazz texture of Mathias Allamane’s double bass.

Freed from the role of support act, Allen is the unequivocal star of The Source, wallowing in the wonderful freedom of rhythmic expression. His unique drumming style rarely resorts to repetition as it alternately responds to and drives changes in the music. The result is a percussive masterclass, from the nervous energy of “Bad Roads,” where Allen’s mongrel rhythm puts a jazz beat onto an Afrobeat motif, to his deceptively complex skills on “Tony’s Blues.” On the latter, a drum pattern that initially appears out of joint pulls into glorious rhythmic focus with the introduction of the other musicians, who play in careful staccato dabs. In this mix, Allamane proves vital, his melodic bass riffs anchoring a musical blend that at times—as on the aptly named “Push and Pull”—threaten to float off into the ether. The one time Allamane is set free, his solo on “Cruising” is a joy, a rock solid bassline loosening into elastic bent notes, like a plastic packet slowly melting on a fire.

What saves The Source from being an album uniquely for drum nerds is the songwriting. The 11 tracks here—all written by Allen with saxophonist and long-time collaborator Yann Jankielewicz—may understandably not live up to jazz standards like “Moanin’” and “A Night in Tunisia” that appear on A Tribute to Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. But there are some fine musical motifs, including a delightfully itinerant chord sequence and jump-cut riff on “Push and Pull,” the moody, merry-go-round melody on “Tony’s Blues,” and a playfully menacing riff that emerges four-and-a-half minutes into “On Fire.”

Perhaps the greatest attribute of this album, though, is how it makes the complex sound effortless. The Source may draw on Afrobeat and jazz to create something intricate and expansive, but the results are never contrived or academic. In this, The Source mirrors the musical skills of Allen himself, a man who tackles rhythmic mazes like a walk in the park, making this release both a fine addition to his catalog and a load of genre-bending fun. Rarely has percussive innovation sounded this downright satisfying.

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Jazz drummer Tony Allen, innovator of Afrobeat music with Fela Kuti’s band in the late 60s and 70s, returns to center stage with a new album. “The Source” is an energetic celebration of the history of jazz and african music, led by Allen’s unparalleled drumwork. Described by Brian Eno as “perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived,” Allen lays down an album that delights at every turn with polished melodies and and exciting changes. It’ll bring you out of your seat.

Now based in Paris, Nigerian-born Allen has played on a seemingly endless stream of recordings. “The Source” is his debut LP for the legendary jazz record label Blue Note Records, following a tribute EP to Art Blakey, and he packs as much power behind the kit as ever. Retracing his roots to the album’s namesake, “The Source,” Allen documents the sounds of jazz far and wide, implementing a wide range of styles into his sound. No one in the jazz world seems better suited for this than Allen, the reigning king of Afrobeat influence.

Album opener “Moody Boy” invites us on Allen’s voyage into the past. In an extended intro of rolling piano and horn flourishes, the band seems to be catapulting us into its trip through time, back to the “The Source.” A minute and half in we enter the groove and don’t look back. This is not the future. This is the past arriving with all its might.

Standout track “Wolf Eat Wolf” summons the classic sound of Fela Kuti and Africa ‘70 back to the table, with circulating guitar lines and funky organ that drive alongside Allen’s absolutely infectious drumming patterns. Allen finds hidden lines of rhythm and complements horn melodies effortlessly, practicing both restraint and forceful playing in equal measure. By the song’s end the horn section is in full force, discovering New Orleans-style arrangements that feel like pure celebration.

“The Source” was recorded old school too – purely on analog gear from the studio to cutting the record. This not only affects the album’s sound but also its feel too. The approach of Allen and his impressive roster of jazz cats hearkens back to the glory days of jazz, before synths and other digital gear made their mark on the scene. With fifty years of experience behind him, Allen makes jazz cool and bravado look easy, lounging on an album cover that looks like it could’ve been made in the 60s.

“Cool Cats” comes draped in ethereal piano and drives forward in a celebration of afrofunk vibes. Allen and his band are experts at blending together the influences of jazz and Africana into a spectacular package, the sound spiraling together into a potent brew of vintage cool jazz and Nigerian groove. 

It’s a joy to listen to, especially for those who want a little taste of the classic mid-century jazz sound seen through an African lens.

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Tony Allen’s debut release for Blue Note, released just a couple months ago, paid tribute to legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey. And while it didn’t necessarily reveal entirely unforeseen depths in the music of either artist, it provided a much-needed bridge between the sounds of Allen’s Afrobeat past and his contemporary jazz future. Allen, the former drummer for Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 and one of the greatest drummers of all time, had up to this point never been all that closely associated with the sounds of hard bop, and by paying tribute to Blakey (who put the hard in hard bop) he provided a glimpse at a side of his musical identity that, to many listeners, hadn’t been as fully explored.
The Source, Allen’s full-length debut for Blue Note, is a step back from jazz tradition, and admirably so. While Allen’s latest full-length is by all means a jazz album, it’s one that’s firmly rooted in his own background as a pioneer of Nigerian funk. These songs groove hard, built upon the syncopated yet deeply funky rhythms that Allen built his career on more than 40 years ago, and they haven’t lost any of their punch. What its preceding EP revealed in terms of influence and background, The Source is about what Allen continues to build on that, creating a more exploratory fusion than leaning in any one expected direction.

Allen’s style is recognizable on The Source, but at no point is he ever replicating the past. The title The Source is intended as a nod to the various jazz influences that have gone into shaping his own personal playing style and growth as a musician, with the opening pair of tracks, “Moody Boy” and “Bad Roads,” incorporating elements of the long-running jazz label’s 75-year past. But in a way, The Source also seems to point back toward Allen as an influential figure on his own. A lot of it feels like compositions only he could have had a hand in, like the mixture of avant garde jazz and Afrobeat pulse in “Cruising,” or the low-key grooves of “On Fire.” Yet as strong as Allen is as both backbone and bandleader of the ensemble featured here, the players are every bit as essential to the character of these recordings, from the nimble bass walk of Mathias Allamane to the dual sax chorus of Rémi Sciuto and Jean-Jacques Elangue, who offer some brief glimpses of Kuti in their bold leads.

As The Source progresses, it delves deeper into a more recognizable Afrobeat sound almost as if to create a parallel between Allen’s own discoveries as they became infused into his own creations. “Tony’s Blues” is a kind of midway point between these two poles, while “Wolf Eats Wolf” is proper Africa 70-style rhythmic vamp. And “Cool Cats” finds Allen incorporating an unexpected extra element into one of his most energetic and urgent pieces; amid the brash display of horns and low-end strut, Damon Albarn (with whom Allen collaborated on The Good, The Bad & The Queen) lends some eerie touches of piano for atmosphere. As much as The Source is about the music that shaped who Tony Allen is as a musician, its compositions are about how Allen is helping to shape the future of jazz in his own image.


Mar 8, 2018

Femi Kuti - One People One World


In the five years between Femi Kuti's Grammy-nominated No Place for My Dream and One People One World, he's been a busy man. He regularly performs at The Shrine, the performance space he built as a memorial to his late father Fela Kuti, he's a touring musician, and he also serves as a traveling ambassador for Amnesty International. (He also found time in 2017 to break the Guinness world record for the longest-held single note on a saxophone -- 51 minutes and 35 seconds.)

One People One World is Kuti's tenth album with his longstanding band Positive Force and its musical director and guitarist Opeyemi Awomolo. Unlike the righteous anger that inspired almost all of his previous recordings, One People One World is by contrast more affirmative; it's celebratory without sacrificing its activism. While Afrobeat is at the core of these 12 songs, Kuti picks up on the mosaic he began weaving on No Place for My Dream by incorporating the harmonies and rhythms of reggae, highlife, soul, R&B, hip-hop, and other global sounds into its mix, adding depth and complexity without sacrificing immediacy and accessibility. The title-track single commences with driving Afrobeat horns, but the rest of the band erupts into calypso and highlife celebration as Kuti and his backing singers deny racism, greed, and hatred the power to conquer the earth. With an infectious, swinging organ, "Africa Will Be Great Again" is a protest jam that details the corruption and greed that hold her back as a continent, but its pulsing wave of salsa, soca, and highlife makes it an irresistible anthem as Kuti posits the reclamation of the continent as the cradle of civilization and the heartbeat of the world. The D'Angelo-esque soul in "It's Best to Live on the Good Side" is carried by slinky, bubbling basslines, vamping R&B guitars, and a swirling organ. When the horns enter, thunder cracks as circular drumming and percussion thread in Afro-Cuban (Yoruban) rhythms. Second single "Na Their Way Be That" opens with cooking reggae before Femi's soulful saxophone solo and an Afrobeat chant cut in from the margin. "Evil People" is stomping, funky R&B, fueled by J.B.'s-style horns, layers of breakbeat drums, chunky wah-wah guitar, and congas. Immediately following is "Equal Opportunity," where Kuti and his backing chorus evoke the celebratory vibe of Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up," and add jazzy Rhodes piano and Afrobeat horns and rhythms. Even straight-up Afro-funk jams like "Dem Militarize Democracy" open to embrace driving son rhythms, popping R&B basslines, and souled-out vocal and guitar choruses. The dubwise soul of closer "The Way Our Lives Go" is the set's most poetic and inspiring track. Kuti and Positive Force don't let up at all during One People One World. Impeccably sequenced, it runs from strength to strength, dazzling with expansive sonic textures, killer arrangements, and a musical genre palette that exists seemingly without boundaries. As a recording artist, Kuti has been reliably consistent, but this date is his masterpiece. 

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Femi Kuti is his own man.
By now, that shouldn't be a controversial statement - One People One World is Kuti's seventh studio album since his eponymous debut in 1995 - but when you're born into a musical lineage as distinguished as the Kuti family, it's easy for audiences to try and compare family members.
Certainly, there are similarities between Kuti's newest work and those of his father, Fela. Overt social themes take precedence as Kuti takes on corruption, militarization, and all things unsavory, but he sounds less like the voice of the next revolution and more in tune with his peaceful side on largely mellow, polished tracks that are full of compassion rather than fighting spirit. Warm and rhythmic tracks like"Africa Will Be Great Again", "Best to Live on the Good Side", and "One People One World" are full of positivity and put forward a hopeful vision of worldwide unity.
Each track has brassy and bright traces of classic Afrobeat, but Kuti's softer messages are met with soul and reggae influences that better suit the peace, love, and understanding that UNICEF spokesperson, children's rights activist, and HIV/AIDS education advocate Kuti means to convey.
That isn't to say that Kuti doesn't have his more trenchant moments of social critique. In "How Many", he demands answers to relentlessly driving beats: "How many songs must we sing / Before them hear the suffering of the people? / How many innocent lives must be lost / Before them know say war na evil?" His questions are pertinent ones, blasting climate change deniers and politicians who ignore poverty even when those afflicted rise up and try to fight it. On "Evil People", Kuti is utterly impassioned, singing straight from the heart about atrocities like ritual killings, kidnapping, and the destructive consequences of greed for both power and money.
Some songs are more specific; "Dem Don Come Again" directly attacks the hypocrisy of those who kill in the name of religion. Kuti follows it directly with "Dem Militarize Democracy", which specifically namechecks past and present presidents and other high-ranking members of the Nigerian government who have come from military backgrounds and brought shows of force to their roles as heads of state.
At the very end of the album, Kuti pours his whole heart into "The Way Our Lives Go", a pensive reflection on the nature of human life in relation to cycles of society and the world as a whole. His outlook, in spite of all the suffering he laments, is an optimistic one. "It's just a matter of time," he sings, "the people will rise and shine / One day the people will rise / And say to the suffering goodbye."
To come into One People One World with preconceptions of hot, pounding Afrobeat is to set oneself up for disappointment. To listen with an open mind is the key to appreciating Femi Kuti's unique music, not confined to a genre or locked in rigid ideas of stylistic tradition. One People One World is an album made to urge forward a nationwide - perhaps ultimately worldwide - healing process, and while it shines a light outward, it also reveals more about Kuti than perhaps any of his previous albums. His heart is on his sleeve and in his music, and the attention his voice commands is well-deserved. 

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The frustrations that appear throughout Femi Kuti’s One People One World will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in international news. The stories of despair that generally reach the UK from Kuti’s Nigeria are all present here but they appear alongside a call for resistance. He argues that Nigeria has been held back from its true potential by corrupt politicians and bad governance, as he and his father Fela Kuti have argued on many previous albums, and the stories of corruption and deprivation here are balanced with a message of hope. One day, the people of Africa will rise up against their rulers and run their countries for the people.

It’s a message that could be concerning in these sensitively populist times; the album’s opening song title ‘Africa Will Be Great Again’ is likely to suggest negative connotation for many listeners. But Kuti’s rhetoric is anti-authoritarian and optimistic. In fact, this album is so breezy and energetic that you might not notice the politics in it at all.

The music is a mixture of funk, Afrobeat, and soul; influences that Kuti has soaked up over 40 years of performing. It’s a style that will be familiar to anyone who’s followed his work in the past, or the work of other Afrobeat artists in general, but he does find little pockets of variation on this album. ‘Na Their Way Be That’ plays with a loose groove, led by a twisting, menacing saxophone riff, while ‘Equal Opportunity’ amps up the tempo to create a more South American rhythm.

However, the album mostly follows a very similar style; Kuti sings verses that read like political slogans, which he then punctuates with powerful blasts of horns. It’s an entertaining formula but also one that leaves the album feeling a little conservative. It feels unfair to compare Femi Kuti’s work to the music of his father but doing so sheds light on the problems with One People One World. Femi is a talented musician and band leader but he lacks the scathing wit and original turns-of-phrase of his father’s best songs, in comparison his lyrics can feel a little one note.

Take for example the lyrics of an album highlight ‘Africa Will Be Great Again’, where Kuti reels off a list of structural and economic problems and calls for investment in infrastructure and political reforms. He makes a fair argument but comes off sounding like a politician. Compared to the more abstract lyrics of his father’s ‘Zombie’ and ‘Water Get No Enemy’, it is uninspiringly straight-faced. It’s easy to support Femi Kuti’s message on One People One World but also wish that he’d delivered it in a more creative way.

The highlights on the album mostly come from the musical arrangements. ‘Best To Live on the Good Side’ has the album’s most invigorating horn arrangement, which rises and falls like Hollywood swing, and ‘Evil People’ brings out Kuti’s best vocal performance with a near-hysterical wail. Unfortunately, too much of One People One World meanders without enough memorable hooks or musical variety. It may have been better if Kuti had included fewer songs and let some tracks stretch past the 5/6 minute marks, allowing them to move into stranger territory.

Femi Kuti is still an entertaining performer and One People One World is almost tailor-made for live shows with its sharp performances and joyful tone. But listening to it on its own is a much less satisfying experience. These songs are too similar in tone and message, and unfortunately that makes for an undynamic album. The problem can be seen on the album’s closing track ‘The Way Our Lives Go (Rise and Shine)’ when Kuti sings that the glorious revolution of the people will come, it’s just a matter of time. But if Kuti is still singing about the same problems he saw decades ago, in the same style, and with the same intensity, the message falls flat. How are we to believe that this time it will come true?