various artists,
Africa Straight Ahead
(Heads Up, 2004)

When I first popped Africa Straight Ahead into the CD player I was expecting a more distinctly African sound. Granted, this was based on my limited familiarity with South African popular artists including the Bhundu Boys, Thomas Mapfumo, and Oliver Mtukudzi. And while there are tracks on this album that do incorporate the rhythmic and melodic elements that fit the mold I'd expected (Moses Khumalo's tenor sax work on "Celebrate Mzansi" and the guitar line in "Langery" by Sheer All Stars, for instance), the album has a more American, cool jazz feel than I'd anticipated.

The album is also somewhat less diverse than I'd assumed it would be. The opening two tracks in particular have a similarity that I think does a disservice to the compilation. Once I took a closer look at the liner notes, however, the reason for this became apparent. While Africa Straight Ahead is a collection of recordings by different southern African jazz artists, there is a considerable degree of overlap in the makeup of the various ensembles. The opening track, "Owed to Bishop," is listed under the name of trumpeter Marcus Wyatt, the composer of the tune. But Wyatt also plays on three other tracks, including track 2, Paul Hanmer's "Naivasha." Thus the similarity. Both are strong compositions but the album would have benefited by not having them as adjacent tracks.

Many of the musicians featured on Africa Straight Ahead show up on four or five tracks, creating a more cohesive sound than is usually the case with such a collection. And yet there's also sufficient variety to keep the album remarkably fresh.

Pianist Darius Brubeck (son of jazz legend Dave Brubeck) lives and teaches in Durban, South Africa, and is perhaps the perfect symbol of what Africa Straight Ahead is all about. American jazz reinterpreted through African roots. Brubeck's composition "Tugela Rail" with its hints of Vince Guaraldi, features the talents of South Africa's premier alto sax player, Barney Rachabane. Also bridging the distance between Africa and America on the album is Andy Narell, a native New Yorker who brings an intriguing Trinidadian twist with his steel pan composition "Dee Mwa Wee."

Despite the name, Voice is a group without a vocalist. Their track, "Sweet Anathi," stands out as a great vehicle for the very loose piano work of Andile Yenana, but would benefit by losing its saxophone lead passage. The other track I want to mention is Zim Ngqawana's "Beautiful Love (It's All About Love)." Ngqawana's flute playing on this languid, haunting piece is beautifully restrained, as is Andile Yenana's piano accompaniment, allowing the melody rather than the musicianship to hold center stage.

Every track on Africa Straight Ahead was recorded live in the studio, capturing the dynamic interplay between musicians that is the essence of jazz. The recordings are nicely engineered with excellent separation between the instruments and the musicianship is top shelf. So if you're looking to discover some exciting new (to North America at least) jazz talent then Africa Straight Ahead is a very good investment.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 24 July 2004

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