Sunday, 18 September 2016

The pot bubbling: Cousoumeh by Akinola Sennon – a Review¹

Steelpan player and Siparia Deltones musical director, Akinola Sennon has released a new album of pan jazz on the independent Ropeadope Records label. The album, Cousoumeh, is a mix of effective songwriting and performance and a daring leap into a new way of hearing improvised music from the Caribbean.

Ropeadope Records—an increasingly important record label in the US that is home to jazz pannists Leon Foster Thomas and Jonathan Scales—remarks openly that the record, “is an interpretation of jazz where the heritage of the island [Trinidad] and the full sense of the African diaspora collide, sometimes in a polished way and sometimes with a raw undercurrent.” In recognising that simultaneous pattern of up and down production value, one is effectively exposed to two sides of the musical adventure that Sennon has pursued in the making of this album.

On the one hand, Sennon along with percussionist Tambi Gwindi works with four young Boston-based musicians, drummer Shane Dahler, pianist Chris McCarthy, bassist Cole Davis and trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius Ryan Jr. on half the tunes on the eight-song album. Americans all, this aggregation approaches the idea of the Caribbean and Sennon's music with adroit solos and converses musically in a language that speaks to a proficiency of jazz improvisation while still searching for the Afro-Caribbean aesthetic.

On this group of songs, a stand-out track is “Doh Fight Meh” that features a spoken word promulgation by Persis Caesar that recounts the horror and tragedy of Black skin in the world—“...melanin has just been declared illegal”—challenging listeners to disagree, but “doh fight meh!” That juxtaposition of vernacular spoken word and jazz music is reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron's jazz poetry. The piece exposes a fissure between local voice and American music that—while not unassailable—points to the distance our expression has to go before global consumption.

On the other hand, the four songs that exclusively feature the local ensemble find the “beat of the drum” and gel convincingly, and that it is reflected in the ease of performance and the response of Sennon as soloist. His bold gestures of confident playing—unencumbered by his apparent awe of the musical responses of the Boston-based American quartet—showcase a touch that is both dynamic and subtle. In these pieces we actually hear what the intention of the Cousoumeh project is all about: a fusion exercise that responds to the multiplicity of influences and focuses it in the steelpan. Both “Quinam Beach” and “Legacy House” in this song group support Sennon's new metaphysics, one that suggests, in his explanation, "that plural becomes singular, pieces become whole, the individual becomes the collective." What others may call syncretism, we understand from the music on this record as a New World fusion possible only in Trinidad and Tobago, that melting pot society of "languages and experiences; French and African, oppressor and oppressed, colonialism and independence."

In Trinidad, we have created indigenous philosophers. One is reminded of one of Sennon's mentors, LeRoy Clarke's El Tucuche philosophy that articulates the supreme idea of man's metaphoric ascent to El Tucuche—El Aripo, the highest, is the Godhead—from the decrepitude of Douendom to celebrate movement beyond the perceived negativity in the local society. Akinola Sennon, with this album has begun his symbolic definition of his own Cousoumeh philosophy: "Cousoumeh is a period of becoming." Alluding to the local cooking tradition of simmering the pot as the contents “boil down” and impart the myriad flavours to create the new, the pannist has begun a journey of supplanting the notion of the “tossed salad” with a “callaloo.” Both men are suggesting an evolution, or a revolution in this case, in our sound and in our music.

Metaphors aside, this new album also adds to the growing catalogue of jazz fusion records that local artists have been experimenting with for years and have been slowly moving towards the mainstream. The idea of calypso jazz has been part of the local music scene since the beginning of recorded music a century ago. Early local music recordings—some five years before the first jazz record—revel in the improvised performance of instruments to give kalendas, paseos and calypsos a spirit of freedom associated with jazz; freedom from rigid music transcription, freedom to swing. The later codification of the calypso jazz as a definite fusion exercise in the 1960s created influences for musicians that endure still. Sennon comes almost full circle in redefining the "definition of calypso jazz" more so than redefining the genre. In 2016, a new generation of musicians is searching for new pathways to make a sound that we can call our own. Cousoumeh is on the right path.
  1. A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian published as, “The pot bubbling.”

© 2016, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved

Friday, 1 July 2016

Caribbean Beat Caribbean Playlist - July/August 2016ª

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San Jose Suite Etienne Charles 

(Culture Shock Music)


Jazz in the wider Americas is more than improvisation that engages the blues and swing, but an evolving exploration of sounds, rhythms and cultural tendencies that inform the music that is the definition of freedom. San Jose Suite, Etienne Charles' sixth album, is a mature contemplation of this Trinidadian trumpeter's wider encounters with the elements of creole music in the New World. Drawing inspiration from three San José cities in the Americas—Costa Rica, California and Trinidad—Charles re-tells the stories and histories of those communities, its people and their commonalities, with jazz that is both rhythmically diverse and harmonically expressive enough to never be cliched. “Cahuita”, “Boruca”, “Revolt”, “Speed City” are musical statements of keen observation, celebratory reflection and musical adroitness. This album is also a signal to the listener that jazz in the 21st century is in the hands of a burgeoning trumpet pioneer charting modern directions much like Armstrong, Davis and Marsalis before him.

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  1. More Caribbean Playlist reviews appear in the July/August 2016 issue of Caribbean Beat magazine.
© 2016, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

HomeGrown, an album by Dominant Seventh CalypsoJazz Band - a review¹


 In 2016, the idea of a calypso jazz band recording reminiscent of those pre-combo dance band records of the late 1950s to the early 1960s comes as a shock to the tendencies of modern local musicians to follow the faddishness of this new generation of music consumers. Trumpeter Rellon Brown along with his young Dominant Seventh CalypsoJazz Band, on their new CD HomeGrown, peel back the pomp and gloss of current tropes to resurrect the idea of creole dance band music. The music, recorded live in the studio, serves as a kind of instigator for moving hips and feet, and as a beacon of native pride in what worked and what did not.

Recently launched at a concert at the Little Carib Theatre, the album's fare runs the gamut of progressive post bop on Trackers to cloying songcraft on a cover of the Ralph MacDonald-written classic Just the Two of Us. The broad mix gives the impression that this debut its trying to be all things to all men. It certainly fulfils the ambition of showcasing local song writing and indigenous musicianship; Ralph MacDonald was the son of early Trinidadian calypsonian Macbeth the Great and identified with his heritage.

Monday, 30 May 2016

JAOTG™ 2016 interview with Nigel A. Campbell of Production One Ltd on Co...

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Caribbean Beat Caribbean Playlist - May/June 2016ª

Pathways Zane Rodulfo

Drummer Zane Rodulfo on his debut EP Pathways shows a maturity beyond his twenty-six years as composer of and rhythmic support for a short set of original jazz instrumentals. Dissecting the music, one is awed by the seemingly cultivated approach of the musical themes on this production. As a graduate of both Oberlin College and New York University, Rodulfo has an unsurprisingly studied approach, but the artist’s youth throws a wrench in the theory that this level of quiet contemplation must come with age and experience. Rodulfo’s Trinidad roots are reflected purely in the sound, not necessarily the rhythms. He composed four of the five tunes on this collection himself, and the superlative interplay between jazz guitar or saxophone and the effectively anchored rhythm section suggests that as a producer he is not selfish, and his gifts lie in creating environments for musicians to run free without bombast. This EP is a great launching pad for a stellar international career.

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  1. More Caribbean Playlist reviews appear in theMay/June 2016 issue of Caribbean Beat magazine.
© 2016, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, 25 March 2016

That Happened last night: Vaughnette Bigford at Kaiso Blues



It happened last night. I have known Vaughnette Bigford for a while now as a superb singer in the style of those smoky voiced songstresses from a bygone jazz era reborn in the 21st century. Abbey Lincoln “reborn” as Cassandra Wilson. Nina Simone, however, is the template I see when I see Vaughnette. Another is Miriam Makeba. Them two born she! VOH'net! Our Vaughnette is the modern creole chanteuse, the New World African queen. Not a diva, but the real thing imbuing a Trinidadian ethos missing from many young interlopers singing jazz here. Vaughnette has been a star for many years. A star who has her own in-demand splendid concerts in the south, Shades of Vaughnette. I have written about her three Shades concerts over the years. (I, II, III) I had hosted her at Jazz Artists on the Greens in 2009 before she made her live debut as a SONGBIRD in that series later that year at Aura Restaurant (now Town on Cipriani Blvd.). I recognise her worth. I know that when Vaughnette sings, an audience expectation of a fulfilling experience will be met and exceeded. I know that she will deliver at a level of professionalism that supersedes even stars in other genres. 

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Caribbean Beat Caribbean Playlist - March/April 2016ª

Spice Island Eddie Bullen

Smooth jazz is a music genre that purists love to hate, but in the Caribbean, it is increasingly becoming the pleasing soundtrack of resort life for fortunate travellers in search of sun, sand and sea. Purity be damned when there is a market for the slick and increasingly popular sound in these isles. Toronto-based Grenadian keyboardist and music producer Eddie Bullen, says that this album “is a musical reflection of [his] life as a teenager growing up on the ‘spice island’ of Grenada,” but it can also be seen as a catalogue of all the smooth jazz tropes that have marked the music for either fame or disdain. Piano trills, ubiquitous programmed synths, chill vibes, funky motifs; they are all there. Spice Island is a metaphor for an idealised Caribbean vacation. Sure handed production values that augur well for this album to be a call card for jazz cruises makes this a listenable treat.

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For One To Love Cécile McLorin Salvant

Haitian pride remains intact despite generations of miscegenation and migration. Jazz singer Cécile McLorin Salvant notes that with pride: “I was not at all raised in an African-American family culture. My dad is Haitian, mom is French-Guadeloupean, and in Miami [where she was born], on top of that, we had more of a Caribbean vibe.” Heritage and identity are touchstones for conversations among others, but the music on this third album by Salvant speaks to an all-encompassing American heritage: jazz. Depending on your perspective, this album can either challenge expectations or satisfy the soul as she continues her efforts at mining the early songs of the genre to create new impressions for new audiences. Five originals balance this set of veritable unheralded standards from a bygone era cementing this album as a new recipe for jazz singing. Recasting love songs and imbuing new meaning to a jaded lyric is Salvant’s goal. Well played.

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  1. More Caribbean Playlist reviews appear in theMarch/April 2016 issue of Caribbean Beat magazine.
© 2016, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.