A new album from the percussionist Julian Gerstin and a reissue of “Safrojazz” from Ojoyo offer musical tours of the world – and of the collective psyche.
Julian Gerstin, Music for the Exploration of Elusive Phenomena
The pandemic lockdowns spawned many interesting recordings from musicians who had to stop not only touring but collaborating in person in the recording studio. Percussionist Julian Gerstin’s album Music for the Exploration of Elusive Phenomena is an especially invigorating example.
These 12 jazzy tracks, all Gerstin originals save one, incorporate rhythms from around the world – West Africa, South America, the Caribbean. Recording them brought “together” 18 musicians and singers, all laying down their parts separately at home, with engineer Gary Henry, whom Gerstin calls “the MVP of this album,” locking and layering them together into a colorful tapestry.
The Brazilian-flavored “After the Sleep of Lies” comments sagely on the close of the U.S.’s 45th presidency, with deeply felt vocals by Sarah LeMieux. LeMieux reappears on Gerstin’s immersive and lovely adaptation of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Long Journey Home.”
The rest of the tracks range widely over landscapes and cultures, from the tinkling bells of “Remember and See” and the piping horns of “Beautiful Blur” to the joyful Afrobeat dance rhythm of “Too Happy to Sleep” and the insistent rhythms and punchy message of “American History.”
The abstract self-referentiality of “Ways to Hear Each Other” evokes the closed space of a recording studio. It will ring true not only for musicians but for any collaborative artist. Are you not starting for an hour?…Should I come back?
Gerstin’s percussion artistry drives the whole project and emerges solo in the closing track, “All Day Every Day.” This is a great album to get lost in, to tour of the world of rhythm without leaving your home or car. Music for the Exploration of Elusive Phenomena also testifies to the power of collaboration to overcome the fear and isolation of plague.
Ojoyo, Ojoyo Plays Safrojazz
The re-release of this 1996 album injects a dose of feel-good Cape Town seaside spirit into troubled times. Saxophonist Morris Goldberg’s compositions evoke carnival parades, gamboling dolphins, a spiritually cleansing wind, and other flavors of the local culture.
Throughout Ojoyo Plays Safrojazz, Goldberg builds his upbeat jazz tunes on simple chord progressions familiar to North American listeners from West African Afropop, incorporating peppy horn melodies and trumpet solos (Chris Botti shines on many of these tracks) and mbaqanga rhythms (“Sophiatown Society”). He even breaks out his penny whistle to conjure up the kwela tradition.
“Little Song” is his interpretation of a typical Cape Town liedjie. “Forward Motion” was inspired by talks between Nelson Mandela and the outgoing South African government. In “Harare” Goldberg and his ace band draw on Zimbabwean rhythms that he picked up, he notes, on a UNICEF benefit gig with Harry Belafonte.
“Madagascar” has, strangely, a Spanish flavor. But this is, after all, one world, right? Ojoyo Plays Safrojazz proves it, sounding as fresh as it must have 26 years ago. It’s a sure pick-me-up if you’re in a down mood, a juicy soundtrack for a party – and a celebration of the sounds of Planet Earth.