If there is one genre of popular music that has managed to to both refrain from being co-opted by commercial and corporate interests yet still remain culturally significant, it would have to be jazz. Of course there have been moments when one performer or another has captured the public's imagination and the industry has tried to cash in by attempting to replicate that person's success with imitators, never meeting with anything but limited success.
One of the true glories of jazz is that it remains the purview of the individual, and you can no more recreate or imitate one person's music, to any degree of success, than could a dancer duplicate what another does exactly. Oh, they might be able to follow the same steps, hold their arms in exactly the same manner, but they won't imbue it with the same spirit — the spirit that made it so attractive to the audience in the first place. Like dance, the personality of the individual performing in jazz is what helps establish the connection between the performer and the audience. No matter how hard they try, record companies still haven't figured out how to mass produce individuals so they can cash in on his or her creativity.
Like so much of our popular music, jazz developed out of the music brought over to North America from Africa by those who were dragged into slavery. In the latter part of the 20th century, specifically the 1960s, jazz started to become an avenue through which many African American musicians began to explore their African heritage. Whether through improvisation around rhythms or collaborations with musicians with more direct ties to the continent, a real sense of who they are and where they came from has started to appear in the music of many of today's African American jazz players.
Such is the case with the latest collaboration between David Murray & The Gwo Ka Masters, The Devil Tried To Kill Me, on Justin Time Records. This is the third recording American Murray has made with this group of musicians from Guadeloupe. The tiny island nation is unique in that former slaves who inhabited the island rebelled and achieved independence 100 years before slavery was abolished in the United States. Although their statehood only lasted a decade — they were integrated into France after ten years — their history is unique among African Americans in the Western hemisphere. As Christian Laviso, guitar player on the disc puts it, "The Americans lost their drums… that is what they seek here, the rhythms and melodies of our ancestors."
Murray (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet) and Laviso are joined by Jaribu Shahid (bass), Renzel Merrit (drums), Klod Kiavue (Ka drums), Francois Landrezeau (Ka drums), Rasul Siddik (trumpet), Herve Samb (guitar), and special guest vocalists Taj Mahal and Sista Kee. While the music on the disc has elements that will be familiar to anyone conversant with jazz, there's also the distinct flavour of the Caribbean to it that gives it a texture I've not heard before. It's hard to describe as it doesn't come across as any particular sound or rhythm, but more like a sense of overall movement that is different from almost anything else I've come across in either jazz or music from the islands either.
All the tracks on the disc are original tunes with music by Murray, and lyrics for "Africa" and "The Devil Tried To Kill Me" by poet Ishmael Reed and "Southern Skis" by Grace Rutledge and Kito Gamble. There are two versions of both "Africa" and "Southern Skies" included on the disc, with the second ones being shorter versions edited for radio play. "Southern Skies" and "Africa" stand out in particular on the disc for their provocative lyrics. "Africa," which features Taj Mahal's growl, looks at the continent from the point of view of a person describing how they would provide care for it if they were a hospice worker and Africa were a patient in an infirmary. Aside from ensuring she has enough food and proper medical care, the hospice worker would also ensure that Africa's bed pan was emptied, her sheets would be changed regularly, and her body washed carefully to make sure there was no chance of bed sores.
It's hard to figure whether Reed, who wrote "Africa," sees the continent as being that sick, is commenting on the neglect and lack of care shown her by the rest of the world, or is describing the depth of his love for her — or even a little bit of all the above. "Southern Skies" on the other hand is more direct in its statement as it is a lament for the ill treatment of African American women at the hands of men. Sista Kee and Taj Mahal share the vocals on this song, with both of them delivering the solid message that things have to change: "Southern sky is cryin' cause she/Still payin dues."
As leader of the band you'd expect David Murray to be front and centre on most of the material, and while he delivers some great solos with his tenor saxophone, there's a wonderful point on the opening track "Kiama Fro Obama," where he takes flight; his priority is obviously the integration of the two different styles of music. Even the solo on track one is built up to gradually over the course of the tune until it finally rises up almost of its own volition – as if the saxophone was some mysterious tropical bird bursting out of its lush jungle background. The other occasion I noticed Murray's playing in particular was on track six, "Canto Oneguine," taken from an opera about the Russian author Pushkin – who was of Cameroonian descent – which Murray wrote the music for.
Bass clarinet is not the most common of instruments, so for a second I was slightly puzzled as to what could be making one of the most soulful sounds I've ever heard from a woodwind. Like a rich baritone voice, its sound was like a balm to the ears as it literally caresses them with its playing. Even when Murray gradually climbed the scale there was an elegance to the sound I've never associated with a clarinet. Usually there is something very aggressive and strident about the instrument that pushes it into the forefront whether its meant to be there or not. In this case, however, it blended itself in with the other instruments as a complement to the overall sound of the piece.
The Devil Tried To Kill Me is an example of how fiercely independent jazz is, and the benefits that we listeners derive from the fact that the music industry hasn't figured out how to control it yet. The combination of different styles of music contained within the eight tracks of the disc is not something you're liable to find on recordings of any type aside from jazz. The playing, and singing, from all involved is exemplary, with Murray's saxophone and bass clarinet leading from within instead of dragging everyone behind him. American and Caribbean music come together on this disc to create a sound as distinct as their individual parts, as unified as their common ancestry, and a genuine pleasure to listen to.