The Souljazz Orchestra Rising Sun

[Strut; 2010]

Styles: afro-beat, spiritual jazz, ethio-jazz
Others: Mulatu Astatke, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders,

The Souljazz Orchestra is a Canadian group from Ottawa whose newest album Rising Sun has been released via Strut, a British label that’s been doing a damn fine job of releasing some amazing comps from all over the world. The label’s been cutting across genres, eras, and grinding out hot links of new material like Grandmaster Flash’s The Bridge, all the while gleaming like the edge of a knife.

Rising Sun is truly a stew. You get your Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Fela Kuti, Mulatu Astatke, and Sun Ra all rolled up into one tight little package. There’s a range of textures here, from the smooth by-the-bear-skinned-rug feel of “Lotus Flower,” to the darker tone of the Astatke-inspired, Ethio-jazz flavor of “Negus Negast.” Addis Ababa’s jazz scene — called the spiritual heart of Africa by some — cultivated Ethio-jazz, a rolling, soul-inflected, and infectious form that is aptly molded in the hands of The Souljazz Orchestra. “Mamaya,” which begins with an unmistakable cuica bleat, blends transcontinental styles with dovetailed snugness. Souljazz glue together styles like musical cabinet-makers joining wood species of disparate origin to create a solid drawer, in which we stow away melodious treasures and lyrical secrets.

Just a glance at the credits on each track inspires earnest music research. What are shekeres, guiros, flexatones, and gankoguis? Percussionist Marielle Rivard wields these implements with precision and finesse. The horn section is usually four deep, with a baritone, alto, and tenor sax creating a rich and vibrant sound, while the trumpet helps provide a blaring urgency. Amazingly, there is no guitar player, so you should expect none of the wailing shred that is standard in other bands evoking afro-rhythms. The absence of any guitar chords or arpeggios may help explain why Souljazz inspire the spiritual jazz connection — with a cleaner horn-based sound devoid of guitar distortion, the overall effect is more choral. The keyboards (Pierre Chretien) handle their end beautifully, tying it all together and evoking Alice Coltrane with dexterity.

While Rising Sun is an attempt to seamlessly fuse together jazz forms, the album also attempts to embed spirituality in the music without specifically discussing one religion or tradition. It must be no accident that this group has “Souljazz” in their title, for their music has a sacred quality in its execution. Listening to Rising Sun with an ear for those spiritual intonations, I have begun to again feel the potential of music to transmit spirituality, and it is not something that I can identify in terms of tempo, melody, or tone, but rather in a perceived intent and earnestness. The group simultaneously evokes (a) Ethiopia, the assumed cradle of humankind; (b) spiritually inspired jazz, one of the few musical traditions of American origin; and (c) the revolutionary musical fusion of West Africa’s wild afrobeat scene of the 60s and 70s. Political and religious significance coupled with polished musical professionalism make for a potent combo, and if you hurry, you might be able to feel like you got in on the ground floor. That is, unless you live in Canada. Then you have no excuse. They’re on your doorstep knocking.

Links: The Souljazz Orchestra - Strut

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