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IN PRAISE OF JAZZ JAMAICA

 

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

Saturday/Sunday, April 20, 2008.

 

Theirs is a jazz record that many musicians would have had a hard time making. The rhythms are Jamaican, the repertoire is Motown.  While American jazz musicians are not adept at playing within the pop box (most attempts sound horrible) their Black British cousins grab a hold to this material and didn’t let go. They didn’t slip, they didn’t quit. It’s pure joy!

Founded in 1991 by bassist Gary Crosby, Jazz Jamaica has established itself as one of the most significant European-based jazz bands. Born in
West London of Jamaican parents on January 26, 1955, Gary Crosby is a visionary and arts activist.

 

In addition to Jazz Jamaica (nine pieces plus guest vocalists), Crosby also leads Jazz Jamaica Allstars (upwards of twenty pieces plus vocalists) and Nu Troop (a straight ahead jazz combo). He’s a busy man.


Gary Crosby was a founding member of the legendary Jazz Warriors and never lost his love of jazz, but he is also Afro-Caribbean and has a deep love of his Jamaican roots which include an indelible taste for the one drop. Instead of an emphasis on swing, this aggregation loves to skank.

Motorcity Roots (2006) is the sixth album from Jazz Jamaica. Two of their albums are near impossible to find as they were limited edition Japanese productions. “Skaravan” (a combination of “ska” rhythms with the jazz standard “Caravan”) is the title cut from their debut release, Skaravan (1993). “Take Five” is from The Jamaican Beat - one of their Japanese releases. Although both ably demonstrate their jazz chops and are undeniably a joy, neither is as important as Motorcity Roots.

What I like most about Motorcity Roots are the arrangements and the jazz elements that lift the session way beyond just a great tribute album. Although the vocals are prominent in the mix, it’s the way the deft instrumental elements are employed that really makes this music shine — from innovative voicings of the melodies to pithy albeit substantial horn solos, these are true jazz interpretations.

 

Young, Gifted and British

From left, Juliet Roberts, Gary Crosby, Denys Baptiste, Soweto Kinch and Abram Wilson of Jazz Jamaica.

Image by: Sarkis Boyadjian

Jazz Jamaica All-Star:From left, Juliet Roberts, Gary Crosby, Denys Baptiste, Soweto Kinch and Abram Wilson.

 

Imagine if Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn had wrapped their arranging genius around a dozen Motown hits plus rolled the arrangements over a heavy one-drop rhythm section.

Trumpeter Abram Wilson is featured on The Jackson 5 staple “I Want You Back.”  Although he’s mixed down in the mix, guitarist Robin Banerjee is one of the keys to the cool runnings of this version. These guys play with the precision and verve of a traditional
New Orleans
jazz band. Especially after the opening chorus, they toss around instrumental fills, the melody bobbing and weaving from horn to horn over keyboard jabs and an ever dancing percussion shuffle.

“Tears Of A Clown” featuring vocalist Juliet Roberts ups the ante as Juliet both duets and duels with instrumental riffs from her bandmates. It’s five minutes of mirth with the emphasis on clowning and having a good time —obviously the emphasis here is on the public happiness of a song that actually focuses on private sadness.

Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love her” features vocalist Wesley Lucas capably undertaking the difficult task of singing a signature Stevie song. Once again, the band is on the case and keeps the groove jumping. Denys Baptiste solos like he’s been waiting all of his lie to drop this serpentine soprano sax sortie.

 

And there is the 30-year old Birmingham-born Soweto Kinch. The son of Don Kinch, a Barbadian playwright, he graduated from Oxford University with a degree in modern history, and practices an alto saxophone style that links bebop with modern players like Greg Osby. And true to the community-building ethos of his colleagues, he has started his own arts organization, Nu Century Arts, based in Birmingham, where he grew up and still lives. He also holds regular sessions at The Drum in inner-city Birmingham.


The piece de resistance is “War,” which sounds nothing like the original. Indeed the opening had me confounded. I couldn’t hear how they were going to fix the familiar melody atop the chaos theory of the rhythm section. Once they got into it, I said, OK, I see what they’re doing except when they got to the bridge they changed up again and after that they did a rhythm breakdown and set Harry Brown’s trombone against Denys Baptist’s saxophone, and finally pushed the percussion forward. It’s brilliant!

Jazz
Jamaica is the international blossoming of jazz. Notice that just like Coltrane went back to soprano master Sidney Bechet and country blues, both for inspiration as well as to fuel his forward flights, this intrepid band of iconoclasts are basing their ground breaking music on exploration of the Caribbean and American roots of their emerging Afropean identity.

 

Thank you Jazz Jamaica. By being true to your own roots, you extend and deepen the reach and significance of black music.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.

 

Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

 

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