Jazz can be too complex for its own good and come off more as a personal pursuit than something for mass consumption. But when it’s good, it’s transportive. Turkish-born/Boston-based vocalist Nazan Nihal and pianist Utar Artun are amazing in their own right, and when they join forces with world musicians from places such as China, Iraq, Finland, the USA, and the Near East, they are spectacular. Neotolian Song mixes Turkish song, originals, and jazz in an ethereal West-meets-East brew of everything from piano, cello, violin, guitar, and drums to Chinese flute and erhu (two-stringed fiddle) to Turkish ney (flute), oud (mandolin-like lute) and qunun (zither). Nihal’s vocal range is so wide that on the title track her high notes approach the pain threshold. By contrast, “Manastir T” is as delicate as a glass figurine, and her take on an ancient melody in “Lydianic” is bird-like. Thoughtful arrangements abound. The strings in “G + El Kuruttum” cry out like a muezzin over Artun’s rain-like piano notes. “Pendulum” swings like its namesake, with dancing vocals, pulsing instruments, and big cascades of piano; “Rondo Afro Turca” mixes vocal thrums and scat with a tune reminiscent of breezy Latin jazz; and “Degmen Benim” scurries with the suggestiveness of a tune chasing itself. This is a triumphant release. ★★★★★
Do you want to dance? Ahmed Janka Nabay fled the civil wars of Sierra Leone and now lives in the United States, but he’s still the foremost modernizer of Bubu music, which began life as ritual witchcraft music for the Temne peoples, but now beguiles in a different way; it’s played during Ramadan! Nabay takes it to the party on Build Music. Although songs like “Sabonay 2016” bear serious messages such as women’s empowerment and peace, the instrumentation would be more at home in a discotheque. Traditional Bubu melodies use bamboo flutes and blown metal pipes, but Nabay’s band mostly uses Casio keyboards. In fact, most of the album consists of three or four repeated notes that sound as if they could have been made on a child’s melodic. Add consistent beats and Nabay’s voice, which is at turns growly, polished, or winsomely sexy and is backed by a female chorus. “Santa Monica” is another that touches on weighty matters—his harassment by local police—but has a sunny feel. Most of the album is even lighter—“Bubu Dub” with its repeated lines “My baby loves to dance/she likes to sing… all she does is jump and dance;” or the Caribbean-like “Stop Jealous” with decidedly non-poetic lyrics such as: “Oh my baby, I really love you… Baby I love you… I love… My baby I love you.” Okay, so don’t look for a Nobel literature prize, but if you want to sweat and shake, this one will answer. ★★★
The world needs more folks like the dozen musicians in The Nile Project. Their new album Jinja is a follow-up to 2013’s Aswan and like it, seeks to unite and educate peoples who live in the eleven nations along the 4,258-mile-long Nile. The group brings together musicians from Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda, sings in six languages, harmonizes voices, and blends various lyres, harps, flutes, and guitar styles. The sound is, at heart polyrhythmic and the percussion a complex marvel. That such things happen amidst songs that at first listen seem simple is testament to the musicianship. The harp on “Mulungi Munange” is so light that it evokes a balalaika, but suddenly electric instruments intrude with a big bump and female ensemble singing powers a piece in which the percussionists pound through, across, and into the melody. Later a male voice is added, but it’s like a knife slicing into the mix. The result is edgy, filled with nervous energy, and pop-like in feel without being like any pop you’ve ever heard. All sorts of modes emerge: the North Africa ambience of “Allah Bagy” with its trance-like and praiseful lyricism; the improv horns of “Tenseo” with a dramatic male voice that would be operatic were it not for its microtonal slides; the kora/saxophone/guitar/vocal conversations in “Biwelewle” that create a hooky melody; and the emotive vocals and muscular instrumentation of “Ya Abal Wuha.” Another amazing piece is “Uruzi Nil,” which is quick-paced and scurrying and its flute/electric mix reminiscent of Jethro Tull in places, yet is also jazzy and free-spirited. Kahlil Gibran once said that, “Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.” The Nile Project is certainly doing its best to make that true. ★★★★★
The term "fusion" often fails to live up to the hype. In the case of Toronto-based Rakkatak, though, it's appropriated and appropriate. The goal is to take Indian classical music, give it a contemporary twist, and knock down a few barriers along the way. The music is built around the tabla playing and occasional raga vocal scales of Anita Katakkar, and the dreamy bass of Oriana Barbato. Two women fronting an Indian music ensemble is just the start—Katakkar's heritage is Indian/Scottish/Canadian and Barbato is Chilean. Featured sitar player Rex Van der Spuy is of South African and Indian extraction and, when not manning the sitar, is a video game designer and prolific tech author. Small Pieces, Rakkatak's third CD, is as advertised—music designed to lull you into submission rather than impress through volume or showiness. "Medley" fuses a hypnotic groove with a segued cover into The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and, like all nine tracks, takes its time in developing. Much Indian composition is built on the concept that music should "color the mind." To that end, "Dreaming" is a somnambulant stroll and "Thoughts of You" is drifty and introspective. My favorite piece is "Rain After Fire," composed in response to Western Canadian wildfires. Bass and tabla lurk in the background with quiet drama, with the sitar evoking on again/off again showers that spurt, drip, and fade to mist. Those who want a splash of loosely structured jazz should sample "XYZ" with its atonal flirtations, or the creative noodling of "Riffing on 9." ★★★★
Note: YouTube footage and album tracks often vary in presentation stye.