A Trio of World Jazz Recordings

African Americans invented jazz, but it’s been a global phenomenon since its earliest days. Three new recordings sample current jazz trends in South Africa and Brazil.

The most exciting of the three by far is Kheswa & Her Martians, whose Meadowlands, Stolen Jazz (Xippi Phonorecords 32740) is a four-star delight. Nonhlanhla Kheswa hails from Soweto and is a worthy heiress to the legendary Miriam Makeba. Like the latter she possesses a powerful and supple voice that is anything but a classical jazz set of pipes. She can growl and grunt, but her voice naturally gravitates to upper palette  higher tones usually associated with pop singers. All of this is to say that if you like your jazz sultry and smoky, steer clear–Kheswa favors bright, bold, muscular, and sassy. The album’s name is a triple pun in that the music presented was once forbidden and played on the sly in South Africa’s black townships, some of the music has been “stolen” in the sense that it’s been recorded before (including the 1955 title track song), and that which hasn’t been borrowed has been lifted from its original context. Kheswa fronts a seven-piece band that contains two killer saxophonists (Jovan Alexandre and Karim Rome) and a pianist (Taber Gable) who doesn’t merely back the songs, he shapes and orchestrates them. At times Kheswa is swingy, at others as hep as Ella Fitzgerald, and at still others a jazzy version of Angélique Kidjo. I would yield to purists that insist that Kheswa is more of a popularizer than a classic jazz singer, but that’s why I like her so much!

And it’s probably why I found two new offerings from Brazil rather tepid. Of the two, Mario Adnet’s Villa Lobos (Boranda 0020 **) is the more interesting and the more eclectic offering. It also benefits from the addition from really topnotch musicians. This is a theme album dedicated to the songs of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1897-1959), an important Brazilian modernist composer. The repertoire is a plus and a minus. Like many modernists, Villa-Lobos borrowed freely from other sources (chamber music, movie scores, tango, even some faintly Celtic material). As is also the case, some of the Stravinsky-influenced experimental flights are more impressive than riveting.

Too much introspection bored me when listening to Antonio Loureiro’s (Boranda 0015 *). This is piano-based jazz that veers into soundscaping by breaking melodies, drifting into improv, and descending into shapelessness. It feels soulful in its own way, but I often wondered if Loureiro had any audience in mind other than himself and the musicians on stage. In Portuguese só means “under” or “who,” but I often found myself leaving off the accent and reacting in English with a simple interrogative: so?

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