Sunnyside Soundscape Series SSC 3008

Roswell Rudd has never been an easy musician to pin down.

The trombonist has played Dixieland with some of its originators; helped define the New Thing with saxophonist Archie Shepp; worked in a Catskills mountain show band; refined Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk material with saxophonist Steve Lacy; and sat in with rock bands. Now he’s made a CD trading licks with a septet of Malian musicians on their home turf.

Unsurprising the mixture of his rough, gruff trombone tones and the Africans’ massed airy, delicate strings goes down as easily as a frosty drink on a scorching hot day. Not only do the West Africans provide a unique setting for Rudd, but his powerful, modern gutbucket style also adds something unexpected to the local sounds.

As his background exhibits, Rudd is more adaptable than most jazzers. His longtime fascination with African sounds turned to a playing opportunity, when Soundscape’s Verna Gillis, whose African connections go back to 1983, was able to get him to Bamako in 2000. Some of the musicians with whom he played included so-called modernizers like ngonist Bassekou Kouyate, balophone player Lassana Diabate and especially kora master Toumani Diabate.

With this power trio as the core, Rudd, plus a guitarist, a bassist, a djeme player and a couple of vocalists has been able to turn out a disc which could give world music fusion a good name. As African as it is American, it takes what it needs from the best parts of both cultures. Here the trombonist mutes his technique and tonality to meet the more fragile Malian sound that is based on a conservative natural octave of seven tones. Except for one track, the tunes move along on the overlapping cross rhythms produced by Diabate’s harp-like 21 string instrument, Kouyate’s small, lute-like banjo ancestor and Lassana Diabate’s 20-key, hammered xylophone-like balophone. Considering the instruments produce brilliant tones with strings made from fishing lines, percussion is hardly missed.

As a matter of fact, on “For Toumani”, Rudd’s almost 12-minute tribute to his host, when rhythms from the djembe and a real bass line appear, they sound wrong. More impressive is how in one section the trombonist and koraist improvise parallel lines a few octaves apart, and how later on Rudd trades fours — or is it 3½s? — with the ngone, kora and balophone.

Taking on different coloration, Thelonious Monk’s “Jackie-ing” ends up sounding like something played by a hillbilly string band, with Kouyate creating some speedy old- timey flailing. Of course those bands only had a bull fiddle to create the continuum, not a trombone’s growls or the tones from the balophone’s wooden slates that sound like a junior marimba.

Diabate’s “Hank”, perhaps written for pianist Jones who recorded with West African musicians, has both an African and Caribbean coloration. Although it first sounds as if Rudd is huffing out the theme backed by another country string band, the original melody soon evolves into calypso-like call-and-response, with the trombone acting as the congregation to Dala Diabate and Mamadou Kouyate’s intersecting vocals as the preacher and choir.

String percussion is the main feature of he title tune, with the balophone functioning in a Milt Jackson-like vibes backing role. You can also hear Rudd struggling to mute his natural exuberance and not plays as loudly as he usually does and overpower the other musicians. Sometimes he fails. But this track also again features Kouyate negotiating clawhammer runs.

As for the rest, the seemingly delicate strings often show surprising strength and intricate patterns in their solos and accompaniment. No one produces a so-called jazz line, but there enough plucked tones floating by that could easily fit in North American country, folk and rural blues configurations.

On his side, at one point Rudd smears out something like could be tailgate Dixieland played half-speed, and on other another track makes a place for himself in a melody that could be liturgically Ashkenazi, sounds the trombonist would have been familiar with from the Catskills.

A couple of missteps do occur at the end though. While a tune based on Gershwin’s “Summertime” is light and swinging with some jazz-like fretting form the guitar, “Mallijam”, which purports to be based on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” sounds a little too gimmicky. Maybe that’s why Rudd throws in a few quotes from “Get Happy”, contrasting Hollywood’s and the classical tradition’s idea of devotional music.

All and all though, for a first collaboration between musicians of different cultures, MALIcool comes together about 95 per cent of the time. Not only will be appeal to African and jazz fans, but in an off-handed way to those who have said that the trombonist should make a record with strings.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Bamako 2. Rosmani* 3. Jackie-ing 4. All Through the Night 5. Hank*+ 6. Johanna 7. For Toumani 8. MALIcool 9. Sena et Mariam* 10. Malijam

Personnel: Roswell Rudd (trombone); Toumani Diabate (kora); Basseko Kouyate (ngone); Sekou Diabate (djeme); Sayon Sissoko (guitar); Henry Schroy (bass); Lassana Diabate (balophone); Dala Diabate (vocals)+; Mamadou Kouyate (vocals)*