Songlines SGL SA1549-2

Resolved to establish his own identity beyond that of soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s sideman and beyond Free Jazz, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel organized the part-West African/part-French band Waraba – or the lion – several years ago.

WARABA, the band’s debut CD, sketches out how combining improvisational currents from European free improv and the Manding world of Gambia, Guinea, Mali and Senegal can produce a unique blend that doesn’t call upon any so-called World Music cliches. Playing 10 traditional and original lines, the Avenel quintet produces a disc that’s uniquely its own – although non-Aficanists may prefer a little less sameness in the compositions and performances.

Part of the late American saxophonist’s working band from 1981 until Lacy’s death last year, the Le Havre-born bassist has also played and recorded with Americans such as pianist Mal Waldron and saxman David Murray as well as Europeans such as pianists Gaël Mevel and Benoît Delbecq. No latecomer, his interest in Manding culture goes back almost three decades, and since that time he has learned to play the 21-string, harp-like kora as well as the bass.

Adding cultural roots to Waraba are Paris-based musicians from griot families. Lansié Kouyaté, who plays both the pentatonic – traditional – and diatonic – more modern – balafon or wooden, hammered xylophone, is a Malian who has also played with Manu Dibango and Saif Keita. Gambian-born Yakhouba Sisskho, a kora specialist, plays with many traditional acoustic bands and dance troupes. Moriba Koïta from Mali, who plays the ngoni or traditional, fretless lute, has also worked with Dibango and Keita.

Joining Avenel on the Western side is multi-flautist Michel Édelin, whose atypical blowing in this context relates to his improv experience playing with people ranging from American saxophonist Byard Lancaster to Portuguese flautist Carlos Bechegas.

Preeminently group music and immoderately low-key, WARABA may surprise those whose conception of Africanized jazz is heavily rhythmic, like Herbie Mann or Dizzy Gillespie’s takes on the genre. Stylistically it isn’t even as beat-oriented as so-called West African power pop in which some of the musicians here work. If anything, the textures often resemble those of a Bluegrass combo, with the ringing notes of the banjo’s ancestor, the ngoni, moving from rhythmic flat picking to melodic finger-picking. At times you can sense the origins of Earl Scruggs’ style, and a couple of pieces at the end feature a line up of revolving soloists jamming like the Foggy Mountain Boys at a folksy jamboree.

Avenel overdubs bass and kora work on one track, but, along with Kouyaté’s balafon, he’s more effective providing the rhythmic underpinning for the soloists. As he combined polyrhythmically with drummer John Betsch in Lacy’s bands, the bassist and wooden xylophonist work in a similar fashion here. Only on his own tune does the balfonist show off with a highly accentuated glissandi intro.

Kouyaté isn’t often upfront, however. That position is mostly taken by close-harmony and polytonality from Koïta’s ngoni and Sisskho’s kora. Interaction encompasses dual folk music-like lead switching and cross-patterning or contrapuntal call-and response, as if this was a recital by guitarists Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis. Édelin, too is unassertive, sometimes piping out melodies so sweet and legto that they would be overly pastoral if not for the cross patterns from the kora and balafon.

Overall, the most notable track is “Kaïra”, theme song of the Malian youth movement, popularized by koraist Toumani Diabate who leads one of those African power trios. With more of a modernist cast, the flautist’s breaks and fripple split tones vibrate in such a way as to join the strings in extended chromatic improvisations

Overcoming the program’s certain uniformity in melody, tempo and pitch it would seem that Waraba’s future lies in interpretations of material like this. Hopefully though, it won’t mean the loss of Avenel to Western improvised music.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Lamba 2. Pi-Pande 3. Batou Kagni 4. Guelema 5. N’Dondore 6. Jarabi 7. Kaïra 8. Denko 9. Destin 19. Tubaka

Personnel: Michel Édelin (flute, alto flute and bass flute); Moriba Koïta (ngoni); Yakhouba Sisskho (kora); Jean-Jacques Avenel (bass and kora); Lansié Kouyaté (pentatonic and diatonic balafon)