Tommy Meier Root Down

The Master and the Rain
Intakt CD 181

Appropriation of voice has become a serious concern in the arts over the past few decades, with various groups charging that others – usually First World Caucasians – are stealing their history for their own purposes. Although this situation is more often expressed when it comes to visual arts and literature, so-called World music performers can be equally suspect. This introduces a problem that could affect saxophonist Tommy Meier’s Root Down ensemble. Made up in the main by Swiss players, the 14-piece band’s repertoire is either directly taken from, or is adaptations of, African material.

So why is The Master and the Rain erudite and pulsating big band music while other African-influenced sound spectacles fail? For a start, Meier, best-known for his work with partner and fellow saxophonist Co Streiff, also present here, is working in the Jazz idiom. Despite sound fundamentalists, this African-American birthed sound is the world’s most profound example of sound miscegenation. More to the point, Meier several times traveled extensively through Africa, playing with local musicians. He also attended local concerts by Fela Kunti, one of the African musicians saluted on the disc.

Furthermore, veteran Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer — who in the 1960s gigged with exiled South African musicians affiliated with pianist Chris McGregor, the other African innovator honored here – is an integral part of Root Down. Moreover, by expanding his concept so that non-traditional, contemporary electronic sounds produced by turntablist Trixa Arnold and keyboardist Hans-Peter Pfammatter are included on the CD, Meier puts an original stamp on the music he loves.

Take, for example, the arrangement of McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath (BOB)’s “The Bride”. Meier gives a modern big band feel to a line initially influenced by South African kwela and gospel music. Streiff’s snaky soprano saxophone flutters on top of the massed horn lines and nerve beast from the percussionists, while the weighty syncopation is held in place by Pfammatter’s electric piano comping. Schweizer divides her contributions in two, splattering chord extensions skywards, while pumping out a connective bass rhythm.

The same rhythmic abandon is brought to the Kunti tunes as well. For instance “No Agreement” matches rolling and shaking percussion ruffs with kalimba plinks and a sharp, near-human, muezzin-like cry from Meier’s zurna. As the vamping horn parts become kinetic – and the rhythms concentrate and darken – westernized intermezzos appear in the form of plunger grace notes and opaque growls from trombonist Michael Flury, plus flashing chords from the pianist.

Meier has learned his Third World musical lessons well enough so that his originals also rollick with a self-confident rhythmic impetus. He proves this with “The Master” and “Across the Sands. The later tune has an almost calypso lilt, quivered from the composer’s bass clarinet, as the band plays a backbeat that is powerful without being overpowering. Another variant finds the rampaging percussion tones exploding with gunshot-suggesting beats as Meier’s narrowed smears join in double-counterpoint with the keyboardist’s kinetic vamps.

Adapting another riff from the Master Musicians of Jajouka on “The Master”, Meier again demonstrates First and Third World linkage, when his thin and piercing zurna solo is followed by a triplet-laden exercise from trumpeter Marco von Oreilli, whose cornucopia of silky tremolo runs is reminiscent of Mongezi Feza’s solos with the BOB. Von Oreilli’s sucked tongue and mouthpiece extensions bring other softly riffing horns to the foreground as Schweizer tinkles the key as if she was Mary Lou Williams in a 1940s big band. The climax involves the piano’s polyphonic lines contrasting with successive vamps from different sections of the band.

Helped immeasurably by his Swiss band mates, Meier has created a session that adapts music from elsewhere while giving it an impressive personal spin.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Ogoni 2. The Forbidden Land 3. No Agreement 4. Camel Dance 5. The Veil 6. The Root 7. Across The Sands 8. The Bride 9. The Rain Part II 10. Jackals, Children, Everything; Invocation; Colonial Mentality; The Master.

Personnel: Russ Johnson, Marco von Orelli (trumpet); Hans Anliker, Michael Flury (trombone); Co Streiff (alto and soprano saxophones); Tommy Meier (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and zurna); Peter Landis (tenor and baritone saxophones); Irène Schweizer (piano); Hans-Peter Pfammatter (keyboards); Luca Sisera (bass); Flo Goette (electric-bass); Fredi Flükiger (drums); Chris Jäger (percussion) and Trixa Arnold (turntables) plus Peter Schärli (trumpet) *# ; Andi Marti (trombone)^ Jürg Wickihalder (soprano saxophone)*; Chris Wiesendanger (keyboards)*; Stephan Thelen (guitar)*#; Jan Schlegel (electric-bass) *#; Herbert Kramis (bass) *# and Marco Käppeli (drums) *#