For the most part, black jazz guitarists who don’t pay homage to Charlie Christian rarely receive the same props as their white counterparts. White ax grinders such as John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Kurt Rosenwinkel get major ink from the jazz press, but black guitarists such as David Gilmore, Brandon Ross, and Jean-Paul Bourelly almost never get considerable coverage, even when they produce higher-quality records than their white compatriots. So many U.S. jazz fans probably haven’t heard of Bourelly’s new long-player, Boom Bop, a stunning piece of cross-cultural jazz fusion that burrows deep into both Senegalese music and American rock and blues. The album is neither as didactic as Ry Cooder’s Third World journeys nor as remarkably dull as Bill Laswell’s recent world-beat sap. Had it been released by, say, John McLaughlin, Boom Bop would have already been the subject of cover stories in Down Beat, JazzTimes, and Jazziz.
Now based in Berlin, where his artistry is properly celebrated, Chicago native Bourelly has played with a diverse array of musicians, including Miles Davis, George Adams, Cassandra Wilson, Lawrence “Butch” Morris, and Muhal Richard Abrams. For Boom Bop, Bourelly has absorbed the cosmic inventions of Senegalese-descended Afropeans, but he hasn’t eschewed his American roots: The album is just as heavily influenced by Muddy Waters’ gutbucket soul and Jimi Hendrix’s guitar wizardry, and it features some wicked fire-spitting from ecstatic-jazz saxophonists Archie Shepp and Henry Threadgill.
Nonetheless, Boom Bop is Bourelly’s most significant departure from his usual vibe since 1993’s Freestyle, on which the guitarist infused the rhythms and melodies of his Haitian ancestry into his signature brand of trippy avant funk. Except for the hiphop-inflected “Invisible Indivisible,” which features Bourelly’s inexpert rapping, the new album is light-years away from his earlier recordings. Bourelly enlisted drummer Abdourahmane Diop to share lead vocals in his native Senegalese, and he has mostly shaken off the Hendrixian crooning that distracted many listeners on his previous records. On Boom Bop, Bourelly stretches his verses, mantralike, over seemingly endless bars of propulsive percussion, then injects blustering blues shouts that would make Howlin’ Wolf proud. And Bourelly’s thick, lacerating moments of lyrical improvisation and wah-wah-pedaled croaks are less upfront than they used to be, nestling deep inside a densely woven tapestry of Senegalese percussion, electronic effects, and Big Royal Talamacus’ filtered boom bass, which produces the distorted, subterranean sound of a busted loudspeaker.
Despite its appealing instrumentation, the adventurous Boom Bop is hardly easy listening. Diop and Bourelly sing over dense polyrhythmic infernos of percussion and ear-quaking bass. But it’s the prickly synergy between Diop’s vocal outbursts and Bourelly’s testifying wails, played out against a backdrop of swirling electronic effects, rumbling percussion, acidic tenor sax, and high-wire guitar exorcisms, that makes songs such as “New Afro Blu” so invigorating. Initially, like most of Boom Bop, the tune sounds about as natural as a duet between Youssou N’Dour and Dolly Parton, but after a couple of spins, the circular swing of Talamacus’ and Reggie Washington’s orbiting bass lines becomes utterly entrancing. Had “New Afro Blu” been arranged in a more conventional R&B mode, the song, which is fueled by Bourelly’s forceful confessions of romantic treachery, could easily pass for an early-’70s Norman Whitfield classic.
In fact, it’s the conspiracy-theory-based Motown psychedelia that Whitfield wrote for Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and the Undisputed Truth that informs much of Boom Bop’s lyrical content. On “New Afro Blu” Bourelly croons, “Everybody knows what’s going on/I’m the last one to find him in my home” with so much raging intensity that it brings to mind Marvin Gaye’s blistering falsetto on Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s paranoid “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The theme of betrayal also powers the yearning “Silent Rain,” as Bourelly cries to the wind for a lost love through a confusion of lanky guitars and visceral alto shrieks. But the eruptive emotions that frequently ooze out of Bourelly’s music are balanced by moments of winsome tenderness. The shifting bedrock of waltzy percussion underlying “Tara” could almost produce motion sickness, but Bourelly’s symphonic arrangement and Delta-blues-style picking also provide some of Boom Bop’s most charming and sensual moments.
The high-profile guest appearances of Shepp and Threadgill, however, leave something to be desired. Both players are often buried under Boom Bop’s layers of polyrhythms, white noise, and guitar overdubs. On the evocative “Kinetic Threadness,” however, Bourelly maps out a rough-hewn soundscape in which he and Threadgill can roam freely. Threadgill’s alto states a fractured marching-band phrase over a rolling sea of percussion, bass, and acoustic guitar; Bourelly mirrors the melody, and then the two venture off into separate improvisations that intermittently intersect throughout the rest of the track.
Sometimes, Boom Bop can hardly contain its synthesis of blues-drenched psychedelia, ambient electronica, and Senegalese rhythms and melodies. At first, the album’s sonic impact is barely digestible, regardless of how much Senegalese or American blues music you’ve heard. And though the album has a fleeting chance of advancing Bourelly’s popularity in the U.S. jazz community, its gutsy foray into uncharted terrain makes it clear that the guitarist’s vision remains uncompromised. CP
Jean-Paul Bourelly performs at the Metro Cafe Monday, Feb. 12; for more information, call (202) 588-9118.