There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The world is a ghetto, and a boring-ass one at thatat least according to saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders’ latest album, Save Our Children, a dippy collection of global goo fusing jazz and funk with African, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern rhythms. As on Sanders’ previous effort, 1996’s Message From Home, he’s collaborated with producer Bill Laswell, who has the astonishing ability to reduce Sanders’ searing eruptions to lukewarm bath water more akin to that of Boney James. After spitting fire in the name of the Creator for more than three decades, it’s understandable that Sanders may want to mellow out in his latter years, but damned if he doesn’t sound as if he has one foot in the grave. He has turned into a hologram of his former self; his presence on this overproduced effort is about as substantial.
Both Sanders and Laswell have built legacies out of polyglot, hybrid music. Sanders, after speaking in tongues with John Coltrane during his post-A Love Supreme exorcisms, tempered his Pentecostal sermons with danceable samba rhythms, simple melodies, and trippy love songs that spoke of peace and harmony. With a trove of classics on Impulse! Records, he spun a hippie vibe on the volatile New Thing movement, which was reputedly associated with black nationalismthough, curiously enough, it was mostly European whites who financially supported the New Thingers. As for Laswell, he produced a handful of groundbreaking albums with his group Material, as well as for Herbie Hancock, Sly & Robbie, and Fela Kuti that successfully grafted punk, New Wave, jazz, and non-Western musics. Unfortunately, toward the mid-’90s, Laswell’s jarring juxtapositions became rote, with the usual assembly of P-Funk and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians folk, world musicians (to Laswell, “world” music means African, Indian, and Asian music, or that of anyone else who’s not of Anglo-Saxon ancestry), and old-school b-boys.
Both Sanders and Laswell have focused their careers on forging one nation under a groove. But the grooves have become ruts on Save Our Children. Laswell’s worldly concepts never challenge Sanders to reach for anything new; instead, they provide a fluffy cushion for the saxophonist to lie down and play dead. Laswell seems incapable of maximizing the talents of his pool, and Save Our Children is no exception. Keyboard genius Bernie Worrell never unleashes those squiggly gothic lines that graced P-Funk; superb drummer Trilok Gurtu’s incendiary rhythms are simmered down to prosaic rudiments; and even Sanders’ former collaborators pianist William Henderson and bassist Alex Blake sound fast asleep.
All six selections on Save Our Children seem like drawn-out meditations in search of a song. On the awkward title track, Laswell insulates Sanders’ candy-sweet soprano with sophomoric Afro-rapping, world-beat choruses, and an overall snoozy arrangement that’s more befitting Deep Forest. The bittersweet “Midnight in Berkeley Square” and the hypnotic “Jewels of Love” never evolve beyond merely interesting. Only on the open-ended sketch “The Ancient Sounds” does the sleeping giant wake up; he begins the song with piquant double reeds before barreling through dense, droning harmonium and white noise on tenor saxophone.
In typical Laswell tradition, Save Our Children promises more than it delivers. If Sanders hopes to save the kiddies from harm, as the title suggests, shouldn’t they at least be awake to hear the sirens?
Saxophonist Sam Newsome posits the world as a ghetto, too, but one that throws bumping block parties. His Columbia debut introduces Global Unity, a dynamic quintet that combines conventional jazz instrumentssoprano saxophone, vocals, and basswith exotic onesoud, dumbek, congas, and clay pot. At first glance, the ensemble looks like just another multiculti mob recycling sentimental ideas. But its refreshing retooling of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” (two perennial warhorses in the global jazz songbooks) proves that the group is clever enough to save these clichéd vehicles from the usual trite Afro-Cuban treatments. Newsome & Co. examine “Afro Blue” through Moroccan lenses and reconstruct “Caravan” with layers of flamenco, as well as Haitian and African textures. The group hints at its knack for intriguing cross-cultural pollination in titles like “A Swedish Massage in a Turkish Bath” and “I Be Hooked on Ebonics.”
Before putting together this project, Newsome had already made a name for himself in New York as a riveting tenor saxophonist for trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Donald Byrd. After gaining critical acclaim for his blistering, extremely logical solos and dark, resonant sound, Newsome began concentrating solely on soprano in 1995. Now, tackling the hardest member in the saxophone family, he’s honed another enticing sound whose influences are not easily traceable. Newsome has a terse, diamond-hard tone that’s both muscular and malleable. His slinky legato phrasing links the hypnotic bliss of John Coltrane with the circuitous motions of Steve Lacy and Sam Rivers.
In multicultural ensembles, female vocalists usually serve as your standard earth goddess and visual centerpiece, but in Elizabeth Kontomanou, Newsome has found a simpatico performer. Her Arabic-hued voice balances Newsome’s taut sound with the kind of seemingly telepathic brilliance that Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry shared. Her soaring lines intersect and coil together beautifully on the jaunty “It’s Not the Size of the Horn, It’s How You Swing It!” and wafts dreamily along with Newsome’s atmospheric melodies on “Birdies From Bayside” and “Ebonics.”
Despite the exotic arrangements, the essence of swing and the blues survives on this record, thanks largely to bassist Ugonna Okegwo, who’s gained invaluable experience with similar combos led by saxophonist David Sanchez and percussionist Leon Parker. On “Didactical Dewey,” the midtempo tribute to saxophonist Dewey Redman, Okegwo’s walking bass propels the ensemble with great strength and sensitivity. Along with special appearances by percussionists Parker, Carlos Gomez, Natalie Cushman, and Lisa Michel, Gilad’s subtle hand drumming gets an extra thrust that makes a rhythmic bed for both Newsome and Kontomanou’s interactive jabs and Amos Hoffman’s Mediterranean textures on oud. Newsome & Global Unity, hokey though the handle may be, have delivered an imaginative debut whose clarity and understatement overcome a potentially cluttered concept. CP