Jazz at Columbia

From the Playboy Blog, 9/27/07 

loueke.jpgMahmoud Ahmadinejad wasn’t the only foreign figure Columbia University brought to New York this weekend. On Saturday night, the “Columbia/Harlem Festival of Global Jazz” featured artists from Africa: guitarist Lionel Loueke  and singer Somi, the Randy Weston Quintet and Martino Atangana and African Blue Note. I admit that these artists couldn’t match the Iranian president for shock value, but those of us in the audience at Aaron Davis Hall on Saturday night got the better show.

I heard about the festival through a forwarded email. I didn’t recognize any of the names except for Loueke, who I’d read about briefly in Downbeat magazine, where he was voted the #1 rising star of 2007. I was intrigued by Loueke’s reputation for cutting edge, genre-bending tunes and wanted to see if he lived up to his reputation. But after spending the day tailgating the first home football game at Yale (my alma mater), I didn’t know if I’d be able to keep my eyes open. Then I walked through the auditorium door and a thundering drum solo knocked me on my ass. I was awake.

Loueke’s band played a unique blend of jazz, funk, and world music like nothing I’d ever heard. His guitar solos consisted mostly of delicate finger picking, and his chords sounded more like Joe Zawinul’s organ than a typical jazz guitar. Loueke shared center stage with Somi, a gorgeous singer of Rwandan and Ugandan descent. Somi exhibited an intimidating vocal range, and her smooth tones were punctuated with sudden shrieks and yelps that made me jump.Loueke and Somi were a tough act to follow, but Randy Weston’s quintet rose to the occasion. Weston is not new to the jazz scene—he’s been a bandleader since the 1950s. He looked his age on Saturday as he hunched over the piano, but his sound was fresh. His fingers, which are twice as long as any human’s should be, still moved nimbly over the keys, and his band wove African rhythms into a mixture of cool, bop and free jazz. Behind the congas, percussionist Neil Clarke looked like a happy child with a lot of toys. But bassist Alex Blake stole the show. He had a love-hate relationship with his standup, one minute resting his head lovingly on the wood, the next slapping and tearing savagely at the strings. As his solos climaxed, Blake leaned back on his stool, kicked both feet in the air and sang along, unmiked, as though he were possessed by a demon.The closing act, Martino Atangana and African Blue Note, took the energy up one more notch. The band brought a multitude of African rhythms together with funk and rock music. Atangana’s guitar playing was reminiscent of everything from Dominican bachata to Paul Simon to Carlos Santana. His enthusiasm continued unabated until program coordinators told him he had to stop and actually lowered the curtain mid-song due to time constraints.I was impressed by Columbia’s ability to pinpoint music that was not only global but incredibly original. Each of Saturday’s performers obliterated stylistic boundaries to create a sound that was entirely his or her own. Yet it was still catchy; even the toddlers in the audience were bobbing their heads. Most importantly, no matter their age, all the performers exuded an infectious joy and energy.It’s a pity that Columbia’s great program got virtually no coverage. The good news: the festival continues this weekend. Friday night the Zim Ngqawana Quartet with William Parker, and Steve Coleman and the Mystic Rhythm Society play at El Museo del Barrio. Click here for more info.

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