M'Boom: Onomatopoeia

M’Boom is an all-percussion ensemble, a special group formed in 1970; this recording is from 1979, so it was a while in the making. The initial members were Omar Clay, Warren Smith, Joe Chambers, Roy Brooks, Max, Freddy King, and Freddie Waits, who was my father. Ray Mantilla came in later.

“Onomatopoeia” is a word that describes a sound. M’Boom is an onomatopoeic expression. I’ve always thought of it as bass drum to floor tom and cymbal — MMMM-BUM. Tympany. This piece is a perfect example of seamless transition; not a lot of stops and starts. Themes and phrases overlap and others emerge—one thing happens, an undercurrent of something under it comes to the forefront, this recedes, something else comes in. Polyphony all the time, shifting dynamics, the different instruments introduced in a staggered way. The piece is in 11, it starts off with the chimes, then the vibes and marimba enter, then after that’s established, the tympany and drumset come in, which kind of solo over that hemiola that’s repeating in 11—that’s Omar and Joe on drums, I believe, and Warren on tympany. That’s the first portion of the song. Then they make a transition. They stay in 11, but instead of playing 11 quarter notes, they start playing 4 half-notes and 3 eighth-notes, and they go from the marimba and vibes to membrane. I remember playing this song, and they would always be like, ‘Membrane! Membrane!”—meaning going to the skins. If you’re playing a timbale, play the center of the timbale; if you’re playing congas, the center of the conga. No rims. That creates an interesting counter to the xylophone, which is in a different type of register. Max takes the xylophone solo.

Max always used to tell me, “Get to your shit quick” when you’re soloing. He’d go, “Yeah, you’re making some nice statements, but get to your shit quick.” In live performances it might have been different, but for this recording everyone gets their ideas out quick. Regardless how wild or expressive they may be, there’s always that very clear message, to me—not only from Max, but everybody. Warren Smith takes a solo on tympany after Max, then they transfer the phrase from the membrane to the rims—in other words, to the metal. Then he takes a solo on the membrane of a tympany. It switches up. That theme also occurs in a lot of Max’s work, whether solo or with bands—a juxtaposition of different feelings or sounds or meters against each other.

All the members of M’Boom were adept at making those types of rhythmic changes and comfortable with that variation, to the point where the transition from one to the other was seamless. The different textures create a different feeling for the listener. In certain instances, it creates a sense of power, and then when they go to the metal, it sounds a little more frenetic, more like an anticipation of the climax, which is coming next.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Michael Babatunde Olatunji: Akiwowo

You need to find a place for this 1959 session on any list of unlikely success stories from the 20th century music business. Drums of Passion would sell five million copies in the US alone, most of them purchased by listeners who had no previous acquaintance with what we now call "world music." In one fell swoop, the minstrelized-ethnic-music of Les Baxter, Martin Denny and the other purveyors of ersatz exotica was put out to pasture, and the real thing arrived on the scene. And the general public—mirabile dictu!—was able to tell the difference.

 Les Baxter

The story behind the story is just as fascinating. A fellowship from the Rotary Foundation allows Michael Babatunde Olatunji to leave Ajido, a fishing village in Nigeria, and come to Morehouse College, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1954 he moves to New York, where he starts performing with his drumming-chanting-singing-dancing ensemble. Legendary talent scout John Hammond was so impressed with what he heard that, breaking every rule of the A&R trade, he signs Olatunji to record this music, unadorned and unadulterated, for the largest label in the land.

The late Tom Terrell has insisted, with more than a little plausibility, that Drums of Passion deserves acknowledgment as the most important recording of the last century. Honestly, just fast forward a few years and see the impact. In the 1960s, John Coltrane and a host of other jazz artists begin exploring the potential of a re-Africanization of jazz music. In rock and popular music, the drums take on a new centrality and intensity. A return-to-the-roots attitude begins to permeate blues, folk music and other genres. The musical riches of the Third World increasingly show up, either in their original form or as models for imitation, on the rosters of the entertainment mega-corporations. Drums of Passion stands out as the turning point that legitimized and accelerated these processes.

This opening track, inspired by the call of a well-known conductor in Nigeria and sound of his train, is a powerful statement of this new aesthetic vision. The immediacy and intensity of this music demands the listener's attention, but one also hears a confidence and pride that expands our consciousness beyond purely musical considerations. Yes, you can put this music on as background music (as no doubt many record buyers have done over the years) but the sensibilities is combines and the passions it contains would soon be at the foreground of modern life. One of the defining qualities of African music is its insistence on integrating music-making into the fabric of day-to-day life, and this recording symbolized a similar reorientation in its new setting. That, my friends, is making more than just a hit; it's making history.

September 18, 2009 · 0 comments


Bill Laswell: Lost Roads

The personnel of this 1988 recording is impressive, but also a bit ominous … as promising as a bad day at the United Nations after the translators have gone home. Yet the end result is about as perfect a realization of "world fusion" as you will ever encounter.

Meet the cast. We have Nicky Skopelitis, the eclectic American string player of Greek heritage (you name it, he has played it at some point … lute, oud, banjo, and—yes!—guitar); Indian violinist L. Shankar, who has recorded with John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, Yoko Ono and lots of other diverse artists; Aïyb Dieng, a percussionist from Senegal; Cuban conga drummer Daniel Ponce; and, of course, the bassist and master of the soundscapes, Bill Laswell. I am surprised Laswell didn't add a didgeridoo player, so that he could have every continent covered. Not that there is much lacking in the collective CVs of these players. If someone can get these diverse views of rhythm to peacefully coexist, there may be hope for mankind yet.

And not only do they coexist, they flourish. This band sounds like they have been playing together for decades, so natural and seamless is the interaction. My ears are especially drawn to Zakir Hussain's tabla, but everyone gets an A+ in this class. Especially Mr. Laswell, who had the brilliance—and courage—to pull off this awe-inspiring collaboration.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Milford Graves: Nothing

I have always had a thing for percussion music. I've also had loads of fun defending it as music. That's right, some folks cling so desperately to the harmony/rhythm/melody (read: Western) model of music that when an element is absent, even merely implied, they're sure that the sounds don't add up.

If you listen to what Milford Graves and Sunny Morgan are up to here, there is a wealth of interactions and textures to contemplate. From the first clipped hi-hat segment to the various call and response interludes, Graves and Morgan build loads of tension, dispersing it at will as they shift off in other directions (the bells over the gong a few minutes in are particularly nice).

Not music? C'mon, you're kidding, right?

September 22, 2008 · 0 comments


Susie Ibarra: Drum Sketches

Don't be scared off by the personnel listing. Yes, this is a 10-movement solo percussion work, almost 40 minutes of thumpin', bangin' and plunkin'. But Drum Sketches will not remind you of that bad experience you had in college with mushrooms while listening to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." This is one of the most musical CDs of the year, and will help you get over your fear of solo percussion. Ibarra shows her mastery of a range of instruments, but I am especially impressed by her exploration of her Filipino ethnic roots, demonstrated here by extracts from field recordings and her masterful use of the Kulintang, a variant of the xylophone made of eight tuned gongs placed horizontally on a wooden rack. This is a CD you could easily miss that will surprise and delight.

July 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Trilok Gurtu and the Crazy Saints: Believe

1994's Believe continued the assault on Western music precepts that Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu had been engaged in for more than a decade. This time out Gurtu's sensibilities were coming much more from the West than from his traditional East. "Believe" begins as an electronic funk fest. Gurtu plays Western percussion. Guitarist Gilmore reaches deep into the fusion barrel with his somewhat rude and suggestive solo. Goyone wants to show better manners, so he introduces sounds suggesting Jan Hammer during his Oh, Yeah? days, developing a simple lighthearted riff that becomes the song's soul – and clear evidence of schizophrenia. For those of you keeping track, I believe the best description of this performance would be Tony Williams Lifetime (the version with Allan Holdsworth) meets the Jan Hammer Group. I believe it is purely coincidental that Lifetime had an album titled Believe It!

May 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Trilok Gurtu: Baba

Indo-jazz percussionist Trilok Gurtu never disappoints. He can mesmerize you with meditative Indian drumming, knock you back in your seat with some cymbal crashes on a Western drum kit, or make you laugh your ass off by using some ridiculous implement as a percussion instrument. Over the years he has also proven to be a very fine composer.

"Baba" begins with an Aboriginal basso buffo of sorts. Saxophonist Jan Garbarek answers these funny- sounding deep voices in the wind with a more serious intent. Soon he introduces the slow and somber melody as Gurtu pounds a thudding backbeat. Gurtu takes advantage of open space by filling it with percussion from every source within his reach. Garbarek's playing is labor intensive and performed at a snail's pace. Yet the lugubrious melody is maintained. An Eastern-style funk, led by bassist Fiszman, speeds things up a bit and provides even more opportunities for Gurtu's percussion bag of tricks. "Baba" is really a percussion solo with the melody taking second fiddle. Those of you familiar with Gurtu's solos know that this is a very good thing.

May 14, 2008 · 0 comments


Trilok Gurtu: Ballad For 2 Musicians

Crazy Saints was another interesting project from Indo-jazz percussionist Gurtu. He surrounded himself with Western jazz musicians of the highest caliber, including on this track its composer Joe Zawinul. The breadth of these two musicians is heard in its full glory, with Zawinul absolutely masterful in this stunningly gorgeous performance. His synth allows him to be harmonica player, saxophonist, pianist, bassist and synthesizer player. His playing is so good that those synthesized instruments sound like the real thing. Big deal you say? That is what a synthesizer does! But a synthesizer does not include the phrasing. A saxophone or harmonica player phrases differently from a keyboard player. It takes great skill and knowledge to play synthesized tones so convincingly that we believe we are hearing a true representation. Zawinul is capable of doing that without using tricks. Gurtu accompanies Zawinul's intoxicating theme with his usual assortment of rhythm accoutrements. A well-placed clink or clack means the world in such a melodic exposition. Gurtu keeps the timekeeping to an absolute minimum, but his percussion accents create wonderful textures that will have you listening to both players with a joyful intensity.

May 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Marilyn Mazur & Jan Garbarek: Dunun Song

Building a recording project around sax and percussion, without bass or chords, is a dicey proposition, but these two artists are sufficient unto themselves. A timeless quality permeates the give-and-take between Garbarek and Mazur. Primal, throbbing, hypnotic . . . this is music more suitable for a ritual than a jazz club. Instead of ordering a drink from the bar, you want to join hands in a circle dance and start chanting. A great performance from two very deep artists.

April 12, 2008 · 0 comments


Trilok Gurtu: Shobharock

The amazing percussionist Trilok Gurtu first came to prominence with the world music group Oregon. He would later achieve greater fame with the John McLaughlin Trio, where his wild East-meets-West percussion forays became highlights of every show. In performance, Gurtu surrounds himself with Indian percussion instruments of every sort and a small traditional drum kit. He plays sitting and or kneeling. His percussion pallet is as big as anyone's. He may strike a small cymbal, then drop it in and pull it out of a bucket of water. He may squeeze squeaky toys, blow a whistle, shake a handful of small bells or strike an impressive Western backbeat or snare roll. And he does it all with an infectious smile that in itself is part of a wondrous rhythm.

Gurtu has released many worthwhile recordings on his own over the years. He is clearly one of the fathers of the burgeoning Indian world and jazz music movement. (In case you haven't heard, India is where the jazz shit is really happening these days!) "Shobharock" is a piece of work, named in honor of Gurtu's mother, Shobha Gurtu. An accomplished Indian vocalist who passed away in 2004, Shobha raises her voice to great effect on this fusion number. The theme is ushered in by a low drone. The great Indian classical violinist L. Shankar, or just "Shankar" as he appears in the credits, divulges the tune's mesmerizing theme over Gurtu's Western-style drumming. Gurtu will change his percussion character several times during this excursion. Swedish bassist Jonas Hellborg maintains the bottom with a relentless precision groove. The group sound is overwhelming in its scope. Jazz trumpeter Don Cherry has a solo. Oregon's fine guitarist Ralphe Towner takes his turn. Truth be told, there is really too much going on here. But "Shobharock" is an ethnically and stylistically mixed musical mosh that is well worth the sensory overload.

March 26, 2008 · 0 comments


Marilyn Mazur & Jan Garbarek: Joy Chant

For this tune, Marilyn Mazur chose a single instrument from her hugely diverse percussion kit. It's called a hang and is not much used yet by jazz musicians. It looks a bit like a small flying saucer and sounds halfway between a steel drum and metallic tablas. On this nice repetitive song Mazur has penned, the hang's sound is a perfect match for Jan Garbarek's soprano sax. The Norwegian reed player often had the Danish percussionist in his bands. Now she enlists him for her first ECM record, and shows that Garbarek fits beautifully into her music, which is much more joyous and lively that his usual fare.

March 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Joe DeRenzo: iEartoe (parts I & II)

Drummer Joe DeRenzo has had quite an interesting career. In the late '70s, he played jazz and fusion music. But in the mid '80s, he caught the acting bug and left music behind. After appearing as a movie extra and having a few TV gigs, DeRenzo changed careers again and became a photographer. A chance meeting with graphic artist Peter Max led to a long-term gig with financial and artistic success. But music was still deep in his core. In 2001, after 15 years of not picking up a drumstick, DeRenzo sat down and played. The comeback was on!

DeRenzo is a very gifted musician, composer and arranger. Perhaps because of that 15-year hiatus, he approaches music with a fresh and open mind. This is quite evident on "iEartoe parts I & II," his tribute to the great Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira. The tune is purposely reminiscent of Airto's old recordings on the CTI label. DeRenzo and fellow percussionist Richie Gajate-Garcia create a Brazilian landscape with shakers and sundry percussion oddities. Vocalist Anne Walsh enters with her own heartfelt tribute to Airto's wife, the wonderful singer Flora Purim. On part II, pianist Tom Zink and saxophonist Glen Berger continue the theme, now joyful and bouncy. DeRenzo plays it Brazilian cool in the background as Gajate-Garcia camps it up both on voice and percussion to the tune's end. DeRenzo is not out to blow people away. He is out to have fun. On this tune, and on the album it comes from, he succeeds in a contagious way.

February 22, 2008 · 0 comments


Henry "Pucho" Brown: Georgia on My Mind

This "Georgia" is far from the usually slow renderings. First the frantic up-tempo Latin pulse, then the coarse blues shouter's voice that, besides singing with plenty of soul (as befits his name), reminds us that James Brown and Martin Luther King were from Georgia (this is undoubtedly the roaring '60s!), finally the daring arrangement based on contrasts between fiery percussion and airy strings, dreamy vibraphone and loud horns. Happy feet and soul lovers alike will find what they're looking for in this hot and strange brew that bubbles with rhythm and emotion.

January 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Carlos 'Patato' Valdes: Ingrato Corazon

This Verve record features another all-star cast that presents a rich tableau of Afro-Cuban offerings. Joining the conguero Carlos “Patato” Valdes is co-leader, vocalist Eugenio “Totico” Arango, tres player Arsenio Rodriguez, and the legendary bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez. These musicians celebrate the sacred and secular roots of Afro-Cuban jazz with an album full of quintessential rumba tracks. “Ingrato Corazon” is a high-energy ensemble piece with solos by Rodriguez and “Patato,” but featuring the improvisatory vocals of “Totico,” backed by the members of the band singing a refrain in the traditional call-and-response format.

October 25, 2007 · 0 comments


Mongo Santamaria: Watermelon Man

“Watermelon Man” was an enormously successful hit for both Mongo Santamaria and its composer, Herbie Hancock. The trumpet player, Marty Sheller, plays the only solo in a song that features a groove-oriented melody in an arrangement favoring more Latin percussion than the Hancock original. This song anticipated the bugalu movement in Latin jazz that would take hold later in the 1960s. Bugalu (or boogaloo) incorporated elements of Cuban and Puerto Rican music, as well as American soul and R&B.

October 25, 2007 · 0 comments


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