Imagine stepping into an underground club in rural China or urban Moscow in the 1950s.
The sounds of a saxophone, piano, bass and drums resound from the stage. Everyone in the audience could be blacklisted or charged as criminals for being in attendance; but they’re willing to risk it to listen to jazz.
Or imagine a town hall in Soweto in South Africa during the apartheid era. A jazz quintet is playing hard-bop with mbaqanga flair. People gather to dance, to listen and to celebrate life through the power of their own jazz musicians.
Last Saturday was “International Jazz Day,” a UNESCO initiative that celebrates the musical, social and political roles that jazz music has played around the world. Because even though jazz may have been born in America, its parents were African, Caribbean, Creole, Italian, German and Portuguese, to name a few. And as jazz spread, musicians around the world inserted their own voices.
If you missed last week’s festivities, don’t sweat! Jazz artists are constantly creating a dialogue behind the music and their own cultural influences. Here’s a sampling from the corners of the world that we cover in this blog.
Reginald Cyntje, “Atonement” (Caribbean/U.S.)
Reginald Cyntje was born in Dominica and raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands on a diet of reggae, calypso, classical and jazz. Now based in D.C., the trombonist is a celebrated composer and improviser with four albums under his belt.
As a bandleader and composer, Cyntje steeps his music in the flavors of his musical upbringing. There are hints of calypso and other distinctly Caribbean musical forms, but the Virgin Island’s quelbe music — a folk song form dedicated to topical storytelling –informs much of his work as a composer. Cyntje builds his compositions on rich, Western harmonies and the rhythms of the Caribbean, but then inserts a quelbe.
“Atonement,” from his 2015 album Spiritual Awakening, shows Cyntje wrestling with spiritual concerns. The narrative that unfolds through the melodies and solos is one of searching, as he appeals to both Western and Caribbean traditions for wisdom and guidance.
Shanghai Restoration Project featuring Zhang Le, “Can’t Get Your Love (得不到的愛情)” (China/U.S.)
Chinese-American music producer Dave Liang created the Shanghai Restoration to work through his musical and cultural identities. He’s a second generation Chinese immigrant, raised on Chinese pop and folk but also on jazz and hip-hop. So he makes music that reflects both East and West, tradition and modernity.
He took inspiration from the Shanghai jazz music of the 1920s, which combined Western harmony with Chinese scales and tones. That’s the inspiration for the Shanghai Restoration’s 2014 album The Classics. He and Shanghai-born jazz singer Zhang Le reimagined Chinese jazz standards as modern, electronica-jazz vocal numbers.
This song, “Can’t Get Your Love (得不到的愛情)” features Zhang Le scatting in Mandarin, a near-unheard of feat in both Chinese and American jazz music!
Ibrahim Maalouf, “Alif Leila wa Leila” (Middle East)
The music that Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf makes and the instrument he plays demonstrates the global connections within jazz.
In the late 1960s, Ibrahim’s father, Naasim Maalouf, designed and pioneered the family’s signature instrument, a four-valve trumpet. The senior Maalouf added the fourth valve to the trumpet in order to more easily play notes that don’t really occur in formal Western music.
The radical trumpet design allows Ibrahim the flexibility to use his full vocabulary as a native Arab musician and trained Western jazz/classical. Raised in France, the trumpeter blends the two forms as he sees fit in his compositional and improvisational styles, creating music that ties the Middle East to East Coast jazz clubs.
Ibrahim Maalouf’s most recent project is Kalthoum, a tribute to the great Egyptian singer and pop icon Umm Kulthum. Hear “Movement I” from his reimagination of Umm Kultum’s performance of Alf Leila Aa Leila (One Thousand and One Nights).
Sachal Orchestra, “Take Five” (Pakistan)
The Sachal Orchestra was founded in the 2000s by Izzat Majeed, a Pakistani millionaire and arts enthusiast who wanted to make a new base for Western music in Pakistan. Many of the musicians are fluent in both Western and Pakistani classical music and spent many years scoring Lollywood (the Pakistani equivalent of Bollywood). But they all share a strong love of Western music, particularly jazz.
As a unit, the orchestra members compose and arrange their own material, and they often draw on Pakistani music and Western music, seeing where the two can overlap. Sometimes, they also just love playing their favorites. One of the Sachal Orchestra’s best, and most well-known, recordings is their interpretation of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five.” The group layers Western string harmonies on top of the propulsive beat of the Indian drum called a dhol as the sitar leads with the main melody.
Thandi Ntuli, “Umthandazo” (South Africa)
Pianist and vocalist Thandi Ntuli is part of a new generation of South African musicians who reflect this idea of crosscultural jazz. Raised in South Africa, Ntuli grew up on a mix of South African and American jazz as well as traditional African music. When you hear her fingers touch the ivories, the notes that flow come from the river of tradition that houses Chopin, Art Tatum, and Nina Simone. But in her compositions and vocals, you hear her channel the rhythms of life that inform can inform music all around Africa.
Thandi boils down her expansive, embracing musical identity to the fundamental nature of both jazz and her native South Africa. “I draw from anything and everything that inspires me,” Ntuli told NPR via email. “The South African music influence is obviously inescapable having grown up in this environment but you will find that even our jazz draws from many influences even around the continent. Which I think I do too because of my love for traditional African music and rhythms.”
“Umthandazo” (“The Prayer” in Zulu) from her 2014 debut LP The Offering, demonstrates Thandi Ntuli’s sense of cultural and musical weaving. She cites two main influences for the song: the subdued yet dancing tone and genre- blurring song structures of American guitarist Pat Metheny and the meditative aspects of African ritual music.
Lwanda Gogwana Quintet, “The Calling” (South Africa)
Trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana is another prime mover in the new generation of South African jazz. His quintet, though it rotates musicians, commonly features Ntuli as well as rising South African tenor saxophonist Sisonke Xonti. Gogwana’s compositions draw on even more musical elements than Ntuli does. His first LP, Songbook, references African musical traditions, bebop, fusion, hip-hop, R&B and even avant-garde/free jazz.
On this track from Songbook, “The Calling,” Gogwana and company throw a 5-minute multicultural, multi-continental musical bash. The opening invokes African celebration music with its group vocal chant mixed in with funky fusion bass, the smooth yet spiritual tone of his trumpet, the James Brown-intensity of the horns section and so much more.
All of this comes across as a statement of how Gogwana fits into the core philosophy of jazz. His playing, born in the cradle of human life, suggests that music and people all come from the same roots.