Many of the more progressive jazz types these days boast diverse ethnic/world music bonafides that they creatively infuse into their music that broadens the jazz vernacular. Saxophonist Zem Audu 's brand of jazz is internationally flavored, too, but he didn't get that way out of mere curiosity; he's lived that kind of life.
Born in Nigeria and raised in England, Audu made his way to the jazz epicenter New York seven years ago. Along the way, he's learned first hand the teachings of world-class musicians such as Jason Moran, Ernest Ranglin, Courtney Pine and Hugh Masakela. At times, Audu's lush tenor saxophone voice recalls to my ears that of another international sax master: Japan's Sadao Watanabe.
Thus, Audu's new album Spirits, now out courtesy of Origin Records, tells a story about his musical life. It's a story about where he's been and where's he headed. Helping him spool that narrative is a strong lineup: Benito Williams on piano/Rhodes, Ben Williams on bass, John Davis on drums and for five of these eleven tracks, guitar great Mike Stern.
Though technically just a guest sideman on this record, Stern has such a large presence that has resulted in him seriously altering other people's records since Miles Davis' The Man With The Horn back in '81. And he does it again here.
For the surprisingly tight synergy between guitarist and saxophonist, it starts with "Neon Nights." This is no-nonsense fusion that would have qualified as a better cut on a Stern album, but Audu brings an effortless soulful funk diction to the table and Stern reels off one of his beautifully crafted solos. Williams moves from electric to standup bass for a taste of Jamaican dub ("Big Qi") but the mood stays modern and Audu is once again sharing dulcet unison lines with Stern. "Bamijo" dials down the pulse just a bit compared to the rest of the album, providing Stern the right opportunity for a particularly tasty aside. And later he casually interacts with Audu like a couple of old friends.
However, "Spirits" is the go-to track as this is such a savory blend of jazz and Afrobeat. Audu could have made an entire album exploring this hybrid as he's clearly cut out to do this. Stern is on hand for this one, too, and ends up sounding a bit a like Lionel Loueke while staying within his own vocabulary. Audu digs deep into that groove early on and digs even deeper into it the further he gets into his solo.
Audu works well not just with Stern but also Gonzalez, who gives Audu terrific comping help on "Dragon." "Muso" has a driving groove thanks to the muscle of Williams and Davis, leaving Audu and Gonzalez free to add bright colors. Williams also gets a spotlight, mining the upper end of his electric bass guitar.
A little of Audu's African roots via Masakela's South Africa on "Bird," based on a compelling repeating figure. And "Flow" is a return to an American groove, the rhythm section again putting down a fat, funk footprint. Complex but dancing rhythms continue right up to the end with "Nebula," where Gonzalez leads off with his clean, single note notations.
The international element is strong on Spirit like a lot of jazz albums these days but Zem Audu is long beyond that concept of throwing together different ingredients and has mastered making his stew simmer with sophistication.