Musicians who've had the opportunity to experience American jazz culture enjoy the immersion in history and tradition that is the birthright of every U.S.-born player. But equally appealing is the jazz-rich legacy inherent in London's history of African and Caribbean immigration as well as its long-standing love of and inclusion of pop music forms. On the U.S. side of the pond you have Jason Moran, Kamasi Washington and Bill Charlap, and on the other, Jamie Cullum, Courtney Pine and Neil Cowley. Shall the twain ever met? Such is the challenge and conquest of tenor saxophonist Zem Audu.
His Stateside debut, Spirits
(Origin), presents 11 original compositions. The tightly knit songs are performed by a stellar cast: pianist Benito Gonzalez, bassist Ben Williams, drummer John Davis and revered guitarist Mike Stern, who plays on five tracks. From the downbeat of opener "Neon Nights" to the conclusion of the closer, "Nebula," it's clear the assembled musicians had a blast reciting Audu's melodies and improvising wildly on his musical forms. Spirits
is a backbeat party fueled by Caribbean and African-tinged melodies, generating an irresistible, transcendent vibe.
"I have two minds-one as an improvising musician and one strictly as a composer," said Audu, who now resides in New York. "I write pretty simple melodies that feel great, and there's a language to composition that has always inspired me. For me, the song, but also the groove, is just as important as the improvisation. This album was about bringing together guys who could combine those elements really well. Ben Williams and John Davis are pocket masters. And Mike Stern has that ability to improvise in a traditional jazz setting as well as in any groove, and the same with Benito Gonzalez."
Audu, 31, is a living example of the musical cross-pollination he espouses on Spirits
. A native of Nigeria, he was raised in England by artistic and academic parents. He has worked with a diverse roster of artists that includes Moran, Pine, Hugh Masakela, Ernest Ranglin and legendary Jamaican band The Skatalites. Spirits
, consequently reflects Audu's eclectic background.
It also gives the listener a fun, carefree ride, thanks to the Afrobeat drive of the title track, the wiry electric funk of "Neon Nights," the slippery Cape Town flow of "Bird," the "Maiden Voyage"-like rhythmic illusions of "Bamijo" and the sprightly Caribbean groove of "Moths."
So how do players from different parts of the globe typically interpret Audu's music?
"There's an openness in England," Audu said. "Musicians aren't so steeped in jazz tradition. The masters who are still performing the music aren't as accessible in England. You have access from records and some touring musicians. But when you come to New York, it's a different thing. You can feel the roots of the tree as well as the branches. When I play with American musicians, sometimes it can go too strongly down one route, and when I play with English musicians it might not be as grounded as I need. I've always struggled to find musicians who understand the way I feel music. My songs sound simple but they've tripped up some great musicians.
"For example, 'Bird' sounds free, but it's in 11/4," he continued. "People only notice the meter when they try to count it. Usually musicians play odd-time music in short subdivisions, often in 7/8 or 11/8. But my songs are in 7/4, 5/4-there's a longer subdivision. To get people to hear the longer arcing forms and where [the meter] should land has taken a lot of searching. But I found the right guys with this album."
Indeed, Audu has developed a highly personal musical language that spans generations.
"What made this project special was that we had the younger players plus, with Mike Stern, a link to the older generation," Audu said. "The Brecker Brothers and late-period Miles Davis were heavy on my playlist coming up. To be able to reach out to Mike Sterns-and he reached back and brought all that energy and love and soul-that was wonderful."