"World jazz" is the label that often gets slapped on any project that dares mix post-bop music with grooves and instrumentation not native to North America. And those projects fequently come off as gimmicky. Not so with the Kora Band, a group of Portland and Seattle musicians - several by way of New Orleans - who successfully incorporate West African rhythms and textures into their otherwise mainstream jazz sound. The quintet, led by keyboardist Andew Oliver, has as its X factor the kora, a 21-string instrument that, as played by Kane Mathis, sometimes shimmers, sometimes flickers. At nearly all times, it's integrated handily into the group's unusual sound, as opposed to merely serving as an exotic flavor.
The opening "Sinyaro," a traditional Gambian piece, begins with a brief kora cadenza before slipping into a loping groove, driven by bassist Brady Millard-Kish and drummer Mark DiFlorio; that's followed by a melody played in unison by Oliver and trumpeter Chad McCullough, and them Mathis' vocals, sung in Gambian Mandinka. Finally the song shifts into a section that draws from Afro-Cuban music. Other traditional Gambian, Malian and Giunean tunes are here, too, including "Mamadou Bitiki," a tumbling showcase for Oliver's darting solo; the airy "Koulandjan," featuring McCullough's mellow flugelhorn; and the melancholy "Amadou Sekou," which builds into DiFLorio's impressively interactive solo.
Oliver's own compositions are impressive, too. The flowing title track handily shifts into a double-time feel, while "Over-Caffeinated and Under-Fed" morphs from a sort of moody ethereality to modified hard-driving swing and then Latin rhythms.
Whether carrying the band through streams of African or Caribbean music, or jazz homegrown in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere in the United States, Cascades
proceeds in a manner that's unhurried and consistently inviting, in refreshing contrast to other genre-straddling projects of its general type.