World Circuit WCV094
Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****½
Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, who’s been recording and touring since the late 1950s, is best known for his long stint with Fela Kuti’s Africa 70, which incorporated American funk and soul music into the African-influenced jazz that was Kuti’s specialty. The result came to be called Afrobeat, and Allen was the music’s driving rhythmic force. He recorded more than 30 albums with Kuti over the next ten years, and when Africa 70 disbanded in the late 1970s he went on to play as leader and sideman on a vast number of recordings. Pop-music fans will recognize him as a member of the British band The Good, the Bad & the Queen.
In 1984, Fela Kuti introduced Allen to Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpet and flugelhorn player and singer who had become an international star, and over the years the two spoke of recording together. In 2010, they finally met in London’s Livingston Studios and laid down tracks that were still unfinished in January 2018, when Masekela died at the age of 78. Allen and coproducer Nick Gold, who’d recorded the original sessions, got permission from Masekela’s estate to finish the music, and the result is Rejoice.
Allen and Gold pulled in musicians from the current London jazz scene to complete the record, including Steve Williamson on tenor sax, Lewis Wright on vibes, and keyboardists Joe Armon-Jones and Elliot Galvin. Nigerian percussionist Lekan Babalola helps out, and bassists Tom Herbert and Mutale Chashi played on the original recordings.
Masekela’s a cappella multitracked harmony vocals open track 1, “Robbers, Thugs and Muggers (O’Galajani),” and include a couple of lines in colloquial Zulu, before Allen begins to play a solid, shuffling rhythm accompanied by a sizzling ride cymbal and a powerful but fluid kick drum. Masekela, who plays flugelhorn throughout this album, plays the elegant melody in full tones, using economy and space to develop its themes, as Tony Herbert’s bass provides firm support. Babalola’s conga adds some seasoning in a short percussion break, and Armon-Jones’s Fender Rhodes fills out the final third.
Masekela and Williamson state the theme of “Agbada Bougou,” a hard-swinging track that Allen drives along with help from Herbert’s popping bass line. Allen’s touch is light, and his playing is firmly rhythmic but elastic, especially in his use of the hi-hat and crash cymbals to add accents and counterrhythms. Masekela’s effortlessly effective solos provide a model for Williamson, whose tenor solo makes its points without wasting a note.
Allen and Masekela pay tribute to Fela Kuti in “Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same),” which combines Afrobeat and jazz and proclaims, “Lagos never gonna be de same / Never! Without Fela.” Babalola’s woodblocks and cowbell add a layer of rhythmic complexity, and Armon-Jones’s Fender Rhodes plays both harmonic and, at points, rhythmic functions. The swagger in Masekela’s playing, and the intricacy of Allen’s, convey their love for this great musician, who died in 1997.
Throughout Rejoice Masekela makes every note count, playing with depth, emotional honesty, and precision. In the lively, upbeat “Slow Bones” he easily navigates Allen’s densely packed rhythms with joyous, calmly executed melody lines. “Obama Shuffle Strut Blues” gives a shout out to the President, who’d been elected only two years before these sessions -- Masekela’s pride in that historic event is evident in the jubilation expressed in each note. Masekela and Allen duet through much of this track, but at one point Masekela plays unaccompanied, never running short of ideas.
Allen is so musical a drummer that a sparsely arranged track like “Jabulani (Rejoice, Here Comes Tony),” in which he, Masekela, and Herbert play for the most part as a trio, never sounds harmonically empty. One of the joys of Rejoice is focusing on Allen’s kick-drum technique and hearing how, with the rest of his kit, he builds layers of rhythm to flesh out a tune and create excitement, momentum, and resolution. “We’ve Landed” closes Rejoice with the feeling that two master musicians have created something close to perfection. While Gold and Allen brought in other musicians to help finish the project, they wisely kept their additions simple, and in the spirit of the original sessions.
BMG UK, which distributes World Circuit Records, provided me with a 320kbps MP3 of Rejoice. The MP3 won’t have the clarity of the CD-resolution version, but it brings you somewhat close -- the bass power is actually pretty good, and details of the recording come through well. But the LP is much more spacious, and the double bass is more woody and resonant. The drums are tremendously responsive and three-dimensional, and I could easily “see” Masekela’s flugelhorn in front of me.
Optimal in Germany pressed the 180gm vinyl, which I found met their usual high standard. Pallas or RTI pressings are sometimes quieter, but not by much. Optimal has stamped Blue Note’s 80th-anniversary series of LPs, and I’ve been pleased with the quality and consistency of their pressings. Rejoice is nicely packaged in a jacket of medium-weight cardboard and a lighter-weight inner sleeve.
But most important is the music -- exotic but approachable, beautifully played, and full of grooves. If you can listen to Rejoice without embarrassing your family by getting up from your chair to dance, you’re stronger than I am.
. . . Joseph Taylor