BY BENSON IDONIJE
WHEN Aleke Kanonu, one of Africa’s greatest percussionists (even though underrated), called from his base in Port Harcourt, a couple of days ago, a friend, who overheard our conversation, was surprised about the high esteem in which I seem to hold Aleke.
Like many, this friend of mine does not seem to know where Aleke is coming from.
With a brilliant jazz album to show for it, Aleke is better known in America than at home here in Nigeria.
In the album, he fronted a whole ensemble of top American musicians, who were intrigued by the intricacies of his rhythm on the one hand, and the intensity of his rhythmic pulse on the other — from the enthusiasm that trailed their performance and the creativity that resulted.
Secondly, Aleke was the one who really made jazz giant, Pharaoh Sanders, popular in Nigeria, coming as a follow-up to Sander’s performance in Lagos in 1981 at Eko Le Meridien, Lagos.
He brought over a hundred copies of Sanders’s ground-breaking and experimental album (a double record set) entitled Journey to the one, which has continued to enjoy rave reviews from jazz critics all over the world, decades after its release, for its continued relevance to the sociological essences of the music.
Aleke, who knew that I had Stereo Jazz Club to present on the airwaves at the time, immediately laid three copies on me – (one for the Gramophone library, two for me), a gesture for which I will continue to remember him.
Journey to the one is a collector’s item, a rare release, which every jazz music collector should be proud to have. It is as precious as the classic Kind of Blue, the album with which Miles Davis broke new grounds in 1959 with such soloists and sidemen as the maverick saxophonist John Coltrane, on tenor; Julian Cannonball Audery, alto saxophone; and a formidable rhythm section unit comprising Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums.
The double record set of Journey to the one is particularly precious when you realise that it is on vinyl, in its originally recorded state. It is also remarkable in that the album represents the transformation of Sanders from the influence of his mentor, John Coltrane. Instead of the sheets of sound that previously characterised his playing with the maverick saxophonist, Sanders began to mould his own individual sound identity with the spiritual focus on ecology, water and planet earth.
With attention spiritually directed to nature, Sanders has evolved a new tone with which he now creates imaginative swirls of sound. And with the intensity of animal sounds and grunts, they seem to be the essence of the new freedom in jazz.
I am not particularly fond of the bar-to-bar, round-by-round analytical dissection of performances when it comes to record reviews, but a few top-of-the-wave comments and observations should suffice, considering the fact that devotees who are committed enough will always find ways of listening to the music by themselves. After all, the reviewer’s comments can only serve as a guide, some form of platform for letting people know about the existence of the music, so it can start off an argument.
As a matter of fact, whatever strong views the critic holds about the music does not necessarily change anything. The artists have their visions, cultural backgrounds and musical capabilities around which their individual approaches revolve — with all the imagination they can muster.
Pharaoh Sander’s effort is currently directed towards combating climate change, a crusade he started with such albums as The creator has a masterplan and Journey to the one.
There are eleven songs where Think about the one, for instance, is an up-dated Coltrane idea with chorale an electronics. A testimonial to a long spiritual journey, Sander’s entry is in itself, of classic proportions.
Bedra, composed and arranged by Pharaoh Sanders moves even further on to the open saxophone, the fullest tone Sanders has perhaps ever recorded (and the best reproduced) a tone poem, indeed. Greetings to Idris, a tribute to drummer Idris Muhammad also incorporates the tight Trane-like quintet sound, although the Sanders flavour is considerably more seasoned than what one might have found on “avant-garde” albums in the early 1960’s. Dig Sander’s split-reed effects how logical and un-pretentious!
The work of pianist John Hicks especially deserves mention. His Yemenja has an easy flow which, combined with the somewhat tempered Sanders saxophone and the blending of Locket’s guitar, reminds us that a mainstream jazz performance is well within the Sanders conceptual range.
The use of exotic oriental instruments on two tracks — Soledad and Kazuko — is a touch of pure genius, matched by the Sanders/Joe Bonner duet on John Coltrane’s After the Rain.
Kazuko has the same feeling and effect as Miles Davis’ In a silent way of the ’60s. It is uplifting, inspiring and exciting.
You’ve got to have freedom is a full blown effort that gives Eddie Henderson a chance to blow mightily on the flugel horn — right after the choral proclamation. Apparently in his remarkably inventive and productive period, his contribution here is memorable, especially on solo stints along with Sanders.
Listening to the album, some might prefer Kazuko as the most intriguing for its unique instrumentation. Some others may choose songs such as You’ve got to have freedom and Think about the one as their favourites for the plethora of vocalisation introduced to the music by Sanders to actualise his vision. These items will definitely interest devotees with the passion for jazz singing which has inexplicably disappeared from the scene. Still, others may settle for the straight ahead sessions for the conventional approach. But such differences are necessary in that they not only separate a merely good recording from a truly compelling one, they also help to portray the album as a potpourri of ideas, a mixed bag which will appeal to a variety of people, and in turn attract considerable commercial success, without deliberately planning for it.
But if I am asked to name my favourite song, it will be Greetings to Idris, which provokes different meanings and opens up new vistas for my appreciation each time. The fact that it is performed as a semi-ballad helps to appreciate fully, Sanders’ saxophone artistry and technique with a tone that conjures the memory of John Coltrane while also reminding us of Sonny Rollins.
As if to give the tribute concrete meaning and significance, Sanders’ solo is unusually long here as he grapples with numerous choruses. And the fact that it is his own personal, individual composition gives him ample chance to explore the various moods, motives and possibilities of the song.
In essence, Journey to the one is a conceptual album. I t is the musical soul of Pharaoh Sanders who enriched the chemistry of his music playing with the ensemble led by the late John Coltrane who infact, influenced him greatly. In his grooves – somewhere, everywhere- you get the whole Sanders perspective. You hear his past, present and future. You feel his roots in the gospel and blues, in mainstream jazz, and further and further out. The deep rooted past confronts the uncharted future, a future which currently finds Sanders in the vanguard of fighting climate change. “Maybe music can help trees to grow, grapes to grow or maybe it’s the trees that can help in the making of music. It could work both ways,” says Pharaoh Sanders who is also concerned about the condition of our water.
The saxophonist has a particular affection for water, its vastness, its power, the awe it can inspire. “I really like the ocean,” he says. “When I go out by the ocean it is special. I like to go there when there is nobody around and it is just me and the ocean. I’m mediating and I just feel so small. I see myself as being very small. The ocean is so huge and the water is so deep. That’s the way I feel when I am playing. Whatever is deep down inside me it may be something with no end, its just the depths that I am trying to reach. And it’s constantly subject to change and transformation. You know like feelings that you discover from one day to the next, things can just come up from somewhere deep that may surprise you. It’s the people, really.
“The thing about the ocean is it can be very peaceful, then all of a sudden, it can change. I don’t know how another person might feel but I get a lot of energy being out there by the water and I try to put this in my music”.
And a lot of these effects can be found in the interpretation of such sounds as After the rain, Kazuko (Peace child), Think about the one from the double record set, Journey to the one.