Trombonist Roswell Rudd is neither an ugly American nor a quiet one. On a recent trip to Mali, he took along his big brass sound, a wide-open jazz mind and a lovely ability to make his horn sing with joie de vivre.
The MALIcool session hooks Rudd up with some unique collaborators, traditional Malian musicians Toumani Diabate (kora), Lassana Diabate (balophone), Basseko Kouyate (ngone) and their crew. But is this a jazz or an African set? Does Rudd (a veteran of avant-garde coups d’état with the New York Art Quartet, Archie Shepp and Steve Lacy et al.) or his West African hosts predominate? Well, that kind of thinking completely misses the boat.
In these 10 seductively relaxed and warmly grounded performances, the New World meets the Cradle of Civilization in such a symbiotic way that it’s hard to disentangle the different elements — Rudd sounds like he’s been playing with these guys his whole life. And the Diabate band makes such Rudd contributions to the set as his arrangements of Thelonious Monk’s “Jackie-ing” and the Welsh traditional ballad “All Though the Night” feel homegrown. In fact, you’ve never heard Monk sounding so perfectly and comfortably African.
About halfway through the CD, after laying down grooves of such torso-swaying gravity as the aforementioned “Jackie-ing” and Toumani Diabate’s “Hank,” the musicians settle into some exceptionally amorous playing on the love song-like “Johanna,” followed by what seems like a response from Rudd, “For Toumani.” Listening to these peaceful, heartfelt tracks, who could imagine that there are murderously demented souls at loose in the world?
As the title tune, Rudd’s “MALIcool,” unfolds its infectiousness, it’s easy to imagine folks from both of our cultures jumping up to dance. As in any great jazz performance, there’s plenty of solo space, but the Malians bring the ensemble temperature up a few notches with relentless rhythmning, no matter what their instruments.
“Sena et Mariam” takes George Gershwin’s “Summertime” across the ocean to a place where “the livin’ is easy,” but where Bamanankan and French (not Freedom) are spoken — and Rudd’s trombone just basks in all the sonic sunshine. The last track is “Malijam,” Rudd’s fabulously tongue-in-cheek arrangement of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which couldn’t be more appropriate.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].