Ashley visited West Africa in 2013 and it proved a life-changing trip in terms of music and emotional impact. On his return, he founded the independent label Roving Sounds, dedicated to sharing traditional music from around the world in the form of live concerts and collaborations. The 8-piece band call themselves ‘West of The World’ and Ashley wrote the compositions specifically for the album. It brings together musicians spanning continents and from different backgrounds and creates something magical. This CD was, I have to say, a real surprise and I enjoyed it from first to last note, not necessarily for the virtuoso playing because, if I am honest I would not know a virtuoso tama, balafon, djembe or other African instrument from a novice performance but for the joy, loveliness of the sounds and the way the music simply does away with any divisions or genres but melds it all together into something just short of exquisite.
There is a combination of sounds, encompassing deep, fiery jazz improvisation with traditional, resonant African rhythms and the combination works really well to create a unique and completely engaging soundscape. Jazz elements are blended seamlessly into African music, which speaks of heritage, friendship and celebrates the shared language of music – albeit with a distinct dialect.
‘Solo’s Lucky Break’ begins the album and this is a number that is guaranteed to make you smile. From the off, its grinding, driving, funky but so African rhythms set the feet tapping in motion and pretty quickly the rest of you follows if you are not careful. At two and a half minutes, it is not long but there is such a business, such a lively air to this tune, it is a delight. Those drums never stop and the sheer joy with which the band approach the music is a breath of fresh air. ‘Tomorrow’ begins with drums and percussion before the bass sets up a driving, steady bass line over which the sax and trumpet enter, creating a harmonious dialogue before a trumpet solo. The sax and trumpet then exchange solos over the never deviating percussive lines, echoing and changing each other’s previous playing before coming into harmonic temperance a little while later and then leaving the bass and percussion to continue the theme once again. The track ends with everyone inserting their little pieces of the jigsaw. Clever, fun and quirky, this is a joy.
‘Home’ begins with a beautiful, esoteric theme on the Kora, sounding like a lighter toned steel guitar but very atmospheric. It is backed by intricate, delicately placed percussion, adding subtle textures and weight to the theme. It is underpinned by carefully placed bass notes, which give it a sense of having a firm springboard from which the music rises – and rise it does, this is lovely.
‘Asylum’ is an improvised number centred on a theme set by the trumpet. The theme is worked out later by the sax and all the while, the percussion sets up mesmeric beats, chops, changes and at times leads the sax into changes perhaps even surprising to the player. The joy of this track is that it is led in theory by the soloists but never quite in actuality. The percussion actually controls it with great subtlety but firmness of hand and the undertones is complex, deep and the tympanic tones created by some of the drums fit in where normally a bass would take the notes. Beautiful and an ear opener. A terrific trumpet solo line is supported well by sax and bass before the percussion once again sticks its head out of the carapace – as if to say ‘ still here!’. A well worked and completely listenable series of interwoven reactions of the musicians to each other. It finishes with a lively balafon solo.
‘The End’ is more of a jazz number in the sense of swing in structure, with solos from sax, trumpet, and that careful, supportive, reliable bass always there. There is almost a big band sound to parts of this and once again, this collection of musicians shows they can do something different yet again.
‘The End’ is not the end – ‘The Wayside’ is the final track to finish this album and it is absolutely delicious with its incorporation of African beats along with the swing of jazz and harmonies from just about everyone. The percussion instruments are used to the full and there are some pretty amazing and unexpected sounds going on underneath the top playing, which is taken on at a deliriously breakneck speed at times, then slower at others. This is a great track to finish with and shows the collection of musicians off to the full.
This album is different in that it combines jazz with a very distinctive African influence and it is not like anything I have heard before, yet it has bits and pieces, which sound familiar, and always there is a beating heart to this music. It is fun, there is that balance of innovation with tradition which still gives the music its distinctive regional quality yet this is also very much jazz influenced. Ashley told me he wanted to create something, which was an equal combination of two halves – melodic, improvisation driven jazz and fluid African grooves. I have to tell him, I think he nailed it. This will appeal to those who enjoy African influenced music and those who enjoy jazz – there is something here for just about anyone.
Ashley de Neef: Compositions, Double Bass, Electric Bass
Adama Koueta: Djembe, Tama, Kora, Balafon
Sekou Coulibaly: Balafon, Kora
Ousmane Koueta: Dununs, Djembe, Calabash
Solo Koita: Balafon, Tama, Djembe
Marco Quarantotto: Drumkit
Mirko Cisilino: Trumpet
Sam Priven: Alto Saxophone
Image credits: Pierre and Paul Ricci
YT Video: Roving Sounds