Proof that Music is a Universal Language
Many jazz saxophonists have incorporated elements of African music, with widely varied success. David Rogers, however, might be the first to actually relocate to a thatch hut in the African bush for a real-life apprenticeship. For three years, he lived with master musicians of the Dagbamba and Dagara tribes of northern Ghana. Such a sacrifice was necessary in order to learn their ancient drum languages and earn the trust necessary to perform in their native ceremonies. Unlike jazz musicians who play music influenced by African music, Rogers is now proficient at the real thing.
How interesting then, that an American who worked, played, ate, slept, and breathed African music would return to make a fusion album. This fact reveals Rogers' restless spirit, a trait common to all great jazz men. Some listeners might have preferred a CD of 100% authentic African music, but Rogers has been there, done that. It's as if he's saying, "go there yourself, I'm moving on." He focuses his new-found strengths on ethnically diverse music, musicians, and musical instruments. Rogers has staked his claim in this strange land of African, Appalachian, Cuban "son," and jazz music, declaring it his Imaginary Homeland. You dig?
Jump for George by Imaginary Homeland is a brilliant but somewhat unfocused project. Perhaps some of the artistic intent is "too inside" or "lost in translation." Nonetheless, there is something immediately familiar about "El Sonero," and Marlene Rice's bowed refrain on "The World Is Not Your Home" speaks with loneliness and longing native to everyone. "Kanawha Girl" dedicated to Stone's daughter starts small and builds to a downright hoe-down. "Mobius Trip" makes good use of an odd time signature, perhaps reminding Western listeners of a cool 1970s spy movie theme. The song "Jump for George" introduces Mark Stone on the gyil, a Ghanian xylophone made up of 16 gourds filled with buzzing spider egg-sacks.
Rogers is an award-winning jazz composer and has been commissioned for important theatrical and dance accompaniments as well. He composed all of the songs for Jump for George, many of which feature his exquisite reed solos. And like any good band leader, he knows when to get out of the way of his worthy bandmates. The soulful Marlene Rice is a leading jazz violinist who already boasts a well-documented body of work. In-demand bassist Matt Pavolka is perfectly suited to this project. Starting with his intro of track one, "Kanawha Girl," Pavolka roams freely between bouncy African arpeggios, stylish jazz walking lines, even hints of Bluegrass. Percussionist and ethnomusicologist Mark Stone imbues the work with pure style straight from the source. His chops have been proven not only in America, but also Ghana (West Africa,) Uganda (East Africa,) and Trinidad (West Indies.) All four members of Imaginary Homeland are experienced improvisers, and it's a good thing. Spontaneous music which is bold and beautiful is very difficult to create, even more so with the added expectations of this multi-cultural catalog.
Whether your tastes are urban or rural, new world or third world, Jump for George is a universally enjoyable experience. Mr. Rogers' Imaginary Homeland is a nice place to visit, even if you don't want to live there.
Be sure to check out the educational liner notes, which taken by themselves are worth the price of the CD.
-David Seymour is a freelance jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.