Jean-Jacques Avenel: Waraba
Songlines SGL SA1549-2
Jean-Jacques Avenel (contrabass, kora)
Yakhouba Sissokho (kora)
Lansine Kouyaté (bala)
Moriba Koïta (ngoni)
Michel Edelin (flutes)
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Review by Mark Werlin - June 21, 2023
Soloing over chord changes is a hallmark of modern jazz, but there are equally demanding improvisational traditions from other cultures. In this album of West African music, the players improvise over harmonically static patterns, weaving intricate musical textures and inventive melodic lines.
The late French bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel, whose credits include membership in Steve Lacy’s quintet and collaborations with Butch Morris and David Murray, formed a cross-cultural musical group, ‘Waraba’, with Malian and Gambian musicians Yakhouba Sissokho, Lansiné Kouyaté and Moriba Koïta. After years of studying the kora, a 21-string instrument, Avenel deepened his engagement with music of the Manding culture. The pieces on “Waraba” blend Avenel’s upright bass with kora, n’goni (a smaller stringed instrument), and bala, a kind of wooden xylophone. Flautist Michel Edelin joins the ensemble on several tunes.
From the opening notes, an unaccompanied bass introduction to the first track, Lamba, an extraordinary listening experience unfolds. The percussive strokes of the bala, the gently strummed kora, transmit generations of musical lineage.
Avenel’s intro to “N’Dondore” illustrates his deep appreciation and seamless integration into Manding music. His fingers seem to fly across the bass’s four strings, eliciting the melody with a lightness of touch suggestive of the kora. Lansiné Kouyaté, on the bala, blurs the distinction between rhythm and melodic instruments; he emphasizes the rhythms while adding density to the melodic texture.
The hypnotic rhythms of the bass and balafon under the harp-like sounds of the kora convey a joyous mood. Each of the African instruments demand the highest level of virtuosity.
Other highlights include Avenel’s “Pi-Pande”, in which he overdubs bass and kora, the skillful solo trading in “Kaïra”, and the touchingly evocative “Tubaka”. The recorded sound in original DSD captures the unique and delicate timbres of the West African instruments in vivid detail.
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