Liner notes for ‘Reverence’ (RR GEMS Records, 2019), Muriel Grossmann.
by Michael Jacklin in conversation with Muriel Grossmann
The sources of jazz are to be found in Africa, as any encyclopedia of music will tell you. The polyrhythms, syncopation and improvisation that are integral to jazz all stem from the musical traditions of Africa. These distinct aspects of African music travelled to the Americas with the slave-trade and, intersecting in New Orleans with European instrumentation and arrangement, created the foundations of a new sound. Through the twentieth century Africa continued its influence, as free jazz innovators including Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry travelled there in search of the roots of their art form, while at the same time African musicians such as Abdullah Ibrahim and Fela Kuti brought their music to America and Europe.
The island of Ibiza lies in the Mediterranean between Europe and Africa and has been a meeting place of peoples, cultures, languages and music for ages. Muriel Grossmann, who was born in Paris and grew up in Austria, moved to Ibiza in 2004 and there she began to record some of the most exciting and innovative jazz of the new millennium. It is no surprise that with her latest album she turns to the wellspring of Africa, offering eight compositions, exploring the essence of polyrhythm in a personal and committed way. As Grossmann says, ‘What jazz and African music have in common and what makes it so unique is that at its very core, as the strongest part of its foundation, each musician is dealing with a particular rhythm that contributes to the whole, therefore generating multidirectional rhythms also known as polyrhythms’. This album is a gesture of acknowledgement, thanksgiving and reverence for the musical traditions that Africa has given jazz.
‘Reverence’ sees the same quartet that performed on Grossmann’s previous three releases transform into a quintet. On this album, Grossmann plays alto, soprano and tenor saxophones, Radomir Milojkovic is on guitars, Gina Schwarz on bass, Uros Stamenkovic on drums, and they are joined by Llorenç Barceló on Hammond. The colours and textures of the Hammond B3 organ are a perfect addition to the sounds of this already tightly aligned group, providing everything from cosmic swirls and chirped percussion to brilliant solos of exploration.
Africa is referenced in multiple ways thorough the compositions. The first track is titled ‘Okan Ti Aye’, a Yoruba phrase that means ‘Heart of the World’ and from its opening sounds we can hear an urge for celebrating African music from its ancient percussion traditions to more recent traces of Fela Kuti and Afro Pop. The number culminates in a blazing solo by Grossmann on tenor that sets a tone of celebration for the entire album.
This same high energy approach appears again on ‘Chase’. At the foundation of this composition is a powerful, moving, danceable bass line, while the rhythms created on the organ and guitar evoke the dual guitar play that was a trademark of James Brown’s sound. The drum work ranges from tight to more flexible grooves, while Grossmann on alto provides deep, singing melodies, simple and direct, as if the saxophone too is a part of the rhythm section. Grossmann explains: ‘Count Basie once said about his band that he wanted it sounding like one big drum. That’s what I aimed for with my album “Reverence”’.
Other compositions are reflective and pensive. ‘Union’, for example, is a nine-minute meditation by Grossmann on soprano saxophone, working through variations on a simple, beautiful melody while Schwarz grooves steadily on the bass, Barceló makes his Hammond burble, and Stamenkovic summons a shimmering, endless field of cymbal-tones. And ‘Sundown’ has Grossmann on tenor again, in slow, weaving interplay with Hammond b3 and Celtic harp to produce a feeling of deep repose, truly a masterpiece.
‘Water Bowl’ refers to the daily routine of women and children in many parts of Africa who walk long distances to fetch water for their families, and who sing while doing so. Grossmann’s alto moves through one melodic idea after another, as if singing the mystic meaning of things, while Milojkovic’s solo reminds us of the blues as he plays soulful lines characteristic of the soul-jazz of Gant Green or Boogaloo Joe Jones. Barceló contributes beautifully on this number, with his rich treatment of the Hammond and its chameleonic possibilities of changing sound and colors.
‘Tribu’ opens with a sumptuous bass solo by Gina Schwarz that is melodic, rhythmic and deeply resonant; one can feel the wood in its sound, and it evokes the spirit of many African instruments. To my ears, Tribu and Union are unique compositions in Grossmann’s work, departing from the swinging grooves found in her records ‘Golden Rule’, ‘Momentum’ and ‘Natural Time’ and moving towards more RNB oriented grooves. The theme on ‘Tribu’, and that of the composition which follows, ‘Afrika Mahala’, are, for this listener at least, total earworms; they play on in the mind, unbidden, without warning, and without the aid of device or sound system. ‘Afrika Mahala’ is also notable for a fine guitar solo by Milojkovic who then hands over to an intense duo between Grossmann and Stamenkovic, evoking the spirit of those burning 60s saxophone and drum duos.
A chorus of African instruments introduces ‘Morning’, the final track, and leads into another irrepressible theme on alto, setting the mood for the day that comes, embracing the celebratory spirit, bringing listeners, as Grossmann puts it, into ‘a fulfilled state of being’.
As with several of Grossmann’s previous albums, a distinguishing trait is the use of drone-instrumentation. African instruments feature, including balafone, krakebs, kalimba, ngoni and dun duns, along with celtic harp, flute and slide guitar. The effects these create are subtle; they augment the group’s performance and their layers of sound are like the intricate weaving of single threads into patterned coloured cloth, both delicate and strong.
Make no mistake: the music you will experience on ‘Reverence’ is not African; it is deeply spiritual jazz from the edge of Europe that gives thanks to Africa for its knowledge, its wisdom, its beauty. And we now, in turn, give thanks for these beautiful sounds.
released December 12, 2019
Soprano, Alto, Tenor Saxophone – Muriel Grossmann
Guitar – Radomir Milojkovic
Bass – Gina Schwarz
Drums – Uros Stamenkovic
Organ – Llorenç Barceló
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