Jazz CD Reviews

Will Calhoun – Life in This World – Motéma

Will Calhoun: from Living Colour rocker to worldly jazz artist.

Published on July 21, 2013

Will Calhoun – Life in This World – Motéma MTM-119, 71:02 [5/14/13] ****:

(Will Calhoun – producer, drums, cajón (tracks 3, 5), water drum (track 5), wave bass, loops, wave drum, re-ordained indigenous percussion (track 10), vocals, Fender Rhodes (track 12); Charnett Moffett – acoustic and electric bass (track 1), acoustic bass (tracks 2, 6, 12), fretless bass, distortion lead bass (track 10); Marc Cary – co-producer, keyboards (tracks 1, 10-11), piano (tracks 1-2, 4-6, 8, 11-12), Senegalese shakers (track 5), Fender Rhodes (track 9); Wallace Roney – trumpet (tracks 1, 7, 10); Donald Harrison – alto saxophone (tracks 3, 5, 9, 11); John Benitez – acoustic bass (tracks 4-5); Cheik Tidiane Seck – acoustic piano (track 7); Alioune Wade – bass (track 7); Brehima ‘Benego’ Diakite – kamalen n’goni (track 7); Ron Carter – bass (tracks 9, 11); Doug Wimbish – ambient bass, chordal bass swirls (track 10))

Will Calhoun isn’t the first rock drummer who has effectively crossed over to jazz: Cream’s Ginger Baker and Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson) and Charlie Watts are three examples. Like some rock-based drummers, Calhoun grew up with jazz as part of his family background, later attained success in rock music (he was a founding member of alternative rock group Living Colour), and eventually rediscovered his roots. Life in This World is Calhoun’s fifth as a leader (and marks his debut on the Motéma label) and is his most jazz-oriented since his Grammy-nominated 2000 release, Live at the Blue Note. That record paired Calhoun with top-notch jazz players (bassist John Benitez is the only holdover from that session who appears on Life in This World); and here, Calhoun tries an equivalent approach. Another similarity to Live at the Blue Note is Calhoun’s balance of his originals against appropriately-chosen covers. Through 12 tracks and 71 minutes, Calhoun’s arrangements blend acoustic and electronic elements; African and urban rhythms; post-bop jazz, fusion, and Brazilian cadences. Calhoun even offers soul-inclined vocals.

Calhoun’s musical heritage is displayed on jazz standards and compositions penned by fellow musicians. Calhoun increased  his musical upbringing with his father’s bebop records, while the African-American history he was taught in his home encompassed the importance of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and others. On Coltrane’s “Naima,” percussion and rhythm is at the forefront, although Calhoun takes the unusual step not to include a drum kit. Instead, Calhoun uses a cajón (a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru) and a water drum to emphasize a Brazilian timbre, while Marc Cary (also on the Motéma roster) utilizes swinging piano chords and overdubbed Senegalese shakers to also maintain the Latin rhythmic foundation. Benitez gels the groove, while Donald Harrison hits the high ground with warm alto sax, preserving the kind of straightforward jazz tone which helped put his name into the jazz vanguard in the early 1980s. Calhoun’s deft swing is upheld on a picturesque translation of Cole Porter’s classic “Love for Sale,” which was inspired by the Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ rendering of the same track: Calhoun is again supported by Cary and Benitez, in a cordial trio setting. This piece also demonstrates how a treasured listening experience can be enjoyed when finely tuned drums are crisply engineered: the sessions’ often-superb sound is courtesy of mixer Ron Saint Germain (Nels Cline, Living Colour, Paul Motian, others) and the engineers at the New Jersey facilities of SST Studios and 440 Sound. Calhoun’s dexterous rhythmic skills are more pronounced on an intricately-arranged interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,” another trio excursion, this time with Charnett Moffett on acoustic bass. Calhoun’s sinuous drumming sometimes appears busy, but then, most drummers don’t arrange in 4/4 time, while also playing drums in a Malian 6/8 style. Moffett (who has issued material on Motéma as well) is also on fusion/post-bop opener “Brother Will” (composed by Moffett for Calhoun): according to C. Daniel Dawson’s liner notes, the piece “represents a retro-futuristic joining of Miles and Elvin [Jones].” Calhoun employs a drum riff as the head; Wallace Roney applies his patented, Miles-esque trumpet; Cary slips in some sharp piano chords and underlying ambient, digital keyboard effects; and Moffett performs on both acoustic and electric bass. Bassist Ron Carter is a guest on two numbers. He’s in a quartet format with Calhoun, Harrison and Cary on a forward-thinking rendition of Wayne Shorter’s Blue Note-era “Etcetera.” While Calhoun and the band retain Shorter’s melody, the arrangement is darker and more shaded, with a contemporary demeanor. Carter and the same foursome interact on Calhoun’s “Dorita,” which has a modern flavor and pop sensibility underscored by Cary’s lightly funky Fender Rhodes. This seems to be one of Calhoun’s favored compositions: it can also be found on Calhoun’s 2005 CD/DVD release, Native Lands, and his Blue Note concert document.

The album’s flow veers to a few unexpected left turns and twists. There is Calhoun’s collaboration with Malian musicians, “Afrique Kan’e,” which evolves a new spin on a traditional African folk tune. The featured instrument is the kamalen ngoni, a six-stringed harp which has a unique, upper register drone nearly electronic in its resonance, and is offset interestingly alongside acoustic piano, Roney’s trumpet, and Calhoun’s repetitive drum groove. Then there is Calhoun’s brief, electro-drenched “Abu Bakr II,” where Calhoun engages various digital and acoustic percussive devices, Moffett does a similar strategy with processed bass instruments, Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish traverses additional explorative terrain as a second bassist and Roney keeps the jazz progressing. Calhoun takes a rare vocal on the closer, the shadowy ballad “Love’s Parody,” which Calhoun initially contributed to the Dr. John-led Bluesiana Triangle trio outing, 1991’s Bluesiana II. The original contained Dr. John’s memorable, gruff-glistened voice: here, Calhoun shifts out the grit and modifies the cut into a slowly simmering song, less striking then Dr. John’s, but more radio friendly.  Life in This World is a fluent project which presents Calhoun’s diverse influences and musical characteristics, and the production is well-suited to Calhoun’s vision, with numerous nuances and specifics, and an attention to detail, which furnishes masterful recording moments well worth investigating, from subtle rhythmic elements by bass and drums, to amped-up components which powerfully pan across the speakers or headphones.

TrackList: Brother Will; Spectrum; King Tut Strut; Love for Sale; Naima; Evidence; Afrique Kan’e; He Who Hops; Etcetera; Abu Bakr II; Dorita; Love’s Parody.

—Doug Simpson




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