Africa Straight Ahead is a collection of music from South Africa that gathers the best and the brightest jazz players from the tip of the motherland. It's a great concept, one that suggests a blending of the high musical standards of jazz with the expressive tribal culture of the Zulu and evokes images of Nelson Mandela hanging out with Archie Shepp in Harlem or perhaps John Coltrane and Steve Biko kicking back in Soweto.
Such inspired moments occasionally happen on Africa Straight Ahead. Paul Hanmer's "Naivisha" begins as a rather conventional jazz tune before breaking out into a wild explosion of township jive rhythms. Similarly, the Sheer Allstars' "Langery" adapts the melodic sensibility of mbalax into a modern jazz context. And McCoy Mrubata's "Amasabekwelanggeni" adds lively congos and bongos to what would otherwise be a by-the-book smooth jazz number.
But while the playing on Africa Straight Ahead is excellent by any standard, there are times when one wishes the music were more cutting-edge. A reliance on convention is the comp's biggest weakness -- there's nothing in the opening track, Marcus Wyatt's "Owed to Bishop," that sounds particularly African. And when guys like Joe Zawinul have built entire careers off importing the exotic textures of ethnic music into jazz, it wouldn't have hurt to feature more traditional instruments on the album. It would have made this more a collection of groundbreaking Afro-American fusion and less a case of technically solid jazz that just happens to be from South Africa.
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