One of the perks of being a music critic is also one of the biggest drawbacks. When the mailman delivers a packet of new jazz CDs it’s always a voyage of discovery. Some of the discoveries are delightful and others are dreadful. Happily Smooth Africa II: Exploring the Soul
leans more towards the former and not the latter.
In this summer of sequels at the movie theater, this follow-up to the first Smooth Africa release features 11 eleven artist native to or inspired by the South Africa motherland. Guitarist Jimmy Dludlu’s joyous "Walk of Life" kicks off the album and his feathery touch on the strings sets a mood of energy that doesn’t let up until the last track has played. Next up are the familiar harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on "Abezizwe: Uniting Nations Together." It’s been a long time since most American listeners were exposed to the group since Paul Simon introduced them on his classic Graceland, but neither time nor a lack of popular exposure has diminished the vocal power of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
"Bringing Joy" by Allou April sounds like something Jonathan Butler might have left lying around, but Allou who also plays accordion and sings as well as he plays guitar is not following the leader. The similarity in his sound to that of Butler isn’t a criticism, but gives Allou a worthy role model to emulate. Shaluza Max is a winner of this years South African Music Awards for Best Zulu Artist, but his track, "Mangase" sounds as if it would be as dance able in New Orleans during Mardi Gras as it is in Cape Town or Soweto. Hear it once and I’m willing to be your head will be bobbing and your toes tapping.
"Adderly Street" by pianist Joe McBride puts the smooth in this Africa inspired collection. For less adventuresome radio programmers, this is the track on Smooth Africa II, most likely to draw their attention. "Neria" by Oliver Mtukudzi is a ballad written for a film of the same title from Zimbabwe. It’s likely to find air play on college radio stations that favor world beat music
"Playing well with others"is the theme of the next three selections on this collection. Andy Narell’s skill on the steel pans makes him a favorite in South Africa and here as well. "Punch" was recorded with an all-African rhythm section and the interplay between Narell and percussionist Laurent Coatalen’s congas is a stand-out. Narell produced and plays some tasty Fender Rhodes on the next track, "Botsotsi" by guitarist Prince Kupi. Kupi appears on the bluesy "Hymn For Taiwa" by saxophonist Moses Khumalo and is highlighted by a piano solo by Afrika Mkhize. I’m unfamiliar with what jazz sounds like in a smoky bar in Johannesburg, but if Khumalo’s contribution is any indication, it sounds remarkably similar to what you can find on a Friday night in Chicago.
McBride returns for another selection, "Yebo" which is pleasant, if not particularly memorable. It’s more of a groove than anything profound. The only song on the album that falls flat is "Umuntu Wakho" by vocalist Gloria Bosman. Jazz vocalists are easy to sort out. Those you enjoy and those you don’t. I didn’t enjoy Bosman’s vocals.
Closing out the album is "Cape Town Love" by Spyro Gyra and this is about the last place I’d expect to find Jay Beckenstein’s all-too familiar sax. Andy Narell’s contribution of steel pans lends some authenticity to Spyro Gyra’s presence here. Apparently Spyro Gyra is big in South Africa and they record for executive producer Dave Love’s label and so here they are. Whether or not they belong is a matter of individual choice.
All n’ all, this is a very good primer for jazz fans weary of the predictable fare of smooth jazz and curious about how South African musicians approach the idiom. Like a cool glass of lemon flavored tea on a hot August day, Smooth Jazz II: Exploring The Soul
is quenching relief for the summer doldrums.