Jazz-World Ensemble AJOYO Makes Rousing Call to Action with ‘War Chant’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The first impression of listening to the jazz-world ensemble AJOYO is how infectious their music is. It stirs you from the opening title track “War Chant.” They are a multi-cultural quintet that infuses some of the tracks with special guests. This is their second album and they are led by multi-reedist Yacine Boularès. On their debut, they impressed with vibrancy and social consciousness. There’s plenty of joy here as well and a more focused call to action in the name of social justice, done with such flair and finesse that’s free of overbearing preaching. The compositions address oppression, xenophobia, and greed with more than a few shots at the current administration. Boularès says: “Exposing people to our worlds and our own immigration stories develops empathy, regardless of their political views.”  Alongside saxophonist/bandleader Yacine Boularès, is vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles, keyboardist/producer Jesse Fischer, bassist Kyle Miles (formerly with Marcus Strickland’s Twi-Life), guitarist Michael Valeanu (formerly with Cyrille Aimée) and drummer Philippe Lemm. Unlike most jazz-world ensembles this unit does not feature additional percussionists but Lemm fills that void with old-world Cameroonian beats and other exciting world rhythms that have the effect of several percussionists.

Boularès calls on high profile guests such as rising-star vibraphonist and Blue Note recording artist Joel Ross, who makes his presence felt on “Syzygy,” while trumpeter Takuya Kuroda lends his punchy statements to “Assyko.” Lake Street Dive vocalist/keyboardist Akie Bermiss lays down stone soul on “Jojo’s Groove” and South Africa’s Vuyo Sotashe sings expressively alongside Charles on the poignant “Better Love.” The band splits its repertoire between their arresting blend of acoustic and electronic in their signature jazz-world sound and a drum machine/electronica driven layered and danceable groove. This writer clearly favors the former as it makes them more unique.

The opening track takes aim squarely at the lies and one-sidedness of the current regime. “Invitation” is a variation of the Cameroonian Assyko rhythm, originally a Boularès instrumental that Charles chose to adapt as a lyrical interpretation of Baudelaire’s poem “Invitation au Voyage.” Better Love” is based on the Benskin rhythm from Cameroon, and here Charles duets with South Africa’s Vuyo Sotashe in a song asserting the need for independence within a relationship. “Assyko,” according to Boularès, is another named for a Cameroonian rhythm and intended to evoke “pure joy and celebration of Roy Hargrove. The bridge and the effect on Takuya’s trumpet are a reference to Roy’s tune ‘Strasbourg/St. Denis.’”

Joel Ross’s riveting sound and improvisational techniques is front and center on the drum machine-driven “Syzygy,” which ventures into more electronic, abstract dance-oriented terrain. The title is a reference to “alignment of people, ideas, events” “Somber Joy,” based on a Moroccan chaabi rhythm, is “a reflection on mental illness, love and addiction.” “Jojo’s Groove,” with its stirring Akie Bermiss vocal, was inspired by Jojo Kuo, former Fela Kuti drummer who mentored Boularès and Michael Valeanu in their early days as New Yorkers, nurturing their musical personalities on gigs at Zinc Bar. “This tune was in the works since then, but with Sarah we sat down and decided to work on lyrics celebrating Jojo. When he left New York, he gave me a few gigs and said, ‘Do your own thing.’ And that’s how we started AJOYO. So, this is a tribute to the guy who unwittingly got the band together.”

”Same,” imbued with one of Boularès’ best reed performances (sounding like an oboe), is an attempt to understand the psychological process that leads to xenophobia. “Sleep,” with its electronic pulse, synth textures, bass clarinet murmurings, subtle guitar chords and all-around colorful sonics, is based on a groove by AJOYO’s former drummer Guilhem Flouzat (now living back in France). “The way it’s accented makes it really interesting and tricky to hear,” Boularès says. “Guilhem sent me the pattern and I wrote a song over it. We went again for the drum machine sound, more of an ambient aesthetic.”

As background, Boularès and Charles began working together in 2009 soon after Boularès arrived in New York, though the founding of AJOYO came later. “We happen to have very similar immigration stories,” says the saxophonist. “Sarah is American and Haitian, and it’s through music that she has maintained a relationship with Haiti. I’m French Tunisian, and although I grew up between Tunis and Paris, it’s through music that I’ve put back together the pieces of my fragmented identity. I also have strong ties with the Haitian community as the saxophonist in Tabou Combo for the past six years. That’s had a huge influence, traveling with them to Mozambique, Cape Verde, all over the Caribbean. They’re pioneers, exploring uncharted territory. The grooves and structures are very complex and sophisticated, and that really influenced my compositional process — keeping track of many different parts, thinking about the arc of the song, the dramaturgy.”

In addition to his work with AJOYO, Boularès founded the first contemporary Arabic culture festival at Joe’s Pub in New York, coming in October 2020. He is a Fulbright Laureate, a grantee of the Brooklyn Arts Council and the Arab Fund for Culture and the Arts, and a recipient of the 2015 & 2019 French American Jazz Exchange (for his album Abu Sadiya with Vincent Segal and Nasheet Waits). Last November he took AJOYO on a brief tour of the American South supported by South Arts — the type of engagement that has fostered intra-band dialogue on how to make a stand and call out injustice without alienating an audience.

Again, AJOYO brings gripping music. As Boularès says, “Exposing people to our worlds and our own immigration stories develops empathy regardless of their political views.”  It’s their unique way of meshing beats with jazz themes that sets them apart and draws the listener in.



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