Got a stack of CDs that really deserve my attention (and yours) so, this week, I'll try to get to 1 or 2 every day - remember, I wrote "try to."
When one stops to think about it, it's amazing how much good music has come from tours sponsored by the US Department of State (thinking specifically here about Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie whose journeys overseas prompted both both men to compose musical recollections.)
In 2008, the USDS, along with Jazz at Lincoln Center, sponsored a tour of East Africa by pianist/composer Ryan Cohan and his quartet(the second time Cohen took a group overseas). His musical impressions of the month-long tour to Rwanda and Zimbabwe are captured on "The River" (Motema Music), his 5th CD as a leader and, arguably, his best. The music, played by an exceptional septet featuring John Wojciechiowski (saxophones, flutes), Geof Bradfield (saxophones, bass clarinet), Tito Carillo (trumpet, flugelhorn), Lorin Cohen (bass and cousin of the pianist), Kobie Watkins (drums) and Samuel Torres (percussion), is rich with rhythms of all sorts but stands out for the pianist's excellent compositions. 6 of the 14 tracks are short improvised motifs gathered under the title of "River"; the remaining 8 tells "stories" of the cities the composer visited, the people he met, the natural wonders encountered along the way, the music he heard and played and the resilience of music in the face of political uncertainty. The soloists are strong throughout, especially the pianist, while the rhythm section truly fires up the band. One hears blues in the piano work on "Brother Fifi", a piece dedicated to a fellow pianist who has lived through horrible tragedies and in the band's interactions on "Call and Response". The rhythms/spirit of the music of Abdullah Ibrahim (the South African pianist/composer whose music has inspired many a composer) can be felt on "Last Night at The Mannenberg", a piece also inspired by a mbira (thumb piano) choir Cohan had heard on that day.
"The River" should be listened to all in one sitting; the music is so joyous and infectious, you might want to immediately play it again. Ryan Cohan, on this recording, has taken the sights, sounds, smell and interactions of the trip, and translated them into a musical experience that not only entertains us but is a positive reminder of the power of music. For more information, go to ryancohan.com.