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Making Intriguing Connections

The reach of jazz, its capacity to blend, interface and combine with expressive forms from around the globe, is one of the most fascinating aspects of watching and experiencing the music’s unfolding history. It’s a pleasure that stretches back to the very beginnings of jazz.

Jelly Roll Morton spoke of the importance of the “Spanish tinge,” and there’s no doubt about its impact upon early New Orleans jazz. Django Reinhardt’s improvising uncovered rich resonances with Gypsy rhythms. Dizzy Gillespie discovered the vitality of Afro Cuban music in the ‘40s. And the romance between jazz and Brazilian music--still heated--began with the bossa nova of the ‘60s. And so on, and so on.

As these offbeat but intriguing new albums reveal, the symbiotic process continues, made more intriguing by the fact that linkages keep popping up in unexpected places.

Bassist Jonas Hellborg’s “Aram of the Two Rivers: Live in Syria” is an unusually effective meeting between jazz and the music of Syria. Hellborg is best-known for his work with such contemporary stalwarts as John McLaughlin, Tony Williams and Ginger Baker. He performs here with several Syrian masters, among them the superb violinist Hadi Backdonas and ney (flute) artist Mased Sri al Deen. Hellborg’s crisp, powerfully articulated bass lines are tinged with the flavor of jazz, their forward surge blending with, but not overwhelming, the sensual sounds of the Syrians. A fascinating musical partnership.

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Richard Leo Johnson, Arkansas-born, Nashville-based, plays the 12-string guitar--not exactly an instrument with an extensive association with jazz. But his eclectic orientation becomes clear in his solo debut, “Fingertip Ship,” especially when one notes tune titles such as “Jaco Morocco” (dedicated to the late jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius), “Get Funked” (a tribute to Reinhardt) and “Tony Bennett.” Johnson further indicates the breadth of his musical passions when he notes that his goal is to play the way Keith Jarrett does, “starting from zero and working into a piece.”

The result is an almost indefinable musical pastiche. Johnson, self-taught, is a remarkable guitarist whose unique tunings and willingness to use the instrument in a host of untraditional ways call up images of John Fahey, Michael Hedges and Pierre Bensusan. Is it jazz? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But there’s no denying his capacity to swing with the urgent rhythmic drive of jazz, nor his willingness to expand the envelope of his improvisational style with a musical curiosity comparable to that of the most envelope-stretching jazz experimentalist.

Imagine a combination of a Miles Davis-sounding muted trumpet, a Django Reinhardt-tinged guitar, cabaret vocals and a solid swing beat. That almost, but not quite, describes the eponymously titled debut recording from Paris Combo. In some respects, the group’s music fits into the swing revival category occupied by bands such as the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, but their range of styles is far too eclectic to be bunched into a single category. The tracks range from rumbas and Gypsy rhythms to driving swing and atmospheric cabaret. Southlanders will have an opportunity to experience this unusual ensemble in person when they make a one-night appearance on March 12 at Fais Do-Do.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four (excellent).


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