Jazz has never made much of a round trip back to its African roots. Once past Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and a few other--mostly South African--players, the reciprocity, in terms of jazz emerging from the continent, has been slim. This, despite the obviously fundamental primacy of African influences upon jazz at every stage of the music's development.
When it does surface, it often does so in a sort of omnibus context, as one element in a collective that ranges across dance rhythms and pop-styled vocals with traces of improvisation tossed in for seasoning.
The music of Blay Ambolley, who performed with his sextet at the Jazz Bakery on Friday and Saturday nights, is a typical example. Although his group was identified as the "Afrikan Jaazz Hi-Life Band," the singer-saxophonist's music--with a few exceptions--generally emphasized the highlife rhythms of his native Ghana.
In the appropriate environment, a venue with plenty of room for dancing, the effect might have been considerably better. But the Bakery is a theater-like room with a concert-style atmosphere, and much of the effectiveness of the Ambolley band's perky rhythms was dissipated--in part by the ambience, in part by a relatively small crowd.
From a jazz perspective, most of the heat was generated by the soloing of saxophonist Michael Session and pianist Nate Morgan. Although Ambolley's highlife tunes, with their relatively simple harmonies and repetitious rhythms, offered little in the way of provocative source material, both players found ways to trigger some imaginative soloing.
And Morgan, in particular, occasionally enlivened matters by tossing in a few discreetly subversive harmonic supplements.
But the best moments in the program surfaced during the set's sole number in which jazz elements were predominant--a propulsive rendering of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints."
Balancing well-crafted ensemble passages with stretched-out improvising, it was the Ambolley group's principal justification for the "Jaazz" in its name.