A Ma Zone
Afro-European group Zap Mama has always refused to submit to the control of categorization: all the better to reimagine musical, as well as human, possibilities. A Ma Zone, Zap Mama's fourth album, continues a progression that began with the group's 1993 self-titled debut and its 1994 followup, Sabsylma, wherein five European women (brought together and led by Congolese-Belgian singer/musician Marie Daulne) put an alluring pop spin on central-African Pygmy nature songs. The group's 1997 album, Seven, wove male voices and Western instruments into Zap Mama's a cappella polyphony and expanded the references to include American blues, British jungle, Zairian soukous, and the ululations of North Africa's nomadic Turaqs.
Zone finds Daulne even more centered "in her zone," and flexing her urban Amazon muscle in tunes like "Wepe" and "W' Happy Mama," rollicking celebrations of womanhood. Working with some of Seven's cast, plus her sister Anita, and other new members, she anchors her African-European roots to the percussive dynamics of her other heritage, American hip-hop. Her tunes incorporate breakbeats and the rush of a human beat-box, and rap, particularly in duets with the Roots and their lead MC, Black Thought, on "Rafiki" ("Friendship" in Swahili); with Speech on the playful "M'toto" ("Children"); and with This Kid Named Miles on "Kemake" (which is based on a traditional African game song). "Call Waiting," a modern love tune, and "Gbo Mata," spring-boarding off PlayStation video-game beeps, work a constant Daulne/Mama concern: the need to embrace, not run from, technology, thereby humanizing it. A collaboration with "Soul Makossa" sax man/vocalist Manu Dibango on "'Allo 'Allo" bears another Daulne/Mama signature, an homage to their ancestors.
Daulne's ambitious mission also includes subverting the hidebound conventions that dictate uses of the human voice. This album's path to the pop charts hopefully has been cleared by the recent breakthrough R&B success of Afro-European group Les Nubians' Princesses Nubiennes, which mines similar territory but with a far less gregarious sense of adventure and comfort in the world in which it has to live. -- Elena Oumano
Count Basie Orchestra
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We can probably all agree for the most part that the swing revival has brought several less-than-desired developments to the world of music: It's bestowed an uncommon measure of financial security on a lucky coterie of jazz musicians who can single-mindedly play retro; it's sent Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to the Super Bowl halftime show; and it's miraculously extended Brian Setzer's career far beyond its life expectancy. With the release of the Count Basie Orchestra's new Swing Shift, however, one of the genre's originators seizes the opportunity to remind us all why swing seemed so exciting in the first place.
Judging by the album's first few tracks (the rollicking "Burnin'," "Easy Go," and "Four for Basie"), the orchestra certainly is trying to cash in on the new swing bonanza. And why not? The CBO is, after all, the real deal: This is the same big band that could be credited with defining the classic swing rhythm in Kansas City in the 1930s, and the group has been steadily touring and recording since Basie's death in 1984. But while Swing Shift is first and foremost an exhilarating set of big band swing, peppered with impossibly tight horn arrangements and scorching soloing from standouts such as saxophonists Brad Leali and Kenny Hing, and trumpeter Bobby Ojeda, it's also a lot more. At once a classic swing album and a thoroughly modern big band jazz record, the album's fourteen tracks show off a range of depths. Allyn Ferguson's "Warm Velvet" spotlights Michael Williams's trumpet with lushly romantic horn backgrounds, and Ferguson's beautifully inventive arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count" is breathtaking. It's a mark of the orchestra's ensemble skill and experience that they can pull off quiet moments like these and then turn around and raise the roof with their patented Basie swing feel (helped immeasurably by guitarist Will Matthews's perfect Freddie Green-style accompaniment) on charging numbers like "Road Runner" and "Rompin' and Rollin'."
This variety is, of course, what sets the CBO apart from its younger cousins that have taken one watered-down aspect of the band's legacy all the way to the bank. So here's hoping that Swing Shift hits big and the new swing legions catapult the orchestra back to the heady levels of success they occupied in the '30s and '40s. Imagine, for instance, what a sight it would be to see the CBO play next year's Super Bowl -- a true American treasure shining amid the hype and hoopla. Too much to ask for? Certainly. But hey, stranger things have happened. Just ask Brian Setzer. -- Ezra Gale