Close your eyes. Imagine, if you can, a place where the various musical genres and styles have gathered; a melodic intersection of sounds culled from the four corners of the globe, inspired by the cultures and passions of the human condition – past, present and future. Now, listen closely as this sophisticated, yet primitive music takes you on a melodic journey around the world, and back…straight to your heart.
Now, open your eyes and meet TribalJazz.
TribalJazz is more than just an exciting new group. It's a movement - an approach to music making that incorporates cultural unification with celebration, meditation and improvisation. It is the brainchild of drummer John Densmore and flautist/saxophonist Art Ellis. Imagine John Coltrane's classic quartet gone tribal filled with accessible and memorable melodies – and you're on the right path.
Their self-titled album's opening two numbers provide a clear barometer of what this pan cultural septet is capable of creating. From the Afro-bob of the opener "Skytrails" to the laidback modal swing of "Blues for Bali," the essence unfolds as a fusion of jazz with Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and Latin rhythms.
Densmore, renowned in the rock universe as the founding drummer of '60s Los Angeles rock legends The Doors, is realizing a long-burning dream. "For thirty years I've wanted to make a jazz record. I am finally putting my sticks where my mouth is. I'd played with a few heavyweights at jam sessions, but that was about it. Then I met Art and immediately fell in love with his melodies. And he loves African music, as I do. At heart, we're just a couple of old school jazz dudes who love world music."
The spirit of John and Art's union first came together as proud, proactive parents at a fundraising concert for the music program for Canyon Charter Elementary School, opening for recording artist Randy Newman. Both men had volunteered but neither was in an existing group, so the event coordinators paired them up. Simply put, sparks flew - so much so that people asked them afterward if they were ever going to play together again. Thus, the seed for TribalJazz was planted.
Art Ellis, a veteran multi-reed player who’s played with R&B greats Bo Diddley and Freddie Scott (as well as African bands that have opened concerts for Sting, Herbie Hancock, Milton Nascimento and King Sunny Ade), had been writing some new music of his own. "I was working with producer Jimmy Haslip, bassist of the Yellowjackets and a hometown friend. I'd written these tunes and was playing them around town in a jazz quartet, but leaning toward another concept. I had been playing with four Nigerian Master Drummers in my band Magic Cartoons. We'd gig at jazz clubs and have people up dancing! The audiences were eclectic and diverse, both age and color-wise. But it was getting harder to book shows without having a well-produced CD. I ran the concept by John, who immediately began adding both his soulful drum sound and some unique production ideas.”
Excited, they booked some time at Stag Street Studio in the San Fernando Valley - a facility respected for capturing a warm, live acoustic sound - and assembled an incredible, culturally diverse group of musicians to bring the newly arranged songs to life. This included Wisconsin-born pianist Quinn Johnson, a film and TV specialist already seasoned in the ways of Latin Jazz fusion. There was Egyptian bassist Osama Affifi, a regular in Art's group who brought an expansive range via his acoustic upright playing with such acts as L.A.'s B-Sharp Jazz Quartet and singer Vanessa Paradis. There was Italian-born/Armenian-bred percussionist Christina Berio, who'd spent 18 years in Brazil playing with Paulinho Braga, drummer Grady Tate and jazz vocal icon Sarah Vaughan.
They took three songs from the sessions and mixed them at Capitol Studio 'A' with Bruce Botnick, who had engineered all of The Doors' records. Then John's lawyer suggested they send the demo to Hidden Beach Recordings - a record company known as hip and cutting edge. Label President Steve McKeever liked what he heard, but it was a subsequent fateful meeting that sealed the deal.
"McKeever has some serious ears," John states. "With him, I knew his interest in the group wasn't about my past. It was the music. After two meetings and phone conversations, I decided, ‘Enough with the talking,’ and did something without telling him. I asked Art to come to a meeting with his flute and master African hand drummer Marcel Adjibi. I strolled in with a cajon (note: a resonant, box-like Mexican instrument that the percussionist sits on and beats beneath them). I said to Steve, 'I know this seems corny - like something out of an office audition in the '50s - but we're just gonna play for you for a few minutes.' We started cookin' up a groove and you could feel everyone in the office getting into it. He signed us right there."
TribalJazz spent months perfecting the balance of multi-cultural elements they would unleash on their debut. "La Tormentas" is a two-tempo guajira with a smoky flute melody based on the Doors “Riders On The Storm.” “Vegetable Wizard" is a playfully seductive samba with Ellis on alto. The lovely "Lyria" (with a breathtaking introductory piano solo by Quinn Johnson) is a hypnotic spatial mediation in 6/8 time that was inspired by the distant constellation Lyra. The driving Afro-groove "Orange Midnight" opens with Art’s poem, which is translated and recited by Aziz Faye in Senegalese. Art explains "He's saying TribalJazz sees the world as one village...from the countryside to the big city. Music explodes with joy and lights up the village like an orange midnight.”
A more sobering view is expressed in "Violet Love," perhaps the most potent song on the TribalJazz CD. "I wrote it the day after 9/11," Ellis shares. "I was absolutely blown away by two things: the event itself and the fact that it leveled everyone into a state of aftershock. All the bullshit disappeared for a few days - football, fashion shows and advertising...things that ultimately don't matter much. People were starting to connect on a deeper level and I saw something very promising in that.” The remix of "Violet Love" features activist/musician/poet Michael Franti, leader of the band Spearhead.
Also exceptionally inspired is "The First Time (I Heard Coltrane)," a deep, reverential bow to the man who so deeply enriched the lives of both Densmore and Ellis: John Coltrane. The Los Angeles bred Densmore wore out his fake I.D. sneaking into LA clubs like Shelley's Manne Hole to see Coltrane's legendary quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and John's Herculean hero Elvin Jones on drums. Years later after befriending Jones and lionizing him in his Doors autobiography, Densmore told him, "YOU gave me my hands." As for Art - recalling the moment of epiphany when a friend played him "My Favorite Things" off the classic Atlantic Records Lp - the Upstate, New York-native gushes, "Next to my kid being born, that was the most spiritual moment of my life." 'Trane moved Ellis to put down his trumpet and switch to flute, soprano, alto AND tenor saxophone!
“We needed something to breathe life into Ellis' vibrant poem ‘The First Time (I Heard Coltrane)’," Densmore shares. "I had a brainstorm: 'Let's get a woman to do it...like she falls in love with the sound of Coltrane's horn.' I know the world class actress Alfre Woodard.” She did a couple of takes then asked if Densmore had any feedback. “I said ‘Well...imagine that the first time you heard that horn, it made you...hot.’ She said, 'Oh,' and that next take was it!"
Finally, TribalJazz could not ignore the golden opportunity to reshape one of The Doors' classics, "Riders on the Storm," originally recorded on their eighth and final album before lead singer Jim Morrison's death, L.A. Woman (1971). "Whenever we get ready to play it in concert," Densmore states, "I always say, 'Alright you all, we're gonna do ONE Doors song, disguised as a salsa. You're going to have to guess what it is...but I'll give you a hint.' Then I turn over a rainstick."
That rocker Densmore would turn to jazz after all these years should come as no surprise to anyone who has really listened to and watched him in action. "Jazz was my first love," he confesses. "I believe my jazz sensibilities and my affinity for Latin rhythms freed me up in the music I played with The Doors. Like on 'When the Music's Over' when Jim is doing his poetry - 'What have they done to the Earth?!' I don't know why but I just stopped playing time and starting doing these accents. Subliminally, I attribute that to Elvin (Jones). And when bossa nova came to the States from Brazil in the early '60s, The Doors were rehearsing and we thought, 'My God...listen to this stuff!' If you listen closely to 'Break on Through,' it's a bossa beat. I just played it stiff instead of fluid 'cuz I wanted it to rock."
"Dynamics is my thing," says Densmore, who started out on piano at age 8 then switched to drums in his junior high school marching band. Summing up his approach to arranging music, he continues, "It's all about the spaces between pianissimo (very soft) and fortissimo (very loud). I've never been the fastest drummer in the world. When jazz-rock fusion flourished in the '70s, I went nuts. My two feet could never do what (drumming legend) Billy Cobham's could do with one! But I've always been about dynamics. It's what brings the breathing and the drama to the music.”
Surveying the stellar musicians who surrounded him now as members of TribalJazz, Densmore muses, "I have a global village in this band - men and women, White guys and African Americans, young lions and elders like me. Some may consider it yesterday’s news, but I'm still down with Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. And if any element of that is missing, Planet Earth ain't gonna make it. We all have a unique contribution to make.
"We're playing music for today about today," Densmore concludes, "trying to mix cultures and create some healing. Look at how the planet is these days. I want to build bridges, not bombs. If we don't even start thinking bout unity, we'll never truly conceive it. What better way to do it than through music.”