The first time I saw Dr. Michael White perform in an African dashiki, I had to smile. The clarinetist renowned for his robust New Orleans-style melodies typically wears the coat and tie of a traditional jazzman. But on the afternoon White, as a faculty member, welcomed the Ivory Coast percussionist Seguenon Koné and his African ensemble for a performance at Xavier University, it was an upper-stratosphere moment not soon forgotten.
Koné worked the crowd with dazzling hand percussions. After a time, a guy wearing a mask and robe emerged, dancing on stilts, as White’s clarinet melded with the polyphony of African rhythms. Cross-cultural moments of this kind are happening with greater post-Katrina frequency in this town at the bottom of America. As the city changes, so does its music.
On the new CD Seguenon Presents Ensemble Fatien, the Ivorian who moved here in 2009 has taken a stable of top-flight local artists and in nine songs used jazz lacings with West African rhythms that rely on Koné’s thick bed of percussive designs.
Jason Marsalis plays vibraphone; Rex Gregory, sax; Matt Perrine, bass; Marc Stone, steel pedal guitar; Michael Skinkus, a collector of rhythms, percussion; Bruce Sunpie Barnes, accordion; and Margie Perez, lead vocalist.
Koné plays an assortment of instruments on different cuts – djembe, balafon, bolon and shekere among them – and sings with Perez too. The guest artist is Sekou Pablod Dembele, for whom, alas, we have no bio.
“St. James Infirmary” runs eight and a half minutes with Margie Perez laying out the sorrow felt for the lover to be claimed on the death table with a lilting sadness matched by White’s dirge-like reed lines, swooping and eliding as the balafon rhythms carry a poetic back beat. This is an inspired version of a jazz standard refashioned as a kind of chamber blues, an ensemble of voices both instrumental and sung.
The cut called “Apollo” gathers the disparate instrumentalists into a swirl of spontaneous melodies that elide and merge. The liner notes say that Apollo is “a descriptive Senoufo word relating to something that is new and pleasing, while also spiritually good and wholesome.” I identify with that. In March 1983, I woke up in the Hotel Ivorian in Abidjan, capital of Ivory Coast, and that afternoon purchased the carved figurine of a Senoufo fertility goddess that stands in my living room today. Her bulbous torso protrudes in a thin, Picasso-esque fashion, showing tiny width across. In the intervening years I have occasionally told the young sons of certain friends: “Be careful: if you touch her, you’ll have a baby.” Not one of those wide-eyed boys has yet touched the magic Senoufo fertility goddess, though my younger daughter did so, with curiosity, many times.
Koné exerts the hand of a conductor in orchestrating the jazz instrumentalists and Perez’s vocals in a sequence of songs that are meant to be absorbed in a live performance. With many jazz recordings you can feel the transporting power on a good sound system at home. What stands out in Ensemble Fatien, which was recorded in Axis Studio in Metairie, is the profound intricacy of the instrumentalists’ interweavings, a fabric of music that is seamlessly tight and, as a consequence, spreads out and folds in with equal ease.
The balafon has 13 keys, each of different size with a gourd beneath, made of redwood that comes from the Ivory Coast. The gourds have holes the diameter of a pencil; he covers them with thin tissue made of spider webs. He plays the instrument with mallets. In performance he wears the balafon with a strap around his neck and swings it out in wide, gyrating rhythms, spinning like a ballerina.
The traditions of New Orleans and West Africa meet in Koné’s pure natural sound on balafon and Jason Marsalis’s fixed pitches of the vibraphone’s tonality. The contrast creates a new sound, mixing the colorations of rhythm and melody, gathering the materials of two places in order to make the Creolized sounds of a third.
Seguenon Koné’s role in New Orleans extends a reach back to the mother culture, advancing another move forward in the vernacular of improvisational music. Perhaps it takes a Senoufo master drummer to bring the blues-rocking accordion licks of Sunpie Barnes into the studio with the lyrical trad-jazz clarinet of Michael White. Wherever Koné takes this band of picaresque music-makers, the show should always be well worth the ticket.
His website is www.Seguenon.com.