What if the spirit warrior goddess had blown through the Hurricane Club during Duke Ellington’s early 1940s flirtations with Latin jazz? Jazz saxophonist and composer Paul Carlon and his Octet imagine just such a musical scenario on their latest album, Roots Propaganda (Deep Tone; August 12, 2008). The ensemble returns to the roots of classic jazz and to the Afro-Latin roots that have sent Carlon on a spiritual journey of sound around Latin America. His mission: to bring roots music center stage and jazz back down to earth.
A long-time pro on the intense New York scene, a jazz educator, and a self-admitted “sax head,” Carlon feels jazz has gotten a bad rap lately for being too abstract and just plain hard. “Jazz has become an inside thing. How it got from where it started to where it is now is a long story,” Carlon muses. “I am more interested in making music like Cuban timba, which has a roots history but incorporates funk… in figuring out how you get the blues into rumba. Making roots music through a jazz lens.”
Carlon focuses this lens by rewinding jazz history and returning to the arranging techniques Duke Ellington was famous for: writing parts for individual, idiosyncratic musical personalities instead of technical ranges and timbres. Carlon thinks carefully about what lines to give the Octet’s two trombonists, the warm double trombones propelling many a Cuban number. While Ryan Keberle tears into trombone solos with a wild energy—“music just flies out of him,” Carlon laughs—Mike Fahie likes to dig into the fringes of the trombone’s capacity, playing with multiphonic resonance and other twists from the free-jazz palate. Sometimes, Carlon doesn’t chart his musicians’ course at all, urging them to improvise. Improvisation, Carlon feels, is one of the many deep links uniting jazz and the lush heritage of Afro-Latin music.
Another link is singer Christelle Durandy. Born in France with parents from the Caribbean island of Guadaloupe and the island of Réunion off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, Durandy grew up playing percussion and dancing with her family’s folkloric group in Guadaloupe. Though she always wanted to sing, her father insisted that they first play instruments. The versatile singer has also lived in Cuba and Réunion. “The jazz aesthetic is to record live,” explains Carlon, “and Christelle needs very few takes, nailing just about everything right from the start. Her instincts are really right on.”
The old-school relationship between Carlon and his fellow musicians isn’t the only link uniting the Octet with the jazz greats. Carlon wants to play for people, and for those people to have fun. “I don’t want to beat people over the head with being deep,” Carlon smiles. “I want to have a good time, and I want the audience to have a good time whether they catch all the details or not.”
One thing many listeners catch is the Octet’s unique connection to visual imagery, and some have teased Carlon that he could have composed soundtracks for Fellini films. The Octet got its start collaborating with Carlon’s artist mother on a multi-media project dedicated to the immigrant experience. Growing up in a house filled with huge canvasses and visual artists, Carlon remembers “I soon started to realize the way my mother and I think was a lot alike. That must be where I got some of my inspiration from: thinking about art. It was always just there, and I was always standing next to a huge canvas with paint on it, trying to understand what it means.”
With an affinity for Carlon’s own roots in rural Upstate New York, the music and spiritual traditions of Cuba, Colombia, and Brazil have shaped Carlon’s work in ways he himself could not anticipate. During stays in Cuba and Brazil, Carlon experienced the African religions of Latin America first hand, and their sounds and energy left an indelible impression. After a difficult and unexpected break up, Carlon couldn’t get a Yoruba chant to the goddess Oya out of his head. Oya, whose hurricane-force upheaval can destroy and renew at the same time, had swept through Carlon’s own life, making him ripe for new musical beginnings and a new recording. The resulting piece, “Yorubonics,” morphs the chant into a multi-layered call and response that passes from rough dissonance to irrepressible harmony.
“I love the chant quality of Afro-Cuban song,” says Carlon. “Swing music also has a chant quality. You have these riffs repeated like a chant. There is something mysterious about it. But I don’t add percussion. I like a drummer who is loose enough to interact with the rest of the band. That’s a jazz thing. My drummer—William “Beaver” Bausch—is steeped in Cuban music. We bump up the rhythm with tap dancer Max Pollak on the album and live. And then my horns, in a sense, are the voices. The horns interact with Christelle’s voice. She sings and the horns do the response. I love that.”
Carlon was led to include the mbira, or thumb piano, thanks to a similarly intense connection between the personal, spiritual, and sonic. After Carlon’s father passed away suddenly in 2001, “Devastated and exhausted, my sister and I went to a little import shop in Syracuse. I picked up the mbira that I now play with the Octet, trying to figure out the logic of it. I was just messing with it and put a Cuban groove on it. It turned into a spirit call. When the spirit calls, you can’t resist it. When the spirit called my father, he had to go.” The mbira called Carlon back to simple melodies, which he soon elaborated into complex instrumental arrangements, the way voices can multiply the power of a simple chant.
At the heart of the Carlon Octet’s work lies roots music, from Delta blues—the album features an arrangement of the classic “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues”—to cumbia. Carlon was surprised to discover that some of his Latino friends didn’t know much about American roots music, and that many of his jazz friends didn’t know much about Latin roots music. “I am interested in combining all roots music. Not necessarily to make a point, but because I love it all. So I’m trying to take these disparate elements and put them into a jazz context.”
"Every day we get bombarded with stuff. Roots music can be so hard to find, even in this online world,” Carlon explains. “It's always hidden. How come nobody talks about that? We need to get it out there. That was the idea behind Roots Propaganda: We need some propaganda for this kind of music.”