Review: AZIZA’s Effortless, Funky, and Deceptively Complex Groove

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For James Brown the key to the funk was “the One.” If the groove was anchored on the downbeat—especially in the hands of Brown and his band—it was sure to be funky. But as the new disc from AZIZA shows us, that’s not the only way to get down. AZIZA, which grooves like mad,  is the scintillating debut album from an all-star unit: Chris Potter, tenor and soprano; Lionel Loueke, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; and Eric Harland, drums.

Naturally it is a given that this lineup would record an impressive album, but what really surprised me—and it took several listens before I really got it—is just how complex and rigorous the group’s groove and treatment of time and meter is. But more than that: this complexity is executed at such an incredible level that it doesn’t make itself immediately apparent. The listener is likely to be first captivated by the catchy compositions and exceptional solos. Unlike a great deal of new  contemporary jazz where a complex approach to rhythm, phrasing, and metric feel seems to be both the means and the end, AZIZA use it as a means to making music that pleases dancers and theory heads alike.

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The group’s approach can be heard on the album’s first cut, “Aziza Dance,” which is built on a grouping of 17 beats that manifests itself in a couple ways. The head and solo sections are built on three 4/4 bars followed by a 5/4 bar. A second composed section, which also serves as the foundation for Harland’s solo, divides 17 in a different way, this time in a four bar grouping of 4/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/4. There aren’t too many groups out there that can make anything built around the number 17 damn near snap necks.

But the changing meter is only the tip of the iceberg. As is the case on “Aziza Dance” and throughout the album, the group doesn’t tie things down to James Brown’s One. Much of this, but certainly not all, comes from Harland. He rarely gives downbeats and he occasionally turns the beat around, places accents in unexpected places, implies other meters, and stretches fills across the bar line. And oh yeah, it’s insanely tight and right in the pocket. Straight nasty. Holland’s long bass lines also serve to disguise and complicate the underlying meter.

While some tunes have easily identifiable meters (“Summer 15” is in a smooth 5/4 that glides with ease—just think how many pieces in 5/4 accentuate the “fiveness,” often leading to a peg-leg feel), others have forms and meters that I have yet to completely figure out. These include “Blue Sufi,” which features a dumbfounding solo from Potter, “Finding the Light” (as I’m writing I believe I’ve discovered a 4/4, 5/4, 5/4 pattern, but I’m not convinced I’m right), and Loueke’s tune “Sleepless Night,” which closes the album and can be seen in the clip below.

The album’s genius is that it can be appreciated and enjoyed in so many different ways: the listener can get her dance party on; she can dive in deep, flexing some music theory muscle to try and unlock the solution to AZIZA’s effortless and deceptive music; or she can do both. That each is a possibility, especially in an album that is so enjoyable and easy on the ears, is quite remarkable.

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