The definition of jazz as a musical style has caused decades of disagreement, a fact underscored by Miles Davis, who expressed disapproval of the label throughout his life. In the 1966 documentary The Universal Mind of Bill Evans, the pianist (and Miles alum) offers a point of view that, if not a solution, presents a worthy perspective: “Jazz is not a style,” he says, “it’s a process.” Like jazz, the term “world music” is also subjective. Taking all of this into consideration, here are five tracks I find unique and brilliant in their blending of jazz and world music.
Don’t Try This at Home (Impulse!, 1988)
The concept of a Celtic reel played on EWI in unison with a fiddle, weaving in and out of dissonant tonalities, sounds at first like it could be a jazz parody. But this tune is no joke. While the title captures its composer’s sense of humor, the track—featuring an ensemble channeling the classic bands of Ornette Coleman (and featuring one of his key associates, bassist Charlie Haden), along with a guest appearance by renowned fiddle player Mark O’Connor—is a tour de force unlike any other tune by Brecker. The saxophonist begins very inside yet soon manages to incorporate outside harmonics in a way that brings to mind a turntable changing speeds and then returning to normal.
Yosuke Yamashita New York Trio (featuring Joe Lovano)
Kurdish Dance (Verve, 1993)
Here we have a unique international mix: a pianist from the Far East fronting musicians from the West on a tune channeling the Middle East. Japan’s Yosuke Yamashita leads a stellar group based in New York, including bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Pheeroan akLaff and featuring guest saxophonist Joe Lovano. The exoticism of the melody and series of odd time signatures feels radically unique for jazz, yet it is made to sound effortless and natural. “Kurdish Dance” feels like a natural descendent of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” which introduced so many jazz musicians to the wonders of odd-time riffs—including some who’d go on to pioneer jazz-rock fusion and progressive rock in the ’70s.
Memories of Barber Mack (Island, 1997)
In this case, the artist who leads the project—Ernest Ranglin, a towering figure of Jamaican culture—hails from the very region that flavors the music. Although his name still isn’t as widely known as it should be, millions have heard his playing on the soundtrack to the classic James Bond film Dr. No, and on recordings by Bob Marley, Prince Buster, Jimmy Cliff and others. Not surprisingly, Ranglin’s formidable jazz-guitar skills have been somewhat overshadowed. His warm tone and fast licks bring to mind early George Benson, and his unique blend of soul-jazz with reggae and ska sounds as fresh today as it did in the ’60s.
Adama (Stretch, 1998)
Avishai Cohen, who broke through via his association with Chick Corea (who coproduced and released Adama, the bassist’s debut), cleverly merges horn arrangements inspired by the classic hard bop of Art Blakey, modern piano courtesy of Jason Lindner and traditional sounds of the Holy Land. Although Middle Eastern scales and time signatures had been explored in jazz before, this track and others on Adama take a step further in that direction by featuring a Middle Eastern lute rare in jazz settings: the oud, passionately played by fellow Israeli Amos Hoffman.
Life on Earth (Blue Note, 2001)
Several tracks on this album—whose title, Life on Earth, is a clear reflection of the project’s global influences—could have made this list. But if I have to pick just one cut, it’s Rosnes’ opener, “Empress Afternoon.” On the jazz side there is the elegance of her acoustic piano and Christian McBride’s bass, which merges with instrumentation reminiscent of John McLaughlin’s Shakti—guitar, violin and tabla, played by David Gilmore, Laura Seaton and Shakti’s own Zakir Hussain, respectively. Here these instruments sound like they were always meant to be played together.
Alex Skolnick is a California-born, Brooklyn-based jazz and metal guitarist who leads both the Bay Area thrash-metal band Testament and his Alex Skolnick Trio featuring bassist Nathan Peck and drummer Matt Zebroski. The trio’s latest album, Live Unbound, was released by Skol Productions on Nov. 18. Visit the guitarist at alexskolnick.com.