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Tony Allen: A Night in Lagos

Drummer Tony Allen seeks a singular groove between hard bop and Afrobeat

Afrobeat and jazz drummer Tony Allen (photo by Bernard Benant)
Afrobeat and jazz drummer Tony Allen (photo by Bernard Benant)

On a pair of 2017 releases for Blue Note, a resolute EP called A Tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and a radiant album titled The Source, drummer Tony Allen conjures up not a mix of two genres but a fresh outlook born from the mixing. Now 77 and the undisputed architect of Afrobeat drumming—he maintained the groove for Fela Kuti starting in the mid-’60s and up through the end of the ’70s—Allen is molding jazz music in his unique, rhythmically taut image. Though he refers to this music as “Afrobeat-jazz,” that tag sells his sound short. Something new is afoot.

The Blakey EP, featuring a horn-heavy septet, is an electrifying journey through the repertoire of the indomitable hard-bop drummer; “Moanin’” and “A Night in Tunisia” are especially gripping, shot through with Afrobeat feel. But Blakey wasn’t the only swinger Allen was into while getting it together in Nigeria; he was merely the one Allen was drawn to the most. “There’s Jo Jones, there’s Philly Joe Jones and there’s Tony Williams,” Allen said backstage at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge this past summer. “It’s my combination, taken from there and there.”

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