Chris Potter on saxophone, Lionel Loueke on guitar, Dave Holland on bass, Eric Harland on drums … go ahead, call Aziza a supergroup. That would be a very ’70s thing to do, and this, at least on some levels, is very ’70s music. In its energy, its complexity and its adventurousness, it brings to mind several other supergroups that coalesced in the wake of Miles Davis’ electric transition: the Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report, Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
The thrilling “Blue Sufi,” written by Potter, is a perfect case in point. A series of dizzying unison riffs with a pronounced Indo-Arabic flavor, played in alternating measures of 7/8 and 6/8, leads to a long, furious improvisation section in which the musicians, while clearly still conscious of time, seem to be floating above it. In his solo, Loueke makes expert use of wah-wah and a setting on his Whammy pedal that gives the impression he’s being doubled by a Hammond organ. Basically, he’s doing John McLaughlin and Larry Young at the same time.
Note, however, that the one member of this band who’s old enough to have played in the aforementioned supergroups—Holland—did not. Instead, he spent the ’70s making albums like Conference of the Birds and Gateway: subtler stuff, largely devoid of the common fusion-era urge to blow audiences and other musicians away. So it is with Aziza. There isn’t a moment on this album that feels like it was designed to impress anyone. It’s simply four superb musicians getting together to do what they do best.
It also appears, on the basis of the track listing at least, to be a truly democratic enterprise. Each member of the group gets precisely two writing credits. But truth be told, every track sounds like the product of a group mind. The thick layers of West African-style polyrhythms that weave their way through Potter’s “Summer 15” and Holland’s “Finding the Light” have Loueke’s fingerprints all over them. The funk-infused opener “Aziza Dance” is by Loueke, but Harland inhabits its restless-leg-syndrome groove so cleverly that you’d think he wrote it. In fact, he contributes the two most sedate compositions here, “Aquila” and “Friends,” which could easily pass for Holland tunes.
By the way, “most sedate” isn’t the same as “sedate.” Even those two cuts, which start off quiet, build to major peaks, with clangorous Loueke chords and rip-roaring note patterns from Potter. If you’re looking for something to chill out to, please move on.
The least sedate track on Aziza is the closer, Loueke’s “Sleepless Night.” The guitarist’s rough-edged playing on the intro, which calls to mind the Malian group Tinariwen, gives way to a corkscrew head that prompts Potter and Loueke to trade a bunch of absolutely nasty eights. Or nines, or 11s, or something—I must confess that even after listening to it five times, I’m still not 100-percent sure what time signature(s) this piece is in. No matter; you don’t have to crunch numbers to feel the music’s fire.Originally Published