Trumpeter Derrick Gardner has wed his abiding passion with a new inspiration on Pan Africa. His Jazz Prophets have long made plain his affinity for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, with albums containing kinetic hard-bop rhythms beneath a three-piece horn section that has been together since 1991. But an immersion into the people and history of Ghana during a Jazz Prophets tour of Africa in the summer of 2021 was a transformative experience for the bandleader, unearthing an ancestral awakening music and messaging on his latest jazz prophecy.
Gardner opens Pan Africa with an extended solo by drummer-percussionist Kweku Sembry titled “Djembe Kan,” then makes an inspired pivot into a riveting cover of Jackie McLean’s “Appointment to Ghana,” an ideal confluence of bop fanfare and ancestral rhythm, with Gardner, saxophonist Robert Dixson and his brother, LCJO trombonist Vincent Gardner, all showing out. Then the journey begins, an episodic travelogue of remembrance and resilience. “10,000 Ships” recounts the slave trade with rising intensity. “The Sixth Village” celebrates recognition of the diaspora as a sixth region of Africa beyond mere geography, and “Blues for the Diaspora” laments the process that compelled the recognition. “NKRUMAH ‘da RULAH” honors Kwame Nkrumah, a staunch proponent of Pan-Africanism who was Ghana’s first President and Prime Minister in 1960 after leading out of British colonial rule.
Through it all, the sextet pulses between horns and rhythm section. Pianist George Caldwell and bassist Obasi Akoto constitute a versatile powerhouse alongside Sumbry. And when it comes to the closer—“Assin Manso…The Last Bath,” named for the river where slaves received their last cleanse on African soil—Sumbry takes to the djembe for an extended solo of brittle-toned quickness that nevertheless resonates as the journey concludes.