The Afro-Semitic Experience: Jazz Souls on Fire

This is a band bent on creating a communal experience, and does it ever. Sparked by the impossibly fast, genre-scrambling piano of Warren Byrd and spiced by the resonator and lap-steel guitar of Stacy Phillips, the Afro-Semitic Experience pays homage to, among other forms, Jewish folk, African-American gospel and spiritual music, and such jazz inspirations as Ellington, McCoy Tyner, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane and Leon Thomas. Along its leisurely, lovely way, this expansive ensemble has fun being as irreverent as it is respectful.

This veteran New Haven aggregation imbues its music with joy and flair, suggesting that no matter the style or period, jazz can bond; listening evokes a black-and-white, analog era in which jazz was a popular music. Jazz Souls on Fire makes you want to dance, particularly on the traditional “Fon Der Khupe” and on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s aspirational “Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air” (complete with a Middle Eastern middle). It makes you want to shout “hallelujah” as the ASE turns Coltrane’s “Wise One” and Mobley’s “Soul Station” into blues-soaked epiphanies.

The band brackets its ninth CD with Leon Thomas’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan” and the spiritual “Go Down Moses.” The first sets Phillips’ guitar against the horns and winds of Saskia Laroo and Will Bartlett, underlining the yearning, utopian vocals; the conga-heavy outro behind Bartlett’s tenor sax shimmers like a desert mirage. “Go Down Moses” has a rhythm ‘n’ blues flavor, Laroo’s earthy and insistent trumpet ushering in Bartlett’s bluesy tenor. Then violins enter, thickening the surprising blend in which this group specializes.

Vocal and scat, unusual song selection, ease with an astonishing variety of styles, unexpected voicings, unquestionable musical authority, fearlessness and warmth characterize a recording in which every track is a winner. But if you have to settle on one especially superb example of the group’s singular meld, try its version of “Shout ’em, Aunt Tillie,” a 1930s Ellington tune that the ASE expresses through Bartlett’s clarinet, Phillips’ pedal steel and Laroo’s trumpet. Hearing it makes you think you’re in a Paris boîte, except in Tel Aviv. This band makes losing oneself in music easy-and a pleasure.

Originally Published