Hugh Ragin Trumpet Ensemble
Fanfare & Fiesta (Justin Time)
Boom Bop (Jazz Magnet)
Audiences all over the world remain intrigued by the genre-bending experiments being conducted by jazz warriors operating on the music’s outside edges. Even if such music is considered commercially unviable in the United States, enterprising fans willing to do a little searching can find some outstanding records that don’t easily fit into any category or adhere to strict musical definitions. Two recent, and noteworthy, examples come from Hugh Ragin and Jean-Paul Bourelly, musicians who share at least one striking similarity but otherwise couldn’t be more different.
Colorado trumpeter and composer Ragin rivals fellow instrumentalist Dave Douglas for versatility. He got his start working in his native Houston with R&B bands, at the same time playing jazz, Afro-Latin tunes, and norteño and conjunto music. He later joined Lester Bowie’s 50-piece Sho’ Nuff Orchestra. Over the last two decades, Ragin has been a regular member of ensembles led by Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and David Murray. He currently maintains membership in Mitchell’s Note Factory and periodic residency with Murray’s Octet. However, it’s another Murray group, The World Saxophone Quartet, that gave Ragin the idea for his present band: The trumpet ensemble featured on Fanfare & Fiesta contains multiple brass players, plus a pianist and drummer; there are no reed soloists, and a bassist makes only one appearance on the whole record.
By contrast, guitarist Bourelly has shied away from maintaining long-running associations with bands. He has worked in New York with saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman, among other musicians, but was never a long-term contributor to Coleman’s M-Base crew. Bourelly has also been a stylistic gypsy, bouncing between jazz, funk, and rock dates. He has done occasional tours and appeared on dates for labels like the defunct JMT. He has also contributed to several tribute sessions and albums dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, one of his few self-professed heroes.
The thing that links Ragin and Bourelly is their willingness to experiment. The former has done concept albums like last year’s fine An Afternoon in Harlem, he has written R&B-tinged songs, and he has played in classical orchestras and with hard bop groups. Bourelly shifts from electric to acoustic guitar, sometimes uses a synthesizer, and incorporates all types of songs and vocal effects into his presentations. Therefore, no one should be surprised at anything either musician attempts on his latest release.
Ragin’s Fanfare & Fiesta presents five lead trumpeters, among them the wonderful swing-era veteran Clark Terry, each constantly stretching his horn’s limitations. Ragin varies the personnel, mood, and approach from track to track. Some cuts include all five trumpets plus a rhythm section, while others omit drums or one or two brass members. The original compositions “Harmonic Architecture” and “Fanfare & Fiesta” contain sections with band members executing blistering high notes, ear-catching phrases, and impressive solos, as well as pinpoint interaction and slashing melodies. There’s also the beautiful “A Prayer for Lester Bowie,” on which bassist Jarbu Shahid nicely sets up the horns with a stirring solo. This is followed by masterful exchanges and harmonizing by Omar Kabir, James Zollar, Dontae Winslow, and Ragin, capped by somber, stirring piano from Craig Taborn.
Thankfully, everything on the session is not totally serious. “Finger Filibuster” and “Spacemen,” both written by Terry, showcase his fabulous sense of humor. The latter includes a spoken-word segment that pokes fun at the late Sun Ra’s mystical song sermons. The satire is reaffirmed by a tasty turn on wah-wah mute by Kabir and flashy answering refrains from Zollar, Winslow, and Ragin on trumpet and Terry on flügelhorn. “Finger Filibuster” is a straight-ahead blowing tune opened by Terry’s crisp flügelhorn, followed by a spicy answering solo from Ragin and a dueling section between the various trumpeters. Very little on Fanfare & Fiesta is predictable or tentative. Rather, it reflects great improvisers at their best. Unfortunately, its commercial prospects are dubious at best and dismal at worst.
Some selections on Bourelly’s Boom Bop recall the tunes heard on mainstream jazz radio stations in the early ’70s. The rollicking patterns and flashy bass lines provided by either Reggie Washington or Big Royal Talamacus reflect the influence of Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke. Bourelly’s electric guitar playing includes fuzz, wah-wah, distortion, and note-bending, sometimes all in the same song. He also demonstrates considerable command of the blues on acoustic. His singing and playing on “Root One” are a far cry from the slithering forays, explosions, and fireworks generated on “New Afro Blu,” “Gumbe,” and “Three Chambers of Diop.”
Bourelly’s efforts are augmented by powerhouse vocals from Abdourahmane Diop, whose part-chant, part-singing can be amusing, magnificent, or earsplitting, depending on the circumstances. He’s exciting on the aforementioned “Gumbe” and “Three Chambers of Diop,” a bit distracting on “Tara,” and hardly bearable on “Griot Sunset.” Veteran saxophonists Archie Shepp and Henry Threadgill are welcome additions on assorted cuts. The former’s burly tenor adds energy and warmth to “Gumbe,” “New Afro Blu,” and “Invisible Indivisible.” Threadgill comes slithering in and out on three tunes, sometimes underpinning Bourelly and at other times teaming with him. Percussionists Slam T. Wig, Slaka, and Samba Sock keep percolating accents, beats, and multiple rhythms brewing behind and under the leaders.
This is frenetic, sometimes almost-too-intense music that both assaults the intellect and appeals to the body. It has the same effect as Ornette Coleman’s best harmolodic material, minus the swirling alto or violin solos.
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