I wanted to take something and tie it into what I already knew. I wasn’t trying to make a record that sounds strictly African, I just wanted to take the experience and put it with what I already knew which is jazz, hip-hop, soul; all those things I grew up listening to. –Sly5thAve, interview with Quinn Peterson, Life+Times, March 3, 2014
Sly5thAve’s debut album is a delightful surprise. Inspired by a 2011 trip to his family’s Igbo tribe in Nigeria, the composer/saxophonist — born Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II — found the polyrhythms that his four-year-old cousins easily clapped out at a church service fascinating enough to record.
“[I heard] all these different rhythms, then I started to make some connections… The rhythms and the really simple harmonies. It’s like a meditation,” he told Life+Times’ Quinn Peterson in a March 3, 2014 interview. “It may have the same one chord for five or 10 minutes, but the rhythm is just going. Once you’re in it, you’re a part of it. It has an effect on you. That’s what I was going for, not necessarily a hook, but something that would invoke this meditative state and connect with something deeper.”
The effect of Sly5thAve’s labor of love is that of one long groove, effortless, dreamy, universal, with pockets of earthquake after-effects in that polyrhythmic complexity. Named after the family village in Nigeria—and his great-great-great-grandfather—“Akuma” mostly took one day to record on a strict budget. Originally from Austin, TX, the Brooklyn, NY-based musician who backs Prince on tour did double-duty waiting tables for the bread to book a 10-hour block of time. All the other musicians on the recording, including Snarky Puppy’s keyboardist Cory Henry, worked their butts off to meet the one-day deadline.
At the end of it, they noticed the 12 tracks just kind of flowed from one to the other, on the same dreamy, meandering wavelength, as if meant to be. This is an album meant to be listened to from the three subsequent “Suites For Ogbuefi” to the “Road To Abuja” — just like in those golden days of vinyl storytelling.
Much of the press surrounding the February 11, 2014, Truth Revolution Records release mentioned African roots, African influences. So the classical touches, the violin-and-sax pedestal of “Bach,” the brass “Suite For Ogbuefi I, II, III,” the “Basslude” ballet, all of it strains the understanding of African music—at first listen. “Akuma” isn’t strictly African music, though. There’s a difference. “I wanted to take something and tie it into what I already knew. I wasn’t trying to make a record that sounds strictly African, I just wanted to take the experience and put it with what I already knew which is jazz, hip-hop, soul; all those things I grew up listening to [Life+Times, March 3, 2014],” he said.
The combination of his family’s Igbo tribe culture with his adopted American home, the contemporary jazz, hip-hop and soul, all serve the free-flowing documentary of one musician’s emotional journey from New York to Nigeria. The project was recorded in May 2012, finished a year later, and released with a short film about Sly5thAve’s Nigerian trip. Two singles off the record, “Deme” with vocalist Denitia Odigie, and the title track, have already received heavy airplay.
This album must be played from beginning to end to experience the entire, dreamy, cross-cultural effect. It truly does play Sly5thAve’s journey in one, smooth musical form. Do not skip one track.
As singular tracks go, if we must…
Let’s take “Bach,” which starts off all classical, lilting, and light. Sly5thAve and his band then gradually infuse the jazz through the featured artist’s saxophonic reaches. By the 5:37 mark, he’s fully immersed, in a helpless trajectory of a Monk-induced, Sonny Rollins trip across American jazz before slowly making the rounds back in a melancholic second line.
Drummer Ross Pederson and percussionist Keita Ogawa do outstanding work in the intro to “Abuja.” The “Road To Abuja” is as compelling and complex as those polyrhythmic claps in Sly5thAve’s grandmother’s church service.
“Security” just funks the flow from one snazzy horn movement to another. This is the song best exemplifying Sly5thAve’s mix of styles, heavy on the hip-hop R&B and divergent instrumental scales (dig John Leadbetter’s floatie flute). It’s a smart mix of easy groove and carefully overlapping cadences on a world scale. Who’s on piano at the 1:45 mark? Most likely Snarky Puppy’s Cory Henry, topping off jazz with the flare of an urban street artist. His 3:06 is insane. Just for the piano solo alone, man.
Sly5thAve needs to get back in the studio. Give him several weeks this time. He deserves it.