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Nigerian Drummer Tony Allen Revisits His Jazz Roots In A Salute To Art Blakey


This is FRESH AIR. In Nigeria in 1964, when future Afrobeat star Fela Kuti heard and hired his influential drummer Tony Allen, they were both working as jazz musicians. The following year, they revamped the band into something more pop-oriented. Now Tony Allen revisits those jazz roots in a salute to his early hero Art Blakey. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Drummer Tony Allen deep in the groove on a revamp of Bobby Timmons is soul-jazz classic "Moanin'," a staple of Art Blakey's repertoire. It's from Allen's four-song digital and vinyl EP on Blue Note, "A Tribute To Art Blakey." The drum kit was one of the 20th century's great inventions. The array of drum, cymbals, foot pedals and hardware that let a single musician do the work of a small percussion section.


WHITEHEAD: Tony Allen had heard the possibilities listening to his Art Blakey and Max Roach records while coming up in Nigeria and hearing how they applied African rhythm concepts to the drum set. West Africa, of course, has its own percussion ensembles where multiple musicians play interlocking parts. Allen drew on those close-to-home polyrhythms to put his own spin on what the Americans were doing.


WHITEHEAD: Tony Allen now lives in Paris, and his band is French. So this music is part of a three-way conversation among Africa, the New World and Europe. There are no other big names in his stomping, seven-piece outfit. But then the focus is squarely on the percussion.

Like other drummers with independent limbs, Allen can keep different patterns going on snare and bass drum and tom-toms and cymbals. But he doesn't keep up a running commentary behind a solo like an American jazz drummer. This is Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia," the North African nation once colonized by the French. Jean-Philippe Dary is on piano.


WHITEHEAD: There are times when Nigeria's Tony Allen can sound oddly like a percolating New Orleans drummer, adding a little of this to a little of that and letting the flavors marry in some big, Creole culinary metaphor. But then everything is connected. Even the word gumbo is West African. Tony Allen's EP is shortish at 24 minutes. But it makes a clear point about how musicians everywhere bat ideas back and forth in an ongoing, global conversation. Wherever your music speaks from, the world is listening and talking back.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed drummer Tony Allen's new album, "A Tribute To Art Blakey." On Monday's show, our guest will be Rhiannon Giddens. Her new album, "Freedom Highway," includes her original songs based on slave narratives. Giddens also co-founded the group The Carolina Chocolate Drops. She'll perform in the studio. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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