Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Return to Goree: N’Dour and Jazz

Although it was a small supporting role, Youssou N’Dour showed tremendous screen presence portraying Oloudah Equiano in Amazing Grace. A charismatic performer with a powerful voice, N’Dour now has his own cinematic vehicle in the documentary Youssou N’Dour: Return to Gorée (trailer here). Opening Friday in New York, Gorée serves both as N’Dour’s meditation on the legacy of slavery and his pilgrimage through the music of the African Diaspora, as he leads an all-star group through jazz and gospel arrangements of his Senegalese songs.

The film starts and culminates at Gorée, the island home of the notorious slave-trading outpost off the coast of Senegal. It opens with the stirring lyrics of N’Dour’s anthem “Red Clay,” which speak directly to the African experience, making a fitting start for the musical odyssey to come. After securing the blessing of the curator of Gorée’s House of Slaves for his mission, N’Dour’s first rendezvous is with the French jazz pianist Moncef Genoud, who had previously collaborated with the vocalist on jazz arrangements of his material at a jazz festival. Together they perform with the Harmony Harmoneers at the Greater Israel Christian Fellowship church in Atlanta. However, N’Dour seems bizarrely alarmed to hear them sing their praise of Jesus in rehearsals—he wanted gospel, after all. Despite a bit of grumbling, the Harmoneers do agree to secularize their performance of “My Hope is in You” (the “you” formerly being Jesus for the gospel singers).

The next stop is New Orleans for a jazz set at Snug Harbor, with drummer Idris Muhammad and bassist James Cammack joining the rhythm section for the duration of the tour. In a pattern that repeats throughout the film, director Pierre-Yves Borgeaud films N’Dour and colleagues in a scorching rehearsal, and then moves on without showing the actual concert.

Then it is on to New York for a session with vocalist Pyeng Threadgill (daughter of the often avant-garde Henry Threadgill) and harmonica player Gregoire Maret, who has played on high profile recordings with the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Pat Metheny, and Marcus Miller. We also hear a jazz-and-poetry collaboration with Amiri Baraka, who is relatively restrained in his militancy on that particular day, mercifully.

N’Dour and company make a final stopover in Luxemburg to add two more axes to the band, trumpeter Erni Hammes and Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, who plays an eloquent solo as we hear his thoughts on the project. Muthspiel observes:

“The center of the music is the song. Youssou sings and is surrounded, illumined by the playing of the musicians, which you could call jazz influenced, but the center is not the improvising. The center is the song. In a way, I think even the best jazz musicians have the song in the center.”

As the musicians assemble in Dakar, the Harmoneers tour the House of Slaves and are moved to sing “Return to the Land of Gorée.” It is a scene that recalls Roberta Flack singing “Freedom Song” in a Ghanaian slave fortress during the Soul to Soul concert film, (which was cut at her request from Rhino’s DVD/CD reissue).

When the final concert kicks off, it does sound like the band came together into a tight unit. Unfortunately, we do not hear the full group with the Harmoneers or Threadgill. In general though, N’Dour’s experiment sounds great. His songs translate well into a jazz context, helped by the presence of jazz musicians like Muhammad and Genoud who are well attuned to N’Dour’s original music.

With an interesting mix of well known musicians like N’Dour and Muhammad with European artists largely unfamiliar to American audiences, like trumpeter Hammes in particular, Gorée is definitely a cool jazz documentary. It opens Friday in the City at the Two Boots Pioneer, along with Music is Perfume, a film about Brazilian vocalist Maria Bethania from the same distributor (but screening separately). Look for a review of Perfume on Friday.