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For Your Consideration: Henry Cole and the Afro-Beat Collective's 'Roots Before Branches'

Marc Rosenfeld Antunes
Staff Writer
mra337@nyu.edu / @mcrantunes

Oftentimes we forget just to what extent music is a cultural phenomenon. And although jazz is known for pushing whatever limits culture might impose, it has always served as a platform to bring forward the beauty of whatever musical tradition. From Stan Getz in Brazil (Getz/Gilberto) to Dee Dee Bridgewater in West Africa (Red Earth: A Malian Journey), jazz has been used in conjunction with regional musical languages. And since the days of Dizzy Gillepsie and Chano Pozzo, Latin jazz has had a huge place in the realm of jazz, as has Africa, with the likes of musicians like Fela Kuti. And it is in this global context that Henry Cole—perhaps best known as the Puerto Rican drummer in Grammy nominee Miguel Zenon’s Alma Adentro – A Puerto Rican Songbook—set to work on an exciting new project, Henry Cole & the Afro-Beat Collective, which will be debuting its interesting fusion of Latin jazz and Afro-beat with Roots Before Branches on the 13th of March, 2012.

It is always difficult to say what Latin jazz really is. You will have a straight rhythm, a heavy rhythm. You will seldom hear a backbeat. You will hear percussive instruments you won’t hear in straight-ahead jazz. Modulation will occur in a repetitive way. The list goes on. But all that does not tell me anything substantial about the music. The same will go for any style of music. And why wouldn’t it? There is undeniably something more to musical expression than a defined form, instrumentation, timbre, rhythm, and so on. Music is culture. So of course, that culture is going to filter down into the feel. Musical expression and feel must take that cultural heritage into account.

So how can you explain a project like Henry Cole’s Afro-Beat Collective in terms of this paradigm?

The upcoming release features a sort of fusion that has not really ever been heard before. Sure, fusion-jazzmen and women played something in those late 70s and early 80s that we would never have imagined, creating a space between some of the most popular genres, setting aside any traditionalist approaches to just play whatever they felt. But Henry Cole’s music takes things a step further and creates a space in between completely separate cultural heritages.

Cole and the Afro-Beat Collective are made up mostly of his talented friends from Puerto Rico, from Miguel Zenón to David Sánchez. Before creating the collective, Cole was allegedly looking for something more in the music he played, until he came upon the music of Fela Kuti. And, here, Cole found the intensity and the energy he was looking for, all enlaced with the “roots” tradition he seems so fond of. So where is this music, culturally? Africa? Puerto Rico? The USA? Or somewhere entirely different?

Cole’s music is so interesting because it is difficult to identify exactly which language he is speaking, musically. What is the feel he is employing, culturally? Which cultural heritage(s) does he identify himself with? This upcoming album leaves these questions beautifully unanswered. I hear a Spanish lyrical rapper in “Trabajàla”, but the riffs and rhythms he speaks to sound like they emanate directly from African pop influences. On the same piece, I hear Miguel Zenón manipulating scales and modes just as he would with a straight-ahead quartet. On the third track of the album, “To Believe Without Seeing”, the listener will be surprised to hear Latin-reminiscent percussion, on an Afro-Beat bass line, with its hard-hitting African reggae/Afro-Beat horn section riffs, backed by what might be best described as a distorted ‘indie’ guitar. The music, really, seems to be a result of Cole’s Puerto Rican heritage in interaction with new styles, most prominently the style of Afro-beat.

As mentioned, music is culturally expressed. In accordance with that fact, this album is unashamedly highly stylized. Cole is right, the roots do come before the branches; this album takes full advantage of the richness of cultures around the globe. But after a first impression, this album is not at all about the roots, but mainly about the branches. After all, roots are really just a starting point. Where he takes these cultural heritages will be more than interesting solely at a regional level and will speak to a global diaspora.

Stan Getz, in his day, took bossa nova to a new level. He played music with a Brazilian groove. But his feel came from his culture in American jazz. It is undeniable; his interpretation of the bossa was definitely not solely a product of Brazil. And what else would it be other than a result of inter-cultural interaction? In bringing stylized traditions of Puerto Rico and Afro-beat together, Cole has made something entirely new. You might say that is the reason this music is particularly relevant to any listener of jazz music, a music that always pushes the limits.

Henry Cole will be performing a CD release show at Joe’s Pub in New York City on March 20th, 9:30 pm. More on Cole and pre-sale of the album here.

Marc Antunes is a student, writer, and critic. Follow him on Twitter.