Give the Drummer All of It: On Tony Allen’s ‘The Source’

Chris Daly takes a look at 'The Source,' the newest LP from the legend Tony Allen.
By    September 7, 2017

Chris Daly plays better D than Tony Allen.

Despite having provided the percussive anchor for everyone from Fela Kuti to The Good, the Bad, & the Queen, Tony Allen—drummer extraordinaire—has always been a jazz man at heart. While he’s best known for helping shape the Afrobeat signature sound—by his own admission—legends in their own right Art Blakey and Max Roach were sources of inspiration for the then young Nigerian as he was developing his own chops. Earlier this year, Allen dropped his first “true” jazz album, a four-track EP appropriately titled, “A Tribute to Art Blakey,” on the venerable Blue Note label. A scant few months later, Allen has doubled down with the incredibly funky full-length, The Source, quite frankly my favorite jazz album thus far in 2017.

Working with longtime partner, saxophonist Yann Jankielewicz, the two men have drafted a series of jams that range from the borderlines of hard bop to the fringes of straight Afrobeat with an underlying funkiness that unifies the entire project. The success of the album is in no small part a testament to the electrifying 12-piece band (or a duodecad; I Googled it) Allen has assembled.

In addition to the previously mentioned Jankielewicz, Allen enlisted a who’s who of Parisian instrumentalists: additional saxophonists Rémi Sciuto and Jean-Jacques Elangue, trumpeter Nicolas Giraud, trombonist Daniel Zimmermann, bassist Mathias Allamane, pianist Jean-Philippe Dary, and keyboardist Vincent Taurelle, who produced the album with Bertrand Fresel. Throw in Cameroonian guitarist Indy Dibongue and a guest spot by Damon Albarn, and it’s easy to comprehend how the album flows so fluidly from one style to the next.

Album opener “Moody Boy” starts with an almost dirge-like horn intro before Allamane and Dibongue get a chicken scratch shuffle going to lay the groundwork for the horns to open up and do their thing. And things just get funkier from there. “Cruising” showcases Allen at his loosest, going back and forth with the brass and bass, each musician given ample room to both solo and interact. “Tony’s Blues” is a master class in the art of interplay, and I challenge you to find a better example of a band this big playing this well in syncopation.

With Taurelle’s keyboards leading the way, “Wolf Eats Wolf” is the Afrobeat jam longtime fans will crave while simultaneously providing an easy entry point for those poor, unfortunate souls who somehow have gone through life without hearing “Zombie,” “Expensive Shit,” and/or “Gbagada Gbagada Gbogodo Gbogodo.” Albarn makes his presence felt on the perfectly named, “Cool Cats,” adding a bit of piano to a shuffling jam that just gets hotter and hotter as it moves ever forward. “Life is Beautiful” is a fitting closer, ending things on a positive, more subdued note, allowing the listener to catch his or her breath and process what they have just witnessed.

For even cursory readers of this site, you know we all sport lip tattoos that instruct you to “#ListenToMoreJazz.” If you’ve somehow been on the fence up until now, you’re not going to find a better first foray into the genre than The Source. Admittedly, the album stretches the definition and boundaries of what jazz is and can be, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

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