Souljazz Orchestra: “Rising Sun”

Can wordless music ever be spiritual– not just in some vague, subjective sense, but actually, substantively conveying something of the transcendent or the sublime? It’s a hard question, I know, but not because the answer is elusive– anyone who’s heard A Love Supreme knows it to be a resounding yes, just as anyone who’s heard Handel’s Messiah knows that the music is just as important as the words in conveying the piece’s profound beauty– but rather because, well, tying wordless music to a set of words is fundamentally vexing. I don’t offer any new insight, and neither does the Souljazz Orchestra, but their new work Rising Sun is a thunderous affirmation– a work that stirs the soul, reaches to the heavens, and offers spirited celebration of the enduring power of beauty in the human experience.

I’m not sure if the Souljazz crew wrote this as their own personal offering to God, as Coltrane did his work, but it is nevertheless in that same lineage– though admittedly by way of wife Alice  and a panglobal survey of music made to move both body and soul. No, there is no verbage– not even in the song titles– to suggest that these songs are dedicated to a particular deity, or meant to encapsulate a certain religious tradition, yet the way this music engages the sacred– or perhaps, the innate human thirst for the sacred– and conjures eternal things is unmistakable. This is music for prayer; this is music for rejoicing.

And indeed, it does unfold, quite organically, as a sort of spiritual journey, beginning, appropriately enough, with “Awakening,” a wistful prelude that doesn’t jolt the listener to alertness so much as it offers permission for serenity, solitude, contemplation. That said, Rising Sun isn’t a quiet record to be played in the background, and the second song, “Agbara,” begins, quite literally, with a shout; it kicks into a joyful, drum-circle beat borrowed from South African folk music, but it’s adorned with horns that are pure funk. There’s a primitive abandon to the song that suggests a total lack of propriety or self-awarness; the musicians are joined by wordless chanting that’s zealous for an encounter with the sublime. If this song is a prayer, it’s a fervent, perhaps even demanding one.

The Souljazz Orchestra understands that a capacity for curiosity, and a love of beauty, are prerequisites for making music as spiritually seeking as this. “Negus Negast” is a playful, and once again totally funky song that tips its hat to the Ethio-jazz of Mulatu Astatke and friends, right down to a magical use of vibes; there are also killer solos on piano and trumpet, but the beat is simply relentless, clearly made for the dancefloor. This is the place where sacred music turns to pure rejoicing, where the seeker can’t help but be swept away in the joy of the search. The song is also a key lesson in understanding what gives this music so much heart: Not only are the compositions informed by all manner of dance music from around the world, but, despite whatever formality the word “orchestra” might suggest, everything here is loose and vibrant; the funk-minded numbers swing hard, and the more reflective pieces are open and airy, not stuffy.

Indeed, as the album’s journey into the soul continues, the fervor of the opening sequence slowly fades into more contemplative pieces, though that hardly makes them dull by comparison. “Lotus Flower” is a gorgeous, mid-tempo piece marked by a trumpet melody that Miles Davis might have played. “Serenity” is the album’s most naked arrangement, but is nevertheless a thrilling song, marrying spiritual jazz to African rhythm and featuring superbly understated work from flute and clarinet; “Consecration,” meanwhile, moves deep into the realm of mystery, an impossibly seductive and suggestive modal jazz piece, part Kind of Blue and part Indian folk music.

The record closes with an initially calm, but ultimately vigorous cover of Pharaoh Sanders’ “Rejoice,” a wild and unkempt jazz classic whose very title is a perfect summary of what Rising Sun is all about; this is music made for dancing, for singing (even though there aren’t any words), for calling out to the Divine, and for remembering to see the world as a dark marvel, a thing of strange and– every once and again– beguiling beauty, something this fine recording has in spades. It’s sophisticated in every way– the arrangements are complex without sacrificing their funkiness, and the influences drawn upon show an open-minded but nevertheless discerning appreciation for world culture and musical traditions– but what makes it such a deliriously celebratory affair is its spirit, which soars even in quiet moments and is never content to waste a moment even though it’s clearly made with eternal things in mind. Rising Sun is a triumph for the Souljazz Orchestra, for the wonderful Strut label, and for music in general, for it proves just how exciting– and meaningful– this art form can be.

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