Jimi Tenor and Tony Allen: “Inspiration, Information 4”
Tony Allen may not be a star, but he is a legend. In a career that spans five decades, the Nigerian-born drummer has quietly, without a flash of ego or a hint of anything self-serving, pioneered: As a sideman for the great Fela Kuti, he essentially created Afrobeat, and his influence looms large even today. If you’ve never heard his name before, well, that might have something to do with his tendency to work with more charismatic musicians like Kuti and Damon Albarn, while Allen himself prefers to sit in the background, behind his drum kit, and work one monster groove after another.
Jimi Tenor, on the other hand… well, where to begin? The Finnish musician, performance artist, and provocateur has made a name for himself based on his keen affinity for kitsch, his avant-techno compositions, his excursions into acid jazz, and his general weirdness. There’s nothing conventional about the man, and it’s hard to imagine him ever accepting a place in the background like Allen does; he may not be a star, but he does things his way, and there’s no one else like him.
Fitting somewhere between these two legacies– and greatly enhancing both of them– is the fourth volume in Strut Records’ Inspiration, Information series. If you’re not following this series, you’re missing some of the most open-ended and forward-thinking music being made today. The series– which takes two artists who have never met before, throws them in a room together, and allows collaboration and improvisation to happen like magic– started off somewhat tentatively but really took flight in early 2009 with the dynamite psychadelic-jazz fusion of Ethiopian master Mulatu Astatke and British troupe the Heliocentrics. But the fourth installment is the series’ best by a mile: Seriously funky and wonderfully weird, #4 summons all of Tenor’s most outlandish qualities and anchors them to Allen’s rocksteady drumming.
The result? A defiantly odd but joyfully fun record that’s pitched somewhere between the conservatory and the dancefloor, experimentation and raw funk, the highbrow and the profane. This is music where a stirring moral treatise is followed by a darkly comedic sex fantasia, where Afrobeat drumming provides the foundation for disco synthesisers and Ron Burgundy-style jazz flute. Tenor tinkers with anything he can get his hands on– vintage keyboards and synths, flutes, sax, skittering hand percussion– while Allen simply drums the hell out of things.
What’s remarkable about this recording is how seamlessly the two personalities integrate, how deftly Tenor’s restless imagination merges with Allen’s funk. Every song here is an experiment, a different sort of side street or dark alley than the one that preceded it, yet every one sounds like it was made for the dancehall.
The set’s opener is a killer, stuttering funk track in which Allen’s circular drumming props up a James Brown horn line. It’s got a sly melody and a killer bass vamp that makes it difficult to sit through, but what knocks it out of the park is the black humor in the rap by vocalist Allonymous, who turns in a winking ode to kinky sex on the dancefloor. The mood of this one is revisited in “The Darker Side of Night,” where Tenor himself sings of sexual pleasure in a way that somehow seems more menacing than seductive, but the flute solo, straight out of 70s-era acid jazz, sweetens the deal.
Cultures clash on a pair of more Afro-centric tracks, but even here, the sound is one of collaboration; there aren’t Allen cuts and Tenor cuts, for it is impossible to imagine any of these songs coming into being without both musicians present. “Sinuwe” is electric blues melded with African drumming and more of those funky horns. A chorus chants lyrics in Nigerian while Tenor tinkers with what sounds like a toy piano and then old analog synths, and Allen lays down a seriously smoldering groove. “Got My Egusi Fix,” meanwhile, is a bilingual track, though it could almost pass for a more traditional Afrobeat number were it not for the jazzy horn section.
Things get topical on a pair of cuts. Allonymous shows up again for a spoken word piece on “Path to Wisdom,” which briefly invokes President Obama before launching into musings on truth and morality in the postmodern age– but it’s not nearly as stuffy as it sounds; thanks to the funky backbeat, the song is a blast, and the words themselves are inspiring rather than overly esoteric or sermonizing. Later, in “Mama England,” gutter poetry and social activism meet in a lowbrow sexual metaphor that lampoons British immigration policy.
But this isn’t an album about politics, or sex, or anything else outside of pure, spontaneous creativity. Each of its nine tracks is a wonder, one that takes some time to wrap your head around but no time at all to get up and start dancing to. My favorite cut? I’d lean toward the slinky reggae of “Selfish Gene,” a wicked-cool ramblin’ song with a mean organ vamp, but I could just as easily point to the thirteen-minute closing epic, “Three Continents” a free-flowing suite that travels the globe without ever leaving the club. Come to think of it, that might be the best way to summarize this sensational recording– this is music that reaches high and far without losing its footing, an album of big ideas but even bigger grooves. It’s a knockout from top to bottom, and it’s almost as fascinating as it is fun.