“Imagine Nation”, or to give it its full description, “Imagine Nation – a suite written for Nelson Mandela and other works”, is the debut album from Darren English, a young South African trumpeter/composer, released on the Atlanta, Georgia-based Hot Shoe Records label.
English started playing at a young age in his native South Africa, becoming a regular in jam sessions at Swingers Jazz Club in Cape Town, whilst still at High School. He graduated with an Honours Degree in Music from the University of Cape Town, shortly after winning a number of awards, before studying at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, and then on to Atlanta to complete his Masters at Georgia State.
Whilst in Atlanta English has benefited not only from mentoring in the academic sense, but also in reaching out to local musicians, performing at jam sessions and picking up tours and gigs. Many of these musicians feature on the album. The core group is English on trumpet, Billy Thornton on upright Bass, Chris Burroughs on drums and Kenny Banks Jr on piano with guests Carmen Stratford, Greg Tardy, Russell Gunn and his mentor, Joe Gransden.
Overall I find the album to be a little bit frustrating; my reaction to it depends on which side of the album’s tagline the music falls, positive in the case of the suite for Nelson Mandela, which I really enjoyed, and the “other works”, which I found less satisfying.
The three compositions English has written and arranged for the tribute to Nelson Mandela do indeed share a common narrative. They are bright, modern arrangements, and two of them, the title track and “The Birth” are the real highlights of the album for me. Both fizz with energy, decorated with flowing, complex melodies and euphoric changes of rhythm and tempo. English’s playing is expressive over these two tracks, especially “The Birth” where he really opens up during the first half. I like that English does not rely on the super catchy piano/bass hook played over the first few bars, using it as a stepping point to expand and develop the composition. It is a perfect moment though and one I can listen to over and over again. Tardy’s sax solo in the second half is wonderfully intense, building in to a Coltrane/Tyner-esque attack on the eardrums.
The album’s opener, “Imagine Nation” features some fantastic piano playing by Kenny Banks Jr., but the solo in particular is wonderfully dexterous, emotionally rich and expressive.
Of the three tracks in the Suite, “Pledge for Peace” works the least well for me. It features excerpts from an interview with Mandela over a plaintive cinematic soundscape, English playing without a mouthpiece to create a different tone. Perhaps it’s Mandela’s inspirational words but I don’t find myself as lifted by the music.
By contrast to the Suite, the “other works” are more firmly rooted in the music of the past, in bebop and the jazz standards. In fact, other works seems a misnomer, as they comprise the majority of the album, seven tracks in all. Of these, five are covers, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do (To You)” and “Skylark” featuring Carmen Bradford honeyed vocals, “Body and Soul” “Bebop” and “Cherokee”.
Whilst these arrangements are perfectly pleasant, they seem at odds with the contemporary flair of the Suite, and therefore for me the balance of the album feels wrong. As a first album however it shows potential and I hope Darren will let his own compositions shine more on future releases.