Canadian outfit the Soul Jazz Orchestra have consistently hit the mark with a series of Afro-Latin themed recordings for Strut including their debut for the label, ‘Rising Sun’ (2010), ‘Solidarity’ (2012) and most recently Inner Fire (2014). For this new recording, the sound departs from Afro-Beat and Ethio-Jazz to an exploration of pan-Caribbean music from some of the French speaking islands and what may surprise some is that the African influence is still very much present. In fact zouk music from the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique bears a remarkable resemblance to Congolese soukous in its underlying beat and among France’s Caribbean and central African communities this connection has not gone unnoticed and was positively encouraged. A major contributor to the development of zouk music was the founding of group Kassav’ in the late 1970s in Paris and that city became the focal point for musicians from the Lesser Antilles with vocalists such as Jocelyne Béroard emerging and gaining success during the 1980s.
For francophones residing in Canada (the group, though, hail from English-speaking Ottawa) which is the case of some members of the Soul Jazz Orchestra, and more specifically those from Montreal, where it is perfectly possible to pick up an original album by say Malavoi or Tabou Combo, this has served as the pretext for a serious examination of the diverse styles and the result is some delightful dancefloor grooves.
A heady mix of soukous guitar riffs and Afro-Beat horns predominate on the uptempo ‘Shock and Awe’ which could be a Fela Kuti title. The Soul Jazz Orchestra expand the cross-fertilisation of genres on ‘Courage’ with a lilting Caribbean back beat and collective chorus that are married to the guitar riffs of late 1970s disco and this makes for compelling dance music. In general there are more vocal contributions on this release than previously and that is in keeping with Caribbean music, but for fans of their modern update on the classic Afro-Beat the opener ‘Greet the dawn’ will certainly appeal.
Those seeking a more detailed historical overview would be well served seeking out excellent compilations such as ‘Tumbélé. Biguine, Afro and Latin sounds from the French Caribbean 1963-1974’ (Soundway 2009) and ‘Haiti Direct’ (Strut 2014), reviewed in these columns previously, and both of which direct the neophyte listener to a plethora of hitherto unknown sounds and music that would be near impossible to find in the UK. Two UK dates in October include the Jazz Café (4 October) and Bristol (19 October).