Nathan Riki Thomson ‘Under Ubi’s Tree’ (Naim) 4/5

Australian multi-instrumentalist Nathan Riki Thomson has concocted a fascinating fusion of traditional East African music with jazz-inflected grooves on this debut album. This comes across as a modern day equivalent of the Strata East label and its more experimental side. Aided by a trio comprising two percussionists and Thomson on bass, assorted flutes (the North African ney and exotic sounding mahsai) and a multitude of other instruments (plus guitarist Antonio Forcione on selected pieces), the album explores the relationship between African folkloric music and jazz. 
This is an avenue that has been previously explored among others by percussionists Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Traditional melodies have been adapted, though several pieces are self-penned by Thomson. Thomson has lived and worked in Africa for five years and has amassed a wealth of practical experience in addition to working on soundtrack music for film, theatre and television in the UK. 
The atmospheric ‘Song for Otso’ sets the tone for the album with the mix of double bass and kalimba while on the freer ‘Cheza’ the bass predominates along with bass and alto flutes. In contrast ‘Illalla’ is a modal piece with wordless vocals. Thomson does not restrict himself to African percussion alone and on ‘Bus to Bagamoyo’ we hear the Afro-Brazilian instrument the berimbau used to fine effect. Perhaps the most successful fusion of Western and African sounds is to be found on ‘Waiting for Rain’ which is reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders spiritual flavoured Theresa recordings with the use of viola, harmonium, bass flute and vocals. Decidely left-field, yet surprisingly melodic and accessible, this will appeal to music lovers in search of more esoteric sounds.

Tim Stenhouse