“I started thinking less like a jazz pianist, and more like a composer in terms of looking at the whole and not worrying about impressing anyone with my own technical know-how. That was a very important step in my own growth as a musician,” muses Pierre Chrétien, composer of The Souljazz Orchestra, as he recalls the growth of the band from jazz-funk combo to celebrated Afrobeat and Latin jazz revivalist band. However, as he’s quick to point out about Afrobeat, “It’s only an influence to our sound.”
The band started from beginnings as a combo as can be heard on their debut album, Uprooted. As Chrétien concedes, “Stylistically, it was a little all over the place, a little schizophrenic, so we wanted the next album to be a little more focused.” However, they also touched upon the Afrobeat sound on “Chango” on Uprooted. It was an idea that would be delved into further on Freedom No Go Die in 2007, as the subtitle explained: “An Exploration Of The Revolutionary Sounds Of Afrobeat Music.”
It was a turning point for The Souljazz Orchestra, in part because of new additions to the group. Philippe Lafrenière joined full time as the drummer, bringing along his experiences as a conguero and familiarity with Afro-Cuban percussion. Also coming on board were Marielle Rivard (percussionist and part time vocalist) and Zakari Frantz (multi-instrumentalist including alto sax, flute and percussion along with vocals). With these newcomers, Chrétien felt open to expanding his arrangements, creating a noticeable shift in sound. The songs were much more layered and complex. In addition, lead vocals were written to take advantage of their new talent. Rivard takes the mic for “The Blind Leading The Blind” and the Pharoah Sanders cover of “The Creator Has A Master Plan.”
On the follow-up effort, Manifesto, Lafrenière commands a vocal presence on “Kapital.” The album sounds more confident in direction, inspired by political motivation. “It came out during the height of the George W. Bush administration. Canada had just elected Stephen Harper’s conservative party, which aligned itself with Bush’s politics. France had just elected Nicholas Sarkozy. There seemed to be a worldwide turn towards right-wing politics, and we wanted to offer an alternative view to make people think twice about this.” The group also wanted to bring their live element to the studio including more rawness and animation.
Souljazz Orchestra would again shift gears in 2010 on Rising Sun. Gone were the powerful political overtones, which was a conscious decision. Says Chrétien, “We wanted to keep things fresh, for us and for our listeners, so we purposely set limitations on ourselves to spark our creativity. So we decided to try our hand at a completely acoustic, instrumental album.” That creativity is highlighted by “Agbara,” which used a chime the group heard in European train stations as an inspiration for an integral part of the melody. Originally a pure Afrobeat song with a number of electric instruments, the group reshuffled – the marimba in place of electric guitar, acoustic double bass substituting for electric bass, and organ parts played on acoustic piano and vibraphone – giving it a complementary Latin feel, and, as he further notes, showing how close the two styles can be.
Souljazz Orchestra – “Agbara”
With their new label Strut, they are reaching out to a bigger audience and showcasing music that brims with excitement and transports you to serenity.
Words by Eric Luecking