Nigerian–born, London–raised, Brooklyn–based saxophonist, composer and producer Zem Audu is no novice to the music industry. While working closely with notable names like Hugh Masekela, Jason Moran and Lauryn Hill over the years, the Skatalites band member has ingested a variety of genres: contemporary jazz, ska, reggae, funk, soul and r&b.
Zem’s new album, Spirits (Origin Records), is a fusion of his life experiences: his roots in Nigeria–Afrobeat and highlife; his influences from living in England, giving him exposure to ska, reggae and Caribbean music; and funk, soul and r&b from his stay in the United States. These diverse experiences all come together to infuse his style of contemporary jazz with a richness of culture and groove. The self-produced 11–track LP features Zem on the saxophone, fusion guitarist Mike Stern (a veteran of Miles Davis’ band in the early ‘80s), Benito Gonzalez on keyboards, Ben Williams on the electric and upright bass, and John Davis on drums.
The musical expedition starts with “Neon Lights,” a feel-good, chill song that exudes good energy through the drummer’s delivery. The sweet, soulful melodies of the saxophone are accompanied by piano chords that build up with the excitement of the drums locked in the groove of the funky bass line, later spiced up with the dark riffs of Mike Stern’s guitar solo. “Big Q” has an upright bass and a very funky ska and dub vibe to it. “Muso,” a jazz-funk track, starts gradually with a smooth soulful sax leading to the shiny sounds of the cymbals and a little rumble of toms, giving way to the bass guitar, leading to more arpeggios by Zem. The drums are more upfront and rhythmically syncopated, with Benito’s great piano solo before the saxophone solo that goes into the bass solo sounding a bit like Jaco Pastorius. Benito starts “Bird” with some arpeggios that welcome the drums and upright bass. Reminiscent of Cape Town jazz, this track makes you want to cruise.
The title track is an Afrobeat and jazz fusion with a heavy killer groove. Williams switches to the electric bass once again, with reggae-style chords on the piano at first that break up into a tight propulsive Afro feel. John gets into an Afrobeat drum rhythm that works so well with the bass’s continuous infectious groove it makes you want to get up and dance. Zem and Mike play in unison leading into the guitar solo, sounds a bit like George Benson at some point, but in a Mike Stern context, before Zem’s solo. The funky track, “Flow,” is an American standard that sounds like the new recordings of Fred Wesley but gets jazzier as it goes on. Mike sits out on the airy and spacey track “Dragon,” leaving Zem and Benito to work brilliantly together. “Bamijo,” which means “dance with me” in Yoruba, is a laidback song with a prominent upright bass, and Mike is back, giving some sexy notes on his guitar complemented by Zem’s sultry and mellifluous tone. “Arcade” has Ben’s killer solo leaving a print on the dreamy track. “Moth” has some festive calypso and highlife ingredients in it, with Mike showing his virtuosity once again, not to mention Ben’s bouncy bass line and a crazy drum solo by John. “Nebula” is a groovy chill track that swings and has some r&b and soulful ingredients.
One of Zem Audu’s outstanding attributes is that he gives the other musicians room to shine even though it’s his album. Spirits is a pot of many ingredients: Afrobeat, funk, reggae, soul, and r&b, all under the umbrella of jazz. There have been many fusion albums from heavyweights like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Return to Forever, but Zem’s diversified musical vocabulary makes Spirits a unique and up-to-the-minute album.