May 24, 2024

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CD review: Avishai Cohen, Abraham Rodriguez Jr. – Iroko – 2023: Video, CD cover

Critically acclaimed jazz bassist and composer Avishai Cohen and New York Latin jazz icon Abraham Rodriguez Jr., begin their residency on April 25 at the famed Blue Note. From April 25-30, they share new songs inspired by their 30 years of collaboration and their new studio álbum, Iroko, out May 5 on Naïve Records produced by Avishai Cohen and Latin Grammy Award-winner Javier Limón. 

The title of this 14-track studio album derives from a large, majestic tree that can live for up to 500 years. The Iroko has been treasured for many years in its indigenous Nigeria as timber for furniture, flooring, gates, boats, buildings and fencing, and most importantly for musical instruments in the Yoruba tradition.

I like to go into interviews knowing as little as possible about the project that musicians are engaged with before I write a review or article, to get a fresh sense of the music because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else’s perception of them and their music. First a disclaimer before I go on to say that Avi Cohen and Abraham Rodriguez, Jr., (Abie) seem to call each other by the same name.

This album begins with a Yoruba incantation channeled through Abraham Rodriguez, Jr. that retains its sacred spiritual integrity accompanied with the pure solo bass strokes by Avi Cohen, bringing to life the tone of the whole album—seasoned, mature and already a classic. It is at these first bars of acoustic music that I begin to already understand the genius of the 30-year collaboration. The second track called “Abie´s Thing,” is a hypnotic mestizo Cuban lullaby that will not put you to sleep because you will be hitting repeat. These two musicians give each other space to speak their own distinct musical languages.

The third track “Tintorera,” meaning “blue shark,” takes the bass into the rhythmic territory of Abie’s Cuban percussion. It is as fresh a sound as right out of the ocean, evoking memories of the early days of Cuban music, where just hanging out by the sea and playing music was all you could do. Then, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” where Avi takes the lead in a cleverly understated take on the James Brown and Betty Jean Newsome classic, and Abie takes this soul standard and mixes it with sonic flavors influenced by rum and cigars. This song will probably go over very well live with female audiences over the the world, with the Tito Puente-inspired lyrical riff of Niña Y Señora, a great influence on Abraham and likely to be a unifying song for audiences over time.

Up next “Descarga para Andy,” translated as “Jam for Andy” is an improvised jam session, consisting of variations in Cuban music that has the upbeat recognizable double time of the Afro-Cuban drumming style called guaguancó. It’s a trance-inducing number you’d better not be driving to when you hear it, but rather be on the dance floor.

My favorite track on the album hands down is “Avisale a mi Vecina” (Tell my neighbor), where Avi’s and Abie´s combined musical roots, beginning with a Yoruba incantation, shine through with such clarity. Infused with inflections of their cultural and social hybridity, they take us from the shores of the Delta State of Nigeria to Guantanamo, Cuba, and back through Sephardic folk musical traditions and African Moorish influences to a place of healing. This song is the healing balm they promised us on this studio album whose name derives from the hardwood or Iron Tree, that like life if lived to the full is resilient and resistant to the dark forces of our world and will literally strike many chords with everyone.

Next up is the call and response “Thunder Drum,” which retains the purity and tones of traditional bass drums in Africa, like the Maoma war drums of my native Barotseland. “Exodus” surprises us with the choral vocals and lyrical content reminiscent of the legendary Latin jazz masters of the ‘70s. “Bailar mi Bomba” will get you up and dancing after the profundity of “Exodus” and take you to Puerto Rico with its bomba and plena roots leading us into the next track “Crossroads,” an incantation asking permission to travel down the road of life.

Yoruba traditions are the foundation of this album drawing from Eleguá (Legba), known in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Colombia, Cuba and Puerto Rico—and of course, Yoruba West Africa—as the orisha (Divinity) and “owner” of caminos, roads or paths. All ceremonies and rituals in Santería must first have the approval of Eleguá before proceeding. Abraham is an initiated Yoruba priest and so these symbolic elements give the album a power that other popular Latin jazz music I feel is missing. You won’t expect the understated simplicity of the love song “Venus, Goddess of Love,” a simple playful ditty where the musicians clearly spent a moment composing and arranging it just came out of their hearts.

Blue Note April 25-30 with a full seven-piece Banda Iroko lineup including Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez (drums, percussion), Yosvany Terry (saxophone, chekere), Diego Urcola (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jose Angel (bongos, vocals) and Virginia Alves (vocals) Photo: JAVIER LIMÓN

“A la Loma de Belen” takes us back to the roots of Cuban music reminiscent of The Sexteto Habanero, a Cuban son founded in 1920 in Havana. “Fahima” seems to evoke the spirit of a boss lady energy and is followed by the final track, a reimagining of the jazz standard “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Face A

1. The Healer
2. Abie’s Thing
3. Tintorera
4. It’s A Man’s World
5. Descarga Para Andy
6. Avisale A Mi Vecina
7. Thunder Drum

Face B

1. Exodus
2. A Bailar Mi Bomba
3. Crossroads
4. Venus
5. A La Loma De Belen
6. Fahina
7. Fly Me To The Moon

Avishai Cohen – Bass, Vocals (Israel)
Abraham Rodriguez Jnr – Congas,Vocals (USA)
Virginia Alves – Vocals (Spain)

Avishai Cohen & Abraham Rodriguez JR - A Bailar Mi Bomba (from the album ' Iroko') - YouTube

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