The Dean investigates collections of jazz to ease you into your weekend.
Welcome to Expert Witness with Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics." He currently teaches at NYU and published multiple books throughout his life. For nearly four decades, he worked as the music editor for The Village Voice, where he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. Every Friday, Noisey will happily publish his long-running critical column. To learn more about him and his life, read his welcome post here.
The Rough Guide to South African Jazz (World Music Network '16) "South African jazz" still signifies the simple swing combos of the '50s, topped by pennywhistle or clarinet or singers such as Miriam Makeba, who you've heard of, and Dolly Rathebe, who you should hear. It's showcased most gloriously on the long-gone 1996 Music Club CD Township Jazz 'n' Jive, which captures early Afropop's heroic ebullience as well as any compilation I know. For the Zulu and Basotho and Xhosa musicians then being forced into worker camps labeled townships, liberation didn't beckon the way it did in Ghana or Guinea or Congo. But that didn't inhibit the jaunty danceability of Music Club's 18-tracks-in-48-minutes—which, sad to say, currently sells used for prices ranging as high as, and I quote, "$1,449.16." (Find a viable lesser alternative below.) In contrast, the now-deleted 2000 Rough Guide comp of this title set out to prove that post-apartheid South Africa's cultural revolutionaries could match the harmonic chops and improvisational endurance of jazz musicians worldwide even if, Abdullah Ibrahim aside, few of them were as inspired as old township heroes like West Nkosi. This new compilation also intersperses contemporary jazz with a few township numbers. But here the jazz recalls its roots as it gets respect. With the major exception of the lounge-ready "Ntyilo Ntyilo," almost every track harks back at least momentarily to the '50s combos in ethos, mood, or tune, in conscious reiteration or wacky detail; every one evinces a willed knack for living in the moment and dancing while oppressed. Try Errol Dyers's leisurely yet declarative "Dindela." Or Batsumi's neotribal-gone-urban "Emampondweni." And don't miss Dolly Rathebe's track. A MINUS
Township Swing Jazz Vol. 1 (Harlequin) Where the 18 Music Club tracks, four included here, are by 18 different artists, this 1991 Gallo Records anthology singles out just nine. With some luck I nabbed a used 20-track CD, but just as listening the 16-track MP3 version improves on it, because the four songs it eliminates are pretty generic. Then again, in township jive generic isn't always such a bad thing. Either way, think of this as a starter kit. B PLUS
Debo Band: Ere Gobez (FPE) Wary of bohemian musos gone ethnic and hostile to horn tuttis, I find this Boston-based pan-Ethiopian aggregation somewhat forced and obstreperous. Sonically, both adjectives are literal—cue up your favorite Éthiopiquescomp and you'll be surprised how gentle the old stuff sounds by comparison. But from Ellington copyright to Okinawan golden oldie, other descriptives also pertain—open, surprising, catchy. And though you may have reservations about one track or another, not one is thrown away. As for bohemian musos, note that three musicians had to record their parts in Addis Ababa—cameo guests surnamed Hassen and Tesfaye, which makes sense, and a five-string violinist named Kaethe Hostetter. A dabbler I bet she ain't. B PLUS
Debo Band: Debo Band (Next Ambiance '12) The conceptual growing pains of a good idea for a band, English lyrics included ("Habesha," "Ambessel") ***
The Rough Guide to South African Jazz (World Music Network '00) Indigenous African jazz any American jazz fan would enjoy once and never miss when it was over—but check its sample jive classics and revivals (Lemmy Special, "See You Later"; African Jazz Pioneers, "Nonto Sangoma") *
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