Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun goes jazz deep for multi-musical ‘Life In This World’
“Before rock, before hip-hop, before funk. In my family, African-American history was very important, whether it was Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown, Coltrane, Miles, Duke Ellington — It wasn’t just listening to the music in my house, the life styles of these men and other women were laid down as history lessons on the music and culture.” — Will Calhoun
In the liner notes, Columbia and New York University Professor C. Daniel Dawson spoke of Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun’s “rhythmic consciousness” in the May 14, 2013 album release, Life In This World.
That’s putting it mildly.
The album is a dense, deep, living thing of beauty, healing, complexity, and wonder. Every morsel of the jazz standards in play (Cole Porter, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter… plus a few originals from the man himself and his crew) is wrought with a percussive pulse — even when, as in the Brazilian heat of “Naima,” there are no drums to be found in the arrangement. Professor Dawson marveled, “This percussive sensibility gives the album a unified conceptual feeling in which different musical genres work together in a shared rhythmic consciousness.”
Pieces such as the wonderfully Middle Eastern/Indian flair of “Abu Bakr II” (Calhoun) and “Afrique Kan’E” (Calhoun and acoustic pianist Cheick Tidiane Seck) reflect the drummer’s immersion as a student of world-wide rhythms. Most notably, Mali, Morocco, and Senegal. As a member of the touring band Living Colour, Calhoun first experienced for himself in the mid-1990s what he was missing as an American raised off bebop and groomed in hard rock, hip-hop, funk, the usual.
In Africa, Calhoun discovered a whole new world of rhythms in ancient traditions that even the children knew by heart. An avid, humble student, the Bronx drummer threw himself wholeheartedly in the steep learning curve, resulting in a life-long love affair. “I felt like I didn’t know the history of my instrument. I began to ask myself what’s the narrative of the rhythms and patterns we play in the U.S. and Europe? I went over there and felt out of place. It was a culture shock in the best way. Little children would walk by and clap out the patterns to show me what I was doing wrong.”
After that, Will Calhoun could no longer settle for America’s neat little boxes, demanded by major studios. He had to spread out and encompass the music of his world-wide experiences.
With the broad-reaching, broad-minded Motéma Music record label, the multi-musical artist was able to do just that. And only the best could join Calhoun for the trip: Ron Carter (bass), Cheick Tidiane Seck (acoustic piano), Mali-West African guest musician Brehima “Benego” Diakite (Kamale Ngoni), Marc Cary (piano, keys, Rhodes), John Benitez (acoustic bass), Charnett Moffett (acoustic bass), Donald Harrison (alto sax), Wallace Roney (trumpet), Doug Wimbish (bass)…
Will Calhoun made sure he and his musicians thrived in a recording environment where they could converse freely in many “languages” on their instruments, in free-fall and in tandem — all on a first take. In the process, they manage to take the listener outside herself while keeping firmly planted in the roots of bebop and hard bop jazz, without a misstep. Perhaps deeper.
“Spectrum” features the baddest bass fluttering, arranged in the classic Art Blakey/Horace Silver way, with a deep bow to the art of the piano. “King Tut Strut” astounds with these epileptic drum beats morphing into an image of a hummingbird crashing its wings against the influx of blossoming spring, after gnarly, knotted African cadences. The entire framework adds a sense of urgency to chaotic but harmonically dense chord progressions.
“Evidence” explodes in a stylized yet raw syncopated time bomb of percussive sticks — a 4/4 song in a 6/8 Malian percussive beat, which shouldn’t work but does. Everything then opens up into a chilled lobster of a jazz event, a vast cosmic bop so cushioned with rich grandiosity on all sides that it’s quite mind altering. The drum pounces and ticks — in time and in tune with the other instrumentation and the layers of tones — indicating a confounding but blissful variance and skill set. Calhoun is able to fold in and fall out at will, loosely, intuitively, yet adhering tightly to the soul of the piece.
This is the man who almost won a Grammy for his 2000 album, “Live At The Blue Note” and created buzz in the industry with his 2005, multi-media jazz-world music narrative, “Native Lands,” combining ambient electronica and photography.
Will Calhoun’s latest breakthrough jazz album, Life In This World, has it all. It deserves more than five stars. It deserves a Grammy.
Review first appeared in Examiner on June 3, 2013.
Will Calhoun update: After releasing a tribute album to the late Elvin Jones in 2016, Calhoun joined up with his 1980s rock band, Living Colour, for Shade. On MXDWN, Caitlin Herrera heralded Shade as an original blues-rock follow-up, years in the making. “It can’t be denied that Living Colour’s newest album Shade is filled with some incredible instrumental talent and sound. The blues-y meets psychedelic hard rock feel of the album creates a unique piece of art. This is Living Colour’s sixth album and first release in nearly 10 years, and its unique sound hails true to the group’s early roots.”