Afro Elements - Out of the Centre (2014)

Afro Elements
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If the party and play music of the UK jazz funk collective, Afro Elements, sounds familiar it’s because on their sophomore project, Out of the Centre, many of its six core members, four featured guest members, and untold visiting associates have all been touring and/or session musicians for some of the most well known names in acid jazz, smooth jazz, and, of course, jazz funk. Marquee outfits like Incognito, Down To The Bone, The Crusaders, The Sunburst Band, The Brecker Brothers, and others come up because individual guys and gals from Afro Elements have played for them at one time or another. So, the first thing that tells you is the kind of mature - but never dull - groove music you’re going to hear, and the second thing it tells you is that all of the music is going to be top notch because these are serious musicians who don’t play around. With Out of the Centre, you would be right on both scores.

If the party and play music of the UK jazz funk collective, Afro Elements, sounds familiar it’s because on their sophomore project, Out of the Centre, many of its six core members, four featured guest members, and untold visiting associates have all been touring and/or session musicians for some of the most well known names in acid jazz, smooth jazz, and, of course, jazz funk. Marquee outfits like Incognito, Down To The Bone, The Crusaders, The Sunburst Band, The Brecker Brothers, and others come up because individual guys and gals from Afro Elements have played for them at one time or another. So, the first thing that tells you is the kind of mature - but never dull - groove music you’re going to hear, and the second thing it tells you is that all of the music is going to be top notch because these are serious musicians who don’t play around. With Out of the Centre, you would be right on both scores.

If this summer you happen to miss your local jazz festival or are unfortunate enough to live somewhere that doesn’t have an annual jazz fest, never fear. Just take a couple of beach towels or a picnic blanket out on the lawn, stock up and grab your cooler, take your best headphones and shades, and lean back to these ten, largely instrumental, grooves. Now be warned: listening to such instrumental covers as The Beatles' “Eleanor Rigby” or originals like “Formosa,” you may nod off at some point - not because these consummate players don’t bring the heat (hell, they even pick up the tempo on “…Rigby”), but because it’s all so smoothly delivered and produced that Out of the Centre’s side effect is relaxing you to a meditative state.

While drummer Phil Nelson, bassist Simon T Bramley, Fender Rhodes/keyboardist Neil “Laboratoire” Hunter, and trombonist Tim Smart and Jörgen Vedeler are all fantastic craftsmen, it’s the guitarists, Andreas Haglioannu, Benny Finnerty (Crusaders, Brecker Brothers), and Tommy Emmerton, who most impress throughout Out of the Centre. Hunter’s key work is nothing to underestimate either, often co-signing and providing space for the bassist and guitarists to let their nimble fingers fly. Phil Nelson’s rhythmic Afro-Latino percussive work on the title track also deserves an honorable mention, bringing that instrumental home with the band’s top brass.

As with most funk and acid jazz bands, it’s the brass that helps mark its distinctions from the world of contemporary R&B and adds the punchiness the sub-genres demand. Accordingly, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Graeme Flowers, saxophonists Mike LeSirge and Andy Ross (of Incognito fame) join Smart and Vedeler in rounding out a full brass section that underscore the groove of up-tempo drivers as “It Feels So Good” featuring guest vocalists Cherri Voncelle and Frances Jowle, or take center stage as with the horntastic instrumental “Kamura San,” a bright cut that plays on the fringes of gospel with organ wails and tambourine rings.           

The two standouts of the entire affair are sung, courtesy of tenor Frances Jowle, who has been a featured performer on UK disco and electro soul producers JD73’s work. “Lift Your Life” is a six-minute inspirational affair lush with doubled vocals and aromatic harmonies that sit up front over a mix of swirling horns, funky bass, and rolling guitars all in lock step with one another. The grand jam is capped off with a seductive saxophone solo at the bridge, followed by some special Fender work by Hunter, and a soulful, near chanting vamp out that drives the message of life elevation right to your front door. Coming in right behind it for radio readiness is the more defiant “(You’re Just A) Waste of Time,” which is the funkier and musically bawdier of the two star turns, with Jowle doing his best Tony Momrelle impression (which is itself a Stevie Wonder impression). “You’re Just A Waste of Time” mirrors “Lift Your Life” in danceable acid jazz approach, soothing harmony backdrops, and applause-worthy solo turns (this time by the guitarist); it’s just vastly more attitudinal about it, bringing some needed spice to the even keeled proceedings.  

With musicians this consummate, it is difficult to go wrong or find fault, particularly in its execution. In this genre, these are all under known A-listers operating at the top of their instrumental game delivering nothing less than what is expected. Listening to Out of the Centre outside on a June day is positively the next best thing to being out at a summer jazz fest…and cheaper too. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 

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