From Soweto to Chicago: DLMR4 and the Rhythm Road Initiative
Posted 3/6/2012

After a State Department-endorsed tour of southern Africa coordinated by Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Dennis Luxion/Michael Raynor Quartet (DLMR4) played three energized sets at Chicago’s Green Mill on March 2.

The group, featuring pianist Luxion, drummer Raynor, alto saxophonist Greg Ward and journeyman bassist Jeff Pedraz, opened with “I Mean You,” followed by Luxion’s wryly dedicated “Chant De Moineau.” The tune was inspired by Thelonious Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle” (moineau, the French word for sparrow, is meant to imply “little monk”). Other Luxion originals included the gentle, meditative “Nuage Vide” and the metrically modular “Controlled Skid.”

Subsequent sets revisited rhythmically recast bop tunes such as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop.” A version of Denzil Best’s “Move” featured Ward’s dynamically nuanced alto. Pedraz broke into triple time, ghosting walking lines behind Raynor’s brushes. A revamped version of the standard “Body And Soul” culminated in a gorgeous, freewheeling cadenza from Ward.

Listening to the tight but relaxed interplay, it was clear that recent exotic roadwork had honed the group’s sound, and their adventures together had accrued onstage simpatico.

During set breaks, Raynor and Luxion discussed the formation of the group and the audition process that led to the tour.

“In 2010, Michael and I had a steady trio gig at the short-lived Chicago club Blujazz,” said Luxion, a jazz veteran who toured Europe with Chet Baker in the ’80s. “Michael got the idea to apply for the Rhythm Road program and thought of Jeff because of his experience on the road, easygoing personality and great playing. For many of the same reasons, we added Greg, since the program required a quartet format.”

The application process included a performance tape, two educational workshop proposals and a lot of paperwork.

“When we got news to fly to New York for the audition, we didn’t assume we’d get the gig,” Raynor said. Initially, the musicians were told they were going to Asia. They wouldn’t discover that it would be southern Africa until the fall of 2011. “We certainly weren’t disappointed, as jazz and a lot of American culture has roots in Africa,” Luxion said. “In some respects, this was a ‘back to the source’ tour for us.”

The band members were more familiar with West African music than southern African rhythms before their visit, and thus were introduced to new regions and cultures. “Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa share a common British colonial heritage,” Luxion said. While this made the language barrier easier, he added, “There is an Iberian and Brazilian influence in the music of Angola that was immediately striking. We included a local tune, ‘Muxima,’ in our performances there, and that really helped make a connection.”

Raynor, whose resume includes stints with Von Freeman and Kurt Elling, was intrigued by the elusive sense of oneness he detected in African music. “The rhythmic patterns are heard as a whole with less emphasis on downbeats—more emphasis on how the different parts lock together,” he said. But beyond rhythms, Raynor was most inspired by the sense of shared musical joy. “This can be found in jazz—Billy Higgins and Joey Baron come to mind—but in Africa, it seems to be the norm and is given generously.”

The voyage to Africa also made an indelible impression on Ward. “We definitely received as much as we shared,” he said. “I challenged myself to remain open-minded because I knew that we would be put into some unusual situations. For example, we went to the St. Giles Center for Rehabilitation, an organization that serviced mentally and physically disabled children, and had one of our most rewarding experiences. Regardless of their disabilities, these children were so excited to learn about jazz and to share the music of Zimbabwe with us.”

As part of the mandate for the tour, the quartet conducted workshops and jam sessions at every stop.

“We had a lot of press, radio and TV coverage,” Luxion said. “Everywhere we went, people were interested in what we were doing, but also in knowing what, if anything, we knew about their music and culture. Since the purpose of the tour was cultural exchange, we investigated local music and customs in each country we visited and routinely included an African pop hit, ‘Sweet Mother,’ as an encore. This helped the public understand we were as interested in them as they were in us—that we were there to form a bridge between peoples.”

Michael Jackson

From left: Dennis Luxion, Greg Ward, Jeff Pedraz and Michael Raynor (Photo: Michael Jackson)


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