Tony Allen was in a buoyant mood after playing an 80-minute set at the club (le) Poisson Rouge in New York’s Greenwich Village on July 5. Onstage, the 76-year-old Afrobeat drummer had been a polyrhythmic marvel, leading a Paris-based quartet—plus two New York jazzers as guests—in music from his new Blue Note EP, A Tribute To Art Blakey. The set list also included a tune from a Blue Note full-length release, The Source, due in September.
Speaking onstage from behind his kit, Allen was a shade laconic, warmly thanking the crowd but not mentioning to the listeners how he learned to drum in Nigeria by playing along to Blakey’s Jazz Messengers LPs—or how he developed his hi-hat technique, something then foreign to African drummers, from reading about Max Roach’s method in DownBeat. But in the snug dressing room after the show, with a glass of white wine in hand and the hum of a post-show hang all around, he was glad to talk about his prime jazz influence.
“To me, Art Blakey sounded not like one drummer but like two or three,” Allen said, recalling the impressions those vintage Blue Note LPs made. About the African American drummer’s experiments with the groove culture of the mother continent, Allen added: “It felt like he was sending our original thing back to us, in a polished way.”
In 1964, the charismatic singer/saxophonist and bandleader Fela Kuti recruited Allen for his group Koola Lobitos, impressed by the drummer’s unique flair for blending the African highlife sound with the American jazz influence. By the turn of the decade, though, Kuti envisioned a more native sound and politically charged message, changing the band’s name to Africa ’70 and developing the ever-influential genre of Afrobeat—with Allen the progenitor of the rhythm. Even Kuti, not one to share much credit, said: “Without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat.”
Over the past decade-and-a-half, Allen’s prime association—beyond a string of inventive albums as a leader, including Film Of Life (Jazz Village, 2014), Secret Agent (World Circuit, 2009) and Homecooking (Wrasse, 2002)—has been as drummer of choice for questing English art-pop architect Damon Albarn of Blur. Allen is a member of The Good, the Bad & the Queen, an alt-rock trio with Albarn and former Clash bassist Paul Simonon (which has a second album in the works); he also featured in Rocket Juice & the Moon, a color-rich project with Albarn, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and various guest instrumentalists, vocalists and rappers from Africa and America. Evolving over the decades, Allen has taken the ancient art of African drumming to a peak of cosmopolitan sophistication.
At Poisson Rouge, Allen donned sunglasses as he sat behind the kit, the diminutive drummer wearing a black fedora and a kaleidoscopic shirt, a gold hoop gleaming in his left ear. He’s a master of physical efficiency, having learned how to marshal his energy over years of six-hour shows in Lagos with Kuti. With his soft yet strong hands and subtle touch, Allen almost seems to caress the drums rather than beat them, yielding a multilayered, off-kilter sound—never straight, never predictable. He may be set on simmer, but the relaxed feel is deceptive. Whether playing a ricocheting solo or roiling beneath the band, Allen produces enough drum music—abundant cross-rhythms, subtly detailed cymbal work, deep inner grooves—to make a young jazz hot-shot as green as the emerald on the Nigerian’s print shirt.
Tony Allen is “a master of physical efficiency.” (Photo: Wes Orshoski)
Allen, who has lived in Paris for nearly 30 years, led a quartet with pianist Jean-Philippe Dary and bassist Mathias Allamane (who both appear on A Tribute To Art Blakey), plus Cuban-born tenor saxophonist Irving Acao. The set included all four numbers from the Blakey EP, each a classic given a fresh arrangement. “Politely,” the Bill Hardman tune, was played as a smoky ballad, the live performance invested with more tension than the recorded version. Although Acao tended to the anodyne in the upbeat pieces, this ballad felt tailor-made for him, his solo earning huzzahs from the crowd, which was mostly made up of young Afrobeat fans rather than jazz buffs.
The audience really got into the Afrobeat makeover of “A Night In Tunisia,” the familiar Dizzy Gillespie riff in the horns as the bass held down a circular pattern and Allen layered polyrhythms underneath. Blakey might have looked askance at the static bass line, but he surely would have dug Allen’s metrical swirl. The pianist chipped in a wordless vocal atop his piano riffs, sounding as if he were accompanying himself on an African thumb piano. The star solo, though, was given to Cuban-bred alto saxophonist Roman Filiu, whose intense, expansive feature showed the harmonic fluency and sheer fire that has earned him a name as a superior improviser on the New York scene.
A second New Yorker, Avram Fefer, jumped in on soprano saxophone to fill out the horn section for Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’,” another arrangement from A Tribute To Art Blakey that leaned hard on a noir-ish bass line—feeling almost like a Kuti number at times. Fefer’s solo sounded like a snake charmer after hours, as he coarsened his tone to bay at the moon. Filiu added another burning solo to “On Fire,” a catchy, riff-laced groover from The Source. On this tune and others, Dary had a funky way with his piano solos, filled with expressive hesitations and repeated notes. In every solo of his own, Allen showed how his drums don’t only talk, they sing—another lesson learned from Roach. As Allen rapped out a tattoo on his floor tom to introduce the set-closing take on Benny Golson’s Blakey showcase “Drum Thunder Suite,” the crowd immediately clapped along, following the beat’s every move.
In the dressing room after the gig, Allen said about A Tribute To Art Blakey: “The new album is a dream going back many years, to pay tribute to Art Blakey’s music—but in my own way.” Asked about the reciprocal inspirations between American and African musicians in the late 20th century—John Lee Hooker on Malian bluesman Ali Farka Touré, James Brown digging African sounds on his first tour of the continent—Allen dismissed any controversy over who influenced whom. “The influence goes both ways,” he said, smiling. “Music is a vast road with no end.” DB