Reviews

Songlines, March 2016

***

Jazzy West African adaptations

New Cities is the third album from a collective exploring the possibilities that emerge from adapting source material from the West African Mande music tradition into a jazz idiom.  This outing includes tracks inspired by many diverse themes and topics that vary from a popular brand of Senegalese beer to the consequences of urbanisation.  The playing is exemplary and particularly exciting on tracks such as “Teriyaa,” developed from a popular Gambian song, and “5 ans d’effort”, on which bandleader and pianist Andrew Oliver demonstrates great melodic development.  However, owing to the piano’s prominence throughout, this album primarily comes across as a straight, albeit solid, jazz release, with the kora cutting a markedly peripheral figure.

Aside from “Teriyaa”, which really is the most accomplished piece on the album, and the title-track, the kora functions more as a sporadic solo instrument. “Slip Coach (for Chet)”, for example, is a great piece, featuring some lovely work from Lee Elderton on the clarinet, but the kora’s flourishes are emblematic of a strong conceptual framework that unfortunately never quite reaches the expected level of musical integration. – Alex de Cacey

Jazz Journal (UK), February 2016

*****

This glorious album celebrates the meeting of contemporary jazz with West African Mandinka music and is an absolute joy right the way through.  Pianist and composer Andrew Oliver was commissioned to write this suite as part of the 2012 Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Programme, and after live performance the bnad took the material into the wonderfully named Kung Fu Bakery studios in Portland to record the album version.

Each song in the suite borrows from a traditional piece of Mandinka music, takes it apart and then recycles it in a new composition.  Influences include songs from the cultures of Ghana, Mali, Guinea and Gambia.  The result is an infectous, feel-good listening experience, very much like Afro Celt Sound System meets Hugh Masakela.  Andrew Oliver drives the music with his discreet, understated performance, but it is Mathis on kora and McCullough’s wonderful work on trumpet and flugelhorn that really gives New cities its energy, voice, and unique appeal.  The kora, almost sounding like a blend of harp and harpsichord, is tonally just right for this highly energetic and fun-loving musical project, and Mathis – one of America’s leading kora players, puts in a superb, consistent performance throughout.

The suite needs to be heard and enjoyed as one continuous listening experience, which makes it inappropriate to single out one track over another for comment as part of an album review.  Fifty minutes in the company of the Kora Band flies pas, giving New Cities an irresistable, foot-tapping appeal that lasts from start to finish.  Mighty enjoyable.

– John Adcock

Jazzwise (UK), January 2016

***

The pianist Andrew Oliver and Kora player Kane Mathis discover new musical perspectives between the jazz, blues, and classical of their backgrounds and that of west African Mandinka folk music.

Evening Standard (London), October 2015

****

An inspired third release for The Kora Band, a transatlantic quintet exploring the links between contemporary jazz and traditional West African music.  The bluesy cascades of the 21-string kora-harp, intricately deployedby Brooklyn-based Kane Mathis, are woven throughout eight songs in a suite composed by pianist and bandleader Andrew Oliver.

Phrases from West African tunes are reworked in ways innovative and melodic – the lively Biere La Gazelle comes with Latin-style trumpet and edgy uptempo piano.  Percussive flourishes underline the traditional vibe, but the elegant interplay between drums, bass, horns and piano make this very much a jazz outing, with a kora.

– Jane Cornwall

Bebop Spoken Here, Newcastle UK, October 2015

Andrew Oliver’s Kora Band recorded material for the forthcoming New Cities CD release back in October 2013. The pianist’s project has taken some time to see the light of day. In securing a deal with fellow London-based American Michael Janisch’s record label it can at last be heard. Recorded in Portland, Oregon and New York, Oliver’s band explores the connections between jazz and the music of West Africa.

A 2008 US State Department sponsored tour of West Africa encouraged Oliver to form a band with the kora – a twenty one string African harp – at its heart. Kane Mathis – one of America’s foremost kora players – accepted Oliver’s invitation to join the band and three albums later New Cities is representative of current and ongoing developments. An eight track CD, with a running time of fifty three minutes, stately elegance permeates the entire work.

Old song melodies and African harmonic patterns proliferate; The Contract andTeriyaa – the latter featuring the album’s sole vocal contribution from Kane Mathis – exemplify the lyrical, uplifting nature of the music. All of the music was composed by Oliver and he is, no doubt, delighted by the commitment shown by the members of his band. Lee Elderton, clarinet, is heard on two tracks only, but his part in the project is well worthwhile. Check out his playing on Slip Coach (for Chet). The title track New Cities highlights the group dynamic with all of the musicians making an excellent contribution; elegant, stately, from Brady Millard-Kish’s bass intro to Mark DiFlorio’s consistently good drumming to Chad McCullough’s trumpet flourish taking it out.

New Cities is an accomplished work.

All About Jazz, October 2015

Pianist Andrew Oliver formed The Kora Band in 2008 following a tour in West Africa and a chance meeting with a kora player, leading him to track down Kane Mathis, whom he recruited and whose presence naturally gave birth to the group’s name and its idiosyncratic sound. Mathis is one of the foremost kora players in America and brings to the band a completely different dimension. The kora is a kind of traditional harp, originally played by musicians of the Mandinka ethnic group of West Africa, and the effect of the sound it produces, can edge towards the mesmeric.

Kicking off this set “The Contract” might give the listener the idea that this is “world music,” which in a sense it is since Mathis’ expertise on the kora evokes a variety of moods often sounding at times, and to the untutored listener, like a rapidly oscillating cross between Mexican mariachi and Greek rebetiko. Combined with its African roots, this kora-led music effortlessly crosses continents with dizzying alacrity.

Chad McCullough’s trumpet hook on “Bière La Gazelle” sounds tantalisingly close to the first bar of Bach’s “Jesu Joy Of Man’s Desiring,” this lively number soon evolving into a latin-esque outing. The twin horns configuration (trumpet and clarinet) and tricky timing on “5 Ans D’Effort” give this track a more distinctly jazzy feel, all underpinned by Oliver’s exploratory, rapid-fire piano work.

A fleeting burst of kora leads into the slow-paced “Teriyaa” where Mathis sings his own plaintively impassioned West African lyrics on the only vocal track on the album. When Mathis is at full pelt on the kora, the sound he produces is uncannily similar to the electric harpsichord flourishes on Terry Riley’s masterpiece A Rainbow In Curved Air. Chad McCullough overshadows all on “Specialists in Some Styles” with Mark DiFlorio plays calabash here rather than drum kit, thus offering-up some very apposite percussive subtlety.

“Slip Coach (for Chet)” again features Lee Elderton with a lithe clarinet solo. The title track is the longest at just over ten minutes with Chad McCullough leading the serpentine melody and Andrew Oliver introducing some brilliant piano skirmishes. The ballad, “Old Countries” concludes this intriguing set.

It would be tempting to introduce all sorts of comparisons to others playing either West African music or jazz, but in truth The Kora Band doesn’t really sound like any other group. This is an amazing feat, in a century supersaturated with music of every hue, and a convincing testament to the innovative sound of a jazz band successfully incorporating non-Western traditional instruments.

Jazziz

by Philip Booth
Spring 2011

“World jazz” is the label that often gets slapped on any project that dares mix post-bop music with grooves and instrumentation not native to North America. And those projects frequently come off as gimmicky. Not so with the Kora Band, a group of Portland and Seattle musicians — several by way of New Orleans — who successfully incorporate West African rhythms and textures into their otherwise mainstream jazz sound. The quintet, led by keyboardist Andrew Oliver, has as its X factor the kora, a 21-string instrument that, as played by Kane Mathis, sometimes shimmers, sometimes flickers. At nearly all times, it’s integrated handily into the group’s unusual sound, as opposed to merely serving as an exotic flavor

The opening “Sinyaro,” a traditional Gambian piece, begins with a brief kora cadenza before slipping into a loping groove, driven by bassist Brady MillardKish and drummer Mark DiFlorio; that’s followed by a melody played in unison by Oliver and trumpeter Chad McCullough, and then Mathis’ vocals, sung in Gambian Mandinka. Finally the song shifts into a section that draws from Afro-Cuban music. Other traditional Gambian, Malian and Guinean tunes are here, too, including “Mamadou Bitiki,” a tumbling showcase for Oliver’s darting solo; the airy “Koulandjan,” featuring McCullough’s mellow flugelhorn; and the melancholy “Amadou Sekou,” which builds into DiFlorio’s impressively interactive solo.

Oliver’s own compositions are impressive, too. The flowing title track handily shifts into a double-time feel, while “Over-Caffeinated and Under-Fed” morphs from a sort of moody ethereality to modified hard-driving swing and then Latin rhythms.

Whether carrying the band through streams of African or Caribbean music, or jazz homegrown in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere in the United States, Cascades proceeds in a manner that’s unhurried and consistently inviting, in refreshing contrast to other genre-straddling projects of its general type.

All Music Guide

by Adam Greenburg
November 2010

Headed up unobtrusively by pianist Andrew Oliver, the Kora Band is an experiment in compositional fusion. Incorporating the sounds of West African music into modern jazz isn’t entirely unheard of, with Toumani Diabaté bridging some of the gaps over the years in his collaborations. Nonetheless, this is a different beast. The focus here is on the jazz, a relatively light and airy version of it, with the kora (provided outstandingly by Kane Mathis) taking an important part, but only a part, in the overall sound. Though the album is titled for the mountains near Oliver’s base of Portland, there’s a tendency for kora music (and West African music, more generally) to use a cascading aesthetic in its sound, with notes falling over one another, descending over and over again to set a scene. The album starts out with a bit of Cuban-inspired music, a nod to the prevalence of Caribbean radio in Africa toward the end of the colonial period. Within a few tracks, it moves into more stable Northwest jazz with a fondness of piano grooves in “Over-caffeinated and Under-fed.” The classic Mandinka piece “Koulandjan” is given an interesting reworking, with the piano taking the primary focus once reserved for the kora, and a guitar filling in for ambience. A converted trio of kora, bass, and percussion provides a thick groove in “Sori” that changes the basic sound structure simply through refocusing, despite using per-instrument aesthetics similar to those on the rest of the album. Cascades treads a careful line here, being cerebral enough to form complex interplay between the traditional kora sounds and modern piano sounds, but more importantly, being able to fuse the musics into something that is at once modern, thoughtful jazz and innovations upon traditional music. It almost stretches toward clichés of worldbeat and world jazz, but doesn’t sully itself with the simplicities afforded by taking on new sound elements. Instead, it only plays with the differences, making a unified whole that is both new and respectable, from the standpoint of both incorporated genres.

Jazz Society of Oregon JazzScene Magazine

by Kyle O’Brien
October 2010

Portland pianist Andrew Oliver takes on the music of west Africa with this ambitious project. The band fuses western styles and influences with the music of The Gambia, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. The opener, “Sinyaro,” features the band’s kora (a 21-stringed instrument of the Mandinka people) player, Kane Mathis. While Mathis is a western musician, he learned the kora and the accompanying language he occasionally sings in The Gambia, and his mastery is what leads this group. “Sinyaro” sounds like a fusion experiment in the truest sense. There are elements of western jazz, African song and rhythm, and even Cuban music. The kora sounds a bit like a harpsichord, koto and sitar combined. It’s a lovely sound, and one that makes the disc more folk-oriented. There are repeated phrases that build the energy, much like in African folk musics, but then there is the western influence and a compositional structure that takes it to North America. It’s especially evident on the track “Over-Caffeinated and Under-Fed,” which calls in more jazz. Oliver shines on a fiery piano solo over a Ghana-meets-samba beat. The other musicians, from Seattle, also shine in their roles, including trumpeter Chad McCullogh, who adds texture and melody, and drummer Mark DiFlorio. While this may not be a true jazz album, it does explore the roots of some jazz, and it uncovers an instrument most western ears may not have heard before.

Seattle Weekly

Andrew Oliver Impresses with Just 4 U
by Jonathan Cunningham
June 2009

For those who enjoy the sweet sounds of West African music, the Northwest is a mini-haven for talented émigrés from Senegal, Mali, and beyond. Not only is there a small, tight-knit audience in these parts, but there’s a steady stream of players (if you know where to look) who either came from West or Central Africa or went there to study music.

In the case of the Andrew Oliver Kora Band, both are true. Based primarily in Portland, this five-piece got started when Oliver and drummer/percussionist Mark DiFlorio spent a month playing music in Africa. Upon returning home, the duo united with Seattle-based kora player Kane Mathis and began blending jazz with West African folk music.

Their debut album, Just 4 U, is an eclectic mix of 11 soothing West African jams with hints of jazz licks underneath it all. Much of the piano, drumming, and trumpet work is straightforward, but when mixed with the playing of Mathis on the 21-string kora, the music has a unique sonic texture that’s rarely explored. “Malinyea” straddles both genres in separate stanzas, but the two merge harmoniously. “Hidmo,” named after the Eritrean restaurant in Seattle, and “Fanta Groove” are album favorites due to the solid horn playing on each. There’s even a cover of the Congolese pop classic “Bini Na Ngai Na Respect.” All this helps make Just 4 U one of the better world-music releases to come out of the Northwest all year.

Seattle Times

Andrew Oliver Kora Band: A fresh, old sound breaks new ground
By Jonathan Zwickel

May 2009

Why are there no new musical instruments? It’s as if the electric guitar was the ultimate innovation, the last nail in the coffin of music’s social supremacy.

If fresh organic sounds are an endangered species, then Kane Mathis is Greenpeace. Mathis plays the kora, a 21-stringed West African harplike instrument made from a gourd wrapped in cow skin — and the titular instrument in the Andrew Oliver Kora Band.

While not new in the world — it originated at least a couple hundred years ago — the kora is new to Western ears (though jazz trumpeter Don Cherry has been known to play one). Its sound is bright like a harp and soulful like a guitar, less a cascade of notes than discreet, silvery drops.

The Seattle-based Andrew Oliver Kora Band sets it amid relaxed but intricate jazz, with Oliver on piano, Jim Knodle on trumpet, Brady Millard-Kish on upright bass, and Mark DiFlorio on drums.

While that quartet is talented enough on its own, Mathis’ kora adds a vivid sonic quality that transports the whole thing to lofty, unexpected realms. The band’s arrangements of original and traditional African tunes — as heard on “Just 4 U,” the just-released CD that they celebrate tonight at the Rendezvous — splice African melodic concepts and Western jazz structure.

Modest but mesmerizing, it’s as novel and agreeable a sound as you’ve never heard.

The Oregonian

“Kora To The Core”
by Tom D’Antoni
April 2009

First, a quick definition.  The kora is a West African 21-stringed instrument, which sounds a little like a harp and is made from a large gourd cut in half and covered with cow skin.  It is traditionally used by musicians and griots of the Mandinko people.  Jazz folks like Don Cherry popularized it in America, although since the sound is so seductive, all it took was a little exposure for it to catch on.

Second, an explanation.  Andrew Oliver is the young composer and keyboardist who burst upon the Portland jazz scene a couple of years ago and who leads and plays in more bands, spanning more genres, than there is room to list.

Although his interest in the kora began when he was in college, Oliver’s 2007 tour of West Africa, with saxophonist Devin Phillips’ band, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, made an indelible impression upon him.  The title of his album, “Just 4 U,” is not a Prince knockoff but the name of a club in which Oliver found himself in Dakar, Senegal.

Surprisingly, he does not play the kora here; rather it’s Seattle’s Kane Mathis, who studied the kora in Gambia. (Mathis also plays guitar on the album.)  Jim Knodle fills a huge role on trumpet, and Brady Millard-Kish on bass and Mark DiFlorio on drums are rock steady.

In the tradition of Cherry, Oliver, who either wrote or arranged most of the tunes, blends the swing and intellect of American jazz with the divine poetry of West African music.

Besides his own compositions, there are traditional Malian tunes arranged for this band, including one Oliver learned on the spot from an African musician in a club there.  Plus, a tribute to Cherry on his lovely “Malinyea.”

Willamette Week (Portland, OR)

Casey Jarman
April 2009

[BRIGHT JAZZ] Long before pop songwriters like Paul Simon and David Byrne (and later Vampire Weekend) turned to West African music for inspiration, the jazz world went in full bore to discover its roots. But the Andrew Oliver Kora band meshes what the two musics love most—from upbeat, spiraling guitar plucks to that shuffling dance backbeat—to make a gorgeous, moving record with with Just 4 U. Despite the titular misstep—what is this, a teen bop record?—there is much to like on the Kora Band’s debut. Pianist Oliver delivers some beautiful playing that never oversteps into showiness, while spotlighted Kora player (the Kora, if you didn’t know, is a boulbus half-harp, half-guitar instrument from West Africa that sounds both sharp and airy) Kane Mathis is an absolute whiz. If Just 4 U is any judge, this won’t be a blaring straight-ahead evening, it’ll be the kind of atmospheric journey that sits perfectly in the cozy new Mississippi Studios.