The Alchemy Sound Project’s new album Afrika Love – streaming at youtube – comes across as one of those recordings which under less duress would have been a 2020 release, and maybe a bit longer. It’s fantastic as it is, with picturesque, edgy compositions from each of the band’s core members and an acerbic, often combustible blend of very distinct, individual voices. There’s a lot happening in these songs. Pianist Sumi Tonooka, multi-reed players Salim Washington and Erica Lindsay, trumpeter Samantha Boshnack and bassist David Arend are joined by trombonist Michael Ventoso and drummer Chad Taylor.
The album kicks off with The Fountain, a biting clave tune by Arend, featuring bubbly horn riffage, a marvelously elusive Washington tenor sax solo winding around and behind a bracing rise. Tonooka’s careeningly rhythmic solo backs away for a tense tenor duel between Washington and Lindsay as Taylor builds the perfect storm. One doesn’t expect a composer collective to be this unhinged, or have this much fun.
Dark Blue Residue, a Tonooka tune has a similarly assertive but more syncopated rhythmic drive, Taylor just slightly more restrained through ambered horn passages, Arend’s elastic leaps anchoring a terse, considered piano solo. It’s an aptly conflicted portrait of the memory of friendship: play this for someone whose friends were brain-drained out of a place like New York in the months following March 16 of last year.
Washington begins Afrika Love – a dramatic, suspenseful shout-out to his South African countryman, pianist Afrika Mkhize – with a moody oboe solo based on Zulu modes. Arend’s stinging riff signals a fondly soaring Boshnack solo, Taylor’s relentless turbulence enhanced by ominous harmonies from Ventoso and Lindsay. Bracing, rapidfire solos from Lindsay and Washington bookend Tonooka’s decisive move to part the clouds and introduce a subtle shift to waltz time.
Boshnack is a devoted fan of the outdoors, reflected in The Cadillac of Mountains. A regally shuffling theme hints at New Orleans and then subsides for a gorgeously lyrical clarinet duet between Washington (on bass clarinet) and Lindsay, the latter shifting to tenor and soaring skyward. Taylor – who kills on this album, again and again – gets a secret cha-cha going, Arend a spring-loaded wild card against the horns’ cohesive comfort.
With its wry Ellington allusions, stately rhythms and wistfully lyrical horn lines punctuated by the rhythm section’s incisions, the album’s concluding cut, Kesii is Lindsay’s shout-out to a friend who died recently at 107. Clearly, this was a life well lived. Count this tantalizingly short album as one of the best of 2021 so far.