Bright, Colorful East African-Inspired Jazz Themes on Saxophonist Berta Moreno’s New Album

by delarue

The main inspiration for Berta Moreno‘s latest album Tumaini – streaming at Bandcamp – is the trip the alto saxophonist made to Kenya, where she fell in love with the region’s many indigenous sounds. The album title is Swahili for “hope,” which resounds throughout this upbeat, optimistic mix of original jazz songs equally infused with soukous, soul and latin influences. We could all use something upbeat and optimistic these days, right?

Singer Alana Sinkëy’s warmly inviting soprano fuels the optimistically clustering, latin-tinged opening number, Karibu, Moreno’s carefree solo soaring over the scrambling groove of bassist Maksim Perepelica, drummer Raphaël Pannier and percussionist Franco Pinna. Pianist Manuel Valera’s brightly rhythmic attack brings the sunshine in, full force. They take the song out with a cheery soca-inflected romp.

Sinkëy multitracks herself into a one-woman choir, singing in her native vernacular in the second track, Afrika. After those balmy, atmospherics, the band pounce into a brisk, bounding groove that could be soukous, or Veracruz folk.

“Stolen sunlight, golden dust around your feet,” Sinkëy muses as The Beauty of the Slum gets underway, an understated trip-hop beat and Valera’s blend of piano and organ anchoring a catchy neosoul tune reflecting how there’s so much more to Africa than destitution and bloodshed.

Sinkëy’s lively vocalese interchanges with Moreno’s terse, blues-tinged lines throughout the next cut, simply titled Dance, Valera’s chords punching through a thicket of beats. Mandhari, a diptych, begins as a slowly undulating but stately soul-jazz ballad, a tribute to a “sacred place,” as Sinkëy puts it. The conclusion is a trickily rhythmic dance, Moreno’s wryly stairstepping solo handing off to Valera’s precisely circling phrases.

Valera loops a brooding minor phrase, mingling with Pinna’s shakers as the album’s title track gets underway, vocal and sax harmonies and then a tersely acerbic Moreno solo following a subtly brightening trajectory. Meanwhile, Valera channels his native Cuba, spirals and dips, and chases the clouds away.

Christine, a funky soul stroll, is a portrait of an inspiring, indomitable little girl, with a bitingly modal Moreno solo midway through. She winds up the record with Kutembea, a catchy, understatedly enigmatic, circling anthem, the most distinctly Kenyan-flavored track here. Beyond Moreno’s eclectic tunesmithing, this album is a welcome introduction to Sinkëy, a versatile and potently expressive singer that the world needs to hear more from.