Sociologists like Stephen Feld may complain about the unequal politics of this sort of musical syncretism, but I think this was more of a case of exchange rather than exploitation.
The focus of this gig was composition and arrangement. All McAll originals, influenced by time he spent in Havana. They are based on rhythms used in various Santerian religious ceremonies, which are traditionally used to invoke spirits. McAll has mixed them with a particularly New York style of arranging and improvising and called it Mother of Dreams and Secrets. The results are impressive. Some of the tunes sound like straight up latin jazz but most of them sound like something new; there is a freshness to the way the melody floats across the syncopated percussion, or melds into the piano vamps.
The Santerian religion itself is built on syncretism rather than a notion of tradition and purity. Slaves from Africa took Yoruba and Bantu tribal beliefs and mixed them with Roman Catholicism when they got to the Caribbean, partly because they were forced to and partly because that’s what has always happened when people have moved around the world, cultures get mixed.
However, McAll seems to have been inspired more by the sound and the circumstance rather than some baby-boomer notion of exotic spirituality. Which is probably what the Western artist needs more of in the 21st century: a kind of comparative economic inspiration. They need to be in places where there are loose ends, where culture isn’t completely stratified, where the road shoulders are unsealed and things are a bit chaotic. They need to step out of the global network society and walk around in the places that have stayed behind, just to give their creativity a bit of a jolt; Cuba, Libya, parts of India, etc.
My blind friend and I spent most of the first set pressed against the back wall. The Sound Lounge was full and its slightly sterile atmosphere quickly became insignificant. McAll’s commanding piano sound filled the room, not just because of the amplification; it’s more the way he strikes the keys. He’s one of those musicians you can pick out in a blindfold test. Even on a supposedly neutral sounding instrument, you can feel McAll’s attack. My friend picked it: “might need to tune the piano in the break, he plays so hard”.
Having said that, his playing is definitely not wild. It’s controlled and precise. A fact that was even more in evidence this night because his solos were quite short, purely serving the composition they were part of. Each of the other instruments was given some blowing room – Oehlers’ tenor playing was brilliant as usual (although he suffered in the mix); Shannon Grant almost stole the show with her trombone solos; Nashua Lee was very interesting with his Tom Morello influence; Rex and Simon kept everything moving while Javier Fredes did some amazing things on congas – but McAll’s own statements were concise and intense. He sounded inspired.