Innovative artist Alune Wade delivered an impressive show of expert musicianship to an enthusiastic crowd of jazz-lovers.
01/20/23 – Scullers Jazz Club
Alune Wade received a standing ovation at the end of their set at Scullers Jazz Club. At that point, it was unclear whether Scullers had a hard end time or whether they’d received too many complaints from businessmen with early Saturday morning flights, but either way, Scullers opened the doors, turned the lights on, and seemed like they were trying to get everyone to leave. The crowd wasn’t having it though; we demanded an encore, and we got one, grumpy businessmen be damned. Such was the prowess of Alune Wade’s songwriting, bass playing, jazz arranging, and the quality of his assembled quintet.
Wade sits at the nexus of cosmopolitan jazz, drawing influences from a variety of genres and locations around the globe. Wade—of Senegalese descent but raised and based in Paris—explained to the audience that he self-identifies as “African but born in Senegal.” The distinction was important to him because, as he noted, the borders in Africa were not decided upon by Africans. In this way, he embraces his French and Senegalese heritage while also identifying with a larger pan-Africanism. This global outlook unsurprisingly affects Wade’s musical influences. In Wade’s words: “In 2018, I was fascinated by a potential meeting between the musics of East Africa – notably Ethiopia – and Egypt. My ensuing travels – and there were many – allowed me to meet artists from the diaspora that you find in New York and Paris.” Indeed, influences from West, East, and North Africa were evident in his music, but so were other Western artists. In some songs, shades of Miles Davis, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Miller (with whom Wade has worked), and even Michael Jackson were present.
Take, for example, the second song from his set: “African Fast Food.” Wade has a knack for writing melodic and catchy basslines, which he often uses as part of vocal melodies and lines played by the trumpet and sax. Wade also approaches the solos a touch differently from most jazz combos. First, he likes to have sections that are “semi-solos” where he’ll write an intricate bassline that grooves with the drums. Second, he writes many pre-composed unison lines for all the melodic instruments to play; these are staples in jazz big band arranging, but are less common in small combos. Both of these techniques provide contrast to his songs, and create a more complete song arc compared with the standard head-solo-head jazz formula. But when it was time for someone to take a solo, each playerr was highly competent, and on “African Fast Food,” trumpeter Kirk Knuffke’s solo stood apart, building from a quiet, relaxed vibe to an energetic roar (think of Hargrove’s classic “Strasbourg St. Denis”).
Other songs demonstrated the combo’s array of genres and techniques. “Donso” had African-influenced drum patterns, and featured great vocoder/keyboard and slap bass solos. “Demna” was a quiet, Miles Davis-like tune featuring harmon-muted trumpet and Wade’s falsetto vocals in French. “Sultan” made use of synth timbres that evoked North Africa and vocal samples triggered by the drummer. The highlight, perhaps, was “Black Booty,” which featured incredible grooves from the drums, Jaco-inspired bass playing from Wade along with an incredible slap solo, and vocals in Wolof that he got the crowd to join in on. One particular woman in the front was leading the dancing and singing, demonstrating the infectiousness of Wade’s songwriting and playing.
Wade’s bandmates were also outstanding. It appeared that two members—keyboardist Cédric Duchemann (from France and Réunion Island) and drummer Dharil Esso (from Cameroon)—were familiar with Wade’s tunes, and had perhaps rehearsed or toured with him for some time (even though they weren’t featured on his albums). The other two—Knuffke and saxophonist Daniel Blake—may have been ringers, as they’re both based in New York and were reading off charts. In any case, the ensemble sounded as though they’d been playing together for years, which speaks to each player’s high level of musicianship.
Scullers is a bit of an usual venue; unless you’re a proud Allstonian, it’s difficult to get to. But that means that the crowd who shows up are there to see the artists and to hear jazz. And this crowd came dressed for the part: sweaters, turtlenecks, and overcoats were plentiful, and there were even a couple kids dressed in ties whose fathers introduced them to the band after the show. The audience got a real treat with Alune Wade. His cosmopolitan approach to jazz has plenty for the aficionado to dissect, but is also groovy, infectious, and highly accessible for the casual listener.