A griot is a member of a class of traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa. A bit presumptive, perhaps, for a quartet of white guys from Finland and Israel to appropriate the title for their album, but let’s not judge hastily.
The group is NYConnection, led by Finnish drummer Jaska Lukkarinen. His existing trio with saxophonist Jussi Kannaste and bassist Antti Lötjönen hooked up with Israeli pianist Roy Assaf in New York to explore the idea of jazz as storytelling. Jazz, of course, originated as an African-American art form but it belongs to the world now, and this quartet makes a valid contribution to that world of jazz.
The track “Urban Griot,” which opens the album, has an apt title for the piece that gives its name to the collection. If jazz is storytelling and this is New York-connected jazz, it’s reflected in the interplay among the musicians. Like jazz, New York is not just one story but a series of interconnected threads. For most of the piece pianist Assaf putatively takes the lead, but drummer Lukkarinen, saxophonist Kannaste and bassist Lötjönen tell their parts, pushing and pulling at the narrative. Sometimes, particularly at the turnarounds, they do it in unison but mostly they’re off telling the story their own way. Lukkarinen in particular is busy spinning his own yarn on drums and cymbals, sometimes complementing and sometimes contradicting Assaf’s narrative.
You get a good sense of all of that on this live version of the tune.
The 10 pieces on this album are mostly originals by Assaf, with a couple by Lukkarinen and one by Kannaste. My favorite is Kannaste’s “Signal,” a modern jazz piece built around a descending two-note motif very much like a police siren. Kannaste builds an imminently catchy melody around it in the solo section, which slowly breaks down into an airy, avant garde section in which everyone goes his separate way and Assaf holds on to the melody with help from bassist Lötjönen. It’s almost classical in its structure, though modernist in approach and very jazzy in its coloration.
Another complex, multi-part modern piece is “Piki And The Mexican Grill,” which features lots of interplay between sax and piano. The rest range from the short, highly emotive “Sisu” to the alternately dark and sunny bebop of “Day Of Night” to the seriously funky “Have You Met Mr. Jones,” to the noirish “Inner Blur” and the triumphant closing ballad “Löyly.”
There are a couple of well-chosen covers, too. The frustratingly brief snippet of Henry Mancini’s standard “Days of Wine and Roses” in Kannaste’s arrangement is re-branded as “Days Of (Too Much) Wine And Roses.” It’s a blend of hard bop rootsiness and modern angularity that I’d like to hear the band explore more fully. They do take their time and stretch out on one of the most ubiquitous standards of modern times, Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” As with that title track, the band seamlessly shifts the lead around, pushing and pulling at each other and the tune for more than seven minutes in a complex dance.
This album has been out for a while in Europe, but it was just released this year in the U.S. along with several other titles from the German label Ozella. Urban Griot a fine example of a mostly Scandinavian ensemble bringing its own sensibilities to jazz with convincing results that often swing and are always cool.