Belgian saxophonist Nicolas Kummert seems to have always had an interest in various African stylings of jazz music. Having collaborated with many different musical minds in the African jazz game, Kummert eventually became acquainted with internationally-acclaimed Beninese guitarist and singer for Blue Note Records, Lionel Loueke. The pair met whilst recording for fellow Benin native Patrick Ruffino in 2008 and now, in 2017, Loueke plays a fundamental role in the realisation of Kummert’s latest set of recordings, the album la diversité. With bassist Nicolas Thys and drummer Karl Jannuska providing the rhythm section, la diversité is an explorative effort for Kummert, which sees the saxophonist delve deeper in the waters of African jazz, whilst rooting it within a more conventional post-bop foundation, and Loueke’s delicate guitar lines are pivotal in allowing Kummert’s ideas to come to fruition. la diversité makes some bold choices, as shown by the reinterpretation of Leonard Cohen’s classic Hallelujah and the foray into avant-garde French pianist Erik Satie’s free time piano compositions, the first and second Gnossiennes. What’s more, six pieces on the album strip Kummert and Loueke of their rhythmic support and see the pair venture into some saxophone-guitar duets, most likely as an attempt to convey their almost unrestrained approach to jazz music. The end product is certainly admirable, and Kummert and Loueke exhibit an unequivocal chemistry that explains how such a collaboration came to be. la diversité, despite its audacity on the surface, is often a very subtle record and, whilst this works in its favour for the most part, there are certain instances in which the album’s subdued nature doesn’t quite capture the essence of Kummert’s vision entirely.
The influence of African music is notable from the very first track, Rainbow People, which features a rhythmic structure reminiscent of styles of West African dance music. This is complemented by Loueke’s muted guitar line, which is evocative of desert blues music from the same area. Kummert’s saxophone enters with a melody that hints at this album’s inspiration from post-bop and other developments in jazz from America in the 1960s. The two separate approaches to the same genre seem to work both with and against each other at times, creating for a gripping listen, for the most part. The interesting approach to both rhythm and melody on this composition is impressive, as is the dexterity with which the quartet perform such an esoteric piece. Loueke’s dainty soloing further fortifies the undeniable desert blues sounds of many West African countries that are evident here, and many of the small, intricate licks sound perfectly suited for a song by Tinariwen or Imarhan. Overall, this composition is built on a solid idea and a bold approach to jazz that is actualised impressively, although I can’t help but feel that there was more ground to be explored on this piece. Particularly with the abstract drumbeat holding down the fort so well, I definitely see room for Kummert and Loueke to have executed some more daring solos and performances. Both musicians come through with some spotless soloing, but it largely stays true to a more conventional jazz idiom, whereas the piece felt like it was calling for a slightly more off-kilter approach. I find myself retaining similar small reservations towards a few other tracks on la diversité, where I feel that the record’s subtly works against it, in some ways.
The quartet’s approach to their reinvention of Cohen’s Hallelujah is, at the very least, intriguing. This piece is amongst the most subdued and fragile on la diversité, with the staples of the original song being so faint that it would be very easy to not even realise this was a rendition of a Leonard Cohen classic had one not noticed the title. Every now and then, the listener can hear a faint waft of Cohen’s vocal line in Loueke’s guitar playing and Kummert’s soloing, but to such a minimal extent that one can be forgiven for not noticing. This is a very relaxed reimagination of the song and almost feels like a different piece entirely, but, for the most part, the quartet’s approach complements the gentle and pure nature of the song. Although, I do find, again, that there was more to be explored on this cover. This is somewhat realised on the album’s closing track, Hallelujah Again, which is a different interpretation of the Cohen song, featuring just Kummert’s raspy saxophone and Loueke’s gentle acoustic playing. Whilst not what I had in mind for a rendition of this song, the intimacy and the chemistry between the soft sax and the gentle guitar play to the piece’s strengths, and more obvious elements of the original song can be heard on this version than the other portrayal earlier on in the tracklisting.
la diversité throws a few curveballs that I wasn’t expecting and that go down as some of the most memorable on the record. We’ll Be Alright, for instance, doesn’t just feature a more conventional title, but a typical rock drumbeat and bass groove, which are married with Loueke’s slightly distorted guitar playing and some of Kummert’s most straightforward saxophone melodies, but also some of his most tuneful and infectious, on the album. It doesn’t take much to imagine this composition being reworked as an all-out rock song and it is a stand-out moment on la diversité as a result, aptly exhibiting the quartet’s versatility and diversity. Indeed, this track is almost simple to the point of being complex, as making a piece like this work gives rise to many potential pitfalls for the quartet, but they portray the piece perfectly and with no real hitches whatsoever. The succeeding track, And What If We’re Not, isn’t merely an answer to the title of its predecessor, but musically, this piece matches much of the peculiarity featured on We’ll Be Alright too. Loueke’s bright acoustic plucking is reminiscent of some singer-songwriter stylings of soft folk music, with Kummert’s saxophone seemingly acting as the vocal part for the song. What both of these cuts display is Kummert’s and Loueke’s ability to adapt as to suit the form of jazz that they want to bring to life on record and, if nothing else, their impressive musicianship and clear chemistry as collaborators.
Overall, on la diversité, Kummert sees a great deal of success in realising his abstract ideas regarding the marrying of distinctly different styles and structures within jazz music. The results are nearly always as interesting on record as they are on paper, but there are instances in which room for some of the pieces to have been further developed is detectable. Employing the help of Loueke really honed in a lot of the ideas on the album, with his guitar lines providing a sense of balance, and grounding Kummert’s fluid and explorative saxophone lines as to not let these compositions spiral out of control. Moreover, as a pair, it is obvious that Kummert and Loueke are experienced as colleagues and both musicians know how to hit the sweet spot in order to complement and embellish what the other is doing. I may have my reservations for la diversité, but it is nonetheless an interesting release and well-worth a listen for jazz fans of many kinds.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10