JOY album trailer | Benjamin Boone with the Ghana Jazz Collective | Available on Origin Records
BENJAMIN BOONE
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When he moved to Ghana, saxophonist/composer Benjamin Boone never expected he would join a quartet of stellar jazz musicians; he figured he would be a student of the West African nation’s rich array of traditional music. Turns out, he did both.

On sabbatical from his day gig as a professor at California State University Fresno, Boone’s yearlong fellowship as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar yielded plenty of opportunities to learn various Ghanaian styles. But he also connected with a cadre of brilliant Accra-based jazz musicians eager to embrace an American colleague.

During his last week in Ghana, Boone gathered these jazz compatriots together in a sweltering Accra studio to document the new friendships, resulting in an arrestingly beautiful album aptly titled Joy. The project showcases a cosmopolitan cast of artists who perform as the Ghana Jazz Collective. The ensemble includes tenor saxophonist Bernard Ayisa, pianist Victor Dey Jr., bassist Bright Osei, and drummer Frank Kissi. While laced with unmistakably West African polyrhythms, the music wouldn’t sound out of place in Manhattan, Los Angeles, or London, encompassing funk, fusion, R&B, and post-bop idioms.

Boone has garnered remarkable attention in recent years for two critically acclaimed albums featuring his compositions written to accompany recitation by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Philip Levine. Boone was in Ghana when the first of these two albums came out, 2018’s The Poetry of Jazz (followed by 2019’s The Poetry of Jazz, Vol. 2). Praised in leading musical and literary publications, voted the #3 “Best Album of 2018” in DownBeat Magazine’s annual Readers Poll (behind Chick Corea and Wynton Marsalis), featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, and an Editor’s Pick in The Paris Review, these albums established Boone as one of the most compelling voices exploring the intersections between poetry and jazz.

Joy also focuses on his original compositions, starting with the surging opener “The Intricacies of Alice,” a multifaceted portrait that builds to a dazzlingly syncopated conclusion. “Slam” is another rhythmic steeplechase, alternating between 5/4 and 6/4. With the emphatic wordless vocals of Sandra Huson, the tune feels like an early fusion experiment inspired by an ecstatic ritual. Boone offers a slinky tribute to the venue where he regularly joined his Ghanaian collaborators, “The 233 Jazz Bar,” named after Ghana’s country code “+233.”

“Curtain of Light” was introduced to Boone in Ethiopia by Jonovan Cooper, a U.S. expat who leads Addis Ababa University’s jazz program. “This tune sounds fresh, and almost spiritually euphoric,” says Boone.

Huson delivers Boone’s R&B power ballad “Without You” with complete authority, rendering the lovesick lament with such gospel-powered conviction it sounds like a forgotten hit from 1999. She’s also the x factor on Boone and Dey’s reharmonization of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” providing wordless vocal lines that add a luminous texture to the theme.

The album closes with the title track, a rapturous tune by the late saxophonist Gerry Niewood. Its open-hearted theme seemed to Boone to embody the Ghanaian practice known as akwaaba, an Akan term that translates literally as “welcome” but encompasses a sense of hospitality, acceptance, friendliness, and cooperation.

Pianist Victor Dey Jr., the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, grew up in the U.K., Algeria, and later in Ghana. He studied at Berklee College of Music in 2006 before returning to Ghana. Awarded “Musician of the Year” at the 2014 Vodafone Ghana Music Awards, he’s performed with masters such as Stevie Wonder, Courtney Pine, Hugh Masekela, and Ghanaian highlife innovator Gyedu-Blay Ambolley.

Ghanaian-born saxophonist Bernard Ayisa got his start on the Johannesburg jazz scene after studies with Darius Brubeck and Dustan Cox. He works regularly with Iraqi guitarist, singer, and composer Ilham al-Madfai, whose synthesis of Western guitar stylings with traditional Iraqi music has earned a vast popular following across the Middle East. Frank Kissi is the first-call drummer in Ghana and winner of the 2014 Vodafone Ghana Music Awards Instrumentalist of the Year. And bassist Bright Osei has performed and recorded with leading Ghanaian musicians such as the prolific Afropop/reggae singer Kojo Antwi, gospel artist Ofie Kodjoe, highlife star Daddy Lumba, and R&B vocalist Ofori Amponsah.

Heralded in both jazz and new music circles, Benjamin Boone’s music has garnered 18 national and international awards and honors, has been performed in 35 countries, and has appeared on 28 albums. For more information, visit www.BenjaminBoone.com
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