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Souljazz Orchestra is bent on bending genres

Band displays Afro inclination in first US tour

The Souljazz Orchestra is a band based in Ottawa and made up of natives of the area around Canada’s capital, along with one Idaho ringer. It coalesced roughly 10 years ago through not atypical beginnings: a bunch of musicians hanging out in the same bars who started talking to each other. Despite that decade-long tenure, numerous tours in Europe and its homeland, and geographical proximity, the Souljazz Orchestra has never toured in the United States - primarily because of the bureaucratic and logistical difficulties imposed by US regulations. That is about to change; the band is embarking on its first US tour, which arrives at Scullers on Thursday.

The Souljazz Orchestra does not play the sort of music that its name might be taken to suggest - the typically organ-fueled hybrid jazz form made popular in the 1960s - although it did have some early connection to that form.

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“I guess that in the beginning we were maybe a little more soul-jazz-oriented, in the really strict sense of the term - Donald Byrd and Grant Green and Jimmy McGriff-type stuff,’’ says Pierre Chrétien, band leader, multi-instrumentalist, and principal songwriter, speaking by phone from his home on a Sunday afternoon. “But we’ve always had different influences. I think everything we do is soulful and jazzy in a general sense, although not always in a very American kind of way. We were doing other stuff right from the start.’’

That “other stuff’’ includes a wild mélange of musical styles and influences - ample amounts of American funk and soul, loads of African strains, Latin elements, and even some reggae here and there - brought to life through a collective that always includes a phalanx of horns, percussion, and keys, variously supplemented by woodwinds, guitars, vibes, and even the occasional harp.

Chrétien shies away from a typical characterization of the band’s music as Afrobeat because of that term’s specific association with the music of Fela Kuti (“That’s over- generalizing, like calling it ‘world music,’ ’’ he argues. “A lot of Western journalists will call anything from the African continent ‘Afrobeat.’ ’’)

Having said that, he doesn’t deny an Afrobeat presence, but he characterizes what the Souljazz Orchestra does as “Afrojazz.’’ “I like the term ‘Afro’ because it’s so general, it just means anything from the African continent.’’

In this band’s case, that includes “a lot of Highlife, Afrobeat, some Jùjú, Soukous, a little Makossa . . . .’’ It’s a list the band keeps adding to; Chrétien remarks that the group has been recording recently with Senegalese musician Élage M’baye, and through that collaboration “incorporating a lot of Senegalese styles, the sort of Cuban-Afro-Latin stuff they do over there.’’

Asked how a French-Canadian kid who grew up in Ottawa came to play this sort of music, Chrétien replies by pointing out that Canada has one of the highest immigration rates in the world, and consequently, a lot of folks, including musicians, from all over the world in places like Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa.

“So when I was a teenager, I started playing with different groups. I played with a group from Madagascar, with a Nigerian pop group, reggae bands, straight-up jazz bands. So when the band came together, all of these kinds of influences were just part of our baggage, and we combined them all in the music we do as a result of all that.’’

The band has been combining its influences over the course of putting out four albums. The latest release, 2010’s “Rising Sun,’’ is something of a departure from its predecessors. It moves toward a stronger jazz sound on several tracks (including a splendid two-part distillation of the Pharoah Sanders song “Rejoice’’) and the instrumentation is entirely acoustic; in particular, not a single note of electric guitar is found. In addition, the music is all instrumental, which precludes the overtly political nature lent to the earlier albums by lyrical content (a couple of song titles - “Mista President,’’ “Kapital,’’ “State Terrorism’’ - are enough to give a sense of that flavor).

All of the changes were deliberate, according to Chrétien; the band wanted to shake things up. “I’m not crazy about bands that keep putting out the same album over and over through their whole career, with no progression or evolution.’’ In contrast, he continues, “we wanted to set challenges for ourselves,’’ so they put down anything electric, and went all-acoustic and all-instrumental. “And I think just because of the choice of instruments, it led us down a more jazz-oriented path.’’

Not for long, though. Chrétien indicates that the next Souljazz Orchestra album, which is basically in the can and scheduled for release in the fall (the band will be previewing material from it Thursday evening), is completely the opposite - very electric, with lots of vocals and collaborations. He says, “We like to switch things up and keep people guessing.’’

Stuart Munro can be reached at sj.munro@verizon.net.
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