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A music festival is a long journey through sound in a short space of time, be it a few days or a fortnight. These events can also plant the seeds for new work that grows in the weeks, months or years after the final notes have been heard and the artists left town. This is the case for Samuel Blaser’s album Routes. The point of departure for this stellar groove adventure was the Tampere Jazz Happening in Finland.

At the 2018 edition of the event, the Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser appeared with the veteran American saxophone star Oliver Lake. During downtime after the concert Blaser shot the breeze with Tampere’s artistic director Juhamatti Kaupinnen, soon discovering that the two were bound by a shared love of reggae. Unbeknownst to many, the latter also records under the name Kuhnafar-I. An alliance of sorts led to notable happenings. Blaser made a guest appearance on Kuhnafar-I’s Dub One. The horn player and composer was thereafter invited to put together an international sextet that would interpret the songbook of Don Drumond, one of the most gifted and enigmatic artists to have emerged from the golden age of Jamaican music.

“His playing was unique, and the melodies he created very touching. I was intrigued by his life, which was so mysterious to me,” Blaser says of the legendary trombonist, whose music he first heard some 15 years ago.

“I really love the way he improvised… he was clearly ‘living it and living in it’. It was always simple, extremely melodic with lots of soul. That’s when I started to discover the trombone in a context other than classical and jazz.”

Drummond was a pivotal member of The Skatalites, the group that helped to usher in the revolutionary sound of ska, whose sparky, skanking rhythms in the ‘50s laid the foundation for rocksteady in the ‘60s and reggae in the ‘70s. When Blaser was a student at La Chaux-De-Fonds Conservatory in the early 2000s, he performed with local combos that had fallen under the spell of these styles. A magical new artistic world opened up. The boogie got into the boneman’s bones.

Furthermore, Blaser had the chance to hone his understanding of the many intricacies and subtleties of Jamaican music by working with the likes of dub innovator Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, poet Oku Onuora and multi-instrumentalist-bandleader Dennis Bovell. Most importantly of all he attended jam sessions in Switzerland at which he was able to hear up close, in person, one of Don Drummond’s inspirational artistic heirs, the great Rico Rodriguez. “That was the first time I heard an authentic trombone in this music,” he explains. “Rodriguez often came to Neuchâtel to see his dentist and huge fan of his music. Back then, he took advantage of those trips, to perform with local bands.

© Medi Benkler

Since the 2008 release of his album Seventh Heaven, with guitarist Scott Dubois, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver, Blaser has become a prominent member of both the Swiss and European improvised music scenes. His collaborations with forward-thinking mavericks such as pianist Benoit Delbecq and guitarist Marc Ducret have revealed astute phrasing and a richness of tone, which moves seamlessly from floating sensuality to ballooning aggression to create appealingly strange soundscapes. The Drummond project was, in keeping with the source of inspiration, more groove-based, and the band that Blaser led at Tampere featured players with a command of calypso, reggae, salsa and African music.

Bassist Ira Coleman, pianist Alex Wilson, the artistic director of Routes, drummer Dion Parson, saxophonists Soweto Kinch and Michael Blake, and guitarist Alan Weekes, all performed magnificently. While retaining the off-centre rhythmic tantalization and attention to detail of Jamaican music, Blaser’s group brought a distinct freshness to the stage.

“The main challenge was creating our own musical world without falling into the trap of becoming a tribute band,” explains Blaser, who also researched his subject thoroughly. “Reading the fascinating biography written by musicologist Heather Augustyn helped me connect to Drummond and imagine what he was like as person.

To create my own tunes, I imagined the context he might have grown up in and the kind of music he would listen to. Knowing that he had spent a lot of time in the Wareika Hills with Count Ossie, Nyabinghi rhythm is a central to my album. I also took my inspiration from beautiful melodies of Jamaican folk repertoire.”

When it came to recording the album Blaser decided to expand the line-up. “We kept the original Tampere band and added a few extra guests like Carroll Thompson, Steve Turre, Glenn Ferris, Edwin Sanz and John Fedchock. Having a versatile group of musicians comfortable with both jazz and reggae, provided the flexibility needed to create high quality music with outstanding, unique solos.”

“It was a real challenge to avoid sounding too clean while keeping the dirty sounding vibe of those old pieces,… nothing is together, it’s even out of tune, but it still sounds great!

That was a major challenge I faced when arranging my favorite tunes from the repertoire. We had to find unique orchestrations for ‘Silver Dollar’: Soweto simulatenously played and vocalized his part, and for ‘Thoroughfare’ we added a melodica. With ‘Green Island’ arranged for six trombones (Steve Turre, Glenn Ferris, John Fedchock, Jennifer Warthon, Johan Escalante and me,) I harmonized Drummond’s solo. That piece is the real tribute on Routes to his music.”

With the onset of the Covid pandemic in 2020 international travel ground to a halt, which was a nightmare scenario for a project of this nature, that drew together players across borders. Blaser had initially planned to record the songs in London, but, given the prevailing restrictions, the only feasible way forward was to assemble the entire album online. “Alex Wilson and I spent hours on each track to make it impossible to hear the album was recorded remotely,” he explains.

Overcoming that hurdle is a major achievement, given that the album, beyond its coherence, also manages to retain some of the cosmic, vaguely Sun Ra vibe that illuminated the Tampere concert. Furthermore the input of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, who cut dubs of a few tracks before his untimely death, brought a devilishly dada character to proceedings.

The beauty of Drummond’s music was undercut by tragedy, as mental illness took hold of the trombonist. His life irrevocably spiraled out of control and he eventually died in a prison asylum. Yet Drummond remains one of the key figures in the annals of ska, the music that enabled Jamaica, the ‘small island’ to make a big noise around the world, and the echoes of his trombone, the mighty brass that was his burning torch, are heard the world over to this day. Routes celebrates that history by what is a very unique journey in sound.

Kevin Le Gendre
Don’t Stop The Carnival: Black Music In Britain Vol 1

1. Silver Dollar 4:35
2. Rainy Days 6:27
3. Thoroughfare 4:36
4. Green Island 7:03
5. Chronicles 4:32
6. Beautiful Bed of Lies 5:03
7. Rainy Days Dub 6:28
8. Green Island dub 7:03



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