Graded on a Curve: Ebo Taylor & Uhuru Yenzu, Conflict NKRU!

Ebo Taylor may not be a household name, but the once obscure Afro-beat figure has seen a rise in prominence over the last few years, with two albums of new material hitting the racks since 2010. Until recently, the best way to hear his older stuff has been through compilations, but the estimable Mr. Bongo label has just provided two of his prime records with multi-format reissues. Both are quite worthy of attention, but Conflict NKRU! is especially enjoyable in how it diverts from the now well-established Afro-beat template in search of intriguing possibilities.

That Ebo Taylor is still going strong at age 77 is impressive. That he’s actually still bringing the goods is even more so. Early last year he released Appia Kwa Bridge, his second album in cahoots with the Berlin-based Afrobeat Academy, and it’s a fine work that requires nary the slightest dispensation in regard to senior status.

Appia Kwa Bridge handily reinforced that 2010’s Love and Death, the record that essentially introduced Taylor to an wider audience after decades of impressive yet largely uncelebrated activity, was no fleeting hurrah of late-life glory. And it was fitting that both recordings were issued by the reactivated UK label Strut, an imprint that in ‘01 helped instigate the resurgence in classic and previously obscure Afro-beat sounds with their massive 3LP/2CD collection Nigeria 70: the Definitive Story of 1970′s Funky Lagos.

In between those new Taylor records, Strut also found time to round up some of his earlier work as player and producer, titling the 2LP/2CD collection Life Stories and releasing it in April of 2011. The enlightenment it offers, including amongst its spoils selections from such previously elusive projects as Asasse Ase, Apagya Showband, CK Mann Big Band, and Ebo Taylor & the Pelikans, was matched by the high-quality heat it generated; here was another welcome spotlight on further deep nooks amid Funky Africa’s many substantial crannies.

Like just about everybody else operating in the Afro-beat field, Taylor was overshadowed by the incendiary force that was Fela Kuti, though in an interesting twist they were students together at London’s Eric Guilder School of Music from ’62 to ’65. Apparently matters of geography and its attendant political climate, Taylor returning to Ghana while Fela stirred it up and broke out in neighboring Nigeria, also hindered the rise of his talent.

Life Stories clarifies that Taylor wielded a unique stamp upon his genre, beginning with his skills as a guitarist and flourishing through his talents as a composer and arranger. And its dozen songs (sixteen on the 2CD) flow so well that the knowledge over the whole thing’s status as a compilation can be easily misplaced. But when the reality of Life Stories’ derivation does sink back in, it can be accompanied with a nagging curiosity over the actual sonic topography of Ebo Taylor’s early albums.

Thanks to the admirable folks at Mr. Bongo headquarters the inquisitive can wonder no more, for the label has given his 1977 effort Ebo Taylor and his 1980 recording with Uhuru-Yenzu Conflict NKRU! a full-service reissue on vinyl, compact disc, and digital. Afro-beat nuts have likely already taken the necessary steps in securing these platters for their home delight, but both discs are simply too good to be relegated to the enjoyment of in-the-know genre mavens.

While there’s really no reason to not wholeheartedly recommend Ebo Taylor, particularly since it seems to serve as his debut as a leader, the sense of refinement and individuality that comprises Conflict NKRU! makes it quite difficult for this writer to resist spotlighting its charms. So this writer won’t. And away we go.

Afro-beat features such a singular sound that it can be easy to forget that it’s essentially a fusion of powerful elements, combining the traditional African forms of Yoruba and the genre known as Highlife with the qualities of jazz and funk contemporaneous to the time of its origin. If infectiously and often relentlessly groove oriented, it was also very advanced, though complexity took a backseat to its rhythmic and harmonic force.

And due to how this intense combination of influences generally (and appropriately) lacks the employment of the English language, difficulty can arise in the casual ear in differentiating between the numerous artists who worked in the field. And it can be tempting to chalk this up to a Western sensibility, but upon consideration that’s not exactly the situation.

For the same circumstance can creep up when listening to post-bop jazz, to raise just one example. It really comes down to that “casual ear;” time and dedication can bring the ability to recognize the subtle differences of individual approach and the shadings of regional and collective style. Prolonged unfocused exposure can thusly lead to the incorrect conclusion that “it all pretty much sounds the same.”

Conflict NKRU! finds Taylor and Uhuru-Yenzu stepping confidently outside of the boundaries of their genre’s by now well-defined zone, and its highly distinctive ingredients will likely bring those surmising they have heard “all the Afro-beat they need” to a quick reconsideration of that stance. While most definitely deep in the funky pocket, the record is cloaked in a superb sophistication that results in its standing out from the general historical gist of Afro-beat’s grooves.

Opener “You Need Love” sets the stage for the tidy album’s sonic imperatives; for starters, there’s a naturally tight but unusually urbane horn section, featuring trumpet and two saxes, alto and tenor, that leans closer to the richness of ‘70s Philly soul than the sweat-soaked oomph of the JB’s. And the rhythm section, composed of two drummers, a conga specialist and bass, compliments the horns in kind, rapidly locating a contagious environment that simmers in its warmth but never really erupts into a full-blown boil.

Taylor enhances the setting with a jazzy sensibility on both guitar and keyboard. His work on the strings can bring to mind the funky erudition of jazz-plectrum titan Grant Green, though Taylor situates the instrument differently in the mix, not really stepping to the foreground as a leader-soloist but instead simply adding another strong thread to the music’s already fabulous weave.

But it’s Taylor’s keyboard playing that really makes an impression. The influence of Deep Purple’s Jon Lord has been established in print on more than one occasion, and in terms of the other work collected on Life Stories, that’s mostly an appropriate (if potentially overstated) observation. But on Conflict NKRU! Taylor’s approach is significantly different, and “You Need Love” finds it landing not far from the exotica-tinged feel that’s extant on numerous ‘60s recordings from Sun Ra.

The icing on the craftily-baked cake of “You Need Love” derives from a sweetly-singing vocal group, located high in the mix and utilizing English to relate their message. This aspect, quite enriching in the positivity of its distinguishing qualities, spreads across Conflict NKRU!’s five tracks, though it’s also manifested differently as the record unwinds; the second song “Love and Death” basically follows the structure of “You Need Love,” but the next three tracks find the singers engaging in a splendid dialogue with Taylor that alternates English with their native tongue.

“Love and Death” was given a significantly fresh reading on Taylor’s 2010 release (additionally giving the album its title), but here it’s part of a deliciously unified design; the drummers groove, the horns provide unified spice while occasionally delivering brief solo statements, Taylor fills the spaces with his assured, spirited playing, and the vocalists complete the picture. On “What is Life?” a flute shows up, sure to bring a smile to the mugs of the soul-jazz lovers who meet with Conflict NKRU!’s pleasures.

That flute hangs around for the LP’s best track “Christ will Come.” If three of the album’s cuts will be familiar to those already conversant with Life Stories, it’s in this song that any quibbles over redundancy are steadfastly quashed.

The congas step up to the fore. Taylor’s keyboard examines patterns of simplicity to spectacular effect. As elsewhere on the LP, the bass hits upon a curious “popping” style that’s agreeably disciplined, never flashy. This is the sound of a healthy unit, with nary a ball-hog (to use Mike Watt’s term) in the mix. Likewise, the flute endeavors for beauty moves instead of the fluttering, over-busy attitude that often plagues the instrument. The horn section provides a tasteful vamp that’s pretty much a sample waiting to happen (Usher’s already nabbed from Ebo Taylor’s “Heaven” for his song “She Don’t Know.”) And the vocals’ intensity, in this case largely due to Taylor’s lovely quaver, effectively seals the song’s achievement.

Closing track “Victory” turns up the heat, so those looking to do a little gyrating of the back-end won’t be disappointed. From start to finish Conflict NKRU! is a confident and uplifting example of studio-based ingenuity, a fact amplified by Taylor’s dual instrumental role. Hopefully Mr. Bongo will continue to unveil the early work this extremely valuable artist in its original form, for historical context is rarely this sublime.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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