Drummer Tony Allen has already gifted the world at least one lifetime's worth of rhythmic innovation, working both solo and with legendary collaborator Fela Kuti to alchemize the sinewy, slithering grooves of Afrobeat. With The Source, Blue Note is trying to make a fuss about Allen bringing his monstrous dexterity back around to the jazz which inspired him in his youth, but that's honestly a bit of a misnomer: this album is as much an Afrobeat record as anything else, and little of the music feels all that indebted to early heroes like Art Blakey. The line between genres is smeared a bit, though, and the lack of a bikini briefs-clad firebrand holding court out front might make it easier to get confused about what to call it.
The polyrhythmic powerhouse behind Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s pathfinding Africa 70 band, Lagos-born Tony Allen patented a unique approach to drumming that fused the slick syncopations of American jazz with the mesmeric, fluid grooves of African highlife music to create what became commonly known as Afrobeat. Since leaving Kuti in 1979, the in-demand Allen – who moved to Paris in the mid-80s, where he still lives – has released 13 solo albums and contributed to a welter of varied projects; from sessions with Ernest Ranglin and Charlotte Gainsbourg to playing with one of his most vociferous champions, Damon Albarn, as part of the supergroups The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and, more recently, Rocket Juice & The Moon.
Now 77, Allen surprised everyone earlier this year by releasing his most overt jazz recording yet, an excellent four track EP for Blue Note called A Tribute To Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, where, accompanied by a nine-piece super-slick French band, he reconfigured some classic hard bop material.
C lassic Blue Note releases of the 1960s are filled with tracks that exoticise Africa, with names such as Afro Blue, Afrodisia, Ghana, Niger Mambo, Mr Kenyatta, The Man from Tanganyika and so on. Five decades later, Blue Note.
Surrounded by a band eleven men strong, Allen's drums encompass both a wild complexity and cool reserve. The Source is a work that showcases a great rhythmic and tonal diversity throughout, floating between a myriad of influences and arrangements. In "Bad Roads", echoes of Mulatu Astatke can be heard in the sax melody and its subsequent layering, while steady whispers of dub are undeniable in the guitar part, leaving the track to capture something vaguely cinematic in its overall aesthetic.
Making your way through the formidable back catalog of long-time Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen—one that spans nearly half a century—is a revelatory, sometimes head-spinning journey. Allen’s work has traversed styles that on the surface have little in common beyond his unique rhythmic presence. In the past 10 years, for example, Allen has tackled everything from Afrobeat (on solo album Film of Life), dreamy French pop (with Charlotte Gainsbourg), downbeat indie rock (with The Good, the Bad & the Queen), and techno (with the Moritz Von Oswald Trio).