Zem Audu

As we go through life, each of us is inhabited by the spirits of the places we’ve been, the people who’ve touched our lives, and the experiences we’ve lived through. Those spirits come out to play in the work of saxophonist Zem Audu, who is made of a particularly unique blend of them: born in Nigeria, Audu was raised in England before pursuing his musical career in New York City. Along the way, he’s studied or played with a wide range of singular artists including Hugh Masakela, Ernest Ranglin, Courtney Pine, Jason Moran, and the Skatalites.

If that blend of influences seems hard to reconcile, give a listen to Audu’s exhilarating new album Spirits, out June 16 on Origin Records. Contemporary jazz, Nigerian Afrobeat, Caribbean rhythms and funk grooves combine in provocative and diverse ways throughout the album’s eleven tracks, which feature pianist Benito Gonzalez, bassist Ben Williams, drummer John Davis and, as a special guest on five tracks, fusion guitar great Mike Stern.

The genesis for Spirits, Audu says, came from the deceptively tricky problem of trying to pin down the idea of home from the perspective of someone who’s lived all over the world during the course of their lifetime. “The question I always get asked is, ‘Where are you from?’ I don’t want to neglect that I was born in Nigeria and just say I’m English because of my passport. I don’t want to not mention that I live in the States after being here for seven years. And I don’t want to not mention growing up in England just because I live here now. I have to say all of these places because that’s my story.”

In many ways, this new album tells that story: the determination of parents who leave their home to find a better life for their children; the gift of music nurtured by a family full of players who always seemed to have instruments in their hands; the discovery of new sounds and the search to combine them with old favorites and deep-rooted traditions; the natural affinity for the modern blending with a fascination for tradition and an urge to, no matter how complex the music might get, always groove.

The tunes on Spirits live up to that promise. The core group of Gonzalez, Williams, and Davis are all longtime collaborators who can deftly navigate Audu’s eclecticism. Stern — who was initially scheduled to play on four tracks but was compelled to stick around for a fifth — brings his trademark liquid-mercury funk to the proceedings.

“The different spirits and elements that have shaped my sound — and, looking at the macrocosm, that have shaped my life — all come out in this music,” Audu says. “The broad range of music that I’ve appreciated and enjoyed, the different countries that all this music comes from, the different technologies that have influenced my production style, the energy and pressure of New York City. The thread that runs through this album is finding something that’s very specific to me.”

Those influences emerge in different ways throughout Spirits, from the Cape Town lilt of “Bird” to the bristling Nigerian Afrobeat churn of the title track, from the sultry electric funk of “Neon Nights” to the hypnotic dub rhythms of “Big Qi,” which was built on the bass line from The Skatalites’ signature hit “Confucius.” Audu’s lamenting lead-in to “Muso” seems to hang in the air, suspended by Davis’ surging, tidal percussion, before riding the rhythm section’s tightly interlocking grooves. “Flow” does just that, with liquid lines over sunny island soul. “Dragon” is built on the tensely spiraling piano figures spun by Gonzalez, while on “Bamijo” Audu and Stern combine to purr the slinky melody with the seductive allure of a great soul singer. Williams’ muscular tone anchors the steely “Arcade,” while Audu and Stern reteam to flitter like the titular “Moths” over an infectious Caribbean rhythm. Finally, “Nebula” closes the album on a more reflective though no less funky note, as the band manages to dance while staring off into the night sky.

As inventive as that blend might be, it came second nature to Audu, who found it less of a challenge to balance his varied influences than it would have been to block any of them out. “People don’t need simple answers,” Audu says. “They don’t need something to just be Afrobeat or to just be jazz. People have sensitive enough ears to embrace things that might be more complicated or more mixed, so I like to give listeners music that can feel familiar yet different.”

Audu was still a small child when his family left Lagos, Nigeria for London. His parents were university professors, his father also an artist, and the new home offered a mixture of challenges and opportunities. “It’s not easy to relocate from an African nation to Europe or America,” Audu says. “It was inspiring to see my folks realize their dreams. That made me less afraid to go to New York. It’s good to have those examples that can inspire us to do our own thing and follow our own paths.”

Everyone in the house played music, as did members of his extended family. Several uncles owned saxophones, and the young Audu found himself inexplicably drawn to the instrument. He was persistent and resolute enough that eventually his parents buckled and bought him a sax. The question of what to do with it naturally followed, and led Audu to discover jazz.

“Now that my parents have agreed to get me this instrument, how does it work?” he asked. “What have people done with it in the past? I started listening to Coltrane, perhaps not the most accessible thing for a 14-year-old kid, but it grabbed me. It was more than just music; there was a spiritual element to it. I didn’t know how technically advanced it was, I just knew that I wanted to be able to do something like that, to channel something through music and create a vibe.”

He received invaluable help from British sax giant Courtney Pine, whom Audu approached after a gig at Canterbury Cathedral. Impressed by the teenage saxophonist’s audacity, Pine encouraged him to visit him at his next gig, leading to a series of one-on-one lessons anytime Pine was playing nearby. Audu went on to study with Art Blakey disciple Jean Toussaint at Trinity College before getting the opportunity to work with giants like South African jazz legend Hugh Masakela, reggae guitar great Ernest Ranglin and modern jazz innovator Jason Moran. Audu moved stateside in 2010, quickly landing a long-running gig with ska superstars The Skatalites.

Those are the spirits that embody Audu’s singularly soulful music. “No matter how complex the time signature, it all needs to groove,” he insists. “You might not know what beat your foot is going to land on, but your foot is going to land.”

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