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Friday, August 26, 2022

Sélébéyone – Xaybu: The Unseen (Pi Recordings, 2022)

By Troy Dostert

When Steve Lehman’s Sélébéyone project debuted in 2016, it was widely recognized as a pathbreaking advance in merging jazz with innovative currents in underground rap. With an intercontinental ensemble drawing on the talents of well-established avant-garde jazz musicians and the artistry of rappers HPrizm and Gaston Bandimic, the recording bridged not only musical divides, but linguistic and cultural ones as well. The juxtaposition of HPrizm’s English and Bandimic’s Wolof (the dominant Senegalese language) was integral to the music’s boundary-challenging nature, as was its insistent exploration of Sufi religious themes over more time-worn topics. As impressive and challenging as that first outing was, its follow-up, Xaybu: The Unseen represents a fuller realization of the group’s concept, and an even more dizzying array of beats, textures and wordplay.

It's tempting at first to see this release as moving a greater distance from the jazz world; the first album employed the talents of keyboardist Carlos Homs and bassist Drew Gress, neither of whom are present here. So this is a “stripped down” ensemble, with soprano saxophonist Maciek Lasserre, drummer Damion Reid and Lehman (on alto saxophone) working alongside the rappers as a quintet, essentially. But the debut relied so heavily on samples and studio layering that it was frequently impossible to determine where the “live” musicianship ended and the produced elements began. Xaybu is in the same way a producer’s record, with Lasserre and Lehman each composing and producing half the tracks. To be sure, there isn’t much to be found by way of conventional jazz rhythms, although there are instrumental voicings, particularly from the saxophones, that retain a tenuous tie to idiomatic jazz elements. Moreover, there are spoken word clips from Billy Higgins and Jackie McLean woven throughout the album, which bear not only on the music’s connection to jazz but to the Islamic tradition as well, as both musicians were Muslim converts. But regardless of its diverse stylistic and cultural touchstones, this release has successfully created a musical world of its own—one that demands to be appreciated on its own merits, irrespective of its antecedents.

Like all significant music, this is art that can be engaged on multiple levels. The musicianship is superb, with dazzling contributions from both saxophonists. Lehman’s meticulous, angular lines on “Liminal” pave the way for the questing flights of Lasserre, who like Lehman seems energized by the track’s expansive yearnings. And Damion Reid is once again astonishing, able to take a bewildering variety of rhythms and shift, fracture, and reassemble them at will. The rhythmic multiplicity on this release seems a definite leap over what was on offer on the group’s debut. Tracks like “Djibril” and “Gas Akap” possess kaleidoscopic range, with unsettled beats that are transformed well before one can ever get completely comfortable with them. And the assorted sounds and textures introduced at the production stage are themselves something to marvel at; a nice set of headphones is an asset in helping to unravel some of these mysteries.

There’s also a spiritual integrity to the music that is worth mentioning. If Higgins and McLean saw their artistic creations as emanations of their religious pursuits, Bandimic and HPrizm are certainly making the same acknowledgement here. “Go In,” after McLean’s voiceover, sees HPrizm asserting that “It’s harder to connect to the source/Amid the chaos the signal wasn’t lost/But across time to find the through line it took a lot of work/Uncovering, unlocking, unblocking, maneuvering, not stopping/Trekking through the rumble of a crumbled empire/My legacy was buried underneath all of that/And it’s still there.” Bandimic’s vocals (translated into English on the Pi website) are just as potent, delivered with invigorating urgency and energy.

In the end, analyzing the music only takes us so far, as it can get in the way of what is, when all is said and done, a very engaging musical experience. In the liner notes describing the album’s creation, Lehman says that “ultimately the way that things come together to imbue a piece of music with meaning and substance remains largely elusive and mysterious.” It’s an apt description of the listening process as well, one exemplified by this captivating recording.


Martin Schray said...

Very nice and insightful review, Troy. I wasn't aware of this project. sounds really interesting, I will definitely check it out. Best, Martin

Troy D said...

Thanks, Martin - you'll find a lot to like. I wasn't totally sold on the 2016 album, but this one really clicked for me.

Lee said...

Agree with Martin, this was a very fine review, Troy. Like you, I was not wholly onboard, although I thought there was a lot of promise in the lineup. I just wanted to see them push a little further, and this time they absolutely knocked it out of the park.