There is a promoter who periodically sends me lists of contemporary and fusion jazz albums to review. Most of the artists I’ve never heard of; and the quality can be mixed. Picking something to review can sometimes feel like a bit of a shot in the dark. Every so often, however, I find something diamond-like in the (plentiful) rough.
Sameka is one such group. A German-based jazz fusion band led by bassist Simon Zauels, the melodies are provided by Antoine Spranger on piano and Patrick Baumann on guitar, and the rhythm section is rounded off by drummer Tobias Frönhofer.
Right from the off I sensed this wouldn’t be a common-or-garden jazz album, due to the Eastern Mediterranean vibe on opener Actual Proof. Even though it’s a cover of a Herbie Hancock tune, although I didn’t spot the connection.
Reading that the band has played at jazz festivals in Uzbekistan and central Asia to much acclaim, in light of the distinct sounds in the opening tracks, seems to make sense. The first part of this album is definitely in crossover territory - think Silk Road meets Haupstrasse - but the relative rarity of such a mix of musical cultures in the jazz space means it certainly does stand out among the dense crop of jazz fusion albums out there on the market.
Tracks like the title cut, Sameka, feature oud player Hesham Hamra, and he pushes home the centrality of middle Eastern and central Asian sensibilities across the first three tracks particularly. While the sound of this instrument takes a little getting used to - think acoustic guitar with added ’twang’ - it does add something different to the sound palate.
Hearing an oud solo, accompanied by piano comping and shuffling drums, is certainly not part of my regular musical listening and, at times, it can feel a little dense and cloying as a soundscape; yet, when Sameka get the mix right, it’s uplifting and points to the fact that music is an international language.
Beyond the sounds of the souk there is, however, on a track like Oriental Dance, a solid foundation of groove, variable time signatures and singing guitar that is rooted very much in the western contemporary jazz tradition and the fusion sub-set.
Watch a preview for the album on Youtube here:
The fifth track, with the very uninspiring title of The Bog, is anything but. It begins with what sounds like someone sweeping a floor, then a simple bass/drum/piano groove drops in over which Baumann’s guitar switches between western and eastern moods. It’s definitely the strongest (and longest) track on the album and the most conventional ‘fusion' track, with complicated group playing, expansive soloing and a strong sense of musical purpose as the track progresses.
I’m a sucker for fusion bands led by bass guitarists and the sweet, sweet soloing by Zauels on this track - dripping with intent - marks this track out for repeated listening. The band playing is super tight - they’re Germans, I’d expect nothing less - and for a debut album with mostly original creations, the album is a departure from the norm, signalling a bright future.
Sometimes drums, bass and piano is all you need, however, and Spranger’s playing is super strong on the latter tracks, particularly on Dark Horse, when he and Zauels are locked, note for note, in a driving motif over which Baumann and sax playing guest Daniel Buch create annoyingly infectious melodies. The final track, Turtur, is a fine slice of contemporary piano-led jazz, with Buch’s soprano sax providing a tonal nod back to the earlier, eastern-influenced tracks, particularly when he lets rip.
This is not a faultless album, but there’s a positive spirit in the compositions which suggests I’d enjoy future outputs from this band.