Photographers: Nathan Hughes; Kora Jazz Trio; Nathan Hughes; Kataraina Pipi; Michel De Bock.
Jazz may have been born in the United States, but it didn't take long for it to find its way to every corner of the globe, and for remarkable artists to emanate from dozens of other nations. Too bad they're not here, on Putumayo's well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing collection. Jazz Around the World can't hope to be the definitive statement on contemporary international jazz at only 11 tracks, and it doesn't cover nearly enough geography (no Asian artists are represented). More to the point, though, its idea of jazz is a music that never quite swings, has never heard of bop or anything since, and aims more at the dinner-music set than serious jazz fans. Africa claims four of the 11 tracks collected here, among them "Open the Door," by the CD's most prominent artist, Hugh Masekela. Teaming up with vocalist Malaika, Masekela slips into an easy funk groove, and while his trumpet solo never really catches fire, it's a strong and sensual one. The Kora Jazz Trio combines that exquisite stringed instrument with piano and drums on the Cuban-derived melody "Chan-Chan," and Mali's K‚l‚tigui Diabat‚ utilizes the balafon on an appropriately warm and lazy take on George Gershwin's "Summertime." Nice enough, but hundreds of jazz artists have given it more life. Another standard opens the set: "La Mer," better known to Westerners as "Beyond the Sea," is given a breathy, late-night, innocuous reading by Canada's Chantal Chamberland. Mexico, never a hotbed of jazz, is the source of the Django Reinhardt-esque "Polka Dot Blues" by Sherele, and legendary American drummer Billy Cobham is rather restrained on his collaboration with the Cuban son group Asere on "Destino." New Zealand, too, earns an entry, but Kataraina Pipi's "Te Reo o Papatuanuku" barely registers as jazz, devoid of improvisational spark. That, in fact, sums up the set's problem: Jazz Around the World never reaches down into smooth jazz territory, but neither does it ever make us understand why these tracks might have something to contribute to the ongoing conversation that is jazz. ~ Jeff Tamarkin