Diverse trio features three of the most impressive young musicians in Kansas City: trumpeter Hermon Mehari, bassist Ben Leifer and drummer Ryan Lee. On Saturday, Jan. 27, they performed in the new Grassroots Music Series at Kansas City Academy, with a theme of African and African-inspired music. The audience of about 40 were treated to an exploration of fittingly "diverse" rhythms and styles that showcased the connections between African and American musics.
Opening with as yet unnamed original piece, Diverse explored a quiet, pastoral setting over a hypnotic pattern from electric bass and brushwork on the drums. There was a near trance like element to this piece, as well as on the second piece, based on Gnawa music from Morocco. On this also untitled piece, Ben Leifer translated to his acoustic bass the feel and patterns of the gimbri, a three stringed Gnawan instrument with elements of lute, banjo and bass, while Lee used hand drumming and Mehari had very spacious, repetitive trumpet patterns. On the bass solo, Leifer emphasized a very plucky sound while Lee used the hi hat and handclaps at a medium slow tempo. Mehari's trumpet took my mind back to the spacious sound of Miles circa Sketches of Spain.
From there Mehari, whose parents came from Eritria in East Africa, provided a tune steeped in the dance rhythms of that country. With the electric bass riffs and the very staccato drumming behind him, his own trumpet melody was a bright and catchy tune. Towards the end, the band accelerated both the tempos and the volume, building the excitement up to a sudden end to the dance. Later, Mehari explained how, in this Eritrian dance style, this acceleration of the tempo signalled that the dance, based in a circle, was nearing its climax.
After three original pieces, Diverse then explored noted West Aftrican jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke's "Benny's Tune." with a gorgeous intro by Lee using mallets on just his cymbals. Mehari unleashed one of his most powerful solos, emphasizing his very effective use of the lower register of his horn and building to rapid fire flurries of notes before sliding back into the lovely melody. While the rhythm on this number had a samba-like feel, the next untitled original showed the connection between African rhythms and the clave rhythms often found in Latin, and especially Caribbean, music. Mehari's trumpet playing here, as well as the rhythms, brought to my mind both a "carnival" feel and the South African music of Abdullah Ibrahim.
Departing from the African theme for one tune, the band played a strikingly powerful version of "Body and Soul." On this number, Mehari showed his complete command of the trumpet and clear evidence of listening to the entire history of the trumpet in jazz, from Armstrong on. His tone was beautiful, he varied between long notes and glorious little flurries, threw in a growl here and a slur there, and showed that as much as he is into expanding the horizons of his music, he is more than conversant with the tradition of jazz. Leifer showed his skills with the bow on this piece as well.
Another piece from the African songbook was "Ghana Blues," by the bassist (from Cameroon, not Ghana) Richard Bona who showed a strong rhythmic pattern very much, to these ears, in the clave vein. Guest singer and keyboardist Anthony Saunders then came on to sing the D'Angelo piece, "Africa" before a question and answer session with the audience (a regular feature of the Grassroots series) and an encore with Lee shifting to piano and Mehari to drums for an Erykah Badu piece that showcased Leifer's electric bass, with an effect that sounded not unlike the keyboard synthesizer work of Headhunters era Herbie Hancock.
All in all, an impressive outing from a band that has matured rapidly, both in writing and performance, and is well worth catching in any setting. The Grassroots Music Series continues with concerts by the likes of Alaturka on Feb. 10 and Dave Pietro on Feb. 18; info at http://www.kcacademy.org/music/