Akuma is the first album by rising saxophone star Sly 5th Ave, wrung from the sweat of him waiting tables in this self-financed album that’s been two years in the making. Born Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II, this Austinite worked his way up since picking up the saxophone at age 11 and attending the prestigious jazz program at the University of North Texas. He eventually wound up in Brooklyn as a composer, too, with producer credits and a tour with Prince added to his bulging resume.
His life’s work — inside and outside of music — may have well been working toward Akuma, due out February 11. Even if it hasn’t, Sly 5th Ave made a record that at least is the product of an effort of a talented artist who put his entire background into this great effort. This is no timid or half-baked first impression.
The three part “Ogbuefi” practically casts the signature for Sly’s brand of jazz: a song that unfolds at a naturally occurring pace, with a strong, quietly majestic theme or vamp that forms the bedrock for the song. His deep study of the traditional music of his family’s homeland Nigeria has left a mark on these songs, and not in the way of African and modern jazz existing side-by-side but with his ancestral strains and rhythms fully incorporated into his fabric of his American music. Sly exploits the sweetly soulful combination of his sax with Jay Jennings’ trumpet. Hajime Yoshida’s understated guitar solo is contrasted by Sly’s raspy one.
Discreet modulations on moods such as that is also a hallmark on this album; “Akuma” is more uptempo and fueled by lively African percussion by drummer ross Pederson and Keita Ogawa. However, Sly has a smart sense of knowing when to put them out front and when to dial them back and when to put in a key supportive role, as when they power a fine trumpet exhibition by Jennings. “Bach” by its title instantly conjures up a perception of classical music, and this peaceful piece sometimes offers chord changes and a finely attenuated arrangement that are more representative of chamber music than it is of jazz, but the simple, soaring theme is the gorgeous centerpiece of the song. Zach Brock is a featured soloist on violin, not an instrument I would have expected on this song, but it’s an inspired idea.
Sometimes, Sly’s sharp melodic sense with deftly weaving and complex rhythmic patterns finds common ground with Pat Metheny, as in the advance single “Deme.” Denitia Odigie’s lyric-less vocals deepening the harmony has something to do with that, too. Even as the album rounds the bend toward its conclusion, Sly does not let up in coming up with compelling strains: “Lolo” is serene, exquisite and fully conceived melody. Once again Brock is there to lend to that pleasing vibe through his violin. “Abuja” ends the program with another perfect marriage between an eloquent, dual-horn theme and African rhythms, tamed by Yoshida’s soft, single line notes. Some lively back and forth moments between Sly and Jennings loosens up the proceedings, even evolving into an informal jam after a false ending.
There’s an aura, a lofty aura that Akuma attains without the need for being outrageous or pretentious. Sly 5th Ave minded the details and came through with an album well worth all the tips he channeled into it.