Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

August 26, 2020


This ‘odd couple’ of world jazz turn about to be the perfect partnership, exploring different sounds and cultures and bringing to their music a bewitching blend of contrasts and commonalities.

Mino Cinelu & Nils Petter Molvaer


BMG Modern Recordings)

Mino Cinelu – percussion, acoustic guitar, voice, loops, etc
Nils Petter Molvaer – trumpet, electric guitar, voice, loops, effects, etc

Released on BMG’s Modern Recordings imprint “SulaMadiana” is a collaboration between the duo of French percussionist Mino Cinelu and the Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, although on this evidence it’s probably best to regard both musicians as multi-instrumentalists.

The album title references the Norwegian island of Sula, where Molvaer grew up, and Madiana, an alternative name for Martinique, the birthplace of Cinelu’s father.

The merging of one word into the other also summarises the duo’s approach to music making. Both musicians are heard on multiple instruments, acoustic sounds blend with electronica and the fourteen mainly short pieces embrace a variety of musical styles and cultures.

The seeds of the project were sown in 2015 when Molvaer performed a solo concert at the Cappodoxia Festival in Turkey. Cinelu was in the audience and later approached Molvaer with the suggestion of collaborating on a joint project.

“His sound, his concept and his playing resonated deeply” explains Cinelu, “from that day I knew that our paths would cross again. We promised to collaborate together on an uncommon project”.

However it took some time for the project to come to fruition. Following a number of other meetings a studio session eventually took place in Oslo, where the backbone of the album was created. Post production was subsequently completed at Cinelu’s home studio in Brooklyn, New York, a Transatlantic exercise with Molvaer participating from Oslo as the duo were forced to collaborate in isolation following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. “It was a real trip, a lot of blood, sweat and tears – but even more love” says Cinelu of the collaboration.

On the face of it Cinelu and Molvaer look to be unlikely partners, coming as they do from very different cultures. Yet lurking over this album is the spirit of that ‘Dark Magus’ of jazz, Miles Davis, with whom Cinelu famously worked and who was an enormous influence on Molvaer.

Davis was rightly famed for his musical openness and for his insistence on keeping the music moving forward. Something of his musical philosophy also informs this project with Molvaer commenting;
“We are different, but what we have in common is that we like to give some space to things. I create space for him, he creates space for me, and we both create space for music.”
Cinelu adds;
“It doesn’t matter who has what share in music. We both know each other’s cultures, we find bridges and crossings, and often we walk these paths that lead in the same direction. We wrote everything together and followed our feelings. There are no limits or barriers.”

Before working together Cinelu and Molvaer had both enjoyed successful careers, both as solo artists and as collaborators with others. I first heard Cinelu’s playing in my prog rock youth when he appeared on Gong’s 1976 album Gazeuse!, an all instrumental, percussion centred album from a line up that included four drummers/percussionists and also featured the late Allan Holdsworth on guitar.

Cinelu later moved to New York where he was spotted by no less a luminary than Miles Davis, with whom he toured and recorded, appearing on such albums as “We Want Miles”, “Star People”, “Decoy” and “Amandla”. His reputation made he subsequently joined Weather Report, with whom he stayed for two albums, and also appeared on Pat Metheny’s 1997 recording “Imaginary Day”.

Cinelu has also released three solo albums “Mino Cinelu” (2000), “Quest Journey” (2002) and “California” (2006). He was also part of the World Trio alongside guitarist Kevin Eubanks and bassist Dave Holland, appearing on the 1995 album of the same name.

As a busy sideman and session musician Cinelu has worked with many other leading figures in the jazz, rock and pop fields including Herbie Hancock,  Gil Evans, Kenny Barron, Geri Allen,  Michel Portal, Sting, Santana, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush and more.

Meanwhile a then very young Molvaer first came to my attention in the 1980s as a member of Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen’s Masqualero quintet,  the group named after a Wayne Shorter composition on the 1967 Miles Davis album “Sorcerer”.

But it was the album “Khmer”,  Molvaer’s solo début for ECM Records,  that really established the trumpeter as a musical force, thanks in part to its innovative use of electronics. He has since made more than a dozen other solo albums for a variety of labels as well as frequently collaborating with other leading figures on the Norwegian music scene and beyond. These have included Jon Balke, Sisel Endresen, Eivind Aarset, Kjetil Bjornstad, Lars Danielsson, Dhafer Youssef, Django Bates, Jon Christensen,  Manu Katche, Bill Laswell, Moriz von Oswald and Jamaican reggae legends Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.

On a personal note since that first sighting with Masqualero I’ve since witnessed a couple of further live appearances by Molvaer at UK Festivals over the years. The first of these was with British drummer Martin France’s Spin Marvel group at the 2011 Cheltenham Jazz Festival in a line up that also included a guest appearance from former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.  In 2013 at Brecon Molvaer appeared as part of a duo with the electronic musician Geir Jenssen, the artist known as Biosphere. In truth both of these shows were a little disappointing and rather lacking in impact.

Given Molvaer’s predilection for the moody and introspective I wasn’t quite sure how his partnership with the more extrovert and outgoing Cinelu would work, but the duo actually complement each other very well. They do indeed find common ground, while drawing on a host of musical and cultural influences and the result is an impressively varied album that is miles away from the ‘one piecedom’ of some of Molvaer’s earlier work.

Individual pieces pay tribute to some of the great musical names that have left us during 2020, Cinelu’s former mentor Manu Dibango, Afro-beat pioneer Tony Allen and “Kind of Blue” drummer Jimmy Cobb.

The album commences with the minute long “Le monde qui change”, a kind of fleeting overture featuring the melancholic ring of Molvaer’s trumpet underscored by the resonant patter of Cinelu’s percussion, on what sounds like a ghatam, or Indian clay pot. Cinelu also features on gently picked acoustic guitar.

The tantalisingly brief opener is followed by the album’s lengthiest track, the near six and a half minute “New York Stroll”. The wispy, ethereal, electronically enhanced sounds of Molvaer’s trumpet are contrasted with the earthy rhythms generated by Cinelu on a wide range of percussive instruments. The sheer variety of sounds that the master percussionist produces is truly remarkable and the whole piece is surprisingly effective.

The title track, subtitled “For Manu Dibango”, is dedicated to the late Cameroonian saxophonist, vocalist and bandleader, a musician that Cinelu regards as a mentor and as a “sage”. Dibango was the instigator of ‘Makossa Soul’, a sound and style subsequently ‘borrowed’ by Michael Jackson. The mood here is celebratory and much more African with Cinelu also featuring as a guitarist and vocalist.  Justifiably this lively, catchy, evocative piece has also been issued as the album’s first single.

Vocals also feature on “O Xingu”, which transports the music to the heart of the Amazonian rain forest. Effective use is also made of the sounds of ethnic flutes, although I’m not quite sure who to credit here. Cinelu’s percussion variously rumbles or shimmers, and underpinning it all is an atmospheric, low register drone, presumably generated by Molvaer on electric guitar.

“Take The A# Train” doesn’t sound like anything like Ellington, but Cinelu’s virtuoso percussion performance does serve as a reminder of jazz’s African roots. Molvaer joins in about half way through with a squiggling trumpet solo, his urgent, bebop inspired lines underscored by a percolating forest of percussion. This is an exciting, high energy performance that captures some of Molvaer’s most impassioned playing to date.

As its title might suggest “Theories of Dreaming” marks a return to the type of ambient soundscape more associated with Molvaer as his trumpet whispers in conversational fashion above ghostly, atmospheric soundwashes and the occasional rattle of percussion. It functions as kind of two minute interlude, or even overture, as it leads into the more rhythmic “Indianala”.
Here Cinelu toys with Indian rhythms and konnakol style vocalising in a piece that contrasts powerful rhythms with the ethereal sound of Molvaer’s trumpet whispers. These hot and cool / earthy and ethereal contrasts are a characteristic of the album as a whole and are highly effective. Only at the close of the piece does Molvaer let himself go and play with a real incisiveness.

“Kanno Mwen” combines muted trumpet whispers and gently swirling electronica with a subtle percussive undertow. Electric guitar is also in the mix and later Cinelu lifts his voice to sing, the passion of his African inspired vocalising again combining well with the Nordic cool of Molvaer’s contribution.

“Tambou Madiana” is a short, twenty second burst of solo percussion that is dedicated to the memory of Jimmy Cobb, and again serves as a reminder of the African roots of jazz.

“Process of Breathing” marks a return to Nordic ambient territory with the eerie, echoed whispers of Molvaer’s trumpet, as we migrate from the rain forest to the tundra.

“Rose of Jericho” then brings everything together, the incisive ring of Molvaer’s trumpet cutting through Cinelu’s infectious percussive undertow in the manner of the clarion call of fellow Norwegian Jan Garbarek’s soprano sax.

“Song for Julie” appears in two incarnations. The first of these is dedicated to the late Tony Allen and opens with the lonely, electronically enhanced ring of Molvaer’s trumpet, sounding a kind of ‘last post’. Cinelu’s drums and percussion then pay a more obvious ‘tribute’ to the master drummer, his virtuoso display cushioned by the ambient backdrop.

“Song For Julie (Oslo)”, which was probably actually recorded first, features an alternate take on this percussion / electronics interface, this time with a stronger electronic component, perhaps inspired more by techno and electronic music.

The album concludes with a reprise of “SulaMadiana” here subtitled “Pt. 1”. It’s very different to the earlier version, here presented as a gently reflective folk song featuring Cinelu’s acoustic guitar and warm, passionate vocals, enhanced by his own percussion shadings and interspersed by Molvaer’s gloriously mellifluous trumpet melody lines.

Despite having my doubts about Molvaer’s output in the past I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed this album. This ‘odd couple’ of world jazz turn about to be the perfect partnership, bringing to their music a bewitching blend of contrasts and commonalities.

“SulaMadiana” combines the intimacy of a jazz duo performance with post production techniques to create something magical. It also explores different musics and cultures to produce an album that is admirably varied in terms of both style and dynamics. The playing and singing is first rate and the irrepressible Cinelu is a force of nature, his percussion bringing rhythm and colour to the recording and his highly impressive vocalising an essential joyousness. Meanwhile Molvaer brings depth, texture and a balancing coolness, the perfect foil for his partner’s exuberance and vibrancy.

Recorded and developed on two different continents and influenced by at least two more this truly is a global album. Let us hope that the duo of Cinelu and Molvaer will be able to take this music to the world when some kind of normality eventually returns. The possibility of seeing these pieces performed live is certainly an exciting and intriguing prospect.

In the meantime I might just dust off my forty four year old copy of “Gazeuse!”.

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