Jazz is an expression of the African diaspora, a music shaped by the movement of African culture over generations, utilizing cultural elements from wherever it happens to pass. The small Dutch-governed island nation of Curaçao is a meeting place for many cultures. European, Latin, and Afro-Caribbean people comprise a unique population with an eclectic musical culture.
Guitarist Jean-Jacque Rojer hails from Curaçao. Born into a family of musicians and composers, music was an important facet of life from his earliest days. Naturally, the folkloric music of Curaçao crept into Rojer’s musical expression but he soon began to invest in the rich roots that informed that culture, from other Afro-Caribbean sources and the main stem itself, Africa. Rojer’s new recording, Soko, presents the culmination of those explorations and how they informed the young guitarist’s compositions and playing.
Rojer is the latest composer in his family’s long line of composers that spans over six generations. His great, great, great grandfather Jan Gerard Palm was the father of classical composition in Curaçao. His great grandfather Jacobo Palm and father Roberto Rojer continued the classical legacy for the family. When his father tried to pass down the piano tradition, Jean-Jacque rejected it, preferring to apply his musical pursuits to the guitar and rock music.
Upon discovering jazz, Rojer was hooked and invested himself fully in its study. He studied at the University of Netherlands Antilles before he eventually matriculated to The Royal Conservatory of Music in the Hague. Since then, Rojer has been a regular in the Amsterdam and Curaçao jazz scenes.
It was during the North Sea Jazz Festival Curaçao that Rojer met New York based producer Brian Bacchus. The two were mutually interested in recording a project that could condense Rojer’s wide-ranging musical esthetic with the aid of an incredible New York based band. The ensemble highlights the diversity the project demanded and included Nuyorican bassist John Benitez, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, Curaçaoan percussionist Pernell Saturnino, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.
The music of Soko shows Rojer’s balanced approach to the music of his home. His compositions show the guitarist’s command of idioms that make up his musical background, from the classical inspirations of his father and grandfather to the Latin tinge stemming from his mother’s Venezuelan heritage.
The recording begins with the dynamic “Zumbi,” a piece written based on Curaçao’s ancient muzik di zumbi musical style that features Wolf’s dynamic vibes and Rojer’s guitar over a percussive background and subtle strings over a bed of percussion. The grooving “Guiambo”’s title comes from a gumbo like dish from the island and the ensemble utilizes a New Orleans bounce to spice it up. The lovely “Roce” is a laidback bolero that takes more than a hint from the smooth sounds of the 1970s. With a baião rhythm straight from the streets of Brazil, “Ruas” is a snappy and swinging piece that shows off Rojer’s bright guitar and Watts’s flexibility behind the kit.
A tribute to one of music’s greatest cultural fusers, Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “O ma charmante, épargnez-moi!” is modernized with a new reharmonization and percussive accompaniment by Saturnino. Rojer’s Latin chops are on full display on “Dindin,” an attractive descarga named for a regular Curaçao meeting place for musicians, here providing a wonderful meeting of soloists Wolf and Rojer. The title track “Soko” takes its name from the Swahili word for marketplace, the music echoing a market’s activity with layers of percussion and different instrumental characters.
Simón Díaz’s “Caballo Viejo” is a popular folk tune from Venezuela that Rojer steers into a more Afro-Caribbean vibe, switching the typical joropo rhythm with a 7/4 clavé. Kurt Weill’s standard “Speak Low” takes on a new character with 6/8 pulse and driving Benitez bass. The difficult “Saliña” is a unique fusion of mazurka and zouk rhythms, Eastern Europe meeting French Caribbean in a winding, dancing composition. The recording concludes with “Brua,” a tricky, Lennie Tristano inspired piece that takes the famed pianist’s rhythmic freedom and applies it to a Latin rhythm.
It is inspiring when a mix of such unique elements comes together in such an inspiring way. Jean-Jacques Rojer takes musical elements from the broad swath of the African diaspora to create his unique take on jazz, a swinging mix of Afro-Caribbean, Latin, and swinging pulses, on his new recording, Soko.
released August 6, 2021
Jean-Jacques Rojer - guitar & percussion
Warren Wolf - vibraphones
John Benitez - acoustic bass
Jeff "Tain" Watts - drums
Pernell Saturnino - percussion