Sounds from the Ancestors is Kenny Garrett's fifth album for Detroit's Mack Avenue label. The connection is significant. The artist grew up in the Motor City and was mentored by some of its most iconic musicians, including the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Garrett has often referenced the sounds of his hometown including Motown soul, gospel, and its ever-evolving jazz and blues scenes. But here for the first time, he meditates upon them simultaneously, examining their roots in the music of West Africa and its role in the musical development of France, Cuba, Guadeloupe, and of course, Nigeria. Garrett's core band includes pianist Vernell Brown, Jr. bassist Corcoran Holt, drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr., and percussionist Rudy Bird. He also enlisted a guest cast that includes drummer Lenny White, pianist/organist Johnny Mercier, trumpeter Maurice Brown, conguero Pedrito Martinez, and batá percussionist Dreiser Durruthy, as well as a handful of singers. In addition to playing alto saxophone, Garrett plays electric piano.
The Afro-Latin tinge merges immediately on album-opener "It's Time to Come Home," with a circular conga and batá groove buoyed by piano, brushed snares, tom-toms, and bass as Garrett's alto sax digs deep into modalism in a solo that reflects the influence of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." Jean Baylor's and Durruthy's wordless vocals hover in the backdrop, swooping in for emphatic fills. The celebratory, swinging "Hargrove" finds Garrett and Brown on the front line, grooving hard atop the rhythm section and congas. The vamp moves outward in circles, adding breakbeat snares, rippling conga, and a backing chorus painted with a funky backbeat. "When the Days Were Different" is on the gospel tip with majestic electric and acoustic pianos, simmering Hammond B-3, and Chris Ashley Anthony's and Sheherazade Holman's soul-stirring vocal affirmations. When Garrett brings the alto solo, he soars across it. "For Art's Sake" weds post-bop, fusion, and Nigerian grooves. Electric, Fender Rhodes, and acoustic pianos entwine above Bruner's kit and the manic percussion section. Garrett's melody serves to draw attention to the explosive rhythm display. "What Was That" is a muscular exercise in spirited modal post-bop, offering Afro-Latin rhythm collisions amid kinetic horn exchanges. The post-bop articulation continues on "Soldiers of the Fields/Soldats des Champs," a two-part composition that integrates Guadeloupean rhythms, commanding martial trap beats, and a circular, vamp-like motif upon which Brown and Garrett deliver dazzling solos. Garrett articulates a mournful piano melody on the title track before the Afro-Latin percussion section enters to turn up the heat. Martinez offers chant-like singing in Yoruban, and is joined by Dwight Trible, who complements him with an affirmative modal blues wail to summon the spirits just before Garrett delivers a ranging, resonant alto solo. Ultimately, Sounds from the Ancestors amounts to another major work from Garrett; it easily stands with his -- and the year's -- finest albums.