Tales of Life seems taller than life. Nigerian jazz trumpeter Etuk Ubong’s thoughtful album of his compositions speaks to not only Nigerian ancestral spirits, but also to the beauty of peace which our world could promote better through our humanity. Ubong’s ambition is to bring truth to music, sonic storytelling being one way. Young Ubong does just this, and exceeds expectations as he ambitiously, even conservatively, continues to explore reflective soundscapes and rhythms, in this, his second album, released in February 2017.
The opening piece, “Battle for Peace”, honours hope, love, and peace. The drums speak with eagerness and forward-thinking, even coercion as the three horns introduce the theme of this album. All seem to cry for peace. It’s an energetic beginning, honouring what’s good.
Ubong plays a staccato trumpet with a breathiness reminiscent of the early Miles Davis whom he emulates. His revealing solo in “Drawing Room” gives testimony to the serious practice he has undergone faithfully over these years of performing and perfecting his instrument along with the moods and emotions that can go with it. Likewise, he pairs nicely with the piano of Timothy Ogunbiyi with the off-beat drums of Benjamin James, as in “Genesis”, a piece that displays obvious talents of Ubong’s bassline.
His provocative sounds are clear, simple and thoughtful, improvising to be understood. In ‘Story’, he continues his telling, like a yoga massage. The drum silhouettes with a steady undercurrent, and the piano ends this story the way it began, pronouncing that the healing has been done.
In ‘Suddenly’, midway through the album, Ubong continues to unfold his tales with the same haunting off-beat drum and announcing piano that enters/exits, then re-enters, changing tempos and moods. This arrangement allows for a special layout by drummer James that charms. But when Ogunbiyi’s piano takes over, things become meditative and wondering. There are sudden outbursts of hyped up tempo and emotions, like questioning the purpose of life, then a whimsical return to the basic theme. This is a beautiful reflective piece, and my favourite on the album, as well as the longest song.
This questioning leads to the boppish ‘Tales of Life’, again with Ogunbiyi’s punctured piano treble runs. The long notes of Ubong’s horn are unwavering, bringing out the melancholic undertones which characterises this album. Some notes deliberately go off-kilter, synonymous with life’s sometimes erratic journey. As in life, one must learn to listen attentively. “The Earth Meditation” brings the listener back to reflection with the soothing near-silence of Ubong’s fugelhorn.
Ending the album, and befitting a son whose mother passed away too early, ‘Uyai Mi Margaret’ is a beautifully orchestrated song honouring Ubong’s mother, Margaret, as well as all women of this world. It’s a soulful vocal chant that adds meaning to this wonderfully inspiring album.
‘Tales of Life’ displays obvious growth of Ubong’s talents as he journeys his music far and wide, between South Africa, Nigeria (where this album was produced), and soon-to-be other worlds. Stay tuned as this innovative jazz trumpeter brings his African influences to his intriguing improvisational styles.