Sly 5th Ave - Akuma

Sly 5th Ave4 Stars!

Saxophonist Sylvester Onyejiaka, Sly5thAve, shows he is a sophisticated composer with a promising future on his debut disc, Akuma. Originally from Austin, Texas, and now based in New York, Onyejiaka has toured with Prince and the New Power Generation and currently backs Prince alumna, vocalist Liv Warfield. Here he steps out as a leader, pulling together a sextet with strong contributions from guests like violinist Zach Brock and vocalist Denitia Odigie.

The music is written with care and played with gusto. Akuma starts off with the three-part “Suite For Ogbuefi,” and it feels more suited to a concert hall—though you might expect to find a guy named Sly5thAve in a small, bawdy club. (Which isn’t to say that the emerging “jazzbro” crowd won’t go crazy for this release; but the songs seem to want more of a suit-and-tie presentation.)

The Akuma project began two years ago, when the saxophonist traveled to Nigeria to explore his African roots. On the album, he has fused those influences with contemporary jazz, and the songs reflect a mix of complexity and ebullience. There’s a lot of energy here, as if the album was recorded live, with the band feeding off a voracious crowd. There are even moments where one might expect to hear joyful shouts from the audience—though they never bubble up.

Onyejiaka’s compositional strengths are so expansive, and the songs so large and rich, that his own playing is subdued in comparison. This isn’t to say the man doesn’t have chops. Yet for a guy so talented, he has focused his attention on the work as a whole, where he functions more like an accent color in the palate, as opposed to filling up every negative space like some other young artists might do on their debuts. It’s truly something to be admired.

While Onyejiaka gives the compositions space, Trumpeter Jay Jennings—known for his work with the Grammy award-winning group Snarky Puppy as well as keyboardist Jesse Fischer—grabs the listener’s attention every time he appears. He’s dynamic and captivating, and makes the compositions pop. Brock, known prominently for his recent work with bassist Stanley Clarke, provides a solo in the middle of “Bach” that reaches to such dizzying heights, it seems like he has vibrated out of the song altogether—until the head appears again. But with so much going in each composition, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for each individual soloist to shine. Fortunately, Onyejiaka has created a cohesive group sound, setting the bar stupendously high for each player.

—Anthony Dean-Harris (DownBeat)