Besides offering up an impressive mix of cross-pollinated world beats and forget-the-labels-just-go-with-it jams, Roots Before Branches feels like a deeply personal musical purging by drummer Henry Cole. The album enters your head on soft feet with “Aurea V.”, a wispy spirit dance of percussion, bass, horns and keys – a tribute to Cole’s late mother. 11 tracks later, “Solo” finds Cole letting it fly freely on his drum kit with bassist Ricky Rodriguez doling out big, soft bubbles of sound to help with liftoff.
Along the way, Henry Cole & The Afro Beat Collective will have made you smile, made you think, surprised you, and – most of all – made you want to dance. You tell me: what more can you ask of an album?
The music on Roots Before Branches is based in marrow-thumping beats and rhythms with no borders. For sure, Cole’s drums are at the center of this universe – speaking in tongues flavored with the planet’s jazz/funk/rock/heartbeats – but there are some amazing performances by his fellow core bandmates and guests along the way.
Dig Adam Rogers’ incredible guitar on “Una para Isabel”: with his beautiful tone and horn-like phrasing, Rogers will sometimes make you think of Eric Johnson; other moments he’ll conjure visions of a young and wild Carlos Santana; mostly he’ll just make you shake your head in wonderment. (His nose-to-nose with Cole at the song’s midway point is a great example of two very talented players with scary amounts of power at their command who know just how to use it.)
The powerhouse delivery of poet/rapper Hermes Ayala is spotlighted on several songs: on “Trabajala” his intensity is well-balanced by the spacewalk that Miguel Zenon’s sax takes (although before the horn is done, it does its own soul-wringing testifying). “To believe without seeing” is more funk than fierce, with Roy Guzman (guitar), and hornmen David Sanchez (tenor sax) and David Rodriguez (trumpet) making their own statements before turning it over to Ayala. And “Ano 2010” features free-blowing by Luis Rosa’s baritone sax behind Ayala’s rap while the rhythm section gently approaches; a groove is offered – wham! – the whole band launches into “No eres tu, soy yo”, an ass-shake that offers no apologies.
In a gentler moment, poet Mara Pastor’s voice weaves with luscious strings in the early minutes of “Uncovered Fear” before Cole and the band join in to offer the emotions some rhythm resolution. And “Musica para un sueno” is seven-minutes-and-thirty-four-seconds’-worth of sunshine with Soren Moller showing off some serious Fender Rhodes chops. Listen for when Josh Evans’ trumpet breaks loose of the horn section at the 3:43 mark – he lets rip while his bandmates punch out a repeating syncopated riff; meanwhile Cole explores every possible moment before, after, and deep within the beat. This is some mighty fine funk/jazz drama, folks.
Roots Before Branches is eclectic enough to challenge the listener, yet it never loses its groove or direction. In the end, it’s a great testament to Henry Cole’s abilities as arranger, bandleader, and drummer – knowing that sometimes the only righteous way to get from here to there is a jam.
This thing should come with a black-on-yellow sticker: “MASTERS AT WORK.”