Andrew Oliver Kora Band
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Andrew Oliver Kora Band

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"Andrew Oliver Kora Band: A fresh, old sound breaks new ground"

Why are there no new musical instruments? It’s as if the electric guitar was the ultimate innovation, the last nail in the coffin of music’s social supremacy.

If fresh organic sounds are an endangered species, then Kane Mathis is Greenpeace. Mathis plays the kora, a 21-stringed West African harplike instrument made from a gourd wrapped in cow skin — and the titular instrument in the Andrew Oliver Kora Band.

While not new in the world — it originated at least a couple hundred years ago — the kora is new to Western ears (though jazz trumpeter Don Cherry has been known to play one). Its sound is bright like a harp and soulful like a guitar, less a cascade of notes than discreet, silvery drops.

The Seattle-based Andrew Oliver Kora Band sets it amid relaxed but intricate jazz, with Oliver on piano, Jim Knodle on trumpet, Brady Millard-Kish on upright bass, and Mark DiFlorio on drums.

While that quartet is talented enough on its own, Mathis’ kora adds a vivid sonic quality that transports the whole thing to lofty, unexpected realms. The band’s arrangements of original and traditional African tunes — as heard on “Just 4 U,” the just-released CD that they celebrate tonight at the Rendezvous — splice African melodic concepts and Western jazz structure.

Modest but mesmerizing, it’s as novel and agreeable a sound as you’ve never heard.

- Jonathan Zwickel - The Seattle Times

"Kora To The Core"

First, a quick definition. The kora is a West African 21-stringed instrument, which sounds a little like a harp and is made from a large gourd cut in half and covered with cow skin. It is traditionally used by musicians and griots of the Mandinko people. Jazz folks like Don Cherry popularized it in America, although since the sound is so seductive, all it took was a little exposure for it to catch on.

Second, an explanation. Andrew Oliver is the young composer and keyboardist who burst upon the Portland jazz scene a couple of years ago and who leads and plays in more bands, spanning more genres, than there is room to list.

Although his interest in the kora began when he was in college, Oliver's 2007 tour of West Africa, with saxophonist Devin Phillips' band, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, made an indelible impression upon him. The title of his album, "Just 4 U," is not a Prince knockoff but the name of a club in which Oliver found himself in Dakar, Senegal.

Surprisingly, he does not play the kora here; rather it�s Seattle�s Kane Mathis, who studied the kora in Gambia. (Mathis also plays guitar on the album.) Jim Knodle fills a huge role on trumpet, and Brady Millard-Kish on bass and Mark DiFlorio on drums are rock steady.

In the tradition of Cherry, Oliver, who either wrote or arranged most of the tunes, blends the swing and intellect of American jazz with the divine poetry of West African music.

Besides his own compositions, there are traditional Malian tunes arranged for this band, including one Oliver learned on the spot from an African musician in a club there. Plus, a tribute to Cherry on his lovely "Malinyea."

- Tom D'Antoni - The Oregonian

"Andrew Oliver Kora Band"

Herbie Hancock and Foday Musa Suso long ago proved that jazz and kora can make a delicious cocktail, and now, pianist-about-town Oliver, who co-directs Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and plays in Devin Phillips’s New Orleans Straight Ahead, has put together a breezy Seattle-based group that combines jazz (piano, trumpet, bass, guitar, drums) and the intoxicating 21-string West African harp, played by Kane Mathis. They’ll play some of the music at a free noon concert at the Old Church on Thursday.

- Brett Campbell - Willamette Week

"Andrew Oliver Impresses with Just 4 U"

For those who enjoy the sweet sounds of West African music, the Northwest is a mini-haven for talented émigrés from Senegal, Mali, and beyond. Not only is there a small, tight-knit audience in these parts, but there’s a steady stream of players (if you know where to look) who either came from West or Central Africa or went there to study music.

In the case of the Andrew Oliver Kora Band, both are true. Based primarily in Portland, this five-piece got started when Oliver and drummer/percussionist Mark DiFlorio spent a month playing music in Africa. Upon returning home, the duo united with Seattle-based kora player Kane Mathis and began blending jazz with West African folk music.

Their debut album, Just 4 U, is an eclectic mix of 11 soothing West African jams with hints of jazz licks underneath it all. Much of the piano, drumming, and trumpet work is straightforward, but when mixed with the playing of Mathis on the 21-string kora, the music has a unique sonic texture that’s rarely explored. “Malinyea” straddles both genres in separate stanzas, but the two merge harmoniously. “Hidmo,” named after the Eritrean restaurant in Seattle, and “Fanta Groove” are album favorites due to the solid horn playing on each. There’s even a cover of the Congolese pop classic “Bini Na Ngai Na Respect.” All this helps make Just 4 U one of the better world-music releases to come out of the Northwest all year.

- Jonathan Cunningham - Seattle Weekly

"Kane Mathis / Andrew Oliver Duo"

“Listening to Kane Mathis’ kora playing brings to mind Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert. Their instruments are similar: in Mathis’ case, the kora is a 21-stringed West African harp that he learned in Gambia. Take the guts out of Jarrett’s piano, stand them up and pluck them, and you have the same idea. Both performers employ gorgeous improvisation on top of simple rhythms; their songs meander between chord and melody, creating a continuous, crystalline drone. Tonight’s show—which also features Portland jazz pianist Andrew Oliver—is enough to bring the comparison full circle. In a recent appearance on KEXP’s Best Ambiance, Mathis’ and Oliver’s duets blended together so seamlessly, it sounded as if one giant 109 stringed harp was being played by a four armed musician; not being able to see who was doing what almost made it more interesting.” - Seattle Weekly


Andrew Oliver Kora Band, "Just 4 U", Independent, 2009



Pianist, composer, and bandleader Andrew Oliver is a rising young musician on the Northwest jazz scene, directing a number of diverse groups in Portland and Seattle including the Andrew Oliver Sextet and the 14-piece Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. After growing up in Portland, he relocated to New Orleans to study jazz, but was flooded out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and returned home. He began playing with New Orleans native saxophonist Devin Phillips, who had also relocated to Portland after the storm. In 2007 Devin's quartet was one of ten groups selected from a pool of 200 bands to particpate in the U.S. State Department's Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program. They toured five West African countries performing and teaching workshops as cultural ambassadors of the U.S.

After this unique experience, Andrew was inspired to dive deeper into the relationship between jazz and West African music. His exploration eventually led to the founding of the Kora Band, featuring atypical instrumentation that highlights Kane Mathis on the 21-string Kora, a traditional harp from West Africa. Kane is one of the most accomplished American Kora players, having studied with the famous Jobarteh (Diabate) family in Gambia, in the same compound that had produced three generations of the country’s most famous musicians. This study resulted in diplomas and certificates of recognition from Malamini Jobarteh, The Gambian minister of culture, and the President of the Gambia.

Also featured are accomplished Seattle musicians Chad McCullough on trumpet, Brady Millard-Kish on bass, and Mark DiFlorio on drums. The talented ensemble performs both original compositions designed to explore the many possibilities of its unique timbre as well as traditional and modern songs from West Africa arranged specifically for the band. They have recently released their debut album, "Just 4 U", which Portland's Willamette Week calls "a gorgeous, moving record" and which the Seattle Weekly says is "one of the better world-music releases to come out of the Northwest all year."