You'd be surprised how many earnest white American musicians desire to burnish the legacy of Afrobeat godfather Fela Kuti. Michigan's NOMO were one such troupe of acolytes.
The 2006 album New Tones (their first to enjoy significant distribution) dealt in the triumphant horn charts, serpentine keyboard motifs, and funky polyrhythms of the late Nigerian bandleader. As Kuti homages go, New Tones is solid, but basing a career on such a premise is a dubious prospect, even if disciples like Antibalas and the Daktaris can get a lot of mileage out of it.
Thankfully, NOMO—led by multi-instrumentalist Elliot Bergman—realized this and staked out more individualistic territory on 2008's Ghost Rock. There, the Afrobeat influences of the core sextet get subsumed into shimmery yet earthy jazz-funk fusions and dreamy reveries, often augmented by electrified likembes akin to those heard in Konono Nº1's epic trance jams. But moving away from blatantly emulating those Fela-esque elements didn't mean NOMO had sacrificed their rampant energy. Ghost Rock proved that NOMO could still set dance floors ablaze.
The new Invisible Cities (Ubiquity) further expands on NOMO's idiosyncrasies. The opening title track soars into the humid world-jazz processionals that marked Don Cherry's best '70s work. NOMO's cover of Moondog's "Bumbo" captures the sui generis composer's unruly rhythmic bustle and melodic eccentricity. "Crescent" subtly paraphrases John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and adds serene flute accompaniment and restrained hand claps; it's a paradoxically chilled party jam. "Ma" features a bizarrely tuned guitar motif, seraphic female sighs, and spy-flick brass that mesmerize and induce tension with the rarefied skill of Mission: Impossible/Dirty Harry soundtracker Lalo Schifrin. "Banners on High" spirals into psychedelic jazz's most transcendent airspace, while "Elijah" and "Nocturne" float onto a heady, spiritual astral-jazz plane that nods to Alice Coltrane and Carlos Santana's cosmic bliss-out LP Illuminations.
While Ghost Rock may have been a more obviously vibrant party record, Invisible Cities reflects more nuanced moods and deeper probes into outward-bound jazz. But as they proved at Nectar earlier this year, as well as at a Southern California club where I caught them last year, NOMO in a live context stress their uproariously upbeat repertoire. Fela would be proud.