On the cusp of releasing a new album, Afro-jazz fusion band Molly Tigre is returning to Bar Chord, where they’ve locked-in many of the improvisations that shaped the songs they’ve recorded. The quintet, which features the compositions of saxophonist Mitch Marcus and bassist Ezra Gale, is scheduled to play at the venue on Thursday (12/8).
The band’s name is a shout-out to two African countries whose music most influenced the group, Gale explained. “Molly” is a homophone for the West African nation of Mali. “Initially it was Molly Tiger, with ‘tiger’ meaning ‘tigre’, a region in Ethiopia where a lot of amazing music comes from,” he said. “But then we used tigre instead because it sounds French, which is cooler, of course.”
Gale and Marcus developed both their affinity and experience for African music in the San Francisco band Aphrodesia, which Gale founded and Marcus played in for several years. “It was an afro-beat type of group that traveled to Ghana and Nigeria in 2006,” Gale said. “So I got exposed to a ton of music there, and also I traveled to Mali in 2011 to play at the Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu, which was like going to another planet.”
After the Ethiopiques series of reissues of Ethiopian music on the Buda Musique label turned Gale on to that genre, he became convinced that a band fusing different African styles could click. “The music from Mali and Ethiopia is very different in some ways, but I hear similarities, particularly how they use rhythms that are simultaneously in groups of 3 and 4. In a lot of music from Mali, there’s a very strong triplet pulse in 3 or 6, and a lot of music from Ethiopia is sort of straightened out more but it’s still like you can count in 4 or count in 3. There’s an underlying polyrhythmic feel in music from both those places that makes it so deep and funky.”
As Westerners immersing themselves in African polyrhythms, Gale and Marcus immediately heard parallels to the American jazz tradition.”Jazz to me is just improvised music,” Gale said, “and a lot of African music is improvised to an extent, too. The basic jazz feel of swing 8th can also be thought of as a 12/8 rhythm, which is very common in a lot of African music. I think in fact that the swing feel of a jazz bass line comes directly from that 3-against-4 rhythm.”
Many artists cite the distinctive rhythms of African music as influences, but Molly Tigre also draws on harmonic and melodic aspects of their African sources. “A lot of the African influences we draw from are from countries like Mali and Ethiopia that because of geography and history have very strong North African and Arabic influences,” Gale noted. “So that opens up a whole world of scales and modes and sounds that are so beautiful that we try and explore.”
Ethiopian music is also horn-based, and the band sports two saxophones as an homage to that tradition.
The second saxophonist in the group is Chris Hiatt. “Getting musicians is always sort of like a dating game on steroids; you just try people out until you find ones that work,” Gale said. While Gale and Marcus do all the composing and arranging, “a lot of what we write is pretty open and meant to be shaped by the members of the band,” he said, so finding the right person to fill out the brass section was critical to the four-year-old group’s development.
Another critical step for Molly Tigre was recruiting a drummer and percussionist to work together seamlessly but contribute notably different elements to the group’s sound. Percussionist Ibrahima Kolipe Camara, who is from Guinea, has played with the National Dance Company of Guinea. “He’s just amazing, super high-energy, as anyone who has seen us knows,” Gale said. “Joe Abbatuono is an incredible drummer who comes from more of a jazz background, which gives the rhythm a very interesting open feel.”
The result for Molly Tigre is music that has an immediate funky appeal but which is also quite sophisticated and challenging. Bar Chord’s history as a home for eclectic and progressive performers helps draw an audience that’s receptive to diverse sounds, and the band has played there frequently.
“There is definitely an audience that is listening, and that changes the way we play sometimes,” Gale said. “It makes it more exciting to go out on a limb and really reach for something if we feel like there are people who are going out there with us.”
Molly Tigre’s performance is scheduled for 9pm on Thursday, December 8. As always at Bar Chord, the music is free but don’t forget to tip the band. (And show some love to the bartenders, too.)