Godwin Louis, alto saxophonist, was born in Harlem, New York and began playing saxophone at age nine. Godwin grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Port au Prince, Haiti. Godwin was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Saxophone Competition. He has performed around the globe including: Mali, Senegal, ...
Saxophonist Godwin Louis had an epiphany when he came to New Orleans to study at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. He explored the city’s music--and kept getting an eerie sense of familiarity. “My mother and father are from Haiti, and though I was born in the States, I lived in Port-au-Prince for a few years in the 1990s,” recounts Louis. “When I moved to New Orleans, I felt that similarity everywhere, in the presence of Catholicism, the funeral marches, the second-line culture, the spiritual traditions tied to vodoun. I said, this is incredible. Where does this similarity come from?”
The answers turned out to be Global (release: Febuary 22, 2019), Louis’ first major release of his compositions and work as a band leader. Louis discovered the impact of Haitians on the music of New Orleans, arguably the musical heart of the US, and with it a history of Haitian presence going back to the French Colonial and Haitian Revolutionary period. Yet as Louis dug into the past, his understanding and musical vision expanded geographically and sonicly, as DNA tests led him to West and Central Africa (“Nago-Kongo”), Brazil, tiny Pacific islands--the entire global filigree of Afro-diasporic peoples and their art.
The resulting double-album of original compositions (with one anthemic concluding piece by composer Hermeto Pascoal) plumbs the past while remaining steadily grounded in contemporary and exploratory musical practices, that improvisatory, ever-fresh edge of jazz. A seasoned sideman--Louis’ touring history reads like a who’s who of jazz and pop--Louis felt it was time to bring his discoveries, in breathtakingly intricate and skillfully rendered form, to the world.
“My travels and studies let me fully explore and find this musical sound dedicated to the diaspora that you hear on Global,” says Louis. “The world is way more connected than we think. We’ve all heard of the Transatlantic trade slave and its tragedies and horrors, but so much came out of it and formed global culture, so much that’s rarely highlighted. You can feel it intensely in places like Santiago de Cuba, Bahia in Brazil, New Orleans, in L’artibonite, Haiti. The musical sound that came from those places has gone global, and it’s all filtered into pop culture. That’s where I started.”
Born in Harlem, Louis remembers encountering the beauties of jazz via his guitarist uncle, Robert “Magic” Saint Fleur. He marveled at his uncle’s ability to improvise and wanted to know his secret. “I was really drawn to that element of improvisation,” recalls Louis. “I would hear him riff off a song, and it seemed like the most incredible thing, how he came up with all these beautiful melodies on the spot. It showcased such knowledge of the songs and total mastery of the instrument.” His uncle encouraged him, then turned him on to Charlie Parker, and Louis was hooked.
He studied at Berklee and made an admirable name for himself among jazz’s creme de la creme. Though relatively young, Louis has already toured, performed, and recorded with Herbie Hancock, Clark Terry, Roger Dickerson, Ron Carter, Al Foster, Jack Dejohnette, Jimmy Heath, Billy Preston, Patti Labelle, Toni Braxton, Babyface, Madonna, Gloria Estefan, Barry Harris, Howard Shore, David Baker, Mulatu Astakte, Mahmoud Ahmed, Wynton Marsalis, and Terence Blanchard, among others, seeing a great swath of Africa, Asia, and Europe in the bargain.
As Louis developed his own style, where gospel and traditional Haitian and West and Central African songs, avant arrangements and grounded grooves collide, he discovered new concepts in African-heritage musical thought that enriched his jazz foundations. Fellow musicians in Mali, for example, based melodic phrases on underlying texts, not on arbitrary numbers of beats or bars.“Because it’s all based on the words, there's no common tempo,” explains Louis. “When the phrase is done, it’s done and then you move on. I decided to experiment with approaching notes the same way. An idea can keep on going. In general, Global questions tradition: Why should the form be one way and not another? If the idea isn’t done yet, it goes on, even when another idea comes. The melody is king in that approach.” The resulting feel is polyphonous, many different voices and perspectives chiming in and overlapping.
The overlap fascinates Louis and inspired many of Global’s pieces. He reveals into how European sacred music seeped into an Afro-diasporic melody found around the Atlantic, rich with triple meter. (“Four Essential Prayers of Guinea”) And how, in counterpoint, African instruments can inform Protestant hymns, despite centuries of church animosity toward West African sounds and forms. (“Bondye Ede-n”) He looks at narrative threads that unite the lyrical forms of Afro-Caribbean and Afro-South American romance (“Present” featuring Cuban singer Xiomara Laugart), and the playing techniques and moods that unite the Francophone cultures of the Caribbean (“Siwèl”).
Yet the wide-ranging journeys remain rooted in Louis’ personal experience as a person with a multilayered heritage and full awareness of past and present struggles. As the composer noted regarding the album’s title suite (“Global, Parts I and II”): “This is about my traveling experiences all over the world. I’ve been to 100 countries as of now. I have so many stories, some sad, some triumphant. So did our ancestors,” Louis reflects. “Sonically, I wanted to pay homage to some of our lesser-known ancestors that contributed to the development of music in Europe. People like Joseph Boulogne, Chevaliers De Saint-Georges who was a brilliant composer during the classical era. Overall, Global is the history of music and culture in the Americas. Cultures that came from Africa, met with indigenous aestheticism, and were refined or rarefied via colonialism, as a result changing the course of music history and culture worldwide.”