Jazzman Celebrated, Except At Home Jamaaladeen Tacuma Is Better-known In Vienna Than Here Where He Lives.

Posted: October 20, 1996

Poet Wadud Ahmad marvels at the way Jamaaladeen Tacuma works his European audiences. Sporting an outrageous lime green shirt and vintage '40s slacks at a gig in Germany in August, Tacuma plugged in his bass with a hilarious-looking white phone cord, then generated a slam-dancing funk that could have shaken the NATO alliance.

``That's the kind of energy that the cat puts out,'' says Ahmad, who accompanied Tacuma at shows in Italy, Germany and Switzerland. ``I always knew he was bad.''

It is the irony of Tacuma's 22-year career that this Philadelphia-raised jazzman is probably better-known on the Danube than he is on the Schuylkill. A veritable American export, Tacuma - who lives conveniently near the airport in Southwest Philly - spends most of his performing time in Europe and Asia.

His grinding beats and iconoclastic harmonics have made the 40-year-old bassist the toast of towns from Turkey to Tokyo. His souped-up jazz can regularly be sampled off a canal in Venice or savored with a plate of Wienerschnitzel in Vienna. Tacuma has even taken soul to Seoul.

It used to be that jazz players hopped a bus and toured coast to coast. Now they're likely to get on a plane and take on the world. Few players embody this trend better than Tacuma, whose art-scene funk is in wide currency on the international market.

His overseas promoter estimates that the peripatetic bassist played 80 gigs in Europe last year alone - a figure Tacuma could have confirmed more quickly if he hadn't been on an 18-concert tour in Austria, Germany and France. Tacuma will make a rare home appearance this afternoon when his Basso Neauvou, featuring four premiere bassists and drummer Webb Thomas, performs at the Community Educational Center in West Philadelphia.

The funny thing is, Tacuma - who currently has 400,000 frequent flyer miles in his account - heartily dislikes travel. ``It drives me crazy and that's something that I haven't gotten used to,'' he said by phone from Vienna.

Tacuma plays so few domestic gigs that he doesn't need a U.S. booking agent. His main man is Ralph Gluch, who organizes Tacuma's European tours from an office in Thun, Switzerland.

The bassist hasn't caught on in the United States because his music isn't digestible or predictable. He's a dedicated genre-hopper who combines rap and hip-hop with music from string quartets and dissonant free jazz all in the same recording. Europeans have applauded his adventurousness, whereas Americans have been confused by it.

``I have the impression that Jamaal is much more popular in Europe than in America,'' said Burkhard Hennen, founder and artistic director for the Moers Festival, the largest jazz gathering in Germany.

Hennen credits much of Tacuma's success to his adaptability. Like any good exporter, Tacuma has diversified his product line while maintaining his core identity. He'll play an upscale Viennese jazz club with a fraternity of bassists one day, and the next day back the rap of his Philadelphia colleague Ahmad in a beer hall or lay down funk so strong that the audience members put down their steins and dance.

At this year's festival in Moers, Germany, Hennen says, Tacuma got a 20-minute ovation for his performance with tenor saxophonist David Murray and a band that included three traditional West African drummers. Tacuma and company then flew to Senegal to perform and record their work.

African American jazz artists have a special cachet in Europe, where - as creators of the art form - their interpretations are considered more authentic. ``If you have a black jazz artist, then he is preferred to a white jazz artist on the same level,'' says Gluch.

But Tacuma has worked hard to earn his success, and has opened up entire markets through shrewd joint ventures with foreign musicians such as the Viennese saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig. Their tour this month with drummer Dennis Alston - an old North Philly buddy Tacuma met at John Wanamaker Junior High School - is part of a continuing collaboration that has taken the pair across Europe.

``We just inspire each other,'' Puschnig said. `` . . . As a white European, it's opened up a whole new perspective for me. Funk is a whole different world - you can't experience it intellectually.''

Tacuma's venture with the traditional Korean drumming ensemble Samul Nori has led to several world tours over six years. And, on the South Korean peninsula, Tacuma is a jazz phenomenon as hot as kimchee.

In Japan, Tacuma reached pop-star status a number of years ago when his posters festooned Tokyo. In December, he'll perform in the country for the first time in 11 years.

Despite his long absence from touring, Japanese jazz fans ``think he's one of the best bassists in his field,'' said Yoko Yamabe, head of international business for P-Vine Records in Tokyo. The rap and hip-hop label plans to release a Tacuma CD this winter in conjunction with Bass Player magazine's 10th anniversary in Japan.

Tacuma suspects that it was his spotlight-stealing stage presence that got him fired, at age 18, from organist Charles Earland's band. His traveling life began in earnest a year later when he joined Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, and played for six months in the cozy quarters of Paris.

Tacuma's eight years with the enigmatic Coleman shaped the bassist's sense of what a band could do. ``I still hear things in his playing that remind me a lot of Ornette's music,'' remarked Swiss journalist and jazz radio personality Peter Buerli.

Tacuma learned from his Coleman days that he couldn't pay the rent simply by playing with one group or in one style. For years, he has performed in pop, jazz and dance bands and honed his bass and producing skills all at the same time.

Tacuma also embarked on a spiritual journey. Born Rudy McDaniel, he converted to Islam in 1975: His first name means ``beauty of the faith,'' and his surname reminds him ``to be alert.'' A vegetarian since his teens, he shuns eggs and dairy products and looks a good 10 years younger than his age.

He loves the relaxed European pace and the vibe of clean and ancient streets he sees on his travels. And he relishes the state-supported festivals that make his career possible.

It's just the getting-there that wears on Tacuma. Jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter's wife, Ana Maria, and his niece, Dalila Lucien, died on TWA Flight 800 to Paris, where they were to rendezvous with Shorter, said the bassist. ``That's my run,'' he said.

``After I play for all these audiences and I come back to my hotel room, I think, `Here I am out here alone again,' '' he said. ``I'm really sad about that.''

For a while, Tacuma's travel companion was his third wife, Atiya, but she didn't like life on the road any more than he does. Now Atiya packs him soy milk and aromatherapy oils to revive his spirits.

Tacuma needs all the soothing he can get, but at least the gigs are plentiful.

IF YOU GO Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Basso Neauvou (Webb Thomas, Tyrone Brown, Warren Oree and Steve Green sitting in for Gerald Veasley) will perform at 2 p.m. today at the Community Education Center, 3500 Lancaster Ave. Admission: $10; $8, CEC members, musicians with instruments, students, seniors and children under 12; $20 for family groups of three or more. Information: 215-387-1911.

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