Cult Classic: Ambiance-Into A New Journey.

During the seven year period between 1979 and 1986, Ambiance led by Nigerian born multi-instrumentalist Daoud Abubakar Balewa released six albums on the LA-based private press label Da Mon Records. It was a self-financed business that released short runs of Ambiance’s albums during a time when many smaller independent labels were unable to gain access to parts of the distribution networks. 

In 1982, Da Mon Records released Ambiance’s fourth album Into A New Journey. It was an ambitious album of spiritual jazz that included elements of Afrobeat, Bossa Nova, Latin, modal that also had a soulful quality. Into A New Journey was without doubt the finest of the four albums that Ambiance had released. Sadly, the album failed to find an audience and for Ambiance it was a case of what might have been? 

It was only much later that Into A New Journey was rediscovered a by a coterie of discerning DJs and record collectors. However many of them were unaware of the story behind this cult classic.

Ambiance was founded by Nigeria-born Daoud Abubakar Balewa who moved to Los Angeles where his career began. He had studied composition and jazz improvisation and was inspired by Jackie McLean and Frank Mitchell of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Although he was a saxophonist and could play alto, soprano and tenor sax he was equally comfortable playing flute, clarinet, keyboards, and Latin and Brazilian percussion. By the time Daoud Abubakar Balewa founded the jazz collective Ambiance, he was a talented multi-instrumentalist, arranger and producer who had worked as a photographer.

In 1979, Ambiance released their debut album Ebun on Da Mon Records. It showcased what was a tight, talented and versatile group. Especially Bob Selvin who played keyboards and synths. He was part of a group that combined funk, fusion, jazz-funk and Latin on Ebun’s eight tracks which was a mixture of original material and covers. Sadly, very few people heard Ambiance’s oft-overlooked debut which was the first of six private presses they released during a seven year period.

They followed this up with Drift Up To Space in 1980. It was another album where Ambiance combined funk and fusion with jazz-funk and Latin. One thing that changed was Ambiance’s lineup. Daoud Abubakar Balewa shuffled the pack and brought onboard new musicians that suited the style of music he was recording and would bring something new to the session.  However, just like on Ebun, keyboardist Bob Selvin played an important part in the album’s sound. When Drift Up To Space was released Ambiance remained one of jazz music’s best kept secrets.

The problem with releasing an album via a small label like Da Mon Records was they couldn’t access the distribution networks that the larger indie labels and majors could. And smaller labels lacked the expertise and marketing budget to promote an album. In reality, the best a group like Ambiance could hope for was that their album was heard by a bigger label who either signed the group or licensed the album. Neither happened to Ambiance who would soon return with a third album.

Ambiance returned in 1981 with their third album (Gida-Gida) “Tight and Tidy.” Just like their sophomore album, there were several changes in the lineup and there was no sign of keyboardist Bob Selvin. One of of the news addition to the group was Curtis Robertson Jr, who at the times, was married to Syreeta Wright. She added backing vocals and finger cymbals on one of  Daoud Abubakar Balewa’s compositions Gida-Gida, which she co-produced with Curtis Robertson Jr. It was part of another carefully crafted album that combined fusion, jazz-funk and soul. However, just like Ambiance’s two previous albums it slipped under the radar. This was a great shame as Ambiance’s third album deserved to find a wider audience.

Into A New Journey.

For Ambiance’s fourth album Daoud Abubakar Balewa wrote and the title-track Into A New Journey. They were joined by covers of Joe Henderson’s Black Narcissus; Danny Newark and Monife Balewa’s Something Better; Jim Lum’s Eastwind plus Chick Corea’s 500 Miles High and Windows. These tracks became Into A New Journey which was recorded by a new lineup of Ambiance.

Joining multi-instrumentalist Daoud Abubakar Balewa was Japanese drummer Danny Yamamoto, bassist Randy Landis and guitarist Jim Lun. They were joined by Danny Newmark Fender Rhodes, keyboardists Jim Thornburn and Kimo Cornwell, Rick Smith on African Drums, June Kuramoto on Koto and Tyrone Ponder played the Apito. Adding vocals on Into A New Journey were Monife Balewa and Atiji Malomon. Once the album was completed it was released later in 1982.

When Into A New Journey was released in 1983 it was a familiar story when the album passed record buyers by. They had missed out on what was the finest album of Ambiance’s career. 

Into A New Journey opens with Arrival, which is a joyous, celebratory and genre-melting track that’s akin to a call to dance. This is followed by Ambiance’s interpretation of Joe Henderson’s modal classic Black Narcissus which is the perfect showcase for Daoud Abubakar Balewa’s saxophone. He leaves room for Kimo Cornwell’s piano and the two play leading roles in the sound and success of this oft-covered classic. Something Better features vocalists Atiji Malomon and Monife Balewa who showcases her three octave vocal while a sultry saxophone adds the finishing touch to this beautiful and hopeful jazz ballad. Quite different is Into A New Journey, which is a percussive jazz-dance workout that draws inspiration from African and Latin music.  

Cinematic describes the introduction to Eastwind before Ambiance combine jazz-funk, fusion, Latin percussion and ethereal harmonies. Daoud Abubakar Balewa’s flute and tenor saxophone also play a part in the sound and success of this slice of musical sunshine. Two Chick Corea covers close the album. The first is a remake of 500 Miles High where Ambiance spring a few surprises as they take the track in a new direction. It’s a case of expect the unexpected during this captivating cover.  Closing Into A New Journey is Windows where Monife Balewa’s vocal seamlessly combines with the saxophone and creates a cosmic twist to this soulful fusion classic. In doing so, Ambiance closes the album on a high.

Although Ambiance released two more albums, 1985s Come To Tomorrow and 1986s Colours In Space neither surpassed the quality of Into A New Journey. It was their finest moment and it was as if everything had been leading up to it. 

Ever since Ambiance released their debut album Ebun, Daoud Abubakar Balewa had continued to shuffle the pack and the lineup continued to change. The new lineup that featured on Into A New Journey was perfectly suited to play the original material and reinvent the cover versions on the album. They take familiar tracks in new direction and breath new life, meaning, energy and emotion into them. There’s another generic or predictable about these tracks on Ambiance’s genre-melting album.

Throughout Into A New Journey Ambiance combine disparate genres and influences. This includes fusion and jazz-funk with elements of African, Brazilian and Japanese and Latin music on Ambiance’s lost spiritual jazz gem. Into A New Journey still sparkles brightly and is undoubtably a captivating album of spiritual jazz that’s full of beauty, energy and warmth that belatedly is starting to find the audience it so richly deserves and is without doubt Ambiance’s finest hour.

Cult Classic: Ambiance-Into A New Journey.

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