Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Gregg August’s Shattering, Epic New Album Confronts Racist Evil

Bassist Gregg August has somehow found the time to put out one of the most powerful, relevant albums in any style of music over the last several months. Dialogues on Race – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, majestic, anguished large-ensemble suite that reflects on how Americans have been divided and conquered in the name of an archaic concept invented about five hundred years ago by psychotic slave traders as a justification for genocide.

Historically speaking, racism is a relatively recent construct. In the middle ages, if you were going around kidnapping and murdering people, you probably would have been hanged or beheaded. So the slavers came up with the novel proposition that lighter-skinned people are somehow superior to people of color.

There was money to be made in that murderous trade, and the fiction of civilized Europeans versus African savages was well marketed. They got enough Europeans to buy it, to the point that it lasted another three hundred fifty-plus years. Today we are seeing how the lockdowners are using that same dynamic, desperately trying to create an army of clueless maskers to demonize and attack the unmasked.

In his liner notes, August is quick to acknowledge the irony of being a white man tackling a subject that’s usually treated as “the Jew under the kitchen floor,’” that nobody talks about, as one friend of this blog recently put it. And as a jazz musician, August is keenly aware of issues of cultural appropriation. But ultimately, we need to lift every voice and sing truth to power as August does with this majestic, dynamically rich theme and variations for jazz nonet, string quartet and narrator.

August’s central theme is the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till. Interspersed among and often woven into the suite’s diverse movements are several smartly chosen poems exploring racism’s many ugly legacies, along with narrator Wayne Smith reading Till’s mother chillingly straightforward account of the aftermath of the murder.

The album’s first number, Sherbet introduces a broodingly bluesy central motive, up to a Mingus-esque bustle. Letter to America is a strolling, determindedly brassy, marching tune set to a tumbling, implied clave. The horns build a circling, harried intensity, down to pianist Luis Perdomo’s skeletal, ominous incisions. “We served you as a mirror, a lamp, a toy,” Smith intones. It’s a great poem. “Our bodies are your insides…we reflect your future.” Ken Thomson follows with a soulful bass clarinet solo, setting up trombonist Rafi Malkiel scatting through his horn.

Lacy sings Your Only Child, its blustery horn cadences matching the lyrics, Mamie Till asking “How could he have died so undignified? ”The epic I Rise follows an awakening trajectory with conversational, rhythmless horns, a Braxton-esque, massed swell and hauntingly pulsing waves that look straight back to Mingus. John  Bailey’s trumpet is the focal point, whether in a brooding Miles vein or jubilantly swinging; Thomson’s reedy bass clarinet delivers a moment of triumph.

Malkiel’s trombone and JD Allen’s tenor sax open Sky, a real throwback to the withering modal power that characterized August’s tenure in Allen’s trio. The majesty but also the ache as the group soar but also struggle against an overhanging presence is visceral. Allen’s saturnine spirals, shadowed by Perdomo, might be the most starkly insightful notes anybody’s played this year. Malkiel’s spacious solo afterward, over Perdomo’s icy accents, is no less impactful.

August bows broodingly as he revisits Your Only Child’s theme. I Sang in the Sun, a somber, spacious setting of a Carolyn Kizer poem, is an sobering reflection on white wilingness to embrace the bravery of being out of range when it comes to the murder of black people. The sarcasm of Perdomo’s loungey, easygoing solo is crushing.

The third reprise of Your Only Child, sung by Shelley Washington, opens with Middle Eastern gravitas from the string quartet, Allen’s sagacious spare lines over their swells. The juxtaposition between the otherworldly strings and the low horns could be the album’s most darkly gorgeous interlude; August follows with solo bass that echoes the Bach cello suites.

Sweet Words on Race is a jaunty, tightly undulating latin jazz number in the same vein that August has mined so often throughout his previous work. Thomson and saxophonist John Ellis spar animatedly to introduce The Bird Leaps, an altered, playfully voiced take on 30s Basie swing. August’s Blues Finale offers a glimpse of hope with its determined New Orleans shuffle groove and Frank Lacy’s gruff vocalese. The number of levels this music exists on is stunning: this could easily be the best jazz album of 2020.

And while we’re on the topic of the Emmitt Till murder, the most evil person in the whole group responsible wasn’t one of the men who lynched him. It was Carolyn Bryant, the woman who lied to her husband – one of the actual murderers – that Till had whistled at her, setting off the deadly mob..

August 17, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gregg August and Sextet Smolder at Smoke

On one level, it could be said that bassist Gregg August and his band put on a clinic in straight-ahead latin-flavored postbop last night at Smoke. But the show was also just plain good fun: the sextet’s judicious exuberance was contagious. Much as August’s compositions can be rigorously cerebral and often very intense, they’re just as catchy  The solo of the night – at least from the generously expansive first set – was from Yosvany Terry on alto sax, who began with a goodnatured nonchalance and worked his way methodically and increasingly apprehensively to a shivery, menacing coda on For Max, a wickedly hook-driven, vintage Miles Davis-inflected number from August’s latest album Four by Six. Trumpeter John Bailey channeled his inner bluesman, tenor saxophonist John Ellis worked the corners dynamically over the sometimes incisively dancing, sometimes radiantly resonant piano of Xavier Davis, drummer Rudy Royston pushing the clave by riding the rims, throwing elbows at August with playful polyrhythms. And for all of August’s wry wit – most noticeably during a solo late in the set, where he seemed to draw a blank and then decided to make a good joke out of it – his music is serious. Darkness and transcendence were in full effect.

They only did the traditional solos-around-the-horn thing once, on the opening number, Deceptions, Royston more than hinting that he was in the mood for more than a steady swing groove,  finally taking it outside as August held the rhythm in place, switching to terse, even minimal, from out of a tirelessly racewalking pace. The night’s second tune built on a ridiculously catchy ensemble hook from the horns over clave syncopation – that groove was nearly ubiquitous even when it was implied, which was much of the time. A little later, they mixed up the beats with an epically intense take of Sweet Melody, a dark salsa jazz piece, Davis building noir ambience with lingering, glimmering chromatics over Royston’s hypnotically simple pulse, Terry switcing to chekere and energizing the crowd with his agility on the big rattle. They gracefully faded down all but one of the songs, which made sense considering that everybody in the band is busy with other projects (August is first chair bassist in the Brooklyn Phiharmonic and also joins forces with Royston in JD Allen’s trio), and may not have had much rehearsal time at their disposal. But any chance to see August lead a band and play his own music is a treat, and made the trip uptown to this cozy, sonically rich spot well worth the effort.

February 7, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dark Latin Jazz Intensity from Gregg August

Gregg August validates the theory that a good bass player always has a gig – to the extreme. He’s as comfortable servimg as first chair bass of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, or with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, as he is with the JD Allen Trio and Quartet and with his own bands. Versatile as August is, his passion is latin jazz. In his world, that extends to Spanish music, a genre he knows a little something about, having first honed his symphonic chops with orchestas in Spain. His playing is terse, direct and hard-hitting: much as he has chops to rival anyone’s, he chooses pulse and melody over any kind of gratuitous display. Because of that, it’s refreshing to hear his instrument as prominent in the mix as it is here: he invariably leaves you wishing for more. His compositions are nimble, energetic, and relevant: August does not shy away from darkness or from confronting issues of justice and social inequality. His new album Four by Six is not lighthearted, but it is often exhilarating. Here most of the tracks alternate between his quartet with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland on drums, and with his sextet with Rudy Royston on drums plus Perdomo, Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and Allen on tenor.

The album opens with Affirmation, an acerbic, somewhat acidic strut for the quartet. Newsome throws some elbows and they swing it back and forth. Another quartet tune, For Calle Picota is catchy as hell – it has the same kind of majesty and gravitas and economy of notes that Allen is known for, Strickland and Perdomo working toward a salsa swing as Newsome somersaults amiably.

For Max, the first of the sextet numbers, begins with a lush, flamenco-esque chart straight out of the Gil Evans book circa 1959 that Perdomo and then Allen follow in the same vein. The slowly slinking bass solo as the horns rise majestically over August’s roaring chordal pedalpoint is nothing short of transcendent. By contrast, Bandolim shifts quickly from a lively, tricky ensemble tune to free and spacious, with some marvelously judicious work from the whole band over whispery, nebulous rhythm bookended by sudden bursts of swing.

Newsome stars on the pensive salsa swing of Strange Street, taking his time achieving altitude, handing off to Perdomo, who goes for loungey and then lets August take it deep, deep into the shadows: his nonchalant chromatics are absolutely chilling. A Ballad for MV follows: the two pieces are essentially a diptych, this one more boisterous, Strickland’s clenched-teeth cymbals refusing to let go as Newsome sails apprehensively and Perdomo holds it down with a moody glimmer.

Relative Obscurity, for sextet, quickly shifts from a lushly syncopated horn chart to unchecked aggression by Bailey and then tensely hypnotic circularity from August. The album ends with a low-key, brooding knockout, For Miles, opening as a morose jazz waltz driven by Perdomo’s Satie-esque minimalism, Terry taking it just short of a triumphant hail-mary pass but instead alley-ooping to Perdomo who takes it up…and then down again into the eerily glimmering depths. August plays the album release show for this one at Birdland at 6 PM on Dec 6 with a slightly different cast; he’ll be at Shapeshifter Lab with the quartet on Dec 14 at 8 PM.

December 4, 2012 Posted by | jazz, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment