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

The Alan Ferber Nonet Bring Their Dynamic, Intense Large Ensemble Sound to the Flatiron District

Considering how time-consuming it is just to keep a big band together and playing, it’s amazing how the likes of Arturo O’Farrill and Maria Schneider manage to do that and keep coming up with fresh and interesting material for their large ensembles, year after year. Count trombonist/composer Alan Ferber among that dedicated elite. His latest album, Roots & Transitions is a suite for an only slightly smaller ensemble, his long-running Nonet with trumpeters Scott Wendholt and Shane Endsley, alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, tenor saxophonist John Ellis, bass clarinetist Charles Pillow, guitarist Nate Radley, pianist Bryn Roberts, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Mark Ferber. The album hasn’t hit the web yet, but there are a trio of tracks up at Sunnyside Records’ site. The band also have a weekend stand coming up this Friday and Saturday night, May 13 and 14 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.

The composer bases the suite on a series of variations on a cleverly rhythmic cell-like theme. Ferber’s music tends toward the lustrous and enveloping, and this is no exception. It’s no surprise that his charts give the material might and majesty that seems like it’s being played by a considerably larger group. Ferber’s moody solo trombone opens the first track, Quiet Confidence, a slowly swaying ballad that Roberts’ methodical, slowly spiraling solo takes into brighter territory over a cymbal-fueled scan of the perimeter, setting up the bandleader to take it up on an ebullient upward climb before bringing it full circle. The low, lustrous shifting low brass sheets of the miniature Hourglass segue into the misterioso trombone/guitar intro of Clocks, an alterered fanfare over a tense pulse building to a powerfully dark modal crescendo, Gordon’s nimbly bluesy phrasing throwing some light into the shadows, which Radley then shreds and scatters. It’s the most noirish piece here.

Wayfarer is an amiably buoyant tune, part retro, part Jim McNeely newschool swing with a judiciously low-key Ellis solo at the center. That tricky three-on-four feel really makes itself present throughout Flow, reflecting the tuneful, nonchalant drive of the suite’s opening cut, the bandleader’s imposing trombone contrasting with Radley’s blithe upward flights. And then its Morricone-esque ending brings back the shadowy intensity.

Perspective offers a warmly melodic take on lustrous teens pastoral jazz, a simple, gently modal piano riff underpinning its amiably rustic, syncopated stroll, Ellis adding his usual melodicism when his turn comes up. Echo Calling brings back the distant ominous feel: listen closely and you’ll discover a disquiting fugue underneath. The album winds up with the chatteringly cheerful barnburner Cycles and its gritty, pinpoint-precise staccato phrasing. Much as it’s got one of Ferber’s usual imaginative charts and plenty of high-voltage playing from everybody, it seems tacked on as as way to close this otherwise often gorgeously uneasy collection on an upbeat note. Maybe when the Ferber box set comes out sometime around 2030 (by then, box sets will probably be all vinyl, or who knows, organic vinyl), he can use it as an opening cut.

May 11, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment