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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Haunting, Hard-Hitting New Protest Jazz Suite From Trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius

As grassroots resistance against the lockdown gains momentum and more parts of the country declare themselves free territory, we will soon have unprecedented opportunities to remake our world. As lockdowner governors are voted out and driven from office, we will have plenty of chances to give force of law to the hope kindled by the pro-freedom, Black Lives Matter and Metoo movements. On his powerful, purposeful, evocative new concert recording Live From the Prison Nation – streaming at Bandcamp – trumpeter Alonzo Demetrius addresses the ongoing need to put an end to the New Jim Crow.

This is a suite in the Ellington tradition, with stern echoes of Mingus and also the shadowy intensity of Darcy James Argue at his most concise. The opening track, Expectations begins with a troubled, suspenseful pedalpoint behind narrator’s Angela Davis’ commentary on what to do with prisons: she wants to abolish them. From there the group rise to an anthemic descending riff and then allusive variations, the bandleader shifting from somber to triumphantly fluttering, echoed by tenor saxophonist Yesseh Furaha-Ali. Pianist Daniel Abraham Jr. and bassist Benjamin Jephta maintain a low-key, mysterious presence as drummer Brian Richburg subtly raises the ante. The sudden shift to Abraham’s moody solo as the horns drop out is stunning.

Likewise, the group waft and simmer through The Principle, a haunting, allusively modal tone poem of sorts, the bandleader’s trumpet awash in reverb and digital sustain until he finally cuts loose. There’s a fade up and then out of Yesseh’s Interlude, a brief, thoughtful Furaha-Ali solo.

“It is only movements that bring change…movements work,” author and wrongfully convicted death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal reminds in his voiceover for Mumia’s Guidance, a similarly brooding backdrop with soulful, low-key trumpet and sax solos. “We live in an era where the very notion of a movement sems strange or oddly out of time. That is so because over the last half century, the state has worked hard to disappear the memory of the movements of the 60s or for that matter any other time in us history. It has utilized the the media, the academy and public schools to present a false and misleading historical narrative to confuse people so they cannot see how movements grow, interact, swell and finally present such position unto the public square..”

Demetrius closes the album with his most epic composition, the anti-police brutality tableau F.O.O. Shit. The group rises ominously over sounds of community-building in the streets; Jephta’s pensive four-chord electric bass riffs anchor and then launch a tightly clustering, expansive sax solo. A sinister tritone flourish from Abraham signals that there’s plenty of trouble ahead and work to do as Jephta booms in the distance, Demetrius shifting from grim, Middle Eastern-tinged allusions to spacious, reflective, Wadada Leo Smith-like motives. The slow upward drive backs away just short of a conflagration

This isn’t just one of the best and most relevant jazz albums of the year; it’s one of the best and most relevant albums of the past several years, period. And if Demetrius hadn’t had the presence of mind to record this show, today he and the band would have to make the long trip to Florida, or South Dakota, or Council, Idaho to make the album. That’s how twisted this country became in 2020.

December 26, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prime, Incendiary, Epically Relevant Live Mingus Rescued From the Archives

Even if he was just walking the changes to an otherwise pedestrian blues, Charles Mingus would inevitably infuse it with the irony, and dark humor, and quite possibly righteous rage that characterized his compositions. On April 16, 1964, in a modest auditorium attached to the local radio station in Bremen, Germany, Mingus didn’t reach for the rage immediately, but he channeled everything else, an icon always searching to find new ways to articulate himself. In doing that, he elevated the hall-of-fame lineup alongside him to rare levels of intensity and wild, reckless fun. The recording of the simulcast has been out there for awhile, as The Complete Bremen Concert. It’s been newly digitized, and most of it is  available on a mammoth quadruple album along with a second performance in the same city from more than ten years later. These often withering historical performances, titled Charles Mingus @ Bremen 1964 & 1975, are streaming at Sunnyside Records.

Two concerts, two completely different contexts. 1964: in America, Jim Crow is still de jure rather than de facto, Mingus focused intently on civil rights themes. 1975, post-Attica massacre, the composer turns his attention to prisoners’ rights while not neglecting general issues of equality. Either way, his fiercely populist vision never wavered.

The sound for the first show is broadcast-quality mono awash in generous reverb. The second one has a a far more dynamic stereo mix. Together they total more than four hours of the legendary bassist with two almost completely different but equally incendiary bands.

The first show features a dream team of players, many of them as revered as the bandleader. Eric Dolphy, in one of his last recordings here, plays alto sax, bass clarinet and flute, along with tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, trumpeter Johnny Coles, Jaki Byard on a piano in, um, saloon tuning, and colorful, underrated, longtime Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond.

How do you keep a crowd engaged in a 26-minute blues? Get these guys involved; the bandleader’s terse irony is a big part of it, as is Dolphy’s irrepressible outsider sensibility. Their 34-minute take of Fables of Faubus, the lone holdover that would reappear in the 1975 setlist, has plenty of cruelly cartoonish mockery of the little Hitler governor of Arkansas, but also a venomous duet between Mingus and Byard, vindictive blaze and chilling noir swing, Coles’ mournful lines backlit by Dolphy’s bass clarinet – which emerges as voice of both horror and reason.

Byard teases the audience with phantasmagorical stride one step beyond Monk to introduce a delicate bass/piano take of Sophisticated Lady. The group indulge the crowd as much as themselves in Mingus’ Parkeriana, a careening mashup of Bird themes, Dolphy hitting those high harmonics like probably only their composer could have. In Meditations on Integration, they take an immersive roller-coaster ride from poignancy to haphazardly floating swing and for awhile, more optimistic terrain. The brooding triangulation between Byard’s crushing chords, Dolphy’s ominous airiness and Mingus’ severe, bowed lines at the end is one of the album’s most shattering interludes.

The July 9, 1975 concert at a larger venue, Post Aula, features a quintet including George Adams on tenor sax, trumpeter Jack Walrath and pianist Don Pullen, with Richmond on drums again. This time the songs are more succinct, in contrast with the sheer wildness of the solos. Their first number here is the epically bustling ballad Sue’s Changes (Mingus’ beloved wife Sue was editor of Changes magazine), with expansive, explosive solos all around. Mingus’ bass is far grittier and dynamic on this recording, probably due to close-miking. Pullen’s turbulence against his long chromatic vamp paints an aptly formidable portrait.

A broodingly bluesy, angst-fueled take of Sy Johnson’s tribute For Harry Carney is next, Adams whirling and punching, mostly in the lows, over a catchy, modally shamanic pulse. Mingus’ aching microtonal solo as Pullen runs the hook is tantalizingly brief. Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA – a protest piece against grim conditions in southern prisons’ death row blocks – is surprisingly, scamperingly bright, all the soloists in determined, seemingly defiant mode as this swing shuffle takes on more of a latin feel.

The group scramble and pulse insistently through Walrath’s Black Bats and Poles, anchored by Mingus’ vamping octaves and lickety-split variations. The version of Fables of Faubus this time around clocks in at a comparatively modest fifteen-plus minutes, much more contiguously and solo-centric after the band careen their way in.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, Mingus’ fond elegy for his big influence, provides a calm platform for tender Adams and Walrath solos, and gentle lyricism from piano and bass. They indulge in a brief bit of Ray Noble’s Cherokee to pick up the pace and end the set.

The first of the encores is the catchy, briskly swinging Remember Rockefeller at Attica, with bright, crescendoing trumpet and piano solos, Adams’ rapidfire attack leading the band out. He takes a similarly impassioned turn on vocals to close the night with Devil’s Blues after a sagacious Mingus solo intro. Is it unfair to compare new material by contemporary artists to the transcendence on this album? Wait and see when – and if – we reach the moment where there’s a best albums of 2020 list here.

November 23, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl. 

October 2, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Triumphant Protest Jazz Suite Celebrates a Landmark Arkansas Victory on the Long Road Toward Equality

Pianist Christopher Parker and singer Kelley Hurt initially conceived of their epic No Tears Suite  – streaming at Bandcamp – to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s landmark victory over racism in public education. Taking their title from Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir of the standoff, Warriors Don’t Cry, it blends spoken word, darkly lyrical jazz, some fascinating and troubling history, and a lavish Rufus Reid orchestral score.

The album comprises both the original septet arrangement, followed by a live large-ensemble version of the suite featuring the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. The initial overture begins with a series of wavelike variations, trumpeter Marc Franklin’s ambered lines over Parker’s ripples and foreshadowing: Wadada Leo Smith’s large-ensemble themes on the Ten Freedom Summers album are an obvious point of comparison.

Hurt enters over Parker’s darkly glittering phrases as the rhythm picks up, offering some historical background: the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the infamous deployment of the National Guard by racist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, and President Eisenhower’s final decision to provide a US Army escort so the students could finally start high school, almost a month late.

Parker opens To Be a Kid solo, rather somberly. As a jazz waltz develops, the music grows more carefree, with rather wistful horns over bassist Bill Huntington and drummer Brian Blade’s light-fingered groove, Franklin joined by Bobby LaVell on tenor sax and Chad Fowler on alto. The stark, rustic gospel quotes at the end leave no doubt that trouble is looming,

The band build slow, somber, rubato atmosphere as Roll Call gets underway, Hurt providing biographical background on each of the Little Rock Nine along with some of those who fought alongside them. The struggles these kids faced getting into the school were far from over: most of them soon moved away after Little Rock Central High closed down the following school year.

Don’t Cry (Warrior’s Song) blends a stern, Mingus-influenced swing with allusively gospel-inflected insistence and a regal, hard-hitting Parker solo, Hurt’s expressive mezzo-soprano resolute and understated. 

The September, 1957 crisis is over in two minutes of frantic bustle: Parker and Hurt can’t wait to Jubilate, reprising the waltz theme with gruffly joyous tenor sax, circling trumpet, bitingly modal piano and a summery, vampy, latin-tinged conclusion.

The orchestral version of the suite –  also available with the DVD and cd as a a digital-only component – is as titanic as you could hope for, yet remarkably subtle. Often it seems to be more of a piano concerto where the orchestra are engaged in frequent and unusually interesting ways. Some solos get switched out for dynamically shifting, artfully textured strings and brass. Delicious details abound: menacing bowed basses in the overture; Fowler jumping out of his shoes in To Be a Kid; LaVell closely shadowing Hurt’s narration in Roll Call. And Hurt goes off script for one of the suite’s most telling moments: “Bodies can be buried, but not the past,” she advises.

This album has special resonance this year as public education in many parts of the country continues to melt down. On one hand, tens of millions of students are celebrating. More often than not, compulsory education in this country was a waiting room for the prison-industrial complex, plagued by violence, sadistic regimentation and a curriculum built around conformist propaganda.

On the other, what’s going to happen to the motivated minority of students whose interest in learning hasn’t been crushed by the system? And where are those who inspired them going to teach? Even in the worst public schools, there were always a handful of heroes whose classrooms were an oasis of inspiration, a refuge from the battle raging outside. Anybody who thinks that American kids are going to put in ten hours of screen time, five days a week to watch some robot teach the test is living in an alternate universe.

September 24, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Smart, Relevant Protest Jazz From Irreversible Entanglements

Protest jazz quintet Irreversible Entanglements came together out of a 2015 Musicians Against Police Brutality response to the killing of Akai Gurley, who was gunned down in a New York housing project stairwell the year before. Their debut album, Who Sent You? is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s smart, conversational, powerful and surprisingly catchy stuff. MC Camae Ayewa (better known as Moor Mother), saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Tcheser Holmes have a tight, purposeful rapport that echoes the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s more kinetic improvisations, and Ayewa’s lyrics are spot-on. If music that’s in touch with reality is your thing, this is your jam.

The album’s first track, The Code Noir Amina has a galloping, hypnotic Afrobeat groove with sunny, sustained horn lines shimmering overhead, building to a relentlessly tumbling drive and then receding elegantly. “At what point do we stand up…do we stand up at the breaking point? At the point of no return?” Ayewa asks.

The title track follows a similar pattern, from a big pummeling whirlwind of an intro to a series of rises and falls, the horns first spare and then frenetic. There are light electroacoustic touches, a quiet, persistent, echoey horn break in the middle and an unexpectedly calm, reflective djembe-and-sax outro. “What are you doing here in my home, my neighborhood, who sent you? Where did they tell you to patrol, to oversee, redeem, crucify? Did they tell you to walk around with your finger on the trigger? Who sent you? Did they tell you how long we’re supposed to stay here, under your gun, the occupation, who sent you?” Ayewa wants to know. What an appropriate song for this summer, right?

No Mas opens with the horns building variations on a stark minor-key blues riff, then hits a bass-and-drums groove that’s the closest thing to straight-up hip-hop here. “No longer will we allow them to divide and conquer, divide and oppress, define our humanity,” Ayewa insists.

Blues Ideoogy is the album’s fastest number, starting out with a tight, racewalking pulse and fraying at the edges as it goes along: it’s a snide commentary alluding to child rape in the Catholic church. The album’s final track is Bread Out of Stone, Ayewa reflecting on a turbulent heritage of enslavement and resistance over a loopy bass-and-drums clave groove. If there are historians twenty years from now, they’ll look back to this as a foundational album for the beginning of a new era. But we’ll have to fight to get to that point if we do at all.

July 9, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, poetry, rap music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Savagely Insightful, Timely Antiwar Album From Guitarist Joel Harrison + 18

At a time when citizens outside of Sweden are battling the global lockdown, guitarist Joel Harrison‘s latest album America at War – streaming at Bandcamp – couldn’t have more relevance. Harrison and his eighteen-piece big band recorded it in the spring of 2019, so the lockdown and the planning that led up to it aren’t mentioned. Yet, as an antiwar and anti-tyranny statement, it packs a wallop. Harrison has made plenty of imaginatively orchestrated albums, but this is his best.

The fact that the opening epic, March on Washington is basically a one-chord jam doesn’t become apparent until the very end. Getting there is a hell of a ride: this undulating, searing look back at the protests of the late 60s and early 70s has bursting horns, a paint-peeling wah noise solo from Harrison and a pulsing coda with quotes from Jimi Hendrix and other luminaries of the era.

The second track, Yellowcake references the duplicity that served as the rationale for the Bush regime’s Iraq war (for a similarly smart view in a completely different idiom, see cello rock band Rasputina‘s In Old Yellowcake). A sample of Bush’s smirking, ersatz Texas drawl appears amid a conspiratorial thicket of instruments; a brisk, tense clave alternates with bustling funk and bracing solos from trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Wilson Torres’ bass drums and Gregg August’s sinister bass offer no hint of how coldly this will end.

My Father in Nagasaki reflects Harrison’s World War II vet father’s experiences as one of the first American troops to reach the stricken city after the atom bomb killed hundreds of thousands there. The marching intro leads to an ineluctable, brass-fueled desperation; the grim harmonies over Torres’ vibraphone are one of the album’s high points. Ned Rothenberg adds a stark solo on shakuhachi, Ken Thomson’s bass clarinet taking the gloom even deeper.

The sarcasm reaches fever pitch over a qawwali-tinged groove in The Vultures of Afghanistan, Ben Kono’s plaintively searching soprano sax above the fat rhythm section, Ben Stapp’s tuba pulsing in hard. Irabagon spirals around sardonically; trombonist Alan Ferber and the high reeds pair off uneasily as the conflagration rises.

Daniel Kelly’s brooding, spare piano chords mingle with an ominously marching backdrop as Requiem For an Unknown Soldier begins, the orchestra slowly rising to a blazing indictment. Harrison’s jagged. Gilmouresque solo hits a shrieking peak matched by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen. The insistence of the individuals voices as they reach for firm footing is chilling: Darcy James Argue’s most political material comes to mind.

Gratitude is the album’s lone non-political number, a bulked-up Memphis soul groove with early 70s Morricone-ish urban bustle at the center, and a triumphant Jensen solo. Honor Song, a shout-out to veterans, has shifting voices, contrasting colors and disquieting chromatics over a dramatic, shamanic American Indian beat, Stacy Dillard adding adrenaline with a wild, trilling, thrilling tenor sax solo.

Harrison moves to the mic to sing a slow, simmering, soul-infused take of Tom Waits’ Day After Tomorrow. The album’s concluding track is Stupid, Pointless, Heartless Drug Wars, its lushly slinky, hypnotic opening pushed out of the picture by a witheringly sarcastic, spastic charge, Thomson’s fiery alto sax kicking off a menacing, chaotic coda. This is a strong contender for best album of 2020 from a crew that also includes Seneca Black, Dave Smith and Chris Rogers on trumpets, Marshal Sealy on french horn, Sara Jacovino on trombone and Jared Schonig on drums.

The only thing missing here is a bonus track, Stupid, Pointless, Murderous Lockdown. Maybe Harrison can put that on his next album. Oh yeah, there are nine more people in this band than are legally allowed to get together in an indoor space in New York right now. And besides, you can’t play a horn through a mask. We are living under a truly insane regime.

June 18, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Most Shattering Piece of Music Released This Year

The most riveting and relevant piece of music released so far this year is basically a single note.

Scott Robinson plays 8 min. 46 sec. solo on bass saxophone, sustaining that note for the almost nine minutes that George Floyd managed to survive until Derek Chauvin finally succeeded in asphyxiating him. It will rip your face off. Robinson uses circular breathing to maintain the pitch, and as the piece goes on, even a veteran multi-reed player has to hold on for dear life.

That’s the point here: as quietly tortuous as Robinson’s own performance becomes, imagine what Floyd went through. As Robinson reminds in his notes on the youtube clip, he was shaking by the time he’d finished: Floyd didn’t get to make it that far.

June 16, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Haunting Singer Sara Serpa Confronts the Genocidal Legacy of European Imperialism in Africa

Sara Serpa is one of the most hauntingly distinctive singers in any style of music to emerge in the past decade or so. She typically sings wordlessly, using her disarmingly clear voice as an instrument, whether with a choir or a band. Her latest project, Recognition – streaming at Bandcamp – confronts the grisly and all too often neglected history of European imperialism in Africa.

This project is also Serpa’s debut as a filmmaker. She took old Super 8 footage from her family’s archival collection made in 1960s Angola under Portuguese colonial rule and assembled a silent film out of it, then wrote the soundtrack. A VOD link to the movie comes with the album; as usual, Serpa has pulled together an inspired cast of creative improvisers for it.

The score opens with Lei Do Indigenato, 1914, a spacious, troubled, sparsely rippling overture that sets the stage for the rest of the record. The second track, Occupation is built around a distantly ominous, circling series of modal riffs from harpist Zeena Parkins and pianist David Virelles, Serpa’s vocals and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s eerily airy phrases rising overhead.

It’s amazing how Serpa opens the third track, The Multi-Racialism Myth, with a seemingly blithe series of octaves, then Virelles and the rest of the band completely flip the script with it. The pianist’s tumbling, Satie-esque flourishes are especially menacing: is this a commentary on how history gets whitewashed?

The same dynamic persists in the steadily marching, sarcastically titled Free Labour. In Beautiful Gardens, Parkins and Virelles build increasingly horror-stricken riffs behind her echoey narration of the great 1950s Negritude-era poet Amilcar Cabral’s witheringly sarcastic depiction of the imperialists’ lives of luxury, contrasting with the details of their murderous rule over the natives.

Turner has never played more lyrically than he does here, harmonizing with Serpa’s steady, uneasy vocalese in Mercy and Caprice. Civilizing Influence – how’s THAT for a sarcastic title? – is a darkly majestic instrumental for sax, piano and harp. The group follow that with Queen Nzinga, a bustling improvisational shout-out to a legendary West African leader who defied thirteen imperialist governors’ attempts at suppressing her; Parkins bends her notes as if playing a Korean gaegeum. As Serpa reminds, in four hundred years of Portuguese oppression, native Angolans’ resistance against the invaders never stopped.

Serpa’s one-women ghost-girl choir over the group’s resolute, bracing march in Absolute Confidence is absolutely chilling. The group slowly shift Control and Oppression into a chilly lockstep. Hannah Arendt found a connection between apartheid in South Africa and the Nazi regime; likewise, how much of the 2020 global lockdown has roots in imperialist oppression?

Propaganda is a return to blithe/sinister dynamics, which then fall apart: nobody buys this lie, no matter how strident it gets! The closing credits theme, Unity and Struggle, is an optimistically if sometimes awkwardly marching setting of another Cabral text, reflecting how African independence often turned out to be a struggle against the puppets of the departed imperialists. Serpa has made a lot of good albums over the years but this is arguably her best, right up there with her 2010 duo album Camera Obscura with iconic noir pianist Ran Blake, If there’s reason for, or the possibility of a music blog existing at the end of 2020, you’ll see this on the best albums of the year page in December.

Since she’s based in New York, it would be illegal for Serpa to play an album release concert, but she is doing a live webcast with brilliant guitarist André Matos on June 28 at 5 PM at the fantastic new jazz streaming portal Art Is Live.

June 8, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fiercely Relevant, Epic Grandeur From Pianist Arturo O’Farrill’s Mighty Big Band

Pianist Arturo O’Farrill has made a career out of writing witheringly insightful, relevant, politically fearlesss jazz. His brilliantly symphonic 2014 album The Offense of the Drum, with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra addressed issues spanning from the blight of gentrification, to the arrest quotas the New York City police were using at the time to target innocent people of color, to the the slavers in the British colonies who outlawed music in an attempt to keep kidnapped Africans in submission. At a moment where band performances are illegal in New York, there’s never been a more appropriate time for a new record from this mighty crew. Their latest one, Four Questions – streaming at Spotify – Is O’Farrill’s most musically ambitious and classically-oriented album in a career full of taking chances.

The centerpiece is the title suite, featuring firebrand theorist, author and hip-hop artist Cornel West. The stairstepping brass intro is a lot closer to John Zorn than, say, Machito; the bluster and slink afterward alludes to the Middle East, among many shifting idioms, with triumphant call-and-response riffage throughout the ensemble. This isn’t just a backing track for West’s characteristically polymath broadside, which draws from W.E.B. DuBois’ thoughts on building community to combat repression from all sides. In sixteen minutes plus, West makes the connection between DuBois’ vision of a society based on compassion and Jane Austen’s concept of “constancy,” rails against Wall Street scammers who go unpunished and sends fervent shouts out to a long legacy of American artists of color whose work and philosophy in the face of murderous tyranny have never been more relevant than they are now. “Folks can’t ride your back unless it’s bent,” he reminds. Along the way, O’Farrill brings the music down to a streetcorner descarga, throws in a little jaunty ragtime, a rustic oldtime gospel trumpet interlude, and references from James P. Johnson to Geri Allen.

The album’s second suite is A Still, Small Voice, O’Farrill’s reflection on the 2008 financial collapse engineered by the Bush regime and Goldman Sachs to take the profits private and the losses public (and potentially cripple the incoming Obama administration). A forlorn trumpet solo opens the first movement, Elijah – 1 Kings 19:13. A choir of disembodied voices conducted by Jana Ballard coalesces, punctuated by orchestral swells, portentous percussion and a cantering qawaali-flavored rhythm.

Uneasy close harmonies from the choir fuel the fleeting second movement, Amidst the Fire and Whirlwind. The third, aptly titled Cacophonous has a rising, terrorized counterpoint anchored by the bandleader’s eerie boogie-woogie lefthand, interrupted by a suspiciously blithe soprano sax solo. The orchestra and choir work ethereal chromatic descents over a tense pulse in the concluding title movement, eventually ceding to a somberly catchy sway and a calm, gospel-infused outro. O’Farrill always likes to leave a window for hope to get in.

Not everything here is this heavy. The opening track, Baby Jack, is essentially a soprano sax concerto. It’s a playful, telling portrait of a very mercurial infant, complete with peevish trombones, moments of wonderous calm contrasting with unexpected, lush sagacity: this is one precocious child!

Jazz Twins has a sweeping, Darcy James Argue-ish bittersweetness and waves of counterpoint. O’Farrill takes a rippling solo, followed by gritty, clustering tenor sax and soaring trumpet over more of that Punjabi-inflected rhythm. And Clump, Unclump, a circling study in divergence, convergence and triumph over an evil system, manages to be both the album’s most avant garde and yet most traditionally postbop number.

June 7, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment