The Month In Jazz – February 2021
I’ve been listening to a lot of Julius Hemphill’s music lately. Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1938, the 6’4” saxophonist and bandleader was a founding member of the Black Artists’ Group in St. Louis, Missouri. His first album as a leader, 1972’s Dogon A.D., is one of the most stark and striking out-jazz records ever. It was recorded with trumpeter Baikida Carroll, cellist Abdul Wadud, and drummer Phillip Wilson, but the cover art depicted six musicians far away, silhouetted against the sky in a way that was both mysterious and somehow threatening, as though they were daring you to try and get closer.
The title piece, which kicks off the album, is as startling as that cover photo. Wilson sets up a martial beat, with Wadud scraping out a relentless ostinato that’s not quite a groove, almost like country blues crossed with modern classical, and Hemphill and Carroll cry out like lost men shouting past each other in the dark. It’s the kind of piece that never lets go of you once you’ve heard it; Vijay Iyer created a piano trio version of it for his 2009 album Historicity that’s very different, but powerful in its own way.
Hemphill’s creative ambition was vast; in addition to stripped-down records like Dogon A.D. and 1978’s Raw Materials And Residuals (with Wadud and Art Ensemble Of Chicago drummer Famoudou Don Moye), he recorded a big band album in 1988 and founded the World Saxophone Quartet in 1976 with David Murray and two of his fellow BAG members, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett. The WSQ’s music combined Ellingtonian swing with free funk and fierce blowouts, maintaining a powerful energy and forward movement even without rhythmic or chordal instruments. After leaving that group, he founded a similar, rhythmless sextet for 1991’s Fat Man And The Hard Blues. That group made a second album, Five Chord Stud, in 1994, but by then Hemphill was suffering from heart disease and diabetes, and couldn’t play, so he conducted the music. He died in 1995.
At the end of last month, New World Records issued a seven-CD box of previously unreleased Hemphill music, The Boyé Multi-National Crusade For Harmony. It includes live performances by a variety of ensembles, as well as an hour-long set of duos with Wadud. The third disc, which features his group the Janus Company (himself, Carroll on trumpet, and Alex Cline – brother of Nels – on percussion), includes an alternate recording of “Dogon A.D.” on which the cellist joins the group (stream it above). Another disc showcases his compositional and arranging skills rather than his playing; it includes “Parchment,” a piece written for and performed by his longtime partner, pianist Ursula Oppens, and three arrangements of Charles Mingus compositions for string quartet. Still another disc focuses on his collaborations with poets; two multipart works, “Unfiltered Dreams” and “Soweto 1976,” find Hemphill accompanying poets K. Curtis Lyle and Malinké Elliott, respectively.
Both Lyle and Elliott, like many of Hemphill’s lifelong collaborators, were members of BAG. The organization was just one of several collectives that sprung up in the late 1960s as part of the Black Arts movement. Some lasted longer than others: Chicago’s AACM remains active to this day. BAG only survived for a few years, but what made it unique was the members’ desire to combine multiple art forms and disciplines into an overall vision of empowerment and creative encouragement. BAG had poets, painters, filmmakers, playwrights, actors, and dancers as well as musicians, and productions involved as many of these people as possible. Hemphill, Lake, Bluiett, and others provided music for plays and for dancers, and the group’s work had a social element as well. They played at protests and held community meetings in their headquarters, which was located in the heart of St. Louis’ north side.
I’m currently reading a 2004 book on the organization, Benjamin Looker’s “Point From Which Creation Begins”: The Black Artists’ Group Of St. Louis, which is very interesting and educational for anyone looking to make art their life. In addition to descriptions of the records and films they made, and the stage and street-theater productions they put on, it delves into how BAG managed to squeeze money out of the local government to fund their work, and explores how they struggled, not always successfully, to be populist and relevant to their community while still pushing their work as far forward as possible. There’s also a documentary making the rounds of film festivals that features present-day interviews with many of the surviving members, as well as archival footage. If it becomes widely available, you should absolutely seek it out.
A lot of jazz musicians, and Black avant-garde artists in every medium, have struggled with getting their ideas to audiences within their own communities. That’s something writer Anthony Reed discusses in his book SoundWorks: Race, Sound, And Poetry In Production, which I also read this month. It’s primarily an analysis of several collaborations between jazz musicians and poets; at least, that’s what gives it its framework. He explores Archie Shepp’s use of poetry on tracks like “Malcolm, Malcolm—Semper Malcolm” and “Blasé,” the latter featuring vocalist Jeanne Lee, and links it to his radical political positions of the 1960s. He examines Cecil Taylor’s poetry, which was an important part of his live performances (and was published in small journals) but only appeared on a few of his albums. He talks about an album I’d never heard of, but am now eager to hear, on which poet Langston Hughes reads his work with Charles Mingus’s band backing him. He opens the book discussing Moor Mother’s work with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, and later looks at Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin albums. But running through the whole book is an analysis of what Reed calls “the vernacular avant-garde,” meaning art that’s meant to reach what Shepp used to refer to as “the people,” in an explicitly Marxist sense. Shepp, and Amiri Baraka as well, wanted very much to address and be heard by the Black community, particularly in the 1960s, but found themselves performing primarily for white audiences. I interviewed Shepp in 2014, and he told me that he had an epiphany at one point:
My mother died rather early, when she was 50, but I remember one of my last conversations with her, where she asked me, “Well, son, are you still playing those songs that don’t have any tunes?” And I thought about that. Later, just after her funeral, I spoke with a friend of hers, and she looked at me with this sort of quizzical look and asked, “When are you going to record something that I can understand?”
Not long after that, Shepp shifted gears somewhat, embracing the blues and jazz standards much more strongly than before, while still retaining his politics; basically, he tried to bring people into the fold by using songs they knew as a kind of Trojan horse. For example, in SoundWorks, Reed discusses a Shepp recording of “The Girl From Ipanema” as a vehicle of potential subversion.
There’s an irony to Reed’s book, though. Just as many of the artists he discusses intended their work to speak to people in the neighborhoods they came from, but wound up reaching white listeners in downtown clubs or at European festivals, SoundWorks is published by a university press, and many sections are written in dense academic jargon that will be immediately comprehensible to tenure committees and graduate students in the humanities, but may leave the lay reader grumbling. Still, if you can make your way through sentences like “Such agonistic play deorchestrates the grammatical and tropological operations that constitute it as such, as self-identical iteration of a tradition,” there’s a lot of fascinating information and analysis to be absorbed here. I recommend reading SoundWorks with a corresponding Spotify playlist; actually hearing the records as he discusses them makes his interpretation even more vital, and may make you think differently about what you’re hearing.
And now, the tunes!
Michael Dease - "Parker’s Fancy"
The title of this piece by trombonist Michael Dease isn’t a reference to Charlie Parker; it’s a tribute to Dr. Andrew Parker of the Jazz Institute at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina, where Dease is the director. The band on this album is entirely made up of faculty from Brevard, including trumpeter Anthony Stanco, saxophonist Gregory Tardy, Jim Alfredson on organ, Ulysses Owens Jr. on drums, and Gwendolyn Dease on percussion. It’s a strutting, uptempo piece with a high-energy organ groove, over which all three horns dance and sing. (From Give It All You Got, out 2/26 via Posi-Tone.)
Chris Pattishall - "Taurus"
Pianist Chris Pattishall has made a hell of a debut album. Joined by trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, saxophonist Reuben Fox, bassist Marty Jaffe, drummer Jamison Ross, and producer Rafiq Bhatia, he’s created an adaptation of pianist Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite. The original, twelve tracks corresponding to zodiac signs and dedicated to various musicians, was recorded in 1945 with a trio and performed on New Year’s Eve that year by Williams and an orchestra, plus saxophonist Ben Webster. This new version features a few production tricks; Pattishall and Bhatia are clearly going for a Madlib feel — there’s a lot of hiss and air in the sound, giving it an almost haunted atmosphere at times. Pattishall is a student of pre-bebop jazz (Williams was born in 1910 and began working professionally at the end of the 1920s), and his style here is romantic and intimate. “Taurus” begins in a hush — the piano and bench can be heard creaking, and when the band comes in, Ross' drums are little more than a hiss and thump, as the horns waver and croon. But then a powerful beat kicks in, and the whole piece shifts to a thick, rolling blues, with a genuinely stunning reverb effect and a second, ghostly overdub added to Mulherkar's trumpet break. (From Zodiac, out 2/19 via Label.)
Timo Lassy & Teppo Mäkynen - "Calling James"
Tenor saxophonist Timo Lassy and drummer Teppo Mäkynen are two of my favorite musicians from the Finnish jazz scene, which punches way above its weight as a whole. Last year they released a self-titled album as a duo, and now they’ve issued a live companion piece as a CD or double LP. Don’t come in expecting a raucous blowout like John Coltrane's Interstellar Space (an album of duos with drummer Rashied Ali), though. This is riff-based, groove-heavy music with a head-nodding quality that may remind you of Dogon A.D., or a Shabaka Hutchings project. "Calling James," which closes the album, begins with a hoarse, repetitive soul-jazz figure from Lassy, as Mäkynen taps the rim of his snare and occasionally kicks the bass drum. Gradually, a groove builds up, as the energy level rises and rises, and before long the audience is whooping along. You may find yourself doing the same thing from your couch. (From Live Recordings 2019-2020, out 2/19 via We Jazz.)
Fire! - "Defeat (Only Further Apart)"
Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson’s trio Fire!, with electric bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin, earns the exclamation mark in their name. On most of their albums, the rhythm team sets up grinding, slowly churning grooves as Gustafsson tears into his tenor or baritone saxophone, grabbing hold of a riff and choking it into submission. Defeat is more subtle than their previous work, though, partly due to the presence of a pair of guests and partly to the members' own creative mood; they're stretching themselves rather than diving into a punk-jazz rut. Goran Kajfes plays quartertone trumpet, Mats Aleklint plays trombone and sousaphone, and Gustafsson himself plays flute on many tracks. On "Defeat (Only Further Apart)," the brass provide mournful harmonies throughout the piece, and Aleklint gets a terrific, swelling solo. (From Defeat, out now via Rune Grammofon.)
Jakob Bro - "To Stanko"
Guitarist Jakob Bro is joined by trumpeter Arve Henriksen and drummer Jorge Rossy on this gentle and compelling album. With titles like "Reconstructing A Dream," "Housework," and "Morning Song," you can probably figure out that this music's not gonna scream in your face, and it doesn't. Henriksen blows so softly at times that it’s like the trumpet is playing itself, and Rossy's drumming can be just as gentle, as though someone accidentally dropped something on an idle kit sitting in the corner of the studio. But the more you listen to a piece like "To Stanko," dedicated to the late Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, the more it comes into focus and the deliberate nature of its construction is revealed. In fact, it's a brilliant piece of minimalism, Rossy's beat gradually climbing from atmospheric taps to something almost martial, as Henriksen sings through the horn as to a child. Bro never takes the lead; he's the foundation of the piece, maintaining the melody as the others come in and out. (From Uma Elmo, out now via ECM.)
Jeremy Pelt - "Don’t Dog The Source"
Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt's latest album has a fascinating structure and conceit. He's just published a book of interviews with fellow artists, for which this record serves as a companion piece. Griot the book is designed to follow in the tradition of drummer Art Taylor's Notes And Tones, a book legendary for its subjects' willingness to go there, mostly because they were in conversation with a fellow player, rather than a journalist. The tunes on the record — performed by a group including pianist Victor Gould, vibraphonist Chien Chien Lu, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Allan Mednard, percussionist Ismael Wignall, and on one track, harpist Brandee Younger — are bracketed by brief snippets of conversation between Pelt and various musicians, including saxophonist JD Allen, pianist Harold Mabern, drummer Warren Smith, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, singer Bertha Hope, and others. But even without those bits of wisdom sprinkled through its running time, Griot would be a great album. There may not be any live gigs at the moment, but this is Pelt's working band, and they have a language, one he knows how to write for. "Don't Dog The Source" has a bouncing, catchy melody and a swinging rhythm, and Lu in particular shines. (From Griot: This Is Important!, out now via HighNote.)
Joe Chambers - "Never Let Me Go"
Joe Chambers is a legend. In his twenties, he played on Blue Note albums like Wayne Shorter's The All Seeing Eye and Adam's Apple, Bobby Hutcherson's Dialogue And Components, Joe Henderson's Mode For Joe, Andrew Hill's Compulsion and Andrew!!!, and McCoy Tyner's Tender Moments, and recorded Archie Shepp's Fire Music and On This Night for Impulse! He's always been more than "just" a brilliant drummer, though; he also plays vibes and piano — in fact, he made a brilliant album, 1977's Double Exposure, that features him on piano in duo with organist Larry Young. "Mind Rain," from that album, was sampled for Nas' "NY State Of Mind." On Samba De Maracatu, made with pianist Brad Merritt and bassist Steve Haines, he plays drums and vibes, overdubbing himself. Despite its title, it's not an album of all Brazilian music; there are swinging ballads, thick funk grooves, and more. On "Never Let Me Go," vocalist Stephanie Jordan delivers the lyrics in a swaying late-night style as Chambers shadows her from behind both his instruments. (From Samba De Maracatu, out 2/26 via Blue Note.)
Cameron Graves - "Sons Of Creation"
I’ve known about this album since the summer of 2019; for whatever reason, it's taken a long time to come out, and I’m still not 100% sure people are gonna be ready for it now that it's here. Cameron Graves is part of the West Coast Get Down, the collective that also includes Kamasi Washington, trombonist Ryan Porter, bassists Miles Mosley and Thundercat, and others. He's also a member of fusion legend Stanley Clarke's band. But he's got his other foot in hard rock and metal; he was a member of Jada Pinkett Smith's band Wicked Wisdom years ago, and this record is somewhere between the fastest, most hairpin-turn 1970s fusion like Return To Forever and thrash metal. Seriously. Listen to the way this band shifts seamlessly from a choppy, grinding guitar riff — anchored by Graves' clanging, hyper-Romantic piano — to florid melodic outbursts. And what about that guitar solo? This is one of the heaviest jazz releases of the year; it's gonna snap a few necks. (From Seven, out 2/19 via Mack Avenue.)
R+R=NOW - "How Much A Dollar Cost"
I wasn't all that excited by "supergroup" R+R=NOW when their debut album, Collagically Speaking, came out in 2018. They had a strong lineup — keyboardist Robert Glasper was the leader, with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah on trumpet, Terrace Martin on alto sax, synths, and occasional electronically altered vocals, Taylor McFerrin on synth, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Justin Tyson on drums. The music they made together, though, lacked the laser focus and ominous energy of Scott's own work; it felt sort of amorphous and hazy. This live album has hit me a little harder. Onstage, the group takes the post-hip-hop grooves of the studio disc and loosens the screws a little bit, letting the music rattle and bounce. Everything they perform comes from the studio album, except for one track: a version of Kendrick Lamar's "How Much A Dollar Cost." Naturally, it's somewhat looplike in structure, but it's also more up-front than the original. The two horns take turns essaying the simple horn figure, then harmonize on it, before trading off brief, flurrying solos like two MCs tossing a microphone back and forth. (From R+R=NOW Live, out now via Blue Note.)
Archie Shepp & Jason Moran - "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child"
Archie Shepp and Jason Moran might seem like a surprising combination, but the pianist has a deep reverence for the avant-garde tradition. (No, that's not a contradiction in terms.) The first time I saw him play, in 2001 or so, was when he and his trio the Bandwagon had made an album with saxophonist Sam Rivers, full of music that had intensity and beauty in equal measure. And Shepp may have started out as a free jazz pioneer, working with Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor, the New York Contemporary Five, and on fiery albums like The Magic Of Ju-Ju, The Way Ahead, and Poem For Malcolm (among many, many others), but he always kept one foot in the blues and the pre-bebop saxophone language of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. This album of duos, recorded at a pair of European festivals, is suffused with a deep and at times theatrical sorrow. When Shepp puts down the soprano sax and sings on this version of the classic "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child," his voice is somewhere between Paul Robeson and Fred Gwynne (aka Herman Munster), and it carries the gravitas that only a man in his 80s, performing for 60 years, can manifest. (From Let My People Go, out now via Archieball.)