From The Dancehall To The Battlefield And Beyond With Jason Moran
It all starts with Europe — James Reese Europe, to be exact
Pianist Jason Moran does things on his own terms. Since leaving Blue Note Records almost a decade ago (his final album for them was 2014’s All Rise: A Joyful Elegy For Fats Waller), he’s become the Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and started Yes Records, releasing his own music on Bandcamp since 2016. He charges $20 for his albums, which is about twice what most people charge, and when I asked him about that in 2017, he said, “I think about music as, ‘What do you value it at?’…I could charge $50 for this, and if a person wants it, they want it. If they don’t, they don’t. It’s totally fine…The way music has been sold, this thing where I should be able to stream the entire thing before I buy it is unfair, and I think it’s unfair that musicians should fall into the mode where they would do that automatically. I don’t believe in that.”
Each of the records Moran has put out since going independent is different from the others. They include a solo recital, a live album with his trio the Bandwagon (Tarus Mateen on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums), music intended to accompany works by performance artist Joan Jonas, and music composed while artist Julie Mehretu created two site-specific paintings in a decommissioned church in Harlem. I’ve bought almost all of them, and my favorites are BANGS, a trio with guitarist Mary Halvorson and the late cornet player Ron Miles; The Sound Will Tell You, a solo album that incorporates electronic manipulation to create an almost chopped & screwed effect at times; and Graves/Moran – Live At Big Ears, a set of duos with the late percussionist Milford Graves. His latest, released on New Year’s Day, is From The Dancehall To The Battlefield, a tribute to and reinterpretation of the music of bandleader James Reese Europe.
Europe, born in Alabama in 1881, was a classically trained violinist (he studied under Frederick Douglass’s grandson, Joseph Douglass) who moved from Washington, DC to New York, where he established himself on the city’s burgeoning musical scene, forming a Black musicians’ union and orchestra called the Clef Club. In 1912, the Clef Club brought 125 players onto the stage at Carnegie Hall to perform an evening of music by Black composers. During World War I, Europe fought as part of the 369tth Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hell Fighters. He also led the regimental band, and they performed all over France and recorded a bunch of 78s for the Pathé label before returning to the US. Unfortunately, Europe was killed in 1919; he got into a fight with his drummer backstage and was stabbed.
Europe’s music wasn’t jazz, exactly. It was a combination of ragtime and military band music, set to a highly syncopated rhythm that you can hear the roots of swing in. But it’s a key step on the way to jazz, and it’s an amazing piece of Black American cultural history. Moran and his band (Mateen and Waits, plus David Adewumi on trumpet, Reginald Cyntje and Chris Bates on trombones, Logan Richardson on alto sax, Brian Settles on tenor sax, Darryl Harper on clarinet, José Davila on tuba) have arranged new versions of Europe’s “Ballin’ The Jack,” “Clef Club March,” “Castle House Rag,” and “All Of No Man’s Land Is Ours,” as well as W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Hesitating Blues.” There are also some new Moran compositions and a brief version of composer Pauline Oliveros’ “Zena’s Circle,” and the Europe pieces sometimes interpolate more modern music — “Ballin’ The Jack” is combined with the late pianist Geri Allen’s “Feed The Fire,” and the spiritual “Flee As A Bird To Your Mountain” transitions seamlessly into Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts.” On Jan. 2, I called Moran to talk about From The Dancehall To The Battlefield, his work with the Kennedy Center, and much more.
How long has this project been in the pipeline? When did the idea first come to you, and how did you go about securing funding for it, and stuff like that?
JASON MORAN: I guess I became aware of who James Reese Europe was through a long conversation with Randy Weston. Randy Weston invited me to his home to basically give me his own personal lecture on who James Reese Europe was. And at that time — this was maybe 2013 or something — he was also working on his own James Reese Europe project, which he was touring right up until near his death. But he sat me down for a while and just kind of discussed the importance of this bandleader who I’d only heard of a few times, once with Jaki Byard, but other than that not at all.
And then a few years later, as there were lots of creative endeavors to commemorate World War I, I was approached by an organization in England called 14-18 NOW. They, alongside one of the great promoters in England, John Cummings, approached me about looking at the legacy of James Reese Europe. And then I embarked on years of study that continues up till today. A study into why I had not heard about him, a study into the music that he manipulated, and the lives he changed in his short life. But it started then.
And you know, we’ve been performing it off and on for the past four years, and I knew I wanted to make a recording of it, because [unlike] the other tribute concerts I’ve done, to Fats Waller or to Thelonious Monk, James Reese Europe’s music was only recorded a few times by himself. One time with the band he’s celebrated for, and then after that it’s not touched at all. And the funding part was, I started my own label so I could do my own things with my own money, and I paid for it myself. It’s through hard work and a lot of other resources that kinda help make all this happen, but over time I just kept saving because I knew I wanted to make this record.
What is the stage production like?
MORAN: What we’ve been performing exists just like the record. That order of the songs, from top to bottom, is how the performance goes. We toured it first in England and recently we were at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and we go to SF Jazz in San Francisco in a few weeks to perform it, and then in Boston in February. There’s a visual component, too — a film that kind of abstractly looks at the jazz void and where James Reese Europe exists, so how do we commemorate people, how do we commemorate ideas or culture? Do we make monuments for these people? What do we do? And that’s what this concert is kind of a meditation about, in addition to what James Reese Europe’s own monumental achievement was. A hundred years later, how do we still put his name into our minds? The film that accompanies the concert is remarkable, a film by the great Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young. So yeah, it is a multimedia production in its essence.
You mentioned that this is your third project of this type: You did the Thelonious Monk Town Hall project, commemorating the 50tth anniversary of his big band concert, and then the Fats Waller project, and now this. Can you see or describe a through-line from one to the next?
MORAN: [laughs] I mean, you know I always think that all three start with Thelonious Monk. At least they do for me, because he’s the seminal figure that introduced me to the music in a heartfelt way, and his scope of history in his hands you could always hear. So somehow, one thing that I’ve always been attracted to is not necessarily staying up on what is happening today but looking to the clues that people have left behind in the past. And Thelonious Monk always offers that vision through his music. So a person that Thelonious Monk recorded was Fats Waller. So then we look at Fats Waller, and who’s Fats Waller’s teacher? James P. Johnson. Okay, so who’s before James P. Johnson, and Duke Ellington? Well, there’s James Reese Europe or Jelly Roll Morton. How far do we want to go back?
And I think going back further is always important, because, though we think we’re living in an extremely unique time, which I think we are, man’s ability to forget will never go out of style. I don’t know if that will be improved upon. History keeps telling us that we’ll have to know some history, at least for the moment that we’re on the planet, to try to find a way to secure a better future for those we’re in orbit with. I think James Reese Europe was concerned with that. But these are also three uptown figures. I live in Harlem, and these three [men] are extremely important to the way Harlem feels and sounds. Thelonious Monk at Minton’s Playhouse with Charlie Parker. Fats Waller, born and raised in Harlem, when he dies his ashes are spread across Harlem in a helicopter. And James Reese Europe is up here in Harlem at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance. He’s here with all the people who are going to claim Black culture for the future, and he’s doing his sonic version of that.
I think African-American music in America, the documented versions are one of the rare things that we kinda have the beginnings of, recorded. It’s a rare marker in the history that is actually put down unfiltered; it exists in the sonic components. For all the Mozart that is getting played at this very moment, there’s no recording of how it sounded when he played it or had it played. There’s just the score. There’s no Beethoven recorded. And as great as I think all that music is, we have Ellington. I know what his piano sounded like, which is as important as the notes he wrote — how he touched the piano. That can never be taken away from my ears. And the ear makes me believe. So that part, I always feel, is a thing that we have to keep reminding ourselves about. How history is passed on.
One of my teachers, Andrew Hill, always talked about this, about the kind of retention that exists in the DNA, that you can be aware of or unaware of, but it exists in how you approach things. And to always be looking for that, things that you might not understand about yourself that might show up seven generations back and may be manifesting right now. James Reese Europe has great-grandchildren who are still musicians, out here singing R&B and having bands here in New York. His name still lives on.
Europe’s arrangements are amazing because they manage to create a rhythmic fluidity with a military marching band. So when you strip these pieces down for a smaller ensemble, is it easier or harder to maintain that sense of swing?
MORAN: It’s difficult. But I think one of the things that Thelonious Monk also talked about in relationship to large ensembles is though he loved the way they sounded, he thought the idea was stiff. So he wanted an ensemble that would be large but could be flexible. So flexibility changes from generation to generation. What Thelonious Monk considers flexible in 1968 is not necessarily what I consider flexible in 2023. So my ensemble, the way we look at material, we want to make it melt. You talk about the fluidity of it — we want to draw it all the way down into the mud, take it back to the magma and then send it out to the North Pole so that it freezes fast. The group, we try to have an approach that doesn’t necessarily lock it into a recreation. That’s not what I’m ever really about. Somebody else can do that part; I’m not gonna do that. I want to look at his music and his legacy as inspiration, so then what does it charge me to do? How do I respond to that? Rather than, how can I mimic the swing of 1918? I mean, it’s very difficult to accomplish. But one thing that they had as an ensemble was this incredible precision. You know, it’s a large group, and he’s been dealing with large groups since he walks into Carnegie Hall with 125 people. He knows how to manage an ensemble that size.
That’s an insane ensemble. One hundred twenty-five people — that’s like, a Mahler symphony. That’s ridiculous.
MORAN: [laughs] Yeah, it is. And he’s been in that mode for a while. So he doesn’t necessarily consider it odd. I’m not that way. [laughs] So how do we try to get to some of the precision that he had with a large group, but then it can just go totally free? That’s another thing — I consider that part of the model of flexibility, ’cause music has changed so much since that time, and trying to make sure to connect James Reese Europe’s history to Albert Ayler’s history, for me, is a central theme too. He leads us into this freedom, so we’re trying to still know where his star is.
Yeah, I like the way you incorporate Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” into the music because he was someone who was very interested in going back to the earliest roots of jazz as well. You’ve got New Orleans sounds in his work, and old-timey spirituals…
MORAN: And they both also have that military experience. The African-American jazz musician who has had to go through the military, it’s an immense number of musicians. Henry Threadgill was in Vietnam. Jaki Byard in World War II, talking about hearing Kenny Dorham. Musicians have had to be on these boats, fighting these wars.
Half the AACM guys were veterans. You had Wadada Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton and Joseph Jarman — all those dudes learned their craft in the Army and then came back.
MORAN: Yeah, and it changes people. Fortunately, we end up hearing it in the music. So there’s also that component that is worth noting and thinking about, something that James Reese Europe changes, ’cause [the Harlem Hell Fighters] really sign up to fight this war. They aren’t necessarily drafted. He’s recruiting people by playing these W.C. Handy songs, saying, come join the band and come fight for your country. There’s a lot at stake, and a kind of freedom-making and path-charting that they’re trying to achieve. And they have no idea what the outcome will be. Like, they’re really putting their bodies on the line and using the music as a vehicle to do this. It’s totally bizarre to me. and totally inspirational, because it shows a kind of bravery that is almost extinct, you know?
What gave you the idea to blend “Ballin’ The Jack” and Geri Allen’s “Feed The Fire”? That track is an amazing kickoff to the album.
MORAN: Geri Allen is…I’d say I model myself after her. For me, she kind of made the most recent advancements within [jazz] piano history. She really pushed it forward, with the language that she was making at the piano. But at the very same time she was reflecting the legacy of Mary Lou Williams and the legacy of McCoy Tyner and Erroll Garner. She really was very closely attached to making sure that those histories were felt through her hands, and reaching audiences that might not have been aware — especially of Mary Lou Williams. She singlehandedly brought Mary Lou Williams back to the conversation about who invented bebop, and it’s her.
So I wanted to make sure Geri’s legacy is also wrapped up in this, because she also knew about James Reese Europe. “Ballin’ The Jack” also feels like a tune that Monk would play, and “Feed The Fire” is an anthem of Geri Allen’s. So these are songs that I feel like are standards. So I wanted to place that right at the top, like, this is the kind of mashup the Bandwagon always does anyway, the way we look at material, and I thought, this’ll be a nice moment. And I didn’t even tell them we were gonna be doing it until we were doing it in the middle of the take. That’s just how the band rolls. And I wanted to make sure to honor Geri, too, because she continues to inspire us even after her death.
It’s gonna be important for people like yourself and Vijay Iyer and other people to keep her name out there, because while she was massively influential on a generation of players, she was not someone who managed to get non-jazz people to know her name before her passing…
MORAN: Yeah, yeah. And she’s gone too soon. She was always in the midst of big research projects. She was always in the midst of a new collaboration, whether it was with dance or a symphonic ensemble or in her teaching, the incredible teaching that she was doing. She was a scholar. And fortunately, within the scholarly world, there’s a book being written for her by Angela Davis and Terri Lyne Carrington. So there’s this kind of making sure we place that legacy. These are the kind of corrective measures that maybe some of my generation is now at the helm to do. And it’ll be important for each of us to take a role in that, rather than simply applaud ourselves for the last chorus we took onstage [laughs]. But with that, we try to enhance what the future of the music can be by making sure we tell these histories that may not be in the limelight.
I’ve read some quotes from Europe and he was a pretty fascinating guy — he was very much what you would call a “race man,” to use an antiquated term. I feel like his way of thinking about Black music as essentially Black has become unfashionable — like, you can’t say that stuff out loud anymore. What do you think about his perspective on creating Black music as Black music, and honoring it as such? How does that fit into the modern environment?
MORAN: I’d argue the opposite. I only hear people talk about it that way [laughs], because it is the way to ensure a future for it. The Harlem Renaissance is that, and it doesn’t exist without people like James Reese Europe and W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey talking about a singular experience that is African-American, and trying to chart a future for it. About where it can go, what it can sound like, and who it can be. What Zora Neale Hurston singlehandedly does, documenting not only the way African-Americans were living, making her own films, going down into Florida and recording the songs that people who had been freed from slavery were still singing that they remembered from the fields, then writing these novels and putting the language that she heard from these freed people and the way it sounds onto the page. That for me is understanding Black canon. And Black canon has become, now, a real force in making sure that there is a relationship to what that is, the way it kind of has evolved over the century and a half since the Emancipation Proclamation. And most importantly, what it was before 1619. Not that 1619 is when African America starts — there are centuries before.
So how do we begin to research this, and how do we begin to acknowledge that the way the kitchen feels, the way it smells, who’s talking about what, the songs people sing when they make the quilt that then lives on your bed and you pass down from generation to generation, how do we acknowledge it? Well, you have to also say it’s Black. If that’s what I love about the music that I play. So I think Europe was on time then and is still on time today. That’s why you have a Black Power movement, it’s why you have Black Lives Matter now. There are components to the way society is working that have to also honor the way a culture has felt deleted from all the achievements and remarkable accomplishments, despite the oppression that exists and continues to exist in the country. We have a music that comes from an experience, and James Reese Europe is saying, you have to honor the slang that you have in your neighborhood. You have to honor the instruments that it comes from. We don’t play the saxophone the same way some other folks do. And maybe not all of it can translate to today, but I think his sentiment ends up becoming the very thesis of what the Harlem Renaissance embarks on, and definitely what Duke Ellington takes up as his own mantle and charge, to make sure Black America is heard.
You’ve been at the Kennedy Center for about 12 years now. What kind of things do you do there in terms of programming? Do you feel competitive with Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Center, or with SF Jazz, or is it a completely different thing? Are you all a network of canon builders?
MORAN: You know, I started that position once Dr. Billy Taylor passed away, and I’d say he is the emblem of what each of the institutions you mentioned tries to get to. Because Dr. Taylor knew the history, but he also was really keen on making sure there was equity on the stage, [including] promoting young musicians, and gender equity as well. Dr. Taylor was on that mission. And when I began at the Kennedy Center, the first person I met with was Wynton. I mean, he’s a longtime friend, but I sat down with him to have breakfast to ask, what am I about to get into? And his note to me was, Jason, whatever you do down there, it will be good for the music. So he was like, go do your work there. Because we need that relationship, and the same with Christian McBride at NJPAC.
And I’d say my work there is kind of as a curator and a programmer, making sure that the young musicians hitting the stage like I did when I was in my twenties, making sure that we are also acknowledging that the music is moving forward, so cluing audiences not only to historic projects but making sure that artists are getting a chance to experiment with the stage. I guess some of the recent things that were on the stage were not only Wayne Shorter’s opera Iphigenia, but also Cécile McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse. Those are two recent commissions that we did. So we’re trying to make sure that people are having ideas, [and] if they have ideas and we have space in our schedule, we get them on the stage to experiment with our audiences.
Because it’s the Kennedy Center, I also think our making sure that the music — especially the way I’ve seen jazz really inspire as an art form, whether it’s in theater, whether it’s in dance, whether it’s in opera — is also moving into those other areas, so looking for those collaborative projects that use the music as a feature. So when you go to see Alvin Ailey’s dance company perform and you hear Don Pullen, you hear Dizzy Gillespie, you hear Duke Ellington, you’re hearing the scope of Black music, and that also for me is part of the jazz fusion that exists at the Kennedy Center. So we try to make sure that our audience is aware that the music is wide, that it isn’t something narrow. And over the years it’s been great to watch the institution itself grow, thanks to the work that we in the program have instituted and made the institution aware of.
Yvonnick Prené - "Boosted"
The harmonica is not a common instrument in jazz. Frenchman Yvonnick Prené makes a strong argument that maybe it should be, though. On this album, he surrounds himself with top-shelf straightahead/post-bop players: tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Clovis Nicolas, and drummer Bill Stewart. Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt produces, and plays on one track. The album contains versions of Miles Davis’s “Dig” and “Seven Steps To Heaven” and the standards “She’s Funny That Way” and “How Am I To Know,” but “Boosted” is a Prené original. It’s set to a bouncing, swinging groove, anchored by heavy piano chords, and Prené plays a complex melody line full of unexpected little flurries, shadowed by Stephens. Before long, the two are trading ideas, finishing each other’s phrases and engaging in complex dialogue. Prené’s harmonica has a big, full, but complex sound full of overtones and ghost notes; he’s not a hard-blowing blues screamer, but rather a subtle and virtuosic player. This will surprise you. (From Listen!, out this week via Sunnyside.)
Hideyasu Terakawa Quartet - "Rerev" (Feat. Hiroshi Fujii)
The BBE label continues to reissue exemplary and highly rare Japanese jazz albums. One track from this disc, a version of Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile,” appeared on the third volume of their J Jazz compilation series. The original LP, featuring saxophonist Terakawa, bassist Tetsuo Miura, drummer Akihiro Nakaya, and guest vibraphonist Hiroshi Fujii, was released in an ultra-limited run (something like 100 copies) in 1978, sold only in local record stores. It was the only release on the Red Horison label. Furthermore, Terakawa’s current whereabouts are apparently unknown. Anyway, the music is swinging hard bop, all versions of Western tunes, of which “Rerev” is one of the most obscure. Written by vibraphonist Milt Jackson and saxophonist Jimmy Heath, it’s ideal for this group. Terakawa starts on tenor but switches to soprano later, and Fujii, Miura and Nakaya lay down an emphatic and rock-steady groove, the bassist in particular seeming more and more brilliant the simpler his walking line gets. (From Introducing…, out this week via BBE.)
The Heavy Hitters - "Silverdust"
Pianist Mike LeDonne and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander have assembled a killer new band that more than lives up to its name. Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Kenny Washington are heavy hitters indeed, and this album is a collection of prime hard bop, bluesy and swinging. But this is key — it’s all original music. LeDonne wrote six of the album’s nine tracks, while Alexander wrote three. Several of them are dedicated to legends of straightahead jazz: “Hub” is for trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, while “Cedar Land” is for pianist Cedar Walton and “Silverdust,” a piece LeDonne has recorded before, is for pianist Horace Silver. Another track, “Something New,” was inspired by an idea from tenor saxophonist George Coleman. “Silverdust” sounds like something that could have come from the Horace Silver catalog; it’s got a big, brash three-horn melody anchored by some trilling, bluesy piano and a beat you can snap your fingers to. What more do you need? (From The Heavy Hitters, out this week via Cellar Live.)
Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad -"Fire In Detroit"
Producers and multi-instrumentalists Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad are continuing their series of collaborations with jazz and funk legends they feel — correctly — that more people should know about. This time out, they’re welcoming saxophonist Wendell Harrison and trombonist Phil Ranelin into the studio. Together, Ranelin and Harrison co-founded Tribe Records in early ’70s Detroit, making soulful, spiritual jazz-funk that encouraged self-reliance both in its message and just by virtue of its mere existence. If they did it, you could too. “Fire In Detroit” features Ranelin on trombone; Harrison on bass clarinet; Younge on flute, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3, marimba, and acoustic guitar, Muhammad on distorted electric bass; and Greg Paul on drums. It’s a shuffling groove that shifts between pastoral gentleness (flute, acoustic guitar) and distorted funk-rock when Muhammad steps on the bass pedal. Harrison’s bass clarinet comes rumbling through the way Bennie Maupin cut through Miles Davis’s dense, overgrown sonic jungles on Bitches Brew. (From Jazz Is Dead 16: Phil Ranelin & Wendell Harrison, out January 27 via Jazz Is Dead.)
Derrick Gardner & The Jazz Prophets - "Appointment In Ghana"
Trumpeter Derrick Gardner has been around for decades, apparently, but this is the first album of his I’ve ever heard. He released an album in 2020, Still I Rise, with an 18-piece ensemble called the Big dig! Band that he’s been leading since 2014. This group, by contrast, has been together since 1991 and put out one previous album, Slim Goodie, in 2005. The lineup here includes his brother Vincent Gardner on trombone, Robert Dixon on alto and tenor saxophones, George Caldwell on piano, Obasi Akoto on bass, and Kweku Sumbry on drums and African percussion. (Sumbry opens the album with a lengthy djembe solo.) The album was inspired by a trip Gardner and the band took to Ghana as part of a five-week tour, so it’s not surprising that the first tune is a version of saxophonist Jackie McLean’s “Appointment In Ghana,” originally recorded on his 1959 album Jackie’s Bag. It begins with an upper-register yet still somehow mournful three-horn fanfare and hand drumming from Sumbry, before the whole unit launches into the tight, catchy hard bop melody. Jackie McLean really doesn’t get his due as a composer and a mentor — tons of younger musicians came up under him, including Terrace Martin, and this is a great piece which really lets the players stretch. Gardner is a high-flying trumpeter that I’m going to be keeping an ear open for going forward, and you should too. (From Pan Africa, out now via Impact Jazz.)
Maberu & Aluta Band - "Things Fall Apart"
Maberu is the stage name of Dr. Temitope Fagunwa, a Nigerian historian and professor; his Aluta Band plays Afrobeat, directly in the stylistic lineage of Fela Kuti, but adding a little bit more jazz to the arrangements and solos. Like Fela, he switches back and forth between vocals and sax, and he’s shadowed by a squad of female backing vocalists, though they don’t have the sardonic edge that Fela’s singers had, to the point that they often seemed to be poking fun at him in their responses to his exhortations. But the Aluta band is very tight, laying down intricate grooves over which Maberu and his bandmates, particularly a lead guitarist whose name I don’t know, take flowing solos as the horn section comes punching through the wall like the Kool-Aid man, right on cue. On “Things Fall Apart,” which shares its title with the classic book by Chinua Achebe, Maberu sings at the lower end of his range and sounds extremely Fela-esque, and the rhythm is slowed down slightly, more head-nodding than hip-swiveling. There’s a killer trumpet solo in the beginning, too. (From Fear Not, out now via Aluta.)
Marcus Strickland - "Dustball Fantasy"
Saxophonist Marcus Strickland relocated from New York to Miami during the pandemic, and his new album, released on his own Strick Muzik label, is a genre-blurring, Afro-futuristic suite that nevertheless remains militantly engaged with life here on Earth in the present moment. He plays a wide range of horns — tenor, alto, and soprano sax, plus bass clarinet — and is joined by keyboardist Mitch Henry, bassist Kyle Miles, and drummer Charles Haynes. The music is part jazz, part hip-hop, and part cybernetic R&B, with occasional recordings of conversations and debates between Strickland and his friends adding an extra dimension. And when the few, carefully selected guests pop up, things go even farther afield. On “Dustball Fantasy,” Beninese guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke turns up, singing in his native tongue, Fon, about the importance of making life on Earth better before we go jaunting off with, in Strickland’s words, “the likes of Elon Musk, who feel that Mars (a planet with no known sign of life or even a natural way to sustain life) is a worthy investment of human lives, time, resources and money.” (From The Universe’s Wildest Dream, out now via Strick Muzik.)
Mette Henriette - "Drifting"
Norwegian saxophonist Mette Henriette debuted on ECM with a two-CD self-titled album in 2015. The first disc contained 15 trio pieces with Johan Lindvall on piano and Katrine Schiøtt on cello, ranging in length from 54 seconds to four and a half minutes. The second disc brought in five additional string players, trumpet, trombone, bandoneon, drums and musical saw, and while a lot of the pieces were still very short, the whole thing — 20 tracks in just over an hour — added up to something really impressive. I immediately wanted to hear more from Mette Henriette. Well, I’ve only had to wait a little over seven years. Drifting returns to the trio interactions of the first half of her debut, with Lindvall back at the piano but Judith Lamann taking over on cello. Once again, concision is a big part of Henriette’s music; six of the 15 tracks here are under two minutes. “Drifting” lasts four, and feels like a chamber ballad, with Lamann slowly bowing long, droning notes as Lindvall keeps steady time from the piano. Henriette’s sound on the tenor sax is fragile and carefully considered, very much in the jazz tradition and even romantic. (From Drifting, out this week via ECM.)
Lakecia Benjamin - "New Mornings"
Lakecia Benjamin’s last album, Pursuance, was a tribute to the music, spirit, and inspiration of John and Alice Coltrane. This one is more diffuse, but it’s in large part a consideration of female resilience; it opens with a statement from feminist philosopher and political activist Angela Davis, and later tracks offer words from poet Sonia Sanchez and even a short bit of enigmatic wisdom from Wayne Shorter (as Benjamin and band play the melody from his composition “Super Nova”). The core band features Benjamin on alto sax, Josh Evans on trumpet, Victor Gould on keyboards, Ivan Taylor on bass, and E.J. Strickland (twin brother of Marcus Strickland) on drums, but there are a lot of guests — including everyone I mentioned plus Georgia Anne Muldrow, Patrice Rushen, Dianne Reeves, and trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr. — and it was produced by Terri Lyne Carrington. Benjamin wrote this music during the waning phases of the pandemic (WHICH ISN’T OVER), so it’s reflective of a lot of angst and swirling emotion. “New Mornings” features a repeated, vamping melody over a pulsing, high-energy rhythm that sounds like waking up in a city apartment and saying to yourself, “Fuck, here we go again.” But the relatively short solos — and the way the rest of the band gathers together supportively — winds up making it about resilience, not resignation. (From Phoenix, out January 27 via Whirlwind Recordings.)
The Art Ensemble Of Chicago - "New Coming"
At their formation in 1969, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago was a quartet: Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman on saxophones, Lester Bowie on trumpet, Malachi Favors Maghostut on bass. A year later, percussionist Famoudou Don Moye joined, and that was the lineup, with occasional guests (Bowie’s wife Fontella Bass on vocals, Muhal Richard Abrams or Cecil Taylor on piano) until Bowie’s death in 1999. Favors died in 2004. Jarman left the group in 1993, returning a decade later but eventually retiring from music; he died in 2019. Since 2017, the group has been co-led by Mitchell and Moye, with a variety of guest players filling out the lineup on different occasions. (At a New York concert I attended in 2017, Jarman made a one-off return, stunning everyone.)
In February 2020, a very large version of the Art Ensemble performed at the Son d’Hiver festival in Paris, where the group had gotten their start (“of Chicago” was famously appended to their name by a French promoter as description, and they thought it suited them well). This lineup is 20 members strong, including Nicole Mitchell on flute, Hugh Ragin on bass, two singers, tuba and trombone, piano, violin, viola, cello, three bassists, four percussionists, and Moor Mother declaiming poetry. On “New Coming,” the strings create a churning loft jazz-style groove, the cellos and basses bouncing as a violin scrapes and soars; then, when the piano and percussion come in, it’s like a wave sweeping over the land, and Moor Mother begins her incantation, a prayer to and from and about jazz history, with the other two singers wailing wordlessly behind her and the horns rippling and moaning. (From The Sixth Decade – From Paris To Paris, out now via RogueArt.)