One afternoon, I asked Sam if he listened to jazz. Not only did Sam listen to jazz, he had in his wallet a laminated list of essential jazz recordings someone had given him. Armed with this and a much longer list my friend the poet Rick Madigan had given me, my education began. I was aided in this by Don Adcock, the husband of poet Betty Adcock, a musician in his own right and the only man I ever met who got drunk with Dylan Thomas. I have countless CDs that he burned for me, often of LPs that never made it to the digital format. And many more jazz CDs gathered a few at a time through visits to record stores. When I bought a turntable again a few years ago, my first LP purchase was Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s seminal LP.
My preference in jazz is usually the small acoustic groups, the recordings that were the backbone of Blue Note and Riverside for so long. And when I decided to write about jazz, I thought at first of writing about one or two long-time favorites such as Miles, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, or Wayne Shorter. Then I decided to take on a bit more of a challenge and review a couple of artists who are still very much with us and about whom critical consensus has not quite hardened yet. Kamasi Washington, a saxophonist and composer’s first album was a triple disc set called, appropriately enough, The Epic. And my old homeboy, Sam Stephenson, turned me onto a jazz trio from New York City who call themselves Harriet Tubman. These artists prove that jazz is both infinite and still capable of challenging listeners.
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Araminta. Harriet Tubman. Sunnyside Records, 2017
A band’s name is an announcement of sorts. So to name a band Harriet Tubman, after the famed underground railroad conductor, is a bold act and one that announces that this band intends to be taken seriously. Made up of three long-time veterans of the New York free jazz scene, Brandon Ross on guitar, JT Lewis on drums and bassist Melvin Gibbs, the three men in this band have shared the stage with diverse musicians like Cassandra Wilson, The Rollins Band, Herbie Hancock, Lou Reed, and Marc Ribot. On Araminta, their newest album and only their third in nineteen years of existence, they are joined by teumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in music and an alumnus of Chicago’s AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music), a torch bearer for the jazz avant garde since the mid-1960’s.
Some purists may find calling Harriet Tubman’s music jazz at all, incorporating as it does elements of funk, blues, avant garde jazz and synthesizer. But these are not players who recognize boundaries between one genre of music and another. And there are enough passages, such as the beginning of “Blacktal Fractal,” the third cut on the album to convince any listener that these musicians can play jazz and play it alongside anyone performing today. A couple of minutes in the cut, Melvin Gibbs’ Moog begins to rumble, making the jazz groove a bit less settled.
Most of the cuts here are credited to the four musicians on the record, which gives the impression they were mostly composed in jam sessions. The political stance of the musicians raises its head in titles such as “President Obama’s Speech at the Selma Bridge” and “Blacktal Fractal.” “Real Cool Killers” pays tribute to the novels of Chester Himes, a now sadly underread African American novelist, and “Nina Simone” is named after the troubled and talented singer. “Taken” which begins with an ominous drone over the band’s playing, gives the feeling of being taken somewhere, perhaps by choice, perhaps not. The long notes over J.T. Lewis’s quick drumming summon the sense of making an escape. At just over three minutes, it is the shortest cut on the album and it feels much shorter than it is.
The album ends with the gently paced “Sweet Araminta,” where Gibbs’ bass playing truly shines. I’ve listened to my share of “out” music in my time, only to lose patience rather quickly. Listening to Araminta, I realize that what I was missing in those excursions was the sense of rhythm. With Harriet Tubman, no matter how far out the players go—and they can go very far indeed—someone is always holding down the center. Harriet Tubman is a band to watch, and I hope they find an audience that will let them release more prolifically and perhaps tour a country badly in need to diversity of every kind.
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The Epic. Kamasi Washington. Brainfeeder, 2015
I should probably be embarrassed to say that I first encountered Kamasi Washington’s name in a Michael Connolley novel. But his character Harry Bosch is a jazz fan and often mentions jazz artists in those novels. When I went looking for Kamasi Washington, the only album I could find online was the appropriately titled The Epic. While Washington has self-released three discs over the last several years, The Epic is his first collaboration with a record company, and Brainfeeder Music is to be commended for allowing an artist without a wide audience to compose and release a three disc set with a small armey of players and vocalists, as well as a string section.
The jazz big band is a rare animal these days.There are probably several reasons for this. Since the bebop era, jazz has been a vehicle for improvisation, and improvisation is easier to acheieve with four or five players onstage instead of fifteen. But Washington’s compositions are not simply a handful of chord changes for the band to play. Washington, who has worked with artists as diverse as Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, and Chaka Khan, writes complete compositions, The album’s first song, “Change of the Guard, which is largely driven by Cameron Graves’ piano, features upward of twenty musicians, including a choir and string section. If this sounds like Mancini for the twenty first century, it is not. Jazs boils in Washington’s blood and the rhythm section keeps things popping until the horns cut in around the fourth minute of the tune. After a series of solos, the instruments play the song’s main theme together while the chorus harmonizes wordlessly behind. And at the very end, the piano rings back in to take us out. And this is only the first cut in a two and a half hour flood of music.
Not every song on this album features such a large ensemble. “Isabelle” on disc one, the album’s third cut, has only seven players. On any other jazz album, this would seem like a large gathering, but here it seems very bare bone. Brandon Coleman offers some standout work on organ here and we get to hear a bit more from Washington’s saxophone. As a player, he reminds me of Wayne Shorter or Stan Getz, players who know the value of restraint, who don’t feel it necessary to throw every note they know into every solo they play.
Jazz has never been one single thing, and Washington is a man who knows its past and has a keen eye for where it might go. Washington could well be a Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus for the 21st century, but one suspects he will follow his own path, wherever that leads him. If it leads to more music like The Epic, I will be happy to follow him.