In lockdown I have been listening to four excellent new releases that I have really enjoyed and which lead to some reflections on the state of the US scene.
William Parker Quartets: Meditation/Resurrection AUMFidelity 104/105
This double album features two quartets led by bass player William Parker, both of which feature Rob Brown on alto saxophone and Hamid Drake on drums. The quartet on Album 1 has Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson on trumpet while Album 2 has Cooper-Moore on piano. I see the music as continuing and extending the legacy of the music of Ornette Coleman, late Coltrane, Miles Davis’ brilliant second quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, and the more experimental albums that the Blue Note label put out in the second half of the 1960s, that is albums by Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, Jackie Maclean, Don Cherry and many others. I see this as a brilliant period in American jazz and one worth drawing on and extending. William Parker certainly does that and this double album is an excellent example of one very active strand of the American scene. On the albums Parker is working with regular partners in saxophonist Rob Brown and drummer Hamid Drake and both make really significant contributions. Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson is a new name for me; he is a fine trumpeter with his own voice. Cooper-Moore is a name I had heard much about without actually catching up with his music; it’s great to hear his truly original style on Album 2.
Ambrose Akinmusire: On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment Blue Note Records
This is a brilliant album full of original music and one that is highly relevant in this time of Black Lives Matter. As jazz has spread across the world and different national or regional styles have developed, the great tradition that goes back to the early days of jazz in New Orleans and Chicago can sometimes get forgotten. Ambrose Akinmusire is highly aware of and respectful of that tradition, but is concerned to create original music that really takes the music forward rather than just recreating that tradition. He leads a quartet with Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums and it is a quartet that has stayed together for a number of years. This comes across very strongly in this album, particularly in the interaction between Akinmusire and Harris. Most of the album focusses on this interaction with strong support from Raghavan and Brown, but there are two surprise tracks, Track 1 moves suddenly from the sounds of the quartet to a new voice, that of Jesus Diaz, a vocalist and percussionist who chants a song in Yoruba. Then on Track 3 Cynical Sideliners we have a slightly mysterious and gentle vocal from Genevieve Artadi with just Akinmusire accompanying on Fender Rhodes. Mention should also be made of the brilliant titles that Akinmusire gives his tunes, e.g. Mr. Roscoe (Consider The Simutaneous) or Reset (Quiet Victories & Celebrated Defeats).
Nicole Mitchell & Lisa E. Harris: Earth Seed FPE Records 027
This is a totally unique set of music recorded live at its premiere in Chicago. It draws its inspiration from the work of African American science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, and also from the ideas of Afro-Futurism. The music is difficult to define; it brings together the exquisite sound of Mitchell’s flute with the contemporary classical vocals of Harris and the electroacoustic sounds of a group that also features a second vocalist, Julian Otis, plus Zara Zaharieva on violin, Ben LaMar Gay on trumpet and electronics, Tomeka Reid on cello, and Avreeayl Ra on drums and percussion. I see and hear this as ‘creative music’ that draws on jazz, contemporary classical music and opera and which has a spirituality and spontaneity that make it a model for cross-genre work of this kind. Nicole Mitchell has undertaken a number of projects that take inspiration from the work of Octavia Butler and Afro-Futurism (e.g. Mandorla Awakening II and Maroon Cloud) and I believe that that is a fascinating strand of music that brings together different genres in a refreshing and successful way.
The Karuna Trio: Imaginary Archipelago Metarecords 024
The Karuna Trio is Ralph M. Jones, Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake all playing various types of woodwind and/or percussion, and using electronic processing. The music also draws on a set of ideas about an imaginary archipelago with eleven islands all connected to each other through their philosophy and sonic language; another example of music influenced by the Afro-Futurist philosophy. It also draws on other genres of music with a strong influence from African music. I reviewed the album for London Jazz News and you can read that here. I make the point that, while the music draws on various genres, it has its own distinctive character and it is not just African influenced jazz or jazz-tinged African music.
Each of these four albums is different, but they are united in presenting original music that explores the black experience and traditions in the United States. The William Parker albums explore a very fruitful but perhaps a little neglected part of the tradition, whereas the other three albums draw on other genres of music, but incorporate aspects of those genres into a contemporary reading of jazz. I still prefer to think of them as examples of jazz however far they may move away from jazz traditions, but would be equally happy to see them classified as examples of ‘creative music’.