“When children grow up, where does the hope go?
Is it outgrown like a pair of shoes or has it gone to sleep?
Or is it lost somewhere inside of us?” – William Parker
Because of an early start to the Spring 2017 semester, I missed the superb Winter Jazz Fest this year, following from afar via hashtag, review, preview, and first-hand accounts from friends and colleagues. I was especially disappointed to miss this year because of the festival’s theme of social justice and inclusion of panel discussions, two additions that resonate deeply with my work as teacher, writer, and soon—in a new collaborative project—musician.
I hope the new aspects of WJF programming become part of a new era for the festival. Its themes this year—along with some of the initiatives happening at Northeastern that my students will be joining—may prove remarkably prescient for their organizers who in their planning no doubt had been sensing some of what the artists discussed below, my students, and many others have felt lately: as the country transitions in the coming weeks, renewed commitments to issues of social justice and equality will be prerequisites for suturing the deep cultural fissures that have been exposed by the most recent presidential campaign.
As a soundtrack for my semester prep, I spent the first few days of the new year listening back to some of the most compelling jazz records of 2016. I culled a few from colleagues’ “best of” lists, but many were just albums that had caught my attention over the course of the year. Maybe because I was in the midst of writing syllabi—fashioning themes and overall goals for several courses from a whole host of case studies and sources—I committed to listening the records and to writing this piece not just by listening back at these albums and writing about them as isolated, individual efforts, but by listening across all of them with particular focus on any resonances that might emerge. As an ethnomusicologist, I’m constantly thinking and teaching about reciprocal relationship between music and context; so, when we listen back to these 2016 albums, what might we hear differently by asking “why did all this music happen now?”?
Delfeayo Marsalis, Make America Great Again! (Troubadour Jazz)
This is an obvious departure point for moving into the new term. Marsalis heads an ensemble that “is anything but heavy, offering a wonderfully upbeat and spirited collection of songs determined to make listeners move even as it asks them to think.” The record’s unabashed positivity celebrates the diversity of present-day U.S. jazz by reminding us that it has always been there. While the record’s optimism and attempt at appropriating Candidate Trump’s catchphrase may ring false for some—given the election’s outcome just a few days after its release—I’d suggest that jazz from post-Katrina New Orleans provides a potent soundtrack for 2017: that, on the 100th anniversary of the first jazz record, a city known for its intercultural cooperation, uncompromising spirit, commitment to vibrant local community life, and insistence of joy and good times in the face of tragedy and injustice might be just the place to start.
Considering the history of intercultural interaction in New Orleans, I’m mindful of New Orleans’s Mardi Gras Indians who celebrate the legacy of Native and African American solidarity, which trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith also commemorates on his album America’s National Parks. In a year in which water was threatened politically—poisoned at Flint and weaponized at Standing Rock—Smith’s reminder of 18th-century New Orleans as a unique nexus of cultural geography points to a model for moving into the future equally attentive to the land and the people that inhabit it. Against the backdrop of “Mni Wiconi” and ongoing battles over indigenous landrights, we can hear Smith’s incantations to U.S. natural spaces across the ages as an embrace of “the common ground” that its peoples share amid all our differences and as a clarion call for the depoliticized preservation of these literal (litoral) and figurative grounds. I hear Bloom’s solo rendition of “Somewhere,” with which she concludes Early Americans, alongside this call: a plaintive desire for (intercultural) harmony amid conflict, too melancholic to be optimistic, but hopeful nonetheless.
As a celebration of African American music and musicians who championed a hopeful spirit amid labor and struggle on and with U.S. soil, JD Allen’s Americana—like Smith’s record—offers a forward-thinking but historically-minded perspective on the blues and its legacy. I first heard this trio at last year’s WJF: drummer Rudy Royston and I went to school together at Rutgers and bassist Gregg August and I have recorded together, so it was JD who was the newcomer to me. The set was thrilling—high energy, empathetic interaction, inventive, and very satisfying. Americana was no different. In his own words, Allen suggests that the blues “is the gateway to the past and the future of American music.” (Check out Bloom’s trio on her “Gateway to Progress” for a harmonious iteration on the same ideological theme.) Despite its deep roots in tradition, Americana is unmistakeably Allen’s record: a clarity of personal aesthetic and expression, thoroughly supported by his trio mates, pervades this record, which represents Allen’s finest album to date. This is music whose ecological groove reminds us to remain grounded in collective action and mutual respect.
Providing templates for socially engaged, deeply meaningful, and supremely artistic work, this quartet of innovative artists offers fresh perspectives on cultural history and pushes it forward in the spirit of what Herman Gray calls “The Jazz Left” on their newest albums. These records present neo-Afrofuturist interventions on the jazz world and music industry more broadly, utilizing technology and post-production to transcend aesthetic category and assumption while reflecting their highly individual and firmly rooted interpretations of African American musical traditions. (Check out the sound and sentiment of Spalding’s cyborg vocals on “Ebony and Ivy”!) While the tracks by the more well-known Glasper and Spalding revel in their genre-busting diversity—propelling the artists well beyond the confines of #JAZZ—Brown and Croker make definitive cases for wider appreciation in and out of jazz, both offering up stellar sophomore sets. Imagine Croker’s “Love from the Sun” as a funkified, interstellar and transdimensional balm for the generations of chain gangs and slaves whose voices inspired the track Brown sampled in “Be So Glad,” voices of people that “ain’t that sleepy but wanna lie down.”
On Glasper’s version of “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” the warm, round timbres of Hancock’s original have been sharpened, the backbeat brought forward and augmented with more drive, while updating the electric vibes of Hancock’s Fender Rhodes with a whole palette of loops and patches. Of special note is the processed vocal track – vocoded, reverb-added, and somatic. We hear Casey Benjamin’s voice three times (as much), amplifying his presence in the track: an Afro-futuristically-enhanced black voice in a current moment of snuffing and choking out black male voices. The track’s especially slow delay opens up wide spaces for us to hear and re-hear each note that creates a cyclical listening experience in which we are constantly reconsidering and rethinking while moving forward in time through the track. The surplus – the inclusion of noise, feedback, sound effect – evades easy categorization and cancellation. The album production doesn’t blur genres so much as adds them – influences are clearly identifiable, voices well articulated – demonstrating a politics of inclusion that clearly reflects and forces us to acknowledge Glasper’s initial statement about the deep dependence and inspiration mainstream U.S. music and culture has drawn from black traditions. This is music (#BAM) that will not be denied—that reminds us that future paths are forged through the renunciation of the ego and the (amplified) search for collective elevation.
Perhaps the most stylistically diverse of these groupings, I hear these three records through the title of Ortíz’s record. Inasmuch as Marsalis and Smith celebrate New Orleans’s intercultural milieu and Brown samples from among the countless archival recordings of work songs from the region, Cuban pianist Aruan Ortíz reminds us that every narrative includes “hidden voices”—that may have once been denied—whose presence on the margins hint at enlightening and sometimes critical perspectives. (These records follow a similar impulse as some of the work vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant has done on her albums with historical musicians such as Valaida Snow and Blanche Calloway.) Ortíz explores the Afro-Caribbean musical world—which includes New Orleans—through original composition on Hidden Voices. Grounded in Ortíz’s home town of Santiago de Cuba, the tracks recall his impressions of his own history but one repeated (with difference) by many others, myself included. (I’ve stayed in Santiago de Cuba three times—it’s where I first encountered ethnomusicological work—where I’ve performed and studied the same musical traditions that inspired this record.) Unlike Marsalis and Toussaint, the references to tradition and locale are not explicit, but oblique and emerge only after time. Ortíz intends the music to be heard repeatedly, saying, “It takes time and patience to see that hidden theme. I feel that the more you listen to this album, the more familiar you get with the songs and melodies, the more they will start to resonate and unfold.” On American Tunes—also paired well with Bloom’s record—the late, great pianist Allen Toussaint revives the repertoire that followed the 18th-century intercultural interactions that Smith commemorated and that inspired Marsalis’s 21st-century take on New Orleans. In addition to original compositions reflective of his unmistakeable NOLA vibe, Toussaint reaches back into the city’s history with reverent and lively arrangements of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Fats Waller, Roy Byrd, Ellington and Strayhorn, and Earl King. In revisiting this music—Toussaint’s last offering—he reminds us to remain mindful of and constantly return to our ancestors’ work.
Like Toussaint and Ortíz, saxophonist Steve Lehman explores the dialogue of voices between the U.S. jazz scene and the African Diaspora that has defined U.S. jazz but compels it in new directions on the visionary album Sélébeyone. Borne from lasting personal relationships and collaborations, Sélébeyone reflects the kinds of intersections that have been and are continuing to happen in the 21st century, the musical interpretations of which translate into a juxtaposition of Senegalese hip hop, electronic music, and Lehman’s compelling harmonic and rhythmic perspectives on jazz. In honor of this intercultural work, the album’s final track honors Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a Sufi leader venerated throughout the world for his dedication to non-violent resistance, including in New York City where West African immigrants have been celebrating his legacy and teachings for over two decades with an annual parade in Harlem. The lyrics of “Bamba” provide yet another balm for Brown’s sampled singers:
Djog len, djog len / Tôloub Yalla bey guen gui mbay / Nikhma nikhma Ridialoulay … Music de l’ame mom lañou beug / Mbekté thi rouh moy Aldiana deug.
[Get up, get up] / [It’s better to harvest His field] / [The approach, the way that leads to Him] … [We like music of the soul] / [Heaven is happiness in the soul]
While it celebrates the same excess of genres present in the Glasper and Spalding records, Lehman’s album also employs samples and others’ (literal) voices as Brown’s Work Songs: the link here though is across space, not time. The Wolof lyrics will necessarily alienate some listeners, but, like Ortíz’s record, the depth of artistry prevails and invites repeated listenings: there are meanings and sympathetic connections that transcend everyday communication. However, we shouldn’t listen past the words: in placing most U.S. listeners on the “wrong” side of cultural translation and linguistic intelligibility, Lehman invites us to work towards understanding, issuing a truly impactful imperative for our present moment. This is music that listens more widely and polyphonically—that attunes our ears to faint signals and fades them into the mix.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Real Enemies (New Amsterdam)
The Awakening Orchestra, I can see my country from here (forthcoming)
In Real Enemies composer Darcy James Argue offers stark reminders of moments in U.S. history when listening-past and failing to work toward understanding have had grave consequences in our society. Argue issues an explicit directive to listen up, pay attention, but mostly important, be mindful of the battles fought in 20th-century U.S. politics as we move into this new moment of 21st-century U.S. politics. Like Brown, Argue employs sampled voices to assist in his commentary. More explicit in its text and programmatic in its music, Real Enemies presents a clear and coherent narrative on the present state of sociopolitical affairs and the relationship between the U.S. government and its populus through the lens of the conspiracy theory as an expressive genre. Through equally explicit reference to interwar Expressionism, 12-tone theory, and the evocative musical languages of film scoring, Real Enemies conjures a world of paranoia, suspicion, and fear through a careful arrangement of lived histories, past moments in which these deeply felt emotions were so entrenched in public consciousness that they seeped into the rhetoric and policies of the U.S. government. Real Enemies, which premiered at BAM in 2015 as a multisensory and interarts work, could play out as a very entertaining and imaginative psychological thriller…until the listener comes to terms with that sinking feeling that not only has it unfolded in the past, but it may still again.
Nowhere has this sense of unfolding drama unfolded better than in the Awakening Orchestra’s “I can see my country from here.” Originally billed as “election year: a work in progress,” “I can see my country from here” is the only work not yet recorded in this rundown of 2016 jazz albums. Written by composer and bandleader Kyle Saulnier, this four-movement piece was premiered throughout the 2016 election cycle, with a full performance of the symphony on November 11th at Shapeshifter Lounge in Brooklyn. Though unavailable to most listeners still, those who were fortunate enough to hear this work know that it deserves to be heard by a wider audience, not just for the quality of the work, but for the remarkable process by which it was composed and shared with the public. (The Awakening Orchestra did release a wonderful record this year.) “I can see my country from here” offers a unique vantage point into artistic process and an eloquently honest depiction of the composer’s translation of the world all around us. Dramatic and diverse, Saulnier’s latest composition presents a skeptic’s critique and ironic questioning of contemporary political culture. It doesn’t look backward as much as ask how to push forward: the senses of fear and dread are palpable. But Saulnier and the Orchestra work it out in a compelling and visionary fashion. This is music that insists politically—that stays on top of the beat, because the stakes are too high to drag behind.
Coming back to the question of “why did all this (music) happen now?”, concluding with new music from two seasoned masters seems the best way to work out our paths forward. As students sought me out immediately after and since the election results, I have turned openly to elder mentors who lived and worked through the Civil Rights Era for models on how to confront issues that are newly and suddenly resurgent and relevant. As I work on (lesson) plans for these present-tense moments (or tense, present moments), their wisdom and examples are essential. On his album I Long to See You saxophonist Charles Lloyd invites us to relisten yet again to the recent history of the United States through its music. (The album title is an allusion to another U.S. natural wonder, the Shenandoah River, and the American secular hymn that celebrates this waterway but glosses over the voices of the Oneida of the Iroquois Confederacy and John Skenandoa, one of their leaders for whom the river is now named.) In addition to this song, Lloyd revisits Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”and “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” the famous anti-war popular song that brings to mind the William Parker quote at the beginning of the essay: which is the stranger dream—the one in which hope goes to sleep or in which “the world had all agreed to put an end to war”?
What new meanings have these songs accrued since they first emerged? What does their newfound relevance signal? By repeating them, Lloyd invites us to listen with with fresh ears, hoping that, on the repeat, we’ll reflect and hear them differently this time. Lloyd also turns back on himself, revisiting music that he has recorded previously, particularly the Hispano-American folk hymn “La Llorona” (“the weeping woman”) on the aptly named 2010 album Mirror. Both of Lloyd’s versions capture the melancholic, lamenting wanderings of La Llorona who has been forsaken by a neglectful husband and suffers even more from the loss of her children. Lloyd’s versions are instrumental, but the song’s lyrics—made famous by the Costa Rican vocalist Chavela Vargas—suggest that, even amid nightmares, hope provides respite from pain (“Un corazón mal herido, Llorona / Sólo con llorar descansa, / El rico con su dinero, Llorona, / Y el pobre con su esperanza”). However the solemnity of both versions—and the whole of I Long to See You—doesn’t preclude the possibility of hope. In this latest version of “La Llorona,” Lloyd’s melodic voice is amplified by those of two additional musicians, while Eric Harland’s more insistent backbeat updates the track adding a more resolute take on this tragic tale. This collective spirit of perseverance is echoed by the spiritual shift in the tracks that follow “La Llorona,” including “Shenandoah,” “All My Trials” (by Joan Baez, who also covered “La Llorona”), and the hymn “Abide with Me.” In the end, I hear the album—all these albums—through the final cadence of Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, Henry Threadgill’s tribute album to the late Butch Morris: the track’s last minute features a loosely conglomerated, homophonic melody—a sort of melancholic, triumph-dirge—that erupts with moments of elegiac chaos. After a brief pause (6:59), the final chord is arpeggiated in a staggered fashion, with musicians adding their individual notes to a dissonant, unresolved, but multiply voiced and quasi-harmonious sound. We may not have reached the resolution we’ve sought yet, but we’re together, listening to each other, and working towards it.
On the Count Basie Orchestra’s famous version of “April in Paris,” Basie calls for the shout chorus to come back again and again. All the musicians are perfectly, if polyphonically, synced but it took the Basie band just as long to get to the final bar in 1956 as it did Threadgill’s group in 2016. The arrangement’s deceptive cadences and unexpected redirections were part of its appeal and of the bandleader’s masterful skills at working-the-room. These Basie tags aren’t necessarily new sounds; they’re repetitions of what we’ve already heard, enjoyed, danced to, and clapped for. The Basie tag maintains forward momentum and hope for eventual resolution even as we, the audience, feel ourselves being pulled backward to another iteration. The thrill comes from thinking we know where the repeat will lead and either the satisfaction of being right or the surprise of the unexpected turn or twist. Basie’s ability to play off these expectations—to repeat with difference—makes him one of the greatest bandleaders of the 20th century. Let’s remember, though, that Basie worked on and off the bandstand: at the piano bench and, when the moment came (December 3, 1963, in Tallahassee, Florida), on the picket line.
In our present-tense moment we are finding that we must revisit some of the work accomplished by our elders: the emancipatory practices that they employed and the progress that they sought have not led us where we expected but instead to a deceptively irregular iteration of time and space. William Parker, celebrating his 65th birthday at the Painted Bride this week, reminds us that “when my hope is realized, others’ is repressed.” So as we move forward—to fight past fights and sing past songs—let’s draw strength from the knowledge that we can recognize these cadences because we’ve heard them before. We know this terrain because we’ve tread here before and are surrounded by those who have known it intimately for centuries. As Carol Muller reminds us in her book on South African vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, echoes are not exact repetitions: if we listen closely enough, we can hear the altered paths/pasts in an echoed sound. So, with these past futures reverberating in our ears, let us promise this time to listen even more deeply and with fresh ears for the hidden voices among us—for not just the consonances but also the faint resonances amid so much dissonance—and to fold them into a more polphonic mix. To commit to repetition with multiply voiced and quasi-harmonious difference—to work towards new understandings and intelligibilities. Let us persevere in our hope and confront repression more openly than before. Seek common ground and shared (outer)space that is rooted in mutual respect and ecologically-minded, funkified grooves that inspire and engage us to insist on joy and good times even in the face of tragedy and injustice. As is already happening, jazz artists will once again lead the way, on and off the bandstand. In choosing not to let hope get lost within us, let’s amplify and augment their voices. Let us shout for the shout chorus “one more once.”