Saturday, September 23, 2017

Two-CD review/essay: MUSIC AS A WEAPON


Recent releases in the US shout down hate

By John Pietaro

"The Short-Finger Vulgarian" himself
In what feels like an eternity to most Americans, Donald Trump’s reign is now in its eighth month. One productive outcome of this administration is the revival of progressive activism in opposition to it. The movements around Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and other leftward groupings have embraced the struggles of women, immigrants, the LGBT community, indigenous peoples and environmentalists in a spectacular series of demonstrations around the United States. Most recently, protest epicenters have sprung up in the face of far-Right gatherings with neo-nazis, klansmen and other white supremacists encountered by throngs of anti-fascists who’d had enough.

Where fights for social justice exist, so too are artists inspiring the up-rise. The good fight has always relied on its cultural workers and in the annals of the Left, countless creative activists have been so dedicated. Langston Hughes (1902-1967) stands out among the standard-bearers of revolutionary poetry, a supreme advocate of Black culture in a period dogged by racism that was thoroughly institutionalized. His poetry affectively captured the rhythms and vibrations of jazz, the pained holler of the blues, the conundrum of the human experience and the wondrousness of words. Charlie Haden (1937-2014) was influenced by the Old Left that elevated the likes of Hughes, Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie and Zora Neal Hurston, but was a marked figure of the later generation. A bassist of rare talent and vision, after helping to pioneer free jazz under the tutelage of Ornette Coleman, he founded the Liberation Music Orchestra which expanded the language of fight-back in new and daring ways.
In these trying months of 2017, many artists have committed to the cause of change. Here is a look at two ensembles whose statements are threaded through the inspiration of Messrs. Hughes and Haden.

1)      Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper (Mode Avant, 2017)
Eric Mingus, voice; David Amram, piano; Groove Bacteria and special guests; Larry Simon, musical director
Langston Hughes was, inarguably, one of the most relevant American poets of the twentieth century. Embattled by intolerable racism and homophobia, Hughes defiantly stood as the leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. More so, he successfully wrapped his high art around the vernacular of African American speech and jazz traditions, all the while writing some of the most revolutionary journalism in the pages of black liberation newspaper “The Crisis” and the Communist Party’s magazine “New Masses”. The biting edge of radicalism would not be lost on his poetry, a point leapt upon by the opportunistic members of the House Un-American Activities Committee as the chill of Cold War raked over the USA as early as 1947.

On The Dream Keeper, Eric Mingus pays homage to Hughes, reciting powerful works of the poet. This son of jazz royalty is a gifted vocalist and poet in his own right, so his emotive impressions of Hughes’ words are indeed visceral. Much of the recitation is set against the compelling improvisations of pianist David Amram, who’d hung out with the Beats and carries the cache of collaborations with both Hughes and Jack Kerouac. But the other major musical voice here is guitarist Larry Simon, whose resume runs from John Zorn and Lester Bowie to poets David Pinsky and Ed Sanders.

The album opens with Hughes’ most famous early work, “The Weary Blues”, heard here as a Mingus/Amram duet. The pair aren’t just performing this piece, it could be said that they are breathing it, pulling the bluest strains through fingers, tongue and teeth. The title cut follows, featuring an expanded version of Simon’s band Groove Bacteria. At full strength it comprises Simon’s guitar and arrangement, Amram’s piano, soprano saxophonist Catherine Sikora, Native American flutist Cynthia Chatis, alto saxophonist Don Davis (doubling on contra alto clarinet), organist Scip Gallant, bassist Chris Stambaugh, drummer Mike Barron and percussionists Shawn Russell and Frank Laurino. Quite effectively, the listener moves through a sound journey with duos of voice/piano or voice/guitar alternating with aspects of the large ensemble.

Stand-out moments may be too hard to signify as the statements within are consistently stellar, but Sikora’s straining, lamenting cries on “The Dream Keeper” reeled me in immediately. Her horn is similarly heard in “Democracy”, part of a triple entente with Davis and Chatis, casting an almost electronic, crying, tearing sustain about Mingus’ voice. But listen--carefully now--to the power of Hughes’ words the inherently terrible timeliness they bear. Right now.
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.
-for more information see

2)      The Liberation Music Collective: REBEL PORTRAITURE (Ad Astrum Records, Aug 2017)
The Liberation Music Collective is a large ensemble engaging in relevant socio-political statements, the end result of which is earnest, well executed and carefully arranged. The band has taken on an admirably militant role in a time when the US is plagued by division, revitalized racism and escalated xenophobia among other offenses. Urgent concerns have lingered internationally since January.
Within the jazz canon, the free genre is the one most closely identified with revolutionary philosophy. The concept of liberation was vital to the development of that sound and school; as jazz matured into an avant garde vision, Black Liberation and the Black Arts Movement so developed and were deemed the reigning philosophy of most free jazz progenitors. Listening through this album, however, I hear no particular evidence of music so liberated. Music of the Left needn’t necessarily equate with free improvisation and there have been powerful examples of scored orchestral music or folk forms that spoke of the people’s fightback against oppression. Still, one comes to expect a stronger jazz connection and at least a bit of fire music in solo sections when the words ‘Liberation’ and ‘Music’ are part of a band’s title.

As most readers will gather, the ensemble is named for the celebrated Liberation Music Orchestra founded by Charlie Haden and directed by Carla Bley in a time of pressing political import. The LMO’s first album included compositions by the uber-rad Brecht and Eisler as well as traditional songs of the Spanish Civil War as Haden et al cited contemporary struggles for peace, justice and equality in the format. Hell, Haden even wrote “Song for Che” as a feature of the band’s concerts. Soloists on that first record included Don Cherry, Dewey Redman and Gato Barbieri among other noted figures.

While the sense of kinship toward this legendary ensemble is understandable, taking on such a handle is daring, to say the least. The Liberation Music Collective, on the other hand, is comprised of musicians and poets that will not be familiar to most. Led by two transplanted Chicagoans, bassist/vocalist Hannah Fidler and trumpet player Matt Riggen, both recent Indiana University grads, the band holds the enthusiasm of youth. Not to say that there’s not excellent, clean, professional musicianship on display here; there’s no loss of this. And the production by Kabir Sehgal is three-dimensional in scope. However, there is a loss of explosive nastiness, pointed retort and the utter of joy of unbridled protest in this array of horns and rhythm. Tempi are most often slow or moderato bearing layers of harmonies, swells and counter-point. Thick tapestries of drama testify but can become laden by the weight while meditative repeats make a few too many comebacks. The leaders embrace the lush orchestral aspects of Ellington, while ignoring Duke’s love for up-tempo, ass-kicking swing. From a musical perspective, this record could have benefited from a bit of an ass-kicking (sorry, maybe this is just a New York thing).

But focusing on the heart of this effort, the socio-political, is central to the project. The band’s commitment to Black Lives Matter and the struggle for LGBTQ rights, Standing Rock, the Women’s March on Washington and the fight for survival of female war journalists, is deeply sincere (and their website includes important activist tool-kits listeners can easily endeavor. Bravo!). Liner notes clarify the dedication behind each piece, some of which range far into the past. The poetry rolls out at relevant points too, but can become somewhat obscured in the arrangements.

One piece (“Iqra”) includes both hip hop and singing vocals. Glad to see the former represented within this music, but the attempt would have been stronger if an actual rapper was brought in for the hip hop spoken word. Though artists of all backgrounds have adopted and adapted to hip hop as an art form, performing it effectively requires a clear connection to it. This performance sounds overtly…white. Which raises a rather uncomfortable point in a review of a Leftie band: the official photo of the Liberation Music Collective on their website--a pic which is modeled on the familiar cover shot of the LMO, with band member’s standing or kneeling while holding a banner aloft—clarifies that all but one of the 18 or so members is a person of color. It’s hard to imagine that black or brown players aren’t available in Chicago, and as this project is specific to such noble causes, the band’s racial composition must be considered. An array of faces and cultures within any band is an important statement, but in one that has embraced the ethic of Haden’s vision, it should be vivid. Never for tokenism, but to bite back at the wholesale theft of African American culture and to set a model for moving forward.

With this band’s fearless drive toward social change as well as clear skills of composition, arrangement and execution, the means to take on this project are there. Now, the ensemble needs to expand its pathos to illustrate righteous indignation if they are to operate under the guise of ‘Liberation Music’ anything.     

- for more information see

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