Gene Pritsker’s Sound Liberation, Let’s Save the World Suite (Composers Concordance 2022)
--originally published in The NYC Jazz Record--
Gene Pritsker is the kind of left-wing composer that proliferated in the 1930s in the John Reed Club and its off shoot, the Composers Collective of New York which boasted the talents of Aaron Copland, Elie Siegmeister, Marc Blitzstein, Ruth Crawford, Charles Louis Seeger, Henry Cowell and other modernist rads. Pritsker, founder of Composers Concordance, has often thrived on messages of social justice within his work and uses activism not only as fodder for compositions but also entire conceptual albums (2020’s Protest was cultured by the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killings which bore it).
Pritsker’s muse is a restless one, and through it, he very successfully balances the roles of artist and militant, contemporary composer and free improviser, guttural rocker and aerial jazzer. His latest is the 7-movement Let’s Save the World Suite, realized by his Sound Liberation ensemble. The band’s name recalls Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, but the suite’s title bears resemblance to ‘Change the World’, the Daily Worker column of revolutionary writer Mike Gold. Even with so much history inherent, this suite is based on the poetry of “proser-poet-performer” Erik T. Johnson whose words and declamation are utterly contemporary. Behind and through Johnson’s spoken word performances (on three cuts), Pritsker’s music soars, testifies and exemplifies the struggle.
The work opens with a gripping prelude, commencing in the leader’s haunting, mildly atonal guitar intro and the somber melody heard in Franz Hackl’s resounding trumpet and Paul Carlon’s tenor saxophone. This edition of Sound Liberation is small, a combo really, rounded out by Jose Moura (electric bass) and Damien Bassman (drumset), and of course the central voice of Johnson. He enters, proclaiming:
Listen honey, there’s not enough pain in the world.
If there was, someone would notice,
Do something about it, give it a pulpit,
Found it a faith, pay dearly to take its name in vain;
Then in reason, overthrow it…
The music attaches itself to his reading, coating word and breath, until the melodic content seems to transform into the speaker’s own voice. This opening line becomes the title of the Suite’s second movement, built on an early ‘70s groove (think Cobham’s Spectrum, heavy on the bass). Carlon takes the first solo of the set, far too briefly, resounding in old-school Blue Note as much as R&B, culminating in Pritsker’s harrowing guitar improv, its rapid-fire fretwork, squealing octave-leaps and distortion claiming the piece as something post-Altamont. An instrumental interlude follows and here the quasi-bossa rhythm and open harmonies of the horns contrast beautifully with the leader’s deftly dropped sus chords and pedal point, the effect being ominous as ancient modes singularly wield. Movement IV, “We Don’t Have Much Time Left”, with a lingering modal quality raked over a vexing, funky, odd-time signature which seems to glide from rough 7/8 to 5/8 and back to common time. It’s just the traverse for poetry which begins:
The train is waiting but we’re too poor for the ticket.
Once the improv section takes flight, Pritsker seems to channel the expressionist soundscapes of Robert Fripp, but one hears John McLaughlin and bits of Jimi Hendrix in there, too. This sets off the unmistakable progressive rock and fusion woven through the next interlude, its biting unisons culminating in Bassman’s sizzling, crackling drum solo. However, movement VI, “Or Pretend to Beauty” slows the atmosphere with a throbbing 2-beat recalling Weimar-era Berlin, Pritsker’s guitar doing its best plectrum banjo mimicry and Bassman leaning into toms and snare. And yet with the horns sounding like a hard bop frontline, the already complex melody only grows outward with rhythmic twists as the work expands.
The album closes with Postlude, a sister to the Prelude but with new musical forays and poetry so dark, it speaks to the ages:
Said the man to a woman, said the man to the man,
Went with the children; held them in his hand.
Over cloud black hills, there’s a stream running white;
It don’t slate no thirst or pretend to beauty.
The stream is shut up.
“I’m taking you there”, said the woman to the child.
“The hell you will”, said the man to them all.
Cried the children to the mother; cried the sister to the dead.
Laugh the man to them all; put them
In his hand.
CREDITS: Gene Pritsker - composer/guitar , Franz Hackl – trumpet , Paul Carlon – sax , Jose Moura – bass , Damien Bassman – drums , Erik T. Johnson - narrator/poet
- There’s Not Enough Pain in the World
- We Don’t Have Much Time Left
- Interlude No. 2
- Or Pretend to Beauty