Originally published in The NYC Jazz Record, April 2022
Nelson Cascais, Remembrance: The Poetry of Emily Bronte (Fundacao GDA, 2022)
Eliot Cardinaux, Will McAvoy, Max Goldman, Out of Our Systems (The Bodily Press, 2022)
The heritage of jazz poetry reaches far, with roots in the slave poem, work song and blues narrative, and blossoming within the Harlem Renaissance. The driving mechanism for the poet within jazz has been the music’s rhythm and phrasing, as well as its socio-politics, a topographical schematic if you will, with which to construct verse and, in performance settings, to present the execution of same. At times, however, the music has been wholly created around standing literature and these recent albums were scored to integrate the artforms while still embracing sound, shape, cause and color.
Heroes Are Gang Leaders is the contemporary ensemble most fully embodying this heritage while not only acknowledging the socio-political but fully embracing its necessary radicalism. Founded in 2014 and led by poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, the band is an organic multi-art event "dedicated to the sound extensions of literary text and original composition”, as per . For LeAutoRoiOgraphy Heroes Are Gang Leaders--a dozen strong!—was recorded live at Paris’ Sons D’Hiver Festival performing a commemoration of Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones, hence the title). Though some of these selections were initially heard on earlier studio album, The Amiri Baraka Sessions, these captures are vital, with the band coming to full power on stage. Featured musicians James Brandon Lewis (tenor saxophone, also the band’s composer), Melanie Dyer (viola) and Devin Brahja Waldman (alto saxophone) in the company of vocalist/spoken word artist Nettie Chickering, and poets Randall Horton and Bonita Lee Penn, as well as the leader himself, profoundly bring the inspiration of Baraka into the here and now. Chickering’s looming presence and Lewis’ smoldering music on the 3-movement “Amina”, for Amina Baraka, the poet/actress who is Amiri’s widow, adds a beautiful gravity to the atmosphere. Chickering calls out on the first movement, “The Dutchman’s Three-Buttoned Suit” (referring to Baraka’s commanding drama The Dutchman):
Damn was it something I said?
Did I do something wrong?...
Were there more people burnt as witches than
Starting a revolution over the price of tea…
Lewis and Dyer, and then double bassist Luke Stewart, pianist Jenna Camille and guitarist Brandon Moses, take to the skies, painting it darkest blue and then purple, emitting an interactive soundscape which feeds into a network of voices, both spoken and sang. Quotes from some of Baraka’s most powerful works are woven through poetics and emotional releases on Penn’s “Poetry iz Labor”, a statement that Amina Baraka includes in her works till this day. And Section three, “Forensic Report” artfully combines classic free improvisation with spoken word: War-gasm!
“Shrimpy Grits” has Ellis up front along with Waldman whose alto brandishes an amazingly diverse collection of timbres (in every setting, his horn so easily mimics a soprano or C-melody saxophone), but the full ensemble tosses an aural palette at the hall’s ceiling, the drippings splattering in flourishes. The title work speaks to the progression of Baraka’s writing and activist career over years, with Chickering singing over Camille’s moving piano work, most akin to musical theatre or cabaret until the full ensemble enters, soaring through gorgeously advanced harmonies. Lewis’ admiration of Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble, and Karl Berger becomes evident as the horns, particularly the aerial trumpet of Heru Shabaka-Ra, and the thrilling, melodic drummer Warren Cruddup III herald in the new day that Baraka spent a lifetime seeking out. The core of the album, “Mista Sippy”, is bold sonic and literary commentary on the fallout from American racism.
The best kept secret in American politics…
Emoted testimony, sloping jazz, dramatic dialog, gospel and avant blues pervade, a veritable cornucopia of rebellion. Brief solos by Dyer, Lewis, Shabaka-Ra and Waldman are a captivating gateway to the poetry of Horton and Ellis. On closer “Sad Dictator” Chickering sings through Ellis’ poetry as Penn raps Amina Baraka’s empowering “I Wanna Make Freedom”. The longing in Shabaka-Ra’s horn recalls Don Cherry’s lamentations while the best of New Thing jazz, performance art and protest song cross-pollinate in real time. Ellis’ outpouring of literary social justice, fueled by that of the Barakas, should serve as the soundtrack to every struggle for social justice within range. As Amiri once noted: “I think anybody who is serious about language, always sees the written as a conduit for the spoken for the perception of reality. The spoken word is alive.”
On Remembrance: The Poetry of Emily Bronte, Lisbon’s Nelson Cascais, double bassist and composer, offers a project honoring the great British novelist and poet. The album is comprised of ten pieces, six of which feature the brilliant, somber writings of Bronte, woven together to depict the haunts of her times. Claudio Alves, in a clear but quietly moving tenor, conjures her words to life, emoting within a restraint most Victorian. On the opening track, “The Night is Darkening Round Me”, following a brief solo bass introduction and sinewy alto saxophone-led melody, Alves softly donates in a cautious sing-song voice:
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me,
I will not, cannot go
The saxophonist, Ricardo Toscano, lushly expands the piece’s direction with valiant, terse improvisations, churning the intensity with pianist Oscar Marcelino, drummer Joao Lopes Pereira and the leader’s bass. All aspects of the writer are embraced in this set. For Bronte’s deftly moving “All Hushed and Still Within the House”, the ensemble’s improvisations match and then goes beyond the complexity of emotions found within the source poetry, that which demarcates the loneliness and losses of her brief life (Bronte died at age 30, following the deaths of her mother and siblings).
hushed and still within the house;
Without – all wind and driving rain;
But something whispers to my mind,
Through rain and through the wailing wind,
Never again? Why not again?
Memory has power as real as thine.
The title track feels much more through-composed and vibraphonist Eduardo Cardinho adds silvery highlights at once thickening and aerating the tapestry. His solo statements reach beyond the mere sonority of the instrument, with Cardinho almost grasping the bars for rhythmic marimba-like rolls and alluring motifs.
Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring.
Over several instrumental pieces, the band demonstrates skillful musicianship within Cascais’s largely tonal works. “Intimations of Mortality” is reminiscent of Steps Ahead, clouded of texture with a saxophone/vibraphone lead and harboring an inner pulsation subtly evocative of the ensemble’s Portuguese culture. And as the album moves toward the finale, harmonies darken (the piano intro to “Fall, Leaves, Fall”, thickets of beautiful atonality, is indicative) and both music and poetry turn pensive, almost still. Ironically, the melody here recalls strains of Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”, albeit heard in a slow tempo. Later, such echoes fade and it’s within the art song tradition that Remembrance: The Poetry of Emily Bronte comes to a close. Delightfully packaged, the cover imagery of a windswept landscape sets off inserts including a translucent “contents” page and a fold-out of the included Bronte poems. This collection is a lasting document.
Reading his own poetry with aplomb and removal, poet, pianist and composer Eliot Cardinaux continues the music/verse travail with bassist Will McEvoy and drummer Max Goldman on Out of Our Systems. For album opener “Lying in the House of You (Piano Day)”, Cardinaux’s piano only enters at the half-way mark, ceding to McEvoy’s upright bass bowed just off the instrument’s bridge, and the whispery drumming of Goldman.
The Silent: cold fire,
The wolf’s eyes flicker into no one’s language…
A searching, distant sounding work, particularly once the leader’s piano enters, its gorgeously complex harmonies modulate through the darkness and jarring light of his composition. The rhythm section, as it were, is orchestral in approach; Goldman makes grand use of gamelan-like choked, muffled cymbals played with mallets.
Cardinaux’s means of threading art forms is explained in his recent statement on the Poems and Poetics blog: “I am a poet of the lyric lineage, favoring the lucidly bent, bare syntax of George Oppen, & the strange torn off clarity of Paul Celan. Mine are poems of compressed language, of a self folded in on itself…” The austere but deeply emotional confluence is also found within Oppen: an ex-pat in Paris, he returned to New York, founding the Objectivist school of poetry. However, during the Great Depression, he ceased writing to become a community and labor organizer within the Communist Party. A decorated War veteran, he was driven out of the U.S. under threat of the House Un-American Activities Committee, returning home in 1958. Oppen was, a decade later, awarded the Pulitzer.
As we saw with the Cascai album, Cardinaux is sure to reflect his poetics within the music and the lengthy instrumental section of “Toxin”, like Evans’ and Bley’s early ‘60s modernism, is an intellectual brand of jazz driven by restlessness. Further, McAvoy’s “Unwound”, one of two compositions he contributed to the disc, is gray, pensive, sparse of melody, sparser still of harmonies. It features his bass deliciously repulsing the framework, and then Goldman’s solo of artfully deconstructed triplets, leading in a slow, pervasive lessening and then muting of emotion. Such darkness drove the life of Paul Celan, a Romanian Jew who witnessed Kristallnacht, lived in a Nazi-occupied ghetto where he translated Shakespeare, and finally escaped both a prison camp and the Soviet bloc. Living out his days in Paris, Celan struggled with emotional turmoil and berating obscurity.
So much of both poets is felt in this collection, and visualized, too, in the Zoe Christiansen artwork, but Cardinaux himself remains the defining pulsation. The improvised fire music about “A Black Box for the Holy Ghost”, its poetry of doubt, denial, reimagining rebellion, perhaps guilt within the sound thicket exemplifies Out of Our Systems as our necessary step in the tradition.
Maria, Maria, Maria…
Uncontained testing certain freedom…
The temple stands for the midnight cipher…
Negation, negation, negation…
Heroes Are Gang Leaders
Thomas Sayers Ellis, bandleader poet, James Brandon Lewis, tenor sax, Luke Stewart, bass, Melanie Dyer, viola, vocals, Nettie Chickering, voice, Jenna Camille, piano, vocals, Randall Horton, poet, Devin Brahja Waldman, alto sax, synthesizer, Bonita Lee Penn, poet, Heru Shabaka-ra, trumpet, Brandon Moses, guitar, Warren "Trae" Crudup, III, drums
Amina (The Dutchman's Three Buttoned Suit / Poetry Iz Labor / Forensic Report)
The Shrimpy Grits
Sad Dictator (I Wanna Make Freedom)
Nelson Cascai, Remembrance: The Poetry of Emily Bronte (Fundacao GDA, 2022)
Cláudio Alves: voice . Ricardo Toscano: alto sax . Eduardo Cardinho: vibraphone . Óscar Marcelino da Graça : piano and synths . Nelson Cascais: bass . João Lopes Pereira: drums
The Night Is Darkening Round Me
Shall Earth No More Inspire Thee
Intimations Of Mortality
All Hushed And Still Within The House
Fall Leaves Fall
She Dried Her Tears
Eliot Cardinaux, Will McAvoy, Max Goldman, Out of Our Systems (The Bodily Press, 2022)
Eliot Cardinaux: piano, poetry, compositions; Will McEvoy: double bass, compositions; Max Goldman: drums, cymbals, percussion
Lying in the House of You (Piano Day)
A Black Box for the Holy Ghost
When We Went (Someone Else's Mystery)