In prosaic terms, tenor saxophonist Ochion Jewell‘s second album, Volk – streaming at Bandcamp – is Ghanian music reinventors the Bedstuy Ewe Ensemble playing moody third-stream jazz. And it’s often as far from that group’s joyous exuberance as you can possibly imagine. The band’s multicultural personnel – Moroccan pianist and Dawn of Midi founder Amino Belyamani, Persian-American bassist Sam Minaie, and Pakistani-American drummer Qasim Naqvi – join their bandmate in a magnificently ambered tour de force. The album’s backstory is troubling, but has a happy ending – more or less – taking inspiration (and financed by the settlement Jewell received) from a police brutality lawsuit stemming from a harrowing brush with death at the hands of an undercover NYPD narcotics squad run amok a couple of years ago. Drawing on idioms as diverse as Persian classsical music, pensive Keith Jarrett-style improvisation and elements of noir, it’s one of the best albums released this year in any style of music and should draw a wide listenership that transcends a jazz audience. These tracks unwind slowly, allowing for plenty of carefully considered improvisation: this album is all about building a mood and maintaining it. The complete ensemble are playing the album release show on Sept 23, with sets at 9 and 10:30 PM at at Cornelia St. Cafe; cover is $10 + a $10 mininum.
The album opens with a triptych of sorts, the interaction between Jewell and Belyamani gradually developing from a brooding coversation to more agitated and then back again as Naqvi’s toms prowl tensely, the piano adding a Rachmaninovian undercurrent. Jewell opens the third section, Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi with a plaintive, dusky, blues-drenched riff and variations as the dirge behind him rises to macabre proportions and then subsides. His rain-drenched, wee-hours black-and-white streetscape sax as the piano’s rivulets rise and fall, bass and drums adding rustling suspense, is vivid to the extreme.
The band picks up the pace with Give Us a Drink of Water, its frequent rhythmic shifts, funky syncopation and lively sax constrasting with murky piano riffage, Minae stepping out with a dancing solo mirrored uneasily and opaquely if energetically by Jewell. Likewise, they shift between dancefloor exuberance and a knifes-edge tension fueled by Belyamani and Miniae as it winds out.
Pass Fallow, Gallowglass reverts to moody, wounded piano-sax interplay, Naqvi’s elegant cymbals and toms again enhancing the sepulchral ambience. They continue the theme with Radegast, eventually rising to a briefly stomping interlude, flutters and squawks returning quickly to the shadows, driven by Belyamani’s sinister low lefthand. Guest guitarist Lionel Loueke’s tersely bending David Gilmourisms open The Master, a hypnotically bouncing mashup of North African proto-funk and bluesy minor-key rusticity. He also joins a similarly hypnotic if much more spikily energetic sonic web on Gnawa Blues.
While folk themes here are a frequent inspiration, they seldom rise to the surface to the extent they do on the take of Oh Shenandoa, a Matthew Brady early-morning post-battle Civil War tableau in sound. The album ends appropriately with a wee-hours solo sax take of Black is the Colour (of My True Love’s Hair).