A Chilling, Furious Musical Response to Trump-Era Fascism by Elsa Nilsson
Elsa Nilsson isn’t the only artist who was so pissed off by the 2016 Presidential election and the encroaching fascism afterward that she wrote a whole album about it. But that release, Hindsight – which hasn’t hit the web yet – is one of the most hauntingly illustrative of all the protest jazz records released over the past four years. The flutist participated in the first Women’s March on Washington: she draws the rhythms of each of the album’s tracks from chants of the protestors there, as well as from demonstrators across the country in the months and years afterward. Nilsson’s wary, often raging melodies and relentless gallows humor pack a mighty wallop, speaking truth to power run amok.
The opening track, Changed in Mid Air reflects on Trump’s infamous travel ban, Nilsson’s sudden, shocked downward cascade contrasting with Alex Minier’s grimly distorted, fat bass, guitarist Jeff McLaughlin’s icy chords and drummer Cody Rahn’s increasingly emphatic drive depicting the institutionalized terror faced by immigrants.
The diptych Worth the Risk/Maria references both a refugee’s leap of faith as well as Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico. Nilsson shifts between eerie airiness and tortured phrasing through an envelope pedal, over a spacious, brooding backdrop. McLaughlin’s steely, clanging solo is one of the album’s high points; a frantic guitar/flute exchange follows as the hurricane hits.
The forlornly strolling Will Help Come vividly reflects Puerto Ricans’ diminishing hopes for aid from the Trumpies in the aftermath of the storm, with a crushingly allusive concluding solo from the bandleader. Enough Is Enough begins with an austere, chantlike, looped phrase and rises with an increasingly horrified crescendo, Nilsson’s flute fluttering and leaping all over the place over McLaughlin’s stately, lingering chords. It goes on for six minutes twenty seconds, the time it took for the gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to complete his hateful mission.
The quartet open the album’s title track with a fiery, allusively Balkan-tinged intensity and careen anthemically from there, Rahn hitting a hardcore pulse at one point. What Can I Do, based on the rhythm of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” is the most enigmatic track on the album, a study in eleven-tone scales and an acknowledgment of how people of color are so often denied subjectivity (that’s an academic way of saying the only time you see black people on tv is when they’re dead or in handcuffs).
Trickle Down, a portrait of relentless struggle, has snarky opening cascades and snarling, skronky guitar over a loopy, funky groove. I Believe You – Nilsson’s reaction to Christine Blasey Ford’s shocking testimony at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings – has an austere gravitas and vivid air of disbelief at the circus that ensued.
Fill The Courts, a reflection on the sinister effects of the past three decades’ drive to pack the courts with Republicans, brings back the relentlessness and ominous contrasts of the opening track. Nilsson closes this chilling cycle with We Show Up, a moodily lingering shout-out to the millions raising our voices and getting out in the streets: McLaughln’s Keith Levene-esque lines are among the most memorable ones here. Count this as one of the best albums of the past several months in any style of music. Nilsson and band play the album release show on April 10 at 9:30 PM at the Cutting Room; cover is $15.