Bassist Gregg August has somehow found the time to put out one of the most powerful, relevant albums in any style of music over the last several months. Dialogues on Race – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, majestic, anguished large-ensemble suite that reflects on how Americans have been divided and conquered in the name of an archaic concept invented about five hundred years ago by psychotic slave traders as a justification for genocide.
Historically speaking, racism is a relatively recent construct. In the middle ages, if you were going around kidnapping and murdering people, you probably would have been hanged or beheaded. So the slavers came up with the novel proposition that lighter-skinned people are somehow superior to people of color.
There was money to be made in that murderous trade, and the fiction of civilized Europeans versus African savages was well marketed. They got enough Europeans to buy it, to the point that it lasted another three hundred fifty-plus years. Today we are seeing how the lockdowners are using that same dynamic, desperately trying to create an army of clueless maskers to demonize and attack the unmasked.
In his liner notes, August is quick to acknowledge the irony of being a white man tackling a subject that’s usually treated as “the Jew under the kitchen floor,’” that nobody talks about, as one friend of this blog recently put it. And as a jazz musician, August is keenly aware of issues of cultural appropriation. But ultimately, we need to lift every voice and sing truth to power as August does with this majestic, dynamically rich theme and variations for jazz nonet, string quartet and narrator.
August’s central theme is the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till. Interspersed among and often woven into the suite’s diverse movements are several smartly chosen poems exploring racism’s many ugly legacies, along with narrator Wayne Smith reading Till’s mother chillingly straightforward account of the aftermath of the murder.
The album’s first number, Sherbet introduces a broodingly bluesy central motive, up to a Mingus-esque bustle. Letter to America is a strolling, determindedly brassy, marching tune set to a tumbling, implied clave. The horns build a circling, harried intensity, down to pianist Luis Perdomo’s skeletal, ominous incisions. “We served you as a mirror, a lamp, a toy,” Smith intones. It’s a great poem. “Our bodies are your insides…we reflect your future.” Ken Thomson follows with a soulful bass clarinet solo, setting up trombonist Rafi Malkiel scatting through his horn.
Lacy sings Your Only Child, its blustery horn cadences matching the lyrics, Mamie Till asking “How could he have died so undignified? ”The epic I Rise follows an awakening trajectory with conversational, rhythmless horns, a Braxton-esque, massed swell and hauntingly pulsing waves that look straight back to Mingus. John Bailey’s trumpet is the focal point, whether in a brooding Miles vein or jubilantly swinging; Thomson’s reedy bass clarinet delivers a moment of triumph.
Malkiel’s trombone and JD Allen’s tenor sax open Sky, a real throwback to the withering modal power that characterized August’s tenure in Allen’s trio. The majesty but also the ache as the group soar but also struggle against an overhanging presence is visceral. Allen’s saturnine spirals, shadowed by Perdomo, might be the most starkly insightful notes anybody’s played this year. Malkiel’s spacious solo afterward, over Perdomo’s icy accents, is no less impactful.
August bows broodingly as he revisits Your Only Child’s theme. I Sang in the Sun, a somber, spacious setting of a Carolyn Kizer poem, is an sobering reflection on white wilingness to embrace the bravery of being out of range when it comes to the murder of black people. The sarcasm of Perdomo’s loungey, easygoing solo is crushing.
The third reprise of Your Only Child, sung by Shelley Washington, opens with Middle Eastern gravitas from the string quartet, Allen’s sagacious spare lines over their swells. The juxtaposition between the otherworldly strings and the low horns could be the album’s most darkly gorgeous interlude; August follows with solo bass that echoes the Bach cello suites.
Sweet Words on Race is a jaunty, tightly undulating latin jazz number in the same vein that August has mined so often throughout his previous work. Thomson and saxophonist John Ellis spar animatedly to introduce The Bird Leaps, an altered, playfully voiced take on 30s Basie swing. August’s Blues Finale offers a glimpse of hope with its determined New Orleans shuffle groove and Frank Lacy’s gruff vocalese. The number of levels this music exists on is stunning: this could easily be the best jazz album of 2020.
And while we’re on the topic of the Emmitt Till murder, the most evil person in the whole group responsible wasn’t one of the men who lynched him. It was Carolyn Bryant, the woman who lied to her husband – one of the actual murderers – that Till had whistled at her, setting off the deadly mob..