In a creepily prophetic glimpse of what the world would be subjected to in 2020 and onward, the 1993 Lucasville, Ohio prison uprising was triggered when the warden ordered prisoners to be injected with phenol, ostensibly to test them for tuberculosis. Many refused to comply. Violence broke out, a standoff with police ensued and hostages were taken. By the time the prisoners and state negotiated an end to hostilities, several people were dead.
Keith LaMar was one of the inmates. At nineteen, he’d been ambushed and robbed by drug dealers in his native Cleveland. Wounded by gunfire from his assailants, he fired back and killed one of them. After his arrest, he took a guilty murder plea rather than risking a death sentence at trial and was incarcerated at Lucasville. While the uprising was taking place, he was outside the area where the killings occurred, yet was fingered as the ringleader by inmates who received parole and reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony.
The judge allowed prosecutor Mark Piepmeier to withhold key exculpatory evidence in LaMar’s 1995 trial, in violation of his Federal rights under the Brady ruling. This was nothing new: the prosecutor has been cited for misconduct many times, and at least one innocent man he sent to death row has subsequently been exonerated and released. As a result, LaMar, a black man, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Since his conviction, he has been held in solitary confinement on death row and is scheduled to be executed next year despite the state’s admission that there is no forensic evidence against him, and that their main witness perjured himself on the stand.
In the meantime, LaMar has written a memoir, been the subject of a short film, and has now become the first man on death row to release an album, Freedom First, streaming at youtube. It’s a long-distance collaboration with an inspired cast of allstar jazz talent who have come to his defense. Pianist Albert Marquès assembled different groups for the project in both New York and his native Spain, and he’s leading a band featuring most of the supporting cast at the album release show tonight, March 20 at 6:30 PM at Drom. Cover is $25; there are no restrictions, and it’s likely that the musicians will be donating their share of the proceeds to their long-distance bandmate’s defense.
Under the circumstances, LaMar was forced to record his tracks in fifteen-minute segments from a prison phone. Throughout the record, his spirit is indomitable: it’s amazing how he manages to stay positive, given his situation. Marquès’ resonant, modally drifting compositions are on the somber side, although there’s plenty of conversationality between text and music.
The first number is Calling All Souls, LaMar’s stark contemplation of mortality and existential dread over Marquès’ spare, lingering piano, rising to a distant, oldtime gospel-tinged crescendo. We discover how LaMar credits jazz with literally saving his sanity.
The band deliver two solemn takes of John Coltrane’s Alabama, the first an emphatic quartet recording of Marquès with saxophonist Salim Washington, bassist Scott Colberg and drummer Zack O’Farrill. The second is a stark duet with cellist Gerald Appleman, echoed later on in Resolution, an original.
Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill joins his drummer brother, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, tenor saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo and bassist Walter Stinson in Tell Em the Truth, a lively, soaring tune with LaMar sending a shout-out to the resilience of his parents’ generation in his old Cleveland neighborhood, and the conflicting effects of how those adults tried to shield their kids from racism.
The band work a murky, mournful ambience in Unintentional Vignettes, where LaMar reveals that he was offered a reduced sentence if he’d been willing to take a murder plea for the events of the uprising.
They go back to the Coltrane pantheon – LaMar’s great inspiration – for an expansive quartet take of Acknowledgment, Caroline Davis contributing a spare but animated alto solo, Collberg offering a spot-on quote to set the stage.
LaMar reads On Living, Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet’s allusive contemplation of a prisoner’s resilience, joined by the album’s Spanish contingent. Marquès’ pensive modal tune rises with flugelhorn from Milena Casado and vocalese from Erin Corine over Marc Ayza’s soberly emphatic drums.
The full American ensemble provide a restless, fluttering setting for Be Free, LaMar recounting the capital trial events: “After 22,000 pieces of evidence were collected, none of them could be connected,” he reminds. Roy Nathanson contributes Some Sad Shit We Humans Do to Each Other, a soulful, melancholy solo alto sax interlude, then joins Nick Hakim and Marquès for the surreal trip-hop of No Man’s Land: “Being in here is like a lucid dream, except it’s a nightmare,” LaMar relates. “What I really want to say is ‘Go to hell,’ but that would be redundant, wouldn’t it?”
After a brief, pensive solo Samora Pinderhughes piano interlude, the Spanish crew turn in a shamanic, reverential take of Mongo Santamaria’s Afro Blue. Brian Jackson takes over the piano for the catchy, Steely Dan-tinged midtempo swing of The Only Freedom, Then it’s Arturo O’Farrill’s turn on the album’s concluding number, The Drowned & the Saved, rising from muddled angst to regal gospel variations as LaMar offers a profound, wise, existentially spiritual parable. If you can’t make it to the show, you can literally help save LaMar’s life here.