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Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: poetry

International Jazz Artists Play a Benefit at Drom For Wrongfully Convicted Poet Keith LaMar

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.

Javon Jackson Reinvents Rare Spirituals with Nikki Giovanni’s Help

For his latest album, which hasn’t hit the web yet, tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson asked poet Nikki Giovanni if she could suggest ten spirituals that he ought to record. She gave him a list with only a small handful of standards: otherwise, the tracks on The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni are on the rare side. What’s more, the album marks possibly the first time this century that Giovanni has been featured on record as a lead singer.

She picked the ballad Night Song as a salute to her old friend Nina Simone. Since Jackson’s current home state, Connecticut, was locked down, he had to fly to Giovanni’s home in Virginia to cut the vocals. Pianist Jeremy Manasia plays spare, resonant chords beneath Jackson’s balmy lines as bassist David Williams and drummer McClenty Hunter provide whispery rhythm; Giovanni’s weathered evocation of being alone in a bustling crowd packs a wallop.

The first of the spirituals is a straightforwardly swinging take of Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel, a beautiful, stern minor-key tune, Jackson’s cantabile lead giving way to Manasia’s biting chords and elegant rudiments from Hunter.

Of the well-known numbers here, Wade in the Water makes a good segue, Jackson adding some spicy flourishes to his sailing lines, Manasia rising and falling before Christina Greer joins in to speak Giovanni’s scarily prescient words on how it’s up the outcasts and nonconformists among us to keep an otherwise soulless world alive.

The quartet reinvent Swing Low Sweet Chariot as a sly, slinky calypso jazz tune. yeah mon! By contrast, another familiar favorite, Mary Had a Baby, Yes Lord draws a straight line back to somber Birmingham-era Coltrane as well as Miles Davis. The group’s take of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is much the same, with a regal, glittering, Mulgrew Miller-esque solo from Manasia.

But it’s the obscurities that everyone is going to want to hear. Leaning on the Everlasting Arms is an aptly warm lullaby of a melody, Jackson giving it a calm midtempo swing and a misty-toned solo.

I’ve Been Buked (as in “rebuked”) has special historical resonance since Mahalia Jackson sang it at the Lincoln Memorial on the day of Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington speech there. Williams bookends it with stark bowing, Jackson letting the clouds drift away before Manasia’s glittering solo

Lord, I Want to Be a Christian, a duo arrangement for piano and sax, has an aptly reverent ambience. The group cut loose with a carefree swing in the closing number, I Opened My Mouth to the Lord, only to wind it out with a wary intensity. Gravitas and unselfconscious depth galore on an album which will no doubt be sought out by jazz and gospel fans alike.

Camerata Zurich Reinvent a Haunting Czech Classical Suite

The piece de resistance on Camerata Zurich‘s latest album of string orchesta pieces – streaming at Spotify – is Daniel Rumler’s arrangement of Janacek’s troubled, death-obsessed suite On an Overgrown Path. It’s gorgeously lush yet uncluttered music. Rumler subsumes much of the turbulence of the original piano version, switching out embellishments for emphatic melody. Group leader Igor Karsko opts for elegance and dynamics throughout the suite’s many picturesque interludes, broken down into 25 short segments here.

There’s also a spoken-word component. In her original French, poet Maia Brami reads the broodingly evocative text the orchestra had commissioned in 2017, imagining the composer reflecting on his life in a rather haunted woodland setting. There’s an English translation (but surprisingly, no original) in the album liner notes.

Wistfully lilting strolls rise to a sudden anguish, moody resonance alternating with gently animated phrasing to set the stage. The composer was haunted by the death of his daughter, who succumbed to illness at twenty, and the sense of loss is palpable throughout many twists and turns. Fond memories flicker into and then fade out of the mist The carefully modulated echo phrasing in the brief ninth segment is especially striking.

The opening work, Josef Suk’s Meditation on St. Wenceslas sounds absolutely nothing like the Christmas carol that’s been repurposed for a million playground rhymes over the years. This piece rises with a steady pulse to a troubled intensity: when Karsko gets the ensemble to dig in just thisclose to a shriek, a little after the midway point, the effect is viscerally breathtaking, especially considering the lushness on the way there. Suk wrote it as a thinly veiled freedom fighter anthem for Czech independence from the Habsburgs; its solemnity and defiance are just as relevant now, in a considerably more global context.

The group bring the album full circle with Dvorak’s Nocturne in B major, giving it a similarly insistent, even anxious pulse in places. Karsko raises the distinctness of the interweave of voices into strikingly sharp focus, a sonic layer cake.

Smart, Broodingly Evocative Spoken Word and Electronics From Blue Lick

Today’s Halloween installment – streaming at Bandcamp – is Hold On, Hold Fast, Chicago duo Blue Lick‘s disquieting album of spoken word and electronics. There’s nothing traditionally Halloweenish about this, although frontwoman Havadine Stone’s worldview is relentlessly unflinching. Ben Baker Billington gives her provocative, poetic imagery a typically chilly, squiggly synth backdrop.

The album is best appreciated as a contiguous whole: the individual segments vary from very brief to around the three minute range. “If I’m not brave enough to drop it I’ll turn it upside down,” Stone muses in the first track

“If something is flat and wide open, you can’t hide in it, can you?” Stone asks at one point during the second. She’s talking about the Midwest, but there’s obvious subtext. Not a pivotal moment, but it’s characteristic of how Stone works

“Every human you see was pushed and pulled out of a wet dark place, of course there is no question we grope, eyes shut in the dark…I am my own endless void, I am my own iron weight, I am my own tapeworm.”

But hardly everything here is grim and cynical. Stone’s sardonically detailed portrait of relationship angst in the fourth track is irresistibly funny. She revisits that theme, in a more allusively sinister way, in track seven. Then later there’s “An otherwise shadow-boxed conversation. There’s that pull again. Do you drop the rope, hang the line on the branch and walk away whistling a tune, thinking, “Dang, sure glad I got outta that one…”

One of the album’s more playfully loopy synth-scapes gives Stone a canvas for a reflection on autosuggestive self-empowerment…for starters, anyway. And the narrative about the kids on the beach in the tenth segment can’t conceal a dark undercurrent. Snarkiest line here: “She’s a dead ringer from the back, isn’t she.” As strong a lyricist as Stone is, what we really need from her is a book – or a Substack feed.

Prophetic, Hauntingly Gorgeous, Insightful New Music and Spoken Word From Tessa Lena

For the past several years, investigative journalist Tessa Lena has been one of the most prophetic and poetic observers of how digital technology has empowered creeping fascism on a global scale. With last year’s lockdown here in New York, her work gained traction exponentially. Her Substack feed quickly became a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of what’s happened since.

But she’s also a breathtakingly powerful singer and instrumentalist. Last summer, she took one of her most succinct and portentously accurate pieces, The Physical World Is the Only World We Have (a longer version of the lyrics appears here) and turned it into a gorgeous mosaic of spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged soundscape. Her wordless vocals as she reaches for the sky will give you chills. A good digital approximation of an electric mandolin, or a balalaika, maybe, adds spare bittersweetness. The whole piece is streaming at her podcast, Make Language Great Again. Tessa Lena’s commentary is as grimly funny as it is insightful and poignant:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow.
Facts are fiction,
Love is screen.
Gossip’s trending,
Trends are mean.
Hear, hear,
Where’s the joy
Ask Alexa.
She’ll annoy.

We are all losing our minds….I know that long-term stress is very effective in turning off human ability to think straight. Once we’ve been battered for a long enough time, our sensory patterns will be damaged sufficiently, and we’ll be so exhausted and hungry for any semblance of joy that we’ll accept anything to be allowed to do basic things in the world. To breathe. To laugh. To be a little bit alive, to be a little bit free, no matter how short the digital leash. We are like frogs in a pot of water that is warming up. We are getting used to it…we are at a major crossroads, and I am positive that the time to be fully human—not cyborg—is now….

Something terrible is happening to us, and it is not a drill. It is very complex and very trivial. It is imminent and cumulative. Every small fragment of the disaster can be explained in a respectable way, but the big picture is terrifying. We’ve given up our senses and our ancient instincts, but our leaders have no heads. We are not in good hands. We are shackled to a broken algorithm. We are on our own, and the sooner we realize it, the better our chance of surviving.

Anna Heflin Blends Clever, Hilarious Spoken Word With Enigmatic New Music For Strings

Violist Anna Heflin calls her debut album The Redundancy of the Angelic – streaming at Spotify – “an interluding play.” Blending surrealistic, sometimes cut-and-pasted spoken word in between austere string themes, the record – which isn’t online yet – is alternately very serious and ridiculously amusing. Heflin is an acute observer and an imaginative composer; the push-pull of the album’s central dynamic ramps up the surreal factor. The album’s unifying and very best joke doesn’t reveal itself until the end, and it’s way too good to give away.

Tensely enunciating, Heflin opens the album with a disjointed poetic tableau, a beauty parlor recast as the center of a strangely benign universe. Then the music begins. A slowly sirening riff gives way to a close-harmonied string trio – Heflin with violinists Shannon Reilly and Emily Holden. Their alternately puckish, rhythmic and soberly spacious phrases and variations descend to a a hazy, hypnotic interlude, which they end up bringing full circle.

The second spoken word piece, Fell This Blonde, is devastatingly funny: let’s say it turns an ugly American beauty myth upside down. The strings return in As Above, So Below, first with an austere, stairstepping theme, then sandpapery harmonics and a hair-raising coda.

Heflin allusively ponders apocalyptic portents and escape therefrom in We Made It Out: ultimately, she’s optimistic. In Heflin’s closing pastiche poem, the joke is on the listener as she ties up all the loose ends, Hitchcock style: again, no spoilers.

A Subtly Powerful Album of Protest Jazz From Afro-Peruvian Bandleader Gabriel Alegria

“Social distancing.”

Ewwwwww.

Of all the oxymorons in lockdowner newspeak, that’s the most odious. In terms of being self-contradictory, it’s second only to “remote learning” – a very, very, very, very remote approximation of the real thing.

Trumpeter Gabriel Alegría‘s new album of protest jazz – streaming at Spotify – is titled Social Distancing. It’s almost all-instrumental, and the few moments that are not speak to healing, or are cached in metaphorical terms rather than leveling any specific accusation. Yet as a parable of and reaction to the fascist horror of 2020, it’s unsurpassed.

The centerpiece is The Mask, a stark urban noir soul tableau which is almost all bass and percussion until horns and violin join in shivering terror behind a metaphorically loaded spoken word passage by percussionist Freddy Lobaton. No names are mentioned, but there is a devil involved.

Kitty O’Meara reads her lockdown poem And the People Stayed Home in the opening track, And the People, which is balmy yet somber, Alegria terse and resonant alongside Alex Gonzalez’s violin, backed by Jocho Velasquez’s acoustic guitar, Mario Cuba’s bass, and Hugo Alcázar’s drums. The group reprise it in Spanish at the end of the album: its message of hope and transformation (but not in a bastardized New Abnormal way) went viral a year ago.

The rest of the album explores a wide range of dynamics, with both optimism and some searing critiques. In Mirando El Shingo, a catchy tropical anthem, the percussion section work a gusty groove as the bass dances, Alegria and then saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguía sail overhead. The next track, titled COVID-19, has both a boisterous New Orleans-flavored rhythm but also acidic twelve-tone harmony grounded in Russell Ferrante’s piano and the guitar. Leguía’s modal solo has an aptly distant ominousness: five out of six people had natural immunity, but the fake news media kept the fear blaring 24/7.

George and Breonna, a shout-out to the late George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, is built around a festive exchange of trumpet and sax riffs over a cantering 12/8 groove, in the Mingus tradition: exuberant song, grimly relevant title. The New Normal turns out to be a slinky organ tune with Monklike blues phantasmagoria from Yuri Juarez’s guitar and an increasingly dissociative raveup from the rest of the band.

Leguía switches to soprano sax for Any Day Now, whose initial, jaunty brightness grows more enigmatic as the harmonies get more complex and the percussion kick up a storm: she delivers another killer, modally-spiced solo midway through. Amaranta is an uneasy, airy take on late 50s Miles Davis and the best song on the album. The false start into a waltz, Alegria’s sobering, crystalline solo over crashing cymbals, and Leguía’s spine-tingling legato are just a few highlights.

Driven by energetic trumpet and sax over a churning groove, Octavio y Natalia was inspired by Alegria’s and Juarez’s kids playing together. Both dads want to make sure their kids get to enjoy a normal childhood, but knowing that their lives could be imperiled by racist hate is part of the picture. This one’s on the shortlist for best jazz albums of 2021.

Surreal Eclecticism From Nicolas Jacquot

One of the most entertainingly strange albums to come over the transom here in the past several months is Nicolas Jacquot’s Ordered Ordinaries, streaming at Bandcamp. There’s ambient music, and spoken word, and a pervasive surrealism on a rare level, a step beyond anything seen here in ages. An ability to speak Hungarian and French is a big plus if you want to understand this – to the extent that it can be understood.

Introduced by keening, whistling violin harmonics, the first track is a synthesized woman’s voice reading an Aristotle-inspired excerpt from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell concerning a poet and an angel – in French, in the archaic passé simple tense. Beyond the flamboyant, mushroomy imagery, it’s a reminder how little we actually encounter in the original language. Seriously: did you read the Iliad in Greek, or The Trial in Czech?

The album’s second track, Pomp For the Devil has a catchy yet hypnotic dichotomy between growly shards of guitar and looming, orchestral electronics: imagine if Eno had produced the first Velvets album.

There’s a similar, loopy contrast in the brief voicescape Good Morning. The album’s best and most epic track is the skeletal, distantly disquieting Basil of Salern, Hervé Boghossian ‘s gritty guitar chordlets bristling with cheap amp distortion over a staggered percussion loop.

Track five, Viki is a brooding Hungarian spoken-word piece by poet Rita Görözdi. pondering a possible journey of no return over a dissociative synth pastiche. She reprises the story at the end of the album in a condensed version for French speakers

The album’s most epic piece is the almost eighteen-minute diptych Happy Christmas, opening with a Grey Angel’s Death Song guitar-and-loops instrumental and then morphing into a desolately drifting spacescape.

Frank London and Adeena Karasick’s Darkly Gorgeous New Album Salutes a Feminist Archetype

“You are bringing in the big guns, opening the sluicegates with your hyperdramatic extra sex, a swishy riff, pithy swift grifters…like a feisty zeitgeist, a forever Riviera,” poet Adeena Karasick freestyles, saluting her title character in one of the early tracks on the new album Salome: Woman of Valor, her new collaboration with iconic trumpeter Frank London., streaming at his music page. It’s a psychedelic, globally-inspired, feminist reclamation of the Salome archetype, recasting her as a fearless, indomitable, multi-faceted persona rather than uber-slut. Typically, Karasick’s intricate, wickedly playful, erudite solo spoken world interludes are spaced in between the individual songs here.

The enticement builds over an echoey wash from Shai Bachar’s electric piano, Deep Singh’s tabla and London’s lyrically pensive trumpet in the album’s first musical number, Song of Salome. As it goes on, London channels more of the acerbic, chromatic edge and meticulous melismas that have characterized his sound as one of this era’s great klezmer and Balkan brass players.

Playing with a mute, he introduces a bracing, suspenseful Ethiopian theme over a chilly, techy haze in Garden of Eros, Karasick celebrating the pleasures of the flesh amid the “cinders of avarice.” London shifts to a hypnotic mashup of Ethiopiques, qawwali and Romany psychedelia in Drown Me, exchanging terse, soulful trumpet riffs with a swirly synth as the tabla holds down the groove.

Dance of Desire has a darkly slinky trip-hop ambience, Karasick deviously referencing a half century or more worth of lyrics, from Wilson Pickett to Leonard Cohen as London’s trumpet teases the listener. Bind Me has a gorgeously brooding, contrapuntal Hasidic melody and a metaphorically loaded lyric: this Salome doesn’t like being restrained.

To introduce Johnny, Karasick sends a shout out to Jean Genet and other bad-boy figures before London’s balmy trumpet and tersely circling, uneasy piano enter the picture. Martyrology, a grisly chronicle of Jewish mystics tortured and murdered over the years, makes a chilling contrast, followed by a haunting, Middle Eastern and Indian-tinged interlude from London that brings to mind Ibrahim Maalouf.

London returns to an anthemic mix of murky Ethiopiques and woozy psychedelia in Yes I Will Yes Say Yes. He shifts to the Middle Eastern freygish mode for the undulating Dance of the Seven Veils, part klezmer, part Palestinian shamstep, featuring an imploring vocal cameo by Manu Narayan . The group return to dusky, forlorn Ethiopian ambience to wind up the record with Kiss Thy Myth. Look for this one on the best albums of 2020 list here, scheduled for the end of the year.

Searingly Relevant Spoken Word and Steel Pan Music From Miyamoto Is Black Enough

Miyamoto Is Black Enough blend excoriating, politically fearless spoken word and innovative, kinetic indie classical compositions by the group’s steel pan player, Andy Akiho. Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler serves as bass player and also supplies metal riffage, with Sean Dixon on drums behind frontman Roger Bonair-Agard. Their brilliant debut album Burn/Build is streaming at Bandcamp.

It’s bookended by a piece titled Panifesto. The first part covers a lot of territory: cultural appropriation, Yoruban mythology, and the fact that the steel pan was invented in Trinidad solely to fuel an “exodus to freedom…a weapon in the continued unchaining of the enslaved.” As Bonair-Agard sees it, the steel pan tradition reflects genuine history rather than one codified by “victors and false discoverers.”

Zeigler solos slowly and plaintively over Akiho’s shimmering ambience as the defiant concluding half picks up steam: appropriately, Bonair-Agard’s voice pans the speakers. In Nina, Bonair-Agard teaches a child about genfrication over Akiho’s eerie, dancing pointillisms:

Nina, the bike shop used to be a bodega…
The bar with the M&Ms on the counter used to be a candy store…
This park used to be a park
With potholes and crack vials on the running track
And dirt in the center of the field where grass should be
And that dog run was a field of geraniums
The Dominican restaurant used to be cheap
Used to have a line out the door
I used to be able to afford to live above it
And come down in the middle of the night
Especially after my girl left and I was tired of looking at the linoleum
And the sloping floors…
Kim’s grocery used to sell 40s
This subway stop used to be dangerous…
These cops used to be in squad cars, and not always so polite…
Big Daddy Kane once played a block party right here on Marcus Garvey…
This garden used to be a drum circle
Before the new neighbors called the cops to complain…
That school used to be public
This used to be Brooklyn

Black Shapeshift is a sardonic hip-hop litany of common salutations in ebonics, “where n___a and god both mean love.” Over the Asian-tinged reggae of Revolver, Bonair-Agard chronicles the exploits of a former high school valedictorian whose colorfully vast knowledge extends to firearms and heroin.

21 for Jit, which traces a Trinidad steel pan star’s DIY journey to greatness, has a more hypnotic, circling backdrop. The title track has the album’s catchiest hip-hop groove and also the most venomously relevant lyric, perfectly capturing the outrage of the past six months: “The movement needs both builders and burners…praise guns in the hood waiting to clap back at the right time, this is the right time!”

The group take their name from Ariana Miyamoto, who was chosen to represent Japan in a beauty contest but was later accused of being insufficiently Japanese since her heritage is half African-American.