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.