Monday, March 04, 2019

Heroes Are Gang Leaders - The Amiri Baraka Sessions (Flat Langston's Arkeyes, 2019)

Heroes Are Gang Leaders was co-founded by poet Thomas Sayers Ellis and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and they are joined by a wide range of instrumentalists, singers, readers and rappers to pay tribute to the legendary poet and activist Amiri Baraka. The vocalists interpret that work into new ways to challenge and explore the material as much as their musical counterparts improvise accompaniment. "Superstar" opens with female vocals shifting to spoken a word riff between two men about  basketball as the female vocalist chants, interjecting names of ESPN programs, and the instruments play in the background. Basketball is used as a vehicle for social commentary, and the female vocalist rhymes impressively with the words and the instruments well integrated into each other. The long performance shifts to singing about the nature of stardom and the effects it has on people, framed by fine saxophone and piano. "Land Back" features solo trumpet, then bass and drums with male and female singers and strong saxophone. Confident female spoken word about the racist treatment of African Americans in the United States, the flow of words and their stinging meaning is very impressive. The performance stretches out with instrumental interludes, scatting vocals with improvising jazz band, mocking the stand your ground ideal that killed Treyvon Martin, as male vocals asked if African Americans were better off as outsiders, a provocative question in a country where black men are routinely gunned down by the police. "Amina 2" is an excellent solo saxophone interlude, short but eloquent improvisation of raw beauty, reaching for the dark places and shining the light of music into them, it's a wonderful piece. "Leautoroiograghy" develops stark piano and female vocals, with the extraordinary refrain "if capitalism don't kill me, racism will." Adding more singers, male and female but coming back to this theme, of the dissolution of race relations, leading into "Forensic Report" an interlude for jazz band with supple trumpet and drums, building fast and loose as a male voice deconstructs the words. "The Tender Arrival of Outsane Midget Booker (Ts Who Kill Drums Runnin' da Voodoo Down)" has soulful vocals and electric bass, asking if hope as an illusion, crisp drum accompaniment, gospel feeling, full band blasting in driving the music forward and then acting as framing mechanism for the vocalists, storming hip hop rhymes as singers repeat phrases in the background, the whole formation of the performance is very deeply affecting. Album finishes with a wonderful solo saxophone performance, "Anima 3" where Lewis really bares his soul, allowing for a brief free improvisation that reaches into the territory of David S. Ware or Archie Shepp at their most inspired. It is a fine way to end a fascinating experimental album that was very successful in melding poetry and song to first rate modern jazz improvisation. The Amiri Baraka Sessions - amazon.com

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