[16 September 2004]
Though this Chicagoan band certainly relates rather than subjugates jazz to politics, and brings a number of political considerations into its titles, I should begin by identifying this strong recommendation as made on entirely musical, very specifically jazz grounds.
Whatever else drummer Ted Sirota involves himself in, the music here belongs to the jazz mainstream and the five musicians of the Rebel Souls show abilities well beyond anything sheerly contemporary or of any limited period. Jeb Bishop’s a terrific trombonist with a wide expressive range, from the earthy to the lyrical, and on tenor saxophone Geof Bradfield can generate a lot of expressive heat without distorting the modern mainstream voice that he can also turn to for a very different range of expression. Jeff Parker on guitar can do more than the straightforward harmonically advanced and swinging thing, but he has that too. He does have occasional recourse to (mostly very modest) electronics, either in a sort of commentary or in covering risks of the small ensemble ever sounding thin—no fake big band, no upholstering, no more than the occasional services of another musician or two could provide. Clark Somers doesn’t get to do very much up front on bass, but his presence is obvious in the way the music keeps moving, with Sirota always an active but never noisy or intrusive drummer. Overall, this is a band with considerable flexibility within a basic integrity or identity, and why shouldn’t they perform a repertoire including a lot of more generally acceptable straight down the middle jazz, on a rhythm section base which has the potential to turn things in many different directions from what’s shown here?
In they go with a title for Nigeria, not political, but against the prospect of no intelligent ethical political activity. They’re not after the self-satisfaction of people grateful to be reminded of horrors they’re spared because that feeds their own complacency with what nearby them is bad enough. They celebrate the undefeated spirit of Ken Saro-Wiwa, whom a regime pandering to international financial interests hanged—displaying these interests plainly in their scorn of international protest. The complex harmonies are very much in celebration.
Their second title is nearest to avant-garde performance, the band sounding off in what’s highly appropriate accompaniment to a vocal part while a tape of Fred Hampton’s oratory sounds out. That Black Panther was killed by the Chicago Police, and this song reflects what the killing did and didn’t prevent. I don’t know enough about the guy, but the generalised statements on the tape here are sound and worth repeating, as is how he says it. The performance could be re-done with a transcription of the speech recorded delivered by a strong-voiced rhythmic speaker, but on disc the recording is fine and does exemplify a humanly valuable expressiveness. Bradfield has an impassioned tenor saxophone solo, and the drummer’s workout with very boomy bass opens a fiesta of percussion, with tapes of a crowd crying “Power to the people!” a worthy climax.
No verbal translation is provided for “Knife”, a composition exploring the capacities of an ensemble with some roots in 1950s cool jazz to show fire. “For Martyrs” likewise emphasises a musical debt to Birth of the Cool (among much more), but within the restraint there is a real sense of sadness. “This Is a Takeover” is unnecessary, the powerfully melancholy trombone having modest additions of echo in keeping with the Reggae background or setting. Bradfield takes a reflective but passionate tenor solo. “Elegy” is just that, duly titled more simply, with Bradfield playing the soft mournful line to Bishop’s sensitive obbligato, and Parker on a quiet guitar solo that increases in tenderness until the horns come in again together. “Breeding Resistance” (aka “Paper Tiger Blues”) is out of the neo-Mingus protest bag. Prefaced by Sirota’s drums, Bishop leads in a rapid repeated figure, followed by a stepped passage and then the figure again before he sets out on a rapid-fire solo. The tenor enters, Sirota fires away over a passage of fragments by the front line men, then takes an extended solo with a decent shape to it.
“Huntsville, TX” has been part of “jazz and blues” (with which music’s dissident spirit Sirota explicitly aligns the band’s own) since Blind Lemon Jefferson asked why the lights went down round midnight in that Texas town (having heard about the chilling phenomenon, which he couldn’t of course see). The answer was the power drain. Sirota is a drummer who sees his role in the band as an expression of spirit(edness); his solo over interplay between the horns emphasises that however sensitively he can work within the band his role is not servile.
Bradfield opens on soprano in a tribute to Don Cherry, where the bassist’s contribution is most singular, especially working with Bishop through the latter’s trombone solo. This is a performance of shifting accents, for purposes not, it turns out, of disruption. The development of oblique economical phrasing suggests a powerful underlying tune, or maybe harmony. The drummer makes a very active contribution to the guitar solo, and in the two-horn ensemble of the ride-out, which suggests something Caribbean-African, the ensemble sound deepened by the burry edge to Bishop’s tone.
“Axé” is, it seems, the Yoruba term for spiritual power. The theme is post-bop and reminiscent of Bobby Watson’s lighter-voiced tunes. Bradfield works well over a rhythm in which the guitarist is prominent, and seems to shape the succeeding performance by realising the composition’s potential for a sequence of climaxes. It’s very much contained tension, with the suggestion that quite obviously the prodigious Bishop might at any moment produce a wild outburst. There is none, and non-violently things do turn out well.
“Pablo” confirms the band’s preference for strong rhythmic patterns and the creation of melodic lines over them, here first by the guitarist and then Bishop’s trombone. Bishop sounds like some later big-band trombonists playing on complex harmonies over something like the Toshiko big band. This emphasises the fullness of rhythmic and harmonic foundation from the guitar, bass, and drums rhythm section. There is something of the little big band to this group, perhaps what only the really moral minority can generate. Presumably they can go on a lot longer when appropriate in a live setting.
This is a band that goes straight in and gets on with it, with no undeserved respect for ignorant public opinion about music. There’s more here than rumour might have it, just as there’s rather more to human and political life than press-generated caricatures allow. This is the most unfanatical music. It’s not addressed to a mass audience, but nothing is being taken out of the music (as the great Chicagoan Johnny Griffin complained of some earlier associations of political challenge with jazz).
The proprietor of Delmark, Bob Koester, was damn near attacked by one reviewer of another of his recent titles on the ground that, though the music was very distinguished, the reviewer couldn’t work out quite who would buy the recording. The guy needs asking how far such a question reflects opinions or assumptions tolerant of mob values, and their manipulation and the abdication of personal judgment.
The audience problem is like the bank problem: simply one of not going bust. Delmark and Koester have done many things, but they haven’t gone bust (I am delighted to say). Do you ask who’s interested in the truth before you volunteer it?
Making music like this isn’t presenting any anodyne, or exhibition: it’s a challenge of a different sort, from questions of handling difficulty and complexity of a narrowly technical order. Well done this band, and well done, too, Bob Koester. I gather his major regret concerns things he knew about but had no means of doing anything about, and which no longer exist to have anything done about them or for them and what they represent. Another properly discerning individual, of whom there are never too many.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/sirotated-breeding/