Menagerie is a great name for a musical project. And though you can credit Lance Ferguson of the Bamboos for setting the parameters for They Shall Inherit, the creature that made this album is still tethered to Ferguson by a pretty long leash. He wrote all of the songs and took the trouble to coral all of the available talent into one building but Menagerie goes where it wants to. It’s the child that strays from the parent to poke sticks in the creek, climb trees and do a vibraphone solo. Okay, so that last one doesn’t fit with my other analogies. But I swear, Roy Ayers made me do it.
As far as jazz bands go, Menagerie can walk a pretty straight line through the crossroads of smooth, contemporary big band, bop and spoken word with no discernible difficulty. When the title track cracks open, echos of Sun Ra and John Coltrane will bounce in your ears while a most subtle “they shall inherit” is chanted in unison by a male and a female voice. It’s not really supreme love, more like a buzzkill that makes me want to stand behind Paul Westerberg’s refusal; “we don’t want it!” Seriously, who wants to inherit the Earth? Everyone inherits the Earth with the knowledge that they won’t have to deal with any distant future problems when they’re dead and gone.
“The Quietening” is another mellow-harsher. Vocalist Fallon Williams delivers many fire and brimstone sermon stanzas in an angry spoken word performance. “I tried to quiet my mind!” he starts out each time. But every time he tries, he’s interrupted…by something terrible: abuse of nature, the passive condoning of greedy corporations and children inheriting a bad situation. There it is again, the party-pooping reminder that our kids are going to get the short end of the stick. They Shall Inherit never stops reminding you, from the cover art (five young kids watch two other ones play with toy rifles) to the song titles, supposedly named after Lance Ferguson’s children.
It would be easy to ding Menagerie down a few notches if the music wasn’t so good. “The Chosen” can groove hard, something that might have turned about if George Clinton would have taken mood stabilizers instead of acid. The floating flute and anchoring piano of “Jamahlia” can take you back to the post-bop landscape in no time, an era when you would have been going through boxes of tapes for an alternate soundtrack to Peanuts TV specials. “Leroy and the Lion” may play second fiddle to the title track in terms of being the album’s core, but the writing partnership of Lance Ferguson and vibraphonist Roy Ayers is a convincing stride in the right direction. I must give props to the percussion section in Menagerie. Too often we shy away from listening to a good conga performance—one that doesn’t prolong a tedious jam but one that really drives the ship and breaks through the waves.
In an era where we think we’ve heard it all, music writers sometimes find fault with a recording simply because it doesn’t bring anything “new” to the table. “New” is a relative word and sticking to a rule such as this can be stifling. But where do you draw the line between “this is derivative” and “this is enjoyable”? I have a suggestion: right here. Sure, They Shall Inherit has a thousand voices of the past blending into one vehicle. But isn’t this a Menagerie? And isn’t life too short?
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