The last track on Ethnic Stew and Brew closes with a rapid burst of staccato notes played simultaneously by trumpet,drum and bass. I haven’t counted them but suspect that there are 41 in all. The silence that follows is disturbing, as indeed it should be—for the tune in question is entitled “Amadou Diallo” and the notes represent the bullets poured into the body of an unarmed man by the New York police force. It is a terrifying climax to one of the most impressive non-vocal protest records since the days of Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song”. It is sufficient reason for giving The Pyramid Trio a hearing and more than sufficient answer to those that argue that modern jazz has little to say to the contemporary world.
Powerful as that finale is, it is only one among many reasons for taking time to seek out the album. Ethnic Stew and Brew is chock full of equally memorable moments—thankfully most are rather less harrowing. All of them reveal an intelligent musical partnership in full creative flight. Roy Campbell is in particularly commanding form and the other members of the trio, bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake, make perfect allies in this exciting and well realised project. With its blend of world music, New York experimentalism and dazzling virtuosity it is no surprise to find the record already on a lot of critics’ 10 best of the year list.
Even without the inherent strength of the music, there would be some very compelling arguments for taking notice of this New York based trumpeter. For a start, he does not sound in the least indebted to Miles Davis. Now, I have nothing against Miles Davis but have had enough of hearing his sound copied and generally done to death by younger players. Campbell draws on other inspirations, reminding us in the process what a wealth of trumpet prowess modern jazz has to offer if we can get past the fixation with Miles. It is a distinctive and self-sufficient style but if you want to find ancestors you can trace a lineage back through Kenny Dorham to Fats Navarro with a healthy dose of Lee Morgan thrown in. All of which means he has fluidity and a fire that the Davis school usually lacks. Add a deep involvement in the avant-garde—Campbell is a key figure in many projects including one remarkable creature—an Albert Ayler tribute band. As a final touch he was taught arrangement by Yusef Lateef, a pioneer in the use of African and Asian elements in jazz. The end product is a player with much flair and a fondness for global rhythms, who approaches his material with intensity and passion.
Each track illustrates this perfectly, as well as showing a compositional depth that really clinches the deal. Take “Tazz’s Dilemma” which opens with a “Caravan” style melodic line, a clever nod to the original fusion anthem. That line switches to a hard bop riff-chorus, then launches into a furious solo—Navarro meets Don Cherry. A series of leaps and swoops take the breath away (the listener’s not Campbell’s) before a graceful return to the main theme restores order. Then there is “Malcolm, Martin and Mandela” which builds on a solid, swagger of a groove—genuinely funky—over which the limits of the horn’s expressive range are tested out. Passages of great poise and dignity are followed by frantic flurries of notes without losing any sense of logic or coherence. This is purposeful improvisation of the first order.
The title is no vain boast either. African and far Eastern flavours infuse “Imhotep”, “Impressions of Yokohama” and “Heavenly Ascending”. The non-western influences are not decorative trickery but part of a genuine attempt to produce an enriched musical vocabulary. The title track itself has a strong West Indian flavour and echoes of Tommy McCook or the other great session men of ska and rocksteady spring to mind. “Impressions” and “Heavenly Ascending” show that slower, more contemplative pieces are equally suited to Campbell’s vision and his work on the latter is probably the album’s highpoint purely at the level of execution.
Although Campbell is the principal soloist mention must be made of the other members of the trio. William Parker has played with Campbell for over 20 years and to him falls the main task of maintaining a steady swing. This he does with some panache—his repeated figure on “Amadou Diallo” will stay with you for days. His own solo work—whether bowed or plucked—shows great sensitivity. The trio setting throws a great burden on the bass and Parker carries it with ease. Percussionist Drake has been compared to Elvin Jones in his presence and power. He is perhaps less explosive than Jones but if the comparison was meant to indicate that he is the current leader in the field I would not argue with it. Fans of meaningful rather than simply bravura jazz drumming will enjoy this set just for his contribution.
“World Music” is an awkward term and often a misleading one. It is simpler to say that this is a jazz trio that refuses to recognises geographical boundaries. Campbell, like so many major New York artists, has a West Indian background, so there is a thematic concern with migration as well as a formal interest in hybridity throughout the set. This gives “Amadou Diallo” a particular weight. It evokes the city, uses varied tonal devices to conjure up the experience of the immigrant within that space and is driven along, by that insistent bass-line, to its tragic conclusion.
I actually think Ethnic Stew belongs in a category rarely applied to music. This, my friends, is Post-Colonial Jazz. It has all the elements that are usually associated with that term and perhaps it is time to stop just using literary texts when examining that phenomenon. This is as intertextual, boundary-crossing and diasporic as anyone could ask. If that sounds a little pretentious, I am sorry but this does strike me as a significant album. It is also some of the best jazz around, so don’t worry. The culinary imagery of the title with its undercurrent of politics and strife cleverly captures the essential features—a potent mixture but with a hint of danger as well. Just what our jaded palates need.
// Notes from the Road
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