[5 December 2007]
“One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.”
—Amiri Baraka, Liner Notes to John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland, 1964
Significant changes have occurred in the world of black music since Amiri Baraka penned liner notes for John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland, but the artistic beauty and transcendent impulses he found not only in Trane’s music but throughout African American culture remains very much a part of our musical landscape. Today’s voices of transcendence range from the revolutionary soul singer Meshell Ndegeocello to spoken word artist Saul Williams to jazzman Terence Blanchard, whose musical requiem on Hurricane Katrina revealed not only the complex souls of America’s disadvantaged but also their staggering humanity.
If we the people who are darker than blue had to compile a musical soundtrack to reflect the complex ways we’ve confronted our political, social, and existential woes during President Bush’s regime, recent releases from the aforementioned artists would definitely be considered for inclusion. So would much of the music found on Rahsaan Patterson’s latest release, Wines and Spirits.
Freely incorporating the sounds of funk, rock, soul, gospel, and jazz, Wines and Spirits showcases Patterson’s broad musical interests, his affecting lyricism, and his uncanny ability to deliver universal messages of uplift based on the chaos and joys of his own experiences. Starting on a funky note, the album opens with “Cloud 9”, “Delirium (Comes and Goes)”, and “Feels Good”. Endowed with an unerring ear for strong melodies, Patterson laces the disc’s first three songs with catchy hooks and simmering grooves.
Far too often, this aspect of Patterson’s gift has been overshadowed by effusive praise of his vocal prowess. Listen closely to Wines and Spirits and you’ll discover compositions which would sustain our attention even if Patterson lacked the ability to elasticize melody as effortlessly as his mentor Chaka Khan, soar to vocal heights as smoothly as Sarah Vaughan, and communicate the blues with the poignancy of Billie.
Coming ten years after Patterson’s debut release, Wines and Spirit gives us a sense of the musician’s growth at the artistic and personal level. Intensely emotional but never overwrought, Patterson tackles the complex subjects of paranoia (“Pitch Black”), spiritual rejuvenation, and the desire for deliverance (“Water”) with candor and abiding passion. Very much like gifted musicians in the world of jazz, Patterson understands the ways in which emotions and moods can be communicated without the spoken word. For example, on the hypnotic “Water” the singer leans as much on the sonic textures of progressive rock as his nimble voice to convey feelings of despair and his urge for transcendence.
Logic dictates that most urges for transcendence involve a return to one’s beginnings. Not surprising given the intensely personal nature of his album, Patterson embarks on a journey to his Harlem beginnings on “Oh Lord, Take Me Back.” Showing his Pentecostal chops and roots, he situates himself among other black cultural artists (James Baldwin’s meditations on Harlem in “Sonny’s Blues” immediately comes mind) who’ve waxed eloquently on the Negro metropolis. Something is intensely meaningful and universal in Patterson’s “Oh Lord” and his evocations of his hometown, Harlem.
Ever since the 1920s, Harlem has held symbolic significance for African Americans, especially those whose lives had been circumscribed by the legal and extralegal injustices of the Jim Crow South. More than a geographical space, Harlem symbolized personal and existential freedom for not only cultural workers and artists, but also for ordinary black people who desired nothing more than the ability to maximize their full potential as human beings. Perhaps to a degree unintended by the artist, “Oh Lord” connects Patterson and his listeners with earlier generations who hummed Louis Armstrong’s “Drop Me Off in Harlem” or tapped their feet to Bill Withers’ righteous ode to the diverse enclave, which has and continues to draw all kind of folks from Africa’s Diaspora.
Listening to “Oh Lord” and other songs from Patterson’s latest release compelled me to reflect not only on the singer’s career, but also on the general state of black music. Count me among the optimistic few resistant to the idea that African American music has lost its soul. Scattered throughout the world of gospel, jazz, hip-hop, rhythm and blues, and rock are courageous artists willing to not only rage against the machine of corporate greed and political repression, but to also speak honestly and openly about the fragility and resiliency of the human spirit. If the mediocre music flooding the airwaves of urban radio has tested your faith in the possibility of artistic beauty and transcendence in our time, please give Rahsaan Patterson’s Wines and Spirits a listen.