In the movie Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise hands over a copy of his risqué workplace mission statement to a scruffy copy shop employee played by Jerry Cantrell for late night printing and duplicating. Cantrell affirms the main character’s guts with just one line: “That’s how you become great, man. Hang your balls out there.”
It’s crass, but it captures my point about the band Harriet Tubman. Here are three guys that decided to name their group after a key abolitionist and Underground Railroad escort from the Civil War era and gave their album the same name as a John Coltrane record that’s considered more than just a little bold — it was a freaking rocket to the sun. Brandon Ross, Melvin Gibbs, and J.T. Lewis, who all were notable purveyors of weird and freaky jazz-rock hybrids before joining forces, understand and take advantage of the proportionate link between risk and quality. They are laying themselves on a train track here.
The good news is that the music coalesces perfectly. Even in the throes of elastic song forms being pushed and pulled by a highly creative improvisational style, Ascension doesn’t seem to waste a single note. Ross’s guitar owes much to blues-rock scales, and Lewis can drive one hell of a syncopated hi-hat. And wouldn’t you know it, nothing overstays its welcome. All of the elements fall together with an ease that almost betrays the music’s sense of adventure. But that’s the mark of great musicians. They sneak the Coltrane cover in question in and out at least four times in the album’s first half, but its aesthetic is a seamless match for their original material. The bad news? There is no bad news. This album is fantastic.
They didn’t get to this place on their own, though. Harriet Tubman wanted to double their size in a way that mirrored the doubled-up approach to Ornette Coleman’s crazy gauntlet from yesteryear, Free Jazz (remember the two basses soloing simultaneously?). Instead of having two of everything this time, Harriet Tubman took the path not traveled by recruiting DJ Logic and DJ Singe to spin their turntables, and living legend Ron Miles to play trumpet. This may sound like some chaotic kitchen-sink stuff, but it’s not. The samples and scratches from DJs Logic and Singe dovetail into Harriet Tubman’s overall sound shockingly well, never threatening to steal the spotlight. Even Ron Miles can’t bring himself to do that, understanding that it’s better to just immerse himself in the awesomeness that’s all around him. This isn’t an album that tries to throw crap into the kitchen sink, no. It’s music that throws the rules of jazz out the window.
Ascension is a John Coltrane album that people still discuss at length today. That comes as no surprise, because the album itself was such a surprise. The further we get from the ’60s, the less likely we are to come across genuine surprise. But I’ve always wondered what it was like to hear a future classic, to hear something brand new that will survive every test that time and fashion throws in its way. I’m going to hang it out there and say that Harriet Tubman’s Ascension is the new classic to behold, one that people will be talking about decades from now.