Whether consciously or not, artists cannot help but be influenced by the world in which they live. Only a rare few, however, can channel such thoughts and feelings about the situation they (and, by extension, society) find themselves in into powerful and emotionally affecting art. Alabaster DePlume is one such artist.
A key figure in the UK’s now globally recognized jazz scene and a mainstay of the creative hub Total Refreshment Centre, Alabaster DePlume is a unique performer, musician, and bandleader. His live performances can be both artful and arresting, advocating for care and change as much as thrilling with often wildly inventive improvisational music.
On record, DePlume can be far more contemplative and considered, as on his landmark 2020 LP, For Cy and Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1. My copy came with a handwritten note with kind words of encouragement and perseverance. This detail should not just speak to the kind of person Gus (aka Alabaster DePlume) is but also perhaps an indication of the music’s intended use: to calm, lift, and maybe even heal.
Come With Fierce Grace continues this legacy of generous, meaningful music for a chaotic and contested present. Despite being a product of sessions and ideas developed for DePlume’s previous full-length Gold, Come With Fierce Grace does not feel like an odd collection of jams or unreleased tracks. DePlume delivers an uplifting yet thoroughly cohesive project that feels, above all else, ecstatically alive.
“I have all I need for the glory of being,” DePlume intones, mantra-like on “What Can It Take”, a worthwhile reminder and mission statement for the record proper. DePlume’s music is informed by collaboration with other artists and conversations with his audience. The LP title is a note from an anonymous contributor following DePlume’s open call for advice on how to approach live performances. So when DePlume speaks in concert and, in this case, on the record, it matters – not only as a vocalist playing an instrument but as someone talking to you, the listener.
The songs on Come With Fierce Grace feel like an invitation into this creative and communal dialogue. The opening track, “Sibomandi”, with its syncopated rhythms and sweet vocals from Falle Nioke, perfectly starts an album that, to use an old cliche in music writing, takes its listener on a journey. “What Can It Take” continues this mood, building tension through drums and repeated saxophone stabs from DePlume.
“To That Voice and Say” and “Greek Honey Slick” are perhaps the most upbeat tracks, featuring frantic interplay between saxophone and percussion. Recalling spiritual jazz, albeit with modern updates, the former is a loose and improvisational work of call-and-response horn and drum. The latter is perhaps the heaviest the album gets, its potent rhythm section boasting a head-nodding beat from Sons of Kemet alum Tom Skinner as well as a meaty bassline, all powering DePlume’s urgent and ear-catching saxophone lines forward.
From this point, Come With Fierce Grace really comes into its own, with tracks that are less uptempo but even more touching. “Give Me Away” and “Fall on Flowers” flow into each other, first with lightly-picked strings and gentle hums, then through a more somber and stirring piece, the occasional cymbal crash against a collection of sounds and DePlume’s fluttering saxophone.
The highlight, “Did You Know”, is a hauntingly beautiful song, elevated by Momoko Gill’s vocals. A calming and giving track, the understated instrumentation works well against Gill’s tender and soulful performance that, from sound and content, often borders on the profound. “I try until it hurts me sometimes, and I dream for just about anyone and all of us.”
Come With Fierce Grace is a work of space and texture that allows DePlume and his collaborators to explore sounds in a way that feels both liberated and focused. It’s not loud or brash and doesn’t feature virtuosic experimentation. It’s altogether more interested in mood and emotion. “Levels of Human” is an excellent demonstration of this approach to music-making, as well as “Not Even Sobbing” or the meditative “The Best Thing in the World”. “Naked Like Water” is a slight but pleasing change of pace, with its foreboding guitar work and eerie vocal calls feeling like a soundtrack to a Western, recalling cinematic imagery of a horse ride through the desert by night.
“Broken Again” is a fine end to the album, bringing together its musical and lyrical themes through a steady rise of instruments and DePlume’s incomparable vocals. At first, the idea of being broken is presented as a negative, as we often understand it, only for DePlume to consider brokenness as something more human, more beautiful, and potentially radical and unifying. “Broken once and for all, and every time, broken well, broken kind, like a kindness tries to break a crime like a freedom is a broken line […] broke like the money, broken just like everybody, asking one another, for the way.”
Come With Fierce Grace is perhaps Alabaster DePlume’s best work to date. It arrives at a difficult time in human history and speaks to that suffering and disconnect in a thoughtful and emotionally poignant way. It is a must for jazz fans and anyone with an appreciation for rich and reflective creative art.