When Eastern Algonquin powwow group Eastern Medicine Singers joined New York-based guitarist Yonatan Gat onstage at SXSW 2017, it quickly became apparent that this was a collaboration capable of more than just a single jam. This was the start of the Medicine Singers, an experimental project bringing together the Eastern Medicine Singers, Gat, and a number of key figures in New York’s free jazz, ambient, and no-wave scenes, including Laraaji, DNA’s Ikue Mori, Swans’ Thor Harris, Christopher Pravdica, and Jaimie Branch, who tragically passed away suddenly this past August. This year’s release of Medicine Singers is a breathtaking record of just some of the group’s remarkable work. This inspired and evocative sonic construction puts an array of styles, traditions, and histories in thoughtful dialogue with one another.
Each of the tracks on Medicine Singers is a microcosm in and of itself, interweaving genre-crossing sounds of past and present to build a complex sense of place. Central to most tracks are the Eastern Medicine Singers’ drums and vocals, centers of gravity whose patterns create a solid core around which other musicians move in improvisatory orbit. Each contribution is equally important to the overall assemblage: the whole and the parts are all meaningful.
This principle manifests differently throughout. Early on, “Hawk Song” opens with vigorous call-and-response vocals led by the Singers’ Raymond Two Hawks Watson; these are quickly buoyed with atmospheric synth layers and Gat’s wailing guitar. Later, “Sunrise (Rumble)” adorns a foundation of powwow drums and song with the main line of Shawnee guitarist Link Wray’s iconic “Rumble” in a moment of unequivocal rock and roll. “Shapeshifter” is perhaps the most unpredictable part of the album, a post-punk collage of spoken word, song, drums, brass, bass, percussion, and synths that offers a cathartic release before dramatic “Sunset”, on which Branch’s melancholy trumpet winds and flows around Red Medicine’s plaintive vocals and the combined electronic prowess of Mori, Poliça’s Ryan Olson, and Adi Gelbart.
While these tracks exemplify the range of Medicine Singers’ heterogeneity, they are hardly the limits. Ian Wapichana’s celestial falsetto on framing the songs “A Cry” and “Reprise of a Cry” alongside Gat’s and Branch’s gentlest arpeggi gives the record its most meditative moments. “Daybreak” resonates with a sense of bluesy urgency. “Sanctuary” is heavy with drones and keys, “My Brother” is almost effervescent with staccato movement, and “Shootingstar Press”, is a cool and barebones interlude. In short, though Medicine Singers has internal integrity, it never bows to generic convention, making it a consistently exhilarating album.
In drawing together seemingly disparate backgrounds, the members of Medicine Singers find common ground on their self-titled debut. Each performer’s strength comes from the community they find in working together and adapting their artistry to serve their collective effort better. Ultimately, Medicine Singers is premised on that willingness to work together and create dynamically more than anything else. It’s an uncommonly seamless album clearly put together with care and consideration. It’s an utterly cutting-edge and contemporary treatment of traditions often relegated to the distant past but with powerful meaning today.