Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Echoes in "blooming bloodfruit"

I encountered a piece of music last week that still resonates with and astounds me. On one level, it is an accomplished and startling expression of vision and elegiac rage. On another it is an artifact from an experience that I am not a part of and it has cast me into a reassessment of jazz and how I have selected and listened to it for over 30 years.

As someone who has not-necessarily-quietly worn the badge of my tastes as something that defines me, Ambrose Akinmusire's "a blooming bloodfruit in a hoodie," provides an assertive reminder of jazz's roots, eclecticism and its activism. As much as I might want to be defined by what I listen to, I realize that I am also defined by what I overlook.

The song -- and this is a case where 'song' risks falling short of capturing the breadth and scope of Akinmusire's palette -- begins with the restrained long tones of a classical string quartet and is complemented by the terse insights of a hop-hop artist. Thus opens a piece of remarkable musical, thematic and lyrical complexity that refuses to remain in the background.

When the rap begins, a hip-hop that echoes the lines that Billie Holiday delineated in "Strange Fruit." The simmering rage remains as does the reminder that for African-Americans only the landscape and the tree has changed with the passing of time. The pastoral scene of the American south is gone and it has been replaced by cellphone footage on the streets of the suburbs and urban core of this America that has become nastier and bleaker as its horizons have narrowed. The current tragedies blip and repeat as the data streams public at an unsteady rate and the institutional indifference toward the rights, dignity and innocence of adolescents like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and other young black men who have died at the hands of the police over the years.

Let's keep it simple -- what formed the African-American experience is still there and it is more visceral and present than we would collectively wish to admit. We know there is still racism, but those privileged enough not to experience it remain ignorant, and blissfully so. We might sense the need for advocacy, but not the urge to respond or become a staunch ally.

The racism that is central to the African American experience in an integral part of jazz lore and reality. Integrated bands were a novelty that met opposition. Cabaret cards were tokens of manipulation and control of African-American players, even in the liberal north. Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and other musicians who came of age during the 1940's and 1950's were haunted by the murder of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in 1955. John Coltrane's "Alabama" was prompted by Ku Klux Klan bombing in Birmingham that killed three teenaged girls. In "blooming bloodfruit" a malleted drum riff pays homage to Elvin Jones' drumming on "Alabama" and evokes an era that, actually, hasn't ended despite the civil rights accomplishment that can be cited over the last 50-60 years.

These struggles and experiences have deeply informed much of the jazz experience and its language. As much as I have listened to Hancock, Davis, Ellington and Coltrane, my tastes of lead me elsewhere over the years. The jazz I've listened to has been more meditative and sedate, steeped in the Great American Songbook, trio playing and lulled me into seeking out the distinctions in playing among different musicians. I've drifted off in the process.

A few months ago, I patted myself on the back for catching a fragment of Vince Guaraldi's "Lucy and Linus" in the middle of an interpretation of "Monk's Mood." Yes, my grasp of jazz was such that I could cite the hook from one of the most widely known soundtracks of childhood. I'd burrowed into a cave of my own tastes but, by chance, Ambrose Akinmusire's stellar work as a sideman prompted me to broaden my horizons to jazz's ambition and its roots.

Sequestered with my fondness for older generations of musicians who are still present, vibrant and posing no threat to settle for a routine in tuxedos that would never be threatened by the sweat of full on performance, I've found myself listening to music that has been familiar rather than challenging. Akinmusire's piece has given me a reminder to take full note of not only him, but of the likes of Kamasi Washington, Ben Williams and others who are of the generation of musicians younger than me. I've listened to "blooming bloodfruit" a dozen times now and I have ponied up for the album to tell myself at least, in this age of streaming, that this is a substantial piece of music worth the time, attention and the vote in dollars. I have a single that has challenged me to re-examine my listening habits and I anticipate an album that will do the same and consequently change my perspective on

I come away from the track with a humbling note to myself as I expand my horizons: "I know so little."