“Liberty” by Art Ensemble Syd with Michael Gregory Jackson
Embla Music & Experience (EME) 1302
I’m always interested in hearing music that reminds me that we are all somehow “Children of Ornette Coleman.” What I mean is musicians who may reflect differing aesthetic sensibilities yet share a common principle: multiple events can take place at the same time–not necessarily linked through shared harmony or pulse. In this musical world, players can share musical space, finding a way to conceptually if not literally remain “in tune.” From this perspective the idea of playing in unison might be taken non-literally, allowing each musician to start on a different pitch, each one expressing her or his individuality yet doing so in service of the collective. This is the democratic impulse of playing together as a group yet never sacrificing one’s unique voice.
As a general principle, I don’t write reviews of recordings. I think of myself as a musician who is interested in exploring the musical history of my colleagues. But when I received a writer’s copy of Michael Gregory Jackson’s new CD “Liberty,” performed by Jackson and Art Ensemble Syd, I thought that I might make an exception to honor such fine work that is indeed a “child of Ornette.” “Liberty” is alternately delightful and somber, sometimes displaying both qualities at the same time. The music is deeply touching and even heart breaking. It defies category (yay!). Michael Gregory Jackson’s aesthetic brings together such an eclectic array of styles and approaches that it is hard to imagine anyone not finding something here to love. And I cannot stop listening to this recording. It is that good.
The recording opens with the infectious energy of an anthem “Liberty part one.” As the tune unfolds, four band members simultaneously play interwoven solos, all sharing the same musical space. Guitarist Michael Gregory Jackson, saxophonist Simon Spang-Hanssen, and violinist Heine Steensen, and flutist Thorstein Quebec Hemmet deliver what might be thought of as one part New Orleans early jazz, another part Ornette Coleman “harmolodic” synchronicity, and a third part jam band party. This collective solo section gives way to a slow, dreamy violin solo, with the initial up-tempo pulse never departing from the background. The pulse gradually moves back up front, ultimately awaiting the return the original theme.
“Liberty part 2” presents the counter theme, a calm refrain played in unison by the horn players, backed by Jackson, who plays a series of arpeggiated chords, each note spaced broadly apart. (Think, maybe, of John McLaughlin’s comping on the early Mahavishnu Orchestra recordings). The pulse from “Liberty part one” continues–and after the opening “part 2” melody repeats–is ready and waiting to support Jackson’s fluid, angular guitar solo. The counter theme repeatedly returns as a refrain, ultimately bringing the tune to a close.
“Gimbals” begins with a sparse electric guitar and bass duet (Niels Praestholm on bass), each of the duet partners filling in holes left by the other. Occasionally the two come together. Soon, Jackson and Praestholm are joined by drummer Matias Wolf Andreasen. The music begins to cook when the horn players jump in (and when I say “horns,” I’m generally including the violin), each playing variants of two-note figures. These all coalesce to craft a closing melody built upon and linking these tiny phrases.
“Undercurrents (a requiem for the victims of Hurricane Katrina)” is a somber ballad introduced by a violin solo. It is accompanied by repeated two-chord guitar gestures. A delicate melody follows, juxtaposed with light drumming, suggesting martial music. This is capped with a refrain, a winding, chromatic melody played in unison by the horns. The somber tone continues through Spang-Hanssen’s saxophone solo and then Jackson’s guitar solo, each spiced with hints of a more aggressive feel, rhythmically pressing against the beat. Each solo ends with the refrain, ultimately returning the melody. The juxtaposition of moods: somber and maybe pastoral and more rapid and forward pushing is unsettling. Surely this is the point.
The next two tracks offer a change of pace from what has preceded. “Citi” is a sparse, abstract sound collage. It suggests a very minimalistic collective improvisation, which heats up rhythmically towards the conclusion. “Down” is a beautiful ballad, sung by Jackson. It begins with the words: “I’ve come to a place, where my hope is wearing thin, Where within my strength is crumbling, where I’m falling down again, I’m here in this place, all choices seem the same, Where my heart knows only pain, where I’m crying, in the rain, Washes over me, in a violent, tangled, swirling sea, I’m lost, Shadow in the mist, no will to resist, Down and down and down I fall, down.” The musical setting of the lyrics heightens the sense of loss and desperation.
“Clarity 4” seems as connected to the opening four tunes as it serves as a coda to “Down.” The angular stop-start melody has a somber feel and is played in unison. The melody is followed by overlapping, fragmentary duets, with ever-changing partners. Increasingly, larger numbers of voices are heard in the mix. After a while, the playing becomes more abstract yet is held together by a shared container. Tension periodically builds, each time ultimately collapsing into quiet unison or silence. The opening melody returns to close out the tune.
In contrast, “8-33” begins with a simple melody played in unison, so slow and fragile that it can barely be sustained. After a while, the melody is joined by a dramatically contrasting staccato guitar figure, suggestive of a detective thriller. Soon, the drums share the energy of the guitar and the horns show fractures in the unity of the melody. The texture breaks apart with a brief, rapid saxophone solo. Then, the horns take on some of the energy and pulse of the guitar, only to return to their previous slow pace. The opening melody returns, no less fragile than when we first heard it.
The set concludes with another ballad for solo acoustic guitar, “For My Mother.” This melody is ornamented with virtuosic solo runs and figures. They add depth without getting in the way of the elegance of the melody. This is a beautiful conclusion to a deeply affecting, often heart breaking and beautiful musical journey.
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