Space, Wind: The Aural Pathways to Today’s Jazz Scene

Ways of being together, thinking together, moving along a particular path emerge in ways that are discernible to locale. And where specific locations matter, so do the foundational traditions that travel beyond, and are larger than those locations. Music exists at the nexus of place and tradition. When we listen to the genre misnamed “jazz,” we hear echoes of deep African traditions, signifying on the meaning of the human condition. We hear what that life is and what we would like it to be. It is not always easy listening.

In a world that is now shrouded in neoliberal values that individualize life and make it a marketable commodity, we need to remember another kind of life, another way of living. Jazz, then, is radical possibility realized – through sound.

Shaped by and Shaping Our Pathways 

It is a sound that lives in particular locations and beyond them. Los Angeles, California, is a site for this “rememory” and has been for some time. Not merely a revival or renaissance, LA’s jazz resurgence is another moment in the cycle, one that can be connected to the genealogies of sound produced in the work of Chico Hamilton, Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Billy Higgins, and others. L.A. was home to the very specific moment known as “the cool,” and bebop could be heard at places like the It Club, where Thelonious Monk recorded a classic live double-album in 1964. These influences went farther than that.

We should also remember the sounds of the Black church, of Azusa Street, which eventually ended up in Mingus’s compositions as an entryway back to improvisation. These influences do not alone get us all the way to the core of what might be heard from the musicians bred in these environs today. For that, we might have to understand the more direct influences of hip hop, funk, disco and soul, and how they were connected to a cultural tradition that emerged in continuity with the activist aftermath of the Watts uprising.

We know how it re-sounded in the films of the L.A. Rebellion. But there is a sound that also found itself connected to the musical tradition best exemplified in Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Arkestra, founded in 1962, three years before Watts. It emanated from spaces like Leimert Park, which during the era of Black Power had provided an aural route to those seeking to reaffirm their African cultural foundations. This music became a pathway to that place and space. It is the sound we hear echoed in perhaps the most well-known of the current roster of L.A. artists, the saxophonist, Kamasi Washington.

There are numerous profiles of what Washington’s emergence means for both L.A. and the jazz world writ large. It seems, however, most important to talk about his work in terms of its connections to a collective pursuit of an artistic and intellectual space that honors the deep ancestral past and that looks forward to a new future for humanity. This includes elders like the singers Dwight Trible, Patrice Quinn and reedist Rickey Washington, a music teacher and Kamasi’s father. If we take these three masters as a representative example, we find how grounded they are to Black musical traditions that lie within and beyond jazz as a genre.

The scene of the 80s, with its electric, funk, and rhythm and blues inflections could be thought to serve as the connection to sounds of L.A.-past from which Washington’s group The West Coast Get Down is oriented. Many observers have asserted that it is the group, not merely Washington as an individual artist, which is at the core of this revival. And while it may appear that their emergence has been recent, there is a long trajectory that goes back to the early 2000s. Nothing just emerges.

The West Coast Get Down’s early records were recorded in members’ homes and sold underground during this period, representing a tactic that speaks to their relationship to hip hop. Made up of keys players – Brandon Coleman and Cameron Graves, trombonist Ryan Porter, the bassist Miles Mosley, drummers Ronald Bruner, Jr. and Tony Austin – it was their longtime residency at The Piano Bar that inserted them into L.A.’s long history of jazz.

More recently, the collective has served as Washington’s backing band for his international tours after the release of his much-heralded The Epic (2015). At a recent concert at D.C.’s Lincoln Theater, Washington called them a group of “space cadets,” referring to the spaciness, the spaced-outness that guides the basis of “where the music comes from.”

What Grounds Our Humanity

There is much that can be said and has been about Washington’s style. But the title of his most recent release, Heaven and Earth (2018), perhaps sums up his sound perfectly. It reaches for the thing that grounds us as humans and simultaneously affirms that humanity is connected, and must remain so, to something much larger than that which we can understand. We can be attuned to those things without needing to know them with precision, without needing to understand them in their fullness.

In the just-released film, As Told to G/D Thyself – co-directed by Washington and a who’s who of Black filmmakers and visual artists known as Umma Chroma (Bradford Young, Jenn Nkiru, Terence Nance and Marc Thomas) – there is a further depiction of the motifs of space and transcendence, material grounding and surrealism, which ends with an invocation of the Divine to show us the way, made possible by an elder performing a ritual in a clearing in the woods (perhaps a nod to Toni Morrison’s Beloved).

On both full-length records, Washington’s soloing on the tenor saxophone often reaches those heights but stops just short of a kind of perfection that is now often expected of jazz improvisation. Indeed, Mosley remembers that although they had all been well-trained in L.A.’s jazz institutions, the group formed a bond in their search for space outside of the jazz curriculum, in their sessions in The Shack, a space they created for themselves – a shed.

While the records are rightly well-regarded masterpieces and important exemplars of the eminence possible through resolving questions of production value and mastering, one has to witness these moments live to truly understand what they mean. Space is reimagined and repurposed. Solos often percolate for seven minutes or longer. It requires patience, trust, openness. It is an arresting. And is not supper club music. We might ask what work is being done in that space. Is it as simple as the attempt to reach a sort of mastery that can be rendered as scientific, or is there something more profound at play?

With his 2017 EP, Harmony of Difference, Washington conceived five different melodies over the course of the project and arranged them to occur simultaneously in the same space, on the final track entitled, “Truth.” Perhaps there is no better definition of Truth, no better example of what we might all share as realized through these harmonies of difference.

The West Coast Get Down members have also branched out to produce their own records, each with a discernible theme around the larger idea of freedom. Brandon Coleman’s 2018 offering, entitled Resistance, recalls the electric sound of an earlier era and features Coleman’s vocals. Similarly, Miles Mosley’s 2017 record, Uprising carries a similar style reflecting the broad array of acts that the bassist has been associated with overtime. Ryan Porter’s The Optimist (2017) makes interventions and explorations in the spirit of much of what happens in the group’s work with Washington.

Purists, of course, would find little of this to fit into their paradigm, and perhaps that is the point. Much like the early critiques of Washington, amid attempts to brand his work as “saving jazz,” purists miss the point of this music almost entirely. The goal is the recreation of space, for movement, for imagination.

Connecting Past to Present – and Beyond

Washington is connected to the music of the past, but that has not stopped him from influencing the music of the present. It was not a traditional jazz label, but Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder, through which Washington chose to release his music. Though a relative of the great Alice Coltrane, Flying Lotus’s music producer, has explored spaces and areas that are outside of the radar of Downbeat magazine. Washington appeared on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, introducing him to a cast of listeners who, otherwise, may not have encountered his work.

But this was not simply “crossover” work. The beauty of that record was that it achieved a seamlessness between Black musical forms sought to be disparate. It featured other “jazz” stalwarts like keyboardist Robert Glasper and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire with music legends Ronald Isley and George Clinton. Laying down some of the work on the drums was Washington collaborator, Ronald Bruner, Jr., whose 2017 work Triumph continued the explorations of musical forms that sound very L.A., but reach for space that is familiar to us who are connected to this long tradition but listen from other locales. Released by Kevin Moo’s World Galaxy records, the project is grounded in sounds related to funk and hip hop before ending with a roll call that acknowledges how deep his L.A. music roots go with a track entitled “Chick’s Web.”

Bruner, Jr., represents that depth as does his family, which includes the bassist Thundercat (who also appears on To Pimp a Butterfly and in Washington’s work), and Jameel Bruner, a keyboardist formerly associated with The Internet. Ronald Bruner, Sr., their father, was a well-regarded drummer who played with everyone from the Temptations to Gary Bartz before starting his own disco-funk band.

Representing this eclectic mix, the Bruner boys have played across the often false distinctions of genre. They have collaborated with such diverse acts as punk group, Suicidal Tendencies; rapper Vic Mensa; postbop alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett; and singer Erykah Badu. Thundercat’s work, in particular, his The Golden Age of the Apocalypse (2011) and Drunk (2016), are touchstones for the bassist who utilizes a lyrical touch, which along with his solid vocals speaks to a range of ironies, much in the vein of a Clinton.

Thundercat’s sound demonstrates that fusion means more than the simple mixture of styles. His is an intense investment in what each of those sounds represents on their own terms and the desire to create something unfamiliar out of those bases. Los Angeles is the setting for both the kinds of sounds that animate Thundercat, as well as the more expressly straight-ahead vibes that might come from the most important venue, The Bluewhale, but neither location nor setting, is reducible to that limited framework. Those musical expressions we limit to genre are all available for us to think with and feel.

A Merging

Much of the credit for Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, however, must go to the multi-instrumentalist, Terrace Martin who convened the numerous musicians that provided the sound from which Lamar leaped into our consciousness. Trained in all of the junior jazz circuits in L.A. and the surrounding region, Martin, however, cut his teeth as the musical director for Snoop Dogg.

Reflected in his sound is the influence that early 1990s era of West Coast hip hop as well as the ethereal sounds of Patrice Rushen and the affect of George Duke. Of late, Martin has been producing Herbie Hancock’s latest album and touring with Robert Glasper’s latest group, R+R=Now, which features him convening space with Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Derrick Hodge and others.

Martin’s music is a gathering, a kickback, a hang, the soundtrack to being together – Marvin Gaye’s “You Got To Give it Up,” the family reunion scene in Poetic Justice. His earliest work as leader appeared in the early 2000s in the forms of EPs and mixtapes, but his recent works, 3rdChordFold (2013), Velvet Portraits (2016) and Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1 (2017), are his most coherent messages. None of them missed.

It is this sound that marks so much of what we might call “L.A. Sound,” if we were to offer such a label. That familiar rhythm, we first heard from hip hop producer Dr. Dre, coupled with the deft sounds of Martin on saxophone, vocoder and Rhodes piano is precisely what we envision when we think of South Central and all of the Blackness that it represents. As we remember the life and legacy of Nipsey Hussle in the wake of his tragic and untimely death, it is necessary to understand these connections to musical cultures that are so much more profound than the label “jazz” was ever meant to contain. With Martin’s forthcoming release, Drones, we can expect to ride along with him, too, into space.

Crossing Boundaries

Given the central importance of Joe Harriott to the development of the music in London, one might be tempted to generate a narrative of its evolution there through the saxophone. Wind instrumentation has been a feature of the latest iteration of young musicians and their influences, of course, include Harriott, but are not limited to free jazz improvisation. In fact, there are in certain corners and attempt to abandon the avant-garde in favor of a more rhythmic sound. What we might consider in this return to a percussive moment in London is how it maps to the various human challenges that the music seeks to understand and narrate.

This moment in London and more broadly the United Kingdom occurs against a backdrop of a nativist, anti-immigrant environment best exemplified by Brexit, but part of a longer trajectory that can be traced to the 1950s. The Windrush generation’s entrance into the country set in motion the deep-seated animus which attaches to whiteness the assertion of superiority, itself a feature of colonialism. But it also set in motion a vibrant Black radicalism that asserted itself in the political sphere through the politics of Black Power and the cultural sphere through the creation of Carnival and the embrace of diasporic musical forms. The sounds of lover’s rock and ska are all rooted in this embrace as much as the contemporary sounds emanating from the likes of singers Lianne La Havas, Jorja Smith, Michael Kiwanuka and many others.

There are still others who have found the wind instruments to be the vehicles for this assertion. And a strong assertion it has been. We might begin the conversation with Shabaka Hutchings. Born in London in 1984, he moved to Barbados, before settling in London as a teenager and becoming classically trained on the clarinet and saxophone. His work has since sought to capture the sound, energy and intensity of the Carnival experiences he encountered in his younger years. It captures the rhythms, and there is a deep percussive element that actually drives what the wind instruments attempt. It is not as much space here as it is repetition that moves through this sound.

Hutchings has translated that momentum into work with three bands, Sons of Kemet, Shabaka the Ancestors and The Comet is Coming. With Sons of Kemet, Hutchings has convened a quartet that features him on saxophone and clarinet with Theon Cross on tuba and two drummers, roles that have been played by Eddie Hick, Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner. Driven by the drummers, Hutchings can be heard on their three studio albums crafting improvisations that are grounded in motifs that evoke rhythms found throughout the African diaspora. In many cases, his horns dance to the foundation laid down by Cross in conversation with Hick and Skinner.

Their first two albums, Burn (2013) and Lest We Forget What We Came Here to Do (2015), were released by Naim, and their most recent, Your Queen is a Reptile (2018), was released by Impulse. An homage to a number of African women, Your Queen is a Reptile introduced the group to wider audiences throughout the world, with its signature inflection of the drum as heartbeat, as an offering in and of movement. Hutchings’s naming of the group seeks a connection to classical African civilizations and further demonstrates the need to place that rhythmic insistence in a wider cultural context. And one does so with ancestors.

The group Shabaka and the Ancestors is a more traditional setting in more ways than one. Their 2016 record, Wisdom of Elders, included Hutchings on tenor and a number of South African musicians in an octet. Featuring Mthunzi Mvubu (alto sax), Mandla Mlangeni (trumpet), Siyabonga Mthembu (vocals), Nduduzo Makhathini (Rhodes, piano), Ariel Zamonsky (bass), Gontse Makhene (percussion) and Tumi Mogorosi (drums), it was recorded in Johannesburg. The fusion of styles, nothing more than ancestral communication, generated a pulsating energy as well as moments that appeared more mellow and solemn, even prefatory, for a different kind of message. It was the result of Hutchings’s immersion in a new locale, a new space, but one that could only be described as connections with elders – familiar ones.

As one-third of The Comet is Coming, Hutchings has connected the cosmogony of African deep thought to a consideration of the universe amidst and with other traditions. With keyboardists, Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallett, they released Channel the Spirits in 2016 and have followed this record up with Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery released earlier this year. The group’s manifesto states quite emphatically that underneath the work lies the need to utilize music to destroy illusions and manifest new realities. The electronica and funk sounds are able vehicles, but together with Hutchings other projects that are grounded in African historical and spiritual realities, we may yet see more profound emergences of the kinds of realities that might start our worlds anew.

The Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven’s well-received Universal Beings (2018), features four bands and was recorded in four cities. Hutchings’s tenor saxophone appears, however, on the Chicago date. Carrying the London session was another tenor, that of Nubya Garcia. Also of Caribbean heritage, Garcia employs a different style than Hutchings, but to no lesser effect. On her first EP, Nubya’s 5ive (2017), we hear compositions that explore dimensions of jazz improvisation in ways that embrace the history of the instrument. Her work on the McCoy Tyner original “Contemplation” and original compositions like “Hold” demonstrate a holding on to that tradition.

Despite that Garcia, is her own player, finding a voice within the tradition and not against it. They are boundaries that work well for her, for they are erected not as limits, but for generating possibilities. In 2018, Garcia released When We Are, a shorter foray into composition that also featured remixes of the two works featured, which also demonstrated a willingness to delve into production. While she has not released a full-length record yet, Garcia has been present at a number of international tours and has commanded well-deserved attention and accolades in an environment where saxophonists like James Brandon Lewis have carved out areas for what some might call exploration, but what might be called more simply, a radical remaking of the instrument.

The Afrobeat incursions of Ezra Collective are also worth a listen as are many others that appeared on Hutchings’s compilation, We Out Here (2018) for Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label. Though not featured on this project, one of the bright spots for the scene is the keyboardist, Alfa Mist. A self-described producer, his sound seems to be permanently stuck under a groove. Utilizing both piano and electronic keyboards, Mist was grounded in the vernaculars of hip hop before examining the worlds of jazz. We hear that specific convergence in works like Nocturne, an EP he released in 2015 and in Antiphon (2017), which like Nubya Garcia’s first project, was released by Jazz Re:Freshed.

In both settings, Mist invites us to vibe, to settle into a space that is not so much energetic, but not quite easy listening either. Supported by the bassist and vocalist, Kaya Thomas-Dyke, this project is demanding in a way that does not force itself upon us. It does not grab us; it catches us instead. There is something about that process in tunes like “Keep On” and “Breathe” that allows us in gently, and never lets us go. Much of his other work involves vocalists and rappers and evokes comparisons to Robert Glasper and his Black Radio albums, which in the United States were categorized as R&B. Coming to many people’s attention with his “Love is the Message” with Yussef Dayes, his newest album, Structuralism, released in April 2019, feels like a continuation of this groove.

Music Creates Home

What is it about place that makes us create meaning out of where we are? The desire to be grounded in something, to be something other than stateless and without home is perhaps a beginning answer to a difficult question. Music creates home. One thing that we might appreciate from the sounds coming from jazz artists in Los Angeles and London, and in other places like Houston, Oakland and the fresh insights that are still coming from old stalwarts like Johannesburg, New Orleans and Havana is that whatever home is remains an invitation and not a boundary. It remains available to those who would listen, who would believe, who would imagine. And for those who would desire that home also mean a different world. A space to believe in the meaning that the wind brings.

Josh Myers teaches Africana Studies at Howard University. He is the editor of A Gathering Together and sits on the editorial board of The Compass: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations. His research interests include Black intellectual traditions and critical university studies. He blogs at http://speaktomekhet.wordpress.com. He can be reached on Twitter @ddehewty or via email at joshfmyers@gmail.com. His first book, We Are Worth Fighting For: A History of the Howard University Student Protest of 1989 will be released in 2019.

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