By Phillip Woolever for All About Jazz
As evidenced here, those in attendance for Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s 2020 engagement at New York’s Blue Note from March 11-15 witnessed what turned out to be some of the most powerful performances of this restricted musical year, just before everyday life changed for most people on the planet. The record is dedicated to the victims of Covid-19.
This exceptional concert compilation could well be the first of “jazz’s” present-day, classic live albums released during the pandemic era (genre is in parentheses respecting Adjuah’s stated reluctance regarding potentially disingenuous categorizations). A few brief, between-song musings serve as milepost statements of the bandleader’s mindset as this millennium’s unusual third decade unfolded, but there is no political clutter.
Though many of the songs have previously appeared in somewhat similar forms, the sound is fresh, the musicianship fantastic, and the production basically flawless. Sporadic segments throughout evoke a later stage Miles Davis, like a yesternow Bitches Brew (Columbia Records, 1970) by Tutu (Warner Brothers, 1986) at the Fillmore.
The set opens with “I Own the Night,” a rousing new number with stirring percussion that continues the African-based rhythmic focus explored on Ancestral Recall (Ropeadope Records, 2019), which was released about a year before these concert pieces took place. Each band member also appeared on that album, with the exception of special guest saxophonist Alex Han; thus the cohesive interplay is always optimal. Flutist Elena Pinderhughes earns supporting MVP honors through numerous inspired solos.
“The Last Chieftain” is another percussive tour de force, with the first of some wonderful extended segments between drummer Corey Fonville and pianist Lawrence Fields. Pinderhughes smooths out the middle sections and leads the crew into another feast on the skins that wraps things up with emphasis on traditions like the djembe and bata. Since he’s also credited with percussion work, one can assume that besides his mastery of horns, Adjuah’s prowess with the drums grows with each release.
“Sunrise in Bejing” from 2015’s Stretch Music (Ropeadope Records, 2015) builds with wonderfully shadowed phrases between wind instruments that float like early dawn over lightning flashes of percussion. Bassist Kris Funn makes the most of every fill he touches.
Pinderhughes has become a more widely recognized creative force on the musical forefront while building a substantial body of work with Scott’s formations, and she steps to the front again on “Diaspora,” the title tune of the 2017 Adjuah Ropeadope Records release.
Another new song, “Huntress,” consists of a gentler melody than most cuts over steadily mixed undertone beats. Pinderhughes’ flute floats in a higher register above cascading cymbals that build speed and intensity on increasing layers of percussion until winding back to the original pace for a similarly restrained run on what sounds like a reverse flugelhorn. Whatever the instrument, Adjuah puts plenty of emotion into it. Written as a tribute to his mother, it’s a very touching piece, especially considering this is one of, if not the first, times it was played in public.
The regal “Incarnation” is one of the set’s most brass-based selections and sounds like it got one of the biggest audience reactions. The song features yet further layers of percussion and another sweet, trio-type break by flute, drums and keys that further illuminates the individual powerhouses Adjuah had on stage with him. The album has been released in multiple formats. This review is based on the edition that includes alternate versions of “The Last Chieftain” and “Guinnevere,” each enhanced by Han’s scorching sax.
Absent from the CD is the stirring “West of the West,” a quarter-hour of funked-up fury based on a racist neighbor Adjuah encountered at his home in Los Angeles, featuring further Han fireworks and some of Fonville’s supremely strongest smacks. With the intense foundational interplay between the keys and percussion instruments, the track rocks less but is just as explosive as the guitar-heavy original. Considering the current social state of domestic affairs at the time of recording, the piece constitutes a tumultuous time capsule for the United States circa 2020. It’s a shame the song isn’t on every edition.
“What you’re going to experience is the re-evaluation,” Scott informed the audience, “We have just crossed into the second century of creative improvised music, or otherwise if you prefer belittling and pejorative terms, jazz. We’re re-evaluating what we’re playing and why. We want everybody to know that they are free, that they are safe if they want to express themselves; as long as they don’t sneeze while doing it, then everyone will be on the same page. We’re not runnin,’ but wash your damn hands.”
Following a stated goal to de-colonize musical sectors Adjuah, a descendant Chief in the prominent New Orleans “masking” culture, succeeds magnificently at clearly defining his vision of rhythm and tone. With this album, he further proves himself true royalty for the future society of sounds.