Maintaining Jazz’s Relevance: World Saxophone Quartet’s Political Blues and The Roy Hargrove Factor’s Distractions

By Daniel Garrett

World Saxophone Quartet
Political Blues
Producers: David Murray and Bluiett
Justin Time Records (Canada), 2006

Roy Hargrove/The RH Factor
Distractions
Producer: Roy Hargrove
Verve, 2006

Paradigm: illustration, model, pattern. Paradigms can illuminate and they can blind: they can give us patterns so strong that we do not see anything else. We become resigned to seeing dualities, conflicts: the individual versus the group, the group versus the government, reason versus emotion, self-confidence versus humility, humanism versus racial pride, masculinity versus sensitivity, civility versus self-expression, art versus reality, blatancy versus subtlety, morality versus self-gratification. I think of this now as we all have an idea of what jazz is, and musicians have been trying to perform jazz in a way that gives it contemporary relevance: Wynton Marsalis does that by emphasizing the appeal of swing and established repertoire, the World Saxophone Quartet does that by taking on social themes, and Roy Hargrove does that by incorporating soul and rap elements. The World Saxophone Quartet starts its collection Political Blues with a melody that manages to suggest tumult, a lyric that complains of hurricane Katrina, presidential election chicanery, bad foreign policy, adverse relationships with developing brown countries, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, homelessness, and media saturation, with little relief. The piece is, of course, called “Political Blues,” though the music is more expressive free jazz than blues in cadence, and the lyrics contain recognitions, not illuminations, nor strategies for survival or change.

“Hal’s Blues,” written by David Murray for Hal Singer, does have the long, melodious, sad lines I identify with the blues, while “Mannish Boy,” is a Muddy Waters blues, performed here with the help of James Blood Ulmer—it’s a bragging, indestructible song, with a blues beat that is a standard and guitar playing that recalls Jimi Hendrix. Oliver Lake’s “Let’s Have Some Fun,” a communal sound experiment, one of charm and force, even with squawking, wailing saxophone and percussion like muscular baby footsteps, is very appealing—one hears the participation of different individuals and also shifts in melody and rhythm and the song has a beautiful tone and gives pleasure.

Bluiett’s “Amazin’ Disgrace,” sung by a woman, Carolyn Amba Hawthorne, with even the instruments testifying (intensely, irritatingly), is a recounting of slavery and its aftermath, and it seeks, impossibly, to complain and to reassure at the same time—to wound and to heal—and one might call the song an anti-spiritual as it is about conflict and violation rather than divine revelation or serene contemplation of heaven or an affirming of the resources of community.

“Bluocracy,” in three parts, and also by Bluiett, is an important part of this collection and it presents a musical question and a philosophical problem. A speaker says, “A bluocracy is where we be, who we be,” and this composition is intended to draw attention to the importance of identity, innovation, and history, while offering a sniggering critique—it uses the term “minstrel”—of neo-traditional jazz, which many identify with Wynton Marsalis, and it suggests that neo-traditional jazz is intended to cater to the palest of people. That is paradigmatic thinking—assuming that what you do not like in a black man was put there by or for white people. I do not like that African-Americans who assert themselves as individuals and independent thinkers, those who offer artistic, philosophical, and social alternatives, are seen as puppets. Wynton Marsalis, an educator and a musician, is a figure of personal and cultural pride, and months ago announced his own forthcoming album of social commentary, not his first. Marsalis is not alone in not fitting paradigmatic simplifications. Unfortunately, the music that is offered in part one of “Bluocracy” is often a music of exclamations—of shrieks and yelps—and that does not speak to me: it does not offer me beauty, expression, or significance. Part two is softer, and part three is jauntier, with a kind of rumble, and that last piece sounds like two horns playing against each other, with a sense of emotion and extremity. Conflict is a fundamental part of the quartet’s vision. Is conflict what we want reproduced perpetually in the world?

One imagines that musicians would make greater allowance for harmony, though dissonance has shown itself prevalent in many forms of twentieth-century and twenty-first century modern music, from the classical to the popular. (I have admired the World Saxophone Quartet in the past—its Metamorphosis, featuring African drumming, has been on my night stand for easy access for years.) One can argue that the duty of artists is to raise questions—and to trouble the waters—instead of disseminating answers and inspiring calm but our days give us all the questions and trouble we could wish. The answers might be found in regard—open and critical—for tradition and innovation. Answers might be found in cosmopolitan education, political participation, and shared ideals, issues, and interests—the environment, economics, housing, and medical care. Answers might be found in art and philosophy, in democratic socialism and humanism.

“Blue Diamond,” composed by Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Lee Pearson and featured on Political Blues, has a contemporary sound, which is to say that it bears some relation to what is going on in other forms of music today (a long “today,” one that encompasses the last forty years): forms such as funk, soul, and instrumental popular music—and “Blue Diamond” would not be out of place on the RH Factor’s album Distractions produced by Roy Hargrove. One of the more entertaining pieces on Political Blues is Craig Harris’s “Harlem,” which inspires thought, and sketches with musical notes an atmosphere of Harlem that goes against stereotype: it sustains both logic and intensity without seeming sensational or superficial. The collection Political Blues ends with Oliver Lake’s “Spy on Me Blues,” with spoken lines that comment on the United States government’s treatment of hurricane Katrina victims, and the song has a melody that is more attractive than any dissonance, something that the inclusion of both charming melody and harsh dissonance in this and some of the quartet’s other songs proves beyond a doubt (to hear abrasive tones in song after song is like being involved in a family quarrel—only it is someone else’s quarrel and someone else’s family).

Roy Hargrove’s project the RH Factor and new recording Distractions raises interesting questions: how important is a community to an artist; and is using popular forms in what is now an art music an extension of the music or a compromise? These are not new questions, but they remain to inspire and torment us. From the first of several pieces labeled “Distractions” the intention of trumpeter Roy Hargrove, organist Bobby Sparks, guitarist Todd Parsnow and their colleagues, about eleven or twelve musicians in all—the intention to blend jazz and soul—is obvious; and that it is followed by a call to action, a call to purpose, “Crazy Race,” which features the jazz vocal of Renee Neufville, makes it as clear that Roy Hargrove intends to reach an audience and intends to communicate with that audience. “Kansas City Funk” is an uptempo piece, and at only two minutes and twenty-three seconds it is only a teaser. Renee Neufville’s song “On the One,” which she sings in a style that Mary Blige or Jill Scott might favor, with Hargrove on flugelhorn, David Newman on flute, and Keith Anderson on saxophone, is about nostalgia and reconciliation, and has feminine choruses and spirited claps and the song is very likable, without offering the complexity many go to jazz expecting to find.

Hargrove’s trumpet playing seems feather-light, intricate, and lively on “Family,” which Roy Hargrove co-wrote with Renee Neufville, and on which she sings—the piece seems designed for “smooth jazz” stations, those stations that seem to broadcast everything but jazz—old soul, soft rock, the Motown catalog, and British pop—and Hargrove’s playing saves “Family” from dismissal. Roy Hargrove’s talent is genuine and interesting. Does he require this context to reach a larger audience? The answer must be yes. “I’ll take you to a place I love. If I change my style, would you like it?” asks the Neufville-Hargrove song “A Place,” and as the song echoes Parliament-Funkadelic, I imagine the beloved place is 1970s Afro-America: the song sounds good, but it makes me sad for Roy Hargrove.

Does the past offer Roy Hargrove a way out of contemporary conundrums, any less than it offers transcendence to Wynton Marsalis? The artistic resources each has chosen is different, specific, and success must be weighed by evaluation of the art produced in relation to the expectations of the artist and his audience. Which works give the fullest expression to human being? Which works provide the most pleasure?

Lyrics ask why selfishness has been chosen over community in “Hold On,” asking, “What happened to my people?,” but the truth is that the people may have been ever thus: it is always a small group of people who consistently do anything in public, such as organize, protest, or perform good songs. The myth of a better day is a wonderful dream—and that is all it is, though it is a dream so powerful we can forget its rarity, its irreality. “I’m going to hold on tight to what I know,” the lyric says, but this rhetoric is not insight, and this affirmation is not truth—and good intentions are not the same as good character or good acts. Such commonplace affirmations as “Hold On” gives make a thinking person suspicious: why the lack of imagination, the lack of fresh perspective? There is worse: D’Angelo, who has done nothing interesting on his own recently as far as I know, gives Hargrove a song called “Bullshit”—yes, bull excrement—and D’Angelo’s spoken vulgarity and the song’s simple repetitive (and uninteresting) rhythm seems a desperate invocation of the earthy and the real, with only Hargrove’s horn arrangement worth attention.

“Can’t Stop” features Roy Hargrove’s own vocals—he’ll sing for his supper, even if not asked, I guess—and his voice sounds electronically treated to me, but the song has an appealingly clean sound—and one hesitates to call this bad music as skill has gone into it, but it seems to offer no great musical purpose and no great effect.

Which way jazz? Wynton Marsalis, a man who argues ideas, rather than pandering or slandering, has advocated music education for youth and greater media attention for public awareness in support of jazz, very intelligent promptings. Does anyone have to be told that the world in which we live, with the works of Marsalis, the World Saxophone Quartet, and Roy Hargrove, will be the foundation upon which the musicians, music lovers, and citizens of tomorrow will build their own world?

Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. A graduate of the New School for Social Research, and an organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today.

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