Jazz Warriors: Afropeans
It is probably no coincidence that saxophonist Courtney Pine resurrected the name Jazz Warriors for the fifteen musicians assembled to perform Afropeans, a work commissioned by the Arts Council of England to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (though not slavery itself), and performed at the Barbican, London in July, 2007.
The intention of Pine's short-lived Jazz Warriors in the 1980s was to bring together black musicians young and old, and to celebrate their musicianship and collective talent. This, in the years after the disturbing inner city riots which highlighted the poverty, inequality and anger of black youth throughout Britain. The intention at the Barbican, if only for one night, may have been to reproclaim those original goals, to promote unity and respect, not only among black youth but among all the different peoples that make up Britain todayto fight not only racism and slavery in its modern forms, but to fight that most insidious of social ills, disunity too.
For this reason, the child's reading which opens the show of one of the most contentious pieces of American literature ever, is an interesting choice: "I greet you here on the bank of the James River, in the year of our Lord 1712," recites the girl in slightly mechanical voice, "I am here to help you solve some of your problems with slaves. I caught the whiff of a dead slave hanging."
The quotation is from a speech believed by some to have been given by a British plantation owner in the West Indies, a certain William Lynch. Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam quoted this speech in its entirety at the Million Man March in 1995, using it to underscore the cynical manipulation of blacks and the dangers to their progress of disunity and disaccord.
That the speech was probably never made in Virginia three centuries ago, and is likely a hoax first written and distributed on the internet in 1993, doesn't make the message of the speech any less powerful. Nor does it make the polemic surrounding it less thought-provoking. For those interested in reading the full text and learning something of the brouhaha which surrounds it, see the Freeman Insititute website.
The concert itself lasted three hours and so good is the music presented here that the immediate reaction is to wonder what happened to the two hours of music omitted from the disc. Pine assembles an excellent group of musicians, combining established names with up and coming young talent, much in the cross-generational spirit of the original Warriors. What unites them is the uniformly remarkable playing and a contagious enthusiasm.
All but two of the eight pieces are composed and arranged by Pine, and the energy of these compositions is undeniable. Pine stopped playing standards a long time ago, but he is infused with the spirit of those that paved the way. These tight, vibrant arrangements recall at various times the particular logic of Sun Ra, the elegant world-view of Duke Ellington, the swing and the intensity of Charles Mingus and the jazz-styled improvisations of Frank Zappa's groups. Such comparisons in no way flatter Pine.
"Black Flag" starts with the Caribbean sounds of the steel pan, and an upbeat samba rhythm, but the tune dissolves in a cacophony of sound, before re-emerging as a thumping, trombone-led ska riff. The tune is swallowed whole once again by the roar of the ensemble, and out of this comes the trumpet of Byron Wallen, first flatulent, then squealing like a stuck pig, before sliding into cool, modal jazz for a spell before finally disappearing into a Mingus-stew of sound. It's an ambitious piece which is almost a summary of Pine's eclectic career to date, and the musicians pull it off convincingly.
Impressive too, the interpretation of the traditional tune "Remercier les Travailleurs," arranged by pianist Alex Wilson. One of the best-known salsa pianists in Britain, Wilson spent part of his childhood in Sierra Leone, and he brings the flavour of Africa to the beginning of the piece.
Wilson succeeds in making his piano emulate a West African kora, all the while accompanied by the rhythm of gentle shakers and a quietly pulsing bass. It is a beautifully lyrical opening. His solo gathers momentum, the playing hinting in turn at European classical music, briefly, before developing a very Cuban-flavour as the runs become ever-more expansive and dynamic. Rising brass stirs up the finale and there is an exclamative finishing note from all, which proves in fact to be a false ending, as Wilson's piano returns momentarily, the swirling patterns he plays almost harp-like on this lovely coda.
Cuban violinist Omar Puente is responsible for "Apunta un Lapiz," which showcases the remarkable range of his instrument. In his hands, the violin truly speaks, and he reaches extraordinarily high notes. He is undoubtedly one of the world's premier violinists of this, or any other era. The soloing right across the board is top class; heady, personal and impassioned. Pine himself indulges in only one extended excursion, on bass clarinet.
The original Jazz Warriors were undone by disunity and disaccord within their ranks. Now that the Jazz Warriors has resurfaced, it would be a shame if nobody commissioned this orchestra of Britain's talent under Pine's tutelage on an annual basis. Out of Many, One People. Out of many, one voice; and what a colossal voice!
Tracks: Intro; Roots; Abolition Day; Remercier Les Travelleurs; Blak Flag; Apunta un Lapiz; Crossing the Sands; Civilisation; We are a Warrior.
Personnel: Courtney Pine: alto flute, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, shaker; Jason Yarde: soprano and baritone saxophone, wind shaker; Nathaniel Facey: alto saxophone, finger cymbal; Shabaka Hutchins: clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, finger cymbal; Byron Wallen: trumpet, flugelhorn, tambourine; Jay Phelps: trumpet, flugelhorn, shekere; Chris Storr: trumpet, flugelhorn, tambourine; Harry Brown: trombone; Alex Wilson: acoustic piano; Samuel Dubois: alto and bass steel pans, cabasa; Femi Temowo: electric and acoustic guitar; Ayanna Witter Johnson: cello, voice; Omar Puente: electric violin; Darren Taylor: double bass; Robert Fordjour: drums, Egyptian tabla.