Bill Cole's Untempered Ensemble: 11/20/99
11/20/99 sounds strange. The music utilizes influences from not only the jazz tradition but also from the music of Africa, the Middle East, and Oceania to tell at least part of the story of the African American experience. Bill Cole and his Untempered Ensemble never resolve this incongruity but they dont really need to. The music speaks for itself with its wonderful and hopeful tones that outbursts of violence and moments of uncertainty occasionally break through.
11/20/99 is a two disc set of music that Cole and his associates recorded in Greenfield, Massachusetts this past November 20. "Struggles of Fanny Lou Hammer" opens the date and is a tribute to its namesake, the great civil rights leader who is perhaps best known for leading the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party in 1964 as it challenged the claim of the all white official Missisippi delegation to represent the states Democratic party. It begins slowly with Cole playing various instruments. Before long a few of the other musicians join in with Cooper-Moores flute work being particularly outstanding. After a little over 14 minutes, bassist William Parker and drummer Warren Smith create a perfect segue for the introduction of Sam Furnaces saxophone which burns quite hot and furiously without losing sight of melody. Then, just before the track has hit the 19 minute mark, all of the players fade out save for Smith who delivers a just over two minute solo that closes the track and utilizes a wide range of sounds and emotions.
Next up is "The Short Life of Amadou Diallo." Diallo was of course an immigrant from Guinea whose life ended in early February of last year after being shot 19 times by four New York City police officers. This tragic outcome proved once again that, in the words of an equally powerful if slightly better known song about Diallos death, "You can get killed just for living in your American skin." The sadness, rage, and pain that you would expect from a song with this topic are all here. Early on in the track, the ensemble yells out "youre dead" before unleashing a torrent of dissonance. There is so much going on here from all of the players that any attempt to give a "play by play" will fall short but the collective product is something to behold and is perhaps as powerful as even Billie Holidays "Strange Fruit." It would be enough for this track to end after that but Cole and company avoid that route and end on a much more hopeful note. After strong solo from Parker and Cooper-Moore on the hoe-handle harp, a gentle swinging melody featuring Cole on the flute, Joe Daley on the Tube, Parker, and Smith takes hold and offers listeners a sense that life is not bound to be full of pain. That for all the problems of the world, there is also far too much joy to give up and pack it in.
The second disc features the lengthy composition "Freedom 1863: A Fable." Broken up into 12 tracks and totaling the better part of 49 minutes, this recording tells the history of African Americans since 1863s Emancipation Proclamation. It includes tributes to such giants Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. At times it is unclear how exactly the music relates to the biography of each individual linear notes with such explanations would have been welcome addition- but this is a minor problem as the music is great on its own. The musicians perform together in various combinations and providemany magnificent moments.
Listeners will find it hard not to be awestruck by how the players move around each other with great ease on 11/20/99. Listen closely to the music but dont listen for any musician in particular and you will are likely to hear just the sum total, not the individual pieces. This outstanding quality is only strengthened by how wonderfully the group walks the line between improvisation and composition. There is undoubtedly structure here but it is not restrictive so much as it allows for the greatest individual freedom for great accomplishment. It is only by working together that these players achieve the greatness that they do and that is a lesson which, like 11/20/99 as a whole, is politically astute and musically brilliant.
Track Listing: [Disc 1] Struggles of Fanny Lou Hamer; The Short Life of Amadou Diallo; [Disc 2] Freedom 1863: A Fable Introduction; Sojourner Truth; Harriet Tubman; Fredrick Douglas; W.E.B. Dubois; Marcus Garvey; Interlude; Medgar Evers; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rosa Parks; Barbara Jordan; Malcom X El Hajj Malik El Shabazz.
Personnel: Bill Cole - digeridoo, sona, Tibetan trumpet, hojok, shenai, nagaswarm, bamboo flute; Cooper-Moore - flute, mouth bow, horizontal hoe-handle, harp, rim drums, three-stringed fretless banjo; Sam Furnace - alto saxophone, flute; Joseph Daley - tuba, baritone horn; William Parker - acoustic bass; Warren Smith - trap drum set, gongs, marimba, Dunno drum, rain sticks; Atticus Cole - congas, bongos, timbales, rain sticks.