Political conscience occupies a special place in the quintessence of modern jazz, fueling, in its most heated moments, the stuff of blunt insurrection. It remains to be seen whether Political Blues, the most recent offering by the World Saxophone Quartet, occupies the same territory as those few moments of musical activism that have not only informed but also crucially affected the practice of revolutionMax Roach's Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1960) is one, Charlie Haden's first Liberation Music Orchestra (Impulse!, 1969) is another. Regardless, the WSQ is no quiet voice, and Political Blues is no failing salvo. This is the fierce, hard spirit of jazz, a volley at the heart of dire times that tugs at the bare, black and blue roots of the music.
Bare is the operational word here. There are seldom records like this onefor better or worse, perhaps, but few so plain and downright angry. The WSQ discography is renowned for its idiosyncrasies, and the group here assembled is hardly the crowd to stay pegged in place. Here, amidst the melee, are the three surviving members of the original WSQ, perhaps the only group to fully apprehend the dimensions of the all-saxophone format and never, together or alone, withering violets. But there's also something different. It took the combined forces of racism, political conservatism, war, economic downturn, and unprecedented economic disaster to turn the joie de vivre of the WSQ sound into something altogether more menacing and, at times, shockingly unchecked.
This is not the kind of finely hewn, delicately crafted album that the WSQ is known for, although the arrangements are certainly together and the playing as potent as ever. This is a full-group recording, the classic, multi-tiered saxophone voicings occupying a subsidiary role among the measured fury of the ensembles. Rough backbeats and spindly, vertiginous bass lines are interspersed with declamations of frustration, raging at life, America, and, at the root, the somber fecklessness of revolt.
This revolt, though, is somewhat vaguer than one might imagine. Far more than the decisively incendiary lyrics, it is the sheer plangency of the horns, groping at registers, notes, and expressions out of reachindeed, a freedom beyond the scope of the compositionsthat creates the more effective moments. There is exhaustion here, tempered only by a total reluctance to surrender. Even without the abstraction, this is "fire music in full effect: Black, American and pissed.
Many musicians have tried, but few have achieved so devastating and honest a picture of the American struggle in the 21st Century. If it is not the most artful statement of political conscience that modern jazz can deliver, than Political Blues is at least a study in how the jazz musician can feeland, if not escape "the blues," then at least fight from within.
Personnel: Bluiett: baritone saxophone; Oliver Lake: alto and soprano saxophone (vocals on 11); David
Murray: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet (vocals on 1); Jamaaladeen Tacuma: electric bass;
Bruce Williams: alto and soprano saxophone (4, 11); Craig Harris: trombone, didjeridoo
(vocals on6); Lee Pearson: drums; James "Blood" Ulmer: guitar, vocals (3); Jeremy Pelt:
trumpet (1); Carolyn Amba Hawthorne: vocals (5); Jaleel Shaw: alto and soprano saxophone;
Herve Samb: guitar (1).