The name has obvious political resonance. Indeed, the raison d'être of the Black Art Jazz Collective, the sextet founded by Wayne Escoffery
, Jeremy Pelt
and Jonathon Blake in 2013, is to celebrate African American excellence on the one hand, andnot unrelatedto raise political consciousness on the other. The BAJC's debut album,Presented By The Side Door Jazz Club
(Sunnyside Records, 2016) paid homage to W. E. B. Dubois and Barack Obama, while recalling, too, the history of slavery. Ascension
plows a similar furrow, both musically and thematically, with the long shadow of Art Blakey
's Jazz Messengers ever present.
As is the nature of collectives, the BAJC's personnel has changed since its inception, with drummer Mark Whitfield Jr.
replacing Blake, Rashaan Carter
replacing Vicente Archer
on bass, and Victor Gould
taking over the piano stool of Xavier Davis
. Up front, trombonist James Burton III
forms a powerful trident with Escoffery and Pelt, and their harmonic and melodic lines forge sophisticated and uplifting intros and outros to the sextet's hard-bop format.
In between, the music follows a broadly unchanging pattern of solo relays, with no sparring or cut-and-thrust to enliven the tableau. Even Burton's "Tulsa," inspired by the horrifying Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, when as many as 300 black people were murdered by a rampaging white mob, follows the prevailing pattern, where instead some cacophony or dissonance might have served the spirit of the tune better. Ditto Escoffery's "Involuntary Servitude," which is neither blues lament nor particularly impassioned protestdespite Whitfield Jr.'s effortsagainst the unfulfilled promises of the American Constitution.
And this is where Ascension
, rather than soar, tends to plateau rather predictably. Although four of the sextet members share composing duties, the hard-bop blueprint of head-solo-solo-head reduces much of the music to a homogenous collective formula. The one occasion when the horns do threaten to unleash some serious jousting is in the fade-out to "Iron Man," while Pelt's impressionistic, miniature ballad "No Words Needed" and the smooth neo-soul of "For the Kids"featuring Gould on electric pianoare the only pieces to veer significantly from the hard-bop mould.
Within these stylistic limitations, however, there is some excellent playing, as you might reasonably expect from such top-notch musicians, with the bustling Whitfield Jr. in particular, impressive throughout. Recommended for straight-ahead aficionados.
Ascension; Mr. Willis; Involuntary Servitude; Twin Towers; No Words Needed; Tulsa; Iron Man;
For the Kids; Birdie’s Bounce.