It's no mean feat for a creative artist to translate historical eventsmuch less those marred by centuries of slavery, political struggles, foreign occupation (most notably by the US) and the endless oppression of a chronically poor underclass wracked by diseaseinto a cogent, coherent musical statement. Recent events on the island nation of Haiti have included a devastating earthquake and an ensuing cholera epidemic. Yet the nation and its people persevere. How does all of this translate into music?
With Authority Melts From Me
, pianist Bobby Avey
, armed with a sense of inter-cultural understanding that may actually be more keen than his mind-boggling musical skills, has forged a defining statement; one that captures many aspects of the life and times of the Haitian people past and present. He and his musical compatriots tell these stories unflichingly; without resorting to cliché or grandstanding. The history of Haiti, like Avey's music, is rife with visceral raw emotion and life-and-death struggles. It's as if the dark complexity, urgency and breakneck pace of Authority Melts From Me
comes directly from Avey's sense of the plight, and the fight, of a nation and its people.
Precipitated by an encounter with Haitian immigrant laborers during a visit to the Dominican Republic in 2009, Avey embarked on several years worth of intense study of the music and history of Haiti, capped by an extended visit to the country in 2012. This may have seemed like a career detour for Avey, the winner of the Thelonious Monk
piano competition in 2011, but the results presented on Authority Melts From Me
indicate otherwise. Compositionally, Authority Melts From Me
is a suite based on rhythmic concepts adapted from Avey's transcriptions of Vodou ceremonial rhythms as played by two Haitain drumming ensembles: the Societe Absolument Guini (Port au Prince), and the drummers of Soukri, a small town near Gonaȉves. In his liner notes, Avey points out that each social group within the Vodou tradition has developed and preserved its own distinct rhythms for centuries. Thus, the local music is a rich and varied patchwork; no two communities play the same rhythms. This sort of in-depth, scholarly study has resulted in some truly mind-blowing music that bares little resemblance to the Haitian dance music one might come across in the World Music section of your local music store or online outlet.
From opening minutes of "Kalfou," Avey's iconoclastic music challenges the listener, as much as it obliterates nearly every Caribbean music stereotype one might cling to. A valid point of reference for Avey's music is Steve Coleman
's work in Cuba with the drum ensemble Afrocuba de Matanzas. This resemblance is more than superficial, as Coleman has a very heavy reputation for extensive, in-depth study of indigenous music and culture.
Rhythmically, Avey's music is incredibly dense and intricate. Lightning-quick drummer Jordan Perlson
uses an extended percussion set up, augmenting the traditional jazz drumkit with a variety of bells, tambourines, rattles, muffled toms and woodblocks, to inhabit Avey's vivid polyrhythms. Throughout the album's three extended pieces, "Kalfou," "Louverture," and "Cost," Perlson is literally doing the work of three or four drummers. Frankly, this is one of the year's most phenomenal individual performances on any
instrument. Yet, a closer listen reveals that Perlson, Avey and bassist Thomson Kneeland
each carry different rhythmic elements throughout each piece, creating a dense, interlocking and harmonically-rich underpinning for the melodic and improvisational statements of Avey, guitarist Ben Monder
and saxophonist Miguel Zenon
. Monder, as usual, is a riveting presence whose solos seem completely unhinged yet totally plugged in to the musical surroundings. He gets right into a malevolent, metallic space on "Kalfou," but also provides atmospheric, near-ambient soundscapes on "Louverture," and uses a fingerpicked acoustic to give greater timbral variety to "Cost."
Zenon seems to be a somewhat more detached presence, though no less vital. His cool, singing lines literally float above all the turmoil. He's the primary voice on "Louverture," a brooding piece that, for the most part, takes a step back from the turbulent cross-rhythms of "Kalfou." Zenon uses space and long tones to launch an extended solo that lifts and curls upwards on a bebop-inspired trajectory as it builds dramatically over Perlson's seething rhythms, and he returns with some muscular, post-Ayler squalls just before the piece gives way to Perlson's astounding drum solo. Avey features his trio during the first half of "Cost," and plays a lovely, rippling solo over rhythms that seem to simultaneously flow and hiccup. A brief duet with Monder (still on acoustic) is followed by a brilliant, blues-steeped solo from Zenon. The closing section of this piece dissects Avey's basic rhythmic concepts; Kneeland's pliable, resonant bass acting as a large drum, rhythmically opposing Perlson's snare and hi-hat as Avey's piano meshes in with yet another contrasting rhythmic / harmonic layer. Finally, Zenon and Monder play an intertwining line, almost a canon, that sounds like some sort of alien Morse code. Authority Melts From Me
is a brilliant and bracing contemporary work that demands repeated listening. As demanding and dense as the music can be, Avey directly engages the listener on an emotional level as well. The entire experience can be exhausting, draining even, but it's well worth the time and effort invested.
Bobby Avey: piano; Miguel Zenon: alto saxophone; Ben Monder: guitar; Thomson Kneeland: bass; Jordan Perlson: drums.