It was bad enough that 2020 brought with it the scourge of a pandemic of proportions not seen in a hundred years. But add to that the ugliness of racial tensions and xenophobia and one would be hard pressed to grapple with the idea of much good coming from such adversity. Michigan educator and saxophonist Jordan VanHemert found himself at the mercy of endless lockdowns and the need for new ways to communicate with others much like everyone in the entertainment industry. Yet, he used the time to write and record his new release, I Am Not a Virus, a manifesto that speaks to his social consciousness.
A music professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, VanHemert helms a group of top-notch colleagues. Furthermore, his original compositions were captured on tape at the state-of-the-art recording studio found inside the confines of the college's recently constructed music building. Although the album's title is a heady condemnation of the xenophobic violence all too prevalent at the moment, VanHemert's music is far from preachy or even angry. Instead, its reflective nature seams to speak in healing and optimistic terms.
VanHemert offers a guiding light in "The Path Ahead," a floating structure that settles in with a commanding piano statement from Lisa Sung. It's open and hypnotic format recalls similar forays by the late Kenny Wheeler. As a coy finish, a bass vamp allows drummer Andy Wheelock to spin his own tale before the reprise of the opening melody. Equally beguiling is the waltz tempo of "Autumn Song," which finds VanHemert's tenor at the forefront. Refreshingly free of clichés, Jordan's tone is firm and flexible and his lines resolve in creative, yet logical ways.
An insistent two-beat feel propels "I Am Not a Virus" while serving as a metaphor for the need of vigilance in confronting racism. Trumpeter Rob Smith's clarion call carries the piece's first several minutes, his burnished tone not unlike that of Kenny Dorham's. VanHemert and Sung then pick up the torch with their own singular statements. It should also be mentioned how in tune VanHemert and Smith are both literally and figuratively as a front line. This is especially evident on the thorny "Justice for the Unarmed (Black Lives Matter)," a hard bop corker that also gives us a closer listen to the buoyant talents of bassist Kazuki Takemura.
On the back quarter of the album, VanHemert becomes more reflective. Both "The Moment" and "Sea of Tranquility" are soft spoken vehicles for his tenor, aided and abetted by a rhythm section that is not afraid to step out of the shadows, while still being supportive. The closing "Arirang" is an Americanization of what is inherently a Korean melody. The final strains more closely recall the original and speak to VanHemert's feeling of being a Korean American and a deep emotion of longing. It is a beautiful moment that again speaks volumes and hints at VanHemert's desire for better days ahead.
The Path Ahead; Autumn Song; I Am Not A Virus; Justice for the Unarmed
(Black Lives Matter); The Moment; Sea of Tranquility; Arirang Interlude; Arirang.
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