New Music in an Anxious Time: Teis Semey, Peggy Lee and Philipp Gropper

New Music in an Anxious Time: Teis Semey, Peggy Lee and Philipp Gropper
Mark Werlin By

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Music can be a refuge, a way of escaping, if only briefly, the anxieties and harsh realities of life. It can also be a vehicle for resistance to oppressive social, political and economic conditions, a shared platform for channeling anger—and voicing hope—through the wordless medium of musical expression.
Historians of jazz identify the African-American civil rights struggle circa 1945-1965 as the locus for the most active involvement of jazz music in expressions of social and political protest. One of the earliest recorded instances of explicit political protest in jazz, "Strange Fruit," was refused by Decca, singer Billie Holiday's record label, for fear of reprisals from Southern radio stations and record stores. The independent Commodore label released the record in 1939; a searing indictment of lynching and a landmark political statement. Holiday paid a high price for performing "Strange Fruit" and for her refusal to conform to societal expectations of women entertainers: she was persecuted by U.S. narcotics enforcement agents to the point of being handcuffed to her hospital deathbed.

Billie Holiday's death in 1959, preceded by Lester Young (known by fellow musicians—if not by the wider jazz audience—to have been severely abused while serving in the Army), corresponds with the recording of Charles Mingus' masterpiece Mingus Ah Um. After Columbia Records executives declined to allow the lyrics of Mingus' attack on segregationist politicians, "Fables of Faubus," to appear in the recording, Mingus quit the label and recorded the original version for the independent Candid label, much as Billie Holiday had done, twenty years earlier.

Mingus, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte, among many other artists, participated in marches and rallies, benefit concerts and church meetings, to advance the cause of civil rights. Responding to the continuing crises in African-American communities during the late '60s and early '70s, Archie Shepp recorded Attica Blues, Gary Bartz and Nju Troop released Harlem Bush Music, a favorite of members of the Black Panther Party, and Mingus wrote "Remember Rockefeller at Attica," and kept "Fables of Faubus" in his performing repertoire.

The situation for European jazz musicians in some respects paralleled that of their American counterparts. The 1968 uprisings occurred in the midst of an upwelling of free jazz and collective improvisation under the rubric of Emanzipation, a conscious break from what was perceived to be the strictures of American jazz forms and practices. Free improvisation music is noncommercial, anti-hierarchical, and insofar as it operates outside the institutional walls of conservatory-based contemporary jazz, anti-establishment.

Today, music that calls out the legacy of oppression, neglect of cities, systemic violence and racism, spans the world from the post-colonial global south to the post-industrial global north. In an era of irreconcilable political polarization, growing economic inequality, environmental degradation, and social instability, the three albums reviewed in this article, composed by jazz artists working in the Netherlands, Canada and Germany, display a range of creative musical responses to times of crisis.

Teis Semey: Where the Fence Is the Highest (TRPTK)

Where the Fence Is the Highest, an ambitious work of new creative jazz, heralds the arrival of Teis Semey, a talented composer-guitarist. The Danish guitarist, a graduate of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam jazz performance program, has established a performing career in the Netherlands, earned praise from critics, and built a growing audience of enthusiastic fans. In his home country of Denmark as well as his current home in the Netherlands, there is deep resentment of immigrants and refugees, virtual walls between communities, and growing economic uncertainty, all of which are reflected in the title of the album, in texts threaded into the musical passages, and in Semey's own liner notes:

Everything is interconnected...as with the pending climate change disaster, the increasing global gap between rich and poor, and a growing sense of losing grasp on what it factual, it feels kind of doomy to live these days... a reminder to stay true and authentic in the art we make.

Where the Fence Is the Highest consists of two multi-part suites. "Japan Suite" opens with a wordless lament sung by singer Fuensanta Méndez Lecomte that sets the tone for the subsequent sections. Structured around the progress of the seasons, and inspired by the historical European encounter with Japan in the 19th century that was expressed as "Japonism" in the visual arts, the four sections evoke the changing moods of summer, fall, winter and spring, in subtle shadings of harmony and dynamics. In "Winter," pianist Xavi Torres builds a current of tension under vocalist Méndez's plaintive text recital. As Temey's guitar and Nicoló Ricci's tenor sax weave counter-lines against the piano, that musical tension—a kind of suspended motion—is dispelled when, in "Spring," the melody returns, just as the season of renewal returns the sun to an ice-bound landscape. The collective arising of the ensemble brings "Japan Suite" to a joyous conclusion.

In his guitar part writing, Semey integrates the instrument fully into the ensemble. As a soloist, he values tone production and coherence of melodic lines over flashy technical displays and virtuoso gestures. Soloing only briefly at the opening and closing of the "Japan Suite" opens more space for pianist Torres and saxophonist Ricci. Semey is an accomplished player, and his willingness to play inside, rather than over, the ensemble, affirms a musical maturity. There are echoes of guitar luminaries Jim Hall, John Abercrombie and Terje Rypdal in Semey's solos, and some similarity of intention to the Brad Shepik album Human Activity Suite on Songlines.

Semey traces his inspiration for the second suite, "Armed to the Teeth," to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and to his own observations of a world riven by cultural, political and economic divides. After an evocative prologue, Semey features his own soloing skills in "Palm," a slow elegiac waltz for guitar/bass/drums trio, with the alto saxophone and trumpet periodically commenting from the sidelines. "Knuckles" showcases drummer Sun-Mi Hong, whose subtle touch conducts the ensemble and underscores Alistair Payne's dark-hued, speech-inflected trumpet lines and Mo van der Does' probing saxophone improvisation. Proceeding without a break into the third part of the suite, "Fingers," Semey's compositional drive propels the players into higher emotional expression—this is not academic, cerebral writing, but felt experience translated into sound. The work comes to a close in the epilogue, again a feature for the guitar. Fleet lines cleanly articulated, modest use of effects, and subtle shadings of dynamics keep the work in sharp focus through to the ending.
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