The complex landscape of human emotions is still vastly uncharted, but every true work of art adds a little piece to the puzzle. This can be done in many ways, but it is rare that an album connects emotion with complex layers of memory, interpersonal relations, politics and societal structures. Nevertheless, this is what drummer and composer Jeremy Cunningham's album does.
In a statement, Cunningham explains the background: "I wrote The Weather Up There
to confront the loss of my brother Andrew to gun violence, who died in a home invasion robbery some 10 years ago. My brother was a kind soul, and I used those warm memories of him to illustrate his life as a counterpoint to the pieces that confront his tragic end. Recorded accounts from my family and friends appear throughout the album to show just how far the ripple effect of gun violence extends through a community."
The album begins with "Sleep" where Cunningham's mother is heard telling about a dream in which Andrew comes to say goodbye. The music is a celestial haze of electronics and soft brass voices that give way to a singing saxophone and buzzing cello and then the rhythm and melody emerge with contrapuntal lines. The beginning makes it clear that the record is just as much about warmth, hope and gratefulness as it is about sadness, despair and senselessness.
Grief is shown as a process that transcends simple categories and it's the same way about the music: it's both standing still and moving, bleak and full of light, a thread to the past and a link to the present, dreamy and relentlessly raw. It's also an important aspect of the work that the subjective point of view is transgressed as shown on the track "Elegy," a touching minimalistic tapestry of voices, tinkling bells, soft cymbal sounds and rising rhythms delving into the details of the case and the pain it caused for everyone involved. This collective loss is seen in the bigger political perspective of how gun violence can affect a society.
The different voices heard on the record emphasize a narrative that goes beyond a single person, but Cunningham's own voice can also be heard on "Return the Tides," a reflection on memory and loss and how to move on. Using a drowsy acoustic beat and Ben LaMar Gay
's soulful background vocals, the music reflects the state of being half-awake with Cunningham saying: "I'm sleepwalking while the whole world is on fire."
While Cunningham conveys the feeling of being isolated on "Return the Tides," he isn't. He is helped by a strong team of musicians, including co-producers, bassist Paul Bryan
and guitarist Jeff Parker
, and other Chicago luminaries like saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi
, cellist Tomeka Reid
and trumpeter Jaimie Branch
. They help create a dense musical painting that is far from the quick, numbing newsflashes of television and simplified headlines. This is a deep story of grief, protest and reconciliation told as a narrative that includes such an irresistibly funky tune as "Hike," with Parker spinning his signature lines on the guitar.
Taken out of context, "Hike" could sound like an instrumental hit on a compilation of the new Chicago sound, but here it becomes so much more: a bright, bouncy moment in a story that refuses to be one-sided. Instead, The Weather Up There
broadens the perspective of grief and invites the listener to meditate on the meaning of guns. Violence is essentially the end of language and communication. This record is the beginning of a complex conversation.
Sleep; 1985; All I Know; It's Nothing; The Breaks; Hike; Elegy; Return These Tides; The Weather Up There; He Pushes