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Jamie Baum Septet+: What Times Are These

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Jamie Baum Septet+: What Times Are These
Reading Marge Piercy's poem "To Be of Use" (track two onWhat Times Are These), Jamie Baum could be speaking of herself, one of those "who jump into work head first without dallying in the shadows, who swim off with sure strokes," knowing that "the thing worth doing has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident." What Times Are These is a satisfying form of this sort.

Confined to her New York apartment during the Covid-19 lockdown, Baum responded by "diving head first into composing," as she put it. Inspired by Bill Moyers' Poet a Day web project, she set poems by contemporary women: Piercy, Tracy K. Smith, Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye and Adrienne Rich. To complement her instrumental ensemble, she engaged singers with distinctive voices and strong careers of their own: Kokayi, Sara Serpa, Theo Bleckmann and Aubrey Johnson.

Using vocal timbres and styles as compositional colors, Baum creates settings that bring out the individual voices of the poets. Serpa's otherworldly flutelike sound becomes the interior voice of Naomi Shihab Nye addressing her dear departed ancestor in "My Grandmother in the Stars." By contrast, Kokayi's brassy voice rings through in Clifton's "Sorrow Song," daring the listener to do something in the here and now.

"Sorrow Song" is the centerpiece, fixing on "the eyes of the children of Buchenwald, of Vietnam and Johannesburg..." with a relentless groove and voice-tinged horn lines that amplify the horrifying imagery, the "extraordinary evil in ordinary men." Kokayi's introductory rap is of his own creation, a perfect prelude full of nuance in rhyme and rhythm. His reading of Smith's poem is simple, powerful. Baum delivers her finest solo of the date, matching Kokayi's power with her own bottom-heavy electronically enhanced flute voice. The poem, its setting and the ensemble's performance of it, are stunning. (See the YouTube, bottom of this page.)

"An Old Story" is another jewel. Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson reads Smith's evocative poem with a calm gravitas, recounting a hellish scenario wherein "the worst in us" has "taken over and broken the rest utterly down." The story ends at a post-dystopian time when "animals long believed gone crept down from trees," and "we wept to be reminded of such color." The groove Baum creates contains a whiff of the complex meters she composed with on her previous Septet+ project, In This Life (Sunnyside, 2013), which was inspired by the work of Pakistani qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Here, though, the rhythm section is redolent of 1970s jazz fusion, with the South Asian influence felt but not heard. Johnson's clarion soprano restates Smith's text, emphasizing the impact of the emotionally charged scene. In her unadorned bullseye delivery, the disjunct and rangy line functions as a highlighter, the horns' piquant close harmony in rhythmic unison further accentuating the effect.

Baum's presence on her instrument is potent but circumscribed. She takes few solos, elsewhere letting the instrument be part of the ensemble's fabric, placing her virtuoso bandmates in the foreground. With What Times Are These, she reaffirms her position as a first-rate composer with a vast imagination, a widening array of experiences, a sophisticated pen and an able group of willing musical accomplices.

Track Listing

In The Light of Day (feat. Keita Ogawa); To Be of Use; An Old Story (feat. Aubrey Johnson & Keita Ogawa); In Those Years (feat. Theo Bleckmann); What Kind of Times Are These (feat. Sara Serpa); Sorrow Song (feat. KOKAYI & Aubrey Johnson; My Grandmother In The Stars (feat. Sara Serpa); I Am Wrestling with Despair (feat. Sara Serpa); Dreams (feat. Aubrey Johnson); In The Day of Light (feat. Keita Ogawa).

Personnel

Additional Instrumentation

Jamie Baum: spoken word; Jonathan Finlayson: spoken word; Sam Sadigursky: clarinet, bass clarinet; Brad Shepik: singing bowls; Luis Perdomo: Fender Rhodes; Ricky Rodriguez: electric bass guitar.

Album information

Title: What Times Are These | Year Released: 2024 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records


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