The jazz black-rock trio Harriet Tubman gives a gift of, and for, its namesake

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CD cover courtesy sunnysiderecords.com

Harriet Tubman Araminta (Sunnyside)

Guitarist Brandon Ross leads his jazz/black-rock trio Harriett Tubman with stylistic bravura and unabashed love of vivid distortion, evoking what Sonny Sharrock might be doing if still alive, but with a more poetic control of sonics.

Ross hasn’t recorded much as a leader but he’s shown great versatility in cutting-edge jazz. I heard him live and on recording accompanying Cassandra Wilson, so he has both the nuance to support and enhance a daring and soulful vocalist. He’s also a singer, though not on this recording. As a rhythm section, Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and Drummer JT Lewis have collaborated with artists as diverse as Living Colour, Lou Reed, Herbie Hancock, Henry Threadgill, Sting, Arrested Development, Archie Shepp, David Murray and Me’Shell N’degeocello.

So, on this album Ross’s guitar howls at the moon with beautiful abandon. Yet “Nina Simone” paints a songful and pain-felt portrait of the black singer-songwriter who invoked social justice with unmatched power and poignance. It recalls Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly,” for Duke Ellington. Guest trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith lacerates and burnishes his notes magnificently here, bleeding in the glistening sunlight of truth. Drummer J.T. Lewis punches and slashes like a black man who defiantly matters. Throughout, Smith unfurls deep textures, sustaining eternally spatial and grand pronouncements. 1

It closes gratifyingly with the almost submerged-sounding blues reverie, “Sweet Araminta,” tenderly referencing abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s birth name, without trivializing the grit and gravitas of her achievement.

Harriet Tubman photosstategov.com

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  1. And Wadada Leo Smith, of course, is among the pre-eminent, most original and  conceptually ambitious brass players in jazz, in music, period. In fact, he’s sort of a jazz version of filmmaker Ken Burns, but in an abstract but wonderfully painterly way, playing that brings to mind both action painter like Jackson  Pollock. But you can also sense abstract color field painters, both big-gesture painters like Robert Motherwell and even sublime Zen meditators, like Mark Rothko.  Smith’s epic four-record set Ten Freedom Summers from 2012, musically re-imagined the black American history and the Civil Rights movement, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The Chicago native has done similar multi-disc takes on The Great Lakes, which evokes and reconsiders those mighty bodies of water that have defined so much of life from the East to the Midwest, since the days of the great pioneers. He’s now based in the New York area, but being from Chicago he understands The Great Lakes. And this year came Smith’s magisterial and mysteriously beautiful double-disc project called America’s National Parks. a comparable musical paean to those great irreplaceable natural resources.

This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express

2 thoughts on “The jazz black-rock trio Harriet Tubman gives a gift of, and for, its namesake

    • Thanks Betts. It doesn’t do full justice to the album, so I’ve decided to write a more in-depth “reading” of it, which will be in Chapter 5 of my forthcoming book, Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. Pass the word. – K

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