An Epic Begins: Mark Lomax’s “400,” Part 1

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400: AN AFRIKAN EPIC, PART 1 – ALKEBULAN: THE BEGINNING OF US, all music by Dr. Mark Lomax

CD 1: THE FIRST ANKHCESTOR / Ngoma Lundundu. Tiriba. Wolosodon. Gombé. Talking Drums. Casa / Mark Lomax II, dm & unnamed percussionists

CD 2: SONG OF THE DOGON / Po-Tolo. Amma. The Pale Fox. Blessing of the Agon. LEB. Nommo. Segui

CD 3: DANCE OF THE ORISHAS / Obatalá. Ogún. Oshoshi. Eleggua. Oya. Oshún. Yemayå

CD 4: THE COMING / Jua. Matumwa. Uponyaji / Edwin Bayard, t-sax; William Menefield,  pno; Dean Hulett, bs; Mark Lomax II, dm / self-issued CDs, available for ordering at https://marklomaxii.com/400-an-afrikan-epic

This is the first of what will be three separate reviews of parts of Dr, Mark Lomax’s magnum opus, 400: An Afrikan Epic. The 12-album cycle comprises three suites. The first four albums make up Alkebulan: The Beginning of Us, which spans the thousands of years that civilization and music had developed in Africa prior to the encroachment of colonialism. Titled for the original Arabic name for the continent, Alkebulan begins with First Ankhcestor, featuring a gathering of master percussionists, and continues with Song of the Dogon, a tribute to the West African people credited with establishing ancient Nubia and Kemet (the original name of Egypt). Dance of the Orishas is inspired by the religion, culture and art of the Yoruba people, while The Coming introduces the onset of the slave trade via the words of Daniel Black’s novel of the same name, read by the author.

An Afrikan Epic may be the most difficult of jazz sets to review for several reasons: 1) It consists of 12 separate albums, grouped into three sets of four each; 2) all the music is new and some of it based not on American jazz but on the African talking drum tradition that, although it did not directly inspire jazz, was its original root; and 3) not all of the music is of equal quality. In the first CD, for instance, drummer and composer Dr. Mark Lomax II is the solo performer, and those not familiar or comfortable with superb but extremely long drum pieces that have no melody or harmony may feel such a listening experience wearing.

Of course, the talking drum tradition which originated in Africa normally does not have as much jazz syncopation as Lomax puts into his performances, but traditionally has more complex rhythms because you generally have two or three drummers, each playing a different beat on top of one another. This creates a layered sound that, like traditional Indian music, is designed to hypnotize the listener into a trance state. You can hear a semblance of this in the indigenous voodoo drumming of Haiti, some of which was reproduced in the classic film Black Orpheus. The early jazz drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds, who to the best of my knowledge never went to Africa, was somehow able to infuse his own playing with his kind of complexity, as can be heard in several of his best drum solos on records. Dodds’ early mastery of complex rhythms influenced a whole school of jazz drummers both black and white, including such famous names as Chick Webb, Sid Catlett, Ray Bauduc and, to a lesser extent, Gene Krupa. Jazz drumming “smoothed out” with the coming of the Swing Era, as can be heard in the work of Jo Jones, Alvin Burroughs, Buddy Rich and others, but became complex once again during the modern jazz era of the 1950s and ‘60s.

coverIn that first album, Tiriba is more complex than the first number, in part due to the increasing tempo, and in the third, Wolosodon, he relaxes both the tempo to produce a kind of loping beat, closer here to jazz than previously. Talking Drums is clearly the most complex of these pieces, and includes chanting in the background. Unfortunately, none of the other drummers involved are identified in the recording, but in an ironic twist several of the drum riffs played here sound very much like jazz, particularly when Lomax brings in the cymbals, which of course were and are not part of the African talking drum tradition. So there is a sort of musical evolution even within the fairly narrow scope of succeeding drum pieces.

coverThe second album, Song of the Dogon, is a tribute to the West African people who purportedly established ancient Nubia and Kemet (the original name of Egypt). The opening of Po-Tolo is startling: a harsh piano chord followed by groans on the bass, but quickly settles into slow up-and-down right-hand arpeggios on the upper part of the keyboard while the left hand plays a plaintive melody in the middle. Then a crashing chord with atonal squeals from Edwin Bayard on tenor sax, and we are off on our African adventure. This is highly creative and original music, startling to the ear although it all eventually hangs together—very Charles Mingus-like with touches of John Coltrane’s Africa sessions. And this is a quartet in which each and every member has his say and contributes to the whole. No one coasts in this band; I might even add that no one is allowed to coast. Despite some of the tenor saxist’s “outside” playing, it is, like early-‘60s Coltrane, musical and interesting without sounding out of control. The ear follows each twist and turn, thus the music can be listened to either passively, just absorbing the flow, or actively, following the music’s form and evolution. Amma begins with a slow, rich and powerful bass solo, after which Lomax’s drums up the tempo as we move into a jaunty yet somehow uneasy-sounding 6/8. Both the Mingus and Coltrane elements are very strong here. I always wondered what it might have sounded like if those two giants of jazz had gotten together (they never did), and I think this is what it would have sounded like. And yes, Bayard’s playing is that good, though of course he has Coltrane as a model whereas Coltrane only had his own instincts to draw on.

Moreover, although the individual pieces are all different, Lomax has found a way to hook them together musically so that they sound like sequential numbers in a suite. Thus, as we move from Amma to the conga-like The Pale Fox, driven by the leader’s wonderfully complex drumming, the ear hears it as a continuation and development on what has gone on before, and the gradual slow-down as we move into the delicate piano tracery of Blessing of the Agon thus sounds like the slow movement of this suite. This piece’s broad, slow theme opens up like a giant sunflower, showering light over the listener. Bayard eventually moves into a long, double-time, a cappella sax cadenza, and when Lomax returns on drums the tempo picks up considerably with a neat-sounding modern riff which turns out to be the opening of the next number, LEB. William Menefield adds a counter-melody to Bayard on piano while Lomax drums happily away behind them. Minimalist jazz? Well, almost but not quite, since Menefield’s piano improvises further and more complex lines in the background—he is the creative center of this piece, at least until Lomax’s terrific drum solo towards the end.

Lomax slows down the pace at the very end, then moves into Nommo with yet another variant on the rhythm. Interestingly, he seems to have tuned drums, meaning that they play notes (in the key of Bb) rather than just sounds. Following this drum solo is the exuberant finale, Sigui, with its asymmetric beat and background chanting by the rhythm section behind Bayard’s sax (later adding handclapping). This is how the second CD comes to a close.

cover - gye-nyameDance of the Orishas features music inspired by the Yoruban spiritual tradition. Obatalá opens with slow cymbal washes followed by sparse piano chords, then sparse notes on tenor sax which then open up into extemporé cadenzas. The semi-formlessness of the piece continues as the piano and bass enter, and surprisingly Bayard tosses in a short quote from Kurt Weill’s Speak Low before moving into what almost sounds like free jazz using complex rhythms and atonality. Ogún opens with soft music played a cappella on tenor sax, with Dean Hulett’s bass bringing in double-time background licks later on. The tempo slowly increases as the sax’s intensity builds, including a great deal of “outside” playing. Bass and drum solos then follow in short order. Menefield then plays a remarkable, rapid, single-note solo with interjected chords while the bass and drums cook behind him, followed in turn by Hulett on bass. When the saxophone returns, the music becomes faster and more manic. This is the longest piece in the series so far, running a full 18:34.

Oshoshi begins with slow, sparse notes on the piano, which eventually coalesce into a theme. The bass enters, playing fluttering figures behind the piano, then the drums playing a contrasting rhythm before, much to my surprise, the whole piece swings in a nice medium-uptempo. Lomax’s drum solo is fascinating, fractioning the time and adding backbeats and fills as it goes along. After a pause we hear Eleggua, with Hulett playing a remarkable solo in which he flutters the strings of his instrument. Eventually he starts playing single notes (with enharmonic overtones) on the ground note of D as Lomax plays a fast shuffle rhythm with brushes and the sax and piano come in to play around them. Somehow, Lomax makes all of these disparate elements come together in a soft but clearly structured development section with all four instruments participating in the ongoing structure, each in their own way. Lomax’s backbeats are utterly fascinating as the tempo moves into a sort of jazz samba beat. The music eventually fades away.

Oya is a drum solo starting with simple cowbell chimes, followed by a sort of ambient wash on the cymbal. The cymbal becomes increasingly louder, with a few sparse notes played on his tuned drums, leading into a fairly quiet, sparse drum solo with (again) actual notes being played. I should mention that Lomax is the first jazz drummer I’ve heard to use tuned drums (probably tympani) since Vic Berton back in the 1920s and ‘30s. His solo builds in both tempo and intensity before becoming quiet again. This leads into the quiet piano opening of Oshún, a lovely ballad on which Bayard plays with a breathy tone (including a slight rasp in it) reminiscent of Ben Webster.

With Yemayå, the last number on this very long album (it runs over 80 minutes), we are back in Coltrane territory with an irregular-meter piece in which the piano, bass and drums drive the rhythm behind the impassioned playing the tenor sax. This one sounds more or less like a traditional jam rather than a composed piece, despite the audible underlying structure which is (I think) purposely kept simple for this reason. The rest of the band falls away for Hulett’s excellent solo, which closes out the track and the album.

coverThe next CD, titled The Coming, introduces the onset of the slave trade via the words of Daniel Black’s novel of the same name, read by the author. I have a few words to say about this very sensitive subject that I hope the reader will allow me to expand on a little. While it is true that American slavery was not unique in the world at the time of the country’s founding in the 18th century, we were one of the last civilized countries to abandon it and only did so through a brutal and bloody Civil War. What made the whole endeavor so awful is that it was the Democratic Party that insisted on the influence of slavery, Democratic judges who ruled the wrong way in the Dred Scott decision, and Democrats who virulently opposed complete citizenship for African-Americans. They were also the party of the Ku Klux Klan, Mississippi lynchings, Margaret Sanger’s founding of Planned Parenthood as a means of ridding America of black babies, and Woodrow Wilson’s reversing the use of white and black troops together in World War I. What made the century following the Emancipation Proclamation so revolting was the white societal patronizing of African-Americans as if they were idiot children or somehow sub-human, and this racism continued into the 1960s. Other cultures which had ended slavery did not all act this way. My own mother, who I thought was a Northerner because she was raised in the exclusive Flushing, New York home for wealthy Jewish children, The Shield of David, was actually from North Carolina, a fact I never learned until she was in her late 80s (and not from her). She used to tell us, her children, the most unfunny racist jokes—behind closed doors, of course, but still. And I can tell you that even into the 21st century, the subject of slavery was still a touchy one for many white people, not for me but for those whose families had it in their history. Happily, most of America has “come clean” on this subject although it is my firm belief that, as Martin Luther King (whose birthday I proudly share) said, we need to reach a point where people are judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and I am as much revolted by African-American thugs, dope pushers, murderers and thieves as I am by white ones. I am a strong proponent of complete color blindness in judging anyone’s character and will fight until my death for that to be the norm everywhere in America.

The music of the opening track, Jua, is a joyous, uptempo jazz waltz (or perhaps a 6/8 tune, it sounds as if that might be the actual tempo), with the hint of a Caribbean beat. At the 5:50 mark, the tempo changes in both speed and rhythm, with the piano playing a repetitive bass riff over the drums as Daniel Black’s narration continues. After he finishes the music enters its improvised phase with the tenor sax playing impassioned rapid 16ths in atonal flurries and runs.

As in the previous CDs, several of these pieces sound linked, thus Matumwa opens seamlessly on the heels of Jua, again with Black’s commentary. Menefield has a terrific double-time solo in this one, which runs until the slow fade at the end. My favorite line in Black’s narration, which I firmly believe, is that “a life of leisure destroys a child.” Wow, that’s a blunt truth hammer blow. This leads into the last track, Uponjayi, on which Lomax’s drums play complex rhythms in the background, fed by the piano and bass, as Bayard improvises extemporaneously à la Coltrane.

And with that number, the first third of Lomax’s complex work concludes.

More to come.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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