400: AN AFRIKAN EPIC, PART 1 – ALKEBULAN: THE BEGINNING OF US, all music by Dr. Mark Lomax unless otherwise noted
CD 5: MA’AFA: GREAT TRAGEDY / Captured. Day 1. Day 45. Day 60. Day 90 / The Urban Art Ensemble: Andrew Carlson, William Manley, vln; Norman Cardwell-Murri, vla; Mary Davis Featherston, cel; Edwin Bayard, t-sax; Dean Hulett, bs; Mark Lomax II, dm
CD 6: UP SOUTH: CONVERSATIONS ON AMERIKKKAN IDEALISM / LOMAX-BAYARD-HULETT: First Conversation. Second Conversation / Bayard, t-sax; Hulett, bs; Lomax, dm
CD 7: FOUR WOMEN / Portrait of Queen Nzinga. Portrait of Ida B. Wells. Portrait of Angela Davis. Portrait of Chimananda Ngozi Adiche / The Columbus Cello Quartet (UCelli): Pei-An Chao, Mary Davis, Cora Kuyvenhoven, Wendy Morton, cel
CD 8: BLUES IN AUGUST / Ma Rainey. Fences. Gem of the Ocean. Joe Turner. Blues in August / The Urban Art Ensemble, same as CD 5, but add Bayard on s-sax / self-issued CDs, available for ordering at https://marklomaxii.com/400-an-afrikan-epic
This review continues my assessment of Dr. Mark Lomax II’s monumental 12-CD series in which he compresses the history of African-Americans before, during and after slavery in America. With the first CD in this second part of his own tripartite division of these works, Ma’afa: Great Tragedy, Lomax turns to his large ensemble, The Urban Art Ensemble, comprised of three members of his working quartet (minus piano) plus a string quartet as identified above.
I mentioned in my review of the first part (first four CDs) that some of it, particularly the first disc which consisted of nothing but drumming, would be difficult for some jazz listeners to absorb. This is, perhaps, even more true of this quartet on discs since much more of the music therein is through-composed, not improvised, and in fact played by such formal (non-jazz) musicians as the string quartet that is part of the Urban Art Ensemble and, in CD 7, by the Columbus Cello Quartet.
In addition, the opening number of CD 5, Captured, is all chaos and raw emotion, the music virtually exploding out of one’s speakers. Day 1 is no less emotional but is sadder and more ironic, with the string quartet that is part of the ensemble whine and cry like a group of very distressed cats. This is raw and edgy music, clearly not improvised, and takes some getting used to, although later on one hears an extended improvised solo from Edwin Bayard’s tenor sax. By Day 45, the music has not completely lost its edge but is even sadder and more resigned. Hulett has a brief bass solo (possibly improvised) in which he sounds like a depressed bullfrog while the string quartet plays around him.
At the beginning of Day 60, the bass does a highly credible simulation of the sound of oars being dragged slowly rather that rowed quickly in the slave ship. Bayard improvised on tenor above it. The drums enter later on, smashing the cymbals in the background. This leads seamlessly into Day 90, in which the bass continues its groaning while the cello plays a dolorous solo before the entire quartet comes in, now playing a very tonal and very sad tune, like a spiritual. The bass and drums eventually enter as well, now splitting the rhythm in double-time behind them, with Bayard’s sax mournfully wailing in the foreground.
Up South: Conversations on Amerikkkan Idealism is described as “a portrait of racism in America” and consists of just two long tracks, First Conversation and Second Conversation. Here we have Lomax’s trio without the string quartet, and these come across more like free jazz improvisations. Since this is the only album whose compositions are credited to all three of the musicians on the date, the music was probably collectively created, i.e. musical ideas thrown out by all three musicians and then improvised on. The music is anguished for the most part, but still very interesting, with changing tempi and moods. Bayard plays some chords on his tenor sax, again à la Coltrane. At about the 19-minute mark into First Conversation, the group even throws in a bit of a calypso beat. Hulett gets a superb solo in Second Conversation. Another personal comment from me: although African-Americans in Northern cities like Chicago and New York had more employment opportunities, the implicit segregation was still very real and very scary. There were no Northern lynchings, but the separation of the races was strictly enforced. I was lucky to hear first-hand stories from people who were there, like Jimmy MacPartland and Ralph Berton, of what it was like: how the black church members felt very uneasy when young Berton took his idol, Bix Beiderbecke, to a black church on the South Side of Chicago to hear a Sunday service because the races weren’t supposed to mingle; how Ralph and his older brother Vic were eyed suspiciously when they went to the Royal Gardens to hear King Oliver’s band with young Louis Armstrong on second cornet and Johnny Dodds on clarinet; how Benny Goodman had to stay outside on the street to listen to his idol, Dodds, through the open door to the nightclub. And this attitude stayed into the 1950s. When the great Irish blues singer Ottilie Patterson performed at a South Side Chicago blues club in the late 1950s, she was eyed uncomfortably by the patrons until she started singing, and they realized that, in her soul, she was one of them. And all of this due to Democratic Party racism (who do you think has been running Chicago for more than a century?). Interestingly, this is a live set, as there is applause at the end.
The seventh CD, titled Four Women, is played by The Columbus Cello Quartet, also known as UCelli, whose members also play in the Columbus Symphony and Pro Musica Chamber Orchestras. The four women profiled in these compositions are Queen Nzinga, also known as Njinga Mbande or Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande, the 17th-century queen of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms of the Mbundu people of Angola; Ida B. Wells, also known as Wells-Barnett, an African-American investigative journalist, educator, and early leader of the Civil Rights movement who was one of the founders of the NAACP; Angela Davis, whose career was far less controversial than the others, having been a member of both the Communist Party and the Black Panther movement; and Nigerian novelist and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, born in 1977. These are purely classical compositions informed by black music, using modes rather than diatonic scales as their model, and are played with great feeling and depth by UCelli. Lomax uses contrasting themes and has an excellent grasp of quartet writing; my sole complaints are that the album is unfortunately rather short (36:54) and that the quartet seems very close-miked, which leads to the celli sounding a bit hard and edgy rather than warm. I found the music to be both excellent and fascinating, but unfortunately this is the one album that is probably the least likely to be appreciated by jazz lovers because of its formality and scoring, despite the fact that the music often has a very strong jazz or black ragtime feel to it, i.e. the Portrait of Ida B. Wells, written in D minor and having a very strong, syncopated opening theme reminiscent of both spirituals and the cakewalk. At about the 6:30 mark, interestingly, the beat shifts to a slow blues before returning to the upbeat spiritual-cakewalk feel.
Angela Davis is surprisingly delicate-sounding for a portrait of such a volatile personality, using pizzicato at the opening and a broad theme using a great many whole and half notes, although at 3:18 the music changes quite drastically in feeling, using edgy, bitonal chords and ominous tremolos here and there, then at 6:25 increases the tempo and involves a more complex passage with polyphonic interplay between the instruments. For Ngozi Adichie, Lomax uses African-sounding modes as the basis for his composition. A brilliant album.
Blues in August features musical profiles of famous early blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Kansas City blues shouter “Big Joe” Turner, and events chronicled in playwright August Wilson’s century-spanning Pittsburgh Cycle. On this disc we return to the Urban Art Ensemble. The music for Ma Rainey is indeed bluesy but far more modern than the music she sang so well, sounding more like a Blue Note session from the late 1950s except with a string quartet added. Hulett helps drive the rhythm with tremendous verve and invention, and Lomax again uses his tuned drums to great effect. And once again, the music sounds continuous, Fences starting with a drum solo like the one that ended Ma Rainey, only here the music is spikier, its opening theme consisting of serrated notes played on the tenor sax before the tempo increases and things pick up, increasing even more a chorus later (again, much like a Mingus piece). The string quartet does not play on this one, but returns to set up a doleful theme in Gem of the Ocean. There’s also an interesting passage in which the quartet plays whole and half notes while Hulett pushes them with some plucked bass, then the strings revert to an edgy motif in eights while the bass and drums push the music forward. The strings briefly drop away as Bayard plays a tenor solo, but then return in the background to provide commentary. We then move into a free jazz section, with Bayard churning out anguished notes while the rhythm section plays almost maniacally behind him.
Joe Turner follows hard on the heels of Gem of the Ocean, and here Lomax has written a piece that resembles the Kansas City jazz of the late 1930s as exemplified by such bands as Count Basie’s, Harlan Leonard’s and Jay McShann’s. Bayard switches to soprano sax here to good effect. The finale, Blues in August, begins with an exposed bass solo (played excellently by Hulett) before a really cute, funky beat is set up with the two violins playing pizzicato behind a nice, sparse tenor solo. Lomax then splits up the quartet, giving the viola and cello a more lyrical theme to play in unison (a couple of octaves apart) behind everything. The piece fades out at the end.
Thus we come to the end of Ma’afa, with one more series of four albums to go.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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