Jazz Meets the Political: Women instrumentalists Seek Harmony in 2020

Regina Carter, Nubya Garcia, and Lakecia Benjamin speak political swing, Afro-European identity, and social healing as bandleader instrumentalists moving musical boundaries during the turbulent year of 2020.

Regina Carter’s Swing States: Harmony in the Battleground (Tiger Tune/eOne, 2020) talks Jazz and Social Justice

BeBop and Swing meet demographic shifts as jazz violinist Regina Carter playfully addresses the 2020 American political theatrics. Her Freedom Band eloquently splashes humour, remorse, and hope onto the palette of electoral uncertainties as a few States vie to ‘win the election’. It’s a screamingly awkward political process – with that complicated Electoral College determinant. But Carter presents a bouncy album, with pride, choosing well-known American songs to match with a State, such as Colorado (‘Rocky Mountain High’), Louisiana (‘You Are My Sunshine’), and Kansas (‘Home on the Range’). Other songs merely portray a ‘Pennsylvania’ or ‘Wisconsin’ temperament.

Her excellently placed band members, who represent their State on the album, play in ‘swing’ style that jazzes up the current reality. New Orleans pianist, Jon Batiste, adds his flavour of cat-calls, and ‘do ya dig it’ quips that liven up the album as do the masterful John Daversa on trumpet and flugelhorn (talks about his Florida Everglades), Harvey Mason on drums (on Kansas), Kabir Sehgal on bass and percussion, and Alexis Cuadrado on double bass.

The opening piece, ‘Welcome’, layers a patriotic ‘America the Beautiful’ over Carter’s narrative plea of appreciation for the ethnic and cultural diversity she grew up with her in her native Detroit. The rest of the album swings with hope – as long as you VOTE! Her rendition of ‘Georgia On My Mind’ mesmerises. ‘On Wisconsin’ expresses at first a carnival bounce and moves to a more remorseful tone, then resolve, with the violin mimicking the band laughing. Cynicism? Lost hope? Carter ends with ‘Faygo’ after her favourite faygo pop snack at her corner store.

Carter first gained attention with her Straight Ahead, an all-female jazz quintet, some 25 years ago. Her career has spiraled with inspiration for many female jazz artists as she has taught, performed, won awards, and composed and arranged her works with a multitude of colleagues. This is a fun album: occasionally carnival in tempo, sometimes serious in ballad, but always reverent to that fabric in a democracy – the VOTE!

She and her drummer husband, Alvester Garnett, are using this time of 2020 lockdown to explore their creative musical juices together. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDZ7C5xodmc Noted for her instructional capabilities, she shows how improvisation works during her Kennedy Center performance, with Cuba-born percussionist, Mayra Casales: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8nagXne3pU The National Jazz Museum in Harlem hosted an interesting discussion in September 2020 about Carter’s album and voting challenges:
“Jazz and Social Justice: Regina Carter: Swing States, and Getting Out the Vote” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8A-JVlCgiw

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Nubya Garcia explores her roots in Source (Concord Jazz August 2020)

Out of London’s young and exciting jazz scene comes saxophonist Nubya Garcia with her debut album, Source, which journeys through her family histories, folklore, afro-diasporic connections, and global outlooks where she calls home: from London to Bogota to British West Indies. The album speaks to our capacity to overcome challenges, both individual and collective, in our modern day realities. Her trio of Joe Armon-Jones on keys, Daniel Casimir on bass, and Sam Jones on drums, with several vocalists, faithfully carry her sonic messages through the moving themes and heartfelt stories she seeks to evoke.

The title track, ‘Source’, being the longest on the album, gives evidence to Garcia’s mood and tones, quiet to fiery, as she moves between reggae, soul, and improvisation. She talks of family in the soft ballad, ‘Together is a Beautiful Place to Be’, recalling her dear late stepfather. In ‘Stand with Each Other’, three vocalists accompany various reggae rhythms and celebrate their collectivism – a female solidarity in the wider community. Latin rhythms in ‘Inner Game’ pleasantly move her temperament into ‘La cumbia me está llamando” to celebrate her abstractions from Columbia’s traditional music, chants and rhythms. Still excavating family histories, ‘Before Us: In Demerara & Caura’ presents an emotional longing for understanding Caribbean sources.

Born of a Guyanese mother and Trinidadian father, Nubya Garcia completed her studies at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music in the UK, and has explored musical horizons widely with the contemporary septet, Nerija. Even her 2017 debut EP vinyl, NUBYA’s 5IVE sold out on vinyl within 24 hours. Presently, Garcia also boasts DJ skills through her popular radio residency on NTS, and continues to play a growing number of live sets across Europe. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPGxhQw80PQ&feature=youtu.be (10 min 57 sec) at New York City’s Winter Jazzfest 2018.

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Lakecia Benjamin pursues the mystical healing of the Coltranes

Lakecia Benjamin’s latest album, Pursuance: The Coltranes (March 2020) boasts an impressive array of musicians who complement Benjamin’s sizzling alto saxophone. These include bassist Lonnie Plaxico and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, the bass clarinet of Marcus Strickland, singer/guitarist Me’Shell NdegeOcello, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater’s scats, and violinist Regina Carter. The song presentations alternate between compositions of John and Alice, giving an audio feel of how these two masterful legends seemed to influence each other. Watch her trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwWVAgQXJuU&feature=emb_rel_pause

While saxophonist John Coltrane needs no introduction, his wife, Alice Coltrane, born in 1937 in Detroit, was one of the few harpists in jazz history, along with her remarkable proficiency on keyboard and organ. She recorded many albums as a bandleader, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s for Impulse! and other major record labels. She replaced McCoy Tyner as pianist with the John Coltrane quartet, married John in 1965, and continued to play and record with the band until John’s death in 1967 which left her raising their four young children. Always experiencing a strong connection with the Higher Being, she journeyed a spiritual life in India, adopting her name as Turiyasangitananda (Transcendental Lord’s highest song of Bliss). As Founder and Director of The Vedantic Center in 1975, she later established a spiritual community in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California. She passed away in 2007.

The Coltranes’ respective compositions were chosen by Benjamin to express a common spirituality readily adaptable to our present day healing needs. Apparently, Benjamin listened to Alice Coltrane first while at school. Notable of Alice’s chosen songs are: ‘Walk with Me’ with a gospel tone set by violinist Regina Carter; ‘Going Home’, a classical slow gospel ballad mellowed by Strickland’s bass clarinet and Brandee Younger’s harp, perhaps as Alice would have played it; ‘Om Shanti’ moves with backing vocals in a smooth groove of soul searching bordering on rock with expressive chops of bassist Me’Shell NdegeOcello.

John Coltrane’s songs include: ‘Central Park West’ with the scatting vocals of Jazzmeia Horn; the swinging bebop ‘Seedya’s Song Flute’ featuring Ron Carter on bass and Keyon Harrold on trumpet; ‘Spiral’ with its samba upbeat chats between Benjamin’s and Steve Wilson saxes; ‘Alabama’ which follows Alice’s ‘Om Shanti’ in similar soul pursuits. Here, Benjamin’s concept of ‘Pursuance’ with the fast-paced bass of Jonathan Michel comes to fruition as both composers become one and end the album with acknowledging that to find God is to find Him, and subsequent healing in Oneness, in sound. Watch the band’s concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center in March 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZ3Ixe3b82U

The listener should have reached the edges of Nirvana blessings if he/she made it to the end of this album. It’s a fulfilling journey in sound, resounding, uplifting in spirit, and deeply respectful of two sonic-breakers of earlier years. Benjamin’s interpretations and delivery with fellow resonators excels.

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