Ali Shaheed Muhammad: On Life and The Low End Theory

This past September marked the anniversaries of some of the most pivotal music of my generation.  It has been twenty years since Nirvana shook up the pop culture macrocosm with their momentous Nevermind album, turning indie rock into a mainstream phenomenon.  Pearl Jam has also reached the double-decade landmark with their album Ten, which was released just a couple weeks before. Growing up in the 90s, thirty-something music junkies like myself revel in these musical milestones, not simply for the nostalgia, but because of the actual genius of these ground-breaking stalwarts. However, there is one group whose essentiality matches that of their rocker contemporaries. Twenty years ago, A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory.  Hip hop would never be the same.

The Low End Theory was released on the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind in September, 1991. The similarities between these pioneering groups are quite noteworthy. Both bands were impressively polished and keenly focused before landing any big deals. Both bands released solid debut albums that helped build an eager following, and both bands subsequently blew the figurative roof off of the musical stratosphere with their sophomore follow-ups. Ultimately, both bands changed the way music could be perceived by melding aesthetics that had not been imagined previously. A Tribe Called Quest is undoubtedly the most innovative and musical hip hop group of the 1990s, and arguably of all time. Their heavy jazz influence would aggressively gift intricate harmonies, warm chord changes, and rare grooves to the genre. While the Marsalis camp pushed straight ahead jazz into mainstream relevance once again in the 80s, the early 90s would serve jazz to the collective young, Black community by melding more jazz-funk/jazz-soul leaning music with hip hop. Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues set off the decade with a major motion picture about the life of a modern day jazz musician, (with the help of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Robert Hurst, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Terence Blanchard as the actual band). The movie’s soundtrack included a jazz history lesson wrapped in rap, performed by the late emcee Guru of Gang Starr, who foretold accurately, in the last line of the last verse… “The 90s will be the decade of a ‘Jazz Thing.’”

Now let’s flip to the first line of the first song off of The Low End Theory, where A Tribe Called Quest unabashedly coined themselves on “Excursions”.  With pristine diction and his signature cadence, Q-Tip flows over a lone, fat, hard-grooving bass line about his father drawing correlations between hip hop and bebop. Fresh out of the gate, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were making a loud and clear statement that jazz was an integral part of their musical identities. I sat down with DJ/Producer Muhammad about their recording milestone, their recent documentary, and got some backstory on their love affair with jazz.

“My introduction [to jazz] came from Q-Tip, really,” credits Muhammad.  It wasn’t a hard sell for the Brooklyn native, who is a self-proclaimed musical sponge.  Muhammad grew up listening to a myriad of Black music: Blue Magic, Earth Wind and Fire, Teddy Pendergrass, Kool and the Gang, Parliament, Slave, and his mother’s personal favorite, The Spinners. Additionally, his uncle, to whom Muhammad was very close, was a bassist, and exposed him to the live local music scene. Jazz was just a heartbeat away and the progression was a natural one.

Courtesy of Ali Shaheed Muhammad

“There were a couple of other groups that were sampling jazz at that time,” adds Muhammad in terms of exposure. “Gang Starr, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Main Source, and even prior to us (at that point, we were the newer generation of hip hop), you had Stetsasonic, who called themselves The Hip Hop Band. This is before The Roots, but they were sampling jazz, and they even had a song called ‘Talking All That Jazz‘, which was a very historic moment in hip hop, [because] certain artists were not embracing what the artists were doing at that time by sampling jazz.  It was frowned upon.  You have Marley Marl, who was also a legendary, iconic producer, and someone who’s footsteps we wanted to follow; and he sampled soul and jazz.  So, there were a couple of people who introduced it, but I think the way that we delivered it was in such a way that had not really been done… in that capacity, in that manner, in that sound.”

Q-Tip, Phife, and Muhammad’s mixture of adventurous lyrics, rambunctious personae, hard beats and high-level musicality certainly set A Tribe Called Quest apart.  “One of the things that I think contributed to the success of The Low End Theory was actually the last single from People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and that was ‘Can I Kick It?’,” recalls Muhammad. “[That song] pretty much opened the doors of love from MTV and they really embraced us with that video.  It was sort of quirky.  The director had just done some cool things that I don’t think had been done [previously], and he kind of continued it with the videos from Low End Theory.  He was pretty advanced in his thinking.  But in any event, that album pretty much, I guess, had given us this sort of alternative hip hop kind of stroking that MTV liked at the time, which was a pretty big thing at that time.  It allowed for your video to be in heavy rotation and at that time, videos, in some sense, were dictating the popularity of artists and bands.  You know, we had kind of left off with that alternative style, but yet still hard with the drums [on] ‘Can I Kick It?’.  And we had come back with an album that wasn’t as…bohemian as the first album. It was actually a lot harder. So I think at that time, MTV was still willing to be a supporter of the record and I think the record just spoke for itself.  The strong artwork on the cover…and we just took our position and stood strong and the music just fell into people’s hearts the right way and the rest is history.”
Twenty years worth.

Photo Credit: Klaus Schielke

While by the 1990s, artists were proving that hip hop had staying power, there are not many groups who have evoked sentimentality, relevance, and a continued sense of modernism the way A Tribe Called Quest has.  Perhaps, it’s for this reason which they were the subject of a recent documentary, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the first of it’s kind on a hip hop band, directed by Michael Rappaport. We learn a lot about the band, on both personal and creative fronts.  Musically, you definitely come to understand the universalness which jazz offers to any musical amalgamation.  The best example would be The Low End Theory’s “Verses From the Abstract”, which features bass legend Ron Carter, who gets a closing shout out from Q-Tip right along with Pete Rock, Special Ed, and Big Daddy Kane.  A Tribe Called Quest had an ingenious way of creating a platform which was devoid of generational or cultural hierarchy, framing instead, an incessant, streamed portrayal of Black culture.  On bringing Mr. Carter on board, Muhammad explains, “The whole idea of having Ron Carter playing on the record came from Q-Tip.  He just has a style of playing that is perfect, and I think Q-Tip admired that.  And as he does, [he would] come up with an idea of like, ‘You know what would be cool? If we do this, that, such and such.’  He came up with the idea, and that happened to be one of the ideas that really stuck and he was adamant about it.  One phone call from one A&R, one musician and engineer, and this person, an affiliate… and next thing you know he shows up with his bass!  And like the professional who a lot of those jazz greats are, you give the charts, that’s all they need, they read the chart, say, ‘Where do you want me to play?’ look it over, ‘OK play here?’, do it, and then they’re out [laughs].  No hanging out, no vibing, talking and kicking it… just real quick. We were just like, ‘Wow, he’s here,’ like little puppies [laughs], and so we were really excited about him being there and grateful that he loaned himself to this project.”

But hip hop wouldn’t be hip hop without a little drama, right? Muhammad says curiously, “I found out later on through this journalist, I think a European journalist… he said, ‘Ron Carter seems to be not too thrilled with you guys because he played on one song and apparently he’s all over the record,’ and we were like, ‘What?’ No. He played on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and that’s the song he’s on.  Some people thought we had sampled his bass and twisted it up and chopped it up and put it on several other songs, and I think maybe he even got that idea.  Now, I have not spoken to Mr. Carter since, so I don’t know if that’s true, or just some crazy rumor that a journalist started but needless to say, he laid his signature slides down on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and it was pretty dope having him on there.”

This golden era of hip-hop set an unyielding precedent for die-hard fans like myself who are now frustrated with the state of today’s mainstream so-called hip hop.  I asked Muhammad about his thoughts on the turns the genre has made, especially as of late.  In his careful and thoughtful fashion, he’s quiet for a while before he responds.

Photo Credit: Shino Yanagawa

“When you look at the so-called R&B charts, they’ve merged hip hop and R&B together so…this time in hip hop reminds me of the 80s; mostly 80s pop music,” he starts.  “A lot of groups like The Family, or songs like ‘99 Luftballoons’, and all these synthy Euro-pop bands.  That’s what a lot of the hip-hop reminds me of now.  I think it lacks a bit of soul.  It lacks warmth.  It lacks something that you can cling to.  I can’t speak for everyone else, but my love affair with music just comes from hearing what an artist is doing and being able to connect with them, and with their story and I understand the story of most of the rappers these days, but it’s so self-indulgent.  It’s not really talking about anything that connects us as human beings.  Even the music is just so cold.  Like, I love chords and chord progressions.  There don’t have to be any vocals there…like jazz music.  It just grabs your soul, and I feel like in popular black music right now, there aren’t so many groups in the forefront who have that kind of pull.” He ponders a while longer, before finally concluding, “I guess hip hop is always a reflection of life…I say that a lot.  And right now, I think people are cold.  They’re going through a lot.  They’re suffering.  We’re suffering…but we’re so disconnected from what I believe, is a spiritual connection.  When you have an absence of God in your life and the Creator, then everything goes cold.  Your soul just becomes dark, [and] you may not know why.  We’re in this vacuum just existing, soulless.  So it’s coming out in the music.”

Muhammad’s astute summation is rooted in both his Islamic faith and his experience in the music business, which he has often intertwined, creatively. Before releasing his 2004 solo project Shaheedullah and Stereotypes, an album which addressed head-on, his experiences being an American muslim post 9/11 and the core values of his Islamic faith, he was an intrinsic part of the necessitous and fecund neo-soul genre, which was sparked by a collaboration with the demiurgic D’Angelo on Brown Sugar.

Shaheed was introduced to the prodigious singer and multi-instrumentalist by his friend, mentor, and subsequent Lucy Pearl musical bandmate, Raphael Saadiq. “[Raphael] worked with D’Angelo, and wrote and produced ‘Lady’ and Saadiq is like an older brother to me,” says Muhammad. “Every time he came to New York, he would look me up, and one time he said, ‘I have to play something for you,’ and he played me D’Angelo. Once that happened, if we were in New York, we were together.  Or, we would go to Raphael’s house in Sacramento and just record just for fun. Not with the intention of really doing anything with it, but then it was like this stuff is really good, we should do something with it.” Lucy Pearl, Muhammad’s second band, was originally formulated with Saadiq and D’Angelo in mind as the other two-thirds. Though timing did not allow (D’Angelo was in the middle of recording his Voodoomasterpiece), Lucy Pearl did release a string of danceable hits, adding singer Dawn Robinson (previously of girl-power R&B group, En Vogue) to the mix.

Nowadays, Muhammad is knee-deep in his solo career, working simultaneously on three separate projects, and continuing on his never-ending quest to hone his skills as a musician. “As a kid DJ’ing, sampling, and looking for records, you just look for the best pieces, open loops, elements and parts that you can piece or put together, and now I don’t have to rely on that,” says Muhammad. “I can play a chord progression on a guitar. Sonically, I know how to make my drums sound like something that was played in 1960 compressed a hundred times over and put on vinyl. I know how to do that with a live set, so it’s like I’m really buzzing right now. I’m real happy, because I’m like, all this stuff sounds like a sample and it’s not.” Suitable on drums, bass and piano, Muhammad has just one of his long-term sights on learning the cello. “There’s still so much I don’t know, as far as theory. I want to be able to have that sort of understanding, that connection with music,” he says.

Photo Credit: Melissa Louise O'Neal

Muhammad’s tremendous respect for and admiration of jazz has obviously helped shape his career, but it also continues to be a source of inspiration. “With Tribe sampling jazz music, it definitely brought this turn around and I think this new love affair for jazz again,” he says. “There was this period — and I mean no disrespect to the legends and the greats who have paved the way, and are still staying true to the spirit of the genre — but there was this point where the face of jazz was very pop [with] smooth jazz, and Kenny G, and that was the thing, and I think that things were getting light. And here we come sampling the era and the period that was, for us, very progressive and it pretty much defined the…how should I say this… it defined the good conscious and the bad conscious of a person but put it to music. You know like, the mid to late 60s and early 70s period of jazz was really mean, and I think a lot of it had to do with the struggle, the civil rights movement, drugs, you know all these things… free love, and really taking a departure from that period of jazz that came before. Jazz musicians were really breaking off from sticking behind one strong front person and beginning to find their own voices, and individualities and it was a really rebellious things to do.  So that period of jazz is what we gravitated toward and we just felt it.  And by reintroducing it, but in our own way and adding our own little twist, I think it brought a greater interest back and what ultimately had come from that was this next generation of jazz musicians who grew up on hip hop, who also grew up listening to jazz. You know, you have guys like Robert Glasper who is clearly throwing it in your face [with] the stuff he’s doing, you know, covers on hip hop songs but with his twist on it. But you can hear even some of the spirits of Ahmad Jamal, like you hear all these things, but there is still a rawness and an edginess to it, and the same element that makes hip hop so loved is that element of, ‘I don’t care what you think, I’m not trying to impress you.’ Robert does it really well.  You [also] have Kendrick Scott, Brian Blade, Marcus Strickland, Chris Dave…there’s so many bad guys out there. I love seeing these guys play because it makes me feel like I’m in that, or of that era, when Miles was around or Max Roach…when those guys were coming of age and really leaving their mark on the art form, and on the critics, and the journalists and all that, and making the genre special, you know?  I feel like I’m in that period when I’m seeing these guys play.  And this is far from the lull point, this is like the beginning of what is, for lack of a better expression, starting some shit.  And I think it’s beautiful!  I think it’s so beautiful.”

The contention that sometimes exists between jazz authoritarians and hip hop artists is an ironic kind for A Tribe Called Quest, who transfigured the genre specifically by marrying the two.  “For all those people who were hating on hop hip, you know, the purists…at some point it’s like you know, we really gotta turn that around,” asserts Muhammad.  We all come from the same place, and we have the same struggle and damn anyone for frowning upon the of growth of a culture, the musicians, the art form.  So I think you can definitely look back to the 1990s era of hip hip and say it really changed the mood or spirit of jazz.  For anyone who says something different, they’re just fronters…they’re haters.”

Ambrose Akinmusire: An Emergence of Truth

Photo by Demandre Ward

Ambrose Akinmusire was born in 1982, a symbolic and transformational year in jazz.    Wynton Marsalis had just released his self-titled debut album on Columbia Records, while he was still a part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.  This album would prove symbolic, as it represented what was to come; a desperately needed re-emergence and preponderance of acoustic and straight-ahead jazz.  This revitalization during the 1980s produced several pivotal artists who bridged the cultural gap, and served as the catalysts who incited the current generation of jazz musicians.  Now, almost exactly thirty years later, Oakland native Akinmusire is at the apex of a similar potential revival.

Winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition, Akinmusire has been on the jazz radar as a paramount player for a few years now.  Fast forward to the present… Downbeat Magazine named Akinmusire both Rising Star Jazz Artist of the Year and Rising Star Trumpet in their 2011 Critics Poll, in addition to giving his Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, a glowing four-star review.  The Los Angeles Times named Akinmusire one of their 2011 “Faces to Watch” and The New York Times has also hailed the virtuoso, placing him on everyone’s it-list.  Now this time, the critics are unanimously on the money. Akinmusire and his quintet have emerged as a force with which to be reckoned; raising the stakes when it comes to individuality, intent, vision and modernism.

Unlike the respective eras of his predecessors; when Blanchard, Payton and Hargrove exploded onto the scene, Akinmusire has arrived at a time when there is so much disparity, discrepancy and downright indifference about jazz.  Follow any social media threads about the genre and it’s instantly apparent that there are a lot of disparaging sentiments toward the general state of jazz and every imaginable (and sometimes unimaginable) sub-context.  And whether you agree or take issue with what’s on the table, the underlying truth is that people are frustrated, making Akinmusire’s advent that much more substantial.

Much of the jazz audience proclaims an air of stagnation, lack of inventiveness and compromise of the art form.  Akinmusire agrees.  These subjects are compounded by matters of race, culture and the overall state of the music industry, making the waters for diagnosis conveniently murky for most, but not all.  “I don’t think many people are doing it,” Akinmusire blatantly states.  “I think a lot of people want the approval of critics, so they end up dumbing their shit down.”

For Akinmusire, the intent is first and needs to be established long before getting on the band stand.  His quintet is made up of close friends and long-time collaborators: tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and fellow Oakland native, drummer Justin Brown.  Growing up in Oakland, Akinmusire’s philosophies about loyalty and community are entrenched in his artistry.  “I try to be as honest as possible with myself.  I try not to hang out with people who I don’t like.  I try to trust my instinct.  In five seconds of being around somebody, I know whether or not I can really vibe with them.  So, I think that’s related to the music too.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I feel challenged by as opposed to musicians who are just killing.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I don’t know how they’re going to sound six months from now, or five years from now, or ten years.   If I hear somebody playing, and I can say OK, twenty years from now, I know exactly how they’re going to sound; I don’t really fuck with them. I think all of that is related.”

From the opening track of When the Heart Emerges Glistening, there is a relentless fire which rages from the band, causing a neck-snapping reaction from the listener.  It is reminiscent, but only in the sense that you are transported to a time when jazz as a whole was courageous and bold.  The telepathic nature of the band’s interaction and the ensuing execution is mind-blowing.  “I think that everybody in the band is extremely hard on themselves; they’re never satisfied,” says Akinmusire, as he tries to put their chemistry into words.  “Like, if we had the best performance ever, and you come backstage, we’re all gonna be sitting there with our heads down like ‘Man, that sucked I need to practice.’  Everybody is constantly shedding and trying to move forward.  And there are no egos in the band at all…at all.  Nobody ever gets mad at the other person for messing up or changing parts or anything like that.  So, I think there’s that and also we’ve known each other for so long.  I grew up with Justin.  I met him when he was in middle school.  I’ve known Walter since 2001.  Harish, I’ve known for maybe 6 years.  Gerald, I met when he was still in high school, and Sam Harris (the new pianist in the group), I went to Manhattan School of Music with him.  And I just grew up like that.  I grew up in North Oakland and there’s this saying that you stick with your crew from the beginning to the end, even if there have been some weird, funny development issues, it will eventually…you know…it’s like family.  No matter what, you’re supposed to have their back.  I think that everybody who I have in the band has the same sort of outlook and I think you hear that in the music.

To co-produce the album, Akinmusire called upon his mentor, fellow Manhattan School alum, and Blue Note label mate, Jason Moran, to help translate the magic which is so essential to the band, to record format.  “I didn’t have to explain anything to him; that’s why I picked him, because he’s all about hitting and being real honest…he embodies that in his art,” explains Akinmusire, who wanted the album to feel as raw and in-the-moment as possible.  “It was just a constant reminder to come out of the booth and see Jason sitting there.  It was like, I gotta be about the music.  I can’t be like I’m on Blue Note and stressing about this shit.  He helped to relax me and helped me to remember my purpose as an artist.”

This element of intangible guidance and rearing from Moran is quite familiar to Akinmusire.  Having never had a trumpet lesson until he reached college, he honed his skills as a trumpeter in a very unconventional fashion, especially for these days of extreme institutionalization of the music.  Akinmusire recalls, “I went to a jazz camp… I don’t know how we heard about it.  Maybe there was a flier at the school, and I went.  And all these old-school musicians were teaching there and they sort of became my mentors.  Bassist Herbie Lewis… I met him, and then Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith and all these people.  They just sort of started mentoring me.  They would pick me up from the house, and take me record shopping or bring me on their gigs, and I would just sit there.  Some taught at college. They would pick me up and take me to their college classes.  They really just started mentoring me.  I never really had a teacher.  I didn’t sit there and play rudimental studies, and stuff, it was really ‘groid’, like ‘Here’s a trumpet and I’m going to teach you about the history…about the music.’  Just through stories, just old-school style.  Like, most of these guys, they were old-school.  They didn’t know shit about classical studies, they just picked their shit up and played…smoked weed; some of them were ex-Black Panthers, like real ‘groid’, you know?  I mean, I would get with Roy [Hargrove] and Nick [Payton] when they came into town like, ‘Is my embouchure OK?  Yeah?  OK, cool.’  But I never had a lesson.”

This crucial piece of Akinmusire’s story is no doubt the principal component of the development of his prodigious voice.  It also manifested as an expected point of contention, when he got to the collegiate juncture of study.  “By the time I came to high school, I already knew Billy Higgins, I knew Joe Henderson.  So you got these cats [at Manhattan School] telling me blah-blah-blah, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s not what he was just telling me.’  So there was a lot of arguing.”

The institutionalized setting in which jazz has found itself engulfed, is one of the most debated issues, with most viewing the predicament as a double-edged sword.  The argument being, that while the formal setting of jazz in schools gives exposure to young people who may not have otherwise discovered the art form, in a time where venues for jazz are closing at record speed, and pop-culture is eerily dominating, the flip side is an ill-appropriate, overly-Westernized approach to jazz, stripping it of its most essential elements; otherwise known as its “Blackness”.

We’re all being honest here, right?

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

The overall discontentment with jazz is comfortably enigmatic, until you dig deeper and realize this “thing” everyone is missing, is the part which is most ancestral and least able to be captured in a school setting severely devoid of Black people.  Consequently there are two broad views:  One which has many Black people arguing that they are being written out of the jazz “present” and conversely, the other has many people strongly, but naively believing there is no room or relevance for race in a discussion regarding jazz.  Akinmusire’s take is based on neither premise, per se and as in his music, Akinmusire’s honesty is no bullshit.

“I don’t think you can take someone’s culture,” he explains.  “Once something becomes tangible, then you can take it away and that’s because we don’t have it here in our hearts.  So maybe that’s why I don’t understand [the first viewpoint].  It’s like, I’m Black; you can’t take that away from me. I live jazz; you can’t take that away from me.  If we have a whole community who understands that it’s here [points to his heart], you can’t take that away from us.  That’s the way it was with the be-boppers, before jazz education came and made it this tangible thing and a lot of people started believing it.”

The moment he said that to me, my vision cleared.  Honestly, it never really dawned on me that the onus might be on the Black jazz community, or lack thereof.  Akinmusire was born to a Mississippi-raised mother, and a Nigerian father; neither of whom were musical or very familiar with jazz.  The first musician on either side of his family, who was discovered by jazz, and not the other way around, Akinmusire truly speaks from a rare and untainted perspective.

“To say ‘this is ours’…that’s a known thing, we don’t need to necessarily say that, and saying it is not necessarily  going to make people not want to take it away if that’s what they’re trying to do.  It’s just going to exclude people like, ‘Oh I can’t do that.’  And those people might have valid things to say and contribute to the music.  I think if you just live that…like, to me, Mark Turner is like that.  He’ll never say a word.  Or, like Marcus Gilmore.  These cats don’t talk, but if you get on the band stand with them, you know you have to deal, and that’s some black shit.  Like yeah, this is our music.  But if you’re not stepping up to the plate and playing like that, then yeah you have to talk ‘They’re taking it away.’  You think Trane had to say that?  He didn’t have to say nothing. You think Lee Konitz was going to get up there with the John Coltrane Quartet?  You don’t have to say nothing.”

BOOM.

It was a bucket of ice water thrown to the face, but I’m wide awake and that’s a good thing.  The truth is, Black art forms have been habitually and historically compromised, but there comes a time when the discussion has to lead to a diagnosis and the diagnosis has to lead to a treatment and then, the treatment has to begin and Akinmusire, through his words, but ultimately through his music, has given jazz a serious bedside visit.

“George Wein hit me up last year and was like, ‘I want you to play at Zankel Hall,’”  Akinmusire tells me as we stroll down a Williamsburg street on a sunny Brooklyn afternoon.  “He wanted the quintet.  I said, ‘How about I do a big band…an all-black big band?’  He was like, ‘Yeah it’s cool!  Is that because you want to reclaim the music?’ I said, ‘No…it’s just that I want the community;  I miss the community.’  When I was coming up it was really inspiring.  I used to go out and see Roy Hargrove, Eric Lewis, Marcus and EJ Strickland, Bilal…that shit was so inspiring for me to come to New York and see all these great Black musicians just really trying to push themselves and now that doesn’t really happen and I think that the music is suffering because of the lack of community of Blacks.  If we don’t have a community, we can’t really complain, so I think that’s what needs to happen first.”

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

 

That sense of community also influences Akinmusire’s writing, as he composes specifically with his tightly knit quintet in mind. He says of the interwoven nature of his band, “It’s a blessing and a curse because I can’t write for anybody else, because I’ve been playing with Walter for so long. Justin is the only drummer I’ve been playing with consistently for the last thirteen years.  I mean there was Zach Harmon, when I was working at the Monk Institute. That was two years.  But really, with all of my compositions, I’m hearing Justin.  So when I play with other people, when they try to interpret their way it just doesn’t feel right… same thing with Walter.  He has such a specific sound and tone and way of phrasing and you know, we phrase together so when I play with somebody else and they’re not really getting it, I find myself feeling uneasy and getting upset… same thing with Harish.”  Akinmusire penned twelve of the thirteen songs on When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his pieces as distinguished and refreshing as his playing.  The album feels cinematic, in part with a theme-like pensiveness throughout. There is nothing surface about this album, but it never compromises its accessibility.  It is one of the most modern statements to come along in a while, with the culmination of history that is obviously Akinmusire’s foundation clearly not acting as a hindrance to his singular voice.

 

“I feel like people who consider themselves traditionalists are ignorant, and that comes from a lack of understanding that whatever it is you’re analyzing is related to the history of that time,” says Akinmusire about the strongholds which many so-called jazz purists have cemented in their expectations.  “So bebop was relating to what was happening at that time and it was modern at that time.  So I just try to play the music that’s of the now right now and that’s related to me and I just try to be honest with who I am.  Today I feel this way and tomorrow I may feel another way and I think it takes courage to say what I thought yesterday was wrong and I think a lot of people are scared to do that.  That’s one thing my girlfriend has taught me.  She’s very honest and she will die for honesty, and that’s something that has affected my music… same thing with my mom.”

 

What is most treasurable about Akinmusire is that like the title of this record, which represents a stripping down of all that is apparent to expose what is really important in life, he himself, stripped of the critical acclaim and accolades is, at his core, the epitome of an artist.  The word honesty or a variation of such is used in this piece alone fourteen times, not because of redundancy on my part, or naïveté on Akinmusire’s.  But because it’s the engine of innovation; the thing which will help elevate jazz to its purpose once more.♦


 

Drum Composers Series Part 3: Eric Harland

Photo Credit: John Rogers/WBGO

When I met with Eric Harland at the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca, I got a glimpse of a day in the life of jazz music’s most in-demand drummer.  He had just arrived to New York; his next east coast stop following a triple appearance at Newport Jazz Festival.  Harland, who is arguably the hardest working drummer in the jazz biz, played more drums in one day, than most play in a week.  I’ll give you the run down: As one-quarter of the co-led all-star ensemble, James Farm, Harland got started at one 1 PM.  Then, on to trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s group at 2:20 PM.  Then finally playing with saxophonist Charles Lloyd and tabla master Zakir Hussain at 4 PM.  One has to wonder how anyone can wear that many musical hats over the course of a few hours.

I got to ask him about it during sound check of his next performance; a live on-air double bill shared with saxophonist Marcus Strickland and produced by The Checkout’s Josh Jackson for WBGO and NPR Music.  I managed to whisk Harland away, while the rest of his quintet went over some charts.  On keeping it all together, Harland explains that the balance in his personal life helps keep his professional copiousness intact.  “Family gives me a sense of structure, a sense of center, and so if I’m working too much, then that starts to get compromised a little bit.  And you know, I enjoy the money and I enjoy the opportunity of playing, but having a family definitely gives me a deeper connection with music, and the people around the music.”  A father of two young children, Harland’s playing is further influenced by the experiences of parenthood.  “As a father, you make a lot more sacrifices than you would if you didn’t have children or didn’t have a spouse.  And I like taking care of people and nurturing others on stage and stuff.  As long as I keep it balanced and I’m eating [right] and stuff…it’s a beautiful paradise.”

Harland released his debut album Voyager (Space Time) last year to high praises.  The album features the fantastic ensemble of saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Taylor Eigsti, guitarist Julian Lage, and bassist Harish Raghavan.  An album of fiery (and mostly original) tunes, Harland enlightened about his beginnings as a composer.

“Coming from Houston, you always write,” says Harland.  “At least for me, because I started in the church, and so I’ve always kinda had this sound that I wanted to kind of bring to fruition through a band.  I think everyone has a sound that they really want to bring across…but it’s just [a matter of] how to do it, or having the vehicle to do it.”  Unbeknownst to their influence, Harland’s musical family helped drive him toward the drums.  “Piano is my first instrument.  [But] I didn’t pursue the piano because there were too many piano players in my family.  My mom is a piano player, my grandmother, my aunt was, my uncle…he could play piano but he was a trumpet player and a vocalist and stuff…and they were all vocalists as well.  So needless to say, when I was in the room trying to practice, there was all this critiquing going on.  Always someone over your shoulder like, ‘No that’s not right, you gotta play the scale like this.  Put your fingering like this.’  And I was like, you know what?  There was no room to explore…I would just wanna mess up for no reason and just see what that feels like.  So I was also kind of at the same time playing the drums, just kind of messing around with it.  And I think I had more freedom with the drums because no one really knew what was going on.”

Harland honed his skills while he attended Houston’s High School of Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA); a school unparalleled at preparing and producing some of the finest jazz musicians at the academic level.  Harland is in good company as drummers go, with Chris Dave and Kendrick Scott as fellow alumni.  By the time Harland graduated from high school, he had already won a plethora of awards, and was playing professionally.  Harland subsequently came to New York City on full scholarship to the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, and quickly became an in-demand drummer garnering a list of collaborators too extensive to complete.  To name (literally) a few: Wynton Marsalis, Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, McCoy Tyner and Betty Carter, who Harland has a long-standing musical friendship with.  But it was his time with trumpeter extraordinaire Terence Blanchard that would develop Harland as a composer.

Transform was kind of like my first thoroughly thought out piece, you know, that I really had an idea for and I wrote it specifically for that band,” says Harland of his compositional contribution to Blanchard’s album Bounce.  Like, I had Terence in mind, I had [saxophonist] Brice Winston in mind.  [Bassist] Brandon Owens, at the time…and we even tried it a little bit before that.”

Harland also makes a point to discuss the importance of timing.  “Terence was on that edge of like ‘OK, I want to start welcoming other people’s tunes’ but he wasn’t quite ready yet, which was a good thing because I don’t think a lot of our tunes were ready,” confesses Harland.  “I think the change in personnel…also [his] working at the Monk Institute with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter].  That generation still being excited about new things, I think helped open his mind, which gave us the opportunity to write.”

Transform is a fast 7/4 anthem-like piece with strong sensibilities both rhythmically and lyrically.  On Voyager, Harland keeps these elements and  demonstrates his vast pen, with songs ranging from ethereal to explosive.  “I love melody,” says Harland.  “Those are the things that move me.  I mean drums really move me, but I don’t think as much as harmony.  So it’s amazing, drums were always an adjustment.  Like, I had to really learn how to play drums.  Because when I would listen to bands, I would never listen to the drummer.  The lyricism that was going on was more interesting to me than what the drummer would be doing.”

With such an illustrious career, Harland’s fairly recent emergence as a front man has surely been pondered.  Harland explains, “I prefer the background a little bit. I like to observe what’s going on and kinda fix it from the back.  The drums always seemed like a lot of chops, you play super-fast…it’s real showy…and you know, I had to kind of grow to be a showy person.  So I think that’s what took me so long as far as my band.  It took people going ‘Get out there!’  And sometimes you need that because you never know your potential until you really get out there and explore the things that need to be explored.  Just exploring yourself.  I think that’s what life is about.  Just discovering who you are…this time.”

In my examining the composing drummer, I am always fascinated about the process of writing.  As a composer, Harland draws from his complete musical wellness, in addition to the opportunities presented from modern technology.  “At first it started at the piano because that’s what I love,” says Harland.  “But then with all the notation software and stuff like that, you have the freedom to be like a painter, where a painter can just throw paint on the canvas, and then try to find the beauty within the chaos that’s just been presented to him or that he sees.  Well, with the notation software, sometimes I experiment with kind of throwing notes on the page.  Seeing how that sounds, and then orchestrating from a different angel.  Because it gives me a different thing to think about.  And plus it gives me something I would have never come up with unless I took that chance to do that.  Then sometimes I compose from the drums.  I think of some really fun rhythmic idea I really want to do, and then I just mess around with it.”

L-R: Matt Penman, Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks and Eric Harland. (Photo by Jimmy Katz)

Now with an established body of work, it’s full steam ahead for Harland as an artist.  In addition to his own group, Harland is also busy with James Farm; a co-led ensemble of musicians at the height of their powers, which includes saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, and bassist Matt Penman.  The band released their self-titled album in April, and it received critical acclaim across musical boards; a reflection of the goal of the record.  This album speaks to jazz audiences, but not exclusively.  The music is warm, cohesive, and fresh with a perfect balance of intention and profuse unrestraint; a harmony as intriguing as their collective name.

“It’s an acronym,” Harland reveals.  “Josh, Aaron, Matt, and Eric.  The “S” is just the plural form of the name.  Like James’ Farm, but we just left out the apostrophe.  And then “Farm” was just a way to try to describe what we wanted to do.  When you think about a farm, it’s nurturing , organic, something that feeds the body, cultivation, harvest, seed planting…you know. These were things that we felt really related to the style of music we wanted to do.”

As for what’s next for the man who is everywhere doing everything, Harland gives some insight, “I have a certain sound in my head.  So, you know, I think maybe that just comes with age, as I’m getting older….What am I gonna do now?  And then it’s always good to just kind of  have a change to do something different.  I have some ideas…they haven’t been ironed out yet.  I definitely have this one song that I want James Taylor to sing.  But I love taking my time.  I’m like a slow mule…like, I want to just think about it for a while.  When it’s right, I mean it’s just gonna soar.  Because when you develop a sense of trust in something greater, versus it’s just you, because as gratifying as that may feel, it also beings about pressure, feeling like you have to do it.  As long as my desire is there and I can act upon that, it’s going to be beautiful.”

Gil Noble: Jazz, Journalism, Lessons and Legacy

Rest in peace to the GREAT Gil Noble.  A last name such as yours could not be more befitting.  A great debt is owed you from not only the Black community, but the world.  What would journalism be without you?

================================

Originally posted October, 2011

After 43 years on the air, last Sunday, ABC’s Like It Is came to a sudden and saddening end.  Emmy award winning producer and host Gil Noble suffered a stroke this past July, and the fate of the program had been subsequently undetermined.  The last episode, which re-aired yesterday, was hosted by ABC newscaster Lori Stokes and featured Noble’s daughter Lisa, Bill Cosby, Danny Glover, Al Sharpton, journalists Bill McCreary and Les Payne, and New York City Councilman Charles Barron, who praised Noble’s maverick style of journalism, having profiled political prisoners like Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu Jamal.  Noble, who has interviewed some of the most prolific figures in American history, from Adam Clayton Powell, to Muhammad Ali, to Bob Marley, is known for being one of the most provocative journalists of our time.  With Noble ultimately becoming unable to return to the public affairs program, ABC has created a replacement called Here and Now, which is receiving push back from the Black community for its seemingly half-hearted development.  There is also concern that the new program, while promising to pay particular interest to topics relevant to the Black community, will not be in the same raw spirit, which is Noble’s legacy.  If that’s to be so, it’s a real shame.  There has been no other program that has given voice to the totality of Black America — politics, current and public affairs, arts, culture and more — than Like It Is.  Further, I can’t think of a journalist more progressive, introspective, and passionate than Gil Noble.  He was also the first image of a Black journalist that I had ever seen, which made an indelible impression on my conscious and subconscious young mind. Growing up watching Like It Is every Sunday was as routine as afternoon football, church, or any other traditional Sunday activity.  Being part of a household which nurtured both the arts, and social and cultural awareness, Like It Is was a reflection of my real life lessons and experiences, particularly as it pertained to jazz.

Noble, an accomplished pianist who initially pursued a career in music, is an avid jazz lover.  He has been on the Board of Directors and involved with Jazz Foundation of America for many years, and he frequently showcased jazz musicians on his program. Unlike the comically short and incomprehensive interview segments that are so typical when it comes to jazz profiles on television, Noble would dedicate his entire program to the likes of Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Abbey Lincoln, Dr. Billy Taylor, Lena Horne, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Erroll Garner, and Wynton Marsalis.  His narratives, in-depth and introspective, helped develop my broad view of how jazz musicians could be perceived beyond my own personal understanding.  Noble presented jazz in journalism from a vantage unlike anyone else.  He was not only a student and lover of jazz music but a strong advocate for young people having a solid education on the subject.

During his interview with jazz pioneer Sarah Vaughan, she takes him on a tour of her Newark, New Jersey home town, which included a stop by her elementary school.  The children playing in the school yard of the building gravitate toward the cameras, and chat it up with the host and his subject.  As they begin to walk away, Noble stops in his tracks and addresses the students through the school’s gate.  “Do you know who this lady is?,” he asks.  He then responds to the rounds of flat “No’s” with, “No?  That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?” Noble’s blunt yet eloquent scrutiny was his signature.  As he walks away he underscores, “If you don’t know who she is, when you go back to class, ask your music teacher who she is, and why she never told you about her.”

I may have been fortunate to have been exposed to the arts and jazz from a child, therefore enjoying the reinforcement on television, but it was not until adulthood that I realized how immensely crucial and precious this program was for that one example alone.  That the likes of this type of education was reaching a network television audience every week remains monumental.  So you can understand my elation to make his acquaintance about five years ago.

When trumpeter Charles Tolliver was preparing to release his big band album, With Love, he had a distinct vision for his project, down to the liner notes, which he implored Gil Noble to write.  Tolliver, who got his professional start through his friend and mentor, saxophonist Jackie McLean, wanted to pay homage in a personal way.  Noble grew up with McLean in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, and they were best friends from childhood on.  Tolliver thought it would be most fitting and honorable if Noble would pen the notes for his Blue Note debut (which he did, beautifully).

Working on this album with Tolliver, I remember that blustery day, trekking up to ABC in the Lincoln Center vicinity to talk details with Mr. Noble and Mr. Tolliver.  There were full circle moments to go around that day, for both Tolliver and myself.  For me, meeting the man who inspired my perspective about jazz coverage in mainstream media, would prove life-changing.

We sat in a waiting area initially, and then we were brought into Noble’s office.  We waited about ten minutes for him to join us, during which time I timidly perused his immense library of books.  The room was adorned with African artifacts, artwork and posters, including the famed photo of 52nd Street nightlife in New York City, which was the hub for bebop in the 1940s.  When he entered the room, my stomach dropped.  He is a tall man, but his presence was ten times that of his height, though his demeanor is intensely quiet, similar to his on-air persona.  He sat disarmingly relaxed behind his desk, and Tolliver and I opened the conversation.

We talked about music, and Charles’ project, but mostly about Jackie.  J-Mac, as he was nicknamed, had just passed away, and I could see the sadness in Noble’s eyes as he spoke of him.  The loss of his best friend was obviously hard, and the vacancy in Noble’s heart was transparent.  Noble talked about their childhood, their adventures together as teenagers, and he spoke specifically about the way drugs plagued the lives and careers of so many jazz musicians, and how McLean, who suffered from and conquered drug addiction, educated him about the music industry, as it related to the fragility of growing up Black in that era.  It was a conversation that I will never, ever, ever forget.  Getting a one-one-one education from someone as brilliant and wise as Noble, in the presence of a jazz master in Charles Tolliver, discussing a jazz giant in Jackie McLean was an experience I don’t think many are fortunate to have.  Yet now more than ever, these experiences are crucial. The climate of mainstream jazz journalism (and especially criticism) today is not only broadly monochromatic and misguidedly audacious, as usual, but technological advances give voice to virtually anyone who feels like being an authority on jazz, which isn’t always a good thing.  (Examples: Writers who haven’t lived as many years as some artists have had professional careers making proclamations about who is and isn’t innovative, or telling off the Black community of jazz musicians, blaming them for why they are being left out of the dialogue.)

[Taking a deep breath].

Additionally, writers seem to be writing for other writers, rather than using their platforms to work in tandem with the music and nurture a community at large which — fathom this — actually gives a damn.  The dangerous duo of ego and lack of diversity remains the affliction that keeps journalism in jazz from reaching full potential.  Too many journalists in jazz have traditionally put themselves in front of the artists, and ahead of the music. Moreover, there is still a severe lack of proportion when it comes to editorial and coverage of African American jazz musicians.  This subject itself highlights the unfortunate division within jazz as it pertains to race, with Blacks and Whites largely on total opposite ends on the matter. However, if the spectrum of journalists reflected the diversity of the musicians playing this music, we would have a much better representation of the music overall. Balance is crucial, and autonomy in jazz journalism is ridiculous.

What watching Gil Noble all of these years, and having that candid and personal conversation with him has taught me is infinite.  But in more specific terms, what it taught me is that as a writer, especially a writer of color, I have to be passionate about truth.

Your allowance of my elaboration, please.

Tim Soter/WireImage

The beauty of being a writer, or of performing any artistic expression, is freedom.  In that freedom, there is the allowance to see, hear, feel and interpret things as one wishes.  It is truly liberating, and as a writer, I am the last one to impose the gall that I so detest in journalism on other writers.  In other words, “Do you.”  But what I am saying is that as a Black person, writing about a Black art form, which is mainly analyzed, critiqued and examined through the scope of White men, I have a duty beyond being poetic or incitable. There is another level of responsibility, and here lies the essence of Noble’s genius.  His depictions of artists were always supported with a social contextualization (let’s go back to his doubling-back to those students with that message about Sarah Vaughan).  Jazz is one art form that cannot be written about it a bubble, because it is distinctively intertwined with a culture.  Why this is a concept that is resisted and resented in journalism is bewildering to me.

But thank goodness for Gil Noble.  He is my hero.  Acutely informed, with an immense amount of integrity and creativity, he has laid the groundwork that I can only hope to aspire to build upon.  His passion for jazz and politics, and his ability to create a television program which successfully married these subjects for all audiences, for decades, is most inspiring.  Most importantly, his convictions spoke through his journalism, but his journalism did not speak through his convictions.  He didn’t have to spend time identifying who he is to his audience…it’s eloquently obvious in everything he produced.  That’s class.

It is my hope that Like It Is will remain on the air somehow (perhaps through syndication, a-hem, a-hem, BET and TV1, step up).  Most importantly, I hope his wish for the program’s archives to be utilized in schools comes to fruition. It is a sorely needed narrative.

Interestingly, Like It Is debuted just two months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and was largely inspired by this event.  The last broadcast of Like It Is aired on the same day as Dr. King’s memorial dedication.