Black Music Matters, Vol. 3: Smell the roses

Amenta Abioto takes a walk, Tony Ozier conceptualizes

Last year, Third Angle New Music released a list of local composers they’d be working with on their new “Soundwalks” series. It was an exciting list, and the series is now five episodes in, including this month’s episode with percussionist and sound wizard Loren Chasse. The biggest names in that lineup are Darrell Grant and Andy Akiho, with the entire series being a study in artistic diversity, but one name stood out: Amenta Abioto. Because out of all the various local and/or living composers Third Angle has worked with over the years (and in series like this one), Abioto is the Oregonian musician I’d most like to see in a Caroline Shaw-style profile concert.

Abioto is well known for her solo live shows, in which she uses an array of looping technologies to support improvised layers of vocals, synths, and percussion. I know her from her 2013 release Opening Flower Hymns, available on Bandcamp (oh and look, First Friday is almost here). It was very easy for me to fall in love with this album, not least for how it recalls two of my old favorites: Björk’s almost-entirely-vocal Medúlla; and Circlesongs, the Bobby McFerrin plus Voicestra album we mentioned last time.

Abioto describes Opening Flower Hymns like this:

This album is Amenta’s improv and theater piece. This album contains the voices of the stars above and the flowers below.

Vicious and New.

Welcome to the flower bed.

Glorious though all this stuff is, I expect that a concert like the one I’m imagining would be less like Abioto’s usual act and more like the music video she made last June for the second episode of Oregon Symphony’s Essential Sounds series, taking the spotlight with a mic and a table full of gear, performing her song “Revolution” with violinists Keiko Araki and Samuel Park, violist Brian Quincey, and superstar cellist Marilyn de Oliveira. The full episode also features Debussy and Mozart and a segment in which composer Timo Andres teaches clarinetist James Shields how to cook a pot of beans.

In the episode, Abioto talks about the song, and what it means:

There’s a lot this country needs to explore, and understand, and comprehend about itself.  And how it’s going to move forward, and how it’s going to be, just, something different. Transformation–that’s what “Revolution” is about.

“Revolution” was recently released as a standalone video, complete with quarantine-era film magick. I invite you to imagine a whole concert of this, perhaps in the cozy back studio New Expressive Works on Southeast Belmont, once we can do such things again.

Reckonings, revolutions and responsibilities

If you don’t live in Portland, you may have been wondering if these soundwalks still have value absent the local flavor. Abioto’s is set in Southeast Portland’s Whitaker Ponds Natural Area, a three-day hike from where I live. You can get Gary Ferrington’s take on these soundwalks right here, and of course you can download them all from Third Angle and judge for yourself. My instinct, as an ex-Portlander, is to simply take these soundwalk recordings in the spirit they were intended and translate that to my own version of “local,” in this case a thicket of nearby forest trails. It’s music for a walk in nature, that’s all–the ability to actually go do the actual thing at the actual place is, perhaps, incidental.

And we do still have the booklets to go with these soundwalk recordings, which gives them the aura of an old bootleg of some classic concert–a feeling my taper culture pals and other radioheads will understand. “It was epic man, shoulda been there, here’s the program and a bunch of photos.” In Abioto’s booklet, the composer stalks the area in a mask, adding to the surreal “reports from elsewhere” vibes.

One thing that thrills me about this particular soundwalk is how Third Angle has effectively doubled Abioto’s recorded output–hardly surprising for an organization whose record label arm is second only to PJCE in terms of releasing new music by Oregonian composers. So let’s refer to this soundwalk as if it really were an album, a follow-up to Opening Flower Hymns, and for a title we’re tempted to simply italicize the name on the wav file you can download from 3A’s website: Whitaker Ponds Soundwalk Final 2. But you can see from the booklet that Abioto already has a title in mind: Ase.

Ase is a fantastical expression and reflection of life, love, death, and the eternal nature of being.

Ase means “so be it,” “it is done,” in Yoruba. It is often said after prayer. The Soundwalk explores the boundless legacies of nature and living spirit within all things.

Ase is a tribute of personal and collective existence, reckonings, revolutions and responsibilities.

Dear reader, it turns out Ase works just fine as a traditional forty-minute album, complete with cool liner notes. Six longish songs, all at a nice relaxed andante pace, intricate layers of subtle musical textures unfolding in their own time, swirling around under songs and instrumentals and a guest appearance from Abioto’s father, flutist Ekpe Abioto. I’d buy this CD for sure.

Here, as on Opening Flower Hymns, you can hear the impressive array of musical tools Abioto has at her disposal–a variety of synths, looping devices, drums and percussion; the occasional acoustic guitar; and the composer’s versatile singing voice, which she uses for dense harmony parts, folksy lyrical melodies, and more than a little dreamy vocoder work. The easy comparison to similar artists like Reggie Watts or Imogen Heap should not obscure the more important point. This toolkit gives Abioto’s music a high degree of autonomy and intimacy, the same elegant density you hear in similarly-constructed music by other local auteurs like Erica dal Bassa, Joe Kye, Dolphin Midwives, Mare Cognitum, and so on.

Ase represents a definite evolution for the composer as she shifts from the earlier live improvised live stuff to a more song-based approach. It’s a little like moving from theater into film, which is probably why the video for her 2019 song “Plant It”–directed by Portland filmmaker Alberta Poon–looks like a cross between Wayne White’s legendary ‘80s videos for Peter Gabriel and, well, every Björk video ever. Abioto describes this one as “an entryway into plant magic and earth fantasy.” Can we start hoping for a follow-up to Opening Flower Hymns and Ase, full of songs like “Revolution,” “Plant It,” and her 2018 EP Wade?

Ozier’s flavors

Local singerbandleaderproducer Tony Ozier has released a ton of music over the last several years, including a string of singles he started cranking out last February–you can find all of that and more on his Bandcamp page. But today we’d like to introduce you to an older one, from 2015: Ozier’s third full-length album 36 Flavas.

The obvious comparison for Ozier’s music is the Parliament-Funkadelic universe, and this album has plenty of that majestic group’s sci-fi flavor. Better still, most of the songs on 36 Flavas echo the spookier end of the P-Funk sound, with rich minor-key riffs and harmonies that recall classic mind-benders like “Maggot Brain,” “The Goose,” and of course “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” But to my ear, what 36 Flavas really calls to mind is a pair of albums recorded by two of the finest musicians from the P-Funk orbit: Bernie Worrell’s 1993 masterpiece Blacktronic Science, and singer Glenn Goins’ 1978 album with his post-Parliament band Quazar.

I just love a thoroughly composed album, don’t you? The kind that hangs together as a coherent multi-movement suite of connected musical and lyrical themes, arranged with an ear for overall balance and narrative flow. It doesn’t have to be a “concept album” exactly, although 36 Flavas is also that. What really sells it for me is how we have a distinct Side A and Side B, well-balanced in terms of theme, mood, genre.

The album starts with a spooky-funky little intro, followed by four haunting down-tempo songs. Low synths, sparse-but-heavy beats, glittering piano and celeste; sad songs that will get stuck in your head, especially that hook from “Playground.” The side ends on an upbeat note with the Princely “Mrs. Starfighter,” a duet with singer AB that would sound right at home on Around the World in a Day or 1999.

Side B opens with “Innerlude,” balancing the “Intro” that opens Side A, and then shifts from the first half’s somber mood to a vibe which is still minorish but more exuberant, with the dubby, clubby, anthemic “Just Because” leading the way. The album closes like a good concert with “36 Flavas,” a thumpingly traditional Parliament-style funk breakdown, horn section and all (trumpeter Farnell Newton and trombonist Kyle Molitor). For an encore you get two bonus remixes: a very different, down-tempo “Mrs. Starfighter” and a synthtastic take on “Funk’d Up.”

I leave you with this video of Ozier and the band and a half-dozen percussionists involved in one of their long-running Dookie Jams. This one’s from January 2010. Enjoy!

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

Website | + posts

Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, writer, and alchemist specializing in the intersection of The Weird and The Beautiful.

An incorrigible wanderer who spent his teens climbing mountains and his twenties driving 18-wheelers around the country, Matthew can often be found taking his nightly dérive walks all over whichever Oregon city he happens to be in.

He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

Complaints, requests, and other commentary should be directed to music@orartswatch.org.

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.