Black Music Matters, Volume One: Black Messiahs

In Black History Month, a good time to freshen up and start a new tradition of seeking out and hearing Black music.

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A little while back, I was watching a Portland Opera video of local composer Damien Geter singing a bunch of music by Black composers, and under his slick blazer you could just make out a t-shirt reading “Black Music Matters.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase and the key word “matters” (as have we all, no doubt)–along with the implication that Black music has, for too long, not mattered for many audiences.

February is Black History Month, not Black Music Month (that’s in June, thanks to Presidents Carter and Obama). But this month which we’ve collectively set aside for appreciating Black history is also the shortest month of the year, so it’s quite obviously not the only time we should be paying attention. Let’s consider this month a good time to take stock, freshen up, and perhaps start a new tradition of deliberately seeking out and hearing Black music.

Now, I don’t want to make any assumptions about your existing relationship with Black music. Maybe you can rattle off the entire history of the Wu-Tang Clan and trace the threads of the myriad solo careers launched therefrom; maybe you don’t know RZA from GZA. Maybe you can talk all day about John Coltrane’s magical “Giant Steps Matrix” and its impact on jazz forever after; maybe you can’t tell the difference between Trane’s tenor and, say, Joe Henderson’s.

Hell, maybe you call yourself “colorblind” and don’t care whether the music you listen to is made by Black people, or Brown people, or Irish people, or Scandinavians, or the same old Russians and Austrians. Or maybe you already make a point of setting aside February (or June) as a time for educating your ears and broadening your mind by discovering new and old music by Black creators.

Whatever the case, I hope this series will bring you joy. My purpose here–today and every week–is not to give you lists of “Essential Black Music.” You can get that anywhere, and you already have a deep backlog of DAMNs and Lemonades and A Love Supremes to get into. No, the point here is to bring you just a few albums every week, at least two but not more than four, all by Black artists. And we have two great rivers to draw from: new local stuff, and underappreciated classics from the vast wealth of Black musical history.

We start today with proggy jazz from the ‘70s, dubby thrash from the ‘80s, and new music by one of Portland’s favorite rappers. But first, we’d like to return to Mr. Geter singing more Black classical music in a recent recital with famed Portland State accompanist Chuck Dillard.

Awake in the Matrix

It’s easy to get caught up in The Mic Crenshaw Phenomenon: he is an activist, an educator, a mentor, a musical director, and a big part of what makes KBOO great. But even if you recognize his name and laud his social work, do you really know what his music sounds like? I mean, have you sat down and listened to one of his albums?

If so, great! You already know about the LP I want to tell you about today: the aptly-titled Rebel Wise, a collaboration with relative newcomer Neo Vecci (aka Quincy Davis) recorded and released during the Longest Year Ever. Over the course of a vinyl-friendly forty-one minutes, these guys (and a dozen-odd guests) spool out a lyrical saga of nerdy Black excellence.

Now, when I say “nerdy” I’m not just talking about the references to The Matrix and other spiritual and sci-fi matters that illuminate nearly every track. Nor am I talking about Vecci’s delicious, internationally-conscious production, or the globe-spanning collaborations. I’m not even talking about the narrative through-line that elevates Rebel Wise from “album” in the sense of “collection of songs” to “album” in the sense we usually reserve for proggy concept albums.

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What I mean is all of that and more–I’m talking about what legendary local comic book author David Walker calls “the language of friendship.” It’s about a shared set of perspectives and references that enable us to talk to each other about complex issues, and it’s about tying that all together into a rich and utterly human musical statement.

Consider how these lines from throughout the album really tie the room together:

The ancient eyes see

The timing is good for this assignment

And we give our stamp of approval

Through the shadow of the real world, your heart is the guide

In this dimension captivated by illusions you will be taken to the edge of life and death, in order to remember your sacred gifts, with a responsibility to deliver this original expression

If you don’t offer what you have for the world, it will be lost

It is your job to keep the channel open, clearly and directly

True power flows through the hollerbone, translated through you into action

Warrior for life

Center to the path ahead and the path behind, in continuity with the ancestors, aligned with creation, dancing towards the new dawn, remembering the ceremony

Life

We salute the courage of the rebel wise

Enjoy the ride, and remember

Remember

Remember

“Matriarx” featuring Mama C

Awake in the Matrix

Time to recognize holograms and facts

Awake in the Matrix

Slinging these redpills, swallowed as facts

“Warrior Vow” featuring Ashel Seasunz

There’s nothing wrong with us except how we see or don’t see. We live in the right time and the right place to meet the need of the evolution. If we understand that then we will be up to it and we will meet that need. Because we cannot control what’s going to happen in the future. But how we use our individual and collective coherency will influence the evolutionary outcome of what this reactionary non-thinking exploitive manipulative beast has in mind.

We cannot outfight them. There may be times to fight, but we cannot outfight them. Because they invented that kind of death. Through history, since they invented that kind of death, every provocation has been to get us at some point to try to outfight them.

And so to me it’s like, no, in reality we got to outthink them.

“Eulogy for John Trudell” featuring Claudia Cuentas and John Trudell

I see we glued to all these screens, what’s a human left to be?

Technological addiction turning children into fiends

I been that kid in the basement looking to escapism

Without wisdom turn the brain into the state prison

That’s what I mean when I say invisible cages

“Children of the Sun”

Spiritual malady infects reality

Technicalities protect your salary

Violence in the street, you turn the other cheek

Turn your back on your brother so we’re silent when he speaks

Ignoring the plight of your mother, denying her the peace

Ice turn to steam, fire in the stream

The nightmare’s right there in the American Dream

From this perspective the projection for the environment is bleak

More questions than answers, destined for cancer, sickness of an era

When you haven’t had the chance to grow to a ripe age

This day makes way for the next ice age

The rage I fear was a reflection of the collective weakness of the will

That evil is real

In order for the people to heal, we gotta be able to feel

The truth at the root of what the seeds reveal

“One in the Same” featuring Freddie Flowpez and Annie Sea

We will rise, yeah, we will rise

We will ride until the end

We will find you

We will find all we need is all within

As we rise Rise and hold on through the dawn

We will find a way home

“Through the Dawn” featuring Antonia Marquee

The Black Messiah

This Friday, you get to savor one of entertainment’s few nice pandemic updates: home streaming of newly-released movies. (Back in the bad old days, if you weren’t able to catch one of these big name flicks at the movie theater, you had to “wait for video.”) The exciting release this week is Judas and The Black Messiah, starring two Black actors you’ll probably recognize: Daniel “Get Out” Kaluuya and Lakeith “Stick to the Script” Stanfield.

What, you haven’t watched Get Out and Sorry To Bother You yet? Get on it!

There’s a long list of Essential Reading if you want to be informed about Black History this Month, and hopefully you’ve been spending time with Dr. King’s historic letters and speeches while also paying attention to living scholars like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michelle Alexander, and the Reverend Doctor William Barber. There’s no shortage of streamable documentaries and podcasts, especially now, but for nerds like me the hyperreal fiction you get from auteurs like Jordan Peele, Boots Riley, and Black Messiah director Shaka King is really where it’s at (oh and you can add all the Spike Lee Joints to that list of Essentials).

If I could get white America to understand only one under-understood facet of the Civil Rights Movement, it would be the fate of Fred Hampton. You can get the facts themselves any time you like, but Hampton’s story hasn’t received the same cinematic treatment as better-known figures like James Brown and Malcolm X. And that matters a great deal, because when you think of the Black Panthers you probably don’t think about how one of their most iconic, peaceful leaders was assassinated by–let’s not pull our punches here–the white American establishment.

Anyhow, while you’re waiting for Judas and the Black Messiah you can get in the mood with a classic album which shares the punchy part of that title. We’ll skip D’Angelo’s Black Messiah (a lovely album, but a bit “mainstream” for our tastes) and dive straight into Cannonball Adderley’s live recording The Black Messiah.

You might think of Cannonball as “the other sax player on Kind of Blue,” which is not-quite-unfair considering how much Davis and Coltrane dominate that room–but this is exactly why we want to tell you about this album. As jazz started going electric in the sixties, it was Davis who got most of the attention, for better or worse, with classics like In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew and the love-it-or-hate-it On The Corner.

But Adderley’s take on electric jazz swings and sizzles, and although none of it has the manic Stockhausenisch edge of Davis’ more searing experiments, it more than makes up for that by sounding a lot more like music. And, unlike way-too-cool Miles, Cannonball actually talks to his audience. Like, a lot–and that’s part of the fun of this double live album, with its abundance of chatter about the band and the music. Adderley makes a hilarious MC, dishing out stuff like this bit introducing “Dr. Honoris Causa” late in the first set:

We’re going to do a tune composed by a man who used to play piano with us, whose name is Joe Zawinul, and it’s dedicated to another guy who plays piano, whose name is Herbert Hancock. People get familiar sometimes and reduce a man’s name, and it comes out “Herbie.” Anyhow, this piece of music is dedicated to Herbie Hancock, in honor of his alma mater awarding him an honorary doctorate degree, which is some other sort of establishment virtue when you dig it, you know? But Herbie accepted it, so under the circumstances who are we to question it?

The Black Messiah was recorded in August 1971 at The Troubadour, a darling little Los Angeles club which is soaked with tons of history and still the best thing about West Hollywood. Adderley’s quintet is in extremely fine form here, having settled into a lineup that would end up cranking out several terrific ‘70s jazz albums while touring the world. This is almost exactly the same group you heard at the infamous Monterey Jazz Festival in 1970, Adderley’s sax and brother Nat’s cornet backed superbly by the funky bass and drums of Walter Booker and Roy McCurdy. You can hear the beginning of Booker’s run on another fabulous album with this group, Country Preacher, and McCurdy had been the quintet’s drummer since the days of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!”

But there’s one substitution here: the spot originally held by keyboardist-composer Zawinul, who’d started working with Adderley in the early ‘60s and would later find a great deal of success reporting on the weather. For the Troubadour shows, Zawinul’s keyboard spot is taken over by George Duke, who had contributed to Adderley’s fairly odd 1970 concept album Love, Sex, and the Zodiac. Duke, who also composed The Black Messiah’s title track, ended up staying with the group until Cannonball’s death in 1975. You might know his distinctive electric piano work from the best of Frank Zappa’s albums, recorded around the same time as The Black Messiah.

The other big stars of this show are Ernie Watts, guesting on tenor sax and flute, and Airto Moreira with his array of Brazilian percussion. Moreira–fresh off a string of sessions with Davis, as well as the release of his first few solo albums with wife Flora Purim and bassist Ron Carter–adds a particularly satisfying layer to all the funkiness. An untitled extended improvisation featuring Moreira, Watts, and Booker is another of the show’s highlights.

But for all the jazzy electric funk, to my ears The Black Messiah sounds like a prog album–and that’s how we would think of it if the bandleader weren’t a Black man with a saxophone and a sense of humor. This progginess is especially audible on the longer numbers: the Duke and Zawinul tunes, Nat and McCurdy’s “The Chocolate Nuisance,” and the Cannonball composition “The Steam Drill.” While all this was happening, your favorite Olde English Progge bands were still stealing from Bartók and cranking out weak tea like “All Good People” and “Happy Family.”

Sailing on

Speaking of genre: Black music in America is all too often damned to one of two major genre categories (broadly speaking, hip-hop and jazz). It’s criminally unfair, of course, not least because it obscures the foundational work of Black musicians across all genres.

Consider Bad Brains. When you listen to their first albums from out here in futuristic 2021, they still sound like the greatest punk band of all time. But can you imagine hearing this shit forty years ago? The quartet of Rastafarians started by dreaming of forming–no kidding–a Billy Cobham-style jazz fusion band back in 1977. Two years later and they were playing so loud and so fast they were starting riots, eventually getting themselves banned in D.C. And since all that was clearly still not badass enough, they also started adding elements of funk, metal, and reggae–exacerbating internal genre tensions that would keep the band on their toes and out of the limelight for the rest of their career.

Bad Brains–their first album, recorded in New York in 1981–introduces the basic formula: start strong and thrash like hell for eight minutes (five songs) and then get suuuuuper chill for a dubby two-and-half-minutes that feel like a sweaty half-hour. Another two-and-half-minutes of thrashtown and then four whole minutes of more reggae. Another five upbeat songs (nine minutes) and then nine minutes of reggae. The whole thing takes thirty-six minutes, or thirty-six years, or thirty-six centuries. No wonder they had people howling out onto the streets. It’s not exactly music for sitting around to.

What amazes me is how much musical originality runs through this high-energy-low-energy alternating current. For instance, no punk record should have this many brain-bending riffs and ass-kicking guitar solos–but nobody told guitarist Dr. Know or bassist Darryl Jenifer. Nor should any proper punk record have so many catchy hooks to hum along with. Honest to gods, I often find myself singing “Sailin’ On” while I’m cooking, bouncing around and vibing on singer H.R.’s P.M.A.

A final word before I leave you to your listening. It’s about that acronym, P.M.A., which stands for “Positive Mental Attitude.” In a 2015 Wax Poetics profile, Jon Kirby quotes Jenifer explaining the matter:

What we discovered was, P.M.A. was really the Great Spirit. Think and Grow Rich worked for Andrew Carnegie back in the Industrial Age, helped him make money out of these concepts of positive thinking.

PMA—that was big on us. That would keep us cool in the hood. And then, guess what PMA was? It was Rasta. It’s like an advancement of a concept about making money being pushed into, ‘Okay, now there’s a Black Jesus,’ so to speak—something I can identify with in terms of spirituality.

We’re the thinking man’s punk. So we know our message is that of peace and love and Positive Mental Attitude. That’s what we really stood and stand for. In music, we have a background of progression. When I imagine a riff, it’s like a big wall falling down.

The next key is keeping at it. That’s when you advance. That’s when you progress in anything.

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.

About the author
Editor / Correspondent | Website

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.

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