Most of us know Harriet Tubman as a one-time-slave-turned-abolitionist who risked her life for her freedom and that of at least 70 other Black people two centuries ago.
But there’s another Harriet Tubman–for 25 years, there’s been a three-person band carrying on her name and legacy.
Tubman’s name, band members say, is a reminder that “we don’t want to be slaves to anything,” as Harriet Tubman the band bassist Melvin Gibbs said in a Zoom interview earlier this month with bandmates J.T. Lewis and Brandon Ross.
The New York CIty-based band, who will be playing a 9 p.m. Oct. 28 show at Jack London Revue in downtown Portland, is all about freedom. The trio, or collective as the band sometimes calls itself, has been together since 1998 – “a generation,” says drummer J.T. Lewis, who came up with the name when he realized that the three were making music with abandon when they tried out a few songs together: “I had an epiphany. This is freedom. It’s like Harriet Tubman.”
And so the band has played on, and though it has remained under the official radar and never won a Grammy nor snagged a nomination in DownBeat’s yearly jazz awards and polls, it has captured the attention of Rolling Stone, the Paris Review, the New York Times and National Public Radio, whose critic called its music “Black music at its best,” partly meaning its gift to capture the broad range of worldwide Black music. Rolling Stone magazine wrote: “Imagine the Venn diagram overlap of Jimi Hendrix Band of Gypsies, electric Miles Davis at its gnarliest, and Lee Scratch Perry’s murky dub.”
Throw in Mississippi Delta music, John Coltrane without his saxophone, and “the endless expanse of the African savannah,” as the group calls it, and there you have it – or some of it.
Though the band resists labels and categories, a collection of adjectives describes the kind of music it plays, not necessarily in this order: eclectic, expansive, loud, mostly electric, soulful, genre-less or of many genres, Black, innovative, different every time, in the moment – and without a woman.
OK, so many jazz bands describe themselves like that. So to be more – or less – precise: “I would say that many of those words indicate an area of creativity that our music could inhabit,” said guitarist/composer Brandon Ross in a post-Zoom email. An Esperanza Spalding admirer, Ross added that “`Open Music’ is a term I have used along the way as well as `Creative Music,’ however neither gets to the core of what our music can and does sound like. My most recently invented descriptor is `Planetary rEvolution Music.’ No one has ANY idea what this is — but I do think most people might be intrigued by the implications of the term, and for the most part, it seems non-exclusionary and inclusive. If I saw a band describing their music as being THAT, I would want to GO HEAR IT.”
And don’t confuse Harriet Tubman’s ideas of freedom with influential saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s free jazz – or “free-for-all” approach to playing jazz that left behind the mid-20th- century standards – a jazz movement that encouraged extreme improvisation. Harriet Tubman’s music is not exactly that.
Ross, whose father, the late Clarence “Candy” Ross, crossed most nights a half century ago into New York City from New Jersey by bus to play trombone and sing with Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Mercer Ellington and others, continues to describe Harriet Tubman’s music and vibe: “It isn’t free music in the pejorative sense, but rather, exploratory and obedient to the primary aspects of musical expression: melody/harmony/rhythm. And perhaps more importantly we access along a musical continuum of `Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future,’ to quote the Art Ensemble of Chicago that provides a musical DNA we freely draw from.”
The band has produced several albums, the last of which is 2018’s The Terror End of Beauty. Several preceded it, including the 2017 Araminta –titled for Tubman’s first name before she changed it to Harriet when she left her husband and dedicated herself to freeing fellow slaves. Though members work with other musicians and have accompanied big names through their careers including Herbie Hancock, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Femi Kuti, Cassandra Wilson, James Blood Ulmer and others, Ross says that Harriet Tubman “is a priority.”
The band visited Portland in 2018 and earned praise from noted jazz critic Nate Chinen when it performed at the Earshot Festival in Seattle before their Portland visit. Chinen called their show the best live concert of the year.
So you’re in for a show Oct. 28, even if you had to wait five years to hear it.