Cascadia Composers May the Fourth

‘The endless expanse of the African savannah’: Harriet Tubman comes to Jack London Revue

The electric jazz trio will perform at the Portland night club in October.

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Harriet Tubman (L to R: Brandon Ross, J.T. Lewis, Melvin Gibbs).
Harriet Tubman (L to R: Brandon Ross, J.T. Lewis, Melvin Gibbs).

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.

Harriet Tubman (L to R: Brandon Ross, J.T. Lewis, Melvin Gibbs).
Harriet Tubman (L to R: Brandon Ross, J.T. Lewis, Melvin Gibbs).

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.

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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.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for this wonderful article preparing Portland for Harriet Tubman’s performance. I had the rather spontaneous opportunity of seeing this collective in NYC at Joe’s Pub, an intimate music venue, around 17 years ago. I was blown away by their sound, the likes of which I had never experienced before. The joy I felt stayed with me throughout the next days. So few promoters understand what their music is about but this band has a strong following. They are ahead of their time and I’m so thrilled to now be able to see them in LA on their west coast tour. Get ready to have your world quaked! Diane

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