Harriet Tubman, the trio of guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer J.T. Lewis, have been weird for twenty years now. Their free jazz essence is certainly an acquired taste, however it’s also a free jazz rooted in soul that makes their music so memorable. In the latest album, Araminta, out this Friday on Sunnyside, the band brings along trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith for a raucous collection of songs full of fiery energy, even when the burners are on low. Really, Araminta is truly great.
Frequently, this is an album that wails, as if so many of these songs are played en media res, this energy was here in the first place. The groove that Lewis maintains on the drums is key to his sound. As with anything this free, it’s the beat that acts as an anchor, and Lewis maintains a sturdy one, leaving Ross and Gibbs to create a grungy sound that can go absolutely anywhere and indeed does.
Opener “The Spiral Path to the Throne”, creates an atmosphere where this sound will live, immersing the listener in this soupy experience. It can be overwhelming if it weren’t so infectious. As centerpiece, the eight-minute “Ne Ander” feels like the best kind of sludgy metal, while its seven and half minute follow up “Nina Simone”, slows things down a bit further and adds a touch more bounce. But closer “Sweet Araminta” ties it all together. A simple mood piece flowing over Melvin Gibbs’ bassline that says so much and so little, like the worlds that pass in the middle of church hums. After an album so turbulent, it’s a wondrous reprieve. With an album with this kind of sound so much on the fringes of jazz, it’s this closing track that answers definitively what this album is.
For eight songs spread over forty-five minutes very well-served minutes, Harriet Tubman create an experience. These songs are moods that flow from their instruments rather than songs too clever by half or unlistenable art pieces. This is a groove-based freeness wraps the ears in a hug, give more than enough opportunity to tune out as it does to fully embrace their vibe. Like the best post-rock or psychedelia, this album will grab those fans, it’s got something for the adventurous. One could possibly ascribe those genre names to this work, Araminta has the range. Yet, it’s that groove, those African-American conventions, so still held in JT Lewis’ drum beats, in Melvin Gibbs’ articulation on the bass, on Brandon Ross’ choices, and most certainly in Wadada Leo Smith’s clarion calls, that makes Araminta such a standout jazz album that will haunt the listener for quite some time and not let go.
Araminta, the latest album from the band Harriet Tubman, is out February 24th on Sunnyside Records.
Brandon Ross – guitar
Melvin Gibbs – bass
JT Lewis – drums
Wadada Leo Smith – trumpet
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.