While jazz and poetry are two artistic media that frequently gravitate around one another (hell, they even share an appreciation month in the United States), there aren’t so many instances where they meld into a work that feels Capital-I Important. Certainly not like the utterly exquisite Liberation Narratives, the collection of songs commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago for Mitchell to compose to accompany the work of her friend and colleague Haki R. Madhubuti.
Madhubuti hasn’t recorded an album since 1970, and that was with the late great Geri Allen. Perhaps that’s why the album has such weight to it, like it’s carrying the mantle of his contemporary Gil Scott-Heron. The lilt of that rather specific spoken word poetry intonation is there and merits it entirely as Madhubuti is grappling with the truths of the black experience. Who has authority? How have and should black people identify themselves? How have we progressed and how even should we define it? Wasn’t Gwendolyn Brooks amazing? This is heady stuff, the stuff that Madhubuti has turned over in his work for decades and in this selected collection of his poetry, Mitchell has accompanied this work giving it the weight in music that such subject matter merits.
However, it must be said how well Madhubuti’s voice is with this ensemble. His spoken words in his dynamic cadence meld perfectly with Ugochi’s singing. Pharez Whitted plays the trumpet with a little bit of stank on it. Tomas Fujiwara never fails to impress on the drums– in straight-ahead, in Afrobeat, in weirdness, in everything. Nicole Mitchell’s arrangements have these great stylistic shifts that this group makes on a dime, but it’s Fujiwara’s adaptability to it all on percussion that shines in particular.
Liberation Narratives was recorded live two days after the election of Donald Trump as US president, performed right after the mathematical reminder that yes, this is the America we remember that never did care for us and wants to remind us that it can still make us feel it in the systems around us. The album is a performance of catharsis that thankfully was preserved not only as a snapshot of magnificent blackness in that moment of 2016, or our present moment of 2017, or of all the moments since the 1960s that Haki Madhubuti show us aren’t all that different, but also of the reminders that we can feel that reassurance, in word and in music, that when it gets down for us again, we can still endure. We always have. That’s what liberation narratives are– a story we tell to get us through, to get us out, to make us free one day.
Nicole Mitchell – flutes
Ugochi – vocals
Pharez Whitted – trumpet
Tomeka Reid – cello
Rene Baker – violin
Miguel de la Cerna – piano
Harrison Bankhead – bass
Tomas Fujiwara – drums
Liberation Narratives, the new live album from flautist/composer/arranger Nicole Mitchell and poet Hari K. Madhubuti, is out Friday, September 29th on Third World Press. You can buy it on her Bandcamp.
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.