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Kick off Black History Month in Take Five: New releases by Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Azar Lawrence and more

As we enter February, WBGO commemorates Black History Month with standout tracks, past and present, in Take Five.

Abbey Lincoln with Max Roach, "Africa (Live at the Harlem Cultural Festival)"

Africa (Summer of Soul Soundtrack - Live at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival)

Few cultural moments of the last year delivered more pure uplift than Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Questlove's justly acclaimed documentary film. Now much the same can be said of the official soundtrack album, featuring iconic performances like The 5th Dimension's "Aquarius / Let the Sunshine In," Ray Barretto's "Together," and David Ruffin's "My Girl." For this edition of Take Five, it seemed only appropriate to feature Abbey Lincoln's commanding performance of "Africa," the John Coltrane composition, which she outfitted with her own lyrics. The band blares behind her, propelled from the drums by her then-husband, Max Roach, as she testifies about "a land of milk and honey" on the River Nile. Lincoln may be singing about the Promised Land, but pay close attention to the fire in her delivery, especially as she enters the home stretch — as if she's saying, We still have a long road ahead.

Nina Simone, "Be My Husband (Hot Chip Remix)"

Nina Simone, Hot Chip - Be My Husband (Hot Chip Remix / Visualizer)

One of the incandescent performers in Summer of Soul is the High Priestess, Nina Simone, whose "Are You Ready" and "Backlash Blues" fulfill a similar role on the soundtrack. It so happens that there's also a new Nina release on the horizon: Feeling Good: Her Greatest Hits & Remixes, which Verve will release on Feb. 11. The album, spread across two CDs, juxtaposes some of Simone's best-loved tracks with new remixes by the likes of Sofi Tukker, Joel Correy and Floorplan. One highlight is Hot Chip's space-disco take on "Be My Husband," which reframes Simone's riveting cry on the original recording as the pivot point in a swirling sonic picture.

Tyler Mitchell, "Angels and Demons at Play (feat. Marshall Allen)"

Angels and Demons at Play

Black History isn't just about backward glances, as Sun Ra forever argued; there's a continuum that stretches further back than our collective memory, and well beyond the visible horizon. That conviction flow through Dancing Shadows, a fine new album by bassist Tyler Mitchell, who logged time in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the mid-1980s. As Mitchell recently told Greg Bryant on Let Me Tell You 'Bout It, the experience was formative. It's the chief inspiration on the album, which finds a place of honor for saxophonist Marshall Allen, who still leads the Arkestra at the earthly age of 97. That's him creating the otherworldly sounds with his Steiner EVI on "Angels and Demons at Play" — a reflective anthem that Allen first recorded with Sun Ra in 1960, for an album by the same name. Here, he and Mitchell are well met by a midsize ensemble with Nicoletta Manzini on alto saxophone, Chris Hemmingway on tenor saxophone, Elson Nascimento on percussion, and Wayne Smith on drums.

Azar Lawrence, "Peace and Harmony"

Azar Lawrence, "Peace and Harmony"

The musical and the metaphysical have always converged in the work of tenor and soprano saxophonist Azar Lawrence, who will turn 70 this fall. A former associate of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, he has often been linked to the legacy of their common touchstone, John Coltrane — a linkage that has at least as much to do with cosmic intention as it does with Lawrence's actual sound. On a forthcoming album, New Sky, due out this Friday on his own Trazar label, Lawrence marshals an ensemble of fellow seekers, including keyboardists John Beasley and Nduduzo Makhathini and drummer Tony Austin. Bask in the grooving positivity on "Peace and Harmony," and you'll have a good idea of the message Lawrence intends to convey.

Luke Stewart's Silt Trio, "Roots"

Luke Stewart — bassist, bandleader, composer and organizer — has been an MVP on the Washington, D.C. improvised-music scene for the better part of a decade now, and he's showing no signs of easing up. Now, on the heels of a vital release by Irreversible Entanglements, he's introducing his Silt Trio, a free-jazz powerhouse with Brian Settles on saxophones and Chad Taylor on drums. On "Roots," a highlight from the band's new album, The Bottom, Stewart and Taylor construct a rolling thicket of polyrhythm, in 11/8 meter. Settles' tenor improvisation over this churn is powerful and measured, like a high-powered searchlight in the deepening dark.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.