Exhortation and Encouragement: Bill Frisell, Gregg August and Nubya Garcia in Take Five

Jun 22, 2020

Along with a timely track by pianist Mike King, and a video exclusive by Joey Alexander.

Bill Frisell, “We Shall Overcome”

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, no song captured its spirit of dauntless solidarity better than the gospel hymn “We Shall Overcome.” As an anthem and a rallying cry, it played a stirring role in everything from the March on Washington to the 1963 Newport Folk Festival — where Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and others joined the Freedom Singers in performing it as a rousing finale.

It’s in this spirit that guitarist Bill Frisell occasionally performs the song; last year I saw his group Harmony conclude a set with it, Petra Haden leading the audience in a sing-along. And it’s in this spirit that Blue Note just released “We Shall Overcome” as the first single from Frisell’s album Valentine.

 

Due out on Aug. 14, Valentine is the overdue studio debut by Frisell’s fine working trio, with Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. The album largely features original compositions, including the title track — but there are a few choice covers, including a Boubacar Traoré tune and a version of “What the World Needs Now is Love,” which Frisell has recorded live, with a previous trio.

“We Shall Overcome” appears as the set closer: a hopeful valediction. “I’ve been playing the song for years, and I’m going to keep playing it till there is no need anymore,” Frisell says in a press release. “I can’t help but hope that day will come.”

Bill Frisell’s Valentine will be released on Blue Note on Aug. 14; preorder here.

Gregg August, “Letter to America”

A little over a decade ago, bassist Gregg August fulfilled a Jazz Gallery commission with an ambitious, large-format suite called Dialogues on Race. Conceived as a pointed indictment of structural racism in the United States, it draws some of its power from the identity of messenger: August is a white musician who has worked closely with Black artists throughout his jazz career, but he also has extensive experience in orchestral and other classical settings that skew predominately white.


Though it had a long gestation, the album version of Dialogues on Race feels perfectly on time. August distilled some of the suite’s themes, recording it with an ensemble that includes some of his close colleagues (tenor saxophonist JD Allen, pianist Luis Perdomo) as well as an expressive cast of vocalists (like Shelley Washington and Forest Van Dyke).

“Letter to America,” which premieres at WBGO, draws inspiration from a poem by the same title, by the Chicano writer Francisco X. Alarcón. As read by a narrator, Wayne Smith, his words carry indignation but also defiant pride, especially in the last few stanzas:

America
understand
once and for all:

we are
the insides
of your body

our faces
reflect
your future

Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race, Vol. 1 will be released on Aug. 21; preorder here.

Mike King, “Garvey’s Ghost”

Mike King is a young pianist from the South Side of Chicago, where he was mentored by the late Willie Pickens. A product of Lincoln Park High School and the Oberlin Conservatory, he’s a smart, soulful improviser who has been racking up credits on albums by Marquis Hill, Theo Croker and Kassa Overall. This summer King will release his debut, Cascade, which is sure to expand his profile; it opens with a kinetic yet haunting track called “Garvey’s Ghost,” which premieres here.


There are two layers of tribute here: to Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey, and to drummer Max Roach, who introduced “Garvey’s Ghost” on his 1961 album Percussion Bitter Sweet. In King’s state-of-the-art update, the track opens with a wash of sounds, as an electronic remix, before tumbling into rhythmic gear. Along with his Fender Rhodes, you’ll hear Burniss Earl Travis on electric bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums; the wordless vocal melody, originally carried by Abbey Lincoln, is handled smoothly here by Dacia Kings. 

Mike King’s Cascade will be released on Aug. 19; preorder here.

Nubya Garcia, “Pace”

We’ve weighed in here before on the merits of tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia, one of the leading lights on the young London jazz scene. She was recently signed to Concord Jazz, and released single called “Pace,” which she made with noted British producer Kwes. The track finds Garcia drifting over a dreamily propulsive 12/8 polyrhythm, courtesy of a few regular collaborators: keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, bassist Daniel Casimir and drummer Sam Jones.

Garcia, like her compatriot Shabaka Hutchings, has a keen grasp of how to build pressure and momentum in a solo. And as Sidney Madden noted recently in NPR Music’s Heat Check column, the song itself is a study in dynamic flux: “It goes from mellow, warm and spongy to hurried and hectic.” She adds: “For Garcia, this composition is all about diving into the many layers of joy.”

Joey Alexander, “‘Tis Our Prayer”

Warna, the recent album by pianist Joey Alexander, has been hailed as a marker of emerging maturity as well as a leveling-up to the big stage. (It was Alexander’s first release since he signed to Verve last spring.) One thing that hasn’t been noted quite often enough is the broader emotional palette demonstrated on the album — a quality most evident on a softly burnished ballad called “‘Tis Our Prayer.”

This video, premiering here, shows Alexander recording this song in the studio, with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Kendrick Scott. The hymnal properties of the melody ring clear, and you can see how much visual communication the trio maintains, in order to move together through a rippling rubato tempo. According to Verve, Alexander decided to share the video in order to “help comfort anyone who needs to hear soothing music during these unprecedented times.”

Joey Alexander’s Warna is out now on Verve; listen here.