Sharp Visions of America by Wynton Marsalis, Kahil El'Zabar, Fay Victor and Dave Douglas

Nov 1, 2020

An Election Week special in Take Five

Kahil El’Zabar, “America the Beautiful”

The prolific percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, a longtime anchor of the creative scene in Chicago, has been thinking carefully about what it means to be an American in the world today. That perspective shines through, in ways both direct and oblique, on Kahil E’Zabar’s America the Beautiful, a stirring new album on the British label Spiritmuse.


Opening and closing with a minor-key arrangement of an American anthem, the album features collaborators like cellist Tomeka Reid, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, and the late baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett (in his final recorded performance).

Elsewhere on the album, this ensemble transforms fare like “Express Yourself” and “How Can We Mend a Broken Heart,” with a spirit of reflection that El’Zabar clearly modeled. “We have all been taught to view or envision the world through an acculturated lens,” he writes in his liner notes. “The big question is, can we create now our own vision of what we would hope the world to be?”

Dave Douglas, “Fair Fight”

Trumpeter, composer and longtime progressive activist Dave Douglas initially released Marching Music through Greenleaf Music’s subscription series, in early March. (At the time, we featured a track in Take Five.) Douglas has now issued the album — a collection of pointedly titled pieces for a band with Rafiq Bhatia on guitar, Melvin Gibbs on electric bass and Sim Cain on drums – for the general public, through Greenleaf’s Bandcamp store.


“Fair Fight” is the obvious track to promote this week — a reminder that impartiality and integrity are critical to the election process, and an implicit critique of any person who would seek to sow doubts for political gain. “This is the moment when everyone has to step up and be a part of what our nation truly is,” Douglas wrote in a recent note to his mailing list. “We can do it. May this music help and inspire you. I am optimistic and believe that we can make change, but we have to all be involved and engaged.”

Fay Victor’s SoundNoiseFUNK, “What’s Gone Wrong”

Fay Victor is a vocalist and composer with a proud history of social commentary, and a fearless commitment to discovery. In her working ensemble SoundNoiseFUNK, she engages fully with an outright all-star team: soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, guitarist Joe Morris and drummer Reggie Nicholson. Their second album, just out on ESP-Disk is plainly titled We’ve Had Enough.


“What’s Gone Wrong” is an impassioned lament that finds Victor repeating its title phrase, along with a secondary clause (“…with the world?”). There is despair in her rhetorical question, which doesn’t seem to expect an answer — but there’s also clear determination in the way Victor and her improvising partners work through their development. Without putting words in their mouth, I’d suggest that their cohesive oneness is one answer to another open question: what’s going right?

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, “Mr. Good Time Man”

The Ever Fonky Lowdown, a grand satirical opus by Wynton Marsalis, doesn’t go in for simplicity or subtlety. It’s an indictment of the age-old American tradition of political hucksterism, wielded for the sake of profit and at the cost of human freedoms. On the album, as in the piece’s 2018 concert premiere, actor Wendell Pierce provides running commentary as Mr. Game, a devilish master of ceremonies who plays to the public’s prejudice, insecurity, fear and tribal loyalty.

“Mr. Good Time Man” is a piece that folds in Marsalis’ critique of contemporary Black culture. (In a preamble titled “They, Too, Want to Be Winners,” Mr. Game declares: “Losers have two choices: entertain us by playing out our vision of them as meek, emasculated jesters… or excite us, playing out our vision of them as dangerous captured savages.”) The ideas play out in the arch lyrics of the tune, sung in turn over an old-time New Orleans groove by Camille Thurman, Ashley Pezzotti, and Christie Dashiell.

Awakening Orchestra, “i can see my country from here​.​, iii. ethos, pathos, logos.”

An 18-piece ensemble led by composer-conductor Kyle Saulnier, The Awakening Orchestra combines modern orchestration with a deep concern for the American ideal. Th group’s new album, volume ii: to call her to a higher plain, explores this subject from a few different vantage points; at its heart is a suite-like piece (press notes call it Saulnier’s Symphony No. 2), “i can see my country from here.”


The third movement of that piece, “ethos, pathos, logos,” is named after Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion — and it’s up for debate which of those qualities is the best reflection of this year’s campaign discourse. Saulnier’s writing is focused and sure, and he provides a fine platform for collaborators like Seneca Black, Nadje Noordhuis and Remy Le Boeuf. This is music of clear conviction, matched by strong execution.