Black lives matter. We hold this truth to be self-evident, and yet it needs to be said.
Over the past two weeks, since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, there has been a reckoning in America and around the world. And as we have seen before, musicians are responding in urgent fashion.
This past Saturday, pianist and Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste spearheaded WE ARE, a march in Manhattan with the exuberant spirit of a New Orleans parade. The songs featured in this week’s Take Five, by and large, strike a heavier tone — but the message and motivation are the same.
Ambrose Akinmusire, “Hooded procession (read the names outloud)”
A decade ago, when Ambrose Akinmusire recorded his first album for Blue Note Records, he included an unconventional track called “My Name Is Oscar” — an elegy for Oscar Grant III, who had died senselessly at the hands of transit police in Akinmusire’s hometown of Oakland, Calif. The track consists of a spoken-word poem over a drum solo, its power deriving partly from that starkness and partly from a furious moral clarity.
Akinmusire, a leading jazz trumpeter of our time, has revisited this idea on each of his subsequent studio albums — including his latest, on the tender spot of every calloused moment, which releases on Friday. Last month we shared the first single from the album, which showcases both his trumpet calisthenics and the intuitive resources of his band. The album concludes with a more mournful gesture, titled “Hooded procession (read the names outloud).”
The only instrument on the track is a Fender Rhodes piano, which Akinmusire uses to produce a series of ringing chords. Notably, there’s no recitation of names, as in his previous pieces in this mode. There’s no vocal at all, in fact — though the act of naming is present in the form of a parenthetical instruction.
During dozens (hundreds?) of protests across the country last week, two of the more common chants were “Say his name!” and “Say her name!” (to be answered respectively by “George Floyd” and “Breonna Taylor”). Akinmusire is making a space here for your voice, and for mine — and it’s hard not to feel the determined spirit of those protests in his gradual turn to a halcyon major key.
on the tender spot of every calloused moment will be released on Blue Note on Friday; preorder here.
Terrace Martin, “Pig Feet” (feat. Denzel Curry, Kamasi Washington, G Perico, Daylyt)
Over the last few years, Terrace Martin has spent a good amount of time in the studio or on tour with Herbie Hancock, one of his heroes. But he has also kept producing tracks for hip-hop artists, most notably Kendrick Lamar. Last week Martin released a searing single called “Pig Feet,” with three other rappers: Denzel Curry, G Perico and Daylyt. Also featured on the track is Martin’s close associate Kamasi Washington, who brings his usual expressive fire on tenor saxophone.
The video for “Pig Feet,” directed by Brendan Walter and Jasper Graham, consists of footage from recent protests — in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Chicago and elsewhere. The footage is dramatic, often involving tear gas, riot batons or flames; police violence is as much a catalyst here as a cause. The video ends in silence, as the names of the fallen scroll down the screen for almost three minutes: a sobering memorial that concludes, meaningfully, with George Floyd.
Terrace Martin’s “Pig Feet” is out now on Sounds of Crenshaw / EMPIRE.
MonoNeon, “Breathing While Black”
Dywane Thomas, Jr., the electric bass phenom known as MonoNeon, is often hailed as one of the last musicians to establish a steady-working rhythm with Prince. Jazz is more than a tangential influence for him — he’s played with David Fiuczynski, and Jaco Pastorius is obviously among his heroes — but funk is the thrashing heart of his enterprise. That’s true even on the protest song he released last week.
Titled “Breathing While Black,” it’s a sauntering funk jam with more than a hint of Paisley Park in its DNA, along with a touch of Parliament/Funkadelic. But if that makes it sound like a throwback, consider the lyrics in the song, which couldn’t be truer to our moment:
Breathing while black
We been unheard far too long
How many times do we have to do this
To get a blessin’
MonoNeon’s “Breathing While Black” is available now on his Bandcamp page.
Sara Serpa, “Unity and Struggle”
Racism, of course, has a deep and insidious historical legacy. It was with this in mind that the Portuguese vocalist Sara Serpa conceived Recognition — a multidisciplinary project combining film and music, and exploring the blight of Portuguese colonialism in Angola. To help her realize this idea, Serpa enlisted harpist Zeena Parkins, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist David Virelles.
On much of the album, Serpa sets music to the words of Amílcar Cabral, an anticolonial activist born in Guinea-Bissau under Portuguese rule. Such is the case on “Unity and Struggle,” which is named after one of Cabral’s totemic writings. “Whatever might be the existing differences,” Serpa sings, “we must be one to achieve a given aim.”
Sara Serpa’s Recognition is out now on Biophilia Records.
Morgan Guerin, “Abena (feat. Zacchae'us Paul and Débo Ray)”
The gifted multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin — a serious talent on saxophone and bass, and a smart keyboardist, drummer and producer besides — has established a reputation for political engagement, notably with the collective Social Science. His new album, The Saga III, will be released this fall; its first single, which premieres here, is a timely ode to persistence. It’s also a note of encouragement to Guerin’s younger sister Zara, whose middle name is Abena.
“I wanted to give Abena, and the many other young growing Black kids, a message about the state of the world and the challenges that come with being Black,” Guerin explains in an email. “Racism is surely taught and ingrained in the brains of many at a very young age.” He adds: “I feel like it is my responsibility as her older brother, a Black man in America, to protect her and to help guide her through the obstacles of this backwards world.”
The song features lyrics by Zacchae'us Paul, who joins Débo Ray on vocals. “Our ancestors have fought this since we were born,” they sing. “Our time is now, we have a voice to be heard.” (Guerin plays all the instruments on the track, a ballad whose lineage can be traced in part to Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions.) There’s an intriguing harmonic shift in the chorus, which consists of a single, hopeful line: “Don’t worry, we’ll know you’ll be alright.”
Morgan Guerin has released “Abena” on his Bandcamp page.