In Unsettling Times, Thiefs Offers A Musical Antidote In Video from Nublu, on The Checkout

Jan 31, 2019

Last fall, The Checkout presented Thiefs in concert at Nublu in the East Village. The French-American jazz ensemble with a hip-hop edge takes on some of the concerning issues of today — specifically the rise of racism in Western society. Watch the band perform four thought-provoking compositions, including two song premieres, which are coming to their forthcoming album.

Witty guides us through his Nublu performance on November 2nd, co-presented by the Cultural Services French Embassy in the United States. We begin with the band’s new song called “Unexpected,” a kind of invocation, which Witty says they’ve been using to open their concerts.

“It's one of our 'strictly trio' joints. It has a minimalism that helps us hone in on our instruments as we start a performance. It's one of those musical paradoxes in that it's pretty easy to deal with as a listener, but requires a lot of focus from us playing the instruments, mainly due to the tempo and repetition. “Unexpected” refers back to the principal theme of our last record, Graft, in that the results of cultural or botanical melange are rarely predictable or additive but often bear new and unforeseen fruit.”

The second tune, “I Live In Fear,” is featured on their last recording Graft (Le Greffe).

“I wanted to give the lyricists the opportunity to drop the facade we all carry around with us that projects a perceived-as-necessary bulletproofness. It’s important for us to be transparent about how terrifying it is to be alive, to be an artist, and for me personally to raise kids. Keith Middleton generously performs Mike Ladd's lyrics from the album. Most of the song is very simple harmonically, which is part of the intention towards evoking an emotional universality. The rhythmic patterns aim to be simultaneously boom-bap comfy but also loping and tense. The song is now starting to transcend its bars/beats/notes — getting to that stretchy place where no one is counting and we can lose ourselves in the interpretation.”

The next song, “Static Culture Concept,” is a new song that addresses our currently politically divided state as Americans.

“I wrote this piece mired in cynicism, reflecting on how completely dumb it is to depict any cultural/national/religious identity as predefined, monolithic, and unchanging. I was specifically reacting to this MAGA nonsense, as if Americanism ever meant one thing or had a single moment of 'greatness' to return to, or if one portrayal of 'America' somehow deserved to be dominant. If we don’t treat culture as something that’s constantly evolving, then I think we are missing the very point of what culture is.”

The final song, “Beat One,” also comes from Thiefs' recent recording, a composition by its French co-leader and saxophonist Christope Panzani.

“It’s a mini suite about the common origins of all things — life emanating from a single point of inception. It necessarily begins simply, then ventures in many different directions. The first verse calls into question the idea of difference, and/or how different can we truly be when we all trace back to the same beginnings as humans, living things, and all things. Middleton raps, ‘Who am I but you? Who are you but a Mastodon? Who are they but us? Who are we but those who lit the first fire and passed it on?’.

Thiefs kicks off its tour in Europe February 1st, beginning with an appearance at NovaJazz in Switzerland, followed by a weekend residency at a conservatory in Gernoble, France, and then a performance at Duc Des Lombards in Paris. Thiefs are New York City bassist Keith Witty and Parisian saxophonist Christope Panzani, along with David Frazier Jr. on drums and guest vocalist Keith Middleton. Hear our podcast below.

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WBGO Production team includes: Simon Rentner, David Tallacksen, Corey Goldberg, Chris Tobin, Sarah Kerson, and Anthony Nieves