Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Border Crossings: A Musical Conversation

In my last post about the Palestinian-American composer and musician Simon Shaheen, I made reference to a violinist friend who leads a number of jazz ensembles. In the piece, I attempted to show a cultural timeline that connected Arabic music to that of the Caribbean, via both Spain and Africa, and further went on to be an ingredient of jazz. I rather shamelessly concluded the piece with a plug for my friend's upcoming performance. Consider this the follow-up.

Proyecto Libre at Constellation Chicago, March 7, 2014
Violinist James Sanders presented his Proyecto Libre, or "Free Project", for only their second performance since being formed in the fall of 2013. Sanders has led a Latin jazz band in Chicago for many years, but he also works frequently in mainstream jazz and collaborates regularly with several members of the Chicago avant-garde collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The connective tissue to all of this is the art of improvisation, and a huge influence is Sanders' Dominican heritage and the Afro-Caribbean music he grew up listening to. The commonality is African music, or more specifically, what African music became when it reached the Americas.

In the Caribbean and South America, African traditions mingled with Spanish and Portuguese culture along with indigenous sounds to form cumbia, merengue, samba, bomba y plena, danzon, son jarocho and so on. In the colonies settled primarily by the English (you know, the United States) Africans encountered something different: Scottish ballads, military bands, European classical. And then there's New Orleans, which had a little of everything: First ruled by France, then Spain, then briefly back to France before being given over to the United States, and everyone passing through Cuba and Saint-Domingue before making their way there. "Same ship, different ports," is how New Orleans jazz musician Irvin Mayfield describes this cultural migration imposed by the slave trade. Military brass bands were especially popular in New Orleans too (a side effect, I suppose, of all those competing countries jostling for dominion). Jelly Roll Morton took it all in as he began to invent what would become jazz, but he was careful to cite the "Spanish tinge" for giving the music that extra syncopation.

Congo Square, New Orleans
Jazz, of course, grew and mutated as subsequent generations sought new artistic challenges. Those changes often took the art form down divergent paths. There's Latin jazz, of course, which had its beginnings when be-boppers of the 40s and 50s experimented with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Post-bop, you had the giants of free improvisation taking jazz into entirely uncharted waters, often reaching all the way back to Africa for inspiration, but mostly skipping the islands in between. The AACM collective more or less descends from these Afrocentric explorations. Meanwhile, back in Africa, innovators were listening and creating their own homegrown African jazz.

What Sanders is trying to do with Proyecto Libre is have a family reunion. He has organized it as a collective, but the driver is the idea that there is common ground between these disparate musical languages, and by bringing together musicians fluent in one language but not as much another, they could engage in fruitful conversation. The current line-up includes an Afro-Cuban percussionist plus a drummer and bassist from the AACM side. In the middle, moderating the "discussion", is Sanders and his violin, using his rigorous classical training and experience in both languages to open up space for everyone to contribute. Jazz is as much about listening as it is playing, and nowhere is this more true than in free improvisation.

James Sanders' violin.
When I heard Proyecto Libre in their first performance in December at the Afro-Caribbean Improvised Music Festival, I was impressed by the artistic give and take, but I had a sense that the Afro-Cuban element was looking for a way in to a scene that was being dominated by the other players. Well, what a difference a couple of months can make. For their second performance, which I witnessed this past Friday night, all four members were on equal footing from the start, having found time to musically get to know each other during the interim. Sanders started things off with a few plucked notes on his violin, soon joined by the bass and little cymbal accents on the drum kit. Within a minute or so, the congas joined in, and the gentle interplay between the four musicians suggested the elegance of a danzon without precisely sounding like one. This suggestion, but not imitation, of the classic Cuban sound showed how much the players were learning about each others specialties and finding something new to say together. Soon, Sanders was using his bow while the drums and congas played interlocking rhythms and the bass negotiated the space between them, gently prodding things in one direction or another as the intensity built.

What followed was over an hour of straight music making, and all of it improvised, literally being created as it was happening. To use the conversation metaphor, one player would introduce a thought that would take the discussion in a particular direction, each participant offering their contribution. After that line played out a bit, there would be something of a pause to take a breath and reflect on what was just discussed, allowing someone else to contribute a fresh idea, which would take the conversation in a new direction. Passions ran high, but mostly joyful ones, as one thought inspired another. It was especially compelling to watch the two drummers, brothers from different mothers if you will, lock eyes and smile as each new idea surfaced.

As an intellectual exercise, it was impressive. As music, it was nearly transcendent. This was the sound of borders being breached, of walls being torn down. African-American, Afro-Caribbean, and African languages were all spoken, but more importantly, also listened to, responded to, moving the music forward.  When music works, it does so on a level that bypasses intellect and is experienced by the entire body. This certainly happened Friday night. Hell, there was even some dancing at the end. This was fun. It wasn't until the following morning that I thought about Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, whose legendary jams would go on for hours and hours, music that combined the fierceness of John Coltrane's fiery explorations, the out-and-out funk of James Brown and a cry against injustice that frightened the authorities. And doing all of that in a big, sweaty dance party.

Sanders has a website that is packed with video and audio performances that touch on all the facets of his musical journey. Proyecto Libre already have another performance scheduled in April. I talked to James after his Friday performance, and he hinted that he was already planning on experimenting with different voices to see where that particular conversation will lead. I'll be there listening.

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