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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Mike Reed – Flesh & Bone (482 Music, 2017) ****

By Troy Dostert

The music on drummer Mike Reed’s Flesh & Bone was occasioned by a harrowing incident he experienced while touring the Czech Republic in 2009 with his People, Places & Things band.  Mistaken directions put the group in the vicinity of a neo-Nazi rally turned riot.  While Reed and his colleagues managed to navigate their way to safety, the event understandably left Reed shaken, and with a determination to confront the episode through music.  But it’s not so much the specific event in question as much as a broader reflection on the lingering challenges of race and identity that animates Reed’s compositions on this record.  Making use of an exceptional group of musicians (Greg Ward on alto sax; Tim Haldeman on tenor sax; Ben LaMar Gay on cornet; Jason Stein on bass clarinet; Jason Roebke on bass; and poet/spoken-word artist Marvin Tate), Reed evokes a host of emotional registers and stylistic approaches on this memorable and invigorating album. At just over 40 minutes, it’s not a long record, but it packs a punch, making every moment count.

Although it will be tempting for some to view this as a kind of “protest” record, given the encounter with racial animosity that precipitated it, Reed’s more interested in raising questions than providing determinate answers.  Firmly in the legacy of Charles Mingus or Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Reed has a healthy appreciation for the ironic and the absurd – as does Tate, whose irreverent spoken-word segments on three of the tracks are both potent and disarming.  Nowhere is this more evident than “Call of Tomorrow,” which starts with Tate declaring that “The weight of rage…can hold you back,” but which soon segues into Tate’s self- (and audience-) mocking taunt: “This is a fucked-up poem. I’m fucked up for living it…and all of you are fucked up for listening to it.”  And meanwhile, the band surges behind him with abandon, somehow in perfect sync with the rhythmic bounce of Tate’s delivery.  This is serious music, but its seriousness rests in part on its reluctance to take itself too seriously.

Reed’s musical inspirations here are taken from a wide swath of the jazz tradition: from the post-bop groove of the opener, “Voyagers,” to the Mingus-like ensemble voicings of “Conversation Music,” the infectious funk of “A Separatist Party,” and the bebop inflections of “Imaginary Friend,” there are a host of touchstones on display, all of which point to the importance of jazz as a force for solidifying as well as challenging one’s bedrock self-understandings.  And it is a credit to Reed’s colleagues that they can embody all of these stylistic impulses so adroitly.  Ward, Haldeman and Roebke are Reed’s long-standing partners in People, Places & Things; but the new guys prove themselves to be just as valuable: both the warmth and the acrobatic dexterity of Stein’s bass clarinet are constants throughout the album, and LaMar Gay’s clear-as-a-bell cornet contributions are similarly crucial to the band’s collective sound.

On a recording which captures Reed’s idiosyncratic and unpredictable style perfectly, we see plenty of evidence here of his ongoing vitality and creativity as a bandleader and composer.