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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Karl Evangelista with Alexander Hawkins, Louis Moholo-Moholo, and Trevor Watts - Apura! (Astral Spirits, 2020) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

A double-slab of extended improvisation featuring a cross-generational meeting of masters musicians. As the joke goes, take my money! But seriously, this is one of those superb projects, where a musician like guitarist Karl Evangelista is able to simultaneously collaborate with and pay tribute to living legends in the free improvisation community. Bringing together saxophonist Trevor Watts and drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo (who have not recorded together in several decades) is the rare long-delayed reunion that far exceeds one’s expectations.

Born in 1939 and 1940, respectively, Watts and Moholo-Moholo have taken their playing to the very far edges of free , both settling into late-career partnerships with talented pianists. Watts has recorded several albums with Veryan Weston, from duets to the latest quartet configuration. And Alexander Hawkins has shown himself to be Moholo-Moholo’s partner in spirit, as well as in music. Bringing these three together is Evangelista, a Filipino-American guitarist living in California’s Bay Area. Why are geography and heritage worth mentioning here, now? I think (maybe hope is a better term) most of the readers are familiar with the history among these players, but for those who don’t know about Moholo-Moholo, he, along with the charter members of the legendary Blue Notes (including Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani, and Chris McGregor), escaped from apartheid in South Africa during the 1960s. The pain of discrimination and the vitality of community has been at the center of Moholo-Moholo’s art for over 50 years, and players like Evangelista, Watts, and Hawkins know how to bring their own struggles to the fore on songs like “Utang Na Loob,” “Resist,” “Harana,” and the superb “Refugees.”

For Evangelista, this was really my introduction to his playing. I was aware of him as a fellow Californian, but Apura! is the first I’ve had a chance to dig in and listen to his technique, get a feeling for his perspective. For a lineup that strongly hints at Derek Bailey’s long shadow, Evangelista’s found a path that’s more punkishly angular, further down Noël Akchoté’s lineage. You can hear this in the opening minutes of “Apura!” where he and Watts chase a winding melody, punctuated by Hawkins’s block chords. I’ve written about Hawkins and the historical depth he brings to his playing. Hearing him and Evangelista both, as they pay homage to and gently push away from their elders highlights just how deep the respect goes. Were it not for Watts and Moholo-Moholo also simultaneously grasping for and rejecting the playing of their elders, free improvisation wouldn’t be where it is today. Thus, the only logical path forward requires some respectful tension. “Utang Na Loob” opens with a restrained, almost melancholic vibe, before settling into a riveting, fiery dance between Evalgelista, Hawkins, and Moholo-Moholo.

It’s impossible to resist a title like “I Eat Death Threats for Breakfast,” a bold, pulsing track that kicks off the outstanding middle section. Watts again sits out, but he opens “Resist” in the very upper register, like trailing smoke rising to the sky. Gradually, the rest of the band members follow his lead, with notes spiking up and out of various corners of the mix. In the final minutes, Moholo-Moholo kicks the quartet into action, and the result is something like the musical equivalent of a sequence from The Battle of Algiers.

“Balikbayan” features some pointed duetting from Hawkins and Evangelista. The title, a Tagolog word for someone returning to the Philippines, hints at the extended lines of family and community drawn across the album. Where do we belong? What identity defines or contains us? How do we reach across oceans, borders, walls? In the end (almost literally, as the final song is titled “Consummatum Est”), it’s music and art that transcend the physical realm. As “Consummatum Est” spins forward in its closing minutes, Hawkins settles into a mid-range figure that Watts picks up and runs with, the two sprinting towards the finish, handing off the baton to Evangelista for a subtle, final statement. At nearly two hours, I wasn’t even close to feeling ready for it to end. Just like with Hawkins’s own Unit[e] and Angelika Niescier Trio’s The Berlin Concert, Apura! is another modern classic, sure to sit alongside the many records that inspired it, and hopefully the future albums it spawns.

The album is available for purchase here.

Karl Evangelista is performing a solo show on Friday, May 22, to celebrate the album release. Details here: