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Monday, July 25, 2022

Zoh Amba Arrives

O, Sun with Micah Thomas, Thomas Morgan, Joey Baron, and John Zorn (Tzadik, 2022)

O Life, O Light Vol. 1 with William Parker and Francisco Mela (577 Records, 2022) 

Causa y Efecto Vol. 1 with Francisco Mela (577 Records, 2022)

It’s impossible to avoid a certain level of hype or expectation when an artist debuts with three albums in one year. To find a corollary to saxophonist Zoh Amba’s arrival on the scene, look to her mentor David Murray, who in 1976 released the quartet album Flowers For Albert, followed by the trio albums Low Class Conspiracy and Live At Peace Church. In the span of those albums, Murray showed audiences exactly how he was and was not like his predecessor Albert Ayler. 1976 was also a landmark year for Oliver Lake, who released both Holding Together and the classic NTU: Point From Which Creation Begins. In recommending Amba’s albums elsewhere, I’ve mentioned Murray and Lake as much as I’ve mentioned Ayler, because she taps into the same fiery spirit that fueled all three. All this is to say Amba both is and is not part of a lineage—she is undoubtedly a keen student, but what makes her such a remarkably exciting player is how much she already sounds most like herself.

Amba’s debut proper is the crystalline O, Sun, which came out earlier this year on Tzadik, with John Zorn himself guesting on one track. It’s a blazing free jazz album, boosted by drummer Joey Baron and bassist Thomas Morgan’s superb playing. Amba also brought on Micah Thomas (another relative newcomer who I first heard on Walter Smith III & Matthew Stevens’s In Common 2), who plays with an appropriately Donald Smith-esque dexterity. O Life, O Light is a trio album, with Amba playing alongside William Parker and drummer Francisco Mela. On this session, the compositions get slightly more room to breathe, and perhaps most intriguingly, Amba switches over to flute for “Mountains in the Predawn Light.” Clearly, Amba and Mela discovered a deep connection while collaborating, which carries over to their duo album Causa y Efecto, where Mela’s melodic, airy style pairs extremely well with Amba’s heavy improv.

From the quartet to the trio album, a few songs get revisited: “Hymn to the Divine Mother” shows up as “Mother’s Hymn,” while “O, Sun” is retitled “O Life, O Light.” Whether there is a canonically true title will undoubtedly vex some listeners, but it’s as unimportant as the dozens of mistitled Ayler releases are to the quality of his music. Both albums kick off with this one-two, almost a tip of the hat to Murray’s “Extremininity / Dewey’s Circle” opening on Low Class Conspiracy—Amba’s rich, muscular tone on the opener switches beautifully to the joyful, bouncy melody on its follow-up. Baron and Morgan bring delight and spontaneity to the entire album. The mid-album highlight “Holy Din” features Zorn, who also seems to be having a great time playing alongside Amba; the two of them circle each other for a brief intro, then set the house on fire. I would love to hear this group round out into a sextet with, say, Adam O'Farrill on trumpet. On O Life, O Light, Amba, Parker, and Mela kick off with a brilliant restatement of the opening themes. “Mother’s Hymn” runs almost twice as long as its predecessor, as Parker and Amba go way out. “O Life, O Light” retains its sprightly punch and pushes the track further into Ayler-influenced free jazz. Mela is a brilliant drummer, with a fluid, free style. Amba’s improvisations often feature percussive runs, with Mela playing a kind of counter-melody on cymbals and toms. That these albums deliver on their promise and leave listeners wanting more is an all-around triumph.

There’s already more to hear: Amba appears on Chad Anderson’s newest, Mellifluous Excursions Vol. 1, Where You Been and has been performing with Henry Fraser and Marc Edwards, Tashi Dorji and Thom Nguyen, and in a few different groups with gabby fluke-mogul. In the meantime, you have these albums to choose from. Recommended: All three.

All albums available for purchase direct from labels.

O, Sun

O Life, O Light Vol. 1

Causa y Efecto Vol. 1