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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Zoh Amba - Bhakti (Mahakala Music, 2022)

By Martin Schray

In a short documentary, Zoh Amba says that she thought music was an escape from the world, but she realized that it was rather a gateway to a universe of beauty. With it, she says, she can create a world of friends and sunshine, even when the circumstances around you aren’t the best. Amba grew up in rural Tennessee, her mother raising her and her twin brother alone, with which she was occasionally overwhelmed (she was only 18 when the children were born). As a teenager, Amba was sometimes so sad that she would have preferred to leave the world - but then she got a saxophone. Later on she has found some support in Hinduism. It was then when she realized that music is everything and everything is simultaneously in music. God and music are one for her. When she sometimes found herself lost in worldly sadness, she remembered the truth of music and sound and could then lose herself in it instead. Still, she felt like a stranger in Tennessee. In the fall of 2020, at the invitation of a mutual acquaintance, she drove from Tennessee to Harlem a few times to meet and eventually study with David Murray. “We were playing really high together and just screaming on the horn in class, and he said, 'Come on, give me more’“, Amba said in an interview with The New York Times. “He was the one who encouraged me, 'Don't stop, keep going, let me hear it, keep going.’" Murray said Amba reminded him of himself when he was her age. “She’s trying to find her voice now, like I was trying to find my voice when I came to New York when I was 20 years old“, he said. “And finding your voice early is a rare thing. And Amba has a voice of her own."

She has released three albums this year as a bandleader, she has been playing with almost all the New York luminaries - such as John Zorn, who produced her album O, Sun and is also featured on it, and William Parker, who plays bass on O Life, O Light, Vol. 1, another of Amba’s albums from 2022. Live, she has a quartet with a rotating lineup, from Cecil-Taylor-veteran Marc Edwards (drums) to Mike-Patton-pal Trevor Dunn (bass), drummer Billy Martin (of Medeski, Martin & Wood) and Thomas Morgan (bass), who plays with Bill Frisell. On Bhakti, her new album, she collaborates with young pianist Micah Thomas and Tyshawn Sorey, possibly the best drummer around at the moment. On the last track they are joined by guitarist Matt Hollenberg, who’s also from John Zorn’s musical universe. The result is an early opus magnum that captures the full range of Amba’s expression, from fervent outbursts to wistful blues.

Although very often Amba’s inspiration by the music of Albert Ayler is mentioned (which is there, of course), to me the influence of David S. Ware’s sound is even more obvious. Amba takes on Ware’s spirituality and his fondness of playing a melody here and there, which makes her trio/quartet’s music very accessible, even by free jazz standards. Although by no means traditional, the music’s combination of ecstasy, minimalist repetition and a penchant for drama create an almost incredible dynamic musical entity. “Altar Flowers“, the opener, begins with harsh, torn, massive and wild notes. However, Amba’s lines are also breathy and playful, while Sorey and Thomas segue into a wry, droning gospel sound (you’d pay good money if William Parker had been on bass - that probably would have been icing on the cake). What follows is an interesting tension between Amba’s vibrato-rich sound and the intricate chord voicings that Thomas uses. Sorey’s drumming is so precise, so clear, and so bright that he alone could light up the sonic space. One can imagine what this does in combination with Amba’s saxophone and Thomas’s exploding arpeggios: it’s like a bunch of sparklers burning at all ends. In the first two tracks, Amba, Sorey and Thomas keep these sparkler ends burning in a constant game of readjustment between consonance and dissonance, clustering and purposeful dissolution, especially at the end of “Altar Flowers“, when Amba mercilessly overblows her tenor using polyphonic squeals, only to have it all mound into a very tender piano/drums phase. Flitting tenor section lines combined with spiky guitar notes open “Awaiting Thee“, the 20-minute closing track. Ringing piano chords, condensed tenor screams and chopped chords are the main ingredients for the piece. Matt Hollenberg has a jazz metal background, which he definitely brings in here. The hell that the trio has unleashed in the first track is amplified by Hollenberg’s presence. What actually sounds like an impossibility is an amazing gain in timbres and dynamics, in structure with simultaneous emotionality. A worthy conclusion to a great record.

Listening to this music, I guess hardly anybody would believe that Zoh Amba is only 22 years old. The day on which the free jazz community lost Jaimie Branch so tragically, friends and fellow musicians gathered a few blocks from her apartment. Some in the crowd tapped out beats on drums, others banged tambourines and sleigh bells. Zoh Amba played melancholic funereal blasts. It was a day of sadness, as she would put it. Nevertheless, she gives hope that there are new voices that carry the torch. Because music is everything and everything is in music.

Bhakti is available as a CD and as a download.