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Monday, October 16, 2023

Irreversible Entanglements - Protect Your Light (Impulse, 2023)

By William Rossi The quintet's 2017 self-titled debut album was one of my favourites of that year, I was enthralled by the fiery, politically charged poetry of frontwoman Camae Ayewa, also very active under her fantastic Moor Mother alias, to the tune of unrelenting free jazz assaults and I've been following them ever since, as they continued to release some of the best records in years. Protect Your Light is their fourth album and the first not to be released in partnership with Chicago label International Anthem, this later effort being released by none other than Impulse!, with a slew of collaborators such as pianist Janice A. Lowe, singer Sovei and Jaimie Branches' Fly or Die's cellist Lester St. Louis.
While still being firmly in the realm of free jazz the quintet's music has been in constant evolution from the start, each new release introducing new sounds and new approaches, like the infectious grooves and funk influences of their previous album "Open the Gates'', and this one is no different: hints of Ornette Coleman's afro-futuristic masterpiece "Science Fiction" shine on tracks like the opener "Free Love" with its tapestry of bouncy horn licks and hypnotic mantras or the heartfelt homage to the late Jaimie Branch on "root <=> branch" and the addition of synthesizers and piano to "Sunshine", one of the highlights of the album and possibly the band's first straight-up ballad, with Lowe's singing complementing Ayewa's spoken word poetry that, despite the sorrowful horns and electronic rumbling, still maintains a glimmer of hope, declaring that "the sun will shine in our eyes''. 
The sung vocals are not relegated to "Sunshine" alone and also feature prominently on the title track "Protect Your Light'', a song that merges the band's present with its past, starting out as a rhythmic, latin-inspired jam that later grows into the familiar free jazz fury fans of the band know so well. Tcheser Holmes' eclectic and lively drumming keeps the listener on their toes throughout the album, relentless in its assault even on otherwise mellower tracks such as "Our Land Back", a celebration of displaced indigenous peoples' history we're just now, as the lyrics say, "starting to remember", a hint of progress after many, many years.
It's this political radical empathy that makes the band resonate with so many people, myself included, and nowhere is this radical empathy more present than on "Soundness", a track in which Ayewa offers the listener a safe space, a room, where they can be themselves while being protected by the hostilities of the outside world.

  Aquiles Navarro's trumpet and Keir Neuringer's saxophone playing are no less impressive, capable of delivering fiery flurries of notes, like on the aforementioned "Soundness", the playful and bouncy phrases of the title track, the slow and melodic dirge of "Our Land Back", the airy and sparse back and forths of "Celestial Pathways", all in a delicate balance between composition and improvisation. "Let the horns cry out" declares Ayewa on the closer "Degrees of Freedom", and cry out with all their might they do, accompanied by Luke Stewart's thumping bassline and Holmes' propulsive drums in a last explosion of free, uncompromising music. If you're new to the quintet, this Impulse! debut is the best place to start: a joyous, bittersweet, thought provoking, teeth gritting, endlessly relistenable album, more approachable but with no hint of "selling out" or softening their politics and ethos in favor of a larger audience. A triumph