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Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Aruán Ortiz - Pastor's Paradox (Clean Feed, 2023)

While it may pain the conservatives to admit it, Martin Luther King Jr. was and remains a radical figure for human rights in the US and all over the world. Despite the decades-long concerted effort of whitewashing his legacy, his life's work extends beyond the "I Have a Dream" speech and the Civil Rights Act; he opposed the Vietnam war, was critical of capitalism and the ineffectual apathetic tendencies of the white moderates of his day, he was an advocate for women's rights and was a strong proponent of reparations, knowing that real equality would only be achieved by levelling the unfair playing field black people, and minorities generally, have been subjected to for centuries up to today.
Pianist and composer Aruán Ortiz is very aware of Dr. King's radical nature and for this album dedicated to his memory he wrote equally radical music, performed by a quartet consisting of himself on piano, Don Byron on clarinet, Pheeroan akLaff on drums and Lester St. Louis and Yves Dhar alternating on cello duties, with occasional contributions from spoken word artist Mtume Gant, who interpolates bits and pieces of some of King's speeches into the music.

This album features world class musicianship from world class musicians who operate as a well-oiled machine, playing with incredible synergy and showcasing great interplay, often mimicking and expanding on each other's ideas and melodies (despite the deeply atonal nature of the music) and matching each other's energy, with Ortiz in particular doing a fantastic job as bandleader, always serving the music first and being willing to step aside and give each musician the spotlight, something that requires restraint, faith in your collaborators and confidence in the merits of the music itself.

And the music on this record is, simply put, absolutely brilliant, with energetic tracks such as the opener "Autumn of Freedom" taking the listener on a journey of wailing clarinet lines, exploring the whole range of the instrument effortlessly and with purpose while the tense cello moans, fluid and endlessly churning drums and Ortiz' staggered note clusters provide the perfect foundation for the wild instrumental explorations and Gant's recitation of passages from the aforementioned "I Have a Dream" speech.

"Turning the Other Cheek No More" is of a similar nature but ramps up the energy even more, the clarinet more daring, the interplay tighter, the drums managing to sound unpredictable and fresh while introducing some elements of Latin American rhythmic sensibilities and the piano hammered with even more ferocity and passion, resulting in a deeply compelling listen merging the energy of free jazz with hints of the atonality of some of Howard Shore's more audacious compositions.

The music on this album is not simply a tour-de-force of nonstop flurries of notes, however, and, as most good music often is, it's a music of contrasts. While the slower pieces might eschew the ferocity and give the listener a break from the breakneck pace, the teeth-gritting energy still bubbles underneath the surface of the quiet compositions like the title-track "Pastor's Paradox", a deceptively simple piece: St. Louis' cello and Byron's clarinet swim in the murky pond of dissonant-yet-delicate chords from the piano for the first half of the song, the second half introducing shimmering, pristine high piano notes that, while never approaching something that could be considered consonant, give a great sense of finality to the emotional crescendo of the track.
"The Dream That Wasn't Meant to Be Ours" is a multifaceted, deeply somber piece that begins with a whimper: a beautiful duet between the cello and the drums cradles the spoken word performance of a portion of "The Drum Major Instinct" sermon, only to be later joined by the piano and clarinet exchanging their own personal and subdued dialogue for the remainder of the track that never quite turns into a bang, rather a sort of controlled demolition, a slow implosion of deeply moving and affecting music with many moving parts that work greatly on their own, even better in the context of the other instruments and perfectly as a whole; a fantastic achievement and the best piece on the whole release.

The album ends with one final sendoff, "No Justice, No Peace, Legacy!" featuring all musicians on vocals rhythmically chanting the title of the piece before grabbing their instruments of choice for one last performance, a constant crescendo in honor and in memory of Dr. King's legacy, urging us all to do more and do better, in the hopes of reaching true equality and justice one day.

The recording matches the music in its liveliness and rawness, with the piano mics sometimes on the verge of clipping from the sheer intensity of Ortiz' playing, the audible clacking of the clarinet keys in the most involved passages and the buzzing of the snare making you feel like you're in the room watching the band perform right in front of you, but you don't have to rely on your memories to revisit these fantastic performances, you can just listen to the album again.

Released digitally and on CD by Clean Feed, radical music in honor of a radical man.