None of Us are Free But Some of Us are Brave: Jamila Woods watches her ancestors

legacy legacy

Somewhere in the multiverse, an alternate version of Jamila Woods’ LEGACY! LEGACY! exists in a state of unregenerate corniness, its songs to Zora Neale Hurston and Eartha Kitt taking the form of musical Wikipedia entries or Hamilton-style exposition, its invocation of Miles Davis bedecked with an obligatory trumpet solo, its conjuring of Muddy Waters landing right on the nose with its approximation of the Chess Records sound, its open letter to James Baldwin name-checking Fonny and Tish while cantilating shamelessly from The Fire Next Time. The album as bequeathed to us by our benevolent timeline is many things, but corny ain’t one. True enough: The Chicago singer, poet, and activist names each song here for an oracle– most but not all of them black Americans– but at every turn she resists rote hagiography or biographic recitation. What could have been a mausoleum feels more like a lively dinner party, Woods summoning her ancestors to the table for a cross-generational exchange of lived experience and ancient wisdom. It’s a cloud of witnesses that attests to a full spectrum of black struggle and black pride, and within that framework posits endless revelation concerning strength and vulnerability, identity and legacy, fear of man and love of enemy. As it happens, Woods’ “MILES” doesn’t include a single horn, though it does capture some of the clattering funk and in-the-red heroin intensity of Davis’ bristling 1970s recordings, just as its lyrics (“I’m better than your best”) recall the apocryphal tale of Miles sneering to a record label executive that he could cobble together a band that rocked 10 times harder than The Rolling Stones. Likewise, there is no obvious or literal blues facsimile in “MUDDY,” though it does ripple with crude, speaker-rattling bass and swagger with veneerless shit-talk (“Motherfuckers won’t shut up!” is how the song opens). And “BALDWIN,” the album’s dramatic apex, pairs Nico Segal’s spritely brass with meditations on how fear kills and love frees, codifying a committed discipleship to America’s most consequential chronicler. “My ancestors watch me,” Woods boasts on a song named for the poet Nikki Giovanni, yet it’s just as accurate to say that she’s watching the ancestors, keeping one eye on the counsel of the past and following their lead as she navigates the treacheries of the present.

Maybe the true multiverse is the one Woods carries inside her– the cultural lineage she harbors in her DNA and filters through her own distinct personality. “No one you can name is just that one thing they have shown,” Joe Henry once sang, and throughout LEGACY! LEGACY! Woods proves that she contains irreducible multitudes. “Must be disconcerting how I discombob your mold,” she shrugs on “ZORA,” sidestepping category and classification without breaking a sweat. Elsewhere, she cites the precedent of the ancients as all the authority she needs for endless reinvention. “I’m a fable,” she intones on a spacy meditation for Sun Ra, and in “EARTHA” she adopts a playful sing-song voice to narrate her move from people-pleasing into self-acceptance: “I used to be afraid of myself… now I’m too far grown for your plot.” The album-opening song for Betty Davis bears witness to a woman on the cusp of transformation; what begins as a jazz daydream morphs into cross-talking funk, a musical shorthand for personal rebranding. Even the sound of LEGACY! LEGACY! asserts its identity through plurality; the tracks– mostly from A-Slot, with pinch hits from Odd Couple and Peter Cottontale– form a seamless suite of R&B, consistent in mood but rich in detail, carefully perched between stylish, contemporary beats and the warm, analog allure of classics like Mama’s Gun and Voodoo. The jostling, tough-talking “ZORA” condenses the glitz of an orchestra into its lithe choruses, while “GIOVANNI” parts feathery synth clouds with an explosive electric guitar solo. A late-album song for Octavia Butler coos and rattles with blissed-out keyboard flourishes. The momentum never wanes, and the banger ratio is 100 percent.

The surfaces of the album may glisten, but there’s trauma beneath them– and you don’t have to dig very deep to find it. Like the remarkable Songs of Our Native Daughters record, released earlier this year, Woods’ album lingers long over violence enacted on black bodies, and black women in particular. A song inspired by the poet Sonia Sanchez meditates on the legacy of chattel slavery, and extends the blessing of moral clarity; “it was bad,” Woods summarizes, a verdict that startles in both its simplicity and its weight. From there, a guest rap from Nitty Scott traces scars that have been carried for generation upon generation, and exhorts careful self-inventory: “Do you love yourself? Are you healing your trauma?” It’s not just physical bodies that are plundered, but also bodies of work, and several songs wrestle for a sense of autonomy over creative output. Amidst bleating keyboards and skittering drums, “MILES” pokes a big middle finger in the eye of the minstrel tradition: “In the old country/ you could make me tap dance, shake hands, yes ma’am/ but I’m a free man now,” Woods struts, rattling off her rhymes with crisp enunciation that a lot of rappers would kill for. Meanwhile, the song for Muddy Waters celebrates a blues vernacular so rooted in experience, it can’t be commodified or contained: “They can study my fingers/ they can mirror my pose/ they can talk your good ear off/ oh, what they think they know.”

There’s also a song for artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work provided the title for the most recent Jon Batiste album; it’s based on an interview where Basquiet was asked to name the source of his anger. He smiled rakishly and refused his interlocutor the satisfaction of an answer. Woods turns it into a study in emotional freedom, an admission that even anger is something that can be hijacked if you’re not quick to claim ownership. Like everything else here, she sings it with an ineffable cool, and a twisty guest verse from theMIND simmers but never boils, Slot-A building percolating funk through call-and-response vocals and fleet cymbal work. LEGACY! LEGACY! calls injustice for what it is but never quite rages, choosing positivity not so much out of high-mindedness but rather as an instinct for survival (“fear ain’t no way to live,” reads one morsel of ancient wisdom). “SUN RA” imagines simply ceding the planet to evildoers and staking a new world somewhere in the cosmos– it’s sort of the flipside to A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Space Program”– while “ZORA” locates the righteous value in being the bigger person; “My weaponry is my energy/ I tenderly fill my enemies with white light,” Woods affirms. And in “BALDWIN,” hate is too great a burden to bear; “My friend James says I should love you anyway,” Woods sings, the brass band swelling behind her in solidarity. Bolstered by the ancestors, Woods emboldened to walk through dark days speaking her truth, abiding her multitudes, extending charity even to those who only wish her violence. “None of us are free but some of us are brave,” she sings in “ZORA”– taking her place in a long lineage of courage.

Cloud of Witnesses: Brad Mehldau searches the Scriptures

Finding gabriel

When something’s broken, it’s always wise to check the manual. That’s what the jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau does on his new Finding Gabriel, an album born of grief and confusion over crumbling institutions, shattered societal guardrails, and the prevailing sense of things falling apart. Trying to make some sense of these beleaguered times, Mehldau searched the Scriptures. “Finding Gabriel came after reading the Bible closely for the last several years,” he explains. “The prophetic writing of Daniel and Hosea resonated in particular, as well as the wisdom literature of Job and Ecclesiastes, and the devotional words of Psalms. The Bible felt like a corollary and perhaps a guide to the present day—one long nightmare or a signpost leading to potential gnosis, depending on how you read it.” So the album is a Bible study, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. There’s no attempt here to summarize Judeo-Christian dogma; instead, Mehldau preserves the voice of the Bible as a library of human experience– the collected testimonies of migrants, asylum seekers, wayfaring strangers, and prophetic voices pleading for the Kingdom to come. It’s an album about life amidst chaos, and if it doesn’t settle on any answers, it upholds the search itself as something holy in its own right; something that binds us with the great cloud of witnesses from the past.

Mehldau’s immersion in ancient wisdom is well-annotated, the liner notes appending a textual citation to each of its 10 songs. Not that you necessarily need them: Even the biblical novice will register “Born to Trouble,” which juxtaposes the deep blue of Mehldau’s piano against the antiseptic indifference of an analog synthesizer, as a meditation on the plight of Job; “Striving After the Wind,” which chases vanities through a haze of loops and squelches, as a repartee with the Teacher from Ecclesiastes. Even so, anyone who plans attendance in Mehldau’s Bible study will want to do the readings in advance. You might even supplement with Jesus’ words from John 10:27 (Mehldau’s citations keep it Old Testament, but there’s no reason we should stick to such arbitrary dispensations): “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Or this, from Psalm 55: “I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” The ancient wisdom posits time and again that voice is a connection point between humanity and the divine, and Mehldau seems to grasp the theological weight of that on Finding Gabriel, a largely lyric-less album that’s bedecked with a host of vocalizing witness-bearers. When those voices do congeal around actual words, they tend to be faint expressions of need; one song opens with a slow and bleary exhalation, then Mehldau’s simple request to “make it all go away”– a crude prayer language, perhaps, but as relatable as any Psalm. Much more often, voices unite in wordless supplication: They appear in “The Garden” one after another, like so many stars appearing in the night sky, cooing and moaning as the song’s weariness builds toward ascent. Just as the sheep know the call of their shepherd, you’ll know from the timber of these voices that they are searchers and seekers, lifting up holy groanings even when intellect and vocabulary fail them.

The voices that swoop and dive through these soundscapes– not unlike the unruly choirs that add vocal ballast to Kamasi Washington’s records– include such luminaries as Kurt Elling, Becca Stevens, and Gabriel Kahane. You’ll hear Mehldau himself speak up a time or two, but even when he’s not at the mic, the whole of Finding Gabriel bears his unmistakable voicings. Mehldau is justly celebrated for his brainy, deeply conceptual solo recordings (After Bach, 10 Years Solo Live) as well as records that expand the lexicon of the traditional jazz trio (Seymour Reads the Constitution!), but Finding Gabriel feels closer to Largo or Highway Rider— albums that required a broader palette to capture the eccentric colors of his imagination. It’s an expansive record that consolidates much of what Mehldau’s done before but also carries the thrill of experiment and discovery: “The Garden” opens with a narcotic keyboard haze learned from his beloved Radiohead, its gauzy reverie ultimately blasted open with righteous skronk and howl from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and breakneck drumming from Mark Guiliana. “Proverb of Ash” captures the meditative feel of Mehldau’s solo piano recordings, only here he accompanies himself on synths and drum loops, the result a wonderfully rickety one-man-band groove. “O Ephraim” is an elegiac cycle that thrums with anticipation, while “St. Mark is Howling in the City of Night” teeters from an arena-rock backbeat into the delicate swell of voices and strings. The animating tension in all of this is between Mehldau’s usual intellectual robustness and his willingness to negotiate new sounds and textures; you can tell that there’s concrete ideological scaffolding holding all of this together, yet much of the album is played on keyboards and synthesizers that were new to Mehldau, keeping these performances just slightly off-kilter and exploratory.

The voices themselves are what make the greatest impression, yet they’re subsumed by the voice you hear on “The Prophet is a Fool,” a composition so formally audacious and thematically brash that it casts a shadow over everything else on Finding Gabriel. Here, Mehldau rolls the tape from a political rally, including the voice of the 45th President of the United States inciting his acolytes into fear-mongering isolationism. Mehldau himself verbalizes blunt commentary. It’s unsubtle, but perhaps Mehldau would tell you that it’s pitched at just the right frequency for a brutish age. And maybe there’s more to it than it first seems. With the rally scene, the pianist provides us with a study in discipleship– a reminder that we all have voices to whom we’re accountable, whether they’re heads of state or simply ragged figures testifying in the desert, ratifying the prophets who came before them. Either way, sheep always recognize the sound of their shepherd. The Bible tells us so; Brad Mehldau bears witness.