Freer Still: Harriet Tubman With Wadada Leo Smith

Harriet Tubman: (l-r:) bassist Melvin Gibbs, drummer J.T. Lewis, guitarist Brandon Ross/photo: Michael Halsband.

On a recent Saturday night John Zorn’ tiny East Village club, The Stone, was packed. Manhattan audiences often seem self-sorting, but this one looked diverse. That was due to the many strands of musical influence that infuse and embolden Harriet Tubman, the trio formed by drummer J.T. Lewis, guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Melvin Gibbs in 1998, and by the unbound and oddly familial feeling the three lend to a familiar set up: electric guitar and bass, and trap set.
This is one of the great small-group amalgams of instrumental talent during my watch, that’s for sure. If they’ve flown under certain culture radar detectors, well, I’m afraid that’s common when a band isn’t easily tagged and especially when it comes to black bands that dare nudge jazz tradition onto rock’s turf.
As Ross explained to me for a 2011 Wall Street Journal piece I wrote about the band:

“The jazz folks think we’re too rock. The rock guys think we’re too jazz. Really, we’re neither. People seem to need and want categories, but our experience is that when audiences hear what we do, they might not know what to call it but they connect with it. It’s clear.”

About that name: Lewis came up with it. As he explained to me in 2011

“I told the guys, ‘We should call the band Harriet Tubman because I feel so free when I play with you.’ It’s also a metaphor for breaking the chains of the music business and the shackles of time signatures and chord changes, for a road to emancipation.”

Back in the late 1990s, Harriet Tubman caused a stir by ranging gracefully from tenderness to bombast, confounding ideas about form and structure, and suggesting several styles while adhering to none. Gibbs would issue throbs and bubbles of sound from his bass, then play delicate melodies. Lewis segued from loose-limbed swing to sledgehammer 4/4 without a hiccup. And Ross was a guitar antihero, unwilling to posture or play licks, ever. Gibbs thinks the group members’ rapport stems from “common values we’ve developed through the years about what music is and why we play it.” Ross likens the band’s process to “a three-way game of chess.” (Maybe the speed variety, played with a timer at Washington Square Park…)
Upping the ante at The Stone gig, and no doubt attracting yet more listeners, was the presence of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who, at 75, is among jazz’s most prolific and influential musicians. He joins the band for it new CD, Araminta (Sunnyside). Smith, a generation older than Tubman’s musicians, nonetheless easily matches their energy level and forward-leaning stance.
The range of mood and feel expressed by the album’s eight tracks is remarkable and fluid: the intense drive of “The Spiral Path to the Throne”; the staggered dance and layered phrases of “Blacktal Fractal”; the tenderness of “Nina Simone.” On one level, what makes it all so compelling is that each of these players is distinctive enough to produce tones and textures we don’t typically hear, in combinations we never hear. On another level, the music captivates for the sense of moment-to-moment communion that turn small musical groups into ritual-based brotherhoods (or vice versa).
At the Stone, beginning with a Smith composition, “President Obama’s Speech at the Selma Bridge,” the sound of Smith’s horn with this trio might have suggested Miles Davis’s electric bands, yet the interaction between Smith and Ross was closer to the shadow play of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. Luckily, this band plays free—less in the sense Ornette might have meant it than in terms of simply rendering such references silly (so I’ll shut up with that stuff right now). Played live, “Blacktal Fractal” alone—the places each player took the piece without soloing, per se—was stunning.
The stage area was so crowded at The Stone that singer Alicia Hall Moran, a special guest for this set’s second half, could barely walk her way out. I’d expected her entry into the music, which is dense and full to begin with, to be similarly challenging. But Hall is a special talent, whose classically trained voice clears its own path like a good power forward on a basketball court, and who, more like a point guard, controls tempo and feel while elevating the team.
She entered singing “Deep River,” as lovingly (and oddly, in the good sense) arranged by Ross, and stuck to Spirituals throughout. At one point, Ross switched to banjo, and Smith played off-microphone adornments as if he were on a front porch. Hall-Moran’s work with the group suggested an entirely different album in my mind. Why not?
Harriet Tubman’s music has, from the group’s start, sounded like one glorious musical scrawl of an Emancipation Proclamation, rich with defiant intent and perfectly phrased declarations, still unfurling in new ways. “Araminta” is the latest amendment. It sounds more empowering with each listen.

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