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. Continue reading “Freer Still: Harriet Tubman With Wadada Leo Smith”