By: Carol Banks Weber, Festival Peak
Curtis Nowosad’s new, self-titled album overflows with full-bodied, sizzling jazz — and important history lessons about social injustice in this country in five original compositions and three related covers.
You know what they say about a “spoonful of sugar…”
The Canadian drummer/composer meant for his tunes to mean something, infiltrating the music. He references historical figures/social justice warriors, known and forgotten, in the song titles, as well as his choice of covers. His choices arouse curiosity, making you want to go back in time and Google what the heck Nina Simone’s “See Line Woman” means in the big scheme of his history lessons.
Besides the subtle social signs, there’s the music and the musicians of Nowosad’s grand design — solid as ever.
Nowosad’s tremendous ensemble practiced in plenty of jam sessions all over New York City, building repertoire and reputation, notably at Smoke Jazz Club, emphasis on play. Their natural, ebullient chemistry and innate profiency are a given, whether they’re getting down to business (“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”), going with the flow (“The Water Protectors”), or lightening up (“See Line Woman”), leaving levity in.
Throw in thought-provoking material — Black Panthers, police brutality, Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem, the assassination of a Brazilian human rights activist — and you have quite the exciting tension between enjoyment and discomfort, groove and unrest, jazz and social message.
Sometimes the music is enough, a reason in itself, a self-contained jazz creation of piano and sax on sound, as on “Waltz 4 Meg” — and you don’t care what it’s about, you just enjoy it. Or, blow, baby blow, in the funky blues containment of a “Colin K” tribute, aiming for freedom of expression in the thready, substantive horn and bass solos. Perhaps, channeling some of Kaepernick’s surprising uprising, revealing inner character.
“The Water Protectors” glides in and out of awareness, heightened by guest vocalist Michael Mayo — the human looping machine. He soars and shears on an enchanting, surreal jazz chant as pianist Marc Cary’s beguiling shadow, one with the melody. The barely-there whisper of a tune sticks with you, a constant companion in the everyday.
Other times, most times, Nowosad plies his music with a sample of the times to keep the feeling of social injustice — and our reaction to it — very much alive. He and his band sustain the vibrancy throughout “Never Forget What They Did to Fred Hampton,” while capturing a little bit of the Black Panther leader’s spirit. That’s literally Hampton rising up against racial inequality (“You can jail a revolutionary, but you can’t jail the revolution”) — sampled and placed at the beginning.
Hampton’s defiance lives on in the glint of trumpet, guitar, and keyboard — sharpening that blade — as a big band swirls in, washing us clean.
“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” by Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James wouldn’t be the same without vocalist Brianna Thomas, grifting in the gritty facts of life. A 1964 blues throwback, “Hard Time…” still remains relevant to these redefined times, and comes closest to voicing the message of social injustice rattling Nowosad today:
“Hard time here and everywhere you go
Times is harder than ever been before
And the people are driftin’ from door to door
Can’t find no heaven, I don’t care where they go
Hear me tell you people, just before I go
These hard times will kill you just dry long so…”
“See Line Woman” has a little of both the social message and the massive music behind it. One of three covers, the Afro-Caribbean-styled hop, skip and jump originally came from “Sea Lion Woman,” a traditional, African folk tune/children’s playground song.
Nina Simone picked up on the vibe, twisting and turning the mindless mantra into an arresting sort of rhythm and rhyme, about prostitutes lining up for incoming sailors on the shores of New Orleans.
Brianna Thomas more than ably takes on Simone’s role as mythic gatekeeper, with keyboardist Marc Cary and background, call-and-response vocalist Michael Mayo, as they revive the deceptively dualistic two-for-one sale in a playful interlude. As she does on hot-and-heavy “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” Thomas forces an ooey-gooey squeeze-play (“makes a man loooooose his head”) out of the ordinary. She matches Simone’s down and dirty knowing, but outpaces and outshines her in the rest, where the bells and whistles show.
“Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” a Gil Scott-Heron cover, feels silky smooth, yet substantively intricate, bumpy. Trumpeter Duane Eubanks intersperses melodic groove in sweet pockets (home) with stucco breaks (hatred), as Jonathan Thomas follows suit on Fender Rhodes. The musicians ricochet off the dichotomies of home and hatred for a jarring, yet splendid effect.
Curtis Nowosad, 31, unifies music and message nicely. His latest album, co-produced with Marc Cary, is a true team effort, sitting comfortably between entertainment and enlightenment. It’s jazz church without the sermon.