Elsa Nilsson’s Band of Pulses Explores the Voice of Dr. Maya Angelou on Pulses, new album out October 6, 2023 via ears&eyes
ears and eyes records is excited to announce the October 6th, 2023 release of Pulses, the groundbreaking new album from visionary flutist-composer Elsa Nilsson and her latest creative outfit Band of Pulses. What is the line that makes sound, music? Nilsson, along with pianist Santiago Leibson, bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Rodrigo Recabarren, seek to answer that question in Pulses, a riveting eight-part suite based and built on the rhythmic and melodic aspects of Dr. Maya Angelou’s voice. Awarded a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Grant, Pulses explores the intersection between jazz and communication by highlighting the subtle melodic development and deep groove in Dr. Angelou’s reading of her poem “On The Pulse of Morning”. Crafted, composed, and improvised around Dr. Angelou’s pitch and phrasing, Pulses is an impressive creative experiment that brings to light the full depth of her sonic and poetic brilliance.
The release of Pulses will be celebrated at National Sawdust on October 6th. More information can be found here.
“I’ve always been drawn to Dr. Angelou’s work,” says Nilsson. “What I find compelling is her ability to look directly at difficult topics and approach them with both compassion and honesty. Her unflappable clarity in her expression of everything from the beautiful to the brutal is something I work to embody on my instrument as well. I return to her work often in order to guide myself back to center, and find a path forward in making art that feels genuine.”
The seeds for Pulses were first planted about three years ago, when Recabarren shared a clip of Dr. Angelou’s seminal recitation of “On The Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration with Elsa, as they were both working on musical projects inspired by the spoken word. “Ron Miles told me once to imagine lyrics to every note I play. This is something I listen for in music,” explains Nilsson. When listening to Dr. Angelou’s speech, she was immediately struck by the similarities in her voice to John Coltrane’s horn, and she surveyed the delicate balance between momentum and restraint in the poet’s voice. “Flute has not been a go-to instrument in jazz, and I believe a lot of it is because this kind of momentum doesn’t come naturally on the instrument due to its lack of resistance in the creation of the sound. It is much more of a vocal process, and so exploring how Dr. Angelou was creating that effect with her voice was exciting to me.”
Nilsson fully immersed herself in this musical-spoken word intersection, and came up with some intriguing findings. For one, the inescapable similarities of Dr. Angelou’s pitch and rhythms to the blues stuck out to Nilsson, drawing a connection between communication in speech and communication in jazz. Dr. Angelou uses diminished sounds to build intensity, and major sounds to release it, and when there is thematic development in the content, it is met with appropriate pitch and rhythm in speech. “The more time I spend with each inflection the deeper I hear the connection between her voice and the voices of musicians I love. At different points in her reading her phrasing will sound like John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins and Ornette Coleman. She increases her rhythmic density to build tension and releases it in the same fashion found in bebop phrasing,” shares Nilsson. The deeper Nilsson dug into her inflections and phrasing, the more similarities with jazz she found, and this natural connection inspired the music that poured out of her. Granted permission from Angelou’s estate, Caged Bird Legacy, Nilsson incorporates the entire 1993 recording, formally merging these two mediums to make something entirely new.
Band of Pulses brings together four imaginative creative forces of the New York jazz and improvised music scene. Recabarren, whose credits include Guillermo Klein, Melissa Aldana and Clauda Acuña, first worked with Nilsson extensively in 2020 as part of their collaborative trio South By North East with bassist Bam Bam Rodriguez. Not long after the release of their critically acclaimed debut album for human beings (coincidentally, also drawn from poetry, as the title is connected to a favorite poem of his), the trio became a duo due to Rodriguez’s relocation. It was great luck then when Nilsson met Kenney (Allan Harris, Art Landy) and Leibson (Tony Malaby, Guillermo Klein, Francisco Mela), and felt an instant musical connection. “The way they played together felt like the exact right thing,” she says.
Originally from Gothenburg, Sweden, Brooklyn-based Nilsson is a musical visionary with boundless creativity. A founding member of the Esthesis Quartet, and leader/co-leader of nearly a dozen albums, Nilsson’s growing discography reflects an astute perspective, informed by deep research and immersion. Her adventurous 2022 ears&eyes release, Atlas Of Sound – Coast Redwoods – 41°32’09.8″N 124°04’35.5″W” brought listeners into Redwood National Park, and was praised by Bandcamp’s Dave Sumner as being “as close as you’ll get to being there without actually being there,” adding that it was “yet another intriguing project from Nilsson that touches upon themes of experience, memory, and interconnectedness.” Hindsight, her 2020 release inspired by the street protests after the 2016 election, did the same thing by incorporating the rhythmic cadence of protests and chants and turning them into compelling melodies and motifs. Pulses follows in the footsteps of these great contemporary works by marrying music and the spoken word in impeccable fashion.
October 6th National Sawdust, Brooklyn NY
October 18th Black Cat, San Francisco CA
October 19th Libretto Paso Robles CA
October 20th House Concert, Ojai CA
October 21st Earshot Jazz Festival, Seattle WA
LINER NOTES FOR PULSES BY KARAS LAMB
Dr. Maya Angelou stood on the national mall on January 20th, 1993 to mark the presidential inaugural celebrating the 1992 election of Bill Clinton as the 40th President of The United States of America. Looking out onto the crowd gathered for the occasion, she scanned the sea of bodies before looking toward the horizon, where she envisioned the collective pain of the country’s fraught past as a more just, equitable future.
Angelou’s poem On The Pulse of Morning found her calling out to an America that enacts the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity as lived ideals instead of lofty ornamentation just close enough to the eye to induce wonder but hovering above us, perpetually out of reach. An America honest enough about a legacy of settler colonialism and separatism to finally be unbound by it. An America first founded, in earnest, with little more than the elements that populate the opening words of her speech: “A rock, a river, a tree…“
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
As if panning for gold in the silt from which mankind first sprang, Angelou pores over the particulate matter of antiquated policy and petrified beasts to bear witness to both the demise and promise of a species. Where fallow land threatens to prevail she imagines a verdant earth that can nourish generations to come or be nourished, if we are not careful, by our bodies.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.
Speaking in a manner that endows the pregnant pause with the same power as the high pitch, Angelou builds intensity through the use of dominant sounds and minor blues that call forth the joyful effervescence of the major scale as the tension in her voice is released. Her diction is characteristically precise as she speaks in a glissando that migrates effortlessly from the guttural moans of backwater blues to the clarion call of a bugler rousing the heavens with “Taps.” Angelou’s phrasing and performance are a living record of the breadth of Black American Music and its ability to encapsulate the history of a people whose origins and experiences have been systematically erased from the official record over centuries to protect the legacies of their captors.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
As vinegar cuts through the fat obscuring the contents of a simmering pot, Angelou’s On The Pulse of Morning lays bare the truth of a nation with a melange of words levied in glad intonations and satisfied grins that soften the sharpness of words spoken expressly to undress it’s bones –– to challenge the status quo that would have a republic boast of freedoms it has never instituted to completion.
Thirty years after Dr. Angelou’s delivery of the poem on the national mall, flutist Elsa Nilsson offers a careful excavation of the artifact that attempts to execute the author’s directive to continue the work. Enter Pulses –– a suite of tone poems inspired by the coded languages of gospel, blues and jive as spoken in diftongs and refrains by one of America’s foremost bards.
Imbued with the tender invocation of a preacher’s alter call to wayward souls and the brash fury of Coltrane’s tenor in flight, Angelou’s delivery captures the musicality of Black speech; the melodic traits of the culture are evident in Maya Angelou’s habit of circling notes for emphasis, which is a core element of bebop phrasing. Nilsson distills this delivery into movements through careful notation to demonstrate the communicative power of jazz; the music in this case is a tool for the interrogation of difficult subject matter that is not muddied but instead inspired by the words of the inaugural poem.
Joined by pianist Santiago Leibson, bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Rodrigo Recabarren, Nilsson analyzes and transmutes On The Pulse of Morning into a melodic interplay of measure and verse that find the ensemble and Angelou herself –– the chief soloist in each arrangement –– mulling revolution across the time space continuum through the time-honored divining tools of diminished chords and rhythm. The entire affair begins, according to Nilsson, on an E natural and ends with Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” –– a statement of hope that acknowledges what is possible when people work together (in unison) to manifest the ideal world they envision:
“She hits a high note on E, an octave up from where she started, one time only. She takes almost the whole poem to build up to this peak. When she hits the word “Pulse” I start playing “what a wonderful world” at the tempo dictated by her voice. The first time I used this phrase it was done to highlight cynicism in part 2, now it is used to highlight hope. Since Dr Angelou is using everything she has done so far to tie it all together her voice is very dense in this section. I wanted the clarity of this melody to frame the concept of hope that she arrives at, so that when she says that word and we end on the “P” sound of it, it is clear that this is the feeling we are to take with us as we walk away. I believe hope is the best thing we do as a species. It takes such courage and intent, and it is a process. Something we continue to engage in. The power of music to cultivate hope is something I think about a lot. I love the idea that in acknowledging humanity through the work we do as artists we are planting seeds for this instinct to bloom in the heart of our species. Every time I listen to or read Dr Angelou I walk away with a spark of hope in my heart, even when she is addressing the darkest things within our capacity. This has led me to want to acknowledge both the beauty and brutality of the world we live in, as we can’t affect any form of change (motion) without looking at the whole picture.” – E. Nilsson
In many cultures it is the job of the women to bear witness. What Angelou began in a moment of recitation is extended by Nilsson’s interpolation of the work. This conversation, brought to life as Pulses, is a spiritual pact between two artists connected by a painstakingly crafted web of musical statements and a mutual desire for the progress of mankind. Both committed to observing the same history through complimentary mediums at two different points in time.
Instead of dismissing the wounds of a nation, Angelou and Nilsson treat them with serene melody and sincere compassion. Each of them deeply committed to using their respective instruments to foster change. Together, they deliver the poultice of healing sound at a new but eerily familiar tipping point in the nation’s history; still reeling from the effects of a global pandemic the American body politic vacillates between fascism and freedom. And so it is that we find ourselves here, yet again, at the intersection of our past and our potential. On the pulse of morning.
The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.