What Times Are These
Release Date: April 5, 2024
Label: Sunnyside

What Times Are These, is Jamie Baum’s fifth recording with The Jamie Baum Septet+, her flagship ensemble, the acclaimed New York-based flutist-composer presents her first exploration of spoken word and art song. To be specific, seven of Baum’s ten compositions respond to works by a cohort of eminent 20th and 21st century female poets (Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, Tracy K. Smith, Lucille Clifton, and Naomi Shihab Nye), interpreted by renowned guest vocalists Theo Bleckmann, Sara Serpa, Aubrey Johnson and KOKAYI. What Times Are These will be released on April 5, 2024 via Sunnyside. 

The album follows the critically acclaimed Sunnyside releases In This Life (2013) and Bridges (2018), on which Baum explored the connections between South Asian qawwali, Near Eastern maqam, and Jewish sacred musical traditions, incorporating the scales and rhythms into her vivid harmonic and orchestrative argot. Here again, Baum blends multiple influences, tailoring the improvisational sections to the individualistic tonal personalities of her uniquely configured ensemble of virtuosos: herself on flute and alto flute; Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet; Sam Sadigursky on alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet; Chris Komer, French horn; Brad Shepik, guitar; Luis Perdomo, piano and Fender Rhodes; Ricky Rodriguez on bass and electric bass; Jeff Hirshfield on drums; and, on three selections, Keita Ogawa on percussion. As reviewer Dan Bilawsky remarked of Bridges, Baum again “creates a world where sonic and spiritual resonance rest on an even plane.” with “a pronounced sense of purpose lighting the way.” 

The title, inspired by Adrienne Rich’s 1995 poem “What Kinds of Times Are These,” refers to the surreal, chaotic milieu following the outbreak of Covid-19 in the spring of 2020 when, as Baum puts it, “one by one, the gigs fell like dominoes and everything shut down.” She continues: “It was biblical, like the plagues. We’re going along, and then boom, we’re stopped in our tracks.” Sequestered with her husband in their small Manhattan apartment, Baum responded by “diving head first into composing.” The end result is a magisterial, multi-faceted artistic statement that fully addresses the existential darkness and political turmoil of the times in question, but also provides moments of great beauty, excitement and uplifting solace. 

Early in the process, Baum discovered Bill Moyers’s website A Poet A Day. “I’ve never been a huge poetry person,” she recalls. “But every day Moyers posted a poem that you could read, view a video of the poet reading it, and see Moyers interview the poet about it.” In the booklet notes, she writes: “The proverbial “light-bulb” turned on in my head. It seemed like the right time and opportunity, since I’d be confined at home for an unknown length of time, to compose music using these poems as lyrics for vocalists, something I’d never done.” 

As she perused the site, Baum selected works “where something spoke to me and I could express that feeling musically; I let each poem dictate what I would do, and who I would have sing it and solo on it. I knew the theme, although I didn’t know the order: Here we are at Covid and a challenging social-political climate, and perhaps now is a time for reflection of what’s going on. Each poem/composition expresses an aspect of that, perhaps put in a progression of discovery-conscience-awareness-awakening.”

A January 2021 opportunity to spend three weeks alone in a “beautiful cabin-studio in the woods with a grand piano” at MacDowell in New Hampshire facilitated the process. There Baum scored the two Adrienne Rich poems that appear midway through the recital. Rich based her poem, “What Kinds of Times Are These” on a passage (“What kind of times are they, when/A talk about trees is almost a crime/Because it implies silence about so many horrors?”) in Bertolt Brecht’s “To Those Born Later,” written in 1938 on the cusp of the Nazi aggressions that precipitated World War Two. Baum generates apropos starkness with ominous piano passages that bridge and foreshadow Sara Serpa’s understated, threnodic rendering of the poem’s four stanzas, and in more overtly dramatic depictions of wartime horrors via a crescendoing ensemble backdrop and Brad Shepik’s supercharged guitar solo.

Serpa’s ethereal voice also animates the opening line of poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s gut-wrenching “My Grandmother in the Stars” (“It is possible that we will not meet again on earth”) about her grandmother in Palestine, on which Sadigursky uncorks a contextually perfect alto sax solo. “I’ve been sharing in the caretaking of my mother, whose dementia has progressed to a point where I can’t even play this for her,” Baum says. “It’s been incredibly painful, and this piece gave me an outlet to express those feelings.”

Serpa – like Baum a New England Conservatory alumna who shares with the leader a strong connection to pianist Ran Blake from student years – also sings octogenarian poet-novelist Marge Piercy’s “I Am Wrestling with Despair,” a dystopian cri de coeur about the cruelty of the radical right towards the poor and women, complemented by Finlayson’s piercing variations. “In 2020, when I picked these songs, I didn’t think we would be where we are now, or that this project would be relevant when I finally got the recording out,” Baum says. “But unfortunately, these poems are more current than ever.”

For Rich’s “In Those Years,” she focuses on the beginning passage “people will say, we lost track of the meaning of we, of you. We found ourselves reduced to I.” Theo Bleckmann’s overdubbed intro adds multiple tracks and “I” at random spots within an electronic web of collective sound. Bleckmann then sings the full poem, live in the studio, over an insistent vamp, and then emphatically deconstructs the words as Baum composed it. Sam Sadigursky emulates his phrasing in a beautifully paced solo.

“I asked Theo, ‘Do something,’ for an introduction to the piece,” Baum says. “There’s always a tricky balance of telling them enough, but not too much. It’s a little nerve-wracking because you don’t know what you’re going to get. But I have found that high-level creative people with a similar sensibility will make your piece sound better than you could have imagined, even if it’s not what you intended. You have to let go and be in the moment of whatever happens.”

Baum also applied the “do something” principle when asking KOKAYI to perform Lucille Clifton’s “sorrow song.” She got more than she’d bargained for when he responded by writing a Rap-cadenced introduction that complemented Clifton’s paean to children victimized by war and oppression. Baum comments with lucid, scintillating variations on soprano flute with effects, one of her three solos on the album.

“I flex my improvisatory muscle more in some of the smaller groups that I maintain and in others’ bands,” she explains. “In the Septet+ I try to make the recording’s overall arc interesting – and I think it will sustain more interest if there’s variety rather than having me be the focus on everything. I like having different energies and personalities, and the tension that it can create sometimes ends up forcing the musicians out of their comfort zone. In 1999, when I started this ensemble, the flute was mostly not valued as a main instrument. I’d been playing some classical gigs, where I wasn’t always the main or only melody voice, where I might sometimes have an inner line or bass function. I loved the counterpoint and feeling of multiple melodies happening simultaneously. I’d always wanted to write music that I could play, and liked the idea of adding alto flute, sometimes putting the trumpet or clarinet on top and not always having to take the melodic role.”

Baum sets a surging funk beat to former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s “An Old Story,” recited as spoken word in front by Finlayson (who uncorks a soaring solo midway through) and sung by Aubrey Johnson, who handles the challenging intervals with panache. The lyric’s grim opening reminder of the self-destructiveness of homo sapiens is tempered by the message of renewal engendered by song.

A related leitmotif of wrestling with blue demons through musical expression also informs the treatment of Piercy’s “To Be of Use,” on which Baum recites the communitarian lyric, and the three instrumentals, including “Dreams” and the companion pieces “In The Light of Day” and “In The Day of Light,” which bookend the recording.

“Those two ‘bookends’ share several elements, but are different,” Baum says. “For this final piece I’m hoping – conceptually and musically – that all of these different things going on at the same time can convey the idea of co-existence. Each instrument has its own melodic line, its own voice. Sometimes they all come together and sometimes not, sometimes they are moving in homophony and sometimes in polyphony – but always co-existing and enhancing the other.”

THIERRY DE CLEMENSAT
PARIS MOVE
"Indeed, art is at the forefront here, on every level. The compositions draw from classical music, jazz, funk, and beyond, making it an album that defies classification in a single genre but remains utterly captivating." Check out the full review here.

KATCHIE CARTWRIGHT
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Baum's presence on her instrument is potent but circumscribed. She takes few solos, elsewhere letting the instrument be part of the ensemble's fabric, placing her virtuoso bandmates in the foreground." Check out the full review here.

FILIPE FREITAS
JAZZ TRAIL
"In addition to the power of words, the universal language of sounds envelops the listener with arrangements that include lustrous textures and tight grooves." Check out the full review here.

NATE CHINEN
THE GIG 
"A handful of exceptional vocalists bring the text to life..." Check out the full review here.

ALEX DUTILH
RADIO FRANCE
"...a masterful work, which fully addresses the existential darkness and political turmoil of the era in question, but which also offers moments of great beauty, excitement and solace." Check out the full article in French here.