Friday, September 21, 2007

(The Church of) Harriet Tubman @ Joe's Pub 9/21/07


Whenever I hear Harriet Tubman, sometimes in their various aspects--Brandon Ross' solo work, Melvin Gibb's side projects (I'm less familiar with JT Lewis' other work)--I experience some kind of spirit work. But from the first time I heard Harriet Tubman as the sum of their collective parts--Brandon Ross (guitar, mandolin, banjo), Melvin Gibbs(bass), and JT Lewis (drums)--I felt like I had been to church, in the best sense of the word. I felt my spirit had been fed and my soul given succor. Sometimes you don't know how thirsty you are until someone gives you a cup of water. That's Harriet Tubman.

The thing is they work in layers. If all you want to do is hear good music they bring it, sometimes, often times, in ways you never imagined. If you want to hear soaring sonic experiments and mad brilliant percussion that won't take you to the ENT specialist the next week, they bring that. If you want some playful banter, they bring that, but sparingly--it's about the music after all.

I had been waiting all summer to see Harriet Tubman, checking their MySpace page, and waiting for each of them to get back from touring with their other projects. Finally, finally, they were playing in New York. The three came out to the applause of an appreciative crowd sitting at the small tables, plush couches, and velvety cushions that comprise the intimate front space of Joe's Pub. They opened with "Afro Sheen" a song for music writer/former Steel Pulse road manager/artist advocate Tom Terrell. They followed that with "Wayne's World" which Lewis said was for Wayne Shorter with a nod to [fellow Weather Report co-founder] Joe Zawinul," who passed away on 11 September 2007 in Vienna, Austria--his homeland.

There was an extended call-and-response with Gibbs and the crowd initiated by an audience member calling out "Kings and Queens"--their wish to have the borough of Queens acknowledged. Having acknowledged Queens, and noting that he felt like he was at a hip hop concert, Gibbs had to ask about Brooklyn, and then Manhattan, and note the long-standing rivalry between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Next thing you know Gibbs was calling out wider and wider possible circles of attendance: New Jersey; Connecticut; Kennebunk, Maine; Chicago, and back to Brooklyn. A little later Ross brought up the question of the Brooklyn allegiance, was it a question of socio-economics, etc.? After Gibbs asked if Ross really wanted to go there, and if Ross wanted his university thesis on the subject, Gibbs thoughtfully explained that Brooklyn would get the biggest response at hip hop concerts because for a long time Brooklyn was the US city with the largest number of African American residents (news to me).

Now if you want a bit of history, or a lot, with your musical rapture they bring that as well. For me it's that part that makes the experience rapturous. In some cases it's all they've brought to the songs they've written honoring musicians of previous generations ("Wayne's World") and those who have gone on (the encore, "Where We Stand," was dedicated to Alice Coltrane). Tubman is self-described as being "dedicated to musical revelation/investigation in a pan-african vernacular of Now." On their website Gibbs says of Harriet Tubman "...to create new forms, we need to learn from our past innocations and how they relate to our experiences today. Having this knowledge honors our past and allows us to truly innovate, because we have the knowledge necessary to alter the forms of the past and still remain true to the intent of the innovators....HARRIET TUBMAN rises to the challenge and creates something new on the level of our elders."

That might sound highfalutin' or plain pretentious if they couldn't back it up--but they can. They are a "power trio" yes, but their "power" is beyond amplitude, dexterity, and technical proficiency. Lewis can make you hear a hurricane, or a waterfall, or a shimmering of raindrops, or the circular drive of what I imagine a tornado sounds like, or throw down the sparest marrow-sucked-chicken-bone funk-blues groove. You can hear the past in each of their musical voices and their collaborative intermix, as well as in Gibbs and Ross' respective skills in signal processing and live mixing, in such a way that you come to realize that the past is and was limitless in its legacy, hence the possibility of being quite grounded in its traditions while continuing in the vein of innovation.

The through-line to past-present-future continued with "Savannah." An homage to histories of "migration," as Lewis put forth with particular emphasis. Savannah is a port city in Georgia just south of South Carolina, and located on the Savannah River, whose outlet is the Atlantic Ocean. So we know at least one of the "migrations" and resulting histories the song references. Next was "Passages" (although I might have heard that incorrectly, was it "On Passages"?) for Ross' friend Ralph Gibson (whom I believe is Ralph Gibson the photographer/guitarist). That "past Now," was again evident in what Tubman has brought to the reclamation of particular musical traditions, tonight through a song with the banjo front and center. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the title, all that comes to me is "Trickology" which was one of the terms Gibbs used in his signification on the history of the instrument. As he introduced the song Gibbs acknowledged that seeing an African American with a banjo was close to, well I wish I could remember his analogy, but it was something like a minstrel show. On cue Ross, banjo slung across his shoulder, adopted a classic minstrel pose (there are many, but just use your imagination--his arms were outstretched, one leg was thrust out at a jaunty angle, and he beamed a sarcastic smile). When a bunch of flashes went off simultaneously, I felt a little unnerved and decided I really didn't need to add to the aggregate of online images of Ross in this pose, potentially stripped of its context through the particularities of the retrieval search engine that is "Google images." OK, but back to Gibbs, who explained that "it's [the history of the banjo] complicated, because if you look at early paintings you'll" see this instrument being played by African slaves. (Gibbs above right introducing the song)

Interestingly, I was just reading about this on the train over in music writer/guitarist Debra DeSalvo's informative and award-winning book The Language of the Blues: from Alcorub to Zuzu (2006, Billboard Books) which functions a glossary, an encyclopedia, and an oral history collection. The "Banjo" entry traces the instrument to the mbanza, a stringed instrument brought to the colonies by enslaved members of the Kimbundu tribe of Angola. DeSalvo breaks down the linguistic history of the term mbanza in relation to its Bantu-language origins and its eventual morphing into "banjo." She then explains how it was made and how its adoption by white minstrels as a prop in their humiliating portrayals of African Americans, especially in the period immediately before the Civil War, led to numerous African Americans abandoning the banjo to whites who, absent "blackface," used it in the development of bluegrass and country music (interesting as Sister Rosetta Tharpe biographer Gayle Wald has posited that there wasn't a clear racial distinction in the practice and production of country and bluegrass music until the racialization of radio--but that's another story). DeSalvo also discusses the paintings that show these instruments prior to their popularization by whites, and quotes Thomas Jefferson referring to the instrument in 1781 as the banjar, as it was then called, and his writing of enslaved Africans having brought the stringed instrument which was "the origin of the guitar, its chords being precisely the lower chords of the guitar." [DeSalvo, 10] Like much that is musical these days, the book has its own MySpace page (it's male, 32 years old, and hails from Chicago, if you were curious).

They broke that composition down into something of a love song for all those banjo players who found their beloved instrument--that dear reminder of their homeland and the site of various creative legacies--made into an unwilling enemy; its voice mocking them now with its new role as a cultural coder of their subjugation. While Lewis and Gibbs provided the steady roots, with a processed loop of banjo voicings just underneath him, Ross played the banjo with a series of more traditional melodic passages, a duet that created a conversation, a healing really, between those players and the present. And for us too, if we wanted it.

At the encore, as a way of introducing the final song, Ross named a number of musicians/artists that have been "called home to the next port of call," including Alice Coltrane, Michael Brecker (news to me), someone called out Max Roach, and Ross repeated Roach's name, Leroy Jenkins, Lance Carter; Gibbs called out the name of another artist, and Ross ended with poet/performer Sekou Sundiata, noting that there were others he'd had yet to hear about (I silently thought about the recent passing of New Orleans keyboardist Wilson "Willie Tee" Turbington who had just lost his older brother, saxophonist Earl Turbington, four weeks ago). The vibrations have changed [with the loss of all these people], Ross noted, and that was the natural order of things. It was nonetheless important to note the shift, to acknowledge the loss, and the resulting changes, and leave some space to wonder, contemplate what will emerge.

Harriet Tubman has released two albums, I Am A Man (1998, Knitting Factory Records; which I talked about here); and the live album (Treasure Hunt for the) Prototype (2006, on John Zorn's Avant Records; which I'm diggin' now). A forthcoming CD from Harriet Tubman Double Trio, Dub-ill 3rio LIVE, featuring trumpeter Ron Miles, DJ Logic, DJ Singe (aka Beth Coleman) will be released sometime this Fall on Jazzaway Records, out of Oslo, Norway. I keep wondering when they're going to record the track where Ross cries out the lyric, "Lord, I can't tarry here no more," which always makes my hand raise up in the air like a missionary circle sister about to get the spirit (the black church children know what I mean, well, maybe not the Presbyterians, but the rest do). (Above right, Ross on the mic with Gibbs and Lewis, introducing the final song)

Endnote
The Mix: I can't help but be a gear head here. While I didn't crash the stage in order to see what was what, I did check out their mic'ing and some of their gear from a solid vantage point. Of course gear isn't everything, but mic placement is something. And the placement on Lewis' drums has fascinated me on their more recent recordings. Every drum on his kit was mic'd at this show. I just wish I knew which mics they were, as well as what mic Gibbs had pointed at his amp. Looked like a Sennheiser to me, but I couldn't tell for sure.

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