“America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms; its humor; its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.” Sonny Rollins (1958)
How ironic, indeed, that this statement is just as radical now as it was in 1958. Sonny Rollins is credited with composing and releasing the first music openly focused on social justice in the Black Art Music scene. While this is true in the formal sense, music produced by Afrikans in america has always been a form of protest. We can view the musical output in such a way because Black American music has always affirmed our humanity. That very little has changed in the last 68 years shows how ingrained america's inhumanity is.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. This reality prompted Lomax and Bayard to embark on the path of honoring the great jazz icon while making a relevant artistic statement. The honored ancestor, Max Roach (also a performer on the original recording of Freedom Suite in 1958), has said that the jazz musician is a chronicler of his time. Bayard and Lomax's goal is to honor the significant artistic achievements of Rollins and chronicle the times while engaging the creative challenge of approaching a seminal work for the jazz trio (saxophone, bass, and drums) as a duo. These musicians set out to write a new chapter in the ongoing saga of human relations in america and the broader world. They found in Rollins' Freedom Suite the perfect vehicle for a contemporary story rooted in the tradition of the griots of Afrika and the diaspora from which Sonny springs.
Many musicians found that speaking out for their humanity was detrimental to their careers. The same is unfortunately as accurate now as it was then. Many look at Rollins's stellar career and see nothing but success. Others, like Lomax and Bayard, know the realities of using the power of music as a tool in the fight for humanity. The duo lost their recording contract in 2015 when they released #Blacklivesmatter. Festivals have refused to book them due to the political nature of their work, and many have advised them to "just play the music" and not worry about the politics. Lomax has even recently come under attack for public comments regarding "race" relations in america.
The more things change, the more they stay the same...
Like Rollins, this duo are Blues musicians. What is the Blues if it isn't relevant to the listeners? How can one be soulful if they don't poor the truth of their experiences into every note? How can the music maintain its power to heal and bring people together if its creators don't create from their most authentic truths? Rollins has said that "improvisation is the ability to create something very spiritual, something of one's own." The spiritual component of improvisation comes from the core beingness of the creator. Without it, the music is meaningless; art for the sake of art.
The work of Lomax and Bayard contained in this recording is not meaningless. It is, first and foremost, art. It represents maturing musicians engaging the creation of a master and finding their own voice within the spiritual space the honored elder has created for deep conversation and revelation. As important, it is a recording produced for the sake of humanity. This recording of Freedom Suite captures the essence that catalyzed its genesis in 1958 while addressing today's national and global challenges humanity faces. War, famine, global warming, racism, classism, etc.
Lomax says, "the major problems in the world today can be attributed to a general lack of empathy and the inability, or unwillingness, of world leaders to do what's right for the people they represent simply because it is the right thing to do." He adds, "here in america, our challenges stem from the negative impacts racism and white supremacy has had on the entire culture and the inability of the nations power structure to reimagine a country that is optimally inclusive, equitable, and democratic." These comments beg the question, what does it mean to be free? How does this freedom happen, and when will it happen for everyone.
This fresh and bold interpretation by Bayard and Lomax suggests that freedom begins in the spirit, the heart, and the deepest recesses of the mind before manifesting in the world. Their arrangements lend melodic responsibilities to the drums in a way that restores the instruments' original purpose as a storyteller on the Afrikan continent. The reliance on groove invokes the notion of a solid foundation upon which freedom must be built. This approach seems to suggest that freedom is to be shared. The MC KRS-One has always said that nation is built one strong family at a time. The family unit is the foundation upon which freedom must be constructed, and it must be shared by each member of the Human family.
The emphasis on imaginative, blues-infused melodicism and rhythmic invention brings the listener into a soundscape most mainstream record labels and musicians steer clear of. They generally fear the medium being too challenging for both listener and musician. Here, Bayard and Lomax excel in keeping the attention, pushing comfort zones, and laying in the pocket through their deft use of various musical techniques and influences. Bayard's tone and technique are as much an homage to the great tenor players of the past, from Hawkins to Rollins, as it signals to contemporary players that this music requires more than knowledge of complex harmonic progressions. To play Black music this complex and engaging, the musicians need to have a complete knowledge of what has come before and a vision of what can be. Bayard communicates that effectively on tenor and soprano saxophones.
As for Lomax, he has created a name for himself as both composer and percussionist. He is a drummer with the power of Elvin Jones and the finess of Roy Haynes, the melodic invention of Max Roach and rhythmic complexity of Ed Blackwell, and the exuberance of Tony Williams. Lomax's introduction of the slow third movement uses a wide pallet of colors and timber. His playing throughout is complete as he makes harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic contributions to the ensemble sound. He is pushing his instrument forward and, like Bayard, honors the past while pointing to the future.
Structurally, the Duo have taken a cue from the David S. Ware Quartet in that they have maintained the original format while extending each section into a standalone movement. The melodic responsibilities are shared. The drums being instruments of indeterminant pitch does not stop Lomax from not only invoking the melody but, in many cases, actually playing correct pitches where possible. This brings an added uniqueness to the Duo arrangement and a fresh take on this timeless classic. The sparse instrumentation separates Lomax and Bayard's offering from Ware and Brandford Marsalis recordings, both of whom recorded with their quartets. The final movement is a tour de force where Bayard creates a beautifully crafted, spiritually elevating Blues improvisation over Lomax's funky Afrikan-inspired groove. This makes for a triumphant and hopeful ending to a powerful recording.
Freedom for Afrikans in america is as precarious now as it was in 1958. Freedom for all of humanity may not be realized in the near future. However, without musicians like Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Sun-Ra, Edwin Bayard, and Mark Lomax, II, to help listeners remember themselves, Freedom will never come.