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Jazz Album of the Week: Avery Sharpe’s 400 Navigates Four Centuries of African-American History

[Originally published in June, 2019] Sometimes in music, especially jazz, we call a particularly ambitious new album “a project,” especially when the music is something more, the perfect vehicle to deliver an impactful story. With 400: An African American Musical Portrait, bassist Avery Sharpe hasn’t just released a new album—he’s unveiled a serious project.

To say that the whole of 400 is greater than the sum of its parts (which it is) is really saying something, since the component parts are extraordinary. The core group comprises a sextet of heavy-hitters: Philadelphia natives, and brothers, Duane and Kevin Eubanks (trumpet and guitar, respectively), Don Braden (tenor/soprano sax and flute), Ronnie Burrage (drums), and Zaccai Curtis (piano).

Most of these guys have been like family to Sharpe for years. You know who else has been like family to Avery Sharpe? His actual family—and they’re on the record, er, project, too! Appearing on four tracks, the Extended Family Choir, constituted in part by Sharpe’s nieces, nephews, and sister, is directed by Sharpe’s brother, Kevin.

All these pieces come together on the second track, “Is There a Way Home,” a veritable family reunion—the only thing you don’t hear is someone asking to pass the potato salad.

Don Braden’s solo on flute is searching and expansive, with just the right touch of hysteria, a stranger in a strange land’s plaintive call for help and answers. And then it’s Sharpe taking the lead, guiding us through the late 17th century life of African slaves with narrative lines of improvisation on bass, accompanied by Tendai Muparutsa on the djembe (a West African drum). The Extended Family takes us home, chanting beautifully and tragically in a Liberian dialect.

With “Fiddler,” Sharpe offers up a multi-movement musical tracking shot of the post-Revolutionary period. The first movement is an almost classical-sounding waltz, with guesting violinists, Kevin Zhou and Sophia Jeongyoon Han, playing over top Curtis and Sharpe, producing the kind of Philip Glass-like minimalism that’s simultaneously somber and ennobling, the kind that makes you cry and ball up a fist at the same time. The second movement is a short and sweet little fiddling ditty of steadily accelerating tempo that’s meant to replicate the bluegrass-y and zydeco-sounding tunes that slaves were often taught to play on the plantation for the purpose of entertaining slaveowners.

Even when, musically, the mood is light….this is heavy stuff.

From “Antebellum” through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the two world wars, and on through to the civil rights era, Sharpe uses the African-American music of each era to tell the epic, fluid story of those descended from the original Africans brought in bondage to America 400 years ago. Musically, the effort is pitch-perfect. Historically, too. It would have to be—lest Sharpe take heat from his colleagues in Williams College’s African Studies department.

These powers combine to make Sharpe’s 400 project many things at once: pastiche, musicology course, and American history colloquium. What it is most certainly not is just another new CD.

Matt Silver is a journalist, commentator, and storyteller who’s been enamored with the concept of performance since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do.