Jazz Album of the Week: Luke Carlos O’Reilly’s ‘I Too Sing America’ a Triumph of Activism and Music
July 5th, 2021. There’s a very simple concept that’s too often lost in contemporary public discourse: Two seemingly conflicting concepts can be true at once. The past year has demonstrated that a critical mass of Americans believes that institutional biases and individual prejudices, even if latent and unconscious, have corroded the foundational dream of America. And yet, it’s often these same voices, the ones which have felt stifled, expressing the most hope in the dream this country has stood for since its founding. Protest and hope can co-exist. Grievance and patriotism are not mutually exclusive concepts.
And so, on this Independence Day week of 2021, we present for you Luke Carlos O’Reilly’s I Too Sing America: A Black Man’s Diary. It’s an album that takes its title from Langston Hughes’ brief-but-deep 1925 poem, “I, Too,” a piece narrated by a Black servant who, though constantly alienated by the family for whom he works, believes that the promise of America is like a sun that will eventually—but inevitably—rise and illuminate his virtue and merit and humanity for his beloved country to finally see.
So if O’Reilly’s album—his third as a leader and first on Orrin Evans’ Imani Records—strikes you as Langstonian, as a contemporary descendent of the Harlem Renaissance…there’s a reason for that.
The opener, “Black Lives Matter,” is not so much a statement of protest as it is a declaration of pride and self-worth, a validation of the musicians’ right to exist, to make a living in their chosen professions, to be recognized, listened to, and heard.
It starts with the organic build-up of a jam session tune-up. There’s a frisson of anticipation as you hear fingers limbering, musical muscles stretching, instruments finding their own micro voice and negotiating the group’s macro voice into focus. Chris McBride (alto sax), Lee Hogans (trumpet), and Corey Wallace (trombone) join longtime O’Reilly collaborator Anwar Marshall (drums) and Nimrod Elab Speaks (bass) in announcing the group’s presence and ethos with authority, delivering the musical equivalent of a prideful flag planting.
Batting in the two hole is “Amerikkka,” which presents as a riff on the musical themes often associated with a national anthem. I like to think of it as the musical representation of aspirations for the oft-talked-about “more perfect union.” Caleb Wheeler Curtis (alto sax) and Josh Evans (trumpet) join the rhythm section led by an augustly snaring Marshall to form a union that’s close to perfect in a world where we’re told perfection is unattainable. I’m not so sure anymore.
Listening closely, one might sense inspiration derived from Copeland’s concept of America. Cleverly composed and arranged, the influence of the Shakers’ “Simple Gifts” is unmistakable, and the solos are bursting with genuine feeling but, refreshingly, never overplayed. O’Reilly once had a reputation for being an extremely talented musician who sometimes played more notes than necessary—that’s not the case here. I hear nothing superfluous.
Hogans and McBride return as the horn section on “Brotherman (In Blue),” a medium-tempo, noirish swinger where we hear O’Reilly stretch comfortably, never forcefully or overbearingly. Even when the message is heavy, the delivery remains as easy and cool as Speaks’ bass solo on “Good Trouble,” a reference to the purposeful button pushing which the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis advocated.
Like Lewis, O’Reilly casts a wide net here, referencing music—like Copeland’s—that was once thought to embody the spirit of America’s multitudes, while also embracing the style of music that might be argued to be doing that today—hip-hop.
“Justice Delayed is Justice Denied” melds the production elements of hip-hop and R&B with jazz instrumentation in the manner of that great triad of Chicago rappers, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, and Chance the Rapper. Vocalist Shenel Johns will have you thinking O’Reilly managed to get Mary J. Blige for the record; the verses that she and rapper Khemist exchange are clever, artfully constructed, and likely to stick in your head if you replay this tune as much as I’ve been compelled to.
Elsewhere, “Stop and Frisk,” “Can’t Breathe,” and “Say Her Name,” sport titles that are explicitly sociopolitical, but the music itself sports sophistication that is more subtle. “Say Her Name,” with O’Reilly on both organ and piano, is tear-inducing, gorgeously textured, and makes its very powerful point in under three-and-a-half minutes, a radio programmer’s dream. Hogans and McBride state and restate the gospel-tinged theme both together and individually, in unison and in harmony. It’s an emotionally charged moment and they both step up to meet it.
Anwar Marshall—who’s now played on each of O’Reilly’s releases—is the unassailably strong backbone to this entire operation. He’s so dependable and unselfish, one can fall into the trap of taking him for granted. Resist that. The same can even be said about O’Reilly, as much of the music he’s written here gives the lead horns a lot of the shine. And they deserve it. McBride, Hogans, and Wallace are killer on the final two tunes, the percussive “Runnin” and the exalted, organ-drenched “Raise Them Up.”
But do not sleep on Marshall—take stock of the way he peppers the cymbals on “Runnin” and just shake your head in mystified appreciation, while O’Reilly noodles in a fit of focused playfulness on the Rhodes electric. This is a concerto of sorts, in five-and-a-half minutes. There are multiple movements climaxing with the aforementioned horn section executing an anthemic arrangement. With both loose improvisation and tightly constructed section playing, it’s proof positive of the premise that two seemingly incongruent things can be true at once—and often are.