June 22, 2020. Inspired by the protest music of the '60s that helped dismantle the codified racism of that era, bassist Marlene Rosenberg’s latest album, MLK Convergence, released almost exactly a year ago, presents a new catalogue of socially conscious compositions with the exigency of our current moment in mind, taking aim at the vestiges of institutionalized prejudice that continue to link America to its original sin.
There are seven original compositions by Rosenberg, two arrangements of Stevie Wonder tunes, and one take on a composition by Philadelphia native and legendary jazz pianist Kenny Barron.
Barron constitutes one-third of the core group, joining Rosenberg and the great Lewis Nash on drums. Nash played for years with bassist Ron Carter, one of Rosenberg’s most influential mentors; the three have traveled in similar musicians’ circles and known each other for years but had never before had the chance the cut an album together.
That’s what’s meant primarily by the album’s title, MLK Convergence—it’s Marlene, Lewis, and Kenny all recording together for the first time. M, L, and K. Though whenever those letters appear in that sequence, you know the conversation is in no small part about Rev. King and the ideas he fought and died for.
The first cut, “American Violet,” takes its title from the 2008 film of the same name that tells the story of 15 black residents of Hearne, Texas who were wrongly indicted as drug dealers during a drug sweep orchestrated by the local district attorney and the triumph of their resulting civil rights law suit.
Rosenberg’s the first one in here, introducing a bold, muscular theme in an uncommon meter, 9/8. Nash then lets himself in, keeping everyone on time and in time, followed by Barron who plays the head in unison with Rosenberg before descending to bluesier depths.
“Togetherness” begins with Barron chord progressions that call to mind “My Favorite Things.” Like the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s standard, “Togetherness” is played, for the most part, in three. It’s not the most memorable tune on the record, but there’s a difficult-to-articulate joy in the playing here that lends credence to the tune’s name. Such great individual talent on display and so little ego in the playing. That’s the point: Unity is attainable if we can manage to shed just a little bit of our egos.
On “Not the Song I Wanna Sing,” the latent undercurrent of exigency and discontent permeating the album bubbles to the surface, propelled by the first of two bass duets featuring Rosenberg and special guest (and co-producer of the album), the anointed one, Christian McBride.
Rosenberg, Tom Burrell, Robert Irving III (another of the record’s co-producers) lay down poetic verse decrying recent indignities felt by minority communities at the hands of local authorities.
This is not the song they prefer to sing, they say; it’s the song that circumstances compel them to sing.
Or rap, as it were.
Rosenberg references Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old shot 16 times by police in her hometown of Chicago in 2014 and the subsequent three-year prison term to which the officer was sentenced. “Two shots ends the first quarter, makes 16 points for Lebron,” Rosenberg intones, “two shots plus 14 more bring 3 years for the life of Laquan.”
The second Rosenberg-McBride bass duet happens on arguably the most memorable tune of the whole album, the penultimate “And Still We Rise.” McBride is at his funky best showing off his bowing prowess, while Barron’s playing is equally funky, radiating hardened resilience and joyful defiance, just like the poem from which the song takes its name, Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise.”
Barron’s “Rain” is the album’s lone true ballad; in it, the NEA Jazz Master gives Rosenberg plenty of room to set a mood that’s initially somber and bespeaks pain but is ultimately cathartic and rejuvenating and necessary, like a good cry or a river overflowing in an agricultural area during flood season. Circle of life type stuff.
Speaking of which, “The Circle Story,” is almost a call-back to the cyclical riff established earlier on “American Violet.” Call it focused searching or desultory freelancing, there’s some fun musical meandering by Barron and Rosenberg here within the circular framework.
But if you want to hear Barron and his swinging best, don’t check out before you’ve checked out “The Barron,” Rosenberg’s composition that indulges the penchant for Latin grooves that so many think of as Barron’s bread and butter. And with good reason: Barron’s great throughout, but his verve and exuberance for playing is more prominently displayed here than anywhere else on the record.