Jazz Album of the Week: Nostalgia and Progress Co-Exist in Black Art Jazz Collective’s Ascension

Oct 19, 2020

October 19, 2020. If 2020 is finding you nostalgic for that early-to-mid ’60s lineup of Jazz Messengers featuring trombonist Curtis Fuller teaming up with legendary names like Hubbard, Shorter, Walton, Merritt, and Blakey, then you owe it to yourself to get acquainted with the Black Art Jazz Collective (BAJC).

Formed in 2012 by tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, BAJC is no mere replication of one of Blakey’s most celebrated lineups; culturally and politically they are very much 2020, as you’ll notice from the issues addressed by the song titles on their latest, Ascension. But these guys know their history, musically and otherwise; they know every time they tour Europe or play at Lincoln Center, they do so standing on the shoulders of giants—like Blakey, sure, but also guys like the late alto saxophonist Jackie McLean and the late pianists Harold Mabern and Larry Willis. Ascension features inspired tributes to all three.

Plus, you know, they’re a jazz sextet with a trombonist. So there’s that.

And speaking of that man playing the Curtis Fuller role here—the regally styled James Burton III—he’s written a quarter of the album’s eight original compositions, a creative workload split almost evenly among Escoffery, Pelt, Burton III, and the supremely talented and versatile pianist Victor Gould.

It’s a Gould composition, the album’s title track, that leads things off here. Gould’s opening vamps set the foundation for tightly orchestrated horn-section harmonies that weave through and alongside the piano-propelled theme. When the horns—Burton, Escoffery, and Pelt— come together to play in unison with Gould’s chords, it’s like the precision and hard-bop authority of the best of Blakey’s Messengers are reincarnated.

In keeping with the truest form of jazz democracy, the tune’s composer (Gould) takes an extended solo after the opening theme’s restatement, accompanied by drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr. (son of the guitarist Mark Whitfield, whom we featured in these very pages recently as part of the Christian McBride Big Band’s latest album, For Jimmy, Wes, and Oliver), who, stylistically, resides somewhere between Blakey and Blakey’s hip-hop reared great grandson. Escoffery and Pelt follow in due course, clean as a freshly pressed Boyd’s suit. But on an album that might rightly or wrongly be criticized as too predictable and straight-ahead, it’s Whitfield, Jr, the band’s youngest member, who most clearly lends contemporary credibility to this session.

“Mr. Willis” is Burton’s tribute to an arguably overlooked pianist who made his break as a sideman for another of BAJC’s inspirations, Jackie McLean—we’ll get to McLean in a second. For now, it suffices to say that the aforementioned Larry Willis is accorded all due propers here, as Whitfield seamlessly guides the band from a Latin feel to conventional swing and then back again, all while providing ample space for Burton to collect his pay for writing the tune: ample space to solo. Knowing Jeremy Pelt’s back there, it’s no wonder why Burton wanted to go first—who in their right mind would want to follow this guy?

Pelt, refreshingly, doesn’t feel the need to break conversation with Gould’s chord changes to say something inventive; he’s so adept at finding new lanes on the already groomed portion of the hill, there’s no need for him to venture off-piste. When Escoffery merges back into traffic right alongside a Pelt who’s hit the turbo, and the two of them, now playing in unison, restate the theme, it’s understandable if that jolts you upright from a reclining position to shower an unsuspecting Bluetooth speaker with applause in an empty apartment. I mean, that’s understandable, right?

Burton’s other composition “Tulsa,” is meant to reference the racially motivated violence that led to the destruction of a prosperous neighborhood in that Oklahoma city once known as “Black Wall Street.” It was 1921 when the Greenwood neighborhood was completely destroyed and over 300 of its residents were killed, yet the incident wasn’t allowed to be taught as part of the public school history curriculum in that state until this year, 2020.

Whitfield, Jr’s unyielding backbeat underscores not so much an urgency but an unbreakable spirit, and the same can be said for Escoffery’s tenor solo—full of soul, full of faith, but, most of all, full of muscle.

“Involuntary Servitude,” penned by Escoffery, might be seen as a companion piece, a show of force against institutionalized restraints on liberty and dignity. And ever-dignified here is bassist Rashaan Carter who, like the Ents of Middle Earth, hops out front but sparingly but when he raises his voice from the deep, filled with that ancient wisdom that only he can speak, the others know to listen well.

The highlight of the record, though, may be the one non-original composition on the menu, Jackie McLean’s “Twin Towers.” Escoffery studied under McLean in the jazz program that the latter founded at the University of Hartford. Escoffery and classmate Jimmy Greene, another tenor sax player, were both over 6’3”, so McClean dubbed them the “Twin Towers” and formed a band around them, with the goal of attracting a record deal. They even cut a demo, a demo on which a young trumpet player by the name of Jeremy Pelt can be heard. The band disbanded after the musicians left school, but McClean continued to play the tune he’d written for them on gigs. It hadn’t been recorded until now.

If you only have time to listen to two tunes on the album, make them this one and “Iron Man,” Gould’s tribute to Harold Mabern that’s the closest thing this record has to a straight-out-of-the-box jazz anthem. Pelt’s two compositions that close the album, “For the Kids” and “Birdie’s Bounce” are light and funky and fun, especially with Gould on the Nord electric piano for both and Pelt and Gould channeling ’70s-era Woody Shaw/George Cables partnerships on the latter. But the tributes to McClean and Mabern tell you more about the liminal space this group occupies, somewhere between past and present, where, somehow, they brake for all their old heroes to hop aboard without ever losing forward momentum.