Sunday, February 10, 2008

We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite: Enjoy the Revolution

A few years ago while teaching English in Indonesia I picked up a bootleg copy of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a supposed documentary masquerading as an excuse to throw immeasurable amounts of invective at Geroge W. Bush's War on Terror. I liked a lot of Moore's previous work - particularly Bowling for Columbine and the TV series The Awful Truth - but there was something missing from this latest film that had been present elsewhere: humour. I previously found Moore's films funny but this one wasn't. Saying as much to my girlfriend at the time, she replied, "you're not supposed to enjoy it". That's the crux of an awful lot of political work: entertainment is irrelevant.

Jazz has a troubled history with the concept of entertainment - particularly if their skin colour of the audience happens to have a light pigmentation. Philip Larkin's big problem with bop and its descendents was that they were allegedly less enjoyable styles than his beloved swing; you couldn't dance to Charlie Parker therefore his music was less valid than Louis Armstrong's (the mere thought of Larkin dancing to anyone is laughable). That French students snapped their fingers to Bird's playing - thereby implying that they enjoyed what they heard - seemed lost on traditionalists. Nevertheless, there seems to have been an increasing movement towards toning down the entertainment value, particularly if it appears to compromise artistry (few recognize that for an individual such as Armstrong being an entertainer was intrinsic to his art).

Though artistry is in abundance on We Insist, enjoyment is fleeting. The first two tracks, 'Driva' Man' and 'Freedom Day', are outstanding, chock-full of great solos and vocalist Abbey Lincoln's supple enunciation. Lincoln's voice reminds me of Cliff and Clair Huxtable's parents on The Cosby Show: aware of the struggle that remains ahead of them but eternally greatful that they'll never be sujected to the nightmares of slavery. Composed by Roach and Oscar J. Brown in honour of the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it's as much a celebration as it is a protestation. But proceedings begin to tail off with 'Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace': although Roach delivers a powerful drum solo, Linclon's screams would prove grating even if she had the more modest range of Yoko Ono; coming from her it's inexcusable. From there, current affairs in Africa take precedence. Suddenly, Lincoln's authoritative tone sounds hesitant; happily, Nigerian percussion star Olatunji just about manages to rescue an otherwise inconsequential 'All Africa'. 'Tears of Johannesburg' nobly attempts to smash everything present in one handy album closer but the results are muddled - it's a nice thought but the use of Afro-Cuban polyrhythms in jazz is better suited to the more restrained hands of Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie.

Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and their assemblage manage to sound convincing and in control on some of We Insist! but lost and in over their heads elsewhere. From a political standpoint I obviously have to adore everything here. But I also enjoy much of this record - even if I'm not supposed to.

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