One cannot help but be impressed by this mammoth undertaking by producer Stefany Calembert, with help from her husband, veteran bassist Reggie Washington. Fueled by the social unrest and protests in the summer of 2020, Calembert obtained funding from the Brussels government to commission a new work on the subject of racism and Black realities. As a bi-racial couple, Calembert has long experienced the racism directed at her husband and their children, but more importantly, seized this opportunity to shed light on the subject and generate some income for the artists involved, relegated to non-touring due to the pandemic. You may wonder why this stems from Belgium, but like several European countries, they plundered Central Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, therein lying some guilt. Black Lives: From Generation to Generation connects the African diasporic tradition (often referred to as Great Black Music) to the sounds and traditions of Black contemporary music.
The list of artists involved is jaw-dropping –Cheick Tidiane Seck, Oliver Lake, Alicia Hall Moran, Immanuel Wilkins, Joel Ross, Stephanie McKay, Andy Milne, Kokayi, Reggie Washington, Jeremy Pelt, Grégory Privat, Marcus Strickland, Christie Dashiell, E.J. Strickland, Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Marvin Sewell, Jean-Paul Bourelly, among many others. There is a family theme, beyond just Calembert and Washington, running through the collection as well. The husband and wife team of Guadeloupe-born Gwoka saxophonist (“Dreaming of Freedom (For Tony)”and vocalist Stephanie McKay (“Phenomenon”) ; involvement by legendary saxophonist, composer and American griot Oliver Lake (‘Pre-existing Conditions”), as well as his drummer son Gene (“Back & Forth”) ; tracks from two sets of siblings, saxophonist Marcus Strickland (‘Matter”) and his drummer twin E.J. (“Language of the Unheard”), plus brothers David and Marque Gilmore (“We Are Here”). McKay’s song, “Phenomenon” and Alicia Hall Moran’s “Walk” directly address the motherly concerns of hazards facing their sons growing up within a prejudiced white dominated world.
Mali bandleader Cheick Tidiane Seck opens with “Sanga Bô,” with a 7-piece group and a host of vocalists and rappers for English-Yoruba engagement of the spirit world across the Black Atlantic. Other than the drummer, Guadeloupe-born Sonny Troupé’s fusion trio with newsreel sample of Muhammad Ali on “Sa Nou Yé / Be Proud,” the balance of the artists on Disc One are from the USA. It’s on Disc Two where we hear from more African and Caribbean artists. Martinique-born pianist Grégory Privat leads an upbeat quintet including Washington and Jacques Schwarz-Bart in “Friendship” and later collaborates with the Guadeloupe-born saxophonist on the ballad “Dreaming of Freedom (for Tony).” Stephanie McKay is the vocalist with Togo/Benin raised, Marseille-based drummer on “Higher,” a spiritual. South African vocalist Tutu Poane sings gently over just Fender Rhodes accompaniment on “From the Outside In,” about breaking away from the stares and insults and finding one’s own people.
The lyrics in many of the USA contributions are direct and often fittingly scathing, certainly on the Gilmore brothers collaboration with Sharif Simmons’ spoken words – ”Black survivors/Of white destruction/You gave us pain/WE gave you soul/James Brown and Aretha/Mahalia and Holiday…” Oliver Lake’s “Pre-Existing Conditions” slams the Minneapolis coroner’s report “They concluded he had a heart attack/while being restrained by cops…It’s too bad about George Floyd’s pre-existing conditions…RACISM is America’s pre-existing condition…” Pianist Andy Milne’s “Togged to the Bricks” invokes Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” police brutality, and a host of wrongs. Adam Falcon’s “Colored Man Singin’ the Blues” screams and spews righteous venom while evoking the choking death of Eric Garner and the murder of Amadou Diallo. Christie Dashiell’s vocals on Marcus Strickland’s “Matter” and those of Lydia Harrell on E.J. Strickland’s “Language of the Unheard” take the Black Lives Matter rallying cry to urgent levels. The unlikely duo of electric guitarist Jean- Paul-Bourelly and spoken word artist/MC Sub-Z have the final say, offering an almost apocalyptic vision of the Black community under attack in “Masters of Mud – Shape Shifting).”
The booklet has all the lyrics and credits and becomes essential reading while listening. Don’t miss these musical highlights either. Altoist Immanuel Wilkins, vibraphonist Joel Ross, pianist Mike King, and bassist Ben Williams reinforce the insistence in E.J. Strickland’s piece. Wilkins duos with bluesy guitarist Marvin Sewell twice on “Praying” and “Dancing” before Sewell takes his solo, alone on his resonator, going deep into the Delta, conjuring a spooky vibe with “A Hero’s Journey.” And, if you’re not familiar with Sewell, although labeled more as a jazz artist, he is one of the most inventive blues guitarists playing today. His two pieces with Wilkins are just as riveting. Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s melodic “Anthem for a Better Tomorrow” ends Disc One on one of the few optimistic notes here, aside from some of the more spiritually themed pieces previously alluded to.
This music speaks loudly; it brings us back to Gil Scott Heron, Archie Shepp, The Last Poets, writers such as James Baldwin, and so many more. Calembert has given these Black artists a vital platform but it’s a shame that it is so necessary in these times given those who have long fought the fight.