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From the socio-political to the personal, Carmen Lundy stresses the need for human connection during difficult times.
When veteran jazz vocalist Carmen Lundy received a New Jazz Works grant from Chamber Music America in 2019 to record her 16th album, Fade to Black — a follow-up to her Grammy-nominated release Modern Ancestors (2019) — she could never have imagined the far-reaching events, both personal and universal, that would become enmeshed in each of the recording’s 11 original tracks. “And then things started happening, you know,” Lundy says during a phone interview from her home in Los Angles, referencing the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, among other things.
Initially, Lundy vowed to steer clear of addressing the pandemic in her music, until the sense of collective urgency was too overwhelming to ignore. “At some point, I thought, you know what, this is real, this is real-time,” Lundy explains. “And my ideas began to sort of accept my circumstances and really be true to the moment. I figured that when something resonates within you, it probably resonates in someone else, too. That’s how we fall in love with a melody or with a lyric or with a beat.”
From the cover art depicting one of Lundy’s original sculptures — one of several multi-media pieces featured in Detroit’s Carr Center in October as part of the exhibit Shifting the Narrative: Jazz and Gender Justice — to her lyrics, compositions, arrangements and the self-recording of all instrumentals as a blueprint for her band, Fade to Black is symbiotically intertwined with its creator.
Two years after she had started the creative process, Lundy finally called her musicians into the studio in May and recorded the album over three days. Fade to Black (Afrasia) subverts preconceived notions of jazz, as Lundy experimented with outside-of-the-box harmonic progressions and nuanced rhythmic structures, which opened spaces for her to breathe life lyrically into the songs and inject her signature alluring vibrato and warm-toned range. “I like this collaboration kind of at the end of a line, where I’ve already conceived everything,” Lundy says. “I just trust that all the individual players will come together with my concept in mind and render it as themselves in what they’re comfortable doing. But I’ve already given them the guide and the permission to do so.”
And the players she assembled are certainly deserving of her trust: bassists Curtis Lundy (her brother) and Kenny Davis, trumpet players Giveton Gelin and Wallace Roney Jr., saxophonists Morgan Guerin and Camille Thurman, drummer Terreon Gully, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, pianist Julius Rodriguez, and keyboard prodigy Matthew Whitaker on organ.
Songs such as “Say Her Name,” amplifying the focus on police brutality in the Black community in the wake of George Floyd’s murder; “Ain’t I Human,” which Lundy intuitively wrote just before the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, tipping a hat to Harriet Tubman’s suffrage era speech “Ain’t I A Woman”; and album opener “Shine a Light,” which pays tribute to the first responders who risked their lives saving lives during the pandemic, reflect on the interconnectedness of humanity as the album’s overarching theme. On tracks like “Lonesome Blue Butterfly,” “So Amazing” and “Spell of Romance,” Lundy explores personal themes of romantic love, commitment and the values she lives by, while “Transition (To a Promised Land)” and “Rest in Peace” mourn the loss of loved ones during the pandemic.
Family is a constant in Lundy’s work. From her time growing up in a tight-knit, Black community in Miami surrounded by family, friends and gospel music, to her years in New York as a jazz musician, it’s a thread that is intricately and deeply woven into the fabric of her song. Lundy’s debut as a documentary filmmaker, Nothing but the Blood — The True Story of the Apostolic Singers of Miami, a project Lundy revived during the pandemic while she worked on Fade to Black, celebrates several generations of women, including her mother and aunts, who sang gospel together for 40 years.
“I come from a gospel tradition,” Lundy says. “As a little girl, I can remember watching them rehearse and picking out their notes.” In 1991, Lundy assembled the group in a recording studio for the first time and filmed the occasion on a VHS camera. “It didn’t make sense to me that they would be together for a lifetime and never even hear themselves on playback,” she says. “The way that shaped us gave us a sense of belonging and a sense of what matters. We all benefit from these stories.” More than 30 years later, the edited version premiered in September at the DTLA Film Fest in L.A. “I think all I’m doing is the same thing,” Lundy says, “trying to use those tools to tell a story. And I think ultimately that’s my goal, storytelling.” - Lissette Corsa