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There’s never been a project like Relief.
The compilation of tracks by Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding, Jon Batiste and other stellar artists is a fundraiser for the Jazz Foundation of America. One hundred percent of the net proceeds will go toward the JFA Musicians’ Emergency Fund, created in March 2020 during the nascent days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it also represents an unprecedented collaboration between major jazz labels — Blue Note, Concord, Mack Avenue, Nonesuch, Universal, Verve and Warner — to help performers caught in the grips of the worldwide crisis.
On the surface, the challenge of getting a slew of music business titans to set aside their competitive instincts might seem insurmountable. Yet Denny Stilwell, Mack Avenue’s president and a driving force behind Relief, reveals that the genesis of the plan was a single question during a Zoom call in the spring of last year asked by Don Was, president of Blue Note.
“Don said, ‘Why don’t we make a record?’” Stilwell recalls. “And everybody was like, ‘Yeah. Let’s go. What do we need to do?’”
JFA executive director Joe Petrucelli notes that the need for assistance was off the charts: “We look at musicians as figures who are living on the edge at times, without a lot of security. So we were very concerned when we started getting reports early in 2020 about cancellations of gigs in Europe and tours getting disrupted.”
Soon, events in the United States were being scrapped, too, including the JFA’s annual fundraising gala, slated for April 14. But rather than bemoaning the situation, Petrucelli and his team sprang into action, and the Musicians’ Emergency Fund became an important lifeline for struggling artists. Performers who complete a form on the JFA website are contacted by licensed clinical social workers eager to assist. More than $2 million has been raised to date, benefiting 2,000-plus musicians and their families by way of grants to cover living expenses, medical costs and more.
To keep the dollars flowing, industry leaders began participating in regular brainstorming sessions on Zoom. And once all parties agreed to the Relief concept, the process began taking shape. “We talked to our artists, asking, ‘Do you have any unreleased material that would work?’” Stilwell says. “It was very organic, and we were all able to come up with tracks to contribute.”
The songs that made the final cut are a varied lot. Spalding and Leo Genovese’s “back to who,” credited to IRMA and LEO, is an adventurous melding of voice, piano and percussion, while Cécile McLorin Salvant’s “Easy Come, Easy Go Blues” and Batiste’s “Sweet Lorraine” embrace jazz verities with charm and wit. There are also deeply felt contributions from Christian McBride (“Brother Malcolm”), Kenny Garrett (“Joe Hen’s Waltz”), Hiromi (“Green Tea Farm”) and Joshua Redman (“Facts”), capped by a pair of invigorating live numbers: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Charles Lloyd & Kindred Spirits and “Gingerbread Boy” by Herbie Hancock and a supporting cast featuring Jimmy Heath and Wallace Roney.
The presence of Heath and Roney, who both passed away in 2020 (Roney died after contracting COVID), strikes Petrucelli as especially meaningful. “I think we’ve experienced so much pain and loss and human drama and strife in terms of the pandemic,” he points out. “But there were also moments of grace and joy and beauty — and it’s all encompassed on the album.”
Stilwell, for his part, finds the way Relief came together moving in and of itself. As he puts it, “I know we’re all proud to have been involved. I just have a feeling of gratitude.” - Michael Roberts