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With the release of his self-titled third album, Canadian-born drummer-composer Curtis Nowosad has more on his mind than showcasing the crackling chemistry, deep emotional sensitivity and wild funk of his groove-intensive NYC-based ensemble. His five originals, along with re-imaginings of conceptually connected, culturally relevant pieces by Gil Scott-Heron, Skip James and Nina Simone, prompt listeners to question societal structures. And Nowosad’s immersion in Harlem’s vibrant jazz scene since 2013 has afforded him an insider’s perspective on the progress and limitations of American social justice.
Connecting his personal truths to prominent cultural names and episodes, this collection gives pointed, hard-hitting musical voice to issues Nowosad’s been discussing privately with friends for years. Rather than lament, he brings vibrant light to these issues. The Scott-Heron piece, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” swings hard, with bright, punchy horns and fiery solos by trumpeter Duane Eubanks and pianist Jonathan Thomas. “Never Forget What They Did to Fred Hampton,” referencing the brutal murder of a young Black Panther official, is likewise a burning, bustling affair that takes flight with another sparkling solo from Eubanks and a crackling solo by guitarist Andrew Renfroe that simulates chaos and anger.
Blues remains a powerful stylistic undercurrent throughout, allowing Nowosad to experiment with numerous rhythmic schemes, from the high-energy, piano-and-horn-driven stomp of “Blues 4 Colin K” (a reflection on former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s plight) to the slow, simmering Skip James ballad “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” a hair-raising showcase for the guttural vocal passion of Brianna Thomas. Nowosad also tackles social issues outside the African-American realm, most prominently with “The Water Protectors,” a whimsical ode to the Standing Rock Sioux featuring Michael Mayo’s spirited scat singing; and the soulful, scat-and-sax-fueled meditation “Song for Marielle Franco,” which is dedicated to assassinated Brazilian politician Marielle Franco.— Jonathan Widran