Mike Reed’s Flesh & Bone – Flesh & Bone (482 Music)
There’s a long tradition of using jazz as a commentary on injustice. But seldom in recent years has an injustice been felt so directly by the musician himself as it was by Mike Reed. The Chicago-based drummer’s latest recording is his response to a harrowing incident in which — thanks to a duplicitous train conductor — his biracial band came face-to-face with a group of neo-Nazis while on tour in the Czech Republic in 2009. Reed’s reaction, for the most part, is filled less with fury than it is with brilliant artistry.
The core group — the one involved in the incident — features alto saxophonist Greg Ward, tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman and bassist Jason Roebke. Cornetist Ben Lamar Gay and bass clarinetist Jason Stein lend key support. Reed has long been adept at fusing traditional and avant-garde elements, a method he employs again on this rich and varied material. Whether it’s the high-spirited swing of “Voyagers,” the spiky groove of “A Separatist Party” or the blues-drenched “I Want To Be Small (for Archibald Motley),” the front line horns bob and weave and harmonize with a sense of urgency that never undermines the melodic precision. On “The Magic Drum,” Reed engages with various percussion instruments (bells, gongs and the like) to pay tribute to some of the Chicago drummers who have inspired him.
While the incident that inspired this work is ugliness incarnate, Reed offers a healthy dose of beauty in the shimmering ballads “I Want To Be Small” and “Watching the Boats.” The only outward signs of rage come courtesy of poet Marvin Tate, who contributes pointed spoken-word performances on three of the 11 tracks.
Even outside the context of the instigating event, this is compelling music — maybe Reed’s best work to date. But given the current realities in America, that context is crucial.
—John Frederick Moore