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Bessie Smith’s blues moan. Billie Holiday’s searing rendition of “Strange Fruit.” Abbey Lincoln’s riveting directness and, on We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, her screams. Ella Fitzgerald’s definitive bebop scat. Betty Carter’s extension of that language. Shirley Horn’s whisper. Cassandra Wilson’s blend of country feel and cutting-edge intent.
Throughout jazz history, women’s voices have guided and challenged us, expressing complex truths often through innovative means of expression. That’s as true today as ever. During a time when we were alternately locked away in our homes by a global pandemic, and thrust into streets to declaim inequity and bias and to protest the violence resulting from such ills, I’ve been captivated by female singers I admire addressing seemingly unanswerable questions.
On one disc within William Parker’s sprawling 2020 boxed set, Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, Fay Victor engages in some distinctive yet conventional scat-singing. There, she helps Parker, a bassist who grew up in New York City, recall the heyday of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, where his parents met. Yet soon enough, she’s speaking, chanting, stuttering and uttering less identifiable words and sounds; along with Parker and drummer Hamid Drake, she’s placing this specific swinging moment into a broader perspective of Black history. Victor calls herself “a sound artist that uses performance, improvisation and composition to examine representations of modern life and blackness.” On We’ve Had Enough (ESP-Disk), the most recent release from her SoundNoiseFUNK ensemble, she articulates both cries of frustration and the celebratory aspects of resilience in ways that address and relieve our communal alienation and address our pent-up feelings. On the opening track, “Ritual,” she does this wordlessly, through improvised vocal sounds. Later, she sings quite clearly, again and again, the question, “What’s gone wrong?”
That album was recorded before the 2020 lockdown. Victor’s next project, Sirens & Silences (2020), will address the pandemic experience more directly. Among the COVID-era pieces commissioned by the Jazz Coalition, it’s what Victor calls “a memory document composition.” She recorded the many variations of sirens she heard outside her Brooklyn apartment: police cars, fire trucks, ambulances. She transcribed these tones and used them as the basis for a 23-minute composition for cello, clarinet, trombone, violin and her voice. “Let these sounds be a reminder,” she says, “of what was and what should never be again.”
A few years ago, John Zorn invited singer and composer Sara Serpa to create a piece for a series about music and film. She crafted a multi-media project, Recognition, released last year, which included an original documentary about Portuguese colonialism in Africa and legacies of oppression and racism throughout the Western world. The narrative of her silent film was carried by images and her original musical score. Harsh yet elegant words from the writings of Amílcar Cabral, a key figure of African anti-colonial activism, yielded Serpa’s on-screen text and the lyrics to one song. And there was an unexpected discovery: Super 8 footage from the 1960s, shot by her grandfather, a Portuguese settler who had moved to Angola. (Serpa was born in Portugal, and moved to the U.S. in 2005.)
In Serpa’s film, a collaboration with Portuguese director Bruno Soares, images linger and repeat. Trains arrive, planes depart. A salt harvest, the product of forced labor, accumulates in tall mounds. Nationalist fervor grips a stadium during a celebration of Dia da Raça (Day of the Portuguese Race). The effect is hypnotic and disorienting, intimidating. Those same qualities come across via the music itself on her Biophilia Records release, also titled Recognition, through 12 tracks that are spare and elegant, tender and tough. The painful history Serpa confronts was, she said, unspoken in her home and her schools; she considers it mostly through wordless vocals. “Unity and Struggle,” featuring lyrics drawn from Cabral’s writings, sounds somewhere between a protest anthem and a lullaby about justice. “I think of Recognition as the first part of a triptych project,” Serpa says. (The next installment, Intimate Strangers, focuses on migration and borders.) “It was a necessary step to research about my country’s history, my family and its relationship to Africa. This process opened new ways of thinking about reality, the present moment and planetary entanglements, as a musician and a citizen of the world.”
In April, at Brooklyn’s Roulette, singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu did several things. She knelt while strumming a moon lute, the two-stringed instrument of her father’s homeland, Taiwan. She chanted in the Resuk language of East Timor, her mother’s birthplace. She played piano, one of the first instruments she mastered as a child. She banged a metal spoon against a pot. Throughout, she sang, in English and other languages among the 10 she speaks, of personal loss and a shared sense of disorientation.
Here was the latest of what Shyu calls “multilingual ritual music dramas,” shaped by immersive study of her own ancestry and specific Asian traditions, as well as by the promise of collaboration with leading players of today’s creative music scene. The Roulette performance celebrated the release of Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses (Pi). The album opens with the four-part “Living’s a Gift,” which Shyu composed as artist-in-residence at a Brooklyn middle school for a choir concert that, owing to the pandemic, never happened. On “When I Have Power,” Shyu is now the middle-schooler, voicing text from her own diary of feeling “degraded and confused” in the face of an anti-Asian epithet. Her “Lament for Breonna Taylor” memorializes the Black medical worker, who was shot and killed by police officers in March 2020 during a botched raid on her apartment, through text from published interviews with Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer. “Body of Tears” quotes verbatim the email Shyu received from the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office informing her of her father’s death. The album is, Shyu says, “an offering for those seeking solace and a chance to process what not only I, but all of us, have lost in the last two years.”
Beyond the bandstand and the recording studio, all three singers have been forceful advocates for fellow artists, “giving voice” in a different way to timely concerns and necessary perspectives and countering structural inequities. M3 (Mutual Mentorship for Musicians), co-founded by Serpa and Shyu, is, according to its website, “a platform created to empower, elevate, normalize and give visibility to women and non-binary musicians and those of other historically underrepresented gender identities in intersection with race, sexuality or ability across generations in the U.S. and worldwide, through a radical model of mentorship and musical collaborative commissions.”
The structure is simple, ingenious and meant to foster a mutually supportive community. Each cohort features 12 nominees, randomly paired, to create new artistic teams. Each season starts with the solstice and lasts six months, culminating with a collaborative performance. The organization has commissioned 24 musicians thus far, including Fay Victor, and published its first anthology of writings, The Art of Being True, edited by Jordannah Elizabeth. As Serpa puts it, “The process has opened my mind to different ways of interacting with my peers — supportive instead of competitive, honest instead of performative, transforming instead of conforming.” - Larry Blumenfeld
Hank Roberts Sextet, Science of Love (Sunnyside)
Jazz played on cello has its own tradition, to which Hank Roberts is a significant contributor. On this return to recording as a leader, Roberts assembles a sextet of younger players, showcasing his idiosyncratic style of composition. It's an album of rare loveliness from a musician who deserves more attention.