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Jamael Dean, Immanuel Wilkins invoked jazz's ancestors

Pianist and producer Jamael Dean.
Samantha Lee
Stones Throw
Pianist and producer Jamael Dean.

Catastrophic eras often inspire descents into an unkempt decadence that the music of those eras can't help but insinuate – however, sometimes even Dionysus refuses to emerge from the ruins, and our only option in the aftermath of disorienting upheaval is spiritual awakening and optimism, sans hedonism. That's our best bet now. I'm witnessing this, a refusal to be jaded or maudlin, in some of my favorite jazz albums and performances of 2021.

Jamael Dean's Primordial Waters delivers us into the arms of the Orishas of the Yoruba tradition, where our pent-up, archetypal energies are balanced through ritual, sheer virtuosity and an entirely revamped concept of the procession of time and events. The sheets of music John Coltrane accessed on his saxophone, Jamael conjures on the keys, accessing what Rahsaan Rolad Kirk referred to as the "missing Black notes that have been stolen and captive, for years and years." Jamael's playing is as close as we come to retrieving what was lost in the past year-and-a-half, as well as ancestrally, in sound and texture. The track "Ba'Ra'Ka," a confrontational tribute to Amiri Baraka, places the writer and overall cultural hero among the living gods where he belongs, brings the level of bold syncretism that makes this work stand out as a break from stodgy genre loyalties. Primordial Waters harnesses the foundation provided by Strata East and Motown's Black Forum imprint; those labels had the advantage operating in the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s, when militancy was a common thread. Now militancy is co-opted and diluted, sometimes to the point of blatant minstrelsy, and this music stands out as the reinvigorated potential for Black radicalism that is as tender and pensive as it is intense and propulsive.

Alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins's "Emanation," the first single from his upcoming album The 7th Hand, reminds us that the new generation of players can access the cerebral upward spiral that made hard-bop and bebop so compelling, and elaborate on it, releasing some of the tension into passages that move like meditative daydreams. Like Dean, Wilkins is dealing with faith and renewal, and they both offer the thesis that rebirth is necessary and inevitable, refusing to shrug or cower or play corny notes just because the world is on the precipice of turning itself over. At this point, we have to face our dire need for new spirituals and our remembrance of the classic spirituals against the tide of a society that conflates secularism in music with sophistication and skill. We may not be descending into abject decadence just yet, but the will to adorn stands, and pursuing minimalism just to prove jazz can be serious would be phony, when what we crave is urgent intervention from what Greg Tate called "the divine, the magical, the supernatural, the ancestral — spiritual genius." The best new jazz is reclaiming that spiritual genius, after what seems like decades of efforts to anesthetize it.

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Harmony Holiday