An accomplished musician and composer, Brahja Waldman has made Montreal his home for over a decade now. In addition to his Quartet/Quintet, he also leads Friends of Freedom, contributes sax to Sam Shalabi’s Land of Kush and Simon Chung’s chamber ensemble Xi-Fu Sagas, and plays drums in You Yourself & i. He’s also had a life-long engagement with poetry, including backing up his aunt Anne. Waldman is adaptable, capable of listening carefully and playing a supporting role, but deserves attention for his clear voice as a composer and performer.
Montreal remains notable for innovative artists and open-minded audiences, with frequent visits from musicians based in nearby New York and Boston, as well as from Europe the rest of the world. (It should come as a surprise to learn that Sun Ra and his Arkestra set up shop there in the summer of 1961 in between relocating from Chicago to NYC.) Waldman and his ensemble bring together the best of New York and Montreal, split as they are between the two cities, and his energetic playing and strong compositions do well to straddle the gap between respect for tradition and the desire to keep moving forward. I’m not schooled enough in music theory to articulate the particulars, but Sir Real Live at Résonance manages to sound fresh while also sounding as if it could have been recorded at the Village Vanguard in the early ’60s.
Résonance is an artist-run cafe and vegetarian/vegan restaurant that opened just a few years ago in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood, and is exceptional not just for its inventive food but for offering live music every night. It mostly caters to the jazz scene, which is relatively active yet fragmented and decentralized. Montreal is well known for its Jazz Fest, however that event has long since devolved into a commercial extravaganza, drifting further and further from jazz. Local musicians and international innovators have been squeezed out to make room for the likes of Beck or Stevie Wonder. Montreal is also home to what may be the most interesting and vital free improv scene anywhere, however free improv has become so much its own thing at this point that again there doesn’t seem to be much of a place for straight ahead jazz anymore. Sure, annual festivals like Suoni routinely bring players like William Parker, Joe McPhee, Peter Brotzman, Darius Jones, Peter Evans, and many others, but particularly with the unceremonious closings of underground spots like L’Envers and La Brique in recent years, a casual spot in which to here jazz such as Résonance was much needed. All that is to say, it makes a fitting venue for Brahja Waldman‘s latest record.
As the above suggests, Jazz in the 21st century has found itself in a weird place. By the time John Coltrane died in 1967, the form had arguably reached its zenith, and has been in crisis ever since. Free jazz (which we at ACL are very fond of) drifted too far from its roots for many. A radical response to the Civil Rights movements, the “new thing” had firmly articulated its politics and made for that the formal elements of the music lived up to those politics, that aesthetics followed ethics. The intensity of the sound, its rage, was an expression of the intensity of struggles for civil rights and black self-determination, in short, for liberation. Many artists exiled themselves to Europe, where free improv took on a life of its own with a similar ethical orientation but decontextualized from its Black roots. That is, no longer Jazz.
Meanwhile in the US the loft scene gradually dwindled and labels folded. Miles Davis and producer Teo Macera began to cut and edit improvisations, giving us some of the most interesting records of the late ’60s and early ’70s, but also ushering in an era of often misguided fusions. Bigger names began to go electric and incorporate Rock, Funk, and Latin musics. Jazz had became fodder for crate-digging hip hop producers and cheesy fusion ensembles. In the ’80s, Wynton Marsalis and the so-called Young Lions sought to return Jazz to its former glory with a return to Bebop, but in turn ushered in the era of Jazz Conservatories and inclusion in the “serious” institutions, even garnering a place at Lincoln Center. The New Lions had an interest in cementing the mid-century music as canonical. On some level, it’s hard to argue with; Jazz, especially bop and modal jazz, is some of the most harmonically complex and conceptually rigorous music to ever be produced. Composers like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus easily sit amongst America’s greatest. In short, we’ve been left with Museum Jazz, the walking dead of a once fiercely innovative and social engaged art form. The question persists, then. Where is jazz to go?
As critics and consumers alike, we tend to overstate the importance of novelty, a fetishization of the “new” that is driven by consumer culture. The commodification of music radically accelerated this process, which music had largely sidestepped. Shouldn’t composers be able to spend decades refining and distilling their unique voice, expanding on their techniques and carving out their own idiom? Jazz, one of the most harmonically and rhythmically complex musical forms deserves further development.
As a composer Waldman has a clear voice, and with each release further refines his talents. That’s not to say the trajectory is linear or always predictable. As Brahja’s Waldman’s Quartet tenor saxophonist Adam Kinner and pianist Shadrach Hankoff have traded places, though here both are present at once, as the Quartet becomes a Quintet. Sir Real gives Waldman’s alto a tenor to play off of without sacrificing the percussive quality of the piano, making this a richer experience harmonically and rhythmically. Maybe more straight-ahead than in some ways than the Quartet’s albums, but no less impressive. Reviewers have noticed a pronounced similarity to Eric Dolphy’s “Beard and Hat” (off one of my top ten jazz records, Out to Lunch) in the bass and drum ostinato pattern in the title track,but the influence is also felt in the arrangements and harmonic sensibility. No faint praise there.
The beauty and focus of the writing and performing here is undeniable. Emotive, clear, and at times sublime, each player holds his own, keeping the Quintet dynamic and propulsive, never playing merely a supportive role but maintaining a unified sound. I find that my favorite composers are often percussionists, so I suspect that Waldman’s experience as a drummer elevates his compositions rhythmically, while his experience with poetry contributes to his sensitive ear. These compositions display a nuance and complexity that will appeal to discerning jazz fan, and the performance captures the energy of the ensemble at the top of their game. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Brahja Waldman: alto sax
Adam Kinner: tenor sax
Damon Shadrach Hankoff: piano
Martin Heslop: bass
Daniel Gelinas: drums