Graded on a Curve: Irreversible Entanglements, Irreversible Entanglements

Protest is assuredly in the air, but the most effective actions of resistance are marked by intensity of commitment that runs deeper than spur-of-the-moment railing against the despicable actions of our current POTUS. Such is the case with Irreversible Entanglements; self-described as a liberation-minded free jazz collective, they formed in early 2015 to play a Musicians Against Police Brutality event in NYC, beginning as a trio and expanding to a five-piece for recording at Brooklyn’s Seizure’s Palace in August of that year. The sounds and emotions they stirred up that day constitute their self-titled debut, which is out December 1 on LP and CD through the partnership of International Anthem and Don Giovanni.

Fire Music, the strain of avant-garde jazz that flourished in the ’60s and early ’70s, didn’t just acquire its name because it was, well, fiery. It was also an uprising of intense social commitment and occasionally, astutely severe protest. This combo is perhaps best embodied by the work of saxophonist Archie Shepp and the poetic contributions of Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) to both the New York Art Quartet’s self-titled ESP-Disk and drummer Sunny Murray’s underheard monster session Sonny’s Time Now.

Featuring the voice of Camae Ayewa, the alto sax of Keir Neuringer, the trumpet of Aquiles Navarro, the double bass of Luke Stewart, and the drums of Tcheser Holmes, Irreversible Entanglements clearly derives from the tradition of Fire Music, not as a calculated imitation of the sound of freedom past but as a contemporary extension.

Along with achieving an at-times bruising force, the instrumentalists sporadically employ extended techniques that weren’t a part of the ’60s avant-jazz palette. However, the most distinctive element in the equation is Ayewa, whose vocal delivery is thankfully 1,000 miles away from played-out territory of the poetry slam. Instead, she harkens back to and expands upon the more fertile ground of the Black Arts Movement, which only tightens ties to Baraka and more appropriately, to the work of Jayne Cortez.

But Ayewa surely has her own thing going, exuding cathartic anger in response to the racist ugliness of the times; the Musicians Against Police Brutality event Irreversible Entanglements formed to play was assembled after the slaying of Akai Gurley by the NYPD. Furthermore, Ayewa may trigger alarms of recognition as Moor Mother, a moniker used for a steady stream of Bandcamp activity that commenced around 2012. Last year, her work received the vinyl treatment courtesy of Don Giovanni on the startlingly penetrating Fetish Bones.

Musically, that record’s atmosphere intermingled “power electronics” (i.e. early SPK or Whitehouse shorn of sketchy subject matter) with flareups of apocalyptic hip-hop (Death Grips sprang to mind) as Ayewa dove deep into a mode she’s acknowledged as belonging to Afrofuturism. Amongst other examples, the Afrofuturist tradition encompasses the writings of Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler, the music of Sun Ra (natch), George Clinton, and contemporarily, Shabazz Palaces.

The wide reach and complexity of the Afrofuturist aesthetic strives to speak on a more profound level to those already in tune with the spirit of protest, and to make work that is of the present but built to last, factors that extend to Irreversible Entanglements as Ayewa assuredly shifts into the Black Arts Movement mode mentioned above.

If impossible to overlook, Ayewa is but one element in a potent, sometimes explosive, and importantly, highly disciplined whole (everyone has impressive credits, particularly Stewart and Neuringer). This is not a group that’s using free jazz as a template to simply make a loose racket. Nothing against loose rackets (I love loose rackets), but if that was Irreversible Entanglements’ game, then Ayewa would have to shout to be heard.

Instead, she utilizes a tone that in the opening piece “Chicago to Texas” is aptly tagged as conversationally emphatic, the skillful improvisations surrounding her deftly sharpening the effect of her words rather than overriding them. “Chicago to Texas” opens with Holmes alone, then Stewart and next Navarro before Ayewa enters repeating a phrase “not only do we disappear,” at first seemingly to herself and then sharply, assertively outward.

The bass and drums are busiest as she speaks, with Navarro largely accenting early on. By the time Neuringer belatedly and boldly steps into the frame, Ayewa has already worked up remarkable head of steam (her line “sometimes you can get lost in the rhythm of oppression” is a beauty that hurts), and their passions interweave to fine effect. Toward the end, she momentarily lays out as the horns get into a wicked tangle and the rhythm section thunders forth.

“Fireworks” begins with an immediately engaging line from Stewart (like something Cecil McBee might’ve dished in the early ’70s), followed by Holmes’ and then Ayewa’s entrance, but the real treat of the track is an extended horn exchange that carries on until the conclusion. After some tandem blare at the front of “Enough,” it’s Ayewa’s turn to shine; first she repeats the piece’s title, rising in beleaguered intensity that becomes quickly unnerving, and then recomposes herself as the bass and drums establish some seriously propulsive bedrock. Vigorous solos abound.

The final selection “Projects” is the longest at 16 minutes, with everyone shining throughout, working up to a collective simmer as extended techniques flourish (lots of note-less blowing through the horns), the group then exploding into a full boil, cooling off, and relaunching again before Ayewa takes centerstage. The ending is abrupt, the cumulative effect suitably jarring.

Some will surely doubt that Irreversible Entanglements can meet the standard of the music that inspired them, but the album, hopefully only their first, taps into the liberation jazz root and through sound and words, infuses it with brutal vitality and truth that’s inextricably linked to the moment. It’s explosiveness, uncompromising and wholly necessary, declaims that if things don’t change, then the whole fucking shithouse is going to go up in flames. If that’s not Fire Music in 2017, kindly tell me what is.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • Brian O’Neill

    I love this review as much as I love the album. I write about metal (mostly) and I would love everything I wrote to balance musical and cultural references and personal observations while making the album seem to be audible through the words.

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