Brandon López and Gerald Cleaver have been working together for some years as a duo making innovative improvised music. Both are established figures in the New York Jazz scene. On this album they've come together with American poet Fred Moten. It was recorded during the pandemic, in the wake of the George Floyd rebellion.
Combining poetry with jazz goes back a long way. The idea, however, while retaining curiosity value, has never become mainstream. The Beats and, later, the Black Arts Movement tried to develop it. Some of the results have become iconic. This album, which has been compared to the work of Amiri Bakara with the New York Art Quartet, may well be up there with the best.
The problem – according to detractors – is that one is never sure what to concentrate on, the music or the poetry. This is a mistake, I think. As TS Eliot said, 'genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.' One can think of the poet in this context as just another musician, only a musician playing with words. If one is paying the right kind of attention to the poetry, there is no need to be preoccupied with trying to understand it. The words work like notes, the phrases like musical phrases. Just listen and you'll find out what you need to know. This doesn't mean the meaning of the words will be lost on you: Moten is poet who writes powerfully about the politics of being black in the USA, of how – referencing the death of George Floyd – “somebody black and poor can't breathe”. The title of the first poem/track on the album tells you what it's standing up against: “the abolition of art, the abolition of freedom, the abolition of you and me”.
Moten's poetry is ideal for this kind of project. Its phrases live for themselves, like the latest thought of an improvising musician. Derek Bailey once said of improvisation words to the effect that improvised music was like music without memory. This quality of living in the moment, shared by Moten's poetry – on one level – and musical improvisation, is what I think makes this album work so well.
I don't think it'll be forgotten in a hurry. I don't buy much vinyl but I'm tempted to buy it for that reason - and because, if I do, I can sit it next to my Iskra 1903 double LP (1972), which it reminds me of, possibly because that, too, hit me between the eyes when I first heard it. Bailey, Rutherford and Guy released that album of improvised music fifty years ago, in a different country, in a different context. Hopefully people will still be listening to Moten/López/Cleaver fifty years from now.