Issue #152: Music For The Texts Of Ishmael Reed by Conjure

March 11, 2019

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Music For The Texts Of Ishmael Reed by Conjure
Released In 1984
Released By American Clavé

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Jeremy Shatan

In Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, his wild, satiric take on the western, Ishmael Reed notes: “No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.” One could say the same thing for albums, and Music For The Texts Of Ishmael Reed is one of the rare examples that is all of those things and more. But for me, it just sounded like coming home.

First, there is the dense thicket of Afro-Cuban percussion, courtesy maestros Milton Cardona, Puntilla Orlando Rios, et al, which sounded like it was yanked out of a Central Park summer night, the kind of groove that would help me get to sleep while I lay 11 flights up from the pulsating foliage. Then there was the mighty sax of David Murray, connecting the abstruse arrangements of his World Saxophone Quartet with blues, soul and funk, constructing solos that were perfect compositions in their own right. You also had Taj Mahal, whose work as a “natch’l” bluesman was often too archival for my taste, here put to use in an imaginative way with his warmly gritty storytelling making him feel like an instant friend. And I didn’t even mention New Orleans piano legend Allen Toussaint!

Finally, you had the miraculous words of Ishmael Reed, whose 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo became a central text in expanding my universe, along with writings by William S. Burroughs, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Amiri Baraka, all of which I delved into a few years before this album came out. Mumbo Jumbo proffered the notion of Jes’ Grew, a virus carried by ragtime and jazz that caused stodgy men to shake their hips and uptight women to get down. This becomes a metaphor for all of the ways African-rooted culture has infiltrated American society and become a main source of what makes our art, literature, and music unique.

So when my brother brought home this record, put it on, and the first words out of the speakers were “Mumbo Jumbo, baby,” soon followed by Mahal’s wry “Jes’ Grew, just like the 1890’s, it’s taking the country by storm / Jes’ Grew, needed its words to tell the carriers what it was up to,” I knew that Reed’s thoughts and language had achieved their perfect musical realization. Like many of my favorite works of art, Conjure gave me something I needed before I knew I needed it. When I tore my attention away from the words, I became mesmerized by the rhythm section (two bass players — Steve Swallow and Jamaladeen Tacuma!), which managed to tie up the loose ends between barroom gut-bucket funk and Ornette Coleman’s free jazz harmolodics. Could this be the end of civilization as we know it??

The Wardrobe Master Of Paradise” followed, it’s deeply funky clave rhythm the ideal setting or the wondrous words, cleverly following the idea of god as a tailor stitching up the universe: “He pens the hymns of angels and dresses them to kill / He has no time for fashion, no money’s in his till / You won’t see him in Paris or in a New York store / He’s the wardrobe master of paradise.” Murray’s solo is one of the greatest ever, instantly as iconic to me as Wayne Shorter on Aja or David Sanborn on Young Americans.

“I am outside of history / I wish I had some peanuts / It looks hungry there in its cage” is the complete lyric of “Dualism (1)” and the setting created by bassist Steve Swallow sounds more like The Band than anything else, with Olu Dara’s golden trumpet reaching for the stars. “Oakland Blues” is admittedly a little corny, with Robert Jason taking a musical theater approach with the vocals, slightly jarring after Mahal’s naturalism. Skydiving brings Mahal, and the funk, back, and its opening lines have never been forgotten by me: “It’s a good way to live / And a good way to die / From a Frankenheimer video / about skydiving.” Profundity — and that unexpected twist towards the prosaic.

Then we get Reed himself, reading the poem “Judas,” and his slightly halting delivery makes it seem more immediate as he brings the New Testament down to earth: “Funny about best friends, huh Lord? Always up in your face, laughing and talking, leading the praise after your miracles. That Judas, you had great hopes for him. Good background, good-looking, even in a corduroy suit from Poland and $30 shoes. It was his quiet appeal that kept the group in wine money.” Nobody else writes like that! Feeling my hero’s presence in the room as I listened, I turned for a place to aim my extreme gratitude and landed on the name Kip Hanrahan, credited here as conceiver, producer, and director.

Hanrahan was the founder of the label American Clave, which he created as an expression of a utopian vision of music that unified everything that put the umami into our music — Latin jazz, New Orleans R&B, Chicago blues, Kansas City bebop. If you want to get an idea of his total achievement, seek out the two-disc American Clave collection, which has two songs from Conjure and a host of tracks from his other projects, everything from tango to arty jazz explorations to no wave. While not everything he touched turned to gold, he earned my undying respect for even trying.

Even this masterpiece has its ropey moments, like the aforementioned “Oakland Blues” or “Fool-Ology,” which is too long to support its slender premise. But its faults only bound it more closely to my own consciousness, helping me realize that nothing is ever perfect, especially my own attempts at artistic expression, whether in music, writing or photography. And the ending is perfect, with Reed again reading his own poem, this time one called “Rhythm In Philosphy,” with the classic line “All harrumphs! must be checked in at the door.” If Hanrahan was wise enough to give him the last word, who am I to argue?

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Jazz luminary Kip Hanrahan who envisioned & produced this epic undertaking.

I think I needed to hear “Rhythm In Philosphy.” Life has felt anything but rhythmic lately. A couple of chest colds back-to-back. Missing concerts because of insufficient planning. No yoga in weeks. And the granddaddy of all circadian hiccups — springing forward an hour because of daylight savings time. Good lord. I’m typing this at 7:46 on Sunday evening and it feels like it’s two in the morning. But after listening to Conjure’s first collection of songs inspired by the writings of Ishmael Reed for the fourth or fifth time, I feel thankful for this 60-degree, fatigue — and coffee-soaked day — this invitation to mindfully start saying goodbye to winter and hello to spring. To look for rhythm where it’s been hiding all along, like in the fact that I watched an hour-long Allen Toussaint documentary on YouTube last night without knowing he contributed to Music For The Texts Of Ishmael Reed. (I had sensed the presence of New Orleans, though. Especially in album opener “Jes’ Grew,” which stirs together lead singing that scans as a Dr. John guest spot, Meters/second line-style backing vocals, and piano work that suggests Professor Longhair discipleship.) I tried and failed to find a copy of Reed’s Conjure poetry collection today before remembering that a different book of poems I’d been meaning to crack was waiting my nightstand, enticing me to hit the hay early and settle into a more harmonious sleep cycle. Another happy and hidden rhythmic accident. “The seasons swing,” according to “Rhythm In Philosophy.” I believe that more than ever today.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

One look at the liner notes and album credits for Music For The Texts Of Ishmael Reed and the word “collective” become impossible to dismiss. Kip Hanrahan has assembled the kind of deeply assorted instrumentalist group one would expect on the back of a collaborative or super group album. Percussion of many sizes and sounds, clusters of vocalists, organ, and trumpet, among much else, lay out a musical path that could go in multiple directions. One that seems most easily pointed out from the start, is the slice of jazz stylization present on this 13 track effort — namely the current of tenor saxophone steering the melody in “Untitled II.” Yet, the feel and the groove of Texts is hardly slanted toward only one direction of genre. In fact, jazz plays out overall in a more tertiary role, underneath tonal choices and part arrangements that lend themselves more clearly to funk, blues, and even folk (the tinnier, almost jangle-pop style of strummed acoustic guitar on tracks like “Dualism (1)” call up thoughts of guitar driven melodies by Simon & Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell.) What’s most enjoyable about the album’s diversity is the fact that while no one genre affixes itself as most important or needing to be most evident throughout, the songs also do not leave listeners with a watered down or half-assed tokenizing of these musical approaches either. The funk vibe on opener “Jes’ Grew” for example, is obvious from the beginning — the bass getting prominence underneath a deep, swing sung, and just slightly raspy vocal — the song isn’t pulled down with the kind of ongoing low end heaviness funk often runs with, like intense slap bass lines, and deep drum support. So the stylistic feel remains, while leaving a less dramatic mark on first time listeners. It’s almost like a “funk-lite” of sorts but to simply call it that is likely doing this shrewd arranging a disservice. The two blues titled tracks here (“Oakland Blues,” “Betty Ball’s Blues“) are more straightforward in their presentation — the latter a classic twelve bar blues composition — but the shift from funk to blues style singing doesn’t come off forced or awkward. What is a little surprising and perhaps even downright strange, are the bits of spoken word in “Judas” and closing track, “Rhythm In Philosphy.” It almost seems out of place entirely but when considering the fluid, flexible, and improvisational character of the whole work, the somewhat beatnik poet way each track’s lines are delivered, suddenly appears like the perfect middle ground between slick jazz, assertive funk, and straightforward folk. Overall, Music For The Texts Of Ishmael Reed might give off initial moments of confusion and disjointed direction but after a little contemplation, the nuance in how Conjure ties all these qualities together, makes it a very commendable project.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

I met Rich the day before my 17th birthday. He was the new roommate of a friend, and my cousin brought him to my birthday party. Several hours later, we decided we were already best friends. The following year, after I graduated, but before I moved away for school, I spent the summer crashing on their couch cause my mom decided to get remarried two days before my 18th birthday, then went on her honeymoon, leaving me with nowhere to stay. It was a great summer, really. Endless hours spent sitting on the roof of their house, chain-smoking, and talking and taking turns running down the ladder to change or flip whatever record we were listening to. And we listened to pretty much everything, from Mingus to the Beastie Boys to PIL, and on and on. Like a musical game of tag, one thing would make us think of what we wanted to play for the other next, and because we had the exact same taste there were many instances of “shit, I was going to play this for you!” We lost Rich last year (45 is too fucking young, y’all) due to complications from diabetes. But not long after starting Conjure’s Music For The Texts Of Ishmael Reed, I thought “I have to play this for Rich!” and then I remembered and had a good long cry, but with each song that played, I knew even more that he would have loved this. I wish I’d had the chance to play it for him.

SJ Lebowski
50 Foot Pop Queenie

The work of trailblazing poet Ishmael Reed served as the foundation & inspiration for Conjure.

As many of you may know, I prefer to go into each OYR piece completely objectively. Most times, I have no idea who the artist is, where they’re from or what they’re about. And I prefer to keep it that way so that my listening experience is a pure as possible within the context of that particular record. I feel that’s the best way to go about it for our audience, and for the artists themselves. But… For some reason, something about this record made me want to dig a little further. Maybe it was the writing on the album cover? Maybe it was the way I was reading the album title — “Conjure” is the actual tittle of the album, and Music For The Texts of Ishmael Reed is the subtitle? I think that’s correct, but it really doesn’t matter. I sensed that this project was a tribute put forth by a group effort, and boy am I glad that I dove in! This album was put together by a dream team of modern jazz musicians. I was like a kid in a candy store running through the Discogs album credits. Wow, Allen Toussaint and Taj Mahal (I thought I recognized his voice!), and there’s Olu Dara (rapper Nas’ father) on trumpet! So now I’m really into the record. It’s a very interesting mix of Delta Blues, Bayou Jazz, with a little funk and soul sprinkled in for good measure. I particularly enjoyed the soothing “Untitled II,” as well the uber-intense “Oakland Blues.” The latter is a track so expressive that you feel like the horns are actually shouting at you from a close distance — like the musical equivalent of lapel flower that sprays water in your face. Surely that was the desired effect, right?

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Ishmael Reed’s poem “Judas” got me thinking about what it would sound like if someone claimed to be “God” in modern times. He sets at least part of it in a bar, which is oddly fitting — claiming divinity seems like something you might do after one too many shots. And if you kept (loudly) insisting upon it, thorazine and a straightjacket might be things you’d receive as a result. You probably wouldn’t be crucified for it thanks to the Enlightenment and science, but you might be labeled as mentally ill if it was a truly held belief. It does sound absurd, after all. And what of trusting your best friend with such a statement? If you were kidding or being satirical, would they know? Would it matter? Or what if you meant it? And I mean you believed, to an absolute certainty, that you were “God.” Would you trust them enough to share it? That’s a heavy thing to unload onto someone else. What if your friend decided to have you committed as a result? Would that make them Judas because they, as far as they saw it, were just trying to help? It’s a betrayal, I suppose, but it’s also a person trying to help another. I can’t tell if the Judas in the poem is the person ratting Jesus out or warning him that someone else might do so. Technically, either one would be a form of broken trust. Maybe that was Reed’s point.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

Conjure features a who’s who of studio musicians, highlighted by Taj Mahal (left) and Allen Toussaint (right).

His pensive, commanding gaze arrests you a bit when you open up the album. That rust-stained portrait with soft eyes and straight-line mouth betray, though, the celebration inside the sleeve. Conjure’s Music For The Texts Of Ishmael Reed combines several well-known players into what feels like a polished jam session, a mingling of pop, blues, soul, reggae, and ragtime that harkens backwards in time from its 1984 release date. With stellar musicianship from the likes of Taj Mahal, David Murray, and Allen Toussaint, the album never falters, never invites the listener to press the skip button forward. Such richness is going to lend itself to really singular listening experiences, but a true highlight of the album has to be Olu Dara’s trumpet lines, punctuating lyrics and those smoky vocals with little rips and tears before smoothing out into a sharp underline. “Oakland Blues,” the hat-dip acknowledgement to the album’s strong blues influence. Taj Mahal’s haunting warble just reaches out through the speakers, back into the annals of music history, and down deep into the Southern soil that saw rise to so many heart-wrenching blues songs. Somehow, the blue-grey smoke of this song provides a relief to the heated jubilance that marks the rest of the album, adding in a bit of weight bolstered by the thoughtful lyrics and few spoken word tracks on the work.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

I’ve got to give it up, this one came at me right when I needed it, right where I needed it. I’ve been listening to lots of old school funk and soul music lately — lots of Marvin Gaye, Ohio Players, plenty of Stevie Wonder — trying to dig deep into the classics in preparation for recording what will be my second album. Aside from the standards, I’ve been searching for cult classics and underground records that hold a solid groove, like Musical Massage by Leon Ware, and They Say I’m Different by Betty Davis. Within the first few seconds of the opening track on this Conjure album, I knew I’d been exposed to a hidden gem. This album seamlessly melds blues, soul, funk, and jazz into a sound that pre-dates the Tedeschi Trucks Bands and Leon Bridges’ of our modern day. The catchy guitar riff on “Skydiving” and the soulful blues melody of “Betty Ball’s Blues,” among other ear infectious moments happening throughout the twelve tracks, make me wonder how this album flew under the radar. One possible explanation could be that, by the ’80s, the majority of popular music listeners were moving away from the American roots forms — soul, jazz, folk, blues — and onto the synthesizer laden, effects driven sounds that would usher pop music into the mainstream (now it is the mainstream). Regardless, this record stands as something of a forgotten masterwork of soul and funk, and I’m definitely going to revisit it many times in the future. Also, the speaking voice at the beginning of “Judas” sounds like Barack Obama. Not a political statement, just an observation.

Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965

You may be familiar with the names Ishmael Reed, Allen Toussaint, Taj Mahal, Olu Dara, or Kip Hanrahan. Or you may just be familiar with the idea of abstract roots & jazz music inspired by abstract writings. No matter what you know though, I really don’t think anything can prepare you for this record. Objectively, it may not be earth shattering, the most unique thing imaginable, or even the best record to come out of 1984. But when you’re listening to it, it definitely feels like the earth is buckling under its creativity, that mastermind Hanrahan exhausted every imaginable muse to create this, and that it transcends any year it could have dropped in. I don’t particularly like telling people to just check out the first track of the record to decide if they want to listen to the rest of the record. Rarely does an opening track dictate the sound of the rest of the record perfectly, so it could be hard to say “if you like X, you’ll love Y.” And “Jes’ Grew” is a perfect example of this train of thought. It does not dictate the rest of the sound after it. Not even close. But it does show the imaginative promise of the rest of the record, leaving you inspired and astonished before it even approaches the close. And if that’s what you seek in music — astonishment and inspiration — I’d highly suggest “Jes’ Grew.” I have a feeling you won’t stop there.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
The Last Match by The Aislers Set
Chosen By Laura Burroughs

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Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, SJ Lebowski, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, Joel Worford, & Darryl Wright

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