by Steven Pisano
The Winter JazzFest is filling venues all week with a wide range of musical styles linked to "jazz", including old school, new school, and everything in between. One thing you can be sure of: You are going to hear some great music by some great musicians--even if you've never heard their names before.
On Sunday, Le Poisson Rouge played host to an ambitious program called "We Resist," presenting politically motivated music by Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra (with special guests Antonio Sanchez, The Villalobos Brothers, and Akua Dixon); Marc Ribot; Toshi Reagon and musicians; and Samora Pinderhughes and musicians.
The evening kicked off with Pinderhughes performing his magnificent "Transformation Suite," which I first saw a couple of years ago at the BRIC JazzFest in Brooklyn. At that time, the piece was performed in the Artist Studio, the smallest space at BRIC, and with videos playing in the back corner and Pinderhughes half-hidden behind his piano, there was almost a detached, academic air to the work. It was beautiful music that engaged your intellect.
But at LPR, Pinderhughes and his group of excellent musicians and spoken word artists were aiming for something much more powerful, and the effect was a punch in the gut. The basic thrust of "Transformation Suite" is about racial injustice and about the brutality enacted against people of color in our country.
Much of the piece is slow, simmering, almost somber music, like a dirge. But interspersed are a number of spoken word interludes that carry the explosives that lie at the core. In the first, a woman suddenly appeared in the audience, talking quietly about the small ways that black and brown people are injured as people every day, particularly women. At first, no one in the audience knew where the disembodied voice was coming from. A quick scan of all on stage showed none of them were speaking. Then people started elbowing each other, "Over there." There was no spotlight calling attention to the speaker. She was a voice in the darkness, her voice coming, as it were, out of the sky.
A bit later on, a man appeared in another part of the audience, following the same presentation--a voice in the darkness from a person unseen. But this man was much more vivid and physical in his descriptions, talking of actual beatings and lynchings, of "strange fruit." I could see people in the audience around him were uncomfortable, shifting from one foot to another, looking down, not wanting to look anyone else in the eye, listening to this awful recounting in such sensual terms about the violence sometimes brought against particularly black men.
And then, in the end, the work culminated with a crushing crescendo as yet another spoken-word artist described at length her frustration with how slow things are to change, and that she wanted change now, now, NOW! She had begun her monologue in a reasonable tone, but by the end she was screaming so hard I feared for her voice, and I thought she might hurl herself into the audience even as she stuck her microphone in people's faces to echo her call for action -- NOW!
When the lights suddenly went out, everyone around me took a big breath inward. This was a whole new dimension for the "Transformation Suite." It almost felt a bit sacrilegious to applaud, the way you don't applaud in church or at a funeral when someone speaks or sings a beautiful truth with passion. But of course, the reception was thunderous.
When the lights came back up and people had a chance to revive themselves, I almost felt a little sorry for Toshi Reagon and her fellow musicians, that they had to try to go on after that! To be honest, I have heard Reagon's name a thousand times. She is a Brooklyn institution, and is obviously much respected and loved, but I had never heard her music before. Not on the radio, or on Spotify, or in concert live. I sort of marvelled at how that was possible, but I'm admitting to it. And I'm also kicking myself extra hard because I've got to say that by the time Reagon and her group had finished their first song, I became an instant fan. They didn't exactly dispel the vibe that Pinderhughes had laid down 15 minutes before, but with all their kickass good times music, Reagon and her fellow musicians let it be known that despite the dark side of life, there is a light side too, and maybe we need both to maintain our perspective.
Reagon's loose-knit group of on-again, off-again musicians over the last 20-odd years is called BIGLovely, because that is how an old girlfriend used to address her (she is a big woman). Many of her songs have to do with social issues, and the queer side of things in particular, but most of all she sings about love, not in a dreamy-eyed swoon, but in a matter-of-fact way that at least to me is very irresistible. I left LPR wanting to listen to her entire catalog. (She is next appearing in the city in a few weeks at Joe's Pub. Go see her!)
I have only described the first half of this incredible show because by the time Reagon ended her set, the show had gone on for almost 2.5 hours, so much to my enormous disappointment I did not hang out long enough to hear Marc Ribot and Arturo O'Farrill. My loss, I am sure.More photos can be found here.