Recording of June 2021: NOW

Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble: NOW
International Anthem Recording Company IARC0039 (LP, download). 2021. Damon Locks and Black Monument Ensemble, prods.; Alex Inglizian, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics ****

In its sixth year, International Anthem seriously stepped up production. 2020 saw the Chicago label releasing a fast succession of rewarding albums, including a standout disc by Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker and adventurous jazz by Rob Mazurek and the collective Irreversible Entanglements. Within that flurry of activity, the small operation drew a fine line through a new era of jazz spiritual. Not a narrow line, but a fine one, a bold and exceptional line. Harp/bass duo Dezron Douglas and Brandee Younger's Force Majeure included arrangements of tunes by Alice and John Coltrane and the Stylistics; drummer Makaya McCraven continued his beat-heavy Universal Beings groove with an album that included contributions from Parker and Younger; and clarinetist/singer/songwriter Angel Bat Dawid followed her stunning 2019 debut with a live album and a 7-inch. All of those drew from a history of Black consciousness in American music without seeking to dress soul and jazz as period pieces.

The label has also built a strong identity from synergy between artists. Singer/composer Damon Locks, for example, did the cover art for the McCraven and Irreversible Entanglements releases, and Dawid is a key member of Locks's exciting vocal group, Black Monument Ensemble.

Locks is no newcomer. In the '80s and '90s, he fronted the multifaceted postpunk band Trenchmouth (with future Saturday Night Live and Portlandia star Fred Armisen behind the drums). He went on to play in an equally energetic but even more eclectic band, the Eternals, on and off through the 2000s. He's also a DJ and visual artist, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an instructor at the Stateville Correctional Center. Now, with NOW, he's put a cap (at least for now) not just on his own work but on the New Black Spiritualism coming out of Chicago.

NOW is the second album by Locks's Black Monument Ensemble, and it's a monumental 31 minutes. While 2019's Where Future Unfolds (also on International Anthem) held promise, it lacked immediacy. If that was the future, NOW is now. The album was written under lockdown and recorded in the Chicago studio's backyard—cicadas there to testify—to allow for fresh air and distancing, with percussion, horn, and sampled overdubs added later. The result is a soundscape fantasy: the immediacy of a live session plus layers of atmospherics and disembodied samples; even the cicadas are looped and folded back in. The sound isn't always perfect—the band might not have done multiple takes; the mikes might not always have been perfectly placed—but they more than make up for it with postproduction sculpting. The six tracks radiate assuredness, an intoxicating mix with shades of the 5th Dimension in the voices and Pharoah Sanders in the music.

The album opens with the infectious "Now (Forever Momentary Space)," suggesting in lyric and tune "melodies in gold, dipped in sunlight," worthy of a Sun Ra song. "The People vs The Rest of Us" and "Movement and You" recall hip-hop DJs' (in particular Public Enemy's Terminator X) repurposing of mass culture with implied political subtext. Those two tracks are likely remnants of Locks's DJ mix that became the blueprint for the album, while "Keep Your Mind Free" is a process piece, laying voices and horn over his original construction.

An African American painter and Mexican sculptor are name-checked in the cyclical unison verse "Barbara Jones-Hogu and Elizabeth Catlett Discuss Liberation," offering hope for finding identity through artistic expression. The closing "The Body Is Electric" echoes the opening track and brings the album to a head with chants, percussion jams, and strong soloing by Dawid and cornetist Ben LaMar Gay (who has two International Anthem releases of his own) in 10 and a half minutes. It could have gone for an hour.

There is, to be sure, a lot going on in the mix. The glue that holds it together is the small, six-voice chorus, working in unison harmonies and two-part counterpoint; they deliver verses of positivity that are only corny if you call Curtis Mayfield corny. It's an uplifting album that finds new ways to deliver age-old messages. It's also a good inroad for those who haven't picked up on the new wind coming out of Chicago. International Anthem is doing a fine job at what good jazz labels used to do: give artists a place to collaborate and grow over time. It's an exciting thing to see and hear, and NOW is a good place, and time, to start.—Kurt Gottschalk

hh1's picture

...for a fantastic recommendation! I thoroughly enjoy listening (again and again) to this merely half hour long, imaginative, multi-faceted, groovy, deeply rooted in history and yet utterly contemporary treasure.