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Jason Moran, Harlem Hellfighters – Cardiff Oct 31

November 2, 2018

The first appearance on this little tour, at the Barbican, drew a couple of interestingly opposed reviews: It was a successful recreation, said the Guardian. Not so, said The Times, the concept looked good but the show lacked substance – 2 stars.

I don’t know if the Barbican show was more tentative, but what I heard in Cardiff a the Royal Welsh College the other night seemed a marvellous marriage of proto-jazz styles with modernism. Jason Moran’s aim was to highlight the work of bandleader James Reese Europe. I checked, and he’s at least a footnote in all the jazz histories*, but he’d passed me by until now. And what a fascinating figure: led an all-black ensemble; promoted music that developed what the people he knew listened to; made the first recordings of jazz, or almost jazz, by an African-American band before the war, and a second batch shortly before his early demise in 1919.

On top of that, he joined the black 369th Infantry, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, in WW1, enlisting in the service of a country that, as Moran put it flatly,”made him no promises”. They fought in France and Reese, who became the regimental bandleader, performed widely in Europe. The parade on their return to New York drew an immense crowd.

All this inspired Moran’s regular trio, with Tyrus Mateen on bass and the always arresting Nasheet Waits on drums and a band drawn from the UK-based Tomorrow’s Warriors (plus Andy Grappy on one of two tubas). The trio were well to the fore at first, but the band had plenty to do thereafter, and everyone rose brilliantly to the challenge of often complex scores. The tunes were generally lively-going-on-raucous, the band sound – seven horns including those two tubas – rich, and the blend of old and new cleverly worked into the arrangements. Some numbers brought to mind the ragtime-meets-AACM treatments on the great trio Air’s early release Air Lore and if, understandably, none of the horn players reached the level of Air’s Henry Threadgill, they all performed as if they had been spicing up old jazz with new sounds all their lives. 

Kaidi Akkinibi on tenor testified effectively on one piece (titles went by too fast on screen to catch) and Adam Nathoo delivered a beautifully developed alto solo on  another that moved from the simple, bluesy declamations of the early 20th century into impassioned bebop. Again, this doesn’t tally with John Fordham’s impression that they generally went straight from unadorned renditions of Europe’s tunes into free blowing. I don’t know if the bebop episode was pre-planned, but it seemed particularly effective in the moment – my notes say, “it’s almost like aural time-travel”.

An altogether fascinating 90 minutes, and one of the most memorable gigs of the year. Others’ comments about the visuals being too low-key to add much are fair, although contemporary footage and stills of the regimental players, who appear to have numbered approaching 100, did make you wonder what a huge sound they must have made.

But the music is the thing, and the smaller forces mustered here achieved one high aim – to rekindle interest in pieces that are worth hearing not just for their historical importance, but for their joyful energy and invention. A long encore, repeating W.C. Handy’s Hesitation Blues, gave everyone a chance to solo once more, and set the seal on a verdict that there is more to be made of this music.

*Lots more about Europe here.   And more background on Moran’s project here and here.

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