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Phronesis

Music, Social Comment and We Are All

by Howard Lawes

 

 

The vast majority of music is ephemeral, entertaining or something interesting to listen to, but it can also be more than this, it can Marchcause elation, sadness and in some cases can express views and emotion more effectively than words can. Taking the idea further, songs can be a really effective way of stimulating a common purpose in people, such as singing from the same hymn sheet, either in church or metaphorically, while protest songs are an excellent way of conveying a message. 

Probably one of the most famous songs of this type was written by Abel Meeropol (Lewis Allan),  Maurice Pearl and Dwayne P Wiggins, - Strange Fruit. It is perhaps best remembered for being sung by Billie Holiday in 1939 at a New York club called Café Society.  In an article in The Guardian, Dorian Lynskey refers to it as '.. a song about racist lynchings that stunned audiences and redefined popular music'. 

Strange Fruit was included in the list of the top 20 political songs of all time published In 2010 in The New Statesman. Others in that list included This Land Is Your Land by Woodie Guthrie, Imagine by John Lennon and Where Have All the Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger. 

 

 

Such songs are well known by very many people and when heard can invoke strong feelings about the injustices suffered by minorities, about damage to the environment and the appalling consequences of war, but songs and music can be equally effective at engendering feelings of patriotism - songs such as Rule Britannia, Finlandia and Charlie ParkerBeethoven's Ode To Joy, which has become the national anthem of the European Union.  

When it comes to protest and social comment it is probably true that songs are a more effective vehicle than music alone and so with the jazz canon consisting predominantly of instrumental rather than vocal music suggests there are perhaps rather fewer instances of social comment in jazz than might be expected, given its origins and history.  Having said that the Café Society Club was itself a comment on the racism prevalent in New York society, the club called itself "the wrong place for the right people" and subsequently it was closed down, ironically following in the footsteps of the pre-war Berlin clubs on which it was modelled and closed by the regime at that time. 

Charlie Parker

 

 

Others have suggested that jazz in general, and bebop jazz in particular, was the voice of Black America calling for freedom - (Gilad Atzmon, Politics and Jazz, Counterpunch, 20/11/2004) citing Charlie Parker's 1945 tune, Now's The Time, as a clarion call for social change. Certainly, the civil rights campaigner, Martin Luther King, who was a great fan of Charlie Parker quoted him with the phrase 'Now Is The Time' in his famous 'I Have A Dream' speech in August 1963.

 

There were four takes of Now's The Time recorded on 26th November 1945. The fourth, slower take is the one that was the official release, but I think this is Bird from the third take:

 

 

 

Just a few weeks later a bomb, planted by white supremacists, exploded in a church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four children.  This appalling crime with Martin Luther King's moving condemnation of it inspired the composition of the tune Alabama by John Coltrane.  Martin Luther King himself was assassinated in 1968 and was himself commemorated in the Nina Simone song Why (The King Of Love Is Dead).  The Charlie Mingus song, Fables of Faubus, was an explicit condemnation of Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas, who in 1957 ignored the U.S. Supreme Court and decreed that Little Rock Central High School remain racially segregated and yet the version on Mingus's classic 1959 album, Mingus Ah Um is an instrumental.  The reason for this, according to Gene Santoro, is that the Columbia record company didn't want the words to be on the record.  The full version was eventually released under the name Original Faubus Fables on the 1960 album Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. (Click here for more on The Fables Of Faubus).

In more recent times many jazz musicians have come together to support social and political causes, Barack Obama benefitted from a Phronesisfund-raising concert in 2012 called Jazz For Obama, while in 2015 Jazz For Labour featured an exceptional array of UK jazz talent.  Vocalist Vimala Rowe gave her rendition of Strange Fruit at this event and Courtney Pine closed the show by remarking that "in jazz and life we can only do this together". 

Almost as if prompted by Courtney Pine's comment, the band Phronesis, with Jaspar Høiby on double bass, Ivo Neame on piano and Anton Eger on drums have just released an album called We Are All with the strap line "One album, multiple covers, one message of interconnectedness".  Continuing to quote from their publicity material: "The trio aim to shine a light on the interconnectedness of all living species and the responsibility we hold as human beings to co-exist in harmony with our environment, and to protect the beauty, fragility and welfare of our planet, and each other".  These sentiments, inspired by the Scottish/American enviromental campaigner John Muir, set the tone for the album.   

 

Phronesis (Ivo Neame, Anton Eger and Jaspar Høiby)

 

One For Us, the first and longest track on the album, opens with piano triplets harmonised with bowed double bass in a classical style before plucked double bass and crashing cymbals herald something quite different, the piece continues with the combined trio rather than solo improvisation that is such an exciting hallmark of a live Phronesis performance leading to a lovely, melodic solo from Høiby and then a drum solo from Eger with Neame providing a hypnotic rhythm. 

 

Phronesis playing One For Us from the album.

 

 

 

Anton Eger's composition, The Tree Did Not Die is a message of hope and musical tribute to the redwood trees in Muir Woods, a National Monument park in the USA named after John Muir. The Tree Did Not Die includes electronic keyboard and synthesiser from Neame which he employed to great effect  in his own album Moksha, it certainly reveals a different and rather interesting variation to the Phronesis sound.

 

Video extract from The Tree Did Not Die.

 

 

 

Ivo Neame's inspiration for his tune Matrix For D.A. is Douglas Adams, best known for his book A Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy, but also an environmental campaigner whose activities included raising awareness and funds to help save gorillas, rhinos and other less well known species from the threat of extinction.  The tune has so much going on it is difficult to take it all in and you certainly need to listen several times to appreciate the finer points and polyrhythmic nature of the piece. 

 

Phronesis playing Matrix For D.A.

 

 

 

 

Breathless, the title of Jaspar Høiby's composition, highlights the fate of a world where its natural resources and very atmosphere have been abused by its human inhabitants threatening the breath of life itself.  The track starts slowly with a plodding piano and Phronesis We Are Alldouble bass providing the melody although these roles are swapped as the piece progresses to a somewhat enigmatic conclusion.

The inspiration for other tracks on the album, Eger's The Edge and Neame's Emerald Horseshoe are not obvious but Høiby's One For Us surely highlights the general theme of the album which is that by demonstrating mutual understanding and harmony in their musicianship, the band can inspire a similar determination within their audience and hopefully the population at large. Eger's The Edge is an unexpectedly tender and melodic composition from a drummer whose performances are so often energetic and forceful, however one must admit that it speeds up significantly with a crescendo towards the end.  Neame's Emerald Horseshoe has a rather mysterious title which reflects the cryptic nature of the music

Most of the critical comment published since the release of the album We Are All has been about the music, all extremely positive, highlighting the band's continued development, the excellence of their musicianship, compositions and rapport.  However apart from the music there is a message which the band is trying to communicate which is their concern for the health of our planet and the wellbeing of all its inhabitants.  The pictures on the album cover show large masses of  people, animals, fish and trees indicating the interdependence of all living things described by the environmental campaigner John Muir.  While it is undeniably easier to convey such messages with songs rather then music alone, if Phronesis fans everywhere were to pass on this message the band may well achieve a whole lot more than great music and carry on a tradition of caring for others initiated by the campaigning jazz musicians of America during their struggle for civil rights.

 

John Muir

John Muir

 

Click here to sample the tracks on the album. Click here for album purchase details. Click here for more about John Muir.

 

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Other pages you might find of interest :

Jean Toussaint - Jazz Messenger
Ivo Neame - Looking Back From Moksha
Keith Jarrett - After The Fall
Jazz As Art

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