Fanon (Rogue Art) by Tarbaby: two nods there to literary black American culture, and the album begins with a short spoken-word introduction. I’ll come back to all of that later.
Tarbaby is the trio of pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits. While Evans is an exponent of straight-ahead jazz, Revis is probably the only musician who has connections with both the Marsalis family (he studied with Ellis Marsalis, and has played with Branford) and Peter Brötzmann: he and Waits formed a formidable trio with the German free jazz legend, as documented on the 5 CD set Long Story Short – Wels 2011 (Trost). Waits, for his part, is a protege of Max Roach and Ed Blackwell. Enough said.
Fanon also features two guest musicians, of whom the senior is Oliver Lake, a saxophonist who came up via the Black Artists Group in St Louis, part of the Black Arts Movement of the late 60s, and went on to co-found the World Saxophone Quartet. Marc Ducret is a self-taught guitarist, probably best known for his work with Tim Berne but a superb composer and bandleader in his own right (see my review of his latest album Tower Bridge).
All members of the quintet contribute compositionally, and each takes the lead at certain points, so the album packs a fair amount of stylistic variation into its twelve tracks and 62 minutes.
The first piece after that string-backed spoken word intro, Revis’ “Black Skin White Mask” is brisk and assertively punchy. Contrasting uptempo pace and darting, incisive solo commentaries on Lake’s more fluent alto solo with a funky rhythmic vamp that leans back into the groove, this is exemplary kinetic modern jazz from the start.
“Fanon”, an Oliver Lake composition, begins with the the two guests in gentle, contemplative counterpoint. Ducret applies sustain to bent notes to gorgeous effect, and then barbs the remainder of a generally limpid, serpentine solo with constrained feedback as Tarbaby explore ways to work up rhythmic dynamic variations. Eventually a gently anthemic theme emerges, delicately delineated by Evans.
Waits commences his own “Between Nothingness and Infinity” with a 2:15 solo of rolling percussion, then introduces the group with rim clicks. The collective intro is bold but quickly yields to a piano/contrabass duet. Gently probing at first, Evans and Revis soon lock into a loping rhythmic groove that, with the addition of piano, assumes the bounce of classic small-group hard bop. “The Re-Created Man” is a brief (0:58), contrastingly wiry exchange between Lake and Ducret on acoustic guitar.
Lake plays fluently but with a constricted, anguished tone on his own “Is it Real”, a bruising mid-tempo number. Evans and Ducret also play biting solos and Revis and Waits lock the looping rhythm down pending a freer thematic resolution.
“O My Body” is credited to the core trio, and Lake and Ducret drop out. The intro hints at free-form abstraction, but Evans essays a fragile, limpid melody, barely notional, that Revis shores up with supple plucked bass. The track ends quietly, with soft soundings of the piano’s harp merging with cymbal shimmers. Evans’ “Liberation Blues” then marks a return to mid-tempo, with both Ducret and Lake playing trenchant solos over Tarbaby’s muscular, groove-centric dynamic.
“FLN Stomp” is another short Ducret/Lake solo, with Ducret again soloing penetratingly on acoustic. The moody and expressionistic “… Shall we not Revenge?” then sees the quintet at it’s most thoughtful and impressionistic. At it’s heart comes a moment of high-tension restraint, as Ducret plays a muted but lacerating electric solo as Revis’ bass throbs steadily. Light breaks when the guitarist begins to harmonise with Lake’s counterpoint, uncomplicated melodicism, but Revis maintains the track’s core tension and the collective slips back into disquieting abstraction at the fade.
Finally “One Destiny”, by and for only Evans, Revis and Waits, exemplifies their unforced mastery of rhythm feel and introduces a brief, vocal chant accompanied by child’s voice, which reprises the album’s spoken word prologue, “Small Pieces… Tiny Pieces”. This is a brief narrative from the album’s dedicatee, Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism (1961). That book, in part, acknowledges the limits of peaceful resistance, and defends “justified violence” as a means to catharsis and liberation. The extract in question portrays a young boy subjugated and forced to witness the murder of his parents, and the effect of that brutality on the child.
Fanon was a French-Algerian political philosopher, a proponent of anti-colonialism and nationalism, and an active member of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) which prosecuted in the 1950s a war for independence from France. The dedication to Fanon prompts salutary reflection on the effects of endemic race hate, which I think makes sense of an apparent tar-baby/Fanon dichotomy.
A tar-baby is a figure from African-American folk tradition, made famous through its telling in the second of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories, published in 1881. A doll made of tar and turpentine used to entrap Br’er Rabbit, the more Br’er Rabbit fights it, the more entangled he becomes. These days, ‘tar baby’ refers to any sticky situation that can only be exacerbated by conflict, but for Harris, a champion of racial reconciliation in the post-Reconstruction era, the message of his plantation fable was clear: a person’s wits are their best defence against adversity.
In album notes, Waits is quoted: “Tarbaby is all about making the obscure palatable. We realised that particular (Fanon) quote is very strong, but we felt it was necessary to jolt the listener. If you understand the entire context of the quote you realise that.” The full notes, by Alexandre Pierrepont, a French anthropologist, flesh that idea out, but, of course, you don’t need to go there: you can proceed directly to the music.
Orrin Evans piano; Eric Revis bass; Nasheet Waits drums; Oliver Lake saxophones; Marc Ducret electric guitar.
Buy Fanon direct from Rogue Art.