This Is Acid Jazz: The Spoken Word

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Revolutionary is one of the most abused words in the English language, used interminably as a pump word for technology advertising and drained of its content as a meaningful description of in-your-face social anger.

Howie B., Mighty Truth and Sharpshooter

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Tuesday, November 30 1999, 4:22 PM

This album opens with a voice introducing its content as "revolutionary," as a form of spoken challenge to music and its social wellsprings.

Revolutionary is one of the most abused words in the English language, used interminably as a pump word for technology advertising and drained of its content as a meaningful description of in-your-face social anger. As the No Alternative issue of Bad Subjects argues, the continual appropriation of radical counter-culture has been one means by which capitalism naturally re-creates and advances itself.

By using that R-word up front, re-mix producer/artist Howie B. sets a high standard for this album by collecting an international set of artistic contributors. A listener has to ask: do such projects inject meaning into the prefatory word they invoke? Even if this one does, advertising will still color that meaning: inescapably, to paraphrase the godfather of hip-hop Gil Scott-Heron, (who looms large over this record,) the Revolution will be pimped.

DisJam's "Stoned on War" track feathers together guitar, flute, electronics, percussion and voice in a lyrical and political attack on militarism. Sandra Blake's warm vibrato adds voice riffs and choruses to the instrumental work. The track opens with musical references to both 1950s jazz and 1970s-style spiritual jazz libre, but quickly establishes that it is of its own era. Leon Sissay's vocal line provides an ironic denunciation of "war fever" shaped by diplomats, press releases, and slogans for juvenile minds.

While the song's origins are clear --- "England is no mother country /victim of the small island mentality" --- its argument that militarism relies on a mass trances is equally valid on all sides of the Atlantic. A great deal of this album originates in the political sensibility of the black Atlantic, in the Afro-Anglo rhythms and new word orders that have transformed British music since the early 1970s.

"The 13th Sign: 90 Infinity," spoken by Fabian, invokes the prosperity and consumption of the 1980s against a background of thrumming bass and smooth horns. Fabian begins conversationally and then drops into a rap line that reminisces on his own consumer desires ("I had to have it / I had to get it/Was it greed?") together with a recitation of the evidence of economic cruelty that shapes an underclass. The links between consumerism, class structures, and regressive tax structures all find their way into the song. The track mixes personal and social in order to ask whether the anti-egalitarian politics of the last two decades will be able to perpetuate itself.

The Sharpshooters' performance of "Spirits Unseen" is less interesting, particularly because it chooses to feminize the economic necessities of work pejoratively by invoking a prostitute-figure who lives through "easy pleasure and self-negation." In the rendition given by Royal Jazz, this is a woman who must recognize that she is African "royalty in exile," a woman who responds to "voodoo, jazz, obeah," and a woman who will find herself by returning to "the mothers of the sweet black earth." Sexual patronization and romantic Africanism shine straight through the bland, cool-style accompaniment.

The following track, Mighty Truth's "Wondering World," simply does not have much to say beyond its lounge music. Willy Wondero, the artist, talks to plants and wonders about wondering about the world. Willy should be assured that I too wonder about him. This reviewer sends Willy a large moooo of kindness, and will spend the rest of the evening wondering about oleanders, aspidistra, belladonna, and all our wonderful green phyla!

Fortunately, DisJam and Leon Sissay pick up the speed again with a feisty "Wake Up." A quick, dense and powerful anthem, a times reminiscent of Sting, this song speaks to a world where "dreams can become an hallucinogenic bomb," and where "in the misty morning you may wake to the click of the barrel and the gun." Sissay invokes a British world of anti-immigrant legislation and sentiments, but one where too many prefer to "forget the storm." A refrain of "wake up" punctuates the song for emphasis. Especially good guitar work and nicely integrated rhythm shape this track, perhaps the best of the album.

After "Relax," another miss by the Sharpshooters, Pal Joey's New Breed delivers on "New York New York," an excellent tune with minimalist lyrics atop a heavy sound mix. This song works within a long line of jazz poetry descriptions of New York City, probably the most notable of which arrived in 1948 with Langston Hughes'Montage of a Dream Deferred and its focuson the everyday struggles of black life in the city. Lucien Redwood uses short lines, often with opposed phrases, to capture this sense of struggle and contradiction. The track creates the acoustic backdrop of an urban jungle and constant police action, a device that is used constantly but remains effective here.

"There's Going To Be One Hell of a Storm," spoken by Patience Agbabi and with Howie B.'s mix efforts very audible, doesnt lower the barometer much at all. It is filled with saccharine and unconvincing 1960s style images of Nature's power and political preferences: "We are seeds and Nature is on our side." Once God was on their side, now Nature: same difference.

"What would the world be like if there were no America?" asks No Se in the album's final track, "America". The ensemble has a superb command of contemporary jazz idiom; their vibraphonist plays with confidence and lan, their saxophonist, runs wild. This is a message piece: to their own accompaniment, the artists read select atrocious social statistics on US poverty and race. Their weave of seriousness and wry voices, together with political consciousness and musical talent, makes the track very attractive.

Does this album achieve the establishing purpose set in its opening? And if not, why not? In "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," Tom Frank observes that "The counter-cultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy, its hunger for transgression upon transgression now perfectly suited to an economic-cultural regime that runs on ever-faster cyclings of the new." In choosing to open the album with the term "revolutionary", Howie B. proposes that a radicalism lies inherent in the music selection. Yet proclamation does not constitute realization, even if it does establish market position. The album's very desire to transgress becomes the definition of its saleability. Despite several good-to-excellent tracks, this album has more than its share of plain duds. The pointy end of radicalism lies, as ever, in the quality of the artistry.

This is Acid Jazz: The Spoken Word is an Instinct Records release 

Copyright © 1999 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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