Royal Hartigan Ensemble
Blood Drum Spirit: Live in China
asante adowa royal hartigan
Shrinking the globe
Blood Drum Spirit: the Royal Hartigan Ensemble Live in China is a new double compact disc from this unique quartet’s recent tour of China. Its tracks include original and standard pieces in the African American tradition, informed by music cultures of Asia, West Africa, and the Caribbean.
Anlo Kete and Asante Adowa are based on traditional songs and dance drumming of the Ewe and Asante peoples of West Africa, while Gati Shadows Within is based on the drum rhythms of India. Flowing Stream, a love song from Yunnan province, is connected to Charles Mingus’ blues requiem for saxophonist Lester Young, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.
Hartigan, a percussionist who travels, lives, and performs in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the globe, has brought cultural and musical insights into this album, offering an original style of jazz interaction and performance with three of today’s most creative and experimental musicians, contrabassist Wes Brown, pianist Art Hirahara, and saxophonist David Bindman.
Multi-sectional compositions in asymmetric time cycles with 7, 11, and 15 pulses move through funk, reggae, and Afro-Latin grooves, and yet swing in a new feel: Crisis in (Now’s The) Time, Threads, and High Definition Truth are extended works that form a trilogy composed by Bindman and center on the themes of political consciousness and global human interdependence. Hartigan’s DreamfiresWaking is joined to an arrangement of the standard Invitation over 11-pulse idioms adapted from West Africa, Cuba, and bebop. Hirahara’s Peace, Unknown is dedicated to the victims of the Middle East’s unending conflicts while the Generations Suite honors the elders of society. Song For Your Return is an experimental dialogue among the four performers.
Blood Drum Spirit’s music is rooted in tradition yet brings jazz and other world traditions to a new place in creative music.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
Good things sometimes fly under the radar; sometimes they are great things. This has never been more the case than with Royal Hartigans’s Blood Drum Spirit, a jazz masterpiece that has languished in obscurity since its 1993 recording to its eventual 2004 release.
It remains largely unrecognized six years later. Jazz, especially in the US, can be almost religiously hierarchical and introducing an unknown quantity to the ranks of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Anthony Braxton may well be viewed as profane or pretentious. However, the benefit to fans of good music outweighs the potential backlash. This qualifies as a classic desert island, end of the world as we know it, entry.
Hartigan is jazz Renaissance man. An author, educator, and student/teacher of world music, he has incorporated the sounds, native instruments, and cultural nuances of West Africa and Southeast Asia into a two-disc collection where the emphasis is strongly toward jazz rather than the world music that subtly influences it. Like Collin Walcott’s earlier efforts, Cloud Dance (ECM, 1976) and Grazing Dreams (ECM, 1977), Hartigan has found that elusive ground that emphasizes the pure innovative nature of jazz without excluding the unique attributes of the cultures Hartigan has closely studied and been influenced by. Some time back, Esbjorn Svensson Trio was dubbed the “future of jazz.” Had Royal Haritgan been known at that time, he may have deservedly shared the mantle.
If Blood Drum Spirit has a centerpiece, it is “Eve,” a 28-plus minute epic composed of solo, duo, trio, and quartet formats that easily flow into and out of each phase. Suffice to say, “Eve” is worth the price of admission. In many ways it represents the democratic nature of Hartigan’s collective style and world philosophy. Guitarist Kevin McNeal’s deceptively simple chords and David Bindman’s opening saxophone sets a bluesy pace that carries throughout. By the time Wes Brown’s bass and Hartigan’s kit transition into a rhythmic African extended duo, a hypnotic effect has established itself and it is not easily broken. Hartigan’s percussion work is as musical, or more so, than most of the percussion greats who have gone before him. His versatility could be imagined as a solo percussion work, much the way the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s drummer Don Moye is.
To single out tracks is counter-productive here; this is a work of symphonic structure. Hartigan’s quartet exerts equal effort and finesse across the spectrum of tunes here and selectivity would be nitpicking as the work that builds and develops across the entire program. Each band member is given more than ample opportunity to solo and in every case they are stellar performances. Why Royal Hartigan is unfamiliar to many jazz fans is a subject for another debate. What is clear is that Blood Drum Spirit is a collection that will endure for many years to come. – Karl Ackermann