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IN MAY 1952 and again in August 1958, the great singer, actor and cultural militant Paul Robeson, having been denied a passport by his own US government and confined within the boundaries of the world’s most powerful imperial nation, gave historic concerts on the back of a flat-bed truck in Blaine, Washington state, under the Peace Arch, a few feet from the Canadian border.
He sang across the US/British Columbia frontier which he was forbidden to cross, to 40,000 US and Canadian citizens in a unique and defiant performance of international solidarity.
I thought of these momentous events and Robeson singing Joe Hill, No More Auction Block or Ol’ Man River as I listened to the first very evocative track, Powerful Paul Robeson on the live album by the Philadelphia-born (in 1970) pianist Eric Reed and his quartet, recorded at New York’s Smoke Jazz Club in 2014, and called Groovewise.
Fittingly, the Reed Quartet’s tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake is a Canadian from Vancouver, British Columbia, very close to the location of the Peace Arch.
He is a very powerful hornman too and, with the rhythmic undertow of Reed’s long-time flatmate Greg Hutchinson on the drums and plummeting bassman Ben Williams, here is a quartet that does Robeson proud indeed.
Powerful Paul Robeson was written by the Chicago tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan and was the opening track of the marvellous Strata East album Glass Bead Games of 1973.
Reed’s quartet relives those days with their 2014 version, with Blake’s magnetic opening solo alongside Hutchinson’s booming drums.
The quartet generates almost a big band feeling. Reed played for years in the Wynton Marsalis Orchestra while Blake is still a regular in the Mingus Big Band and they create the illusion that they are both playing in a much larger unit.
Perhaps it is the huge spirit of Robeson that makes this happen for they both play like inspired men, full of creative fire.
Then it is on to the Reed compositions, beginning with the ominous theme of Until the Last Cat Has Swung. Reed’s solo has a strange, inventively hypnotic quality and Blake makes melodies out of his improvised lines, again spurred by Hutchinson’s leaping drums.
Reed tears into Manhattan Melodies with speed and freedom, Blake slows things down a little with a solo bursting with innovation before Reed and Williams enjoy a brief palaver.
Groovewise is an album of memorials. Reed’s The Gentle Giant is dedicated to his friend and brother pianist, the late Mulgrew Miller, from Greenwood, Mississippi.
This is a piano trio track, with Reed’s emotions spilling from his keys, remembering a giant pianist as well as “a big guy and a sweet person.”
He salutes another southern pianist, the Dallas-born Cedar Walton who died in 2013, by playing the tune written by bassist Christian McBride, The Shade of the Cedar Tree, with Blake’s grasp of both melodic and improvising beauty strongly to the fore and the rhythmic artistry of Williams and Hutchinson fully supportive.
Between these homages to two pianists is Reed’s tribute to Ornette Coleman, Ornate, a tune which continually turns corners and grasps new avenues. Brief and surprising, it precedes the Reed tune on more familiar and common ground, Bopward which the quartet embrace with a particular relish.
Reed posits that the tune could be “something that I think Charlie Parker would have composed, had Bird lived.”
Hutchinson has a novel solo, Blake plays alto and there is more than a glimpse of an earlier jazz age sprinkling through the notes.
There’s yet another tribute to a dead pianist in Una Mujer Elegante — this time, it’s Marian McPartland, born in Windsor, England, in 1920.
Williams is particularly strong, and gentle, and Blake plays with a profound freshness and beauty.
A fine album this, full of live sensation and remembering diverse musical heroes. Yet it is Robeson you hear in every note, still and always inspiring us.
Chris Searle on Jazz appears every Tuesday in the paper edition of the Morning Star.
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