It was fortuitous this past weekend to have Dr. Yosef A.A. ben-Jochannan’s wake and viewing at the Abyssinian Baptist Church last Thursday right around the corner from the Reparations Summit convened at the same time by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century at Mother AMEZ Church in Harlem.
The final session of the Summit on Saturday at the First AMEZ Church in Brooklyn also brought a pleasant confluence since it was only a few blocks from Sista’s Place, the jazz space where Ahmed Abdullah was performing with his quintet.
After experiencing Sir Hilary Beckles’ astounding keynote address at the Summit on the historical and global implications of the reparations movement—and its current revival—it was just a short walk to the club where the quintet was just beginning its opening set.
On the walls at the club, where the core of any affair is populated with members of the December 12th Movement, is a veritable chronology of African American history, and of special appeal to someone fresh from the resonance of Beckles’ speech on reparations was the semblance of a plaque denoting the domestic slave trade.
This connection gained a musical expression when Abdullah recited Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “When Malindy Sings,” setting aside his powerful trumpet and flugelhorn for a moment. “Oh, hit’s sweetah dan de music,” Abdullah said toward the end of the poem, perfectly capturing the cadence and the intended dialect. “Of an edicated band/An’ hit’s dearah dan de battle’s/Song o’ triumph in de lan’. It seems holier dan evenin’/When de solemn chu’ch bell rings/Ez I sit an’ ca’mly listen/While Malindy sings.”
Before Abdullah allowed Malindy to sing, so to speak, his horn was a harmonious blend with Rafael Statin’s tenor saxophone as they evoked images of South Africa that was very reminiscent of “Amanpondo,” a tune recorded by the Group many years ago and now available on CD. “I had to go Lithuania to get it recorded,” Abdullah explained later. Back then Abdullah’s horn was paired with the late Marion Brown on alto. This evening, in tandem with Statin, his trumpet sound was fully open and it had the kind of declarative tone that Hugh Masekela often displays.
“This is a very special evening,” Abdullah said at the beginning of the set, “because it was forty years ago that I was playing with Sun Ra.” A bit of that period was later invoked on the final number of the set when the band marched off the stand in jump-style with Abdullah and his wife, Monique Ngozi Nir, leading the way.
She also led the way on a poem and when she intoned the words to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” to an unnamed blues, the so-called sacred and secular merged beautifully.
Beautiful, too, was the straight ahead hard-bop tune with Abdullah, his trumpet muted, and Statin, again up front of a rhythm section comprised of drummer Reggie Nicholson, bassist Radu ben-Judah, and pianist D.D. Jackson. Unlike the more bombastic renderings on the South African tunes, this one was tinged with a quiet efficiency, an unprovoked urgency.
Like the old Group, this ensemble is very tight and this is evident whether during their furious passages, particularly with Jackson’s thunderous chords, Nicholson’s mallets galore, and Statin’s Trane-like inferences, or when they settle in a smooth and easy groove with nothing but romance in the air.
It was an unforgettable evening of politics and culture, occasions that need to happen more and more in these terrible times of right wing retrenchment.