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May 2007

Onaje Allan Gumbs
Sack Full of Dreams
18th & Vine

One of the ways that members of the Woody Shaw cult recognize one another is that they know about Onaje Allan Gumbs. In the late ’70s, Gumbs was a member of the Shaw bands that made classic Columbia albums like Rosewood. His piquant compositions and his silky piano touch were indispensable to Shaw’s sound. Shaw’s quintet was never quite the same after Gumbs left. Not only is he still around, he is still Onaje Allan Gumbs. He still combines rhythmic earthiness with a sensitive touch, and still writes seductive songs.

On his new album, Gumbs lays down infectious grooves—deep, greasy ones like “Stank You Very Much” and convoluted, sophisticated ones like “Nitelife.” Gumbs can play like a party animal, but he is a brooding poet at heart. Tom Jones’ “Try to Remember” is a sentimental song that Gumbs’ late mother loved. The creatively broken, pieced-out version here is an honest, hard encounter with love and departure. Gumbs wrote “Lament” in 1972 for those who died in the Attica prison revolt. He moves it forward haltingly, grasping to come to terms with its darkness. Tenor saxophonist Mark Shim does not solo, but his out-chorus is anguish transfigured into music. As a piece about the senseless loss of human life, it has unfortunately not lost its relevance for our time.

Originally published in May 2007
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