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Celestial Communication Orchestra: HR57 I

By the time vocalist Ijeoma Thomas begins reciting Congressional Resolution HR-57, which proclaims jazz a national treasure, on the tune “HR-57 I” you have been officially forewarned that Alan Silva’s legendary Celestial Communication Orchestra is about to get overtly political. Maybe their latest release, the four-CD HR-57, should be called musical performance as lobbying. Thomas’ voice, a clear, expressive instrument on its own, is followed gamely to perfection by the other 22 members of the orchestra throughout “HR-57 I.”

At no time on “HR-57 I,” or anywhere else on this collection-length composition, do you feel that any of the players have overstepped their boundaries and placed their individuality before the mission to make a forceful statement about jazz music. This spirit is evident as well on “Amplitude III,” which begins with boisterous piano work that embraces pieces of the old and the new (Fats Waller or Cecil Taylor come to mind) but is ultimately a concerted group effort of straightforward grandeur. In the liner notes, pianist Matthew Goodheart describes the music produced by the orchestra as “tremendously honest music.” There can be no argument with Goodheart’s assessment either. Silva’s slow-developing composition will seem like an artist painting an abstract mural at times.

In the liner notes, Silva was even astute enough to include the language of the resolution that was introduced by Michigan Congressman John Conyers in March 1987 that is the focus of this release. Of course despite all the politics, there is the music. Recorded live at the Uncool Festival in May 2001 in Switzerland, some less open-minded jazz listeners might be apt to dismiss much of this as the musical equivalent of the Bhagavad Gita. That would be a mistake. Everything about this collection is what jazz music is about despite the fact that it might seem longwinded at times. For one, the recording is of a live performance, and longer recordings are often unavoidable. HR-57 is about the big picture, that is, the overall message behind the performance. Oftentimes, you will feel disconnected because of the creative sacrifices. But, as “HR-57” progresses, the cumulative effect produces an enlightening experience. “HR-57 III,” which opens CD four, is case in point. Though the orchestra had already spoken decisively on “HR-57 I,” with vocalist Thomas urging the band along, “HR-57 III” is slower and more deliberate and revisits the previous section, albeit in a different way. Where “HR-57 I” hits you over the head, “HR-57 III” is subtle. It builds slowly to a crescendo and soars higher right before it begins its long, impressive fade to quiet resolution. There is much of that here, too, as Silva and his band squeeze every ounce of energy possible from themselves in order to complete the mural.

The list of musicians, as is customary with the orchestra, is impressive too: Bassist William Parker is on board, as is trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., trombonist Joseph Bowie, bassist Wilbur Morris and many more. And there is the constant reciting of parts of the resolution itself by Ijeoma Thomas, who stresses words like “indigenous” and “whereas” repeatedly. Thomas should be commended for making a very technical piece of writing a little poetic. HR-57 ends as it begins too; Thomas recites the names of the musicians and they continue to do their jobs. Perhaps it would have been better if some of them had been given broader opportunities to show off their talents. But this performance was about making a big statement that many agree with; the musicians, all of whom know what the resolution means, surrendered to the cause.

Originally Published