Giacomo Gates & the Music of Gil Scott-Heron

A loving tribute, recorded prior to the legend's death but released afterward

Giacomo Gates Toronto
Gil Scott-Heron

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Though it was released less than two months after the poet/author/musician/activist’s death on May 27, Giacomo Gates’ The Revolution Will Be Jazz (Savant) was never meant to memorialize Gil Scott-Heron.

“We were gonna go to a gig or find his apartment and knock on the door and hand it to him,” Gates says. “We chose the songs in the summer of 2010, recorded it at Jazz at Lincoln Center in November, it was in the process of being manufactured and Gil up and dies. It was a shock for everybody involved. This didn’t start out to be a tribute album. This was gonna be a gift to a cat who was still alive.”

Regardless of intentions, its timing means that the album will inevitably be viewed through the filter of Scott-Heron’s premature death at 62, one year older than Gates. Its role as an unintentional eulogy, however, may help the disc provide an uplifting corrective to the sad, tragic picture that has been drawn of Scott-Heron’s final years spent struggling with crack addiction. The songs chosen by Gates and producer Mark Ruffin concentrate less on the songwriter’s more strident political work and more on universal themes and poignant expressions-not to mention the acid humor of songs like “Legend in His Own Mind” or the anti-consumerist “Madison Avenue.”

“I picked tunes that I could relate to,” Gates explains. “I like a lot of Gil’s material, but there’s some stuff that I realize I have no business singing. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of folks who have only been exposed to the material that had more of an edge, that was more confrontational, that was angrier. He certainly was a revolutionary, but he had a great sense of humor. The stuff that he says is very witty, very bright, sometimes very romantic. And yet there was that street edge to him that I was able to relate to.”

The project was initiated by Ruffin, a veteran broadcaster and journalist who was looking to repay the impact Scott-Heron had made on him. “Gil Scott-Heron is the main influence in the way I lead my life as a black man in America,” he says. “I felt so guilty when he died, but then I realized he’d been so good to me in life, his spirit found me in death and suddenly I have the honor of being one of the people keeping his music alive. So that’s what I plan to do. But for this record, I just wanted to prove a point: that Gil had a lot of jazz in him.”

The jazz in Scott-Heron’s music is explicit on two tracks Gates sings: “Lady Day and John Coltrane,” a celebration of the music’s healing power; and “Is That Jazz,” an open-eared embrace of the genre’s expansiveness. But more important, Ruffin wanted to reclaim Scott-Heron’s catalog from the hip-hop community, which had claimed him as a spiritual and stylistic forefather-a role with which Scott-Heron was, at best, uncomfortable. Ruffin found a connection between Scott-Heron and the vocalese tradition of Eddie Jefferson, and turned to Gates as a modern-day representative of that style. Of course, he’s prepared for criticism that his tribute to a figure so intimately tied with racial politics was undertaken with a white singer.

“The real shame of it is that black people en masse have turned their backs on jazz and that I had to go through a list of white singers to find somebody who is keeping the music of Eddie Jefferson alive,” Ruffin says. “Besides, Gil was an angry guy when he started, but he eventually moved way past that. His later records were more about everybody coming together to move us politically to a right point. I learned doing this project that those messages he delivered to make black folks better applied to everybody who got into his music.”

For his part, Gates had no qualms about taking on the project. “It seems to me that everything he wrote about became more about humans, earthlings in general, not about race. I tried to pick tunes that were honest: ‘This is a prayer for everybody in the world to be free’-what a great gift to wish for humanity.”

Gates recalls seeing Scott-Heron perform in recent years to audiences split between two generations-half from his, the other half college-aged, perhaps introduced through the samples rampant in so much rap music. He sees an opportunity there to find a broader audience for Scott-Heron’s music, not to mention his own. “This was not done to ride the coattails of somebody else’s artistry,” Gates says. “This was done because not enough people were hip to Gil. I think there are a whole lot more people on the planet who know about Gil Scott-Heron than know about Giacomo Gates. But I hope they get to hear the other side of Gil Scott-Heron, the side that’s got a sense of humor, that makes fun of everyday life. His catalog is so huge; there probably are some tunes in there that are not the way you think they are. One has to have an open mind.”

That’s a message for which Gil Scott-Heron, in whatever context, would surely have raised his voice in support.