Avery Sharpe: 400: An African American Musical Portrait (JKNM)

A review of the bassist's album honoring the 400-year history of African-American people

Avery Sharpe, 400: An African American Musical Portrait
The cover of 400: An African American Musical Portrait by Avery Sharpe

This four-movement suite, which both invokes and honors the 400-year history of African-American people from the arrival of the first slave ships in 1619 to the present, resonates with tonal, improvisational, and lyric richness, befitting both the subject matter and the ongoing legacy of bassist Sharpe, one of our premier musicians and jazz educators.

Like Ellington, whose Black, Brown, and Beige is an obvious point of reference, Sharpe melds the African-American and Euro-American musical traditions, incorporating both “classical” and “vernacular” elements into his musical storytelling. “Arrival” sets the tone: On the surface it sounds almost pastoral, as the Extended Family Choir delivers a Negro spiritual-tinged chorale (sung in Swahili), with only an occasional tough-edged imprecation from Sharpe and a desolate, forlorn tinge to Don Braden’s flute work hinting at the Middle Passage horrors the protagonists have just endured, presaging the torments to come.  

Several sections make specific musical references to the eras they represent. “Fiddler” (in “Century Two: 1719-1819”) is especially notable for emphasizing the too-often under-recognized Celtic and Anglo-European musical forms that African-American musicians adapted and mastered early on. In “Blues and World War II,” guitarist Kevin Eubanks grafts T-Bone Walker onto Wes Montgomery to summon the spirit of mid-century jazz/blues.

The album’s penultimate track, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” bristles with militance. Sofia Rivera’s spoken-word narration calls out liars and racist dissemblers both historical and contemporary while honoring modern-day race heroes and warriors. In a succinct piano solo, Zaccai Curtis seems to hit a barrier, back up, make another run, and only after repeated efforts break through into a freer new space. The final section, “500 – Barack Obama and the Next 100 Years?”, returns to the feel of what might be called solemn celebration that has characterized most of this suite: hope with a dark undercurrent, as we realize that once again it could all be taken away—both girding for and seeking to temper (if possible) the fire next time.

Preview or download 400: An African American Musical Portrait on Amazon!

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David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.