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Black Art Jazz Collective: Ascension (HighNote)

A review of the sextet's third album

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Black Art Jazz Collective: Ascension
The cover of Ascension by the Black Art Jazz Collective

The Black Art Jazz Collective, co-founded in 2012 by saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and drummer Johnathan Blake, is “dedicated to celebrating African American cultural and political icons, as well as preserving the historical significance of African Americans in Jazz” (as per Escoffery’s website). The current lineup includes both Escoffery and Pelt, along with trombonist James Burton III (another member of the original sextet), pianist Victor Gould, bassist Rashaan Carter, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr.

The title track is a Gould composition. Seasoned by rich harmonic blends and toughened by fiery postbop brio, it sets the tone for what’s to follow: bristling with urgency yet graced with a welcoming spirit, inviting us to join the celebration even as it’s clear that this celebration is both weighted and buoyed by the demands—and blessings—of history. 

Titles such as “Involuntary Servitude” and “Tulsa” emerge from the cauldron of living Black history; others—“Mr. Willis” (Burton’s tribute to the late pianist Larry Willis), “Iron Man” (a paean to Harold Mabern penned by Gould)—exemplify the Collective’s determination to honor the spirits of the ancestors. “Twin Towers” is not a reference to 9/11, but rather a Jackie McLean composition that the late altoist dedicated to Escoffery and fellow reedman Jimmy Greene, who were members of McLean’s student ensemble at the Hartt School in the 1990s. Escoffery’s opening solo thrusts outward and onward with relentless force; Burton, full-bodied and probing, rises to the challenge Escoffery sets; Pelt sheds any residual Milesian cool to weigh in with unfettered ebullience, both riding atop and goading the forward-surging groove laid down by his bandmates. The youthful exuberance and world-conquering hope that no doubt propelled the original ensemble, the sense of “young lions” on a mission, is palpable—an optimistic yet hard-eyed resolve that remains at the heart of the Black Art Jazz Collective’s music and mission.

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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.