Humanities is a striking, distinctive record, but in one respect it is representative of a recent trend in American art generally, and in jazz specifically. In press notes, pianist David Ake identifies the “context” for the album: “the tragedy and travesty of this nation’s current political situation.”
The role of politics in art is a large and complicated controversy. From one perspective, all jazz is social protest music. But there has arguably never been a time when so many jazz albums made political statements. In the Trump era, jazz musicians feel compelled to acknowledge our “current tragedy” in their music, not only in anger or despair, but often as an offering of hope for renewal.
Humanities is not narrowly a concept album, but undercurrents of both tragedy and hope run through it. Ake’s quintet contains A-list players who like to live on the edge: trumpeter Ralph Alessi, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Mark Ferber. There is turbulence in this music. On “The North” Alessi solos in outcries, over Ake’s dark, obsessive piano vamp. But Ake rarely “comps” for other players. On “Stream” and the title track, he and Alessi solo intermittently. The rest of the time they overlay, in arcane counterpoint. As for Monder, he is the designated badass. His guitar notes, embedded in the clamor of pieces like “Groundwork,” have nasty jagged edges. Humanities is dense, crowded and fierce with energy. “You May Have Already Won” becomes frantic when everyone solos at once. Solidarity does not imply serenity.
There are 11 Ake originals and one cover. “Ripple,” by the Grateful Dead, is an improbable, inspired, fitting choice. Who remembered what a sad, yearning song it is? Perhaps Ake was remembering the last lines of Robert Hunter’s lyrics, as a kind of closure for this album: “If you should stand, then who’s to guide you?/If I knew the way, I would take you home.”