Is it really protest music if the dominant emotion within the songs is hope?
That’s one of the questions raised by the sometimes reflective, sometimes questioning, always uplifting music on The Hope I Hold, the third album by trombonist Ryan Keberle and his socially aware band Catharsis. “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart/I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars,” sings Camila Meza in “Tangled in the Endless Chain,” a song about the struggle to be free whose title and lyrics (taken, as are those of several songs here, from Langston Hughes’ 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again”) seem to despair of ever achieving freedom. Yet the music itself is anything but disheartening—not just Meza’s voice and guitar, but also Scott Robinson’s lyric tenor sax, soaring over the Latin-tinged 6/4 groove. This isn’t invective against injustice, but the Zen-like transcendence of seeing struggle as merely part of an “endless chain.”
Likewise, the similarly Hughes-derived “Despite the Dream” and “America Will Be” aren’t about contemporary political America—that land of Twitter fights and red/blue animosity—but the symbolic America, that land of freedom and tolerance promised by the Statue of Liberty. “O, let America be America again,” goes the refrain to “Despite the Dream,” adding, “The land that never has been yet.”
Upholding that dream, that possibility of becoming something great and fair, isn’t just a lyrical or political stance for this band; it sits at the core of their playing. “America Will Be” makes that point with a magnificently intertwined group improvisation even before Meza starts singing, the diversity of instrumental voices never undercutting the sense of community the music evokes. Even better are the four “Catharsis Trio” performances, in which Meza, Keberle, and bassist Jorge Roeder offer the sort of conversational playing that has always been at the heart of great jazz. The hope I hold is that Keberle and Catharsis will make more such optimistic and provocative music.
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