From their name to their album title and the dedications of the compositions within, WeFreeStrings takes inspiration from fearless activists. The album’s title track is dedicated to civil-rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer. “Propagating the Same Type of Madness, that uh…” gets its title from a quote by slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Most significantly, more than half of the album is taken up by “Baraka Suite,” a multi-hued 25-minute opus dedicated to the late poet Amiri Baraka.
Led by violist/composer Melanie Dyer (no relation to a country-pop singer with the same name), the group is largely a string ensemble. Bassist Ken Filiano and violinist Gwen Laster play throughout the album with Dyer, and the tracks that bookend the album add Charles Burnham (violin), Alexander Waterman (cello), and Michael Wimberly (drums). Free improvisation on strings is often marked by dissonant scrapes and squeals or sturm-und-drang dynamics, but WeFreeStrings avoids such trappings. The album’s one non-original track—“Pretty Flowers” by saxophonist Andrew “The Black” Lamb—even offers a tranquil pause where the trio lineup creates shimmering beauty.
The addition of Wimberly helps establish a groove in an early section of “Baraka Suite” and focuses the music. Throughout six movements, Dyer creates a piece that captures the spirit of its namesake. There are moments when each string player steps forward, but with no “solo” credits given, they serve to emphasize the whole rather than individual parts. Wimberly also adds an urgent push to Filiano’s elastic line in “Propagating.” The strings render the piece with a fire of the sort usually heard more in reeds and brass instruments. As they take turns delivering pointed statements, occasionally overlapping each other, the idea of jazz strings takes on a new identity.