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Zoh Amba: O Life, O Light Vol. 1 (577)

A review of the saxophonist's second album

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Zoh Amba: O Life, O Light Vol. 1 (577)
The cover of O Life, O Light Vol. 1 by Zoh Amba

Saxophonist Zoh Amba is a Tennessee native now based in NYC, where she’s quickly immersed herself in the city’s deep pool of avant-gardists. O Life, O Light Vol. 1 follows fast on the heels of her Tzadik-released debut, O Sun. Here she’s engaged with a chordless trio featuring veterans William Parker and Francisco Mela on a set of excursions into raw, rough-edged transcendence.

It doesn’t take more than a few notes to recognize that Amba has thoroughly imbibed the sound and spirit of Albert Ayler. The late saxophonist’s urgent, questing qualities, his borrowings from spiritual and folk music traditions, his impassioned striving toward the rapturous—all are abundant in Amba’s music. On the album’s 13-minute opener, “Mother’s Hymn,” she repeatedly strains her tenor voice into a tremulous quaver. With Parker’s serrated bowing and Mela’s roiling, hypnotic rhythms, the trio takes on an agitated ritual quality, swaying and shaking with the convulsive impulse of a Holy Roller in full thrall.

The title track begins with an unaccompanied singsong melody that evokes Ayler’s “Spirits Rejoice” or “Ghosts,” soon met with a propulsive avalanche from Mela and Parker. The leader soars into squawking, honking territory before plunging into the lower depths with frenetic bursts reminiscent of her mentor David Murray. Amba never quite summons Murray’s gale-force blowing, but she does muster a force that threatens to strain the physical limits of her horn.

Amba’s own personality emanates most vividly when she switches to flute for “Mountains in the Predawn Light,” a hazy, mist-shrouded venture laced with Japanese folk accents. Concise yet sprawling at just 35 minutes, the album concludes with a short, prayer-like return to the tenor called “Satya,” a 90-second postscript that ends the proceedings on a questioning note.

 

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.