How to play a chord that feels like Toni Morrison writing, “I didn’t fall in love with you, I rose in it”? How to play a melody with that feeling? These are the kinds of questions that Danilo Pérez, Avishai Cohen, and Chris Potter were mulling over in the leadup to the debut performance of their new quintet at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium on Wednesday night (Oct. 10). With Larry Grenadier on bass and Nate Smith on drums, the group aims at musically reacting to the current moment’s social politics, to take the energy in the air and turn it into a sound.
The latest cultural barometric readings taken by Pérez, Cohen, and Potter caused them to turn away from standards and more prosaic compositional inspirations. They instead chose to “be inspired by women,” as Pérez told the sold-out theater: specifically, great female wordsmiths of love, despair, and doubt like Maya Angelou and Israel’s Zelda (full name Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky), contemporary literary star Jesamyn Ward, and energy/tech activist Sivan Ya’ari.
Overall, the group’s sound placed it somewhere between the impressionistic chamber jazz of ECM’s current roster (including Potter and Cohen) and the motivic sculpting of the Wayne Shorter Quartet. The musicians were building together, creating imprints of their subjects’ settings, reflecting characters, and trying to convey the emotional sweep of a novel in the length of a song.
You could hear the vastness of the grasslands and deserts where Ya’ari works in the way the five manipulated their instruments throughout Cohen’s “Innovation Africa.” Smith whacked the skins with the force of Gene Krupa, conjuring wide, hollow notes over which Cohen’s and Potter’s billowing horns tore like storms across the plains. Grenadier’s sinister, marching bass lines mixed with Pérez’s angular harmonies in a way that seemed almost Lovecraftian, as if the tenth plague once more marched across the land.
Potter animated the duality of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tea Cake—one of the central characters in her seminal novel Their Eyes Were Watching God—by shifting between a buoyant, champagne cadence and an ’80s hip-hop breakbeat. Hurston’s complex foil to Janie had been remade for a post-Biggie era, and Potter’s weeping tenor lines hinted at the vast expanse of the story in which Tea Cake was only one player. In “Beloved,” Pérez spun harmonies that captured the delicate humanity and monumental passion in Toni Morrison’s fiction. The tune became a call to action—though thankfully void of testosterone fist-pumping or shield-bashing—summoning the nurturing but terrifying powers of faith, light, and love to a city that often seems bereft of them.
The set ended with a number dedicated to Angela Davis and her central role in “the fight in America,” as Pérez worded it, called “Alternate Reality” (the title was received with roaring applause). The quintet’s earlier pastoral impressionism was replaced by a joyous, symphonic cacophony worthy of Charles Mingus, perfectly embodying Davis’ feverish zeal. After a pair of blaring solos from Potter and Cohen, each of whom went beet-red in the intensity of their endeavor, Pérez led the group through an angular, Monkish solo that segued into their final statement. They built to a crescendo, sparking color and light like the first rays of dawn creeping over the horizon. As the musicians reached an apex, it felt like they were all staring at that horizon, the same one that the women who inspired them saw and strove for with every breath.