Live Review: Outsiders Fest in Philadelphia

Jamaaladeen Tacuma's funky, bold, and fashionable festival celebrates its fifth anniversary

Gary Bartz, Chuck Treece, Fay Victor, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma
Left to right: Gary Bartz, Chuck Treece, Fay Victor, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma at the Outsiders Fest, Philadelphia, April 26, 2019 (photo: Sound Evidence)

Besides the funky ferocity of his bass playing, Jamaaladeen Tacuma is famous for his eclectic sartorial ensembles. As the curator of the Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival in Philadelphia over the last five years, Tacuma has presented combinations of musicians that are as colorful and unexpected as his flashy wardrobe tends to be.

For its first three years, the Outsiders Fest was a single-day marathon presenting short sets by a variety of performers in rapid succession. The format changed in 2018, sprawling out over the month of April; now Tacuma himself was in the spotlight, featured with different ensembles. This year’s fifth-anniversary edition combined the two approaches, with a series of Tacuma-centric concerts over the course of the month culminating in a reprise of the marathon at the festival’s original home, West Philadelphia’s Community Education Center.

The 2019 edition began with a weekend at SOUTH Jazz Kitchen on April 13 and 14, both nights convening a group of musicians who’d never shared the stage as an ensemble. As Tacuma explained in his typically enthusiastic opening remarks, he pieces these bands together as he does his outfits, reveling in the bold clashes and harmonious pairings that result.

Night one featured pianist Sumi Tonooka, a Philadelphia native recently returned to the city whose association with Tacuma stretches back to the 1970s; drummer Ronnie Burrage, whose avant-funk leanings make him an ideal partner for the bassist, though they’d never collaborated before; young North Carolina trumpeter Braxton Bateman, grandson of the late Philadelphia drum legend Edgar Bateman; and fellow electric bassist Tarus Mateen of Jason Moran’s Bandwagon. (The next night Tacuma returned with saxophonist Oliver Lake, guitarist Kelvyn Bell, and drum prodigy Nazir Ebo, brother of Justin Faulkner.)

The two-bass pairing made for an unusual sonic palette, though both players have the instincts to weave their parts together in inventive ways. Thus, as Tacuma laid down a shimmering strum, Mateen responded with a low, ominous throb; a lyrical Tacuma interlude triggered exquisite counterpoint; Mateen’s take-off at a blistering run prompted Tacuma to race after him in thrilling pursuit. A face-off between the two led the rest of the band into a parade-style march at one point, building in intensity to a thundering crash.

Burrage locked expertly in with Tacuma’s spontaneous funk grooves throughout the night, while adding spacey atmospherics on keyboard as well as ecstatic chants and Leon Thomas-style yodels. Tonooka added a jagged edge to the proceedings with her often angular lines, while Bateman veered from vivid bursts to breathy jabs, though at times he struggled to find an entry into the flurry of sound.

From left: Sumi Tonooka, Braxton Bateman, Tarus Mateen, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and Ronnie Burrage at SOUTH Jazz Kitchen, Philadelphia, April 13 (photo: Sound Evidence)

The finale of the 2018 festival came with a reunion of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time Band under the leadership of the iconic saxophonist’s son, drummer Denardo Coleman. This year, the band got back together again, though not for a performance but a conversation. At the Clef Club of Jazz & Performing Arts on April 17, the festival held a screening of the 1986 Shirley Clarke documentary Ornette: Made in America, followed by a panel discussion featuring Denardo Coleman, Tacuma, drummers G. Calvin Weston and James Kamal Jones (a.k.a. Samir Kamal), guitarist Charles Ellerbee, and sound engineer Gregg Mann. A saxophone and guitar resting onstage stood in for Coleman and the late guitarist Bern Nix.

Prompted by WPRB DJ Dan Buskirk, the group recalled how they each met Coleman and the long hours of rehearsal that the bandleader demanded. Many of them joined Coleman as teenagers; Denardo pointed out that his father preferred working with younger musicians who were “not set in music or in life.” In response to a question from the audience, the group struggled to succinctly explain Coleman’s Harmolodic theory, though Ellerbee came to a strong conclusion following a digressive explanation: Coleman taught them not to “think your instrument”—in other words, not to be limited by the rules of one’s equipment of choice.

A few days later Tacuma was on stage at the Center City venue Milkboy with an electrifying new trio dubbed Synergy Effect, featuring guitarist Marc Ribot and Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun. Ribot opened the set with gritty, abstracted electric blues lines that hummed like a live wire. Tacuma responded with one of his trademark grooves, gradually shifting the music into a resonant dub vibe. Calhoun’s intense rhythms propelled the sound into heavy-metal explosiveness, evoking Sonny Sharrock-like shredding from Ribot. The night cycled through genres from there, locking into a reggae feel before warping into gnarled dissonance and then erupting into vicious punk riffing. Ribot was in a particularly playful mood, quoting everything from Beethoven to Jimmy Page’s “Stairway to Heaven” solo to “Jingle Bells”—on Easter Sunday.

Marc Ribot, Will Calhoun, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma
Synergy Effect (from left: Marc Ribot, Will Calhoun, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma) at Milkboy, Philadelphia, April 21, 2019 (photo: Sound Evidence)

The 90-minute set ended when an especially taut and funky Calhoun groove prompted a chant of “Gimme some popcorn!” from Tacuma—who quickly clarified, “I’m serious!” His wife Rahima then handed him a bag of the treat, which was passed around the crowd in the kind of communal celebration at which the bassist excels.

That quality was especially evident throughout the festival’s grand finale, at which Tacuma played M.C. and guested on several sets. The evening opened with the first-time duo of electronic musician TR7 and “sacred sound” master Harold E. Smith, who produced cosmic drones melding didgeridoo moans, electronic murmurs, chiming bells, and astronomically oriented monologues by TR7. They were followed by the long-running quartet New Ghost, with the Testa Brothers rhythm section backing wiry guitarist Rick Iannacone and fire-breathing saxophonist Elliott Levin, who spat pointed poetry over the band’s Prime Time-inspired free-funk.

TJ7 and Harold E. Smith
TJ7 (left) and Harold E. Smith at the Outsiders Fest in Philadelphia, April 26, 2019 (photo: Sound Evidence)

A solo drum outing by Blake Fleming soon turned into a duo with the expansive Philly guitarist Tim Motzer and then a trio with the addition of Tacuma, who took the music into a space of sustained intensity. TR7 reappeared in green stretch material, turning himself into a work of amorphous kinetic sculpture in response to the trio’s pummeling arcs. Tacuma’s cousin Richard Hill took over the bass role for a trio with drummer Julius Masri and guitarist Marco Oppedisano, which veered into hard-edged psychedelic terrain. Retrograde, the duo of alto clarinetist/trumpeter Matt Lavelle and drummer Reggie Sylvester (both former sidemen with Bern Nix), evoked the searching duels of Interstellar Space before Tacuma stepped in once again to accelerate the energy.

As the hour approached midnight, the festival concluded with one of its most anticipated and rewarding sets, another of Tacuma’s one-time-only congregations. This one brought together the busy bassist with skate-punk drummer Chuck Treece, experimental hip-hop artist Hprizm of Antipop Consortium, vocalist Fay Victor, and sax great Gary Bartz. Victor and Bartz turned out to be a particularly inspired pairing, her trilling moans echoed in his wavering lines as the ensemble laid down an atmospheric haze evoking the spiritual questing of ’60s-era avant-jazz.

While Hprizm blanketed the music in a metallic electronic curtain, Bartz took Love Supreme leaps and Victor soared, burbled, shrieked, and cackled. Although Tacuma and Treece engaged often in the expected taut backbeat grooves, a highlight of the evening came when the bassist led the music into a more ballad-like space, with Bartz playing lovely sopranino and Victor engaging him in a lilting call-and-response that was achingly beautiful. A bit of Sonny Rollins-style calypso steered the music towards its celebratory finale, again attesting to Tacuma’s impeccable if unpredictable tastes.

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.