Epic is the word for this release as Dr. Mark Lomax, II guides us through precolonial Africa, Black America and Afro-Futurism in this ambitious 12 album cycle. The 400 of the title refers to the years 1619-2019, the widely accepted date when the Transatlantic slave trade began to the present day. These years form the middle section of the recordings ‘Ma’afa: Great Tragedy’. The first part of the record ‘Alkebulan: The Beginning of Us’ explores thousands of years of precolonial African history and the final part looks forward, ‘Afro-Futurism: The Return to Ururu’. Dr. Lomax describes himself with some accuracy judging by this release as composer, performer, educator and activist. On the recordings Lomax the drummer is joined by Edwyn Bayard sax, Dean Hulett bass and William Menfield piano. Substantial parts of the recording feature strings by the Urban Arts Ensemble. Lomax states he would be happy if the project is to “generate substantive conversation leading towards cultural shift”.
Am I intimidated by the sheer quantity, scope and ambition of this music? You bet I am. Can I take on board all the history, spiritual belief systems, traditions and political perspectives this recording encompasses? Only by degrees. Something Lomax also says is, “the music speaks for itself and the ancestors are agreeing with us”. I’ll take that as a cue to crank up my system and just get into this music, the other stuff can be absorbed incrementally.
I’m focusing on the core of the recording 1619-2019 or the 400 of the title as it’s clearly not possible to do justice to the whole project in such a short piece. The first album in this section, ‘Ma’afa: Great Tragedy’ is inspired by the passage of slaves across the Atlantic beginning with ‘Captured’, the first track to ‘Day 90’ the final piece on this album. ‘Captured’ begins with a woozy arrangement of sax and strings, a kind of perversely drunken sea shanty with an apparently ironic use of chamber music to describe the clashing forces at work. Heavily bowed strings evoke creaking rigging as the whole thing rolls and dips in the swill. As I listened I was shocked to be taken back to 1976 and a forgotten primary school slavery project which involved a role play with us kids lying on the gym floor in rows as if slaves chained together in the hulk of a ship. I remembered the horror I felt as a youngster learning that this was fact, not fiction. It was the era Alex Hayley’s book ‘Roots’ was published, just before the TV series aired. Maybe I was lucky enough to be taught by quite a progressive teacher. So this music has great power, I played the track to my own kids who have not covered slavery at primary school, though my son has since at secondary school. My point is, we had a conversation, so the music of Dr. Lomax is doing its work.
The second album in this sequence, ‘Up South’, a portrait of racism in America, gives us two extended tracks, ‘First Conversation’ and ‘Second Conversation’. A Coltrane flavour sax and low pitched drums lead us into ‘First Conversation’, pretty soon the sax is squeaking and squealing before an intriguing sequence of breathy clicking sounds. This is followed by a tight interplay between drums and bass before closing quite abruptly on a sweeter tone. ‘Second Conversation’ sees more shifts in mood from violent abstraction to tense exploratory riffing.
‘Four Women’, a tribute to black women comprises four all string pieces, ‘Angela’, ‘Chimamanda’, ‘IdaBWells’ and ‘Nzinga’. ‘IdaBWells’ inspired by the African American investigative journalist and civil rights activist begins with a heavy blues tinged string arrangement, evocative of a silent movie soundtrack, peppered with an enigmatic sighing sound and changes of tempo.
The final album in this cycle ‘Blues in August’ pays tribute to black men, the title track for playwright August Wilson, offers a bass intro with a meandering rhythm gradually picked out with the addition of funkily plucked strings which carry the motif allowing the sax to weave around this hybrid chamber music, the tune finally drops out on the bass line. ‘Joe Turner’ the last track on this album and short by comparison with the others at just over three minutes combines an uptempo soprano sax with strings before closing quietly.
This set of recordings is an awesome achievement, each part of which holds up as a stand-alone album in its own right. My guess is that the music will reveal much more on each subsequent listen and that we should just let it speak for itself.