Nicole Mitchell & Haki R. Madhubuti ‘Liberation Narratives’ CD/DIG (Third World Press) 5/5

With contemporary Hip Hop vastly underperforming in its role as social commentarian, there has never been a greater need for active and conscious voices to be heard within music than in 2017. But jazz and poetry have always had a healthy relationship from as early as the 1920s, acting as a social barometer and communal conduit for many. And it’s here that this album brings together composer and flautist Nicole Mitchell with Haki R. Madhubuti, the renowned author, educator and poet for this bold set of jazz poetry – for want of a better description. This ten-track live recording features nine musical contributors in total including Pharez Whitted on trumpet, Tomeka Reid (cello), Renee Baker (violin), Miguel De La Cerna (piano), Harrison Bankhead (bass), Tomas Fujiwara on drums and percussion, with sung vocals performed by Ugochi.

The project begins with the aptly titled ‘Poetry’, a fantastic introduction to what’s to come with Madhubuti’s vivid insight into the role of poets and their medium of choice, together with a spacious soundtrack that is more of a foreground than a backdrop setting for the composition. This relationship continues throughout with all group members working symbiotically and harmoniously. The visceral ‘Woman Black’ is a personal ode to women, which builds and develops from its steady introduction into a more complex piece with its numerous sonic layers and textures intertwining with each other. The cello and upright bass heavy ‘We Walk In The Way Of The New World’, offers a solo by trumpeter Pharez Whitted, together with commentary on gentrification within established and longstanding communities in US cities. ‘Peace Starts Inside Of You’ which more so utilises hypnotic vocalist Ugochi, is essentially a duet between the two vocal performers and is mesmerising as it is absorbing.

At nearly 11 minutes in length, ‘Rise Vision’ is the ‘groove’ track of the set, with all members comprehensively contributing to its composition and arrangement, and the dynamic ‘Too Many Of Our Young’ is not so much a message to young people, but more of a wake up call to the elders in the community to recognise their role in shaping and molding the young. And ‘Gwendolyn Brooks’ is a deep bluesy tribute to the writer and poet who was the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950.

Haki R. Madhubuti has had an illustrious career, including possessing an extensive catalogue of writing and publications, establishing the largest independent black-owned publishing house in the United States with Third World Publishing in Chicago and has also been a long term educator within the city. But poetry has been a mainstay in Madhubuti’s varied and fruitful life, with his work presented here originating from his 2012 book also titled ‘Liberation Narratives’, a collection of his poetry from the start of his career until 2012. And it’s interesting and somewhat worrying that none of the content would be considered old or outdated considering that some of the work performed here stretches back over 50 years. And Nicole Mitchell, who was commissioned by the Jazz Institute of Chicago to write the music inspired by the poetry of Madhbuti, has also had an esteemed career as a performer, musician and educator, and a sense of synchronisation between the two is obvious.

And although this is a live set, the recording could have been taken from a studio session with only the crowd applause in-between compositions indicating otherwise, and thus, this is a well-recorded and mixed album. But on numerous levels this is an extraordinary project. The combination of high quality musicianship, excellent compositional work and the outstanding concepts, texts and delivery by Haki R. Madhubuti make this is a difficult release to fault. But if I were to find a criticism it would be the underuse of vocalist Ugochi. And finally, albums of this nature are crying out for a vinyl release.

Damian Wilkes