Donald Edwards Quintet ‘The Color Of US Suite’ CD (Criss Cross Jazz) 4/5

‘The Color Of US Suite’ is a powerful political statement yet subtle in its presentation. It’s pitched to the ‘gutbucket enthusiast’ but also aims to be ‘intriguing for the highbrow aficionado’. Either category of listener will be able to find a way into this music as it’s beautiful enough to keep drawing you back. Drummer and composer Edwards has been making albums since the mid-nineties, originally playing on the Louisiana jazz scene he’s now New York-based.

‘Little Hopes’ is the album’s opener, it begins with the Southern tradition of the clarion drum call. Narrated by the drummer’s young daughter, Sophia Edwards or ‘uttered through the vessel of a father’s pride and joy’ as the album notes put it. She narrates the pledge of allegiance and also describes ‘a rainbow of friends’ who also make that pledge. She asks ‘I love us, does the US love me?’ As she speaks Abraham Burton’s sax repeats a four-note motif inspired by a device used by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. to give cadence to his speeches. ‘Everyday we come together to unite and start each day with respect for all’ Sophia continues. I half expected the album to go on to demolish these youthful hopes and aspirations but it’s a much less cynical and more subtle record than that. The suite follows a pattern exploring the colours of the US flag in three instrumental pieces and then goes on to explore the colour of the nation in three further tracks entitled ‘Black’, ‘Brown’ and ‘Tan’. These contain a more obviously political narration but at the same time maintain a sense of optimism and hope for the future.

‘Red’ according to Edwards aims to answer the question ‘can we reimagine our world anew where the social contract is honoured and reinforced through individual expressions of freedom?’ The answer is apparently a resounding ‘yes’. The tune has an uptempo sax melody and an insistent piano phrase. Coltrane of the mid-sixties is brought to mind, the guitar sound also has echoes of that era. It’s possible to absorb the political message and simultaneously enjoy the beauty of the tune.
‘White’ follows in a similar vein, but with a more mournful melody that laments ‘the American descendants of slavery whose bodies were plundered to build the wealth of a nation.’ Abraham Burton’s sax aims to ‘explore expressions of freedom’ and he certainly builds a level of intensity into his soloing.
‘Blue’ showcases the lightness of touch and subtlety drummer Edwards is capable of. The melody momentarily quotes Parker and ‘wants to swing’. Ben Wolf’s bass is kept very busy and combined with Anthony Wonsey’s piano energises these three tunes and references jazz of the past but in a contemporary context.

Then we get onto the colours of the nation with ‘Introduction to Black’ a complex drum pattern over a melancholic sax then settles into the heavy groove of ‘Black’, there’s some strident soloing from Burton as the piece builds in intensity and his sax really takes off. It’s accompanied by some involved and rock-inflected guitar work by David Gilmore.
‘Brown’ sees Wolf’s bass offer a low key introduction before we’re treated to an innovative combination of guitar feedback from Gilmore combined with Coltrane-like soloing from Burton on tenor.
‘Tan’ is a passionate chant by Frank Lacy, ‘freedom, democracy, equality’ he repeats, it’s brief but no less powerful for that. The last couple of tunes are ‘Finding Beauty’ which is perfectly described by its title and finally, we come full circle with ‘Hurricane Sophia’ a homage to the youthful energy and vitality of Edwards’ daughter.

It would be foolish to ignore the political message in the music but it’s played in such a way as to allow us, listeners, to enjoy the sounds while absorbing it incrementally and on our own terms.

James Read