RICHARD WILLIAMS on ‘To Pimp A Butterfly: The Shape Of Jazz To Come?

I DON’T OFTEN RE-BLOG PIECES – and hope Richard doesn’t mind me lifting his piece from – but I was vibed-up by these open and thoughtful reflections on two of the most important albums of 2015. Richard is a little older than I (I think!) but not a lot and our musical terms of reference are very similar. I’ve listened to both ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and Kamasi Washington’s ‘The Epic’ a lot over the past month and along with D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’ they are all well worth investing your hard earned dosh in. OK… it’s over to The Man….


Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ feels and sounds like one of the most important albums in years. I only wish I were able to explain properly why that might be so, but it would take somebody with a much deeper and more secure knowledge of the musical idiom and, more important, the social context from which it springs.

In his excellent Guardian review, Alexis Petridis invoked the names of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone. I hear something different. What it reminds me of — and this is about as high a compliment as I can pay — is a group of albums that came out in the late ’60s and early ’70s, reflecting black America’s various states of mind in that turbulent era: the proud isolationism of Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music, the deep lament of Art Ensemble of Chicago’s People in Sorrow, and the rage within the Last Poets’ debut album (the one containing “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution”). It doesn’t sound remotely like any of them, of course, but it springs from the same collective consciousness, albeit from a very individual and, as it seems to me, original viewpoint. It, too, speaks of a turbulent time.

If you want to take your involvement further than appreciating the surface of the album, by getting to grips with the complicated issues that Kendrick Lamar is exploring, it’s worth listening to it once all the way through while reading the lyrics, which can be found here (, along with a certain amount of textual analysis. Introspection is not uncommon among rappers, and there’s a refrain which crops up on several of the tracks: “I remember you was conflicted / Misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same / Abusing my power, full of resentment / Resentment that turned into a deep depression / Found myself screaming in a hotel room.” But what’s going on here is not solipsism or self-pity. Lamar seems able to find a connection between his own soul-searching and a broader social context.

The totality of this very big and complex picture is what counts, but among the individual highlights for me are the sudden explosion of hard bop in “For Free? (Interlude)”, the appearance of Ronald Isley to sing a single resonant verse at the end of “How Much a Dollar Cost”, and the extraordinary passage in the closing “Mortal Man” where Lamar edits in sections of an interview given by Tupac Shakur, interposing his own voice in the place of the original interviewer (we don’t know whether he has rephrased the questions, or is merely repeating them). Tupac talks about the imminence of conflict: “I think that niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out of stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that.” He died in 1996, almost 20 years before Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and, now, Walter Scott.

Easier for me to talk about is the contribution made by people such as the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the pianists Robert Glasper and Brandon Coleman, the saxophonists Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington, and the bassist Stephen Bruner (known as Thundercat) and his brother, the drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. The inclusion of these musicians in a project such as this, and in Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead from last year, might be among the best things to have happened to jazz in recent decades.

Ever since the eruption of bebop, which moved jazz away from the dancefloor, there has been a problematic relationship between jazz and the popular music of the day. Sometimes, as with the Charles Lloyd Quartet of the late ’60s, Miles Davis’s post-1968 music, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and, in a lighter tone, the work of Ramsey Lewis, Ronnie Laws and Roy Ayers, jazz has edged closer to the relationship it enjoyed in the ’20s and ’30s, when it maintained a balance between mind and body. It may be — although I say this very tentatively — that we are seeing the beginnings of re-engagement at a more organic level.

From the jazz perspective, there are extremely interesting interviews about the making of To Pimp a Butterfly with the participants here (with Natalie Weiner of Billboard) and here (with Jay Deshpande of Slate). Martin, Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus), Washington, Coleman and the Bruner brothers are around 30 years old and, like Lamar, grew up in Los Angeles. Several of them received an informal education at the late Billy Higgins’ regular World Stage gig in Leimert Park. Akinmusire, who is a similar age, was born in Oakland. Glasper is in his mid-thirties and was born in Texas and studied in New York. They are equally familiar and comfortable with the music of John Coltrane, Public Enemy, Sun Ra, Tupac Shakur, Thelonious Monk and Snoop Dogg. They know these idioms from the inside. And they’re finding ways to make that familiarity work.

Kamasi Washington  by Mike Park

Kamasi Washington by Mike Park

I’ve also been listening to an advance copy of Washington’s extraordinary debut album, a three-CD set called The Epic. It’s a big work in title, tone and textures, almost three hours long, divided into 17 tracks, and lining up a 32-piece string orchestra, a 20-voice choir and the occasional vocal contribution by Patrice Quinn alongside a 10-piece jazz combo. An extract from one of Malcolm X’s most celebrated speeches also makes an appearance.

In its layering of the combo and the choir, The Epic has some of the sweep of Max Roach’s It’s Time and Donald Byrd’s I’m Tryin’ to Get Home, both of which were arranged, in 1962 and 1964 respectively, by the African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. In jazz terms, it stays mostly “inside”: the moves are the familiar ones of modal jazz from the era of A Love Supreme, before Coltrane cut loose in 1965 with Ascension, which took him into the final phase of his career. Any disappointment at a failure to engage with those later developments is mitigated by the sheer energy with which the music is attacked, and the degree of inventiveness on display within the now-traditional forms.

Washington’s music comes at you in waves, surging and receding with the power that Carlos Santana and Mike Shrieve were looking for when they tried to harness Coltrane’s sound and spirituality to the drive of their own Latino rock on Caravanserai, Welcome and Borboletta in the early ’70s. Multiple drummers, multiple electronic keyboards and modal structures are among the common elements. This is music in search of transcendence and/or catharsis.

Forty years later, however, there’s a great deal more self-assurance about this project, and the solos — particularly those of Washington, who has a sound as big as his ideas, and the trumpeter Igmar Thomas — never lack conviction or substance. Here’s a sample, a comparatively straight-ahead 14-minute piece called “Re Run Home”. You might find that the trumpet-trombone-tenor sound puts you in mind of the front line on Coltrane’s classic Blue Train, but there’s nothing to object to in that: why not use it as an available colour, offset by a very differently orientated rhythm section? Stay with it through to the conclusion, where the textures grow sparser but the groove intensifies.

It’s too early to be definitive about all this, to claim that this new development represents the future, or to dismiss it because the kind of jazz they’re exploring/exploiting isn’t, of itself, new and challenging. What matters is that some interesting young minds are facing up to the problem of where jazz goes next, and they’re turning it into an adventure.

The Epic will be released at the beginning of May via Ninja Tune on the Brainfeeder label.

Here’s the track that’s streaming on Soundcloud:

* The Kendrick Lamar photograph is from the insert accompanying ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’. The credited photographers are Denis Rouvre and Roberto Reyes.

FINALLY… If you don’t already subscribe to Richard Willams’ “blog about music” – – you need to!

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WORK IN PROGRESS: Carleen Anderson’s ‘Cage Street Memorial’

The Albany Rehearsals

The Albany Rehearsals

At the end of March I journeyed to Deptford’s Albany Theatre to experience a preview of Carleen Anderson’s forthcoming one woman show, entitled ‘Cage Street Memorial’. Though Carleen had described the piece to me as a musical I was not sure what to expect of this taster that they’d been busy work-shopping for the previous three weeks.

Produced by digital/inter-disciplinery artist Derek Richards this radical production also involves the Welsh National Opera Director Tim Hopkins and an eclectic trio led by Orphy Robinson on keys and vibraphone and featuring UMS’s Renell Shaw on bass and Samy Bishai on violin/viola.

The preview, aimed at supporters and funders, delivered some of the early “Chapters” of her life with her grand parents and traced some of the events that eventually led to her leaving the States in “a flight from toxicity”. I was totally blown away. The monologue which has been distilled from the deeply personal and cathartic writings that she has penned over the last decade possessed a profoundly poetic quality, which Orphy later informed me has its roots in the King James bible. Having only a couple of days earlier taken in a old TV interview with Maya Angelou I was stuck with the similarities between these two remarkable women and experienced a deep sense of cultural continuum.

The stage set was innovative and it will clearly evolve to embrace a digital dimension during the final stages of development but, on the day, it all on hinged Carleen’s use of the space and her powerful delivery which shifted fluidly from speech into song and back. There’s clearly work to be done but the head corner stone has been laid. ‘Cage Street Memorial’ won’t arrive into a theatre near you or I until 2016 but when it does you need to be on it!

My chord charts, which often makes more sense to me than they do to anyone else! Sami Bashir, our violinist, kindly quipped, 'just got to trust her mapping'

CARLEEN ANDERSON: “My chord charts, which often makes more sense to me than they do to anyone else! Sami Bashir, our violinist, kindly quipped, ‘Just got to trust her mapping’.”

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Sonny Rollins at Montreaux pg

Don’t you just love a good photo? This one comes via Shuya Okino’s instragram and it was taken by one Giussepe Pino at the Montreux Jazz Festival. It immediately had me rummaging through the vinyl for a trio of Sonny Rollins albums…. ‘Our Man in Jazz’ with Don Cherry, ‘3 Giants’ with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, … and the Milestone LP with ‘Reflections In A Golden Horn’… I’ve got deep memories of that band at Ronnie’s in the early Seventies. The inimitable Rufus Harley, who played on the follow up LP – ‘The Cutting Edge’ – was in the mix on bagpipes… amazing session.

KJSI’ve just downloaded the the brand new album by the Kyoto Jazz Sextet that Okino san has just sent me. It’s called ‘Mission’ and it’s on Blue Note records – so, more on that in the near future. Also, if you are lucky enough to be in Kyoto in April check out this year’s KYOTOGRAPHIE which features the exhibition – A Vision of Jazz : Francis Wolff and Blue Note Records. The show combines Wolff’s photographic prints with the work of seminal graphic designer Reid Miles. This is the first time that this precious visual archive has journeyed from its home in New York to Japan. The Kyoto Jazz Sextet will launch the ‘Mission’ album at the Festival.

Kyotographie 2015

Kyotographie 2015


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Futura meets Rammellzee

Futura meets Rammellzee

Rammellzee passed away in 2010, but before he left us he recorded his magnum opus, ‘Cosmic Flush’ with producer Jonah Mociun. Unreleased, eight years have passed. The collection of breakcore and speed metal-influenced rap tracks stand as a futuristic relic which is just now about to see the light of day.

Available from the excellent Gamma Proforma, ‘Cosmic Flush’ fully realises Rammellzee’s complex philosophy and unique vision of futuristic hip hop, apocalyptic science fiction, and extreme sonic exploration.

To celebrate the life of one of our culture’s great minds Rob Swain of Gamma is proud to present ‘Cosmic Flush’ as a commemorative series of records and prints. There are 7 core tracks, each will be reinterpreted and remixed by a visual and audio artist. We can also look forward to these artworks forming part of an exhibition which will take place in New York & London.

This release is Part 2 in the set, ‘How’s My Girlfriends’ has been visually reinterpreted by the NYC street art legend that is Futura, a contemporary of Rammellzee’s, and remixed by Mr Len (Company Flow/LenCo), a pioneering left filed Dj & producer who cites Rammellzee as a serious influence.

The man formerly known as Futura 2000

The man formerly known as Futura 2000

Check it!


All orders include the digital download. Pre-orders access the downloads before the official release date.

Please note: This release is limited to a max of 2 copies per customer!

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Human Rights Human Wrongs @ the Photographers Gallery

"A brigade of Vietcong women soldiers in gala-uniform stand in formation with Type 56 rifles during a victory parade. Vietnam, no date / Bollinger." (C) Black Star Publishing Co. Inc.

“A brigade of Vietcong women soldiers in gala-uniform stand in formation with Type 56 rifles during a victory parade. Vietnam, no date / Bollinger.” (C) Black Star Publishing Co. Inc.

Last Thursday, we wandered into The Photographer’s Gallery in Soho to check two exhibitions – Charlotte Dumas’ Anima and The Widest Prairies and HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN WRONGS.

Upon entering HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN WRONGS I was confronted with 316 original prints, from the prestigious Black Star Collection, that presented a mirror to my own life on this planet. The black and white reflections that bounced back to me revealed decade upon decade of global conflict, images that revealed the dark side of humanity and proved that despite the millions who had died between 1939-1945 no lessons had been learned. In fact, that war simply created a host of others as people demanded social and economic justice – freedom from colonialism and imperialism. These were the struggles that I and my friends sought to understand, learn from and supported – from Algeria to Vietnam to South Africa and Angola to Nicaragua and Chile. Today, we have new wars – religious, ideological, ethnic and economic, the fragmenting of empires, the combined threat of climate change and the control of energy sources. We need to grasp that bigger picture right now.

HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN WRONGS uses the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a point of departure “to examine whether images of political struggle, suffering and victims of violence work for or against humanitarian objectives, especially when considering questions of race, representation, ethical responsibility and the cultural position of the photographer.”

Curated by Mark Sealy – Director of Autograph ABP – HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN WRONGS commences circa 1945 and in timely fashion, considering the recent events in Ferguson and other cities in the USA, includes some poignant and resonant images of Dr Martin Luther King and Civil Rights Movement march from Selma to Montgomery.

Selma or Ferguson?

Selma or Ferguson?

Biafra - Pic by Carlo Bavagnoli

Biafra – Pic by Carlo Bavagnoli

The exhibition also features incredible images – often accompanied by revealing notes, written at the time, by the photographer – of the independence and liberation movements in both Latin America and Africa ( including Kenya, Algeria, Chad, and Congo). Portraits of Nobel Peace Prize winners Lester B. Pearson, Yasser Arafat, and René Cassin sit alongside images of war and genocidal conflict from Vietnam to Rwanda and protest movements in Berkeley/California, Chile, and Argentina.

These photographic images are at times harsh, sickening and inevitably disturbing. Time after time they reveal humankind in abject, euphoric or violently explicit conditions that force us, the viewer, to reflect and dig deeper, thereby confirming an understanding that it is our duty, in 2015, as global citizens, to reaffirm the case for human and civil rights.

Will it take another exhibition like Human Rights Human Wrongs – in 10 or 50 years time – to make us regret not doing more right now?

In the Beginning....

In the Beginning….

Mark Sealy Interview: HUMAN RIGHTS HUMAN WRONGS from The Photographers' Gallery on Vimeo.

As it went, our first stop in the Photographer’s Gallery was on the top floor and Charlotte Dumas’ images of wild horses in Nevada. The viewer is transported to cowboy country and a land that remains as wild and untamed as the quiet, tough looking horses that freely roam the landscape. It’s ironic that the one institution which interacts with these animals is the local penitentiary. There is something primal about horses. I can understand how people like to be in their presence and even find it healing. As a species they are ancient and it’s that primal physicality that comes across in Dumas’ short film of the horses, who draw the gun carriage carrying coffins at Arlington cemetery, going to sleep. It was quite calming and a welcome contrast to what was to emerge a couple of floors below.

© Charlotte Dumas

© Charlotte Dumas

More Info:

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RAMMELLZEE: COSMIC FLUSH – Pt. 1 BRAINSTORM is released on the 30th March 2015 by Gamma Proforma and it comes hard on the heels of other mutually ambitious 21st century projects that inludes SHEONE’s BLACKATELIER, DIVINE STYLER’s ‘DEF MASK’ and the REWIRE Box Set




Rammellzee passed away in 2010, but before he left us he recorded his magnum opus, ‘Cosmic Flush’ with producer Jonah Mociun. Unreleased, eight years have passed. The collection of breakcore and speed metal-influenced rap tracks stand as a futuristic relic which is just now about to see the light of day.

‘Cosmic Flush’ fully realises Rammellzee’s complex philosophy and unique vision of futuristic hip hop, apocalyptic science fiction, and extreme sonic exploration.

To celebrate the life of one of our culture’s great minds Gamma Prorma are releasing ‘Cosmic Flush’ as a commemorative series of records and prints. There are seven core tracks, each will be reinterpreted and remixed by a visual and audio artist. The works will also form part of an exhibition which will take place in New York and London.

This release is Part 1 in the set, ‘Brainstorm’ has been visually reinterpreted by Ian Kuali’i, a disciple of Rammellzee’s inner circle, and remixed by Divine Styler who cites Rammellzee as one of his key influences.

Celebrate the groundbreaking influence and genius of the artist, The Rammellzee.

Please note: All orders include the digital download.

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A New Year Approaches – Enter The Four Dragons of Dao Yin


Enter The Four Dragons of Dao Yin – a set of Baguazhang related, moving, stretching exercises which focus on clearing the meridians and awakening the spine during the process of developing “internal skill”/Nei Gong – and our guide is the West Country based writer, martial artist and nu-generation Daoist, Damo Mitchell.

Damo Mitchell has practiced martial arts since childhood and has recently emerged as a leading light and author amongst a new generation of teachers who have trained extensively in China and are more than adept at explaining classical concepts while evolving a clear methodology for teaching traditional forms.

The Four Dragons is the third volume in a trilogy of books, written by Damo Mitchell and published by Singing Dragon, that deal with Daoist Nei Gong – a set of internal practices or “energy work” which are more often referred to a Qi Gong. However, this book is specifically focused on Dao Yin, a set of exercises aimed at improving a person’s psychological and physical health,and developing martial skills. The origin of Dao Yin goes back a couple of thousand years. They were originally developed Daoists practitioners to purge stagnant energy which had invaded the body from outside.

The roots of this book lies in a visit Damo Mitchell made to Shandong. While there he encountered Dragon Dao Yin through an early morning circle walking Baguazhang group who practiced it as muscle softening, spine strengthening, health exercise as well as through an elderly crew of mostly female Medical Dragon Dao Yin practitioners. Since then it has become a key element within the syllabus of his Lotus Nei Gong school.

I like the fact that you don’t have to read his other books to get into The Four Dragons. He more than adequately elucidates the historical, philosophical and medical context in which Nei Gong theory and practice have evolved and then clearly explains the important distinction between Qi Gong and Dao Yin.

From thereon in he deals with the The Four Dragons – Awakening, Swimming, Soaring and Drunken – “a set of short sequences designed to work with the subtle energies of the spine and lead pathogenic energies out of the body.” At the core of these four sequences is the spine and how to wake it up. He also deals with stagnation and chi flow, opening the joints and the energy gates as well breathing patterns and Yi (intention).

There is a compelling clarity to this work overall – whether through the text or the illustrations – and I believe The Four Dragons are a set of free flowing exercises well worth adding to your exercise routines (running, yoga, taiji… whatever!) and working on. Basically, by taking on the Four Dragons you are engaging with a process and embarking on a journey.

There’s a lot to take on board in this book and if you decide to dip in and enjoy the movements of The Four Dragons you may want to go deeper and check out Damo’s 3 DVD set or attend one of his workshops. Alternatively, depending on where you live, you may need to seek out another Nei Gong teacher.

Finally, here’s one Damo Mitchell’s top students Roni Edlund doing the Drunken Dragon… I can identify with that!

For more info on Damo Mitchell & other Singing Dragon Publications:

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