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Songs We Love: Harriet Tubman, 'Blacktal Fractal'

Harriet Tubman's new album, <em>Araminta,</em> is out now.
Courtesy of the artist
Harriet Tubman's new album, Araminta, is out now.

To mark the end of Black History Month, it is only fitting to feature a song by an ultramodern band called Harriet Tubman, named after the celebrated abolitionist and activist who led hundreds of slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Tubman's birth name, Araminta, provides a suitable title for the band's latest album, which dropped Friday.

Harriet Tubman was formed in 1998 by drummer J.T. Lewis, guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Melvin Gibbs. The band is inspired by freedom in more ways than one: Its unique blend of electronic jazz, rock and funk might be described as "free" music. That's a genre not always embraced as well as more traditional forms of jazz, but the band's members have said they feel that performing "Open Music," as they call it, "has a value and relevance that connects with a reawakening, a new search for revived meaning that we see and experience wherever and whenever we perform."

For Araminta, the trio is joined by the perfect complement: trumpet player and composer Wadada Leo Smith, whose exploratory sensibilities align perfectly with Harriet Tubman's perspectives on free musical expression. Together, Harriet Tubman and Smith inspire a renewal of meaningful experimental music that affirms the importance of the African-American cultural tradition.

Harriet Tubman: <em>Araminta</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Harriet Tubman: Araminta

"Blacktal Fractal" best represents Araminta's decided message of evolution and collaboration. It's a powerful piece that starts with Lewis' inviting, bossa-nova-like backbeat. The time signature is hard to discern, but the groove is steady and deliberate, with Gibbs laying down a complementary bass line that's seemingly syncopated but right on time. Ross' guitar embellishments are a smooth counterpart that satiate the driving rhythms. Soon after this initial proclamation, Smith exalts a melodic trumpet line so resounding and purposeful, the listener can't help but be entranced. Moments of high victory reverberate as the song continues to evolve.

This is black music at its best, a metaphor for the pervasive conflicts that embody the black experience. Heard throughout the song are the dissonances between pain and hope, light and darkness, denial and confirmation. Its simplicity is challenged — but not overpowered — by a dense improvisational construct built on the trust of musicians who do it very well.

Araminta is out now via Sunnyside Records.

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Suraya Mohamed is a three-time Peabody Award-winning producer, sound designer and editor. She currently serves as the project manager for Jazz Night In America and is a contributing producer on the Alt.Latino podcast. She also produces NPR's holiday specials package, including Tinsel Tales, Hanukkah Lights, Toast Of The Nation, Pink Martini's Joy To The World: A Holiday Spectacular and most recently Hamilton: A Story Of US. You'll also find her work on the Tiny Desk series as either a producer or engineer.