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11 Jazz Songs That Spoke Truth To Power In 2019

Spencer Ostrander
Courtesy of the artist

Jazz musicians have always spoken their mind in the face of injustice: think of Louis Armstrong and Charles Mingus voicing two different, equally courageous responses to the fight over Little Rock school integration, or the searing power Billie Holiday brought to "Strange Fruit" (and the price she paid).

Well, in case you haven't noticed, we're in the midst of some interesting times, and artists from across jazz and the wider improvised-music spectrum have responded in kind, with music that tackles multiple issues with a range of tactics. What unites the stylistically varied tracks below — all drawn from fine albums — is the sensation of punching up, with indignation or sadness. These musicians may ultimately be preaching to the choir, but their aim is high and true, and their motives sincere.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago feat. Moor Mother

"We Are on the Edge"

As a flagship of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), The Art Ensemble of Chicago has always embodied radical self-determination, along with an unshakable commitment to what it calls "Great Black Music — Ancient to the Future." On the title track of its 50th-anniversary double album, that commitment takes shape not only in the chamber fanfares of saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and trumpeter Hugh Ragin, but also in stark, defiant spoken-word verse by Moor Mother — who invokes a world of black struggle even as she hunkers down in the margins. "We are on the edge," she growls, and there's no doubting her conviction when she completes the phrase: "...of victory." --Nate Chinen

Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science

"Bells (Ring Loudly)"

Waiting Game, the new double album by Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science, is a direct response to America's sociopolitical climate, exploring race, gender, class, sexuality and faith through a range of musical genres. "Bells (Ring Loudly)," a track featuring spoken word from Malcolm Jamal Warner, references church bells — signifying lives taken senselessly due to gun violence. Warner's velvet-like timbre, coupled to poignant lyrics ("Blue lives splatter red on canvasses of brown skin") makes this song one of the album's most sobering. --Keanna Faircloth

Jaimie Branch

"prayer for amerikkka pt. 1 & 2"

The day of the 2018 United States midterm elections, trumpeter Jaimie Branch was onstage in Paris, as her band circled on a slow, twisted blues. It was over this vamp that she put down her trumpet and went on a rant — the first iteration of what would become "Prayer for Amerikkka," which appears on her latest album, fly or die ii: bird songs of paradise. "We got a bunch of wide-eyed racists," she chants in Part 1; the low, murmuring echo of additional voices, African American musicians Ben LaMar Gay and Marvin Tate, picks up as the track unfolds. In Part 2, fast 12-string guitar strumming, exhilarating drums and a Mexican trumpet fanfare herald the tale of a 19-year old El Salvadoran woman who sought and was denied asylum while detained in Texas for three years. As Branch writes in her liner notes: "I've always felt like music is a reflection of the times, a streak of fire in the sky." --Alex Ariff

Dave Douglas and ENGAGE

"Sanctuary Cities"

Enthusiasm for the 2018 midterm elections generated a sense of hope for Dave Douglas, a trumpeter, composer and bandleader who says his latest project, ENGAGE, "is a set of compositions dedicated to positive action." Subscription fees and CD sales from one of the songs, "Sanctuary Cities," directly supports RAICES Texas, a nonprofit agency that promotes justice by providing legal services to underserved immigrant children, families and refugees. Douglas affirms: "Writing and performing these pieces is a reminder to myself not to get mired in negativity — to stay positive and engaged through music daily." --Suraya Mohamed

Mark Dresser Seven

"Let Them Eat Paper Towels"

Remember the paper towel incident? Two years ago, in Puerto Rico, during the grave aftermath of Hurricane Maria? It may have been many news cycles and nearly as many scandals ago, but bassist and composer Mark Dresser hasn't forgotten the raw anger it triggered. On his excellent Ain't Nothing But a Cyber Coup & You, he devotes a composition to the subject, making the most of an avant-garde septet with Nicole Mitchell on flute, Marty Ehrlich on clarinet, Keir Gogwilt on violin and Michael Dessen on trombone. In Dresser's title, there's a rejoinder not only to a would-be, but wasn't, consoler-in-chief but also to rampant income inequality, via a nod to Marie Antoinette. --Nate Chinen

Jerome Jennings

"Convo with Senator Flowers"

On his new album, Solidarity, Jerome Jennings — drummer, composer and resident conductor of the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra — zeroes in on a number of social and political issues, including gun control. "Conversation with Senator Flowers" is a drum solo set to impassioned remarks by Arkansas state Sen. Stephanie Flowers, during debate over a "stand your ground" bill earlier this year. Jennings follows the crescendo of Flowers' furious cadences, punctuating her pain as she says: "I have feared for my son's life." --Monifa Brown

Carmen Lundy

"Flowers and Candles"

Message music — it's what jazz music does best. And Carmen Lundy sends a deep one in "Flowers and Candles," a song that speaks of the massacre at the Bataclan in Paris several years ago, reminding us that when flowers are laid and candles are lit, the children are the ones left with the burden to bear; the ones to clean up the petals that have blown away in the wind; left to blow out the candles representing each soul tragically taken away, as they grow and navigate through the world we leave to them. --Nicole Sweeney

Brad Mehldau

"The Prophet Is a Fool"

These days, it can feel like din is everywhere. On the centerpiece of his stunning album Finding Gabriel, keyboardist and composer Brad Mehldau recreates that mayhem and offers lucid guidance through it. The music evokes the clatter of crowds revolting using raucous horns, synth noise, pugnacious rhythms, and Mehldau's own careening runs. This unrest is punctuated with dialogue between a frightened child (though unidentified, probably the pianist's own daughter, Ruby) and the parent who seeks to protect her from bloody reality, but help her understand it. A direct response to gun violence and the conflicts at the Southern border, Mehldau's jeremiad is unsparing and inspiring. --Ann Powers

Camila Meza and Nectar Orchestra / Julia Hülsmann Quartet

"This is Not America"

The original song was born of inspired collaboration between David Bowie and the Pat Metheny Group, for the 1985 spy drama The Falcon and the Snowman. Its biting subtext — indignant disbelief at the betrayal of our nation's values — has inspired some pointed cover versions, including two just this year. German pianist Julia Hülsmann offers a view from the outside, entrusting the raw emotion to tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff. Chilean singer-songwriter Camila Meza has lyrics to work with, and gives them all appropriate feeling. I saw her perform the song at the Newport Jazz Festival the day after the horrific mass shooting in El Paso, Tx., and her performance brought tears to many eyes — peaking during a cathartic, imploring guitar solo. --Nate Chinen

Kassa Overall

"Prison and Pharmaceuticals"

A woke drummer and producer well aware of the tradition of dissent in jazz history, Kassa Overall also offers mindful commentary as an MC on his debut album, Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz. "Prison and Pharmaceuticals" points out some of the insidious ways that capitalism can corrupt a society; is it just a coincidence that the United States has the largest prison population of any country in the world, and also ranks first in pharmaceutical abuse? --Simon Rentner

Matana Roberts

"All Things Beautiful"

Multidisciplinary visionary Matana Roberts' panoramic sound quilting explores African American history, spirituality, folklore and her ancestral roots. Her 21st-century liberation music has birthed an ambitious 12-album series, the latest being Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis. Roberts confronts the nightmarish rituals of the Ku Klux Klan on the gut-wrenching "All Things Beautiful," which opens to a raucous blues-edged cacophony of horns that unfold her harrowing and time-stopping narrative. --Monifa Brown

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