Harriet Tubman - Araminta

Araminta, the new album from free improv trio Harriet Tubman, takes their concept of “Spontaneous Composition” to new heights. After nearly twenty years as a group, Harriet Tubman – drummer J.T. Lewis, bassist Melvin Gibbs and guitarist Brandon Ross – have turned their vast knowledge and experience playing rock, jazz, blues, improv, gospel, folk, and more into their own musical language. To hear a rock beat behind a free playing jazz guitar isn’t about juxtaposition but connection. The weft of American music is African. It’s what ties the musical fabric together.

Harriet Tubman have never before sounded so unified and together as they do on Araminta. Their understanding of each other as musicians and of their musical vernacular has grown with time. This allows their guest, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, to be not merely a collaborator but a part of the seamless whole. A kindred spirit, Smith picks up Harriet Tubman’s shared language with seeming ease. He listens. He adds his thoughts. He converses with Ross, sometimes playful, sometimes probing. He supports and emphasizes phrases in agreement, and challenges with quick, discordant counterpoints. He holds notes, allowing Gibbs and Lewis freedom to break rhythm, charging forward or opening space for restatement. He fits.

This easy integration can be heard throughout the album. For example, “Bracktal Franctal”, a J.T. Lewis tour-de-force, finds Smith soaring high above Lewis’ pulsing beat like a bird in an updraft. But he’s not alone, adrift; Brandon Ross spirals with him, darting through his lines, offering other thoughts which allow the pair to swoop than rise, again and again. Far below, amidst the shifting sands of Lewis’ beat, Melvin Gibbs holds strong, an immovable pivot point and beacon for Smith and Ross to refer to as they spiral. No one loses their place. No one needs to be called back to order.

That last point is not to be overlooked. Harriet Tubman have no audible leader. None of them take the parental/supervisory role so common in free improvisation. As a unit they seem to agree, but never dictate. However, even the most democratic and deferential of bands need a motive force. In Harriet Tubman, Melvin Gibbs and J.T. Lewis are the engine that allows the band to go wherever it wishes, their playing symbiotic but never inhuman. What strikes the ear is how comfortable both are with holding a pattern for as long as it’s needed. Too often in this genre musicians feel uncomfortable in supporting roles. Restraint is a virtue. Gibbs and Lewis are virtuous men.

Their virtue is apparent even when Harriet Tubman embrace the wildness within them. The abrasive “Ne Ander” – a grinding, almost Noxagt-like millstone of a tune – and the swinging electric funk of “Real Cool Killers” could easily break into free-for-alls of cacophony. They don’t because of the restraint shown by the rhythm section. These are songs, not exercises in blowing. The willingness to allow the song and the groove to hold precedence in the maelstrom elevates the music. It also frees Brandon Ross to show his singular talent.

Ross is one of a handful of truly distinctive and original guitarists, instantly recognizable through not only his tone but his playing style. It’s tough to describe; from chords that sound like fractured sheets to searing leads that bend in unexpected and sometimes jarring ways, Ross manipulates his guitar and pedal array for its sounds, not for displays of pointless virtuosity (though to pull off much of his playing you need be one). Another thing of note is what colors and notes he uses for his sonic palate. By eschewing most of the low and mid-range of the guitar he leaves plenty of space for Gibbs to explore, which he does deftly, often with a lovely Moog-driven squelch (see album opener, “The Spiral Path to the Throne”).

There is one song where they eschew all restraint; Wadada Leo Smith’s “President Obama's Speech At The Selma Bridge”, the closest the album comes to a traditional free jazz workout. From its opening statement, it’s clear the band is going to approach this in their own way. Lewis keeps time if not beat; Gibbs refuses to play support and fiercely carves his own space to express the storm at the heart of the music; Ross works obliquely up to comment on the theme and Smith’s trumpet leads, almost a sardonic raised eyebrow to the straightforwardness of Smith’s approach. It makes it a weird inverse of the expected take. It is up to Wadada Leo Smith to hold the center, to march straight across that bridge through history as the band encapsulates all the turmoil, the judgments, the forces at play behind the dignified solemnity. When it wraps the exhaustion is real.

Araminta is not a tiring listen, but neither is it an easy one. It doesn’t function well as background music. However, it rewards attention and scrutiny. Engaging from the first, but it's also an album that exposes more and more with each spin. Listening is the key to understanding. Let them talk to you.