LIVE: Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence @ Sanctuary for Independent Media, 12/6/14
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu, Andrzej Pilarczyk
Environment is important, and the environment for Jaimeo Brown’s appearance at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy was certainly different from that blazing-hot June day at SPAC when his group Transcendence knocked everyone’s socks off at the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival Gazebo stage. On the plus side, this show was inside the Sanctuary’s cozy confines, so there was no danger of losing any of the power these three tremendous young musicians are able to harness; on the minus, it was cold and wet and trying to snow, which usually tends to pick off the more weather-averse concert-goer. Whether it was the viral marketing that went with this show or just the memory of the wild ride Transcendence took us on that summer, the place was almost packed at showtime.
It was great to hear emcee/booker Susan Brink confirm my recollection about how entranced the crowd had been at the Gazebo. “The entire audience was as one,” she told us during her glowing introduction. After Brown, altoist Jaleel Shaw and guitarist-loopmaster Chris Sholar had come on stage, Brown split time between thanking us profusely for braving the weather and explaining about how this music “celebrates community,” and how at its root is the Gee’s Bend, Alabama community where the field recordings that inspired Brown were created. “This music is homegrown,” he added. “And you are part of our community now!”
With that, Sholar activated the recording that introduces “Mean World,” the first track on Brown’s 2013 Motema release Transcendence. It’s a raw, almost painful sound that leaves you in no doubt that the singer has experienced every bit of hardship that is implied in the lyric – but then Sholar triggered an East Indian sitar drone that had a spiritual sense of its own, adding both a layer of mysticism and an understanding that the suffering the singer felt is a worldwide thing, and not just an Alabama thing. Brown was still standing as he worked all his cymbals under the meditation Shaw began to play; then Brown sat down at his kit and brought greater and greater levels of thunder to the action. It was still a meditation, but peaceful? Uhh, not so much!
The individual pieces on Transcendence may be free-standing on the disc, but they are really all of a single, mind-boggling piece that mashes up the aforementioned Eastern and Western spiritual idioms with good old-fashioned, American free jazz. It’s not that big of a stretch when you consider that jazz’s roots are deeply embedded in African-American spirituals, and free jazz has elements of the contemplative mind set that came with the sounds Ravi Shankar brought to Monterey Pop almost 50 years ago. Either way, there was no ill effect when Brown shuffled the disc’s song order, following “Mean World” with “This World Ain’t My Home” and “You Needn’t Mind Me Dying.” In fact, the field recordings that flew formation with the studio recordings eventually took a back seat to the overall proceedings, as Brown and his cohorts turned the intensity knob well past 11 and took the vibe higher, wider and wilder.
Shaw’s sound isn’t as Pharoah Sanders-based as J.D. Allen’s, who played sax on both the recordings and at SPAC. This gave the music a bit of a change-up, but not much of one, as Shaw has his own magic playground to offer his listeners. There were points during the set where he was essentially playing analog loops that were just as hypnotizing as the digital ones Sholar and Brown were laying on us from their respective samplers. There’s also a deep, deep blues at the heart of Shaw’s attack, which worked perfectly for the second set when Brown played us music from the group’s unreleased disc Transcendence: Work Songs. These pieces have more groove to them, and the East Indian atmospheres are seamlessly replaced by aspects of progressive rock. Regardless, as much as Shaw made a great replacement for Allen on the older tunes, he shone like a beacon on the new material.
Sholar is the X Factor of Transcendence, introducing musical and production elements that make this music unlike anything else on the menu. During his introduction, Brown said a lot of the musical tools they were using were meant for other purposes, and that definitely goes for Sholar’s loops. During a rising point of “Mean World,” the synth lines from Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” fought their way through the drone far enough to let you make the association but not damage the primary piece. Pink Floyd’s “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond” also popped its head up during the first set – which made sense, since Sholar was channeling David Gilmour’s death-gong tone when he wasn’t burning down the place with some nasty Texas blues. Because of Sholar and Shaw’s performances in the second set, I want to find Work Songs in my Christmas stocking!
That this music is near and dear to Brown goes without saying, and you could see that passion in the increasingly muscular drum lines and solos he laid on us as the evening went on. That said, his own sense of nuance is highly tuned, and many of his moments in the clear were spent finding every sound his kit contained, be it soft or staggering. During the riveting closer “Power of God,” he went at his kit in a blur of brushes, using enough power to break it into pieces while creating the hushed, hissing intensity the song requires. As for the crowd, it was like we were back at SPAC, with pin-drop silence (infrequently interrupted by wild applause) being the order of the day. The end of both sets were met with standing ovations and utter adulation, neither of which was a surprise: Tremendous performances such as these deserve every bit of applause they get, and isn’t adulation what you’re supposed to feel at the end of a spiritual journey?