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R+R=NOW - Collagically Speaking Music Album Reviews

R+R=NOW - Collagically Speaking Music Album Reviews
Jazz pianist Robert Glasper assembles an all-star cast in search of a sound that might reflect the tenor of the times; the meditative results are shaded by politics without wallowing in it.

There’s a now-famous clip of the soul and jazz icon Nina Simone pleading with her peers to do more with their art. Her voice is declarative, her eyes full of vigor. “I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself,” Simone tells the interviewer. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” The video gained traction in 2015 when director Liz Garbus included it in her Netflix documentary on the singer, What Happened, Miss Simone? Jazz pianist Robert Glasper, who helped produce a tribute compilation that accompanied the film, answers Simone’s call to action with Reflect+Respond=Now, a supergroup featuring Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah on trumpet, Derrick Hodge on bass, Taylor McFerrin on synthesizer, Justin Tyson on drums, and Terrace Martin on synth and vocoder. Their debut album, Collagically Speaking, feels shaded by the chaos of contemporary politics without wallowing in it. It is a largely meditative offering that functions as a reprieve from the daily flood of negativity and presidential tweetstorms.

Mixing Quiet Storm R&B, 1970s jazz-funk fusion, cosmic soul, and instrumental hip-hop, Collagically Speaking features a cross-section of top-tier musicians lending their voices to the fluid set. They have all made significant waves on their own, either as established solo artists or well-known studio musicians. The genesis of the band goes back one year, to the Robert Glasper & Friends showcase at the 2017 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, where Glasper, Scott, Hodge, McFerrin, and Martin were joined by Marcus Gilmore on drums. The performance resembled an improvised jam session: Sonnymoon’s Anna Wise sang a verse from her work with rapper Kendrick Lamar; rapper Phonte Coleman spit a few bars as well. Collagically Speaking feels equally loose and spontaneous, as if the group is working song to song to find the right groove. That approach succeeds, for the most part. The almost 10-minute “Resting Warrior,” with its rubbery bass line and fiery trumpet solo, is a clear highlight: an eclectic funk-jazz hybrid reminiscent of Weather Report and Sextant-era Herbie Hancock. Just like the jazz icon, Martin sings through a vocoder on “Colors in the Dark,” using the modified wails to add angelic tinges to the track’s slow-churning arrangement. The song elicits a deep sense of peace; “Resting Warrior” conveys fury and rage.

While the album’s open-endedness largely works to its benefit, Collagically Speaking occasionally meanders. Played back to back, “Awake to You” and “By Design” feel like one 13-minute composition that lingers too long without adequate progression. Between Martin’s manipulated vocals and Tyson’s hypnotic percussion, “Awake to You” draws a direct line to beatmaker J Dilla’s head-nodding production, but without rhymes from a like-minded MC, the arrangement is monotonous. Conversely, “HER = NOW” makes great use of space. Hodge sets the stage here, his fluttering bassline a worthy complement to actress and poet Amanda Seales, who delivers an energetic spoken-word verse about the grand complexities of womanhood. “Don’t fear our strength,” she declares against a backdrop of bass and slow-rising synths. “Step up and step in to replenish it. We are solid, because we are the bridges that make this world connect.” Actor Terry Crews appears near the end of “The Night in Question” to discuss what true creativity is (short answer: be different, don’t do what everyone else does), and on the closing track, “Been on My Mind,” rapper Yasiin Bey offers his own definition of love. “Love is God’s signature on all of creation,” he says. “Love is the reason why everything that you love is here.”

Simone’s call for artists to reflect the times was a plea for political music that spoke truth to power—a perspective rooted in the civil-rights struggles and anti-war movement of the 1960s. While Collagically Speaking isn’t the political firebrand that Simone called for, it’s equally vital for different reasons. In an era of uncertainty, Collagically Speaking is a means of regrouping in times of intense conflict. It’s made to replenish, to help recharge when the burdens of life become too heavy. In an era of “turn up,” Collagically Speaking is a turn-down record that can help you forget the existential despair. Just for a moment, though: The combat continues tomorrow.

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