The extraordinary new jazz album Political Blues by the World Saxophone Quartet is a howl of rage at the state of the US.
It recalls the best of Miles Davis’s attempts at fusing jazz with other popular sounds.
The music combines walls of improvising saxophones, a funky electric bass and a feel for the history of black popular music.
This all comes together in the powerful cover of Muddy Waters’ defiant R&B classic “Mannish Boy”.
The central four saxophonists are joined by world class musicians, including bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and guitarist James Blood Ulmer.
The album is also reminiscent of great jazz from the 1960s, particularly Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite and experiments by Charles Mingus – who took elements of the blues and gospel and mixed them with bold jazz and explicit or implicit political comment.
Political Blues was recorded in January and the catalyst for the rage on this album was Hurricane Katrina and the US government’s dismal response.
It abandoned the poor, mainly black citizens of New Orleans, while they were slandered in the media as murderers, rapists and looters.
This is a springboard for attacks on George Bush’s unfair 2000 election victory and the war in Iraq.
The anger produces a rawer music than previous listeners to the group might expect. In some songs the lyrics are spat in anger, in others humorously intoned.
The magisterial “Amazin’ Disgrace” reworks the hymn to assault the racist history of US.
In the end it is the music that creates the mood, the lyrics place it in a context – most concretely with the withering irony of the closing “Spy On Me Blues”.
At one point in “Blueocracy” the vocalist demands that jazz keeps “maintaining our evolving innovative history” and berates traditionalists and conformists: “Must we go back to slavery? A 21st century modern minstrelsy?”
The group’s self confidence allows the mood to shift in a track like “Let’s Have Some Fun” into a musical celebration.
The World Saxophone Quartet has existed in one form or another since 1976. It has always produced experimental and shifting music, but there can be few groups that have been together for 30 years that could hope to produce anything this urgent and exciting.
Political Blues by the World Saxophone Quartet (Justin Time) is out now