Troubled Waters From Ancient Wells And Rivers
Warren Byrd and David Chevan's This Is The Afro-Semitic Experience, released on Reckless DC Music in 2002, is their third exploration of the Afro-Semitic experience on CD.
Before going any further, there are compelling reasons for addressing the album's cover first. A seemingly mundane black and white stock shot, slightly less than optimally biting in definition, of a roadside sign marking the entrance to a beach club near Mayo, Maryland. But, what a sign! Deeply offensive, it is at once provocative and evocative with its statements such as "Membership Limited To Gentiles Only" (and an associated sign stating "Positively No Dogs Permitted"). It may seem hard for younger readers to imagine that signs such as this were a commonplace certainly throughout much of the United States as little as less than forty years ago. Even in Britain, signs outside boarding houses would still commonly proclaim "Vacancies - No Blacks, Irish or Dogs" well into the 1960s. And as recently as the 1980s, pubs in cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic London, even (or perhaps, especially?) in "trendy" Camden Town, blatantly displayed signs stating "No Travelers" or "No Gypsies". Well, the signs may well be long gone now, along with other outwardly obvious manifestations of racism. The tragedy is, the underlying attitudes of racism in all its various forms have not. Neither in the United States, nor even in Britain. If anything, issues of ethnicity have become more polarised than ever over recent decades. However, this is not the time and place to enter into a detailed analysis of these issues. The cover of Warren Byrd and David Chevan's This Is The Afro-Semitic Experience does however strongly suggest them, at the very least. After all, the Afro-Semitic experience, the shared experience of ancestral and ongoing struggle to survive against the odds and often in the face of overwhelming brutality and brutishness, both as individuals and as communities, and the shared values of community and fellowship, of redemption, is not merely an experience of the past but an ongoing one, and if This Is The Afro-Semitic Experience draws on and addresses the past, it also addresses the present. That, no doubt, is bound to make a lot of people, on all sides, very uncomfortable, along with the album's brilliantly provocative, even subversive (whether intentionally so or not) cover.
As for the album itself, Warren Byrd and David Chevan's This Is The Afro-Semitic Experience presents a mix of traditional Jewish material, Afro-American material, and two Chevan originals and two jazz classics, all in Byrd and Chevan's original Afro-Semitic Experience contemporary jazz idiom and with their usual lofty excellence and superbly supported by the rest of the band. Recorded entirely live without overdubs, there is a great spontaneity and immediacy about this recording which also oozes sheer sophistication and elegance. A great deal of the latter originate in Warren Byrd's laid-back, sensitive finger-dancing across the keys and David Chevan's equally graceful dancing bass, but special mention must also be made of Stacy Philips' extraordinary lap steel and resonator guitars - as elegant and cool as you'll ever hear, particularly on Waters Of Babylon.
The opener of Warren Byrd and David Chevan's This Is The Afro-Semitic Experience, Eliyahu HaNavi, a song about the prophet Elijah, is an infectious high-energy number with an irresistible swing. Tashlikh is the first of two Chevan originals. Inspired by the Rosh Hashanah ritual, it is essentially a blues with the twist of being set in the Ahovoh Ravoh liturgical mode of the Ashkenazi tradition, which corresponds closely to the Arabic maqam Hijaz or the altered Phrygian mode. The feel is mysterious, almost mystical, with a sense of foreboding emphasized by the unusual harmonisation and very inventive improvs. The Arabo-Hebraic musical connection again surfaces with the traditional Yiddish song Sha Shtil, which here is given a very effective up-beat swing treatment that proves quite irresistible. Will Bartlett's clarinet is particularly fine also, as is the percussion. The Charlie Mingus classic Better Get Hit In Your Soul gets the distinct Afro-Semitic Experience treatment and is magically transformed into a new incarnation. Punctuated by Byrd's intermittent dissonances, it grooves along joyfully, with a distinct gospel-choir feel to it. The second of David Chevan's originals, Nefesh - Hebrew for soul - is a kind of reprise of the previous Mingus number, lively, soulful and joyous, with a particularly fine conga solo from Baba David Coleman and especially outstanding ensemble playing. Aalafiya/Shir LaShalom opens with a superb percussion invocation in an African idiom, followed by David Chevan's sensitive bass intro to a song popular with the Israeli peace movement that was sung by the late Yizhak Rabin moments before his infamous assassination. Soulful and sensuous, it abounds with flowing, melodious improvs. Particularly memorable in addition to Byrd's and Chevan's are Stacy Philips', here on violin, Mixashawn's tenor and Bartlett's clarinet. Abdullah Ibrahim's classic Water From An Ancient Well, a spine-tingler of a tune, sees some extraordinarily fine ensemble playing as well as outstanding soloing especially from Byrd and Philips. The former's graceful, soulful ivories define the piece brilliantly. The closer of This Is The Afro-Semitic Experience is provided by Waters Of Babylon, sometimes also known as Rivers Of Babylon - an apt choice that nicely sums up the spirit of shared experience and brotherhood, an Afro-American spiritual about the exile of the ancient Israelites in Babylon. Stacy Philips' resonator is the star here, graceful, elegant, cool, set off by Byrd's sophisticated, airy, cascading piano.
This album is exquisite and compelling, and consistent throughout. Warren Byrd and David Chevan's This Is The Afro-Semitic Experience should be in any good collection of contemporary jazz or contemporary Jewish music. The sort of album that makes you realize that your CD player's continuous play function is useful after all.
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