The opening bars of “Passing Away for Giles Corey” sets the stage for the Liberation Music Collective’s sophomore effort, Rebel Portraiture. Corey was a landowner in the Massachusetts colony who was pressed to death in an effort to make him confess to being a witch. Although his particular tale has some less than heroic twists of its own, it is his refusal to bow down to the powerful that allows his presence on this collection of tunes honoring later rebels against the established order.
Rebel Portraiture is a series of compositions from the Liberation Music Collective’s founders and leaders, Hannah Fidler and Matt Riggen. Political activists, scientists and jazz musicians/composers, these two have created a contemplative and enchanting work that combines politics, history and a unique, innovative musical sense. Made up of somber melodies in minor keys and subdued celebrations in the major, it encourages both reflection and hope. The musical collective sometimes reminds this listener of a big band while at other times it is of a small combo that sounds like it is performing in a forest clearing.
Each piece on this disc memorializes an individual or a group of individuals who were killed by the forces representing the rich and powerful because they stood up against those forces. After the tune honoring the aforementioned Giles is a song dedicated to Jeffrey Miller, one of those killed by troops at Kent State in May 1970. That short tribute is followed by a melodic episode dedicated to all those killed and wounded on that day. The song opens with a light rhythm played on the cymbal while a piano slowly comes into earshot, making way for a flattened chord played by the horns. The chord is silenced with a guitar solo which weaves its magic while the drummer provides a subtle stroke. Ultimately, the horns make their way back into the melody, with a trumpet solo giving way to a reeded collaborator.
Next up is a tribute to the Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, who was murdered by military forces enforcing the will of transnational banks and corporations in the forests of that Central American nation. One hears the birds and the beasts, the joy of children and the ominous sound of machinery destroying homelands of those birds, beasts and humans alike in the name of profit. This visit to the Honduran rainforest is followed by a tune titled “River of Life” that cascades then drifts into one’s consciousness in a manner appropriate to its title, the next set of tunes honor a Syrian woman journalist murdered by members of IS in her native Raqqa, a South African woman named Noxolo Nogwaza, an LBGTQ organizer who was raped and brutally murdered, then left by the road. In honoring these two individuals, the Collective also honors all the rest of the forgotten journalists and LBGTQ humans who have been killed for their work.
The second to last song on the disc is a choral work titled “Afterlife for the Unnamed,” performed without instruments, places me inside a worship service where joy is the watchword and order of the day. Voices singing about a judgment day in arpeggios of chant. The song is a bold challenge to the powerful whose actions only seek to destroy the wills of humans like those honored in this collective work. Jazz piano alternately leading and fading into the background, the voice and percussion describe a resistance stronger than any army or bank account; a resistance that has existed since the beginning of time and is greater than any individual.
This album is simultaneously a memorial and an organizer’s leaflet. It does more than just remember those who have died in the struggle for social justice, against war, and for liberation. It also reminds us that it is ordinary people who make up those movements and who move humanity closer to those movement’s goals. It also reminds us that those who give their lives in the process are not wasting those lives. Like the lives remembered here, the Liberation Music Collective’s compositions and performance are a light in a history (and present) filled with too much darkness. These tributes to those who have fallen in the struggle for freedom and justice are appropriately haunting, yet equally celebratory.
Jazz music is historically the music of the forgotten and ignored; of the oppressed and the rebellious. This is especially true in the work of musicians like Archie Shepp, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Gil Scott Heron, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and on and on. Likewise, jazz as a musical form exists because it has always pushed the definition of music beyond convention; Charlie Parker, Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler are one set of such musicians that comes first to this reviewer’s mind. The Liberation Music Collective has brought together these two traditions and created a collection of works that represents those traditions at their best.