Avery Sharpe - 400: An African American Musical Portrait

Label: JKNM Records, 2019

Personnel - Don Braden: tenor and soprano saxophone, flute; Duane Eubanks: trumpet; Kevin Eubanks: electric and acoustic guitars; Zaccai Curtis: piano; Avery Sharpe: bass; Ronnie Burrage: drums, percussion; Tendai Muparutsa: djembe; Kevin Zhou: violin; Sophia Jeongyoon Han: violin + guest Davis Whitfield: piano + The Extended Family Choir.

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65-year-old bassist/composer Avery Sharpe is best known for his two-decade association with pianist McCoy Tyner and some fine recordings with saxophonist Yusef Lateef. However, he makes a bold personal statement with his new project, 400: An African American Musical Portrait, whose original compositions envision to chronicle the pain, hope, and triumph of the African American people. Filled with time-tested jazz moods and styles, the album is divided into four centuries, each of which containing groups of two or three tunes, in a total of 10 descriptive tracks that represent the African-American history - from the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to North America in 1619 to Obama's presidency and beyond.

For this project, Sharpe gathered several forward thinkers on the scene, cases of guitarist Kevin Eubanks and his younger brother, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, pianist Zaccai Curtis, saxophonist Don Braden, and his longtime collaborator, drummer Ronnie Burrage.

The black power manifested on “Arrival” is incredibly stimulating. The spiritual and the epic converge to form a trancing crossing between Billy Harper and Kamasi Washington’s musical universes. The propulsive djembe rhythms from Zimbabwean percussionist Tendai Muparutsa together with Kevin Eubanks' quirky acoustic guitar lines make it special. Moreover, the mighty presence of The Extended Family Choir foments the contagious power. This six-piece choir conducted by Avery’s brother, Kevin Sharpe, verbalizes four tracks, including the early gospel/Negro spiritual “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”, which thrives with the soloists Wanda Rivera and Heshima Moja and then catches fire with Sofia Rivera’s inflamed spoken word.

Both “Colonial Way” and “Fiddler” are big waltzers, but shine with different lights. While the former has acoustic guitar and flute delineating melodies over the minor-key harmonic progression, the latter starts off dramatically with the violins' classical poise, and finishes like a happy traditional folk song.

Letting the good ragtime rolls, Curtis brings his stride piano abilities to “A New Music”, embarking on exciting unisons with the soprano sax and the trumpet. If the bluesy feel is pretty strong here and the playing conveniently kept inside the lines, then “500”, the closing track, takes a step further toward the next 100 years, grooving in seven with conviction and resolve.

On the typically swinging 12-bar blues “Blues and the World War II”, Kevin Eubanks switches to electric guitar and embraces earthy blues riffs with a touch of his own, while the young guest Davis Whitfield fills the piano chair with emphatic results. Here, we detect Braden quoting parts of “Fascinating Rhythm” and Sharpe suggesting “I Feel Pretty” on their respective improvisations. The saxophonist excels particularly on “Harlem and the War to End All Wars”, a catchy tune that is never swamped in overornamentation.

Sharpe possesses the knowledge to make us enjoy the pleasures of jazz in its many forms and expressions. This is a wonderful opportunity to rediscover tradition.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Arrival ► 03 - Colonial Life ► 07 - Harlem and the War to End All Wars