Saxophonist and composer Christopher McBride’s Ramon is a more than appropriate album for Black History Month as he weaves in the four pillars of Black music, blues, gospel, soul, and R&B as well as a suite devoted to the unfortunate murder of Trayvon Martin. The recent Grammy winner with Steven Fiefke & Bijon Watson’s big band, Generation Gap Orchestra, is now a Harlem-based artist issuing his first album since moving to NYC, and in the course of such nods to such locales as his birth city Chicago, New Orleans where he is an educator, and the Bronx.
Generally, this is an upbeat, heaving swinging affair as represented by the opening track, “Lady D,” written for his mom, who must be quite the energetic character. “Welcome” is a peek into his live show where the alto saxophonist introduces musicians and guests from various locales. The core band is JS Williams (trumpet), Corey A. Wallace (trombone), Noah Jackson (bass), Cedric Easton (drums), pianist Jonathan Edward Thomas, and Luke Carlos O’Reilly (keys) with guest guitarists Bobby Broom and Morgan Burrs, Kenny Bentley (tuba) and vocalist J Hoard.
The uplifting, swinging “You Put a Smile on My Face” features the soulful veteran guitarist Bobby Broom with delightfully blaring horns from the band. “Bronx Unchained” finds McBride tapping into the borough’s fame as the birth place of hip hop. It’s rhythmically challenging with tight horn parts and rollicking piano from Thomas as the tune evolves from a somewhat menacing beginning with a blistering turn led by trumpeter Williams. and McBride blowing ridiculously rapid runs (think in terms of Clifford Brown’s bebop). Vocalist Hoard steps in for “Your Eyes Can’t Lie,” with mid-tempo R&B and glistening piano from Thomas. An instrumental version of the tune closes the album. “Intimacy” tamps down the fire a bit, as guitarist Burrs gets the spotlight in another R&B-tinged tune which also features strong solos from the leader and keyboardist O’Reilly.
The centerpiece of the album is the three-part suite “Stand Your Ground” with the parts entitled “Suspicion,” “Confrontation,” and “In Memoriam: The Ballad of Trayvon Martin.” McBride expresses this sentiment in reference to Martin’s case. “…I now often wonder what the verdict would’ve been if this was after George Floyd, but injustice missed here made it possible for justice to be served for later victims after Trayvon.” “Suspicion” begins with a lengthy bass intro followed by solemn piano chords and notes as McBride’s alto sets a repetitive theme connoting the anxiety of a man walking while being followed. Easton’s bass intro also sets the stage for “Confrontation,” with McBride’s alto and Williams’ fiery trumpet sparring angrily with each other in the album’s most searing sequence. As expected, the final movement is a form of requiem.
The final section of the album is upbeat with “Dope (For the Steppers),” inspired by his hometown of Chicago and designed for dancing as McBride’s alto and Williams’ trumpet soar over a breezy, steady beat. “Girl Get ‘Em” takes us to NOLA, with the unmistakable tuba entrance from guest Bentley after which a hand clapping, irresistible groove ensues.
This is an ambitious eclectic effort that mostly succeeds due to highly inspired moments in the suite, along with these suggested tracks – “Lady D,” “Bronx Unchained,” and “Girl Get Em’.”
– Jim Hynes
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