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Anthony Joseph - The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives Music Album Reviews

Anthony Joseph - The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives Music Album Reviews
Backed by veteran jazz musicians and newer players, the Trinidad-born, London-based poet summons spirits of the Caribbean diaspora to ask what it might take to build a better world.

Anthony Joseph can halt your breath with intonation alone. The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives is a work of historical interrogation that is as searing as it is sentimental, in which Joseph details his own struggles along with the tribulations of poets who came before him. These remembrances are the forceful evidence in his call for change, and they are also the material he is made of. It’s a wildly tricky proposition, but throughout the album Joseph attempts to summon spirits of the diaspora to make his case for a novel way of remaking society, if not creating a new society altogether. This might seem like a mighty, almost impossible task; regardless, this is one of the most cohesive, forward-looking jazz albums in recent memory. Backed up by old hands and newer players, Joseph recites poetry with verve, pushing himself and the band to relay both crushing oppression and real hope for change.

Nowhere is this clearer than on the second track, “Calling England Home.” Over a sinuous groove, Joseph recounts different stories of immigrants who arrived in England at different times. Each person, he says, had a difficult relationship with the idea that England was their home. The haunting instrumentation reflects this ambivalence: Unison horns begin to drift apart once Joseph begins to speak, while the rhythm section maintains forward momentum, merging stories that are unified in their sense of isolation. Joseph manipulates his voice as he tells his tales, proffering quiet statements of fact (“Black and been here since 1949”), muttered musings (“I’ve lived here longer than home”), and shouted questions (“How long do you have to live in a place/Before you can call it ‘home’?”). As a means of representing the violence of the diaspora, the physicality of their approach is revelatory.

Just as crucial is Joseph’s reverence for those who have contended with these ideas before. Take the opener “Kamau,” which is dedicated to the Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite, who died last year. Joseph begins with a simple ode to the powers of that “sonic sage,” praising the “trumpet in his throat.” He launches into a whirl of associative poetry, asking the poet to play every musical style of the Carribean diaspora and detailing his own devotion to another Black Carribean author during a time of duress. The music shifts under him as he performs these acrobatics, and what starts as a bandstand melody then becomes a dirge, only to finally explode into peals of improvised noise. Joseph and the band have such a tight relationship that even the way they lose control is highly calibrated: The original melody never stops (though improvisation occurs around it) and his voice always guides the sound forward. After a year of hearing protest music that has proposed liberation, it’s refreshing to hear a song that actually sounds like freedom.

This freedom emanates from Joseph’s clear yet subtle lyricism and the band’s dynamic virtuosity. Both elements are present on “Swing Praxis,” a call to evaluate the tactics of liberation struggles past and also to examine our methods of working for change in the present. Saxophonists Jason Yarde, Colin Webster, and Shabaka Hutchings play in unison and are backed up by bassist Andrew John, guitarist Thibaut Remy, and drummer Rod Youngs. Youngs provides the backbeat here (and throughout the album), and Remy adds color at opportune moments. When Joseph engages in a thoughtful critique of our current predicament (“Either we vote or protest or tremble or march or fight/But either way it will soon be hard to be ‘cool’ and black at the same time”), his cadence is almost Heron-esque. That poet’s influence can also be felt on the Rhodes-featuring “The Gift,” which brings to mind the collaborations between Heron and Brian Jackson in the late 1970s. In fact, Youngs, the drummer who gives this song its structure, collaborated with Heron in the 1990s, and his versatility provides Joseph with a solid foundation as he gets personal. Right as Joseph recounts the sound of dirt hitting his father’s casket, Youngs bangs down on his set, providing a marching percussion for the funeral. As Joseph talks about what his father has left behind, and what his community gave to them both, he leaves it up to you to decide what the titular gift actually is. Is it the inherited jewel bag he must split with his brother, the prayers of his community, or the mere ability to keep existing? With these questions surrounding you, the horn section plays and the piano slowly plinks away as the song comes to a definite end.

Joseph makes protest music that is heavily rooted in what has come before. The texture he achieves and the insights he finds are hard won; he’s not tossing out what feels good as much as underlining what matters. “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives” is a line taken from the Trinadian theorist C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, a book that analyzed the Haitian Revolution. It’s the type of statement that one can read either as a provocation or a prompt to envision a future that is very different from the one we inhabit. The music Joseph makes seems to waver between these two possibilities. Joseph wants change now, and because of that he’s deeply invested in looking at the ambiguities that we carry with us. It’s through his recognition of those ambiguities that he can declaim so forcefully against a country that refuses to accept those who have supplied it with wealth and labor, while praising poets that have made their adopted countries’ language sing. His declarations aren’t supposed to be persuasive; his gravitas comes from his contemplation. With the backing of an energetic set of players, he testifies with a stony resolve. It must be witnessed to be believed.
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Anthony Joseph - The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives Music Album Reviews Anthony Joseph - The Rich Are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Thursday, June 17, 2021 Rating: 5

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