Moor Mother - Jazz Codes Music Album Reviews

Moor Mother - Jazz Codes Music Album Reviews
On her second solo album in nine months, the experimental poet and musician grapples with Black musical histories and “the work of memory.”

On Jazz Codes, the prolific artist Camae Ayewa’s second album as Moor Mother in the last nine months, the poet and musician lays the idea of genre out on the operating table and dissects it. With a career spent in close proximity to what could nominally be described as jazz, rap, and experimental music, Ayewa takes this opportunity to let in more legibly jazzy textures, like Keir Neuringer’s alto saxophone, so that she can peer at them with an analytical eye, exploring Black musical forms and their histories through bold recontextualizations of her own design.

Jazz Codes cycles through idiomatic sounds, often delivered by collaborators, each a reference that points to another reference, and on and on. Jason Moran lays down rollicking piano on “ODE TO MARY,” a tribute to the early jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams that ends with an archival recording of Williams talking about Dizzy Gillespie. On “UMZANSI”—credited to Black Quantum Futurism, Ayewa’s duo with Philadelphia’s Rasheedah Phillips—syncopated drum machines nod to Philly club and Chicago footwork. On “RAP JASM,” Ayewa slips out of spoken word to try on a rap flow and riff on OutKast: “Forever ever, motherfucker, you know the song.” Even as she references the past and the present, she worries on “DUST TOGETHER” about things disappearing when she falls asleep. She’s scribbling, contending not only with the erasure of marginalization but the inescapable fallibility of memory.

On “BLUES AWAY,” she begins, “Now how am I s’posed to play the blues when I’m feeling this good?” But what follows is a weeping complaint backed by New Jersey rap weirdo Fatboi Sharif. “You took the blues away from me,” they bawl together. So the blues is gone, and in its absence, “my heart won’t sing,” “the band can’t play,” and “the drummer can’t swing.” This is a theme on Jazz Codes: Black genres—jazz, blues, rap—have been adulterated, either destroyed or diminished. In this case, though, Ayewa is using a familiar narrative to stress that acrobatic leaps of Black musicianship from one innovation to another are a necessity as each successive form gets altered; she’s concerned with the things you must leave behind when you’re constantly made a refugee.

Jazz Codes is also a record about the anxiety of the artwork’s relationship to other works, a real artist-as-critic kind of deal. That line of inquiry becomes clear when she contemplates Mary Lou Williams’ piano sound, or tries to remake the woundedness at the core of the blues, or constructs an assemblage of hip-hop signifiers, or traces diasporic lines from “Mississippi to East Texas” to Congo to Barbados in a spoken-word passage over Aquiles Navarro’s echoing trumpet that she calls a “MEDITATION RAG.”

Her fascination with genre is something she shares in common with music critics: All those neologisms, all that anxiety about the end of monoculture, can most charitably be interpreted as trying to do what Ayewa, on “DUST TOGETHER,” calls “the work of memory.” Genre has, yes, a cursed history, and, yes, is a famously sloppy approximation of musical history, but it starts from an enthusiasm, an impulse to document not only songs, but the prisms of subjectivity they inspire as ways of remembering how music exists in the world.

And that’s where the nerdiness that undergirds Jazz Codes—like the nods to “abstract rap,” audible in the dusty, nostalgic sound of “RAP JASM”—comes in especially handy. On Jazz Codes, when Ayewa settles into a familiar hip-hop flow (which suits her well, by the way), her shift in tone connects contemporary styles with much longer arcs. The howls on “BLUES AWAY” are familiar Moor Mother textures: haunted voices at their limits. So effective is Ayewa’s conditioning of the listener to expect disaster that even when she sounds relaxed, rapping with abstract-rap stalwart AKAI SOLO, I’m still on edge, waiting for some gory scene. It’s a deeply anxious album, not least because of all these histories that Ayewa juggles.

The histories Ayewa’s drawing aren’t tidy ones, and they can’t be: Jazz Codes advocates for active remembrance as the remedy to the erasure it mourns. In the final song, “THOMAS STANLEY JAZZCODES OUTRO,” artist and academic Thomas Stanley meditates on the etymology of the word “jazz.” Over Irreversible Entanglements’ murky, percussive swirl, he tells us that the word was originally a term for sex, and though “its illegitimate origins [have been] lost in the murky brothels where it was conceived and birthed,” he calls for a return to that libidinal impulse. He urges us to free the music from its aesthetic trappings and see it as an attitude—a dirty one, one that’s embodied not only in Jazz Code’s song titles (“RAP JASM”, “NOISE JISM”) but also its repeated attempts to make memory an action, a gesture, a thrust. That’s right, I think: You have to have the grit to handle some vulgarity to even begin the job of really remembering. In Jazz Codes’ promiscuity, Moor Mother plots an escape from the oppressive confines of institutional memory.

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Moor Mother - Jazz Codes Music Album Reviews Moor Mother - Jazz Codes Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Friday, July 15, 2022 Rating: 5

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