Ishmael Reed - The Hands of Grace Music Album Reviews

Ishmael Reed - The Hands of Grace Music Album Reviews
Now 84, the celebrated novelist, poet, and playwright presents his first collection of original songs. These sweetly earnest and stirringly beautiful pieces reflect a life immersed in jazz.

Ishmael Reed has been renowned as a novelist, poet, and playwright for more than half a century, yet his progress in the music world came more slowly. Introduced to jazz music in the front room of a bootlegger’s house at age four, Reed has been immersed in the genre his whole life. He would later tell Max Roach that bebop kept him and his friends out of reform school because they were too busy listening to records to get into trouble. Reed first recorded in the early 1980s, performing vocals and recitations alongside Conjure, a supergroup of jazz musicians—including Allen Toussaint, Olu Dara, Taj Mahal, and David Murray, among others—that Kip Hanrahan, of American Clavé Records, had assembled to arrange music for Reed’s poetry. “But I wanted to apply my ‘sensibility’ to more than songwriting,” Reed later said. “I found that lyrics ranked second to music, and though I had written the songs and poetry, the famous performers had a higher status than the writers.” And so, at the age of 60, he began to study jazz piano seriously. In 2007, a cancer diagnosis motivated him to assemble an ad hoc group and record a collection of jazz standards, For All We Know. Fifteen years later, he finally steps out as a composer on The Hands of Grace, a sweetly earnest and stirringly beautiful collection of jazz tunes for piano and ensemble.

Reed began composing out of necessity when his recent play The Slave Who Loved Caviar was short on funds. The titular slave is Jean-Michel Basquiat; Andy Warhol is the man who supplied the caviar. Rather than the usual story that casts Warhol as Basquiat’s mentor, here the Pop Art icon vampirically feeds off young Basquiat’s growing fame to prop up his own faltering career. For Reed, Basquiat is a Black genius killed by the art world and blamed for his own murder. Four of the tracks here are elegiac piano compositions that soften his characters’ angry polemics on Warhol’s complicity in Basquiat’s early death, while the rest of the album consists of occasional pieces written for Reed’s friends and family. 

In a text accompanying the album, the poet Fred Moten compares Reed to Charles Mingus, another musician who came late to the piano; Reed’s approach is as refreshing as Mingus’ on Mingus Plays Piano, with a playfulness that demonstrates a deep fondness for the instrument. Reed’s style is casual and unpolished as he adds his own twists to carefully studied jazz techniques. “Bells of Basquiat” slowly teeters back and forth between two notes that are supported by sparse chords, while “When Beautiful Boys Drown in the Nile They Become Gods” is grounded in a straightforward exploration of the pentatonic scale. “What I Hear When I View Basquiats” works itself up into a ragtime rhythm before faltering again and again, as if each painting generates a joy that quickly dissipates as Reed draws his eyes across a museum wall. In the play, these compositions color the plot of Basquiat’s life in the 1980s, but on record they work wonderfully as a series of simple, expressive vignettes.

Elsewhere, Reed’s daughter Tennessee and his partner, Carla Blank, make the album a family affair. “How High the Moon” features Tennessee reciting her poem of the same name. In a wry play on the jazz standard, she describes the moon in scientific detail over Reed’s piano and Roger Glenn’s flute, calculating the moon’s altitude—238,900 miles—like an uncommonly didactic Beat poet. Blank’s violin on “Steve Cannon Blues” is among the highlights, riffing on Reed’s piano in a way that suggests an ongoing household conversation. Two of the most moving pieces, “Anniversary Song for Carla” and “Timothy,” are respectively dedicated to Blank and to Reed’s late daughter Timothy. Again by himself at the piano for “Anniversary Song,” Reed plays a brief and bittersweet composition whose melody is tentative but determined, as if we’re hearing him rehearse for the anniversary party through the walls. “Timothy” is a slow, stately memorial to Reed’s daughter that fades out in a series of dissonant left-hand chords. The last words on the album are a voicemail from Timothy: “It’s beautiful outside today, and that’s all I wanted to say.”

The Hands of Grace is a uniquely personal glimpse into Reed’s world. Throughout, we can hear chairs squeak, papers rustle, and a slight static pervade, as if we’re listening to an audio diary meant only for Reed and his family. Far more than a theatrical soundtrack filled out by stray pieces, this is a rare, private document of a lifetime investment in jazz coming to fruition. For Reed to pick up composition so late in life is remarkable; that his debut is this intimate and assured is a gift.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Ishmael Reed - The Hands of Grace Music Album Reviews Ishmael Reed - The Hands of Grace Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on December 06, 2022 Rating: 5


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