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deVon Russell Gray / Nathan Hanson / Davu Seru
We Sick Antonio Poscic , May 3rd, 2023 11:24

Summoning up the trembling freak-outs of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane, a trio album with volcanic levels of fire in its belly

There are certain moments in life when otherwise mundane spaces and objects become haunted by deeper and long-lasting significance. The date is December 28th, 2020. Pianist deVon Russell Gray, saxophonist Nathan Hanson, and drummer Davu Seru are playing in a church across the street from the Minneapolis State Capitol and recording what would later become We Sick. Had they performed there even a year earlier, this location would have made a footnote in the album’s booklet. But the date is December 28th, 2020. COVID-19 lockdowns are in full effect and the bottled up rage of racial oppression is spilling over following the murder of George Floyd. The church is empty, and the police are occupying the State Capitol in Saint Paul.

While we’re starting to forget the pandemic and the feelings it brought along – even though many still die from the disease each day – the struggle against systemic racism remains a grievous constant. Improvised and spontaneously composed under such circumstances, the music on We Sick reflects the fiery anger, hope, surrender, and resolve of the three players as they shape their sensations and surrounding reality into heavyweight pieces. The resulting sound is gorgeous, reminiscent of the AACM tradition and luminaries like Roscoe Mitchell, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, and Anthony Braxton, capable of shifting from lyrical drum and piano conversations into trembling trio freak-outs.

Yet ‘Letters’ opens the album with neither, but with a series of Hanson’s hesitant phrases, clicks, and short breaths circling around Seru’s echoing cymbal hits. Soon, a sustained, wailing saxophone tone rises from these fragments, creating a space for Gray to unfurl a disjointed piano walk, while their exchange evolves into a nervous thriller and heated argument, mimicking the slowly sinking realisation of a grim situation. Through the years, the inherent revolutionary energy of free jazz was often pacified, riding along the usual narrative of leaving politics out of music. While not as literal as the art of some of their contemporaries – Matana Roberts reads out the names of Black people murdered by police during her concerts – Gray, Hanson, and Seru channel the same sensation of revolt and fire through each of their musical expressions.

On ‘They Stay Breathing Here’, Hanson rips open a shimmering blues and presses it against urgent piano bursts and snare hits. Flickers of devastating melody can be found in his playing, while a sense of progression emerges from undercurrents of rhythm and groove. Elsewhere, the two ‘Solve for Malcolm’ movements are lengthy centrepieces, dedicated to Malcolm X and his 1963 speech "The House Negro And The Field Negro" whose message of individual agency inspired the trio. On the first of these, repeating piano arpeggios, sparse cymbal caresses, and blaring saxophone licks create an atmosphere of rebellious affront, only for a rumbling tom to push everything forward with a marching, martial rhythm. Meanwhile, the second movement basks in a morose sort of lyricism, shuffling from long silences interrupted only by muted piano body knocks and reed sighs to a soaring, glorious free jazz anthem.

Towards the end, ‘Sanctuary’ reads like a love letter to Alice Coltrane’s spiritual jazz, with circling saxophone chords weaving in and out of a heartbreaking swell, punctuated by vigorous piano stabs and drum rolls. Although for most of its duration We Sick appears like a sobering realisation and solemn acceptance of an endless fight, the album’s dénouement is hopeful, with Hanson’s snaking saxophones lines and Gray’s energetic chords leaving the next page open for a different story.