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  • Glenn Siegel

The Future of Jazz is Now: Mali Obamsawin Sextet at IMA

The perennial question “is jazz dead” has always puzzled me, and the related imperative, taken up by many a jazz society, to “keep jazz alive”, is also a head scratcher. Certainly from an economic standpoint, the jazz world is on life support, largely dependent on wealthy patrons, institutions and public funds for its survival. Jazz musicians struggling to make ends meet is not a new problem, even if the reasons have shifted from racism and unscrupulous club and record owners, to public and media neglect. But despite real hardships borne by artists, the health of the music has never been better. If you know where to look, you can find more talented musicians, exploring more facets of music than ever in history.

That point was driven home by the Mali Obamsawin Sextet, who delivered a great concert in crappy weather at the Institute for the Musical Arts on March 25. These six young musicians, most in their mid-twenties, are living proof that jazz, as a set of musical ideals, is alive and well. Their stop in Goshen, MA was part of a tour in support of Obamsawin’s recent album, Sweet Tooth. The band included Mali Obomsawin (bass, voice), Zack O'Farrill (drums), Allison Burik (alto sax, bass clarinet), Noah Campbell (tenor sax), Miriam Elhajli (voice, guitar) and Allison Philips (trumpet).

Like most emerging musicians today, their learning place has shifted from the bandstand to the classroom, but the members of the Sextet have already logged a ton of real world experience. They seemed relaxed and seasoned, and delivered a polished performance filled with compelling music. The compositions, all found on the new record, were written and/or arranged by Obamsawin, and highlight her connection to her Abenaki heritage.

The evening began with a solo by Elhajli, a Venezuelan-Moroccan-American guitarist and vocalist, educated at Berklee. She’s a researcher at The Association for Cultural Equity, founded by Alan Lomax, where she discovered Doc Watson’s, “Winter’s Night”. Her finger-picking performance was a tour de force and showcased an angelic and muscular voice that transfixed all 50 audience members.

Obamsawin, a member of Abenaki First Nation at Odanak (Quebec), was mentored by Taylor Ho Bynum at Dartmouth College. Ho Bynum plays cornet on Sweet Tooth and helped produce the recording. Five years removed from Dartmouth, Obamsawin is an activist and a holder of stories and culture, and she set up many of the pieces with concise and cogent remarks.

“Wawasint8da”, a beautiful Catholic hymn with lyrics translated from Latin to Abenaki by an early Jesuit priest, devolved as the melody fractured, reflecting the complicated history between First Nation peoples and their colonizers. “Pedegwajois” featured the recorded voice of Theophile Panadis, recounting an ancient tale of a young man receiving a teaching, which brings him to the middle of Betobagw (“Lake Champlain”) during a thunderstorm.

One reason jazz remains a living, breathing art form is the integration of disparate musical traditions with African-American constructs. Many jazz artists, including Charlie Parker, Oscar Pettiford, Mildred Bailey and Don Pullen, had Native American ancestry, and the weaving of traditional chants, melodies and stories into jazz lexicon has precedent. Saxophonist Jim Pepper, whose parents were Creek and Kaw, had a hit in the late-1960s/early 1970s with “Witchi-Tai-To,” which was built around a peyote song Pepper learned from his grandfather. Recent efforts by Obamsawin, Diné trumpeter Delbert Anderson and Nez Percé singer Julia Keefe have organically incorporated Indigenous aesthetics into jazz. For information on the impact Native Americans have had on American music more generally, watch RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World.

The horn section added piquancy and punch. Noah Campbell, a classmate of Obamsawin’s at Dartmouth, delivered strong solos on tenor and soprano saxophone. He’s getting his PhD in political science at Brown in his spare time. Alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist Allison Burik was mentored by Joe Morris at New England Conservatory. When I saw Morris at last week’s Jazz Shares concert, he told me how much he liked and respected Burik. Trumpeter Allison Phillips was educated at the New School, before earning a masters in Jazz Performance from the Conservatorium van Amsterdam in The Netherlands. Together they provided bite, carried melody and raised the level of musicianship in the ensemble.

Drummer Zack O’Farrill was the only musician I had worked with before. He was part of a family band with his father, Arturo, and brother, Adam, in Holyoke in 2013, and he performed in Easthampton, with Adam’s Stranger Days quartet in 2017. As third generation royalty (his grandfather is big band legend Chico O’Farrill), Zack is well positioned to carry on the family legacy.

Mali Obamsawin’s Sextet provided a powerful first-person assertion of cultural pride, along with a healthy dose of musical prowess and youthful exuberance. It gave us pleasure in the moment and hope for the future of jazz.

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