For the last couple of years I've been receiving regular shipments of music from the Chicago based jazz and blues label Delmark Records. Practically every month an envelope shows up in the mail containing the past, present, and future of music from the city which is arguably the crucible of American jazz and urban blues. I can usually count on a couple of CDs of re-mastered jazz style recordings, a live recording of a recent blues gig in Chicago (DVD and CD), and a contemporary jazz recording.
I have to admit that initially listening to jazz was like listening to a foreign language. While some of the earlier recordings were relatively straight forward and deciphering their syntax didn't take very long, recordings from the Art Ensemble Of Chicago era and latter were a different story. Nothing I had ever listened to prepared me for that experience, in fact I found that in order to properly appreciate it I needed to let go of all my preconceptions of what constituted music. Like abstract painters the majority of these men and women were less concerned with form than they were with intent.
That's not to say there is no structure to this work, it's merely one I wasn't familiar with. After listening and not understanding, gradually I began to hear with new ears and comprehend what was happening with the music. Understanding has led to appreciation, not only for the avant-garde, but for all jazz. So when I listen to something like Corey Wilkes' latest release on Delmark, Drop It, I'm able to appreciate nuances in his music that I might have previously missed.
You see, Corey Wilkes has looked at jazz music, all of jazz music, found bits and pieces that he likes from various eras throughout the twentieth century, and blended them together. Not being content with limiting himself to jazz, he's also looked around at the other African American music and decided that it's all part of jazz. Listen to some of the cuts on Drop It and you're going to hear a funk base line sneaking under his trumpet solo in one song, some seriously tribal drums shaking the foundations of another song, and some mean trumpet and flugelhorn playing.
Now I have to admit that I have a hard time with the way some people play trumpet. They play it like rock guitar heroes play electric leads: fast, high pitched, and furious to the point where it becomes just so much noise pollution. That's not the case with Corey Wilkes as he's more than just an excellent trumpet player, he's also a band leader and composer. Of the eleven songs on Drop It Corey has written nine, and each one demonstrates the depth of the rapport he has with the music.
"Trumpet Player", the opening track on the disc, is a piece with lyrics by the great African-American writer Langston Hughes. It's actually a spoken word piece with Miyanda Wilson speaking Hughes' words over top of Wilkes' music. In part, an ode to an unknown trumpet player, "Trumpet Player" is also a history of the African-American experience in North America. While the words are a powerful element in their own right, the music that Wilkes has composed to accompany them are the extra ingredient that brings them alive for the listener by underscoring the emotions that run through them. So muted that at times it's almost impossible to hear, the music is an electrical current coursing through the lyric, illuminating and highlighting each event recounted by Ms. Wilson's recitation.
"Trumpet Player" stands in contrast to the other vocal piece on the disc, "Funkier than a Mosquita's Tweeter" by Ailene Bullock. This is a rambunctious funk/jazz fusion piece which takes on the attitudes of men who pretend to be free so they can take advantage of women. As the lyrics challenge men who extol the virtues of free love so they can get into a woman's pants, the music echoes the scorn Dee Alexander, the vocalist has for the man's hypocrisy. Here Corey's trumpet playing is shrill and harsh, but in the context of the song it makes perfect sense and sounds exactly right.
While none of the other songs have lyrics to act as a guide through the music, Corey Wilkes' compositions and arrangements are such that we can find our own way through the pieces. His trumpet, or flugelhorn, is our guide. Like Pied Piper of Bremen, he leads us through the various landscapes of his musical creations. Like the stirring resonance of a bugle sounding the charge or the gentle breath of wind through leaves, the sounds he generates are able to stir and calm our emotions. Yet no matter how he plays; soft, loud, fast, or slow, he holds our attention with the intricacies of his playing. Even when he is playing loud and shrill, he introduces cadences or phrasings that prevent the sound from becoming tedious or atonal.
As with any recording, I can't help but have a favourite cut on this disc, and in this case the live version of the title song "Drop It" takes that honour. For sheer exuberance, I don't know if I've ever had as much fun listening to a jazz tune. I don't seem to be alone in that sentiment, because Corey and his band have sure swept the listening crowd off their feet, as they are whooping and hollering with pleasure and excitement. You also get to hear Corey really cut loose on his horns during this track, and I don't think I've ever heard a freer, or more joyful sound, than the music he generates during his solos. His playing on this track is as much a celebration of being alive, as any Gospel track you'll hear is a celebration of the Lord.
Jazz music might sometimes sound like a language you don't understand, and perhaps you still won't understand the entire vocabulary, I know I don't, but as long as there are musicians like Corey Wilkes out there playing, you should have no problem understanding enough of what's being said to have a truly uplifting experience. Corey Wilkes' CD Drop It is one of the most exciting and exhilarating recordings, in any style or genre, that I've heard in years. Do yourself a favour and buy a ticket on the ride that he's offering, you won't regret it.