The term “postmodern” has been applied to so many ideas both new and not so new that for many people it has become nearly meaningless. In literature, it has been applied to work as different as that of the nouveau roman as practiced by Alain Robbe-Grillet and that of a practitioner of absurdist literature like John Barth. In philosophy, it is associated with the work of such varied thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Martin Heidegger. In music, classical composers like those categorized as minimalists such as Phillip Glass and sonic experimentalists such as John Cage have been called postmodern. At worst the term is meaningless; at best it is confusing.
It is helpful that Tyrone Birkett takes the pains to explain what he means by the term as it is used in his latest album Postmodern Spirituals: The Promised Land, to be released March 25. In his elaborate liner notes, he says: “The Postmodern Spiritual is a modern day rendering of the freedom song.” It is both a voice against oppression and “a re-imagining and reviving” of the “Negro spiritual by incorporating jazz sensibilities with soul and gospel along with new compositions likened to its predecessor.”
Now in some sense, whether you agree or disagree with the idea that this constitutes what you think of as postmodernism is irrelevant. This is what Birkett thinks. This is what Birkett believes he is doing aesthetically, and call it what you will, this is the music you are going to hear on his album. Besides, if you like what you hear, does it really matter what you call it. And, if you like great jazz from talented musicians, you are certainly going to like what you hear on Postmodern Spirituals: The Promised Land.
This is 10 tracks of absolutely beautiful music composed and/or arranged by saxophonist Birkett for his ensemble, Emancipation. Vocals are handled by Paula Ralph Birkett. Gregory Royals is on piano and organ; Reggie Young is on electric bass, and Jason Patterson plays drums. They are joined on two tracks by drummer Camille Gainer Jones and keyboardist and pianist Pablo Vergara. John Benitez plays acoustic bass on one track. It is an ensemble quite at home with Birkett’s musical vision and the emotional truth of his ideas.
From the opening drum roll of the first of the nouveau spirituals, “The Departure,” it is clear that the listener is in for something out of the ordinary. Birkett’s work on the sax has just enough nuanced soundscape to justify both the term postmodern and his description of the horn as sounding “a clarion call.” Paula Birkett’s vocal is revelatory. She has a voice rich and powerful, and she demonstrates her ownership of the material every time she opens her mouth.
There are eight compositions on the album mixing both original work from Birkett and a reworking of older material, most notably “Motherless Child (Revisited)” and a wonderfully evocative “Deep River.” “The Departure,” “The Struggle,” and “Freedom Dreaming” are part of a larger work called “The Seven Star Suite” planned for later release. One track, “The Postmodern Spiritual,” uses some of the ideas expressed in the liner notes for a spoken word manifesto delivered by Paula Birkett. The remarkable set ends hopefully with “The Promise.”
Postmodern Spirituals: The Promised Land is a concept album with a purpose, an album with something to say. It says it with some of the most dynamic musical you are likely to hear from any jazz ensemble around.