Over the last six months, there have been numerous CD releases by jazz musicians dealing with our country's divisive political climate, highlighted by the immigration issues at our borders. Central American refugees have flocked to US border cities, fleeing economic, political, and drug cartel problems emanating from their native countries. The threat of a prospective border wall to keep them out has escalated their fears, and stimulated their desire to leave their countries immediately.
Musicians, particularly in jazz idioms, who welcome and cherish the freedom to to express their talents, are sensitive to immigrants' hopes for a better life for their families. Two recent releases from Portland, Oregon jazz stalwarts, deserve mention. The first, Ezra Weiss' We Limit Not the Truth of God, (which I reviewed in August) was a heartfelt plea, with narration from a father to his son, exploring in a big band setting, how we need to rise above hate and fear to a better place, in which we honor our long tradition of welcoming immigrants to our shores.
The latest effort to tackle these thorny issues comes from Portland trumpeter, Charlie Porter, on his just released OA2 Records CD, Immigration Nation. Using largely East Coast based musicians (Charlie cut his teeth in New York, attending Julliard, and mentored by Wynton Marsalis), Porter recorded this project last April in Astoria, New York. He used a quintet to explore, and honor our own immigration history, as well as his sensitivity to the struggles that new arrivals face today.
Like nearly all Americans, except for First Nation Native Americans, Charlie's ancestors came from elsewhere. On his CD's booklet cover, there is a photo of his Italian great grandfather, Rocco Petrunti, with his school band, and on the back cover of the CD is a picture of Charlie's Lebanese great grandfather, Peter Narsiff and his family.
Charlie breaks up his CD into two parts, each with six tracks. Part 1 is titled Leaving Home, and Part 2 is New Beginnings. Each is a vibrant mix, combining influences from New Orleans, Afro-Cuban, Creole, Swing and Funk, which are all part of the musical stew that makes up jazz motifs. Porter also has a strong background in classical music as attested to by his award as the first trumpeter to win both the classical and jazz divisions of the National Trumpet Competition.
The title track opens Part 1 with a mix of somber, yet eloquent Spanish and Middle Eastern influences. Porter's trumpet and Nick Biello's fiery tenor sax set the stage for what is to come. David Wong's bass, Oscar Perez' Cuban piano choruses, and Kenneth Salter's forceful drumming immediately give notice of serious intent. "Contradictions Within" with ostinato piano, sets up the feeling of unease that new immigrants face in their new setting.
"Divergent Paths" and "Flight" indicate to me both assimilation, and the move toward entering new territory. Both calmness, and the risk/reward of taking on challenges coincide. "Second Chance" is a ballad with calming piano, with a vocal by Sabine Kabongo. Sabine emotes about the hopefulness that immigrants have about their new beginnings. Porter's sublime trumpet aids in setting this mood. However, there is a certain reality about pitfalls on the road, stated on "The Unexpected," where wariness is always on the horizon. Two minutes in on this track, an ominous vibe is set by the drums, piano, and horns that helps capture the unease of remaining on guard, and even wondering if it was a wise decision to come to a new country with risks aplenty.
Part 2 explores the themes of privilege, the melting stew of new languages and cultures, and life in the more hectic, chaotic new land. Porter mixes more modern funk along with swing and blues on "A New Vernacular." On "Survival of the Fittest" stop-and-go segments simulate the the hectic pace new arrivals face if they settled in big cities, where the jobs were.
"A Deepening Sense" has Pan American rhythms, that were foreign, yet intriguing, to European immigrants. "Belonging" brings a respite from worries with its joyous riffs. Porter closes out his musical project on "Chant," a fascinating mix of lyrical trumpet, sax, and piano, completed by a choir recorded individually from people around the world on social media. They end the composition with a fitting united wordless hum.
One nation, one world...