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Interview: Free Jazz Quintet Irreversible Entanglements On Making Revolutionary Music

The free jazz quintet Irreversible Entanglements released its first eponymous album last month.

Recorded over one six-hour studio session in August 2015, the 43-minute album is made of largely improvised instrumentation and Camae Ayewa’s radical poetry on Black trauma, survival, and power. It is the product of five musicians meeting for the first time, a kinetic bubbling over of collective political and spiritual energy.

“It was one of those universe-at-work moments, where we came together at just the right time,” said bassist Luke Stewart, who lives, plays music, and organizes events in Washington, D.C.

With members also hailing from Philadelphia and New York, the group is comprised of Stewart, Ayewa (who also makes music as Moor Mother), alto saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpet player Aquiles Navarro, and drummer Tcheser Holmes.

After the album was recorded, mixed and mastered, it was two years before it saw a proper release. “We knew we were sitting on something amazing, something really beautiful and important and didn’t want to undervalue it by putting it out in the wrong way,” said Neuringer.

Eventually, the record was pressed as a co-release between International Anthem, known for jazz and experimental releases, and the punk rock label Don Giovanni.

Surrounding its release, Shadowproof spoke with Neuringer and Stewart about the group’s genesis, inspirations, historical lineage of jazz poetry, the possibilities of improvisation, and more.

How did Irreversible Entanglements come together?

Keir: It was pretty organic. I’m a collective member with an organization called Books Through Bars. We send free books to people incarcerated in the mid-Atlantic region. Somebody in our collective set up an event where Camae curated the music, MC-ed, and read poetry. I was doing sound at that event and was totally blown away, so I approached her and said I would love to work together.

We played a handful of gigs as a duo over the next few months. Then I was asked to perform in this Musicians Against Police Brutality event in Brooklyn in April 2015. So I asked Camae and bassist Luke Stewart to play with me; they already knew each other. We played a 15-minute set, and then these two young guys played right after us, a trumpet and drum duo. It sounded to me like the five of us could have just played one set.

When I met those guys, I asked, do you want to record something this summer? And everyone was down, so I found the space [for] late August. It’s hard to blink your eyes and not have a whole bunch of heart-wrenching racist shit happen in this country. But between April and August of 2015, there was definitely a lot of shit going down. I think that fire comes into the recording session.

Luke: Keir, Camae, and I have known each other for some years. I first met Camae when she was in The Mighty Paradocs. The band I was in at the time, we played a couple shows with them in DC and in Philly. She collaborates with Rasheedah Phillips for the Afrofuturist Affair, and they had another project of mine up there for some exhibitions and performances. And conversely, I put together some gigs for her in D.C.

It’s been a working relationship for a while. I consider her to be another member of the greater coalition of sonic warriors, if you will—people who are seriously investigating the possibilities of sound and applying them to universal means, in practicality, in abstract expression, in profile, in creativity. It’s a beautiful thing to finally be in a proper creative collaboration.

What was the day of the recording session like?

Luke: We all come from different places. I was coming up from D.C. So I went up to Philadelphia and met up with Keir and Camae. And then we went up to the studio in Brooklyn. We did each contribute some compositions. But most of what did end up on the album was selections of those compositions and a lot of improvisations.

Keir: We had an afternoon in the recording studio. We recorded something like eight or nine tracks. What you’ve got on the recording is our first meeting as a quintet. The last track on the album, “Projects,” is the first thing we recorded. It was: two minute soundcheck, everything’s good, we hit record, and that was what came out. It’s 16 minutes. The first track, “Chicago to Texas,” was totally improvised. The second track, “Fireworks,” I brought in the bassline and Camae brought in the text. The third track, “Enough,” Aquiles had the structure and the melody, and everything else was just put together in the moment. I believe the text on that one is totally improvised.

Everybody brought in one or two things. My idea was a bassline that I taught to Luke. And then a melody I had written down, three lines on note paper. We tried it and then we tried it again, and take two was it. Same with the thing Aquiles brought in. He had a melody, and a structure. We did it twice and the second take was it.

Irreversible Entanglements has mentioned the importance of the influence of the group New York Art Quartet. Can you talk about the importance of valuing the historical lineage of where the music is coming from while also making music that is very rooted in the present?

Keir: The New York Art Quartet started in the mid-60s. On their 1964 album, on one of the tracks is Amiri Baraka reciting poetry with the band.

There’s a lot of great music of a jazz or free jazz nature that has voice and poetry in it. It’s a long tradition. Amiri Baraka is really important to me as a poet. And I knew that he’s important to Camae and to Luke. To anyone who is concerned about black liberation in the United States, he’s an important figure. I was also listening to a lot of Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction album that summer. And then Camae had recommended we listen to A Black Mass, a Sun Ra recording with Amiri Baraka.

Luke: Musically, the idea was to sort of take on the traditional trajectory of the bands like New York Art Quartet and various other collaborations between free jazz ensembles and poets. We were going in with that perspective specifically. We were all inspired by Amiri Baraka and his work and his political iconicism. That particular collaboration with New York Art Quartet is representative of a very key moment in the music that we definitely felt needed to be revisited. And that sort of political, radical voice literally needed to be represented within the music.

Keir: I’m not trying to make throwback music, but I am definitely trying to respect historical lines. I know that’s hugely important to Luke, too, who is very tuned in to the elders of the music he makes. And Camae, and all of the art she makes in relation to Black Quantum Futurism with Rasheedah Phillips. Thinking about time, and past, and present and future. Thinking, where am I in a continuum? You don’t have to make music that sounds like the past, but if you aren’t respecting where it’s coming from, there may be some serious problems.

Luke: We’re living in the present, and there are pressing issues that are happening to us personally. And those are things that need to be addressed. And are going to be addressed naturally, especially in an improvisational context, where it’s based on our life experiences and our perspectives and activities that we’re involved in. While it’s referencing a very specific point in history, that does have a lot of similarities in many ways, it’s a statement on the present. And it’s coming from a very contemporary point of view.

I wouldn’t want this album to be categorized as a nostalgia piece, but this is a tradition that I’ve engaged myself in pretty heavily. It’s been a source of inspiration for me, being in the continuum of the history and tradition of black music in America. So, we’re very much influenced by the history and traditions of the music, but we have something to say that’s happening now.

It’s interesting what you said about how the improvisational process facilitates the grounding of something in the present. Can you elaborate on that?

Luke: Absolutely. I believe that improvisation as an approach to music and creation presents the opportunity for the world to experience something that has never happened before. And that in itself presents a very powerful statement of humanity. The fact that we’re able to channel and communicate our deep feelings, our conscious and subconscious feelings, as well as cosmic feelings, universal feelings. That can be gateways into new ways of thinking and being. So it’s a perfect vehicle, and I believe it has a unique position within music, that it has the power to change people on a molecular level.

And [it] can create a new paradigm in how to exist on this planet. It sparks different ideas and sorts of modes of thinking. And then in the process of listening to it you’re taken on a journey. And that journey inspires new sparks of inspiration and sparks new ideas. As you’re following along and allowing yourself to be fully engaged in the sound. And then you think about the physicality of what that sound is doing to your mind and to your body. I think it’s an approach to music that is ultimately about offering something new every time, just in the pure nature of it.

What do you think of the phrase ‘protest music’ in 2017?

Keir: ‘Protest music’ means nothing. You can be Kid Rock and making music that ‘protests’ what for him was the horrific presence of a person with black skin in the office of the president. And that’s protest music. ‘Protest’ isn’t in and of itself meaningful. It’s quantitative not qualitative.

I’m now in my early 40s and I’ve moved around in my radicalism and how it’s manifested. I definitely made some music for a couple years that I would  categorize as agitprop. Music where the lyrics will be really pushing the people listening to it to like challenge their notions of empire and oppression and state violence and racism. And the environmental horrors of the state and corporations and all that.

I don’t repudiate that work, but I think it’s necessary for individuals to have commitments off stage also. Otherwise it’s just going to be a veneer. One of the things that social media offers people, especially people who are coming up with it as a given in their lives, is the possibility of putting on and peeling off layers of how they present themselves to the world, which may be very damaging.

I used to set my gaze really far. That agitprop project I was doing, I was looking at Afghanistan, or Iraq, and Palestine, and Yemen. And I think that’s all really important. But when I started to look closer to where I was I found the possibility of having more immediate effect in what I was doing.

It really feels important to me, this idea that protest music in and of itself is not going to get us very far much further down the road [but what will is] building community, building real relationships, building structures, where we can help each other.

Luke: To me, a lot of these distinctions can be problematic, about what is protest music, or what music should or shouldn’t be in particular times. Should we be making music that speaks specifically to the community? Should we be creating things for the uplift of humanity? I think an artist should be free to do whatever they want to do.

But this record is a statement both musically and politically about what’s going on right now. I’ve spoken a little bit about the politics around how we came together. And it is a very indeed cosmic coincidence. But musically, I think it’s unique in that we’re all very active musicians in our own right and all have something very unique to offer in coming together. I think it’s a protest both politically and musically. It has to be revolutionary on all fronts.

*Listen and purchase Irreversible Entanglements’ album here.

Liz Pelly

Liz Pelly