Robert Christgau on Jazz-Rock Staple Harriet Tubman
The Dean takes a trip around the world this week, reviewing albums from Brazil's Thiago Nassif, New Orleans' Hot 8 Brass Band, and Haiti's RAM.
Photo of Melvin Gibbs and JT Lewis of Harriet Tubman by Hiroyuki Ito,Getty Images
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it—the music editor of the Village Voice from 1974 to 1985 and its chief music critic for several decades after that. At the Voice he created both the annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll and his monthly Consumer Guides. Christgau was one of the first critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." He taught at New York University between 1990 and 2016, and has published six books, including his 2015 memoir Going Into the City . A seventh, Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017 , is now available from Duke University Press. Every Friday we run Expert Witness, the weekly version of the Consumer Guide he launched in 2010. To find out more, read his welcome post; for almost five decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Harriet Tubman: The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside) Inexhaustible bassist Melvin Gibbs, the fulcrum of this long active, not much recorded trio, has been a jazz-rock rock since Sonny Sharrock schooled him and vice versa in the '80s. But this album is defined by guitarist Brandon Ross, who's not quite Sharrock but has every right to cite Jack Johnson/John McLaughlin-period Miles Davis as its model—more than he would, in fact, with the group's 2017 Araminta, which featured trumpet legend Wadada Leo Smith. The many highlights are all different—diddleybeat opener "Farther Unknown," rhythm-shifting "The Green Book Blues," dubwise-plus "Five Points," painfully distorted reading of "Redemption Song." Less galvanic than McLaughlin, Ross is richer and fuller to compensate, as on "3000 Worlds," which builds from the barely audible clatter of not actually random percussion to a stately and even leisurely guitar homily that's not so much driven as adorned by bass and drums laying down contrapuntal patterns of their own. A MINUS
Thiago Nassif: Três (Foom) Guitarist-vocalist Nassif having acted as Arto Lindsay's Rio-based co-producer on 2017's Cuidado Madame, Lindsay returns the favor, producing throughout and skronking here and there. Nassif seems less a knotty type than Lindsay, yet it's his record that packs the kind of acerbic, off-kilter Tom Zé-Elza Soares buzz that delivers samba and its children from suave. The quietly disquieting opener "Desordem" spends four minutes breaking open without ever coming apart. "Bulgado"'s minute of staticky blips bursts into declarative funk. A piano arrives to sweeten and sour the 2:43 "Algodoes." And several times I swear I could hear somebody interjecting a well-miked manual typewriter. A MINUS
Qais Essar: The Ghost You Love Most (self-released) Afghan-born rabab virtuoso enlists varied cast to prove yet again that the nominally Muslim world feels peace-out music more deeply than the nominally Christian one ("The Culmination of a Sorrowful Life," "The Ghost You Love Most") ***
The Hot 8 Brass Band: On the Spot (Tru Thoughts) Long-running New Orleans unit that's survived not one, not two, but three handgun deaths acts up all the way live behind Bernie Pete's sousaphone funk ("On the Spot," "St. James Infirmary") ***
RAM: August 1791 (Willibelle) No way do the synths dilute the groove or presence of Haiti's most celebrated contemporary-traditional band, but the bland lyric summaries dull its point ("Badji Fere," "St Claire [Gad Sa Nou Wé]") **
Nordub: Sly & Robbie Meet Nils Petter Molvaer Feat Elvind Aarset and Vladislav Delay (OKeh) Too much groove, not enough disruption ("Dream Drifter," "Strange Bright Crowd") **