"Our best musicians in the jazz tradition were radical imaginers," Samora Pinderhughes says. A pianist and composer in his mid-20s, he has asserted his connection to that lineage with The Transformations Suite, an earnest and ambitious new work combining music, words and visuals. The piece, which took five years to chisel into shape, was inspired by African-American resistance and protest movements, as well as the oppression that many still endure.
Pinderhughes now lives in Harlem, but he grew up in the Bay Area, in a family of academics and social activists. Shortly after releasing The Transformations Suite last fall, he brought the project to the Way Christian Center in Berkeley for a performance that was several things at once: a homecoming, an album-release concert, a rousing community gathering.
Along with a group of smart young jazz musicians, the ensemble features spoken-word poetry by the accomplished actor Jeremie Harris and passages of soulful singing by Jehbreal Jackson. The site of convergence for these artists was Juilliard, the elite conservatory — and that unlikely setting for grassroots activism is a sign of how pressing and pervasive these issues have become.
Social justice and political outrage have been front and center in a wide array of music over the last few years, from Common's hip-hop exhortation Black America Again to the Drive-By Truckers' Southern-rock manifesto American Band. But jazz artists have often been the leaders in this regard: Pinderhughes joins a growing number of his elders and peers in creating music that indicts, confronts and critiques, without pretending to provide easy answers. (It should come as no surprise that the pianist considers James Baldwin's writing a touchstone.)
One movement in The Transformations Suite, "Momentum, Pt. 2," grapples with income inequality and the criminal justice system: "Who owns the prisons," Harris cries, "and who are its occupants? Why do some have billions / While most struggle to survive?" Elsewhere, there are references to police violence and the legacies of slavery and state-sanctioned discrimination. In the concert performance, it's not hard to hear the urgency in the music itself — look no further than Riley Mulherkar's evocative trumpet solo in "History," over a vamp in hypnotic 5/4 time.
The call to change is central to the suite, as is the awareness of historical progress, however halting or tenuous it may seem. In the end, Pinderhughes voices a literal call to action: "Fight back!" goes the stirring refrain in a video montage that concludes the concert, amidst a ritual recitation of all-too-familiar names like Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.
"We are searching for transformation," Pinderhughes says, adding that the word connotes more than any mere gesture of reform. "That's actual transformation of this society: how we think, how we act towards one another, and also the rules and policies that we put in place in our institutions and practices." The music, meanwhile, is here to stir as well as soothe, carrying its unambiguous sense of mission.
Samora Pinderhughes (bandleader, piano, vocals), Jehbreal Jackson (vocals), Jeremie Harris (spoken word), Riley Mulherkar (trumpet), Lucas Pino (tenor sax), Joshua Crumbly (bass), Jimmy Macbride (drums).
Producers: Alex Ariff, Josie Holtzman, Colin Marshall, Nick Michael; Editors: Nikki Boliaux, Colin Marshall; Concert Audio Engineer: Zach Miley; Doc Audio: Alex Ariff, Josie Holtzman; Supervising Sound Editor: Suraya Mohamed; Concert Videographers: Alex Ariff, Danger Charles, Josie Holtzman, Colin Marshall, Nick Michael, Matt Radick; Doc Videographers: Colin Marshall, Nick Michael; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Executive Producers: Gabrielle Armand, Anya Grundmann, Amy Niles; Special Thanks: The Way; Funded In Part By: The Argus Fund, Doris Duke Foundation, The National Endowment For The Arts, The Wyncote Foundation.