Damon Locks/Black Monument Ensemble : NOW

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Damon Locks’ background is in punk. The Chicago artist and musician once fronted Trenchmouth, an abstract and wiry post-hardcore group that included SNL alum Fred Armisen as one of its members. He also illustrated the Trojan horse on the cover of At the Drive-In’s legendary album Relationship of Command among other indie rock cover art pieces. But for the past decade or so, Locks’ focus has been in the realm of jazz, if a jazz that carries a similar kind of genre-averse sensibility as the other records he’s released throughout his career. He’s in large part responsible for the visual aesthetic of the International Anthem label, having designed the artwork for records by Irreversible Entanglements and Jaimie Branch, as well as having contributed to recordings by Exploding Star Orchestra. He also launched Damon Locks / Black Monument Ensemble, a project that began with his own sample-based creations that layered clips from Civil Rights Era speeches over programmed beats but has expanded to include a four-piece band and a six-piece choir.

NOW, Locks’ second album with the Ensemble, is a testament to how much his vision has grown in a relatively short time. Recorded in 2020, between Covid lockdown and nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations, NOW sounds vastly bigger than the limitations that necessity imposed upon it, and it feels as urgent as its title suggests. The album lives in the shadow of tragedy—NOW is inspired by the cruel injustices that led to widespread demonstration in the summer of 2020, and the second day of its recording sessions coincided with the anniversary of the death of Emmett Till and that night, the death of Chadwick Boseman—the “biggest Black superhero,” as Locks describes him in a press release. But those first recording sessions were captured outside in the open air, and there’s a sense of openness and joyfulness that courses through these tracks, even in the face of anxiety and hurt.

That context is inextricable from NOW, but so is the sense of joy and possibility. These are songs that imagine a brighter future and provide a brilliant score for the pathway forward. Locks is joined by clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid, cornetist Ben LaMar Gay, drummer Dana Hall and percussionist Arif Smith, as well as the choir of Philip Armstrong, Monique Golding, Tramaine Parker, Richie Parks, Erica Rene and Eric Tae’von, and the sounds they build together are both beautiful and overwhelming. The structure of the album finds four shorter tracks placed in the middle between two longer, even more stunning showpieces, though even in its more concise moments, it’s a dazzling sequence to behold. “The People vs. The Rest of Us” moves with funky urgency and kaleidoscopic loops, whereas “Keep Your Mind Free” carries a loose groove up until its final minute, at which point the choir rises up, their glorious rush of voices filling the open space. Yet it’s “Barbara Jones-Hogu and Elizabeth Catlett Discuss Liberation,” the second shortest track here at just under two minutes, that carries what feels like a mission statement for the album: “A language that is new/ And new equations/ A change in what we say/ A voice to pave the way.”

It’s in the two longer tracks where the Black Monument Ensemble showcase the greatest depth of their compositions. It helps that they have more real estate to make it happen, though the pulsing spiritual jazz of “The Body Is Electric” feels like it could keep going for twice as long as its 11 minutes without losing any of the vibrant mystery that makes it feel so alive. Opener “Now (Forever Momentary Space)” is the most breathtakingly beautiful piece of them all, however, driven in large part by Dawid’s haunting clarinet performance and a choral delivery reminiscent of the Sun Ra Arkestra in its late-’70s era transcendence. These are pieces that are as hypnotic as they are rich in gorgeous detail and heavy emotions, best summarized by the Ensemble’s own hopeful, deeply affecting words: “You can see it all, universal insight/ You can see it now, spectrum brilliant and bright.”

Label: International Anthem

Year: 2021

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