Four minutes into “The Code Noir/Amina,” the leadoff track on Irreversible Entanglements’ second album Who Sent You?, Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, asks, “At what point do we stand up?” She follows up that thought a minute later, punctuating her thoughts with a moment of righteous anger: “At what point do we give a shit?” It’s a question many of us have probably been asking ourselves a lot lately, as one more godawful thing gets added to the pile, one more hopeless situation feels like something we have no control over, one more tweet from a narcissistic cartoon villain is treated as news, one more person is denied a basic human right. It’s a question worth asking: At what point do we give a shit?
Ayewa and the other members of Philadelphia free-jazz ensemble Irreversible Entanglements, at least, most certainly give a shit. Their self-titled 2017 debut album, much like Moor Mother’s 2019 album Analog Fluids of Sonic Black Holes, found hypnotic rhythm in the language of protest—a groove carved out in the shape of activism. It’s lively, furious music—it excites, it energizes, precisely the kind of sound and statement that’s designed for movement. And that’s both physical and figurative. “The Code Noir/Amina” speaks to the need for a movement, certainly, but its hard bop rhythmic structures evoke life and verve. Frustration and determination fuel this music, but rhythm and melody shape it.
That frustration and determination, however, is the one absolute throughout Who Sent You? There are five tracks here, and just as many different approaches, the sum total of which displays the versatility and unpredictability of the group. Though Irreversible Entanglements are described as “free jazz,” the 15-minute “Who Sent You? – Ritual” is the only track of the bunch that takes it to its most chaotic extreme, putting into sound the anxiety that invades our psychic space. But far more often there’s funk behind the collective’s pointed social critiques. The album’s first single, “No Más,” finds Ayewa juxtaposing the title phrase against chants of “infinite possibilities,” expressing hope and solidarity backed by Keir Neuringer’s saxophone and Aquiles Navarro’s trumpet leads. Luke Stewart’s climbing bassline drives the frantic “Blues Ideology,” opening with a hell of a one-liner from Ayewa: “The Pope must be drunk!” It stumbles toward chaos, but constantly maintains a sure footing even as the intensity rises, and the rhythm threatens to collapse on top of itself.
While final track “Bread Out of Stone” feels the most stark and skeletal, it’s one of the most potent as a result, giving drummer Tcheser Holmes plenty of canvas to cover beneath Ayewa’s similarly minimalist narration. She speaks of a tradition that’s handed down from generations, of “making bread from stone,” and the metaphor’s twofold. It’s a basic statement of hope and survival, of how generations past have made do in times of crisis, but against the rhythmic repetitions, it nods to the group’s own ability to use improvisation to make magic out of the ether. That in itself is inspiring, and though there’s tension and sharp social critique in Irreversible Entanglements’ music, there’s also joy. Giving a shit isn’t just about knowing where to direct your frustration, but also in knowing the importance of celebration.
Label: International Anthem
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.