Irreversible Entanglements is a band built on improvisation, five jazz virtuosos—poet/vocalist Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), bassist Luke Stewart, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, saxophonist Keir Neuringer, and drummer Tcheser Holmes—coalescing around an idea and discovering where it takes them. Their live shows are typically presented as a single piece of music, one movement seamlessly evolving into the next as they explore their anti-colonial and anti-fascist politics through sound. Their albums so far have mirrored this approach. After bonding during a Musicians Against Police Brutality event, they recorded their self-titled 2017 debut in a single day in Brooklyn, their first time performing as a collective.
Their fourth album, Protect Your Light, represents a departure from this free-flowing process. Recording across several days, the ensemble leaned into the tools of the studio, reexamining material and layering overdubs with help from multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. The list of production credits dwarfs the lyrics sheet; each member wields multiple instruments, producing an album that sounds bigger than the five-piece group that created it. Cymbals crash, saxophones scream, horns swirl, and basslines walk confidently before tumbling down the stairs. But the chaos is controlled. The songs are relatively concise for Irreversible Entanglements, with the longest one clocking in at seven and a half minutes.
Their early work was often confrontational, demanding engagement with uncomfortable topics such as systemic racism, gentrification, and the struggle to preserve community in spite of these forces. On “Land Back,” they continue to evoke anti-colonial struggles around the world and challenge the West’s self-appointed role at the center of geopolitics: “In Ethiopia, in Nigeria, in the so-called Middle East/Who knows what happened?” But for the most part, Protect Your Light takes a more patient and self-reflective approach, vibrating on a different frequency. It’s the act of refilling one’s vessel in song form.
That process begins, of course, with love: love for one’s self, neighbors, and family. “Free love/That lives in you,” Ayewa begins on the album’s opener, the start of a poem that ruminates on the bi-directional nature of love. Her voice is airy and drenched in reverb, radiating into the atmosphere as the drums roll along with her. Then the cymbals fade, the bass struts in, and the drum kit pulls you back down to earth. “root<=>branch” pays tribute to the late trumpeter jaimie branch, former labelmate and friend. “We can get free/Free from the pain/Free from the struggle/Let’s get free,” Ayewa pleads, as a layer of synthesized static crescendos to a high-pitched squeal. In the song’s second half, the horns and sax dance and scat joyfully, but by the sixth minute they seem to cry out in pain.
This is Irreversible Entanglements’ first album for storied jazz label Impulse!, home to greats like John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Pharoah Sanders. To record it, the band set up shop at Rudy Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, a historic space inhabited by the ghosts of jazz giants. And though the studio is not referenced specifically, its spiritual energy seems to carry through the album. On “Soundness,” Ayewa beckons us inside (“You are safe here/In the room”) and lets fluttering horns and reeds wash over us, connecting the practice of prayer to the safety of the spaces in which it is conducted. These are the places where the energy of the universe is concentrated, cultivated, and protected: the places where music is made.
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