Fans of forward-thinking, outernational music will no doubt be thrilled to hear that Kip Hanrahan’s world-renowned and world-encompassing American Clavé label is back. Truthfully, it never left. But, without for the better part of the last decade, seekers were forced to find these albums on import. With summer 2006 through enja records, these problems have been solved, and American Clave’s new releases are sure to impress both Hanrahan fans of old and newcomers alike.
With the release of Bad Mouth, the new double-CD by his band Conjure; his soundtrack to Every Child is Born a Poet, Jonathan Robinson’s documentary on legendary poet Piri Thomas; and Horacio El Negro Hernandez and Robby Ameen „El Negro and Robby at the Third World War“ Kip Hanrahan has come roaring back onto the scene with his unique musical juju.
A renowned composer, bandleader, visionary producer, and creative instigator, Hanrahan has long been known for intensely passionate music that is both tender and hard-driving, with a deep poetic edge. And if there is a definition of American Clavé music, it probably has much to do with the reason that the legendary Astor Piazzolla sought Hanrahan out in his later years, asking Hanrahan if he could record for the label. Piazzolla was vocal about his work with American Clavé being the best and crowning work of his life. It’s the same reason that many other revered musicians feel that their work with American Clavé and Hanrahan is their strongest (with many critics in agreement). It has to do with the fact that every American Clavé project – and Hanrahan’s method of working – encourages musicians to explore and produce their most personal, complex and truthful music.
Conjure, the band Hanrahan created some 25 years ago to set writer Ishmael Reed’s poems to music, turned heads with its first self-titled release in 1984 and the all-star cast of musicians it assembled (Taj Mahal, Olu Dara, Allen Toussaint, Steve Swallow). Their second release, Cab Calloway Stands in For the Moon (1988), added Don Pullen, Eddie Harris, and Bobby Womack, among others, and continued their fiery metamorphosis of Reed’s texts into rollicking songs full of surprises. Their 1992 European tour added Jimmy Scott and Jack Bruce as the vocalists, and featured a young D.D. Jackson on piano. Sadly, that edition was never formally recorded.
Technically — as he points out from his usual location, a studio in New York — Hanrahan serves as musical director and the band is “more of a cooperative effort,” in which individual players write music to texts of their choosing. He then works with the composer or directly with Reed, helping to guide the works to their full realization. His own concept of the band remains consistent to this day: „At the heart of Conjure is this rhythm section (yeah, it includes horns) that swings so strongly and intelligently that you can hear the joy the players have working with each other. You can’t escape the living respect they have for the magic of the tradition. At its sharp center are the words and stories of [Oakland-based novelist, academic godhead and revered social commentator] Ishmael Reed reintegrating themselves into the verbal griot tradition from which they come.“
Bad Mouth, then, marks the long-awaited return of Conjure, recorded after a triumphant tour of Japan and featuring new texts by Reed. The present version of the band includes musicians who have been there since the start (tenor saxophonist David Murray with his stratospheric solos) or since the second album (guitarist Leo Nocentelli; drummer Robby Ameen; and electric bassist Fernando Saunders, who is also lead vocalist on two songs); as well as longtime collaborators with Hanrahan’s own music (drummer Horacio El Negro Hernandez; conga player Richie Flores; violinist Billy Bang). As usual, Hanrahan has also added new voices, notably the blues-drenched electric guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart, who sings on three songs. Moreover, Ishmael Reed himself gains more presence in that his own recitations of his texts are featured on half of the pieces, the steady eye in the calm of the musical storm. Reed’s performance on the powerful indictment “In War Such Things Happen,” following a beautifully pensive two-bass duet (Saunders and Anthony Cox), is one of the record’s high points.