Black and White Liner Notes
Baltimore has fallen off the jazz map over recent years. The home of modern heroes - such as Gary Bartz, Gary Thomas, Dennis Chambers, Cyrus Chestnut, Antonio Hart, and George Colligan - has felt its scene dry up leaving few quality playing or listening opportunities. In many ways, the town’s jazz scene mirrors the struggles of the city as a whole over past decade - so many have moved away leaving many neighborhoods desolate and abandoned. But as Baltimore today works to mount its comeback, so too are several young musicians trying to make the statement that jazz still has a voice there.
A few days past his 26th birthday at the time of this recording, Russell Kirk is an example of this fresh crop of Baltimore musicians. A graduate of the new jazz department at Peabody Conservatory (headed by tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas), Kirk first heard jazz on the radio as a kid and soon started seeking more. Kirk shares that he gravitated to players “with more of an edge” like Thomas, Bartz, and Chambers who all influenced his approach and desire to play more “outside the box.” On regular trips to play in nearby Washington DC, he frequently hears musicians comment, “Yeah, you got that Baltimore sound!” and it’s captured here in his debut recording which displays a serious saxophonist pushing to explore his solo and compositional voice.
The album Black and White is intentionally one of contrasts. Most of the tunes presented are jazz standards that represent an older time period, one which Kirk associates with black and white photography. But while “I Hear A Rhapsody,” “Rhythm-a-Ning,” and “Chelsea Bridge” are instantly familiar to listeners, other tracks offer greater contrasts of modern harmonies, rhythms, and even lyrics. The title track for example puts all these components to work and offers a new take on the old standard "Bye-Bye Blackbird". The tune features vocalist Felicia Carter on brief lyrics, penned by Kirk, which offer an introspective look at race. Starting with, “So now you see only, in black, and white,” the lyrics embody Kirk’s feeling that people in Baltimore still struggle with race. “I think it goes both ways,” he laments, “and I don’t know if people will ever get over it”.
But where his city’s (and the nation’s) continued resistance to work through unresolved racial and social flaws bother Kirk, he has assembled a band across racial lines to communicate the message of his music which he hopes speaks to all listeners. Early on he knew he wanted to use bassist Kris Funn and drummer Howard Curtis for their powerful feel and strong foundation, and he chose pianist Harry Appelman for his unique solo voice and comping ability that, as Kirk explains, “is all over what you’re doing but gives you the freedom to do your own thing.”
Kirk further reflects on the dynamics of his hometown in his original composition “Houses Boarded Up” which speaks to an issue that bonds Baltimoreans across the racial divide. The tune’s pensive mood captures a sadness of the city’s neighborhoods - plagued by blocks of vacant rowhomes abandoned by the thousands of residents leaving over the past 40 years. The lyrics, melody, and harmony chillingly portray this darkness hovering over the city – a melancholy pierced only by a small but powerful melodic ray of hope (near the end of the tune’s form) that suggests Kirk’s desire for his city’s future resurrection.
Another take on a standard is “Kandahar” which uses the harmonic structure of Johnny Mercer’s classic “Autumn Leaves” but adds a Kirk melody that embodies an experience from his recent tour to Afghanistan. “We were performing for our troops in Kandahar and while we were there, they were detonating mines,” Kirk recalls. “It was a very strange experience and I tried to capture it with the melody. But I also asked Kris and Howard to use a more free approach on their solos, and I feel like that really brought out the essence of my time in Afghanistan.”
Kirk’s take on “Beatrice” offers another example of juxtaposing the old and new. In re-harmonizing the classic Sam Rivers composition, Kirk presents an arrangement that shows the influence of explorations done using his computer. “I wanted a sequence-like looping feel,” he explains. This repetitious sound can be heard by the rhythm section during the melody and on Kirk’s probing solo. The arrangement then shifts to a traditional swing approach for the subsequent solos but contrasts that with the use of a bass clarinet solo. “I wanted to use Todd Marcus on a couple tunes,” Kirk recalls, “because we come out of the same kind of approach and he’s one of the few bass clarinet players out there to play really hard in a style that I enjoy.”
Kirk further explores the tonal contrast of the alto sax and bass clarinet on his original “The Souk” which also features the impressively mature 14-year-old drummer Kush Abadey. “The Souk”, inspired by Kirk’s tour to the Middle-Eastern country Bahrain, seeks to conjure the imagery of a bazaar that displayed many different items for sale in one festive market place. The setting had a comforting feel which he conveys by using the structure of the blues. But he also portrays the many unfamiliar differences of that market by using a harmonic structure much more complex and foreign than that of a conventional blues.
Kirk closes the album with another original. Composed using computer sequencing, the composition’s title “Novus” means “new” in Latin. But as opposed to the original electronic computer version, it embraces the album’s theme of contrasts and reincarnates the tune as an acoustic duo between alto and piano.
And it is these contrasts that seem to personify Kirk’s playing at this point in his life; a love for the traditional juxtaposed with a growing passion for experimentation with new ideas and musical sounds; an embrace of the sound of his city’s great musicians but a desire to transcend it’s social downfalls; and an assessment of things Black and White with an effort to make a statement on what that sounds like.
Todd R. Marcus