23 June 2022
The cliché label for the band Harriet Tubman would be “power trio,” but a more apt description is that they perform like a thunderstorm in all its phases. Ominous preambles, with darkening skies, distant rumbles and gusts that upend the leaves on their branches. Quickening intensities, where the rumble claps, then quakes into violent climaxes, penetrating vibrations amid a downpour strafed by jagged lightning. And aftermaths where the remnants of the onslaught gasp and sigh, drops fall intermittently from roofs and trees, gutters gurgle and puddles splash.
The phases are arrayed in different ways from song to song, but the organic nature of what Harriet Tubman plays is palpable. Formed nearly a quarter-century ago in New York City, the members — bassist Melvin Gibbs, drummer J.T. Lewis and guitarist Brandon Ross — named their band after the iconic heroine of the Underground Railroad so they couldn’t shirk a sense of purpose. Their resumes steeped in a swath of cohorts that range from the knottiest of avant garde jazz cats to household names like Sting and Tina Turner (with plenty of funk, Latin and metal musical luminaries also in the mix), they regard the quest for musical, personal and spiritual freedom as inextricably intertwined.
The band, who will play at Icehouse on Thursday night, is comprised of strong personalities who each can create a large musical presence. Ross is a guitarist who can ripple, skronk and squall in a manner akin to Jimi Hendrix without being a Hendrix imitator. The throb and pulse of Gibbs on bass can be the tent-pole rhythm of dub and funk songs, fatten the mix of punk and metal retain the agility of improvisational jazz. And Lewis is a shape-shifting timekeeper comfortable in most any context, who manages to be both reliable and unpredictable in all the right places. But each musician also knows that while the middle phase of the thunderstorm gets most of the attention, its glorious arc requires the contest of other phases.
“I wanted a blank canvas where I could put my experiences with Lou Reed and Tina Turner and (the glissando-fueled jazz pianist) Don Pullen together,” Lewis said via a zoom call last weekend (which also included Gibbs), when asked about the original allure of Harriet Tubman. “I wanted an environment where we could use all of that as well as the skills taught by our jazz elders in how to move through the music.”
Gibbs took a different tack to share a similar sentiment. “There is that moment in the Pentecostal Church where the woman is catching the Holy Ghost but she is still in her body — she is accessing two consciousness at the same time. For me, that is what free jazz is. And for me, that feeling can translate into other types of music, where you enter that turning point. That is a conscious thing I am working toward.”
‘A way for the terror and the beauty to live together in one song’
At Icehouse, Harriet Tubman will concentrate on the songs and music from their past two albums as the launch pad for their performance. Not coincidentally, that also encompasses the period when they began utilizing the ears and judgment of producer Scotty Hard.
“Scotty is more of a curator,” Gibbs emphasizes. “Say you have 100 art works but only 20 of them can make it into the art show. Somebody has to decide.” In this analogy, the “art works” are the improvisations that become coherent enough to be regarded as songs, or potential parts of songs, when the trio is jamming in the studio. The legendary producer Teo Macero fulfilled a very similar role “curating” the groundbreaking electric jazz Miles Davis was creating in the late 1960s.
Onstage, of course, those curated songs will be enlivened by further spontaneous improvisation among the band members. Ditto the songs that are pre-composed, like the two Gibbs wrote for the group’s latest album, “The Terror End of Beauty.” The record’s multi-rhythmic opening composition, “Farther Unknown,” is a tribute to the “pre-ragtime” music of Gibbs’ Gullah/Geechee heritage. And the title song, is an homage to the blistering jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, a mentor to Gibbs.
The album and the song are both named after a memorable quote from Sharrock, who stated, “I am trying to find a way for the terror and the beauty to live together in one song.” That nexus, and corresponding ambition, is at the heart of what Harriet Tubman is also after. In addition to the frequently beautiful title song, you hear it in the 3-minute slab of doom-metal entitled “Prototaxite,” full of feedback and the distant sound of electronics mimicking a human cry. You hear it in the serpentine, claustrophobic path threaded by “Green Book Blues” (named before the infamous “Green Book” film was released).
“The rage inside of the music is healing, just like the blues is healing,” said Lewis, who sardonically joked that there should be a digital, online version of a new Green Book, because, as Gibbs rejoined, “As Black people, we are definitely back to thinking about what truck stops we are going to pull into, right?”
George Floyd was killed on May 25, which happened to be Gibbs’ birthday. When he visited George Floyd Square that same summer, the peaceful vibe of the place, mixed with the global outcry over Floyd’s killing, compelled him to release the album “4 + 1 Equals 5 for May 25,” with songs often buoyed by hope. He has returned to the site a few times since that first visit, and will play at a venue less than 3 miles away from it on Thursday, but is understandably less sanguine about the future.
“I always think about the connection between Reconstruction and Jim Crow. There was a lot of love and desire for change that came out in the aftermath of George Floyd, but I was worried the reaction would be as strong as the reaction. As we can see, the police force didn’t change and not much has really changed.”
The most recognizable song likely to be played on Thursday is a rarity for Harriet Tubman, a cover song. Back when Brandon Ross was performing with vocalist Cassandra Wilson, they used to duet on Bob Marley’s riveting ballad, “Redemption Song,” doing justice to a composition that tells of being sold as slaves in its opening verse and later asks, “How long shall they kill our prophets/While we stand aside and look?”
In the decades since Marley’s death in 1981, “Redemption Song” has too often been miscast as a feel-good folk anthem. As Gibbs put it, “It had become overly familiar and lost a lot of its meaning.” On “The Terror End of Beauty,” Ross leads the group on a massive, majestic new version, laden with anguish and perseverance, a howling and healing that finds a way to put terror and beauty in one song.
“We were looking for a good song that shows how Tubman approaches music,” Gibbs revealed. “A lot of times people will hear that we’re a great band but they can’t quite figure out what it is exactly that we are up to.”
With a frame like “Redemption Song,” they know.