Isaiah Collier: Black Emperor!

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In an interview with Jazzfuel earlier this year, renowned impresario Ahmet Uluğ, when asked for his recommendations among his recent discoveries, chose only one name, Isaiah Collier, saying that the young musician had a new attitude and that his music excited him.

Uluğ is not alone in this choice; ever since Collier was introduced to the jazz world outside of Chicago by the AACM’s Khabeer Ernest Dawkins in 2016, at the tender age of 18, he has been thrilling jazz fans with everything he does. Serious jazz listeners are convinced that Collier is one of the most outstanding members of a new generation of players who perform with agility and enthusiasm in a way that makes tradition contemporary and timeless.

Isaiah Collier and Michael Shekwoaga Ode

Raised in a family of musicians on the South Side of Chicago, Collier took up the saxophone at the age of eleven, studying simultaneously at the Jazz Institute of Chicago and Chicago High School for the Arts. He grew up in the city that produced such great tenor players as Gene Ammons, Eddie Harris, Johnny Griffin and Clifford Jordan. Although he started out emulating straight-ahead players, the Windy City inevitably blew him towards inspiring masters like Ari Brown, Von Freeman, Fred Anderson, Roscoe Mitchell and he joined the AACM Chicago at a tender age.

Collier describes jazz as ‘the message of the ancestors’ and combines the spiritual and free jazz tributaries of the river of Great Black Music in his passionate saxophone playing. His style proudly carries the legacy of saxophonists with great breath, such as Pharoah Sanders or Albert Ayler. But most of all, in my opinion, Collier keeps alive the desire to ‘go beyond all defined boundaries’ that is at the core of John Coltrane’s music. His performances, concerts and albums prove that he is not far from achieving this goal.

Return of the Black Emperor (2018 Good Vibes Only) is Isaiah Collier’s first album with his group, The Chosen Few. Opener June 11th declares where Collier stands and where he is heading. With a playing that pushes the sonic boundaries of the instrument and a preacher’s eloquence that holds his congregation in the palm of his hand, he nods to Chicago’s blues-influenced expressionist saxophone tradition.

In fact, as the album’s title track reveals, for Collier the concept of tradition refers not only to jazz, but more broadly to the blues and the entire black culture rooted in it. The blues is an organic part of Collier’s music, not as a form, but as a feeling that underpins all forms of black artistic expression. With his eloquence, Collier salutes the expressive saxophone tradition that feeds on Chicago’s blues vein.

Isaiah Collier & The Chosen Few’s second album, The Unapologetic Negro (2019 Self released), was recorded live in a trio format, allowing the saxophonist to address his audience more directly.

Activist and musician Angel Bat Dawid, in her lines notes, blesses the album as a ‘a return of a sound… from a not so far present future space’, and baptises Collier as ‘Black Emperor’.

The album was named in reference to the essay of the same name by Damon Young, one of the new generation of pioneers in the struggle for black rights. In a nutshell, Young argued that not caring what white people think is a prerequisite for being unapologetically black.

In parallel, Collier’s playing style was an extension of the musical perspective of John Coltrane’s late period, which had been tamed and hollowed out by white-dominated mainstream jazz. The Unapologetic Negro was an album that went a step further than his first, not only in terms of political discourse but also in terms of musicality. The already vague post-bop style was completely sidelined in favour of Coltrane-style spiritualism.

“We should not let anything limit us” says Collier, and the third album, Cosmic Transitions (2021 Division 81 Records), as expected and as the title suggests, is a reflection of the transcendence that John Coltrane’s music has reached in recent years.

The Chosen Few, consisting of Isaiah Collier on soprano and tenor saxophone, Michael Shekwoaga Ode on drums, Jeremiah Hunt on bass and Mike King on piano, recorded the new album at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio, the home of all of Coltrane’s albums in his final years (and especially Transitions). They chose the day he turned 94 to enter this legendary studio, whose walls bear the traces of jazz’s most glorious sounds.

Cosmic Transitions is not a copycat album, nor are Collier and The Chosen Few imitating the Classic Quartet. Their sole purpose is to keep the spirit of Coltrane and the musicians who accompanied him on his glorious journey alive and, in a sense, to even revive them and inspire their own music.

I assure you, the music you are about to hear can only be described as Cosmic Transitions. The dynamic bond between Collier and The Chosen Few, who play with an indescribable confidence and dedication, can only be explained by the concept of transition. Cosmic Transitions is a masterpiece full of transitions between harmony and conflict, chaos and order, beauty and ugliness, and justifies all the references to Coltrane.

The following year, after recording Beyond, I Am (Division 81 Records) as a duo with drummer Michael Shekwoaga Ode, he appeared on the album A Time for Healing (Spiritmuse Records) by first generation AACM member and founder of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Khalil El’Zabar.

Collier considers the stage as a workspace where he can discover new sounds, so each performance is full of surprises that can turn the audience upside down.

So much so that he is exploring a more mature approach with his 12-piece ensemble The Celestials Project, inspired by Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream of the 1950s, which sought to combine jazz and classical music. He also incorporates electronics and pedals on stage, regarding them as instruments of improvisation. He often adds visual elements to his performances.

In this Fourth Stream, which endeavors to make the entire musical tradition that originated in Africa and spread throughout the world, in a sense diaspora music, dominant in jazz, he draws inspiration not only from the past but also from the present of black music such as Kendrick Lamar, Earth Wind and Fire, D’Angelo or Jill Scott. He strives to take what is considered to be outside the boundaries of jazz and bring it back to its source. Collier knows that classifications are artificial and relative; the accents are different but the language is the same.

Everyone has their pain. Collier just wants people to understand that of his people and his community. He knows it’s not an easy goal to achieve, but he also knows that without effort the reality will not change. He is a firm believer in the power of music and that it is one of the tools to lead a more dignified life.

Collier’s attitude is a legacy of the political stance that black art has taken since the Harlem Renaissance. On the one hand, he glorifies the color of his skin, and on the other hand, he proves to the still persistent skull-mindset that blacks can be just as creative as whites, and in some circumstances even more so. His endeavor may be political, but his art is neither ideologically nor aesthetically sterile. On the contrary, he argues that music (or more specifically jazz), which becomes sterile remaining within the limits of the aesthetic rules accepted as the norm in the US, can be renewed and refreshed by returning to its roots, and he convincingly proves this with his music.

Don’t judge him only by his attributions alone. What Collier is trying to do is to follow in the footsteps of the blackest of his ancestors, to keep alive the understanding that he embodied through his art, to prove to his generation and those who will come after him that only black people can carry on this great tradition, but above all to perform his new, original, brave, uncompromising and unapologetic music. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that he has so many ambitions. It’s music after all, don’t worry…

The revitalization of jazz’s African roots, which have been neglected for a while, and the addition of not only musical but also spiritual elements will undoubtedly lift this stagnant art form. Otherwise, the rest is maths…

Isaiah Collier is only 25 years old. The level of maturity he has reached in the seven years he has left behind is astonishing. His past and present are fantastic. I wonder where tomorrow will take him, but one thing I am sure of is that if there is to be a future for jazz, Isaiah Collier is destined to be the future of jazz.

Now is the time to hear him in person in Turkey!

Official Isaiah Collier website.

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