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A Short Take on Barry Long, Freedom in the Air

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Freedom in the Air is a powerful suite for quartet, improvised to accompany a projection of iconic, historic photographs (by James Karales and others) of events in the American Civil Rights movement. A group led by trumpeter Barry Long, and including saxophonist David Pope, bassist Joshua Davis and percussionist Phil Haynes, performed the music at the Campus Theatre of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on 23 February 2012; the performance was recorded on video, which can be viewed online through the university’s website. The compact disc or download is available for purchase from bandcamp.com. It’s a great recording, well worth buying.
The music is ekphrastic; sounds are keyed to visuals, sometimes providing auditory allegories – as in the fifth section, “Fifteen Minutes in Birmingham,” when the racial violence depicted in the photographs draws discordant, harsh responses from the players – but more often acting as reactive contemplation, a kind of aural commentary. For musical source material, Long draws on spirituals and protest songs, many of them from African-American religious and social traditions from the southern states, many of them performed by participants in the marches and protests to which the images bear historical witness. (Two pieces come from elsewhere than the American public domain, but both are deeply enmeshed in the civil rights soundscape: John Coltrane’s “Reverend King” – posthumously issued on his album Cosmic Music – and the song that provides the suite’s title, “Freedom in the Air” by Bernice Johnson Reagon.) Watching the video, you can see how attentive to and how focused on these images the members of the quartet remain, throughout the performance. The photos act not so much as score but as timbral palette, setting the tone. 
Without the visuals, the music still works incredibly well, but as a meditative rather than a contemplative tone-poem. Things open with Long solo on flugelhorn, intoning Reagon’s melody as an autumnal taps, framing what follows from the quartet in a largely elegiac register. The music on the whole is consistently measured and self-aware, rarely venturing beyond a medium tempo, but it’s also deeply evocative, entrancing, awash in genuine pathos. I have been trying for a few days to think of an analogue for this group’s sound, and the closest I can come is, perhaps, Paul Motian’s trios with Charles Brackeen (whose firm, deliberate tenor saxophone tone David Pope sometimes seems to echo). Phil Haynes’s drumming can occasionally be subtly unruly, gently but firmly disrupting easy agreements. Collectively, the quartet tends to refuse sentimentality or nostalgia in favour of a lyrically incisive and open-eared historicism, giving difficult episodes in a shared national past a present-tense relevance, a contemporaneity. Improvisation creates a set of contingent segues between what’s been done and what still happens, and invites us to consider, to reconsider, how negotiating these cultural challenges can vitally matter to us even now, especially now.
The manoeuvres between the contemplative and the meditative, between the reactive and the expressive, that this performance undertakes can be better addressed, I think, by looking at the video, and paying attention to the intensity of the musicians’ focus – how they themselves look at the on-screen images. Three of the four members of the quartet are academics, and two hold doctorates: I mention this fact to suggest that, if this music is to be understood as scholarship, there is no sense of clinical detachment or analytic objectivity here. The historical engagements they undertake are, instead, consistently creative, vital and moving. It’s also worth noting – although it’s a bit presumptuous on my part – that none of the musicians appears to have a visibly African-American heritage; given that they are playing through such thoroughly racially-inflected terrain, they might tend to be positioned as outsiders or onlookers. But Long’s point in presenting this music, I’d say, is to suggest that we are all – regardless of where we might think we come from or how we look – implicated in this cultural history, and that we need not only to be self-aware of that enmeshment, but also to actively negotiate our social subjectivities, building communities not necessarily through unproblematic identifications – such as similarities of appearance or background – but through our encounters with difference, with our own inherent differences. Barry Long’s music makes one such set of encounters sing. The video ends with a minute-long spontaneous silence that the CD can’t include, but it’s also one of the most powerful musical moments in the performance: a space of thoughtful, respectful exchange onto which this fleetingly profound music opens, helps us open.


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