Tying music into a location can be a tricky thing. Towns mean many things to many people. A person’s view of a city often looks very different from what those around him see. And then there’s the difficulty of translating that view into a work of art. A lot can go wrong.
On Music Inspired by Freedmantown, drummer Reggie Quinerly draws his inspiration from Freedmantown, an area of Houston, Texas that once boasted the largest percentage of African-American homeowners immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation. Later referred to as the Fourth Ward, this was also where Quinerly spent his childhood years.
We know this, because on fifth track, titled “Interlude,” he tells us. And this is where it all could’ve fallen apart. On “Interlude,” Quinerly speaks to the listener. Backed by a church organ, Quinerly gives a short history of Freedmantown, then explains what the town means to him personally. To risk a break in the flow of the album by directly addressing the listener, it’s such a bad idea. Well, except those rare times when it actually works. And the reason it works is something Quinerly points out in the interlude, stating that his intention wasn’t “to try to recreate the music of this particular place, but what I did want to capture was a certain soulfulness… of music and the people… and the love.”
On Music Inspired By Freedmantown, Quinerly does exactly that.
By simply attempting to present an impression of Freedmantown through his personal lens, Quinerly avoids the pitfall of turning the album into a history lecture and makes it, instead, an artistic expression of creativity, leaving plenty of room for each listener’s imagination to leapfrog off the facts in whichever direction they choose. In a very subtle, very deft way, Quinerly inspires daydreams of a town that most listeners will never see in their lives.
That’s pretty cool.
Let’s talk about that music…
Your album personnel: Reggie Quinerly (drums, percussion), Tim Warfield (tenor sax), Mike Moreno (guitar), Gerald Clayton (piano), Vicente Archer (bass, electric bass), Antoine Drye (trumpet), Matt Parker (tenor saxophone), Corey King (trombone), and guests: Sarah Elizabeth Charles (vocals), and Enoch Smith Jr. (vocals, piano, organ, and some arranging).
Most tracks open with gusto and then proceed to swing. Album-opener “#13 A Corner View from Robin Street” gets things started with a rollicking mood almost celebratory. And eighth track “The Virginia Gentleman” is a hopping up-tempo piece with choppy emphases and interludes of delicate swaying. But these are just two examples of an album that is typically gonna keep everyone’s feet moving.
Second track “Live From the Last Row” is a bit more inquisitive, a moody bossa hybrid, though Quinerly’s exuberance on drums never lets any gloom settle in. Moreno’s guitar refracts notes with alarming delicacy and precision. It’s a sound that worked well on the modern nu-jazz of Brian Patneaude’s Riverview, and it’s cool to see that Moreno can bring that same sound to Quinerly’s old-school jazz album and have a similar positive effect. The same can be said about the swinging heat Moreno brings to fourth track “Fenster.”
The title-track is probably my favorite. A soulful groove light on its feet, Enoch Smith’s barely audible vocals riding it like a cresting wave, and trumpet and sax nudging the tune forward. Even the congregation of voices that pop up from time to time, as if the recording studio was located in a neighborhood church, enhance the tune’s warmth and accessibility. One of those songs that makes it so damn easy to like.
Seventh track “A Portrait of a Southern Frame” comes in a close second for favorite album tune. A somber, moving piece, Drye’s trumpet takes it nice and slow, and couldn’t possibly achieve a lovelier tone to express sadness. The bridge has a wonderful moment of Clayton’s piano taking deliberate steps and contrasting against Quinerly’s frenetic drumming. This leads back to Drye restating the melody, slow and somber to end the tune. Just wonderful.
“#2 Xylent Letters” is another standout track. A tune with brooding undertones, Warfield’s sax brings a surging element that Clayton’s piano cuts sharp cross-sections out from. And all of this happens with Moreno’s guitar dancing in and out of punching range on guitar. The appealing quality here is that Quinnerly sounds to have juxtaposed a meandering post-bop section atop a classic hard-bop tune.
“Victoria” is the other album track with vocals. Sarah Elizabeth Charles sings a blues, accompanied by elegant piano work. Quinerly sits this one out, and the vacuum this presents allows Charles’s voice the room to stretch out a bit and add some emotional punch that might’ve been sacrificed for the sake of percussion.
The album ends with the only two non-original compositions: “I’m Old-Fashioned,” which features a nice solo on drums, and “Sentimental Journey,” which Quinerly admits to choosing because it’s a favorite of his mother’s. While not falling out of line with the album that proceeded it, these two songs also don’t add anything significant. The only real weak spot on the album (if solid jazz can actually be construed as a ‘weakness.’). It would’ve been better had Quinerly cut these two tracks out and either ended with the powerful “Victoria” or added one additional original composition as the album closer. This, however, comes down to nitpicking over what was, ultimately, an excellent recording.
I first gave this album a spin back in August, and now five months later, Music Inspired by Freedmantown is becoming an increasingly necessary part of my music routine. It deserves far more attention that it appears to have received, especially considering this is Quinerly’s debut. An auspicious recording debut, to be sure.
Released on Quinerly’s Redefinition Music label.
Originally from Houston, TX, Quinerly is part of the NYC jazz scene.
Download a free album track at AllAboutJazz, courtesy of the artist.