Jazz, Spirituality, and Politics: Kendrick Scott’s Oracle carries the tradition of John Coltrane and Max Roach

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Early last year, jazz drummer extraordinaire Kendrick Scott and his band Oracle released its spiritually galvanising album, Conviction, on Concord Records. Yet the album is not merely spiritual but politically elucidating. This is one of the marvels of Conviction, and it superbly illuminates the jazz album as a medium for spiritual and political empowerment as presented in the work of jazz icons John Coltrane and Max Roach.

In his book, Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of The Sixties, historian Scott Saul notes that A Love Supreme introduced “the new position of the jazz musician as spiritual avatar.” Saul also goes on to say that A Love Supreme represented “a resonant expression of spiritual uplift and gratitude” and that “Coltrane affirmed the deepest of religious longing.” A Love Supreme as a “liturgical language” was a musical antiphony that documented Coltrane’s spiritual conversion after a tumultuous time of suffering from drug and alcohol abuse. The album’s ability to touch the human spirit propelled Coltrane’s meteoric rise in jazz, and has made it one of the greatest albums of any genre.

Now if A Love Supreme introduced the jazz musician as a “spiritual avatar,” then it could be said that Max Roach’s We Insist! album (1960) presented to the world the jazz musician as a “political avatar.” Filled with themes that addressed the social and political drama of the late 1950’s in the US and abroad, We Insist! served as a precursor to the jazz album’s ability to musically contextualize and package the musician’s political critique.

Scott and his band Oracle, as well as other new jazz leaders, are carrying the tradition of employing social commentary and/or spirituality as an underlying motive for their compositions and arrangements. Other examples include faith themes on saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III’s For Those who Believe as well as Kirk Whalum’s The Gospel According to Jazz. Trumpeter Christian Scott also engages several political themes from Yesterday You Said Tomorrow such as the passionate tune, ‘Angola, LA and the 13th Amendment’, which is a commentary on neo-slavery.

On ‘Pendulum’, the first track of Conviction, the famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th century monk, is read by Scott, introducing the album’s intent and the bandleader’s petition for humility and submission to God’s will. Even though the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is Christian in nature, it is similar to the poems read on A Love Supreme, although Coltrane’s poems embody what historian Scott Saul calls a “pan-spirituality.” Nevertheless, Scott and Coltrane’s usage of poetry/prayer is a remarkable tool that uses “spoken word” to verbally coalesce their personal faith experiences with their music.

I found one of Conviction’s most spiritual pieces to be Joe Sanders’ improvised solo bass performance entitled, ‘We Shall by Any Means’. The first part of the title of “We Shall By Any Means” is actually derived from the gospel tinged ‘We Shall Overcome’, which became the anthem for the 1960’s Civil Rights movement and is still sung today. The other part of the title comes from the phrase “By any means necessary,” which was extracted from Malcolm X’s 1960’s speech and has since become a popular catchphrase. Both phrases were from leaders whose pursuit of social justice and freedom emanated from their personal faith.

I am glad that in the midst of several back-to-back tracks on the album that engage the idea of human rights, (an arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s ‘I Have A Dream’ and Scott’s original composition ‘Liberty or Death’), the decision was made to choose a bass solo. Sanders’ performance creates the same type of spiritual awe and meditative soundscape that emerges when listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites in a minor key. It was a completely unexpected and arresting surprise.

The solo’s minor key immediately posits the listener in a state of “all seriousness,” with its aesthetically dark and melodious theme beginning on D. It becomes a monophonic narrative as Sanders’ utilizes careful and beautifully peculiar harmonies – with tenths and other leaps –between the upper and lower register of the bass. On ‘We Shall By Any Means’, the solo seems to express a politically intense and historical moment where African Americans struggled for democracy and equality. However, the theme can now apply to race and gender groups around the world who are fighting for these ideals as well.

The track entitled ‘Conviction’ is driving and also spiritually penetrating. It’s a total musical drama that perfectly glues all of the voices through the compositional brilliance of acclaimed bassist and composer Derrick Hodge. Taylor Eigsti’s gorgeous chord selections and ornamentation on “Conviction” are both clever and sophisticated. Last, ‘Conviction’ features another meritorious drum performance by Scott. Oracle has an incredible line-up that includes bandleader and drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist Taylor Eigsti, guitarist Mike Moreno, saxophonist John Ellis, and bassist Joe Sanders. The album also features bassist and vocalist Alan Hampton.

– K. Shackelford