The Chemistry of Irreversible Entanglements

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“Everything came together like the universe intended,” says Luke Stewart of the members of Irreversible Entanglements, from left, Camae Ayewa, Stewart, Tcheser Holmes, Keir Neuringer and Aquiles Navarro.

(Photo: Bob Sweeney)

Eight years ago, the now-shuttered Brooklyn-based underground performance space The Silent Barn hosted a Musicians Against Police Brutality event in the aftermath of the murder of Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old Black man who was shot by Peter Liang, a New York City police officer, in November 2014.

Among the musicians at Silent Barn that evening were a trio consisting of bassist Luke Stewart, saxophonist Keir Neuringer and poet and sound sculptor Camae Ayewa (who also performs as Moor Mother). Also on the bill was Heritage of the Invisible, a duo act composed of trumpeter Aquiles Navarro and drummer Tcheser Holmes.

Somehow amid the phalanx of musicians, a mutual admiration sparked between the two acts. “That night there were a lot of musicians, which was very beautiful,” Navarro recalls. “But, honestly, I don’t remember seeing Camae, Luke and Keir on stage.”

Navarro, however, does remember the sound of Neuringer’s piercing, emotive alto saxophone. “I’m a big sound person in terms of determining if the sound really resonates with me. The body doesn’t lie. So Keir’s saxophone sound caught my attention.”

Navarro and Holmes had just moved to the Big Apple from Boston, where they studied at New England Conservatory of Music. Prior to the Silent Barn event, the duo held a residency at the Bowery Poetry Club, where Navarro and Holmes would play about six minutes of jazz improvisation then accompany a rotating cast of spoken word artists. Still they kept their ears open for new opportunities in terms of performance spaces and other poets.

After Neuringer’s performance with Stewart and Ayewa that night, he approached Navarro and Holmes to see if they were interested in joining forces. “The combination between us with trumpet and drums, and them with the voice, saxophone and bass, was perfect,” Navarro says. “Plus, the thing that brought us together is the very essence of an irreversible entanglement. It’s like that thing that you didn’t know was already supposed to be together through the sound. It was meant to be.”

“Everything came together like the universe intended,” Stewart adds.

That spark between the two acts soon ignited into flame, giving birth to Irreversible Entanglements, a 21st century free-jazz quintet that has gained international acclaim from the noteworthy tastemaker media outlets such as Pitchfork, Wire magazine, and National Public Radio because of the group’s searing performances and three combustive albums — Irreversible Entanglements (2017), Who Sent You? (2020) and Open The Gates (2021) — on the Chicago-based indie label International Anthem.

The flame underneath the group rises even higher and hotter this year with Protect Your Light, their iridescent new album and first major release on Impulse! Records. Given the storied history of Impulse!, which has documented some of jazz’s most fearless, sonically unyielding artists, such as Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Roswell Rudd, Sun Ra and, of course, John and Alice Coltrane, respectively, the signing of Irreversible Entanglements is all the more auspicious yet probable.

The quintet recorded the new album in January 2023, some at the Brooklyn-based studio Figure 8 Recording. But what really raises the stakes, in terms of jazz historical reverence, is the fact that the group also ventured to Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, to record portions at the Van Gelder Studio — the same studio where John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme, Shepp recorded Fire Music and Sanders made Tauhid. And that’s just a tiny slice of the seminal art recorded there.

“It was definitely the first time I took pictures as we were recording,” Holmes recalls of his experience at the Van Gelder Studio. “I wanted to document it because it felt like I was dreaming to some extent. I kept thinking, ‘My God, look what we are doing.’ You adore many of those Impulse! records with that orange and black spine.

“But it felt like work, too,” Holmes continues. “It never occurred to me until I went into that drum room and I was like, ‘Oh, Elvin Jones was actually working when he recorded A Love Supreme. Yes, there was so much spirituality involved. But it struck me thinking that these guys were working really hard creating John Coltrane’s album. And then I thought, ‘My God, I’m with this band, Irreversible Entanglements. And we are working.’”

“Some studios are harder to get into,” Ayewa adds. “With some studios, you need a connector. It’s really hard. So, we definitely cherish the moment to be able to record in such a high-quality space with high-quality individuals behind the boards. It was a great experience.”

Consisting of all new material, Protect Your Light kicks off with the album’s lead single, “Free Love,” on which Ayewa’s spectral voice bursts through a brief, ominous sound cloud by intoning “free love that lives in you” before giving way to a mediation on affirming love that coalesces erotic and artistic pleasures. Once Stewart’s undulating ostinato figure and Holmes’ serrated drums propel the declarative riff of the horns, Ayewa’s layering poetry lulls the listener into a sensual world that sounds like the unlocking of Chakra energy.

The album proceeds with the title track, a joyous call-to-action assertion that bounces to a Brazilian samba groove on which the succinct melody played by Navarro and Neuringer prances with gleeful aplomb before the quintet enters into a free-fall of squalling dissonance and thunderous rhythms that have become the sonic trademark of the band.

Janice Lowe’s sparse yet haunting piano adds new dimension to the album on “Our Land Back,” a brooding condemnation of the act of historical and cultural displacement and erasure inflicted on various people around the world where land has been stolen. As pianist and vocalist, Lowe also appears on the soul-stirring, slow-burning “Sunshine.”

Cellist Lester St. Louis is another special guest, who helps animate “root ⇔ branch,” a poignant tone poem dedicated to the late trumpeter and composer Jaimie Branch, and the torrential-turned-tranquil “Degrees Of Freedom.”

Compared to Irreversible Entanglements’ previous albums on International Anthem, which deftly captured the howling rage of the Black Lives Matter movement, Protect Your Light emits a sunnier vibe — sonically and thematically — at times without ignoring the darker sociopolitical truths that lurk in the shadows then negatively impact oppressed communities.

“If you put us into a recording studio every day of the week, we would make a different album each day,” Neuringer says of Irreversible Entanglements’ bottomless fountain of creative resources. “There’s a lot of fire and creativity when we get together. With Impulse! Records, we reached a point where we could consider bigger moves.”

“I think with the material for Protect Your Light, the band is more focused on ‘song’ songs,” observes Brandon Stosuy, Irreversible Entanglements’ manager. “Having more time to work together, especially with the new album, they crafted more specific songs instead of going into the studios and leaning so much into long, free-improvisation jams. But their energy level is still the same being on Impulse!”

Neuringer cited Stosuy as being instrumental in getting Irreversible Entanglements signed on Impulse! The manager notes, however, that the quintet still maintains a healthy relationship with its former record label.

“International Anthem has been great. When the band is on tour, we’re in conversation with the label to make those great albums like Open The Gates and Who Sent You? are there. So, there are no hard feelings. The band just wanted to see what happens when you push something with more resources and support.

“Also, the band members are huge jazz historians. Just being on Impulse! is such an amazing thing to each of them. I remember Luke picking up the vinyl copy of Protect Your Light, looking at the orange-and-black spine then saying, ‘My God!’ Luke also mentioned that when we went into the Van Gelder Studio, he actually teared up. I think it was also exciting for the band to bring back some of the earlier vibes of Impulse! when things sounded more complex and noisier.”

Holmes says that Protect Your Light also reflects growth as both a collective and as individual members.

“We’re all older now. Our times with International Anthem were the greatest; and we still have a great relationship with that label. But we definitely understand the weight of the opportunity of recording on Impulse! and we wanted to make a statement.”

The drummer recalls the band members gathering in California and having deep conversations about what each wanted to do with the new opportunity. “It was kind of like a recording powwow,” Holmes says. “We were in California and hadn’t seen each other in a while. And as we talked about what we wanted to do with this album, we were in front of each other, so the energy magnified. It feels differently when you talk about something face-to-face.”

In addition to remaining intact for eight years, another interesting component of Irreversible Entanglements is that there has never been a centralized location where all the band members resided. From the start, the band members, individually, lived in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Now, some of the members live in Rochester, New York, Brooklyn and Los Angeles — Ayewa now teaching composition at University of Southern California Thornton School of Music.

Each member juggles multiple projects as solo artists, side people and collaboratives in other ensembles. When asked what prevents Irreversible Entanglements from disbanding because of competing individual interests, mutual admiration for each other is frequently cited.

“Being in this band is an amazing and unique experience compared to what I had in the past,” Stewart says. “The level of camaraderie and trust is what I learn from this band — how to be more open and to trust.

“In this band, we push each other so much, musically. And that inspires me to push myself forward in other projects. Being in this band teaches me how to be a better collaborator with others and to be a better musician, and to how to better formulate ideas — making my own ideas clearer. This band is an example for a lot of things for my own personal development.”

“When we get together, we maintain the excitement of that first meeting at Silent Barn,” Neuringer adds. “We’re able to maintain that excitement through our constant personal development that we bring to the band on every tour, performance or recording session.”

“The chemistry that keeps the band together is the fascination that we have with each other,” Neuringer concludes. “The people in the band play with me like they love me. And I play with each person in the band like I love them. The playing together is a love chemistry. It’s a real expression of how we love each other’s artistry, creativity and individually as people.” DB



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