Harriet Tubman Accesses History, Intuition on ‘The Terror End Of Beauty’


Brandon Ross (left), J.T. Lewis and Melvin Gibbs have performed in Harriet Tubman for about 20 years.

(Photo: Andrew James)

The seismically intense New York-based trio Harriet Tubman has been relying on a combination of skill and instinct since its founding 20 years ago. And the approach has come to fruition on The Terror End Of Beauty, the troupe’s latest release on Sunnyside.

“That kind of meta-communication, that I’d call the bedrock foundation of Harriet Tubman, revealed itself from the first moment we played together in Context rehearsal studios on Avenue A in 1997,” guitarist Brandon Ross said. “It has musically directed the three of us ever since.”

J.T. Lewis, the band’s drummer, explained the cultivation of Harriet Tubman’s work.

“We’re trying to take it to the organic place where the music has a life of its own,” he said. “And it’s driven by our history and culture and by connecting dots all the way back to our ancestors.”

Fueled by Lewis’ thunderous and melodic approach to the kit, Melvin Gibbs’ crunching bass lines and Ross’ impressionistic guitar skronk, members of Harriet Tubman bring their intuitive powers to bear on The Terror End Of Beauty. A follow-up to Tubman’s Araminta, a potent 2017 collaboration with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, it is the band’s second recording to utilize the studio wizardry of engineer Scotty Hard, a Teo Macero protege.

“The overall vision for this album was inspired by the Teo Macero/Miles Davis collaborative process on Jack Johnson, In A Silent Way, Live-Evil and Bitches Brew,” Ross said. “Not the content, but the process that employs the recording studio as compositional tool.”

Hard brought his sonic sensibilities to several spontaneous jams in the studio: the dub-flavored “3000 Worlds,” echo-laden “The Green Book Blues,” the monstrous doom-metal blues “Prototaxite,” the metrically shifting “Five Points” and the meditative “Tuljapur Handprint.”

“Farther Unknown,” something of a sequel to Gibbs’ “Wadmalaw Island” from Power Tools’ 1987 Strange Meeting, celebrates the bassist’s Gullah/Geechee heritage.

“Everybody thinks of New Orleans as the home of jazz, and in one sense it is,” he said. “But it’s not the home of pattin’ juba, which was created by African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, and Georgia’s Sea Islands in the 19th century. It’s pre-ragtime. I call it multi-rhythm, as opposed to polyrhythm or cross-rhythm. They’re multiple rhythms that have their own kind of zones of existence.”

The title track on The Terror End Of Beauty is Gibbs’ tribute to avant-garde guitar icon and former employer Sonny Sharrock, with Ross delivering a suitably unhinged guitar solo during the proceedings.

“When we were recording it, I remember thinking about Sonny for a moment, and what came up for me was the idea, ‘What is freedom?’ And I just ‘left the booth’ at that point. Not physically, but in playing my solo, it was like I was scaling a mountain, trying to get up above something, so I could ‘see.’ … That was the guitar approach and sound that I came up with in that moment. It’s a Tubman thing—I find the sweet spot, an opening into another dimension of the sound space, and it takes me.”

Drifting further into a spiritual zone on the new album, this time partially inspired by Alice Coltrane’s ashram music, Tubman offers up a highly impressionistic version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

“I used to do that Marley song as a duo with Cassandra Wilson,” Ross recalled. “And I knew Tubman would be a situation where I could open up on it, leave things unresolved and slow it down, which revealed another kind of ‘anthemic call.’”

Gibbs explained the interpretation’s musical provenance.

“Alice’s innovation of taking gospel music and bringing it to the blues through the kind of modal thing was a huge influence on us from the beginning,” he said. “And turned out that ‘Redemption Song’ was a really great vehicle for that.”

Lewis, who played alongside Ross in Henry Threadill’s Make a Move troupe during the 1990s, summed up Harriet Tubman’s modus operandi. “Our vocabulary comes from a place of experience of playing with great improvisors like Henry Threadgill and those masters who played in categories that were beyond words, as well: Ornette Coleman to Henry to Don Pullen and Ronald Shannon Jackson,” said Lewis, who in the past also played with Sting and Lou Reed. “We developed our own language, and it just kept growing and becoming a life of its own.”

With that wealth of experience, members of Harriet Tubman seem to feel an imperative to push past the boundaries of their forebears.

“For me, one of the things with Tubman is, Cecil’s gone, Ornette’s gone and now it’s our turn,” Gibbs said. “So, what are we bringing to the table? We’re futurists and historians. Our future includes our past, includes our ancestors. That’s the thing that this band has always been about.” DB

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