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Singers are sadly undervalued in the “avant-garde” or “free jazz” idiom, which tends to favor instrumental shredders in a not-so-subtly patriarchal way. Abbey Lincoln’s extremely powerful voice and artistry is ultra-marginalized, rarely mentioned unless in tandem with Max Roach through their romantic involvement. Lincoln, who passed in 2010, is to me the definition of avant-garde, light years ahead of her time in her abstract, expressive and wordless vocalizations in the seminal civil rights-era series “We Insist! Freedom Now” (1964), with Roach, Coleman Hawkins and Olatunji, among other proto-free jazz instrumentalists.

What I love about Lincoln is that she is not afraid to get dirty and ugly, to make the listener uncomfortable in a visceral way. She employs what is academically referred to as an “extended technique” in her growls, screams, and harsh vocalizations, a term I detest for its normative Eurocentric bias. Rather than “extending” the vocal instrument, I see Lincoln as mining its absolute essential and maximum emotional range, something only approximated in imitation by horns and other instruments. She is particularly powerful and effective on “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace,” in conversation with Roach’s drums, yelping, screaming, and crying out in pain, in real-time response to those turbulent years of American racial violence and struggle. Lincoln was no supper club singer, uninterested in light entertainment, and more concerned with shaking an audience into consciousness. We could use Lincoln’s voice and message now too.

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When we talk about the beginnings of free and avant-garde jazz, we often go to Ornette Coleman and start there. It makes sense, considering the courage it took to title his 1959 album “The Shape of Jazz To Come,” then cover it with difficult structures that were hard to quere. For me, though, I’ve always viewed Cecil Taylor as the preeminent purveyor of the avant-garde, his rolling piano chords hidden among tidal waves of relentless drums and saxophone. Perhaps no song characterizes this better than “Steps”, the opening song of his 1966 album, “First Structures”. I’ve always loved how precarious it feels, organized and chaotic at the same time. A complex melody with bright colors and vibrant sound arrangements, “Steps” also confronts my sensibilities, making me a bit uneasy. But that’s why I appreciate it the most. It’s a reminder that jazz can soothe and excite, that just because something is easy and relaxed doesn’t mean it’s better.

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Growing up as a preacher’s child in Memphis, my world was filled with cognitive dissonance. In home school, my father taught me the basics of music theory and songwriting. During this time I was only allowed to study two genres: gospel and classical. Although this felt like a disheartening setback, I now see how that rigid upbringing served as the foundation for my musical career today.

Fast forward to 2016 and I’m sitting in my bedroom in Dallas. At the time I was just experimenting with writing my own songs. I wanted to make music that was audiovisual and uplifting to the soul. My art would be healing and tangible. In my search, I found “The Creator Has a Master Plan” by Pharoah Sanders. From the first second, I was captured by the roaring trumpet. Very different from my classical background; you could feel the musicians breathing together and freely channeling the “holy ghost”, as they say. Suddenly, the song transitions into a trance-like chant but no words are uttered. The melody is repetitive, like the prayer services I grew up in. Then a subtle solo vocal parting the sea of ​​sound, with “The Creator has a work plan…”

Hot tears rolled down my face, and I knew my search was over. This was the plan, and Pharaoh was my guru. I knew from that moment that my music would have to flow from the same channel and carry his message. I am forever grateful to Pharoah Sanders for my personal paradigm shift and pray that everyone experiences that level of happiness.

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