The Art Ensemble of Chicago, the pioneering jazz-and-beyond outfit formed nearly 50 years ago and still thriving today, self-describes with a proud motto: “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.” The phrase speaks to the group’s musically omnivorous approach: Everything from funk to bop, blues, rock, avant-garde composition and the furthest reaches of free improvisation is in play at all times. According to Melvin Gibbs, bassist of the long-running, radically versatile NYC power trio Harriet Tubman, he and his bandmates — guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer JT Lewis — operate along similar lines.
The group, he told Rolling Stone in an email, “is about making connections across genres & across generations.” He goes on to say: “I’ve taken to calling Tubman’s music ‘GBM’ (acronym for Great Black Music) to reflect & update the same spectrum idea the AEC champions.” The latest illustration of the group’s GBM agenda: a boldly abstract yet deeply resonant instrumental take on Bob Marley’s immortal “Redemption Song,” complete with hulking fuzz bass, searing yet melodic guitar and fluttering textural drums. The track will appear on the group’s new fifth album, The Terror End of Beauty, out November 23rd.
The bulk of Harriet Tubman’s repertoire, heard on four prior albums dating back to 1998’s I Am a Man and including an excellent 2017 collaboration with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, is original. Imagine the Venn-diagram overlap of Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, electric Miles Davis at its gnarliest and Lee Scratch Perry’s murky dub experiments and you’ll start to get a sense of the band’s heady sonic terrain. The group — whose members’ collective résumé includes work with everyone from the Rollins Band, of which Gibbs was a member, to Whitney Houston and acclaimed outside-the-box singer Cassandra Wilson — has also brought covers into its orbit, reworking avant-jazz landmarks like John Coltrane’s Ascension and Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz.
Gibbs, who has extensive experience playing reggae and opened for Marley’s son Ziggy in 1991 with his former band Eye & I, says that the group’s decision to tackle such an iconic song was in part an act of reclamation. “Over the years, with every wannabe ‘one love–ish’ band playing [‘Redemption Song’], it’s sort of devolved into an ‘oh, no not that song again’ thing when other people play it,” he writes. “Which in a way makes it a perfect song to cover.”
Of the group’s beautifully free-form treatment of the song, Gibbs says, “The ambient thing came from the arrangement that Brandon brought to the band. I heard what he brought as a spiritual thing — in my mind’s ear I heard a combination of soul music (in the most literal sense of the word) and an alap, which are the slow extended first sections of Indian classical musical performances.”
Ross has his own poetic description of the cover. “There’s an ‘anthemic melancholy’ that emerges from the way Melvin and I handle the harmony and melody, and the intensity spikes in the choruses when J.T. ignites air with fire,” the guitarist tells Rolling Stone in an e-mail. “That chemistry illuminates aspects of the song’s/Marley’s significance as an enduring herald.”
Elsewhere on The Terror End of Beauty, the group delves deep into its signature hypnotic grooves and organically unfolding three-way conversations. A gorgeously thick production job from producer/engineer Scotty Hard gives the whole record a humid, tactile aura. The album title (also the name of the second to last track, which starts out serene and ends up explosive) comes from another musical forefather, the brilliant and incendiary guitarist Sonny Sharrock, another former Gibbs collaborator, who once memorably said, “I’ve been trying to find a way for the terror and the beauty to live together in one song. I know it’s possible.”
Gibbs reflected on Sharrock’s influence and tied it back to the group’s namesake. “Our adaption of his iconic quote reflects our view of the journey to freedom — at some point you have to face the terror to get to the beauty,” he writes. “What Tubman herself did through the course of her life gives myriad illustrations of that reality. What we do as individuals when we go through the process of ‘stepping up’ to face and overcome our fear(s) is our own personal insight into ‘The Terror End of Beauty.'”