Broken Shadows, which makes its debut at the Village Vanguard this week, could be fairly pegged as a tribute. But that falls short of capturing what the band is about.
This collective quartet — with saxophonists Tim Berne and Chris Speed, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King — plays music of a specific tone and terroir. Along with Ornette Coleman, whose album Broken Shadows serves as both namesake and compass, the musical reference points include two of his constituents from Fort Worth, TX: alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill and tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman.
That’s a formidable trilogy of sonic explorers, all of them drawn to a brand of freedom deeply rooted in the blues. Broken Shadows approaches their music with profound conviction but also a perceptible spirit of play.
On a self-titled album releasing next week, as part of the fourth season of subscription vinyl from Newvelle Records, the band sounds downright frolicsome attacking a tune like Coleman’s “Una Muy Bonita.” But there’s also a note of persuasive melancholy on “Broken Shadows” and “Song For Ché” (the latter of which was composed by Charlie Haden, though it appears on a Coleman album).
The closing track on the new release is “Dogon A.D.,” which Hemphill first recorded for a compelling album by the same name in 1972. Dogon A.D.made a small but substantial impact in its time — especially on Berne, before he had ever considered a career in improvised music. Back in 2002, I wrote liner notes for a Berne album called The Sevens (New World), and interviewed him about the influence. He told me then:
I hadn’t listened to much jazz, but then I heard Julius Hemphill’s album Dogon A.D., and that completely turned me around. It captured everything I liked in music. It had this Stax/R&B sensibility and it had this other wildness. It was incredible. That’s when I started playing.
Berne later became a friend and protégé of Hemphill’s, even helping the older saxophonist with his independent record label, Mbari. (Years later, Berne reissued one of Hemphill’s Mbari releases on his own DIY indie, Screwgun Records.)
So there’s something personal at stake when Broken Shadows plays Hemphill’s music — just as there is when the band plays early-‘70s Dewey and Ornette. The song “Broken Shadows” was a longtime fixture in the book of The Bad Plus, the power piano trio that Anderson and King formed with Ethan Iverson. Several years ago, an augmented version of The Bad Plus paid homage to Coleman’s 1971 album Science Fiction; they enlisted Berne on alto saxophone.
But back to Dogon A.D. For a long time after its release, the album fell out of print, accumulating a sort of cult prestige. (It got a boost when the Vijay Iyer Trio recorded a version of the title track in 2009.) When Dogon A.D. finally received a proper reissue on the International Phonograph label in 2011, it was widely hailed; Fresh Air critic Kevin Whitehead proclaimed that it was “still a revelation.”
Here is footage of Broken Shadows performing a full take of the tune at Eastside Sound in New York City. It’s an outtake from the album, offered exclusively here.
Along with the earthy hookup between King and Anderson, there’s an excellent meld in the front line — a vestige of Berne and Speed’s heavy cohesion in the (mostly) 1990s-vintage band Bloodcount. The music feels both grounded and volatile, which of course is true to its inspiration.