The Historical Pursuit of Irreversible Entanglements

Music Features Irreversible Entanglements
The Historical Pursuit of Irreversible Entanglements

If you are tuned into the world of jazz music, then you are surely familiar with the work of Irreversible Entanglements, the free jazz collective that formed almost 10 years ago. It was after discovering each other at a Musicians Against Brutality event in 2015 where Camae Ayewa, Tcheser Holmes, Aquiles Navarro, Keir Neuringer and Luke Stewart solidified their bond as an outfit—and their first album together, an eponymous debut, came via International Anthem two years later. Over the years, their work has drawn comparisons to everyone from the New York Art Quartet to Sun Ra, but Irreversible Entanglements stand firmly on their own.

Their most recent record, Protect Your Light, is an eight-song, 40-minute masterclass that finds Ayewa stepping away from her project as Moor Mother and reciting poetics over the construction employed by her bandmates. Songs like “Free Love” and “Our Land Back” muse on unfurling the burdens of oppression and examine the chaos and brutality of displacement. But then, there’s a track like “Sunshine,” which welcomes vocalist and pianist Janice Low into the fold for a brilliant, out-of-body singing performance. Yet, it’s the track “roots <=> branch” that rises atop the rest of the tracklist—as the quintet pays direct and intimate homage to the late Jaimie Branch.

The band have DIY roots that challenge perceptions of lineage and systematic and interpersonal violence, and there is power and celebration and reclamation all across Protect Your Light. These five people were destined to make music together—to have their existences become entangled with one another—and they’ve given us their greatest and most devastating and confident and honest portrait yet. Last month, I sat down with Ayewa, Holmes, Navarro, Neuringer and Stewart to talk more about improvisation, Branch’s impact on their work, the foundations laid by their jazz elders and the dichotomy of choosing to remember versus refusing to forget.

Paste Magazine: The expression of tradition and healing, it’s a palpable throughline across the group’s entirety. How does the phrase Open the Gates bleed into the phrase Protect Your Light?

Tscheser Holmes: The original title for “Open the Gates,” the track, was “Splendor.” It was a nice, existing thread that happened. And we recorded it and we named it “Open the Gates” because of something Camae said over the instrumental. Everything always seems to co-exist with one another while we’re creating. “Splendor,” the virtue, I like in the world in general. It was a more joyous occasion, maybe because we’re playing the music we want to do and we enjoy playing in this band. ‘Splendor’ was, to me, something I wanted to get across and the band could play. And “Open the Gates” on top of it was just a better working title. Greater energy, to say the least.

PM: Protect Your Light came together in three days earlier this year at Rudy Van Gelder Studios. Had the previous three records come together as quickly?

Keir Neuringer: One thing that is true is that—the first three records—we made them in very brief sessions in a studio. One day, or half-day in the studio. Open the Gates was very quick, in and out, because of the time that it was made. But this one, we had a really beautiful planning session in LA, a brainstorm. And we talked and talked and talked about what we wanted to do with this album. We did record at Rudy Van Gelder, but we also recorded at Figure 8 in Brooklyn. It was the first time we were in two studios, the first time we had a multi-day recording for an album. And then we had a good period after we recorded where we all dug through the three days of material that we recorded and figured out what we loved, what we connected across the two studios, thematically and musically. It was definitely a new thing we did, it represents a new type of recording for us.

PM: You guys have spoken in the past about the band being built off of improvisation, but improvisation has so many different layers to it. What you’re doing is not what everybody thinks of when they hear “improv.” What’s the relationship between getting into a space together and having these brainstorming sessions and mapping something out, versus what people might imagine an improvisational arrangement is—where you’re freewheeling a saxophone solo?

Luke Stewart: Improvisation, from the perspective of this band, when we’re playing live, is always [happening]. The way that it comes about, even in the studio, is based and rooted in improvisation. And what that is is we come together as a band, that story has been well-documented. But the other side of the story that’s been lacking is the fact that we drew a lot of inspiration, even just with the instrumentation from groups in the past. Music improvisation—specifically the New York Art Quartet, which featured Amiri Baraka as the poet and it had a very similar instrumentation with bass, drums and trumpet—it’s a historical pursuit rooted in the work done by our elders, the men and women that we looked up to over the years and who inspire us as individuals and, as well as, us as a band. Improvisation, for us, is not free-wheeling, it’s not jamming. It’s a historical, spiritual pursuit. What we do, I think, speaks to the power of that approach, focused improvisation. It’s not even, necessarily, structured improvisation as a jazz tune, even though we are very much a jazz band.

We’re in that tradition. One of our elders famously said that we so-called jazz musicians should take notes from Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and don’t play jazz. Because, in their time, their music was called anti-jazz, it was called this and that. All of those people were criticized for playing their type of jazz, even though it was jazz, be it for a lot of reasons. So, we’re following that tradition of playing, which is to have our own original voice—and improvisation gets us there.

PM: This being your first record with Impulse!, who have put their imprint on projects from Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey—countless titans of jazz—what’s the significance of having Protect Your Light’s existence intertwined with a catalog of monumental records that are so noteworthy and important in the history of Black liberation and Black tradition in jazz music and across culture?

Neuringer: One thing that we’ve said, and I feel pretty deeply, is it’s this combination of humility and pride—an immense humility to be acknowledged and recognized in that lineage that Luke was speaking about. And then, an intense pride in the work that we’ve done together, as a unit, to arrive in this place and be seen in that connection to that lineage.

Aquiles Navarro: I think that it’s definitely liberation in general. We want everyone, all walks of life, to grab a piece of that liberation, a piece of that joy. For me, I still look at it as we’re doing our service to music, thinking about that part of life. And we’re just another avenue that someone could take inspiration for healing, even to inspire the next generation after us.

PM: What was it about having those hardcore and punk and noise DIY roots that really helped you all in, not just adopting this understanding of how advocacy and mutual aid can exist in contemporary music spaces, but also in being able to have access to the resources needed to build this poetic ecosystem that challenges peoples’ perceptions of trauma and grief and love and heritage?

Stewart: The men and women that really laid the foundation for this music and improvisation and in these DIY spaces, before there were punk musicians and indie musicians and warehouses, it was Black jazz musicians in those spaces when it was really dangerous in these places. People giving their lives, in order to make a statement for their music and for their community. Ornette Coleman getting kidnapped in his space and tortured, people literally putting their lives on the line in order to create a community around this music—that was then, of course, the forays of punk and everything else. These things existed next to each other, historically. But the foundations were laid by the community of Black musicians in urban spaces. I think that’s an important thing to always remember now, as individuals in the band, we can speak to our own experiences within the modern-day space.

But I think for me—for myself—in my work in these spaces, being in a punk band in high school and in rock bands later on, and really learning and, at the same time, interacting in those spaces. Yes, the resources that were available in those spaces, in terms of having the freedom to pursue your work, to do your art, to get better, to practice, these are things that the DIY ecosystem allowed for us, for me, as a person, in my life. I didn’t go to music school, the DIY space was my music school. I was learning how to interact with people, learning how to put shows together, learning how to express in an uninhibited way. For me, having the purpose of trying to bring back to the forefront, the live music and Black musicians that laid the foundation for these spaces, playing the tradition of this music, of free jazz improvisation, within the space of punk and indie and other things that have assumed the identities of the DIY spirits.

PM: I think about a song like “Our Land Back” and how it’s very much anthemic about displacement. But something that stood out to me was how the track was characterized as standing against the act of forgetting. That idea really has stuck with me—because I think there’s a difference between choosing to remember versus refusing to forget. Can you speak about that dichotomy at all?

Camae Ayewa: I would say that memory has always been a part of our work, since the beginning. A lot of the work that I do with my collective, Black Quantum Futurism, which we all are a part of that universe and have played different shows together, they’re really breaking down this idea of memory when we play Juneteenth or in Germany. You don’t quite understand the connection, or the entanglements. That’s something that is very important to us, just like what Luke said, to remember that this isn’t something that’s just 20 years ago or 30 years ago. This is something that’s been in the works, a constant practice, to dream, to speculate, to envision a future for us in our community. That’s a big part of the work, we’re not someone that doesn’t allow ourselves the agency. And I think that speaks to when Luke was talking about us coming out of the DIY punk scene. It was really about “Hey, I can get a gig somewhere. I can get an opportunity somewhere. How do I build this, not just for myself but for this community of musicians that are coming up with me?”

Navarro: Yeah, remembering—improvisation is definitely a vehicle for reaching different points in time that you might not have control over. When you are in real time improvising, and I think that’s what happens with this band, that’s what makes it one of the most special things. When you get five people that are, in real time, improvising, it’s very powerful that you are able to access different points of time. Ancestors visited, you can access future scenarios and you disappear. Improvisation is definitely a vehicle for achieving these feelings without forcing them. I think, in all of our beings, we wanted, at some point when we were five years old or 12 years old, there was a strong desire to say something and leave something and to continue to expand something in the world that is on the level and beauty and depth of people like John Coltrane or Lee Morgan. That’s something that we always aim for without forcing it.

PM: Camae, you identify as a poet rather than a songwriter. How does calling your work in the music world that of a poet rather than that of a lyricist better define what you’re trying to conceptualize and serve on every track and every album?

Ayewa: You go through different climax points in your journey that are really influential. I think, from my journey, I’ve learned how impactful poetry is. I tell my students all the time, write, write, write. Every time I write, it’s an opportunity for me to go somewhere to do something, to build communities. And it took a long time for me to find out that poetry can do these things. So, it’s just about learning about yourself and seeing what works. I’m big into experimentation, we’ve got to try things out. You’ve got to give yourself permission to continue to go further, continue to be more out. I was reading about [Jackie McLean’s Destination…Out!], and I was like, “Wow, this is really interesting!” He said, “Hey, I don’t care where you’re all going. I’m going out.” And this is the type of beauty, the agency and the energy, to be, to depend on yourself – because ayneone can play instruments. Anyone can write a poem, read a poem. It’s about the journey. Where have you been? Who are you paying homage to? What’s the ritual behind it all?

Poetry has always been a big part of liberation, 100%. I was reading last night about Harriet Beecher Stowe, and all of her friends have kept writing to her, “Oh, if I could sit the words together, I would speak out against slavery, too. This is horrendous, I just don’t have the language.” All of these rich people don’t have the language to speak about this horrible injustice, so I don’t take that lightly. Being able to have the language to pull from the universe, it’s not just me alone. It’s not just us alone.

Neuringer: I think that there’s a false separation—a European separation—between disciplines, like making music, making poetry, dance and other forms of group expression. In performance, we stop seeing Camae as a poet apart from the instrumentalists. We’re all making music and we’re all making poetry together. Not to de-emphasize or take away from what any one individual is doing, it’s just that we don’t always distinguish in a rigid way. Camae has done projects where she’s brought all of us in and there are dancers. There’s something going on on-stage that really expands the expression beyond “this is a concert” or “this is a poetry reading.” That feels important, because we’re not sitting in a conservatory lineage.

PM: Camae, what poets are you reading? Or, even more specifically, what poets are helping you carve out the language you’ve chosen to bring into your music?

Ayewa: I’m responding to the music—and everyone is real expressive in this way. It’s something we’ve never talked about as a band, but I feel like we send each other messages—even though everyone is in their own world. What happened the night before? What happened on the trains? What happened at the airport? The more that we continue to open up to each other, the more that I learn about our different sections and entanglements. I used to have my own agenda, poetically, but I don’t have that anymore. I really want to tap into the collective aspect of who we are as a band. And I have opportunities to do other poetic things, so it’s really nice to focus in on us and what we’re trying to do – and this involves everyone. I think that’s a part of the music, that we’re not just playing for ourselves. For me, it’s about continuing to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open. As for the poetics, I’m big into Sonya Sontag. She’s my #1.

PM: “root <=> branch” is a salute to the late Jaimie Branch. I felt so much power and celebration in that track. What was it about how Jaimie approached the construction of jazz and punk-style mantras that, in the wake of her passing, left reverberations in not just Irreversible Entanglements’ world, but in the world of jazz and organizing and solidarity-powered music altogether?

Holmes: I miss Jaimie every day, I love her. For me, it was her positivity. She was, probably, one of the more positive figures in this community. For that alone, I think that speaks volumes.

Neuringer: One thing I think is important, historically, is that one of our first gigs was a triple bill with Jaimie and a band that Ben LaMar Gay had in Philadelphia in the club that has become Solar Myth. We grew up as a band with Jaimie and with International Anthem, the label that we were both on. She was family, she was always there—even when she wasn’t there. If we didn’t have a tribute to Jaimie, we’d have a tribute to Jaimie. And, if Jaimie was still with us, we’d have a tribute to Jaimie. Her presence was so big-hearted and bright for us.

Ayewa: The first time I met Jaimie Branch was the first time we played at Pitchfork [Music Festival]. I remember thinking, “Wow, someone in the jazz community is nice to me.” I didn’t have to knock down 10 different walls or doors or win 50 awards for someone to just see me and be sweet to me. That’s really rare. And I think that’s a big, big deal with “Free Love,” because that’s what it’s about. People shouldn’t have to do all of these things just to get love. When you see that they’re dedicated, just on the work that they’re doing, and I just felt that from Jaimie. I’ll say it again, that’s rare. That does not happen, this aspect of free love.

Stewart: We love Jaimie so very much. She was very close to each of us and I miss her, dearly, every single day.

Navarro: She was my trumpet buddy and my friend. We had so much connection and understanding of the weight of the instrument. These are things that we were able to connect after the person, because we knew what it was to have this instrument to your face and have to do it one night after the other and how taxing it can be and how vulnerable you are. This is an instrument that will give you everything and, also, take it away at the same time. It’s ruthless, and we just connected on what it was to get through it gracefully night after night.

Like Keir said, a tribute was supposed to happen whether or not she was here, and that’s what happens when you give it [your] all. Energy just transforms and, sometimes, she’s here as much as she was last year. We definitely all miss her dearly, and I’m glad we made an imprint of a dedicated tribute to her soul and heart. She was one of the first people I saw in New York organizing things. After having so many people that go to music school or have access to things, their heads are just so big. But [Jaimie] was always for the people. Always for the people. I still feel her very close, even when I’m playing a lot. When I’m playing, the [energy] takes over and the hang continues. The thing is: It happened in our lifetime, in our generation. It’s very palpable, all the feelings of it. It’s not just playing somebody’s tune 50 years after. It’s dealing with the life of it right here, right now.

Irreversible Entanglements are playing some gigs in Europe later this fall. Tickets can be purchased for those events here. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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