Sam Langford (1883-1956) was a Canadian-born black boxer regarded as one of the greatest fighters of all time. He was denied a shot at the heavyweight title because of his fear-inspiring skills (Jack Johnson refused to fight him) and generous servings of apple pie-flavored racism. He was known ironically as “The Greatest Fighter Nobody Knows” and inimically as “The Boston Tarbaby”.
Perhaps the jazz group Tarbaby felt a kind of empathy for this fighter. The trio of pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits comprises the core group; trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and alto saxophonist Oliver Lake join them here. Although this isn’t a concept album about Langford or boxing, it opens with the pulsating, thrashing chaos of “Title Bout (Opening Round)”. There’s no feeling out here as the band goes full tilt with a Hearns-Hagler intensity. Lake’s alto sounds at once defiant and imploring on “Aztec”, a tune that has a touch of the weary blues, with a gritty head that recalls “Nefertiti”. One hears the inexorable march of time in Evans’ elegiac “When”. At times the band uses a Revis plucked ostinato as an organizing principle, with other bandmembers soloing furiously around it. Such is the case with “Rolling Vamp” and the evocative “August”, which conjures up images of a peaceful, sun-dappled forest through the efforts of Waits on percussion and recorder, with call-and response finger pianos by Revis and Matthew Evans, Orrin’s son. In addition to his eloquent playing, Waits contributes the beautiful ballad “Kush”. Akinmusire’s heartfelt duet with Evans, “Asiam”, displays his singular trumpet style, which he underscores with a delightfully manic performance on the multifaceted “Korean Bounce”.
Tarbaby has always been a jazz band unafraid to take chances. However, considering the level of talent the members bring to the table any risk is minimal. This excellent album proves that there is no genre or construct that this band can’t conquer and invigorate. Maybe nobody today has heard of Sam Langford, but everybody should know about Tarbaby.
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