The tenor saxophonist and composer Alex Coke wrote me from his home in Austin, Texas, asking if I would listen to his new CD. After going to his website, I replied, with misgivings, that if he sent the album, I would. Music advertised as being on a social mission is almost certain to end up on the stack of CDs that I might some day get around to. I find that few such pieces are in a league with certain works of Ligeti, Schulhof, Penderecki, Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite,” Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige,” a couple of songs by Woody Guthrie and Beethoven’s “Eroica.”
Coke’s IRAQNOPHOBIA/Wake Up Dead Man is on VoxLox, a small label explaining that its “documentary sound art advocates for human rights and acoustic ecology. Our human rights recordings present exile, refugee, disaporic, and indigenous voices muted or censored by mainstream media.” That kind of description would ordinarily guarantee an album a reservation on the some-day stack. But a promise is a promise. I listened. The creed the company wears on its sleeve did not prepare me for what I heard—music that needs no mission statement to be effective as music. It has variety, melodic and harmonic interest, humor and depth. I reacted to it much as I did to Witness, a Dave Douglas album of a few seasons ago whose music was “about” profit-oriented greed, environmental irresponsibility, “rampant poverty” and protest of “a system that co-opts and marginalizes almost every unique and original thought that confronts it.” Not that I discount protest music. In a Jazz Times review of Witness, I wrote, in part:
Songs are effective vehicles for the delivery of outrage, and the history of protest music is only slightly shorter than the history of music itself. Musical expression of political protest reached its greatest concentration in the 20th century, which provided not only inexhaustible fodder for it but also the technical means of delivering protest messages to the masses. From Joe Hill and the I.W.W. through Woody Guthrie to Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Rage Against the Machine, music has shaped the way that populations think about issues. Can anyone doubt the influence of popular music on America’s civil-rights struggle or its turn against the Vietnam War? Further examples abound in Pakistan, Czechoslovakia, Indonesia and dozens of other countries.
Nonetheless, as I listened to Coke’s music, the messages about domestic ills (prisons and social justice) and foreign-policy mistakes (the Iraq war) receded. They were not lost but were superseded by accomplished writing, improvising and ensemble playing. The pieces incorporate elements of Southern blues, modern mainstream jazz, avant garde classical music, free jazz and middle-Eastern songs. There are intentionally jarring notes, but only a few incongruous ones, most of them in a silly unbridled trombone solo in the “Iraqnophobia” section. Even the track’s title, “The Shreik of Araby,” is out of keeping with the overall seriousness of the project. But that is a mercifully brief blemish on an album that is impressive for its quality, music that can stand on its own, aside from the message.
For a profile of Alex Coke go to this story in the Austin Chronicle.