Earlier this year, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet released “The Democracy! Suite” album, which reflects on some of the many challenges the United States has faced over the past year including the raging pandemic, a tumultuous presidential election and a raised awareness of incidents of systemic racism. Artists of all types have channeled these issues into their works, and the world of jazz has been no different. As trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the managing and artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center, puts it, “Jazz music is the perfect metaphor for democracy.” His eight original compositions featured on the album provide a stirring portrait of modern America.
The hurdles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic are apparent in the conception of the album, which features only seven members of the normally 15-person jazz orchestra. The smaller group size allowed the septet to record “The Democracy! Suite” in one of the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s performance spaces while adhering to social distancing guidelines. The resulting project was released exclusively as a digital album, a move indicative of the ways lockdowns have impacted our lives.
The track “Be Present” kicks off “The Democracy! Suite.” The band wastes no time as a bluesy melody dances over a driving swing groove right from the onset of the piece. Interweaving lines and switches in the underlying rhythm section command the listener’s attention. As the song progresses, the arrangement becomes weightier, building in intensity until Marsalis’ solo starts amid crashing drums and a powerful bass hit.
Although the composition has a contemporary sound, Marsalis’ affinity for earlier jazz music becomes apparent when he is joined by alto saxophonist Ted Nash in a section of collective improvisation redolent of the New Orleans jazz of Louis Armstrong. “Be Present” also features impactful solos from trombonist Elliot Mason and pianist Dan Nimmer. Blues-oriented improvisations and horn backgrounds recall the hard bop era of jazz. The ensemble carries its momentum right up to the final chord, which is accompanied by a slew of rolling drums and cymbals in an outpour of emotion.
The modern sound established by “Be Present” is continued on the next track, titled “Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize (Black Lives Matters).” Hard-hitting piano chords, a resonating bass line and spastic cymbal patterns coalesce into a spiritual atmosphere. Soon the horns enter with an assertive motif, and the band switches to a straightforward and commanding swing groove. Like the song that precedes it, “Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize (Black Lives Matters)” is characterized by groove switches and blues language.
The first featured soloist is tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding, who enters with a growling, tortured sound that elicits a few instinctive grunts of approval from his bandmates. Blanding maintains the intensity throughout his solo, delivering impassioned improvisations with a blaring, full-bodied tone.
Bassist Carlos Henriquez is next, adding a strong blues element to his solo. After a short interlude, Nash reemerges, floating over the laid-back groove with flurries of notes. Marsalis and Mason trade figures for a moment, before “Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize (Black Lives Matters)” closes with a restatement of the melody.
“Deeper than Dreams” is Marsalis’ tribute to those who have lost their lives to COVID-19 and those who have lost loved ones. The introduction features the horns playing a moving, soulful melody as drummer Obed Calvaire creates a rumbling effect. A soft, bluesy melody soon enters, lending the song a sentimental sound. Marsalis, Nash, Blanding, Mason and Nimmer all contribute passionate improvisations. The slow ballad tempo completes the band’s gripping portrait of the sadness caused by the pandemic, and “Deeper than Dreams” ends softly.
Following “Deeper than Dreams,” the album reverts to a more uptempo feel with “Out Amongst the People (for J Bat).” Marsalis wrote the song for pianist Jon Batiste, known for his work on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” (2015–) and “Soul” (2020), who was seen over the summer playing live music alongside Black Lives Matter protests. Blanding is featured first on soprano sax, followed by Marsalis, Nimmer, Nash and Mason. A triumphant ascending line closes “Out Amongst the People (for J Bat).”
The final song on “The Democracy! Suite” is “That’s When All Will See.” The composition has a similar bouncy feel to “Out Amongst the People,” complete with the tambourine and New Orleans sensibilities. Despite this traditional ambiance, the more modern improvisational techniques used by the musicians, namely Blanding and Nimmer, give the song a fresh sound. Marsalis’ liner notes describe “That’s When All Will See” as “a parade for some future time when we won’t need death and destruction to force meaningful, intelligent, and humanistic change.” The tension between the uplifting groove and minor harmonies encapsulates this message.
Though it’s at times somber and at other times hopeful, “The Democracy! Suite” is a poignant marker of the turmoil facing America today. The music, though lyricless, is impactful and hopefully, as Marsalis puts it, will inspire us “to get out of our seats and fight for the world we believe in.”