It’s important to think of “Humanity Suite” not as a live piece of music, but as performance art, or even a score. Acclaimed guitarist Ross Hammond was invited to play at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. His performance coincided with an exhibit of the work of Kara Walker, whose honest works were largely known for black and white silhouettes, sometimes even over other artists’ works. Hammond did not know which works would be on display during the performance – so “Humanity Suite” acts as a score to exist alongside Walker’s broader themes. The free-form jazz album does not get as dark as some of Walker’s works, but it is every bit as diverse and frayed.
Unfortunately, I always stream music to review, so I was unable to fully appreciate what the physical LP is like, but I can imagine that it has a reluctant crispness to it. Releasing the Suite on vinyl (and with the cover, pictured above) was a throwback to jazz albums of the 70’s, the best of which had a very loose feel similar to Hammond’s.
The album’s loose feel is very intentional. Hammond scored outlines for six pieces, that were thematically consistent with both each other and Walker’s art. But many of the contributing musicians were not based in Sacramento, so each movement was left with a large amount of room for improvisation. What follows is two pieces, each in the 23 minute range (perfect for an LP), that are grounded in writing but take a new and stronger form through inviting and free improvisation. The beauty of this is that “Humanity Suite” has the right amount of restraint – the improvisation is based off pre-written rhythms, so it never goes off-the-rails, but it doesn’t just stick to a formula, either.
The musicians picked by Hammond are multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia, saxophonist Catherine Sikora, bassist Kerry Kashiwagi, trombonist Clifford Childers, and drummer Dax Compise. They sound fluid together, working off each other during improvisation, not against each other. Sikora gets a nice, extended feature around the nine minute mark of the first side, and everyone is given their moments to shine. Hammond himself isn’t always to be found on the first side, letting the other musicians have their moments. (The second side is more guitar-centric, though, at least at first).
“Humanity Suite” was recorded in front of a live audience, at the Crocker Art Museum. Having an audience present and audible helps the album have a smooth tone. “Humanity Suite” might be based around Walker’s art, but you don’t need her art to appreciate it. It is a standalone album – two winding compositions that know where to start and not where to end. Each side brings the listener through chaos and stability, loud and soft. “Humanity Suite” may have been composed as a companion piece, but it takes on a life of it’s own.
The album will be available on vinyl and as a digital download through Prescott Recordings on May 9th.
-By Andrew McNally