In 2015, the free-jazz collective of saxophonist Keir Neuringer, poet Camae Ayewa, and bassist Luke Stewart came together for a Musicians Against Police Brutality concert in New York. This followed the fatal police shooting of Akai Gurley in the previous year.
So it seemed appropriate that Stewart spoke to the Straight before Irreversible Entanglements' recent gig at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, home to another high-profile victim of a police killing, George Floyd.
Stewart emphasized that the overall system of racial oppression is tied to a way of being and a way of thinking that African Americans have been subjected to for centuries.
“People are asking a lot of questions because there’s a lower level of understanding, in general, about what’s going on,” Stewart said. “This system has developed to the point where confusion is the means of subjugation.”
According to Stewart, the crux of Irreversible Entanglements’ “liberation-oriented free jazz” centres around decolonizing listeners’ minds.
“The sound and the words, I think, suggest that, for sure,” he said. “And it’s purposeful on our part.”
The track “No Más” from the album Who Sent You? provides an ideal example. Opening with soaring horns and driven by Stewart’s pulsating upright bass, it’s punctuated by the phrase “no más/no more”.
“It will sound different every time,” Stewart said.
Ayewa, a.k.a. Moor Mother, writes all the lyrics but, according to Stewart, there’s no one person fronting Irreversible Entanglements. That’s because her vocals are viewed as another instrument.
Irreversible Entanglements takes its inspiration from the New York Art Quartet, a free-jazz ensemble that formed in New York City in 1964. Stewart felt the band was at its best with poet Amiri Baraka, whom he described as a “powerful” voice but who also didn’t front the band.
“It’s important for us to be connected to that tradition and legacy,” Stewart said, “especially in these rapidly changing times—being a force endowed with that energy and that legacy to look for different ways of being in the future.”
After a year of social reckoning and with the effects of the pandemic starting to wane in North America, Stewart said he’s “anxiously excited to see what kind of changes are going to be made, if any, in the overall jazz industry”.
“It’s almost like I see jazz as an iceberg in the ocean,” he noted. “Whereas the tip of the iceberg is the JazzTimes-DownBeat portion that is most visible to the community…the rest of the iceberg makes up the community of musicians, aficionados, audience members, impresarios, et cetera that are working in this underground ecosystem, really."
He added that this is because "jazz occupies the same underground status as anything else in terms of its mainstream accessibility”.
“It’s at the same level of punk rock or underground hip-hop or underground electronic music,” Stewart noted.