The power of music to overcome adversity is rarely as evident or compelling as it is on VOLK, the second release from saxophonist Ochion Jewell. Born in the aftermath of a violent incident of police brutality, the album is a celebration of divergent folk music from around the globe, melded together in the unique voice of one of modern jazz's most promising and inventive young artists.
With VOLK, the Appalachian-born, California-educated, New York-based Ochion (pronounced "Ocean") overcomes one of the ugliest chapters in his life with a project that revels in the beauty of the world's varied musical traditions. He's joined on the album by the members of his longstanding quartet, all of whom met while students at CalArts and moved together to seek their fortunes in New York City: Moroccan pianist Amino Belyamani, Persian-American bassist Sam Minaie, and Pakistani-American drummer Qasim Naqvi. They're graced on two tracks by the distinctive voice and guitar of Benin-born Lionel Loueke, who also performs with the likes of Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock. Together they've created a brilliantly provocative, culture-spanning tour de force that should propel Jewell and his quartet to the forefront of modern jazz.
As stunning as the music on VOLK is, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the album is that it exists at all. Ochion was on his way home from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn one early morning in 2011, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette at the train station and minding his own business, when he was approached by a group of men in street clothes. They proceeded to attack him, calling him by a different name and asking questions he couldn't answer. Thinking he was being mugged, Jewell offered the men the money from his pocket, but they refused and ultimately choked him into unconsciousness.
When he awoke in handcuffs, Ochion quickly realized that the men were plainclothes policemen who, upon realizing their mistake, suddenly produced an empty vial that had at one time contained crack cocaine. Jewell spent 27 hours in jail before a judge dismissed the charges. He subsequently was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety disorder, sued the NYPD, and finally settled out of court. His story later became one of the chapters in Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi's book about injustice in America, The Divide. "I wanted justice," Ochion says. "My goal was to get these guys' badges taken away. But the lawyer just laughed and said, 'That never happens. If you want justice in New York, go for money.'"
Determined to find something positive in this horrific experience, Jewell decided to use the settlement to create an ambitious work that he otherwise wouldn't have the resources to fully realize. The result is VOLK, which comprises four suites, each drawing inspiration from a separate region of the world. The album travels from Andalusia to Arabia, Nordic regions to North Africa, from Ukraine to the composer's own native Appalachia. These diverse influences collide into a stunning and evocative mélange of sound, a vibrantly-hued tapestry of intricate and explosive rhythms, propulsive grooves, and intoxicating hybrid melodies.
Far from a traditional "world music" concept or fusion experiment, VOLK instead reimagines each of these musics in equally wide-ranging contemporary musical settings: a traditional Nordic folk song suddenly erupts into a 5/4 rock song and then fragments into free improvisation ("Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi"); a Ukrainian folk melody is juxtaposed with John Adams-influenced contemporary classical minimalism ("Radegast"); Ewe drumming from Ghana is evoked through the entire band's respective instruments and recontextualized in a hard-bop 10-bar blues form ("The Master"). Despite his travails, Jewell obviously sees the connections that weave throughout the breadth of humanity.
"Folk music is not music for music's sake," Jewell says. "These traditions mean more than that. You have music that's been written for weddings and funerals and war and for when a boy becomes a man. This music seems to really mean something to the people and defines something about their culture, rather than just being music that you can sell tickets for. I think that's gotten a little lost in our own society."
He discovered that fact first-hand while growing up in southeastern Kentucky, a region known for its rich musical tradition - a tradition that was all but invisible to Ochion. "Through what happened with the exploitation in the coal mines and more recently with drugs and bad education and economics, it seems like that culture isn't very alive. I had to go away from it to find it."
In addition to that musical setback, the county in which Jewell was raised - and at least a dozen counties surrounding it - were dry, and where there's no liquor there tends to be no music venues. The young saxophonist was fortunate to befriend Bruce Martin, an older jazz pianist who had played with many of the greats during his time in New York and became, as Jewell puts it, his "Obi-Wan Kenobi." Jewell went on to study classical saxophone at the University of Louisville before continuing his studies at CalArts, where he was mentored by Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith, and Joe LaBarbera, among others and studied Persian Ney. World music was an integral part of the curriculum and became a passion shared by his future quartet-mates.
"I don't think there's a band out there that's as diverse as this one," Jewell says of the quartet, also featured on his 2011 debut, First Suite for Quartet. Moroccan-born Belyamani plays Gnawa and Berber music and, with Naqvi, formed the uncategorizable trio Dawn of MIDI. Naqvi's playing spans jazz, rock, electronica, and contemporary classical music, while Minaie has toured extensively with pianist Tigran Hamasyan and worked with artists such as Ravi Coltrane, John Ellis, Tootie Heath, and the Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra. All four studied with African Ewe master Alfred Ladzekpo and went on to form the Bedstuy Ewe Ensemble.
Jewell has played alongside mentors Charlie Haden and Joe LaBarbera, toured Europe and South America, and performed at PS1 (MOMA), the Alex Theater and REDCAT (L.A.) and the Palace Theater (Louisville). He is an original member of the Pleasure Circus Band and a member of the BedStuy Ewe Ensemble, has toured with Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra, and has performed on an episode of NBC's 30 Rock.
With a newfound, deeply personal insight into the police brutality that has found its way into too many headlines of late, Jewell felt not only inspired but responsible to create something monumental out of his own tragic experience. VOLK achieves that aim, revealing an open-eared masterwork that should propel him to the forefront of progressive jazz.