Philadelphia alto saxophonist and composer Bobby Zankel explores a darker side of his longtime city’s history with A Change of Destiny, set for a September 22 release on Mahakala Records. The album is a distillation of music that Zankel wrote for a dance piece, The Spirits Break to Freedom, in the 2010s, and was recorded with Zankel’s Wonderful Sound 8 (a byproduct of his Warriors of the Wonderful Sound Big Band), featuring Philadelphia jazz greats drummer Pheeroan AkLaff, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd, violinist Diane Monroe, alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, bassist Lee Smith, and pianist Sumi Tonooka.
A six-section suite of “resistance, revolution, and renewal,” according to its composer, A Change of Destiny is a response to the 2007 excavation of slave quarters on the site of the President’s House—George Washington’s residence in Philadelphia. The opening track “Destiny,” based on a Jymie Merritt–inspired cross rhythm, asks the question “Why have we been brought here?” and proclaims, “My destiny belongs to me!”
“Spirits Break to Freedom” is an epic journey from rainforest hocket rhythms to Afrobeat groove, 21st-century urban angularity, and freedom. “Naming Names” is an Ornette Coleman–influenced praise song in which vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd intones the names of “our nation’s nine founding mothers and fathers whose forced labor made the President’s House functional.” The gospel ecstasy of “Ring Shouting” and the Billie Jean groove of “Rituals of Resistance” express two cultural revolutionary modes of joyful freedom, while “To Be a Human Being,” constructed over a 14-beat rhythmic mode, features the powerful self-declaratory words of Malcolm X.
If the octet here is a spin-off of Zankel’s large ensemble, it is also a new band unto itself. Similarly, while A Change of Destiny is related to the prior work Spirits Break to Freedom, it is also a stand-alone project, with fresh arrangements written especially for the Wonderful Sound 8. “It becomes easy to write when I know who I’m writing for,” says Zankel. “And having those players provides such a rich palette. I like a big band, but I prefer a midsize unit because you can hear everything.” On A Change of Destiny, there is indeed much to hear.
Bobby Zankel was born December 21, 1949 in Brooklyn. He first began attracting national attention in 1971, while at the University of Wisconsin as a member of Cecil Taylor’s Unit Core Ensemble and simultaneously working with drummer George Brown’s quartet with organist Melvin Rhyne.
In the early to mid-1970s, Zankel’s underground reputation grew on the New York loft scene, where he performed with the likes of William Parker and Ray Anderson while continuing his apprenticeship with Taylor. In 1975, Zankel moved to Philadelphia to raise his family and expand his artistic vision without heed to commercialism or the trends of the times. He has performed and recorded with such diverse masters as Johnny Coles, Odean Pope, Ralph Peterson, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Oliver Lake, and Marilyn Crispell, among others. Zankel continued working occasionally with Taylor for the remainder of the pianist’s life.
The saxophonist became a devoted son to his adopted city, working with several generations of the finest of Philadelphia jazz musicians. In 2001, Zankel founded the jazz advocacy and education nonprofit Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, Inc., and established an eponymous 18-piece big band as its centerpiece. Composers from Muhal Richard Abrams to Rudresh Mahanthappa have written for the ensemble. All of this creative work has been balanced with 32 years of teaching in the Pennsylvania prisons.
The Bobby Zankel Wonderful Sound 8 will perform at Mt. Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church, 15 Mt. Morris Park (at 122nd Street), NYC, on Friday 10/20, a performance curated by Craig Harris; and at the Painted Bride Art Center, 5230 Market Street, Philadelphia, on Saturday 10/21.