Irreversible Entanglements – S/T – LP
International Anthem Recording Company  / Don Giovanni Records – 2018

Irreversible Entanglements don’t make music to vibe out to. They don’t craft “bops” that passively graze your eardrums as you study or read. No, the four spellbinding tracks of simmering desperation and channeled rage found on their stellar debut are best consumed with full attention on the musical proceedings.

Try as I might, there isn’t a better descriptor for this music than the words found on the insert that accompanies every new copy of this release: “Four relentless bouts of inspired fire music forged from the true spirit of free jazz, driven by searing poetic narrations of Black trauma, survival and power.”

Comprised of members from Philly, D.C. and New York, Irreversible Entanglements first formed as a trio in early 2015 to perform at a Musicians Against Police Brutality event organized after the death of Akai Gurley. Saxophonist Keir Neuringer, poet Camae Ayewa (Moor Mother) and bassist Luke Stewart added trumpeter Aquiles Navarro and drummer Tcheser Holmes months later for a single recording date in Brooklyn. This album, from that session, captured the first time the group performed as a quintet, an astonishing fact considering the raw power mined from this initial collaboration.

“Chicago to Texas” starts us off with a bare drum roll and a mournful trumpet call before Ayewa speaks, linking past and present within a narrative of systemic oppression and erasure.

“She said it took God 272 years to free the slaves, and she don’t mind waiting,” says Ayewa in a tone both grounded and bitter. “I tell her that waiting is a privilege, and the hands of a clock are not your hands but a system of hands choking you. Sometimes you can get lost in the rhythm of oppression, the way they beat it into you, carve trees in your back, choke you out, fetishize your flesh, the way they make you fight for every inch of grace”

Ayewa’s lyrics are bleak to say the least. With mentions of the dust bowl and the homestead act near grim mentions of lashings and lynchings, “Chicago to Texas” illuminates an American story relegated to the sidelines of the American Dream. These are glimpses from the trenches of oppression, a voice for the voiceless, an amalgam of decades of shared pain and perceived invisibility finding a powder keg in which to marinate. The band backs Ayewa beautifully, with the horns and drums not skipping a beat of intensity when she steps away from the mic.

The funky bass intro to “Fireworks,” given the band’s dynamics, feels akin to the Rage Against the Machine classic “Bullet in the Head.” The two groups may seem musically dissimilar, but Rage are the closest analogue to describe the feel of Irreversible Entanglements: go-for-broke musicality coupled with a fearlessness over confrontation. This album is far from a comfortable listen; however, music with this type of intensity and emotional force isn’t meant to go down smooth. It’s meant to shake you to your core, to make you think, to inspire empathy for those souls and stories woven into the poems Ayewa shares against a free-form jazz backdrop.

On side two, “Enough” awakens like a provoked hornets nest, buzzing with manic unison until Ayewa’s shrieks of “No!” build into an aggressive drum pattern. Drum rolls slide underneath fast-paced saxophone runs, some notes yelping, yearning to be heard. As the music fades to its end, you hear Ayewa whispering the names of Black men lost at the hands of police gun violence, finishing with a muttered series of “enough, enough, enough.”

Jazz may be seen by some nowadays as too academic, too heady, too obsessed with its own past to be relevant to modern times. Thankfully, artists like Irreversible Entanglements – and many of their roster mates on fabulous Chicago label International Anthem – show there are still artists channeling the form’s transgressive spirit.

This is the most important group in jazz right now. Yeah, I said it.

Words by Brandon Roos – 2018